Writing is where I live.
I mean where the whole I of me lives, the plurality, where all the voices are heard – in that strange, inner, writing world where there are no rules and the life-supporting, life-giving condition is language. It is where I am my most real, my most honest self.
I might be a small bit obsessive about it. No matter what I’m doing, there's a current of underthought running in the background – even, apparently, when I’m asleep. I can’t count the number of times I’ve been woken by a sentence forming in my head, insisting on being transferred to paper before I’m allowed to sleep again. I’m not saying those sentences are brilliant – they might not even make sense to me in daylight – But I love the fact of them. They are signs. Something, somewhere is working.
I’m sure there are writers who are supremely confident in their gift and their mastery of that gift but I don’t think I know many of those. Most of us are sure of the importance of what we’re doing, but that’s a different thing entirely, hard to live up to. The thing of it is that writing is a lifelong apprenticeship. There’s always more to learn, harder challenges ahead. The more you write, the more skills you develop, the further there is to fall. It can be nerve-racking. And there’s that sickening anticipation of the critical keyboards sharpening in the background, just waiting for you to make a show of yourself: Who do you think you are? Who asked you to do this or suggested you could? Believe me, nothing the critics can say or do to you will even come close to the things you say and do to yourself, giving yourself the dreads.
Why do we do it? Why open our innards and spill them right there on the page? May as well spread them across the street for the neighbours to use as speed bumps, exposed, raw, needy. Ambitious. There's the book you think you’re going to write and then there’s the book you actually write. No one will ever know the difference but you, but in the gap between them there’s a little ghost book that will haunt you for the rest of your conscious days.
So there you are, with the ghosts and the ghost books and the dreams, bending the sentences, crossing lines; language the thread, the guidewire, the rope, the knotted sheet. You live with the voices, their sentences and your own and the ones you make together; the wild ambition and a creeping fear of ridicule; the joy and the deep depression, the emptiness and the fullness, the light and the dark and everything in between. Writing will reveal what you most want to hide (although you might not get the message until much, much later). That’s how you live, if you’re a writer.
Well, if you’re this writer. I wouldn’t like to presume.
In Aspects of the Novel, E. M. Forster writes that the storyteller in primitive societies was in a precarious position. When they gathered around the fire, our ancestors liked to be entertained, diverted from the sure and certain knowledge of icy winds blowing across the tundra, wolves howling at the moon. They wanted stories of the hunt, of escape from raging bears, of gods—and yes, of fighting men. If the storyteller failed and the audience got bored, they either fell asleep or killed him. Those are the stakes you play for. Reading from your work out loud or putting words on paper, you can sense the flames at your face. They might kill you. You might live forever.
Do you remember the exact instant when you knew you could read? I don’t mean the process of learning to recognise each separate alphanumeric shape, dragging your finger along a line letter by letter, syllable by syllable, spelling it all out word by painstaking word. I mean that immense, life-changing moment when the words stir, lift, form themselves into sentences that speak to your inmost mind and guide you through the world of a story.
When people ask about writing, that is the closest explanation I can come to: it’s like reading, but from the inside. In the same way that the combination of language and story pulls you through their lines to the immense inner space of a book, an idea or a character sparks a magnetic charge that attracts you, somewhere inside the inner space of your imagination
Imagination. To imagine. Noun and verb. Light-years beyond conventional time, imagination is both place and action. It’s a dynamic faculty that feeds on your response and grows. Have you ever seen iron filings respond to a magnet? Writing is like that. All these agitated little particles—ideas, random thoughts, a word here and there, something you overheard or read: they bristle, fidget, shiver—that’s the resistance part—then coalesce into a stream of metal flying in one sure direction.
I wish it really was that easy, all the time. It’s a stage every piece can reach, if you’re lucky. Then the rewriting, bringing it home. I often get stuck back at the bristling part: all agitation, little flow. Here’s the thing: writing is work. A new piece brings its own challenges as well as rewards. What’s the best way to make this argument? What’s the best way to tell this story? Long walks, sleepless nights and whatever you’re having yourself don’t always bring an answer. Each piece is a new question, or a new way of answering an old one; you start from a new position, a beginner all over again. Sometimes I treat myself as a student, send myself back to first principles: haul out the ‘How To’ books and go back to the basics of craft. No matter how experienced you are, however small or large your skills, you have to teach yourself how to solve this puzzle. Show-and-tell. That’s the challenge, the excitement, the adventure of it.
And when I’m stuck, or lost, or in despair, there is a sure remedy in reading other writers: biography, an interview, an essay, a poem, a chapter written by someone whose insights and energy might ease the tangle I find myself in. What I need is to be in the presence of another writing mind, to recharge the energy of the flagging ectoplasmic forms that inhabit the weird inner space of my reading and writing mind. This is one of the absolute joys of writing—we’re in a community that transcends time and space. If I have a question for someone who is light-years ahead of me in terms of achievement, I can still bring my questions to their work and find their answers, freely given. I can have conversations with the dead. I can eavesdrop on characters in novels; I have access to letters and diaries as well as pieces written with my exact dilemma in mind. Those people speak my language; they are my tribe and in their writing they never let me down. The magic of sentences reasserts itself. It calms and restores me, sends me back to my own work: calm down, you can do this. It’s just work. It’s words and sentences. It’s paragraphs. Novels, stories, essays—they’re not written all at once; one word at a time will get you there. I can, actually, do this.
And: if it was easy, everyone would do it.
The Quest (From: “Passionate Midnights, Perfect Jars.” in Meade, Declan (ed.). Beyond the Centre: Writers in Their Own Words. New Island Books.)
The classic quest narrative begins when the kingdom is in trouble and the hero is offered a chance to ride out in search of whatever saving thing his or her world needs. So it is with writing. The work starts with an initiating idea. It could be character or conundrum, a place, atmosphere, or question—all stories and writers have different starting points. The idea stands up in the recesses of your mind and waves an invitation: do you want to come with me and do this thing? Whether and how you respond is up to you, but if you do it, everything hinges on the quality of attention you bring to the task and whether you can stay with it.
You are in a relationship with that idea until you’ve finished exploring it in writing. As with any relationship, beginnings are a thrill. While you’re still fresh, it sparks flashes of possibility, flares of delight, shocks of revelation. You’re wide open to it, as it is to you. At that point you’ll make time for it, you’ll drop everything and run when it beckons. The trouble starts when the daily grind sets in, the continued presence and demands you make on each other, begin to pall. It can be hard to stay focussed and alert, to be fully present with this cranky stubborn fossil—it’s only a lump of rock after all, it will never yield its secrets, you don’t know what you were thinking, what you ever saw in it. Things can turn ugly, violent. There’ll be days when you loathe each other. Other ideas will try to come between you. They’re younger and brighter. Ditch that old yoke and come with me, they’ll say. That’s when you need faith in what you can realise together—if you stick it out.
If you don’t commit yourself to the long haul, if your attention strays, if you hold back or hide from the deeper implications of what you’re doing, neither of you will be satisfied. If you lie, cheat, evade, you’re going nowhere, fast. You need to attend to your idea in every sense: care for it, nurture it, bring it what it needs, feed it, wait for it but above all give it your very best attention. There’s nothing like the rush that comes when the work suddenly ignites and you’re there—ready—and let yourself go with the sheer intensity and power of it.
Life Writing (From “In Writing” http://www.artsandhealth.ie/perspectives/in-writing-finding-a-way-through-illness/)
Years ago I was diagnosed with an advanced-stage squamous cell carcinoma in my cheek and gums. By the time I got the diagnosis, the cancer had spread to several lymphnodes, with perineural invasion. That means that it had also progressed to the space surrounding multiple nerves in my neck. The prognosis was bleak. The proposed treatment included radical surgery to my face and neck to be followed with aggressive radiotherapy. I would get a whole lot worse before I got better. If I got better.
I was working on a novel at the time, so I brought notebooks into hospital with me, thinking that I’d work on storylines while I was there—I wasn’t about to let a thing like cancer stop me.
Before long those notebooks were overtaken by lists: of names, individuals and specialities, options and treatment plans. Being in hospital is a lot like moving to another country—there’s a whole new vocabulary to learn, new customs, geographies, constraints and possibilities. I had to record everything so that I wouldn’t forget or confuse the details. At the same time I was noticing everything around me with a peculiarly focused attention. I wrote down everything that happened. What people said and did, what I thought and felt. The notebooks would eventually grow into a book, In Your Face, but I didn’t know I was writing a book at the time. I only knew that I used them in a desperate attempt to hold onto something precious—a thing that turned out to be myself. There was a woman on the ward who used to call out a name, over and over, the name of someone who never came. In the book I suggest that the name she calls is the rock she clings to as she drowns. The notebooks were my rock.
Before all this I’d have said that I write because I have to. It’s a physiological need for me, I’d have said—did say—like breathing. I meant that, but I meant it from somewhere near the front of the mind. In spite of it, I was often at war with myself. I needed and wanted to write but had to struggle to do it, often feeling utterly unentitled, fraudulent—a toxic disempowerment that is the cruel opposite of the authority a writer, by definition, needs. This conflict has tangled personal roots that are irrelevant here, only the fact of their existence matters. Many writers experience similar blocks. If we’re lucky we find ways to work against or around them, to hold doubt at bay while we finish a piece. Even if we think, as I did, that we understand the issues on an intellectual level, the effort can be exhausting. It undermines the actual work. This writing was different: urgent, necessary and absolutely mine; a lifeline that anchored me to the world and held a place in the world open for me—not just mind but heart and root.
There was little I could do to help myself through this illness and treatment, other than to find ways to express what was happening in my own terms, to resist medicalese and the standard consolatory euphemisms. Not that I was above euphemism. The first one that dawned on me, the first chink of light, was when I realised that cancer is a word, not a sentence. I would learn that other people had come up with this construction before, but it came to me like a new-minted phrase and getting there felt like shelter. Words and sentences are what I know. I spun phrases and conjured images and sought the right words, a clear expression of every thing that happened in terms of its meaning for me.
Writing my illness in this engaged, focused way, I was not so much telling or describing it as living it, in writing. The phrase ‘my mouth is eating me’ steadied me. When I put the question What will it be like to have half a face? on paper, it looked back at me, perfectly calm. The image of my tumour as a crab gave me a sign to look for and I found it everywhere—in the behaviour and sensations associated with the kind of pain I experienced, the pincer-like restriction of my jaw, the ugly red, the carapace. When I was allowed home for visits we’d walk around the harbours and beaches of south County Dublin. I saw signs everywhere—empty shells, broken claws—and felt enormous pity. One of us had to go.
I was absolutely present in that illness, one big ball of apprehension: nervy, taking every thing in. My mind had nowhere else to go. My tools of engagement were: attention, observation, language. In writing I could translate experience to words, images, sentences. I was relatively powerless in physical terms, but there were powers I could summon—powers of suggestion, of association, of imagination and naming.
Somewhere in that labyrinth of experience and observation, of dread and love and awe I came home to myself in writing. It was a while before I noticed: I was happy there. There was no space for the old mechanisms that used to interfere with my work or my sense that I had a right to do it; no room for doubt, vanity, self-sabotage, self-protection or evasion.
Writing with that intensity healed a tectonic fault in my sense of myself as a writer. I realized that the faith and commitment a writer needs are a choice every writer has to make, every day. The many obstacles I had to negotiate to bring my whole self, my full attention, to my work, were absolutely mine to dismantle and discard.
I had been sleepwalking, now I was wide awake.
If there is something that you burn to do—a thing that makes you feel most passionately alive—if you’re not doing it—why not? What are you waiting for?
© Lia Mills 2018
 Some of these passages are fresh, others are extracts from previously published essays.