A writer gets in touch. This looks portentous written down, like the inspector who comes calling, or the postman who always rings twice. But it’s a fairly normal thing to happen. Writers do get in touch with each other, from time to time. They know that writing is a boring, lonely job, that it fosters an unslakeable thirst for contact.
This writer is older than me and more established in his career. He has just finished reading a book I wrote. It is a memoir about an affair I had with a married offshore worker. There is the shadow of another book, contained within it, the book I had originally intended to write: a piece of reportage about the oil industry.
The writer says he wants to take me out for dinner and discuss it. He catches me at a low point. My sister has been diagnosed with cancer and I have been helping our mother look after my nieces. I love my nieces. I don’t love doing childcare. I find this sort of work makes me feel so insignificant, I can’t write afterwards. On the days I do get to my office, I just sit there staring at the page, unable to summon up the words. Dinner sounds nice. I decide I will go. When I get to the restaurant, the writer looks me up and down. There is a flicker of disappointment on his face.
‘No Air Max?’ he says.
‘I don’t wear Air Max any more,’ I say.
‘Are they the leather trousers you wore in the book?’
‘No,’ I say. ‘They’re long gone.’
It occurs to me then that he has not invited me for dinner, but my alter ego from the page. Though the events relayed are now seven years old, and as a memoirist himself, he must understand there is always a gap between the writerly I and the real thing. He was clearly expecting me to resemble this version more closely.
Over dinner, he tells me several things. That he thinks I might be a genius. That he had a fling with a friend of mine. That 90 per cent of writers are hacks who can’t string a sensible sentence together. That I should only ever write non-fiction.
I tell him I might not write another book. I’m feeling disenchanted with the whole thing. I’ve started to think that being published is one of those abstract states people aspire to, like being married, or extremely rich. You think getting a book deal will have a transformative effect. But your life goes on being basically the same.
My book did well, by some metrics, but it wasn’t successful enough to vitiate the failures that inspired it. My failure to acclimatise to the realities of adulthood. My failure to learn from my mistakes. My failure to read between the lines, to understand there is often a gulf between what a man says and what he actually means. I am still the person I was before I sold my book: a medieval peasant who stumbles through life, taking great account of signs and portents, and ignoring the self-evident truths staring her in the face. The writer looks as if he is about to cry.
‘Oh dear,’ he says. ‘That sounds rather bleak.’
He invites me to talk to an extramural class he teaches. His students are men and women, of various ages and backgrounds. They have one thing in common: they want to be published. They want their talents ratified by an outside authority.
I remember this feeling. You want someone to see past your costume, ignore the raiment of your day job, intuit your gifts.
One student asks if I found writing my book therapeutic. I answer honestly that I did not. I understand that therapy is allied to storytelling, that in some senses it is an attempt to make random events conform to a narrative arc, but I don’t enjoy the process enough to derive any benefit from it. The part I found therapeutic was being compensated, seeing the advance hit my account. The realisation that I could sell my pain off for parts, that I could monetise my bad decisions, came as something of a breakthrough. I tell her I’m still sceptical about therapy. But I believe in getting paid.
This isn’t strictly true. Like my memoir, it is emotionally truthful, but I’ve obfuscated a few key facts. I have started seeing a therapist again, for the first time in seven years. My mother initially sent me to a therapist when I was sixteen, and since then I’ve cycled through innumerable substitutes.
I periodically return to it, when I’m out of other ideas. When things improve, I decide it’s a waste of money, and then I leave. This is my pattern. I’d like to break it. But if I knew how to break my patterns, I wouldn’t need so much therapy.
There is an idea (put about by therapists, perhaps) that the longer you stick with it, the better the results. I have never found this to be true. I think the mind develops a resistance to treatment, just as the body stops responding to diets. I could be described as a yo-yo client. I dip in and out, go back and forth, without making any long-term gains. I am always returning to a dysfunctional default; my psychic walking-around weight.
My new therapist knows about my history with therapy. He agrees there are plenty of bad practitioners out there; he says the field is staffed by charlatans. During our first meeting he asks why I’m here. I say I struggle to cope with real life. I’m still telling myself stories, still indulging in magical thinking, as if I’m six years old. But now my sister is sick, and it has dismantled my belief system, if that is what it is. My sister is young. She has never done anything wrong; she lives like a monk. That she has been afflicted like this makes the world seem chilly and disordered.
My therapist asks if I read fairy tales as a child. I tell him I did. He asks me to name my favourite. I suspect him of being Jungian, though I don’t say this. I tell him I liked East of the Sun, West of the Moon.
‘I don’t know that one,’ he says. ‘What happens?’
‘It’s about this girl who marries a bear who’s secretly a prince. She promises never to look at him in the light, but then she does, and she activates a curse.’
He regards me, over the steeple of his fingers.
‘You like stories like that? Where people break their promises?’
‘I don’t know,’ I say. ‘I’ve never given it much thought.’
At home, my nieces go down with double bouts of illness: Covid, chickenpox. Things come in threes, I think grimly. When the eldest is better, I take her swimming. She is the best in her class, because she is the biggest. Watching her best her peers, I am struck by life’s unfairness. So much of her progress feels preordained. She is taller, cleverer, more athletic than her classmates. She is always out in front. But then, her mother has cancer. Their mothers are healthy. Swings and roundabouts, I suppose.
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