September’s here, smelling of unopened school books and patent leather shoes. New term, new you. Autumn’s raising a hand, the kid in class who won’t be ignored, auburn, edgy. There’s an excitement in the air at this time of year (especially for anyone connected to academic institutions) but a kind of fear too, a feeling we’ve been rehearsing since we were old enough to know what the end of the holidays meant.
Whenever I think of fresh beginnings (whether it’s a new role, or the first line of a piece of creative writing), I’m struck down by imposter syndrome. I’m sure most of us have suffered from this at some point in life – the persistent doubt, the nagging worry that you’re about to be exposed as a fraud. It doesn’t matter what you’ve achieved, you’re convinced you’re a fake and other people are just humouring you. You’re always bracing yourself against imagined failures.
Reading a fascinating essay by Elspeth Probyn this week, I was able to connect that general anxiety to the terror of the blank page, the first time I’ve made that connection. As Probyn puts it:
‘There is a shame in being highly interested in something and unable to convey it to others, to evoke the same degree of interest in them and convince them it is warranted. The risk of writing is that you will fail to interest or engage readers….its the challenge of making the writing equal to the subject being written about. The gulf between the two may bring on the feeling of being a sham, or….a deeper shame. Lynn Barber, a journalist who interviewed some of the great writers of our time, describes the former. Reflecting on her interview with the prolific essayist Christopher Hitchens, Barber finds an undertow: “Perhaps his sense of imposture is the one that all writers have – that they care more about writing than they do about their subject.” (2002, 10).’
Sham and shame. The challenge Probyn describes in her essay is something that writers face every time they try to engage with a new (or, worse, familiar) subject. In some ways, it’s a healthy anxiety: surely it is appropriate to be daunted by the things you’re trying to write about, a mark of respect for your material. But it can also be paralysing.
One of the quotes about poetry and where it comes from that I return to the most is from Ted Hughes’ Poetry in the Making:
‘You write interestingly only about the things that genuinely interest you. This is an infallible rule.. in writing, you have to be able to distinguish between those things about which you are merely curious –things you heard about last week or read about yesterday- and things which are a deep part of your life… So you say, ‘What part of my life would I die to be separated from?’’
For me, I think there’s a second dimension to this process. I need to find a subject that genuinely and deeply interests me. But then I also have to work out what it is about it that makes me feel uncomfortable or uneasy. What do I feel I might risk in the writing? How am I embarrassing myself? If I’m hesitating to articulate something, it’s usually a sign that it matters.
My first collection Division Street contains a long poem called ‘Scab’ which deals with re-enactments, reconstructions of the clash between picketing miners and police at Orgreave in 1984. As someone born in 1985 who grew up on the fringes of ex-mining country, I was afraid people would think I didn’t have the right to approach the subject. It took me a long time to work out that’s exactly why I should. Approaching my second collection No Map Could Show Them, I noticed that my poems about climbing often used bodily metaphors. The collection only took shape when I connected this to the way I’ve always felt embarrassed about my own body (and still do), when I began to write a bit about body dysmorphia, diets and a warped sense of scale.
In his brilliant article ‘My Marmalade Passion or Remembering Proust’s Gloves’, poet and psychotherapist Alan Buckley makes a compelling case for the relationship between art and trauma, arguing that the latter exists on a continuum and that:
‘…somewhere within every successful poem there’s at least one moment that mildly traumatises us, that triggers our deepest knowing of how the world may be unmade in an instant.’
His exploration of poetry, transformation and trauma is rooted in the notion that the body never lies, or never lies completely. When I blush on stage (and I often do), I feel as if my body is giving away a secret. But I don’t always know what it is. Quite often, it happens when I’m reading a poem that I feel takes a risk in some way – perhaps the piece dramatises a controversial viewpoint, or maybe I think the poem is too apparently personal, too revelatory. Perhaps I just think I’m a sham, unequal to whatever it is I’m trying to give voice to.
September, I love you, but I don’t know how to talk to you yet.