Friday, 24 April 2015

How the Light Gets In - Liz Kessler

In the past couple of months, I've had kidney failure, liver failure, an unnamed tropical disease, another disease that is hard to diagnose because the symptoms are very much like a cold; I've cracked a rib from sneezing too much, my blood pressure has gone so high that I have spontaneously combusted, oh, and I've gone blind from glancing at the solar eclipse.

Have you guessed yet that I might not really (as in, actually, in real life) have had all (or any) of these diseases? Well, no, as far as I know, I have simply had a cold, a prickly heat rash, a bit of anxiety and a lovely walk along the coast path during the solar eclipse.

The main thing I suffer from is too much imagination.

A good writer buddy and I used to call this "Writer's Brain Tumour". The thinking is that when a writer gets a headache – which to normal people is described as a headache – we 
immediately fear the worst and think we have a brain tumour. Since my partner had a – benign, thank God – brain tumour a couple of years ago, I tend not to call it this any more. Nowadays I call it (cue dramatic 'dum dum derrrrrrrrer' music)....

The curse of the writer.

While you chew on that thought, let's take a quick commercial break. I was pretty much brought up on an album called You Don't Have to be Jewish, which I have had a soft spot for ever since. There is a sketch called The Diamond, and if I ever use the word 'curse', I can't help thinking of it. It has the best pronunciation of this word ever in the world. I've managed to track down a video of the sketch. Do yourself a favour and watch this before you go any further.

OK, now that's out of the way, let's get back to the issue in hand. And also, can I briefly apologise if I've talked about this before. I probably have. It doesn't go away.

You see, as writers it is our job to spend our days delving into our imaginations, exploring in the realms of 'What if this?' and 'What about that?' and 'How about?' and 'Could this possibly...?' So it's no wonder we do that with our own lives – and often our own bodies – too.

Our day jobs involve us thinking about the least likely scenarios, not the every day events. We deal in the dramatic and our fare is the furthest reaches of our imaginations. How many of us have been told by editors and agents to 'raise the stakes'?

I've spent fifteen years working as a writer. That's fifteen years training my mind to raise the stakes. Luckily, I love to do it in my books. The feeling I get from exploring a story, an idea, a character – and yes, a highly unlikely scenario – is possibly as good for me as the adrenaline rush of scoring a goal is for a footballer. The issue is, how do we switch it off?

When children ask me for my top writing tips, one that I nearly always tell them is to carry a notebook around with you because you never know when you'll get an idea. 

I tell them that ideas are like butterflies and your notebook is a big net in which you can catch them safely and take them home with you so you can work on them later when you have more time.

At the heart of this advice is the fact that our stories and our imaginations don't clock on and off between nine and five. And therein lies the problem. 

If we're not writing, the imagination doesn't instantly switch off. It's like one of those cartoon characters who keeps running, even though the top of the cliff is way behind them. It takes a moment for them to realise they are pumping their legs in mid air – before they fall to the ground. 

So how do we get our imaginations to notice that we are approaching the edge of a cliff and calmly come back from the precipice until it is time to go to work again tomorrow?

It simply doesn't work like that.

Maybe we just have to accept, like Mrs Plotnick (have you watched the sketch yet?) that along with our beautiful gift, there's a curse. We can't change it, we can't get rid of it. Perhaps we can try to wrap it up and put it in a nice box on our desks at the end of the day and hope it won't follow us out of the office when we close the door behind us and get on with the rest of our lives. But it will probably follow us down the stairs – because it isn't just part of our job, it is part of ourselves.

Perhaps the only way to get rid of the curse is to change our language and call it something different. We're good at words - we've already established that – so it could work. 

Yes, I can sometimes (OK, often) exaggerate my physical symptoms and worry about what they might mean. Yes I do feel my blood pressure go up and my anxiety levels rise when my imagination is getting more involved in my backache/headache/slight feeling of tiredness than it should be. But I don't spend my entire life doing this. In reality, it is a small portion of the time – and a small price to pay for the opportunity to spend my days staring into space making up stories about mermaids and fairies and time travel and pirate dogs (and teenagers coming out as gay - subliminal ad for Read Me Like A Book. In all good bookshops from next month.) 

In other words, the curse is in fact part of the gift, and the best way to deal with it is to stop fighting against it and accept it as the imperfection that makes the gift perfect.

Or as Leonard Cohen puts it so beautifully:

"Ring the bells that still can ring
Forget your perfect offering
There is a crack, a crack in everything
That's how the light gets in."

Follow Liz on Twitter
Join Liz's Facebook page
Check out Liz's Website


Becca McCallum said...

I have the same problem. What a mixed blessing an imagination is (but I wouldn't get rid of it for the world!)

Joan Lennon said...

Love that Leonard Cohen quote! Thanks"

Lynn Hunt said...

Great post - I'm there too!