Diana Athill, in Somewhere Towards The End, made me understand – or should I say, confirm – why I’ve always felt so old in this odd young-looking body of mine, and why I’ve always fought to believe it. In this book, she explains how some things in life just ceased to be that important to her. For her, it started with the end of feeling as a sexual being, which I still feel that I am, and then progressed on realising that her own image ceased to be shaped by what others think of her. And at this point, in me, relied the mixed feelings; two ends of the same stick, both so extreme that is often tiresome to live in my shoes.
One half of me, I see now, never did care about what others think. That’s the part that eased me on to reading books out of my age range, since I learned what words were and in writing whatever came to mind; entering and winning school contests not only on writing but also on drawing. I never related to what others think of my writing or drawings to keep on doing them. In my childhood, I lived with the sense of self-esteem that developed well before my parents remembered that I existed beyond their personal crisis, and far before the few friends that appeared later in my life. That’s the part of me that makes me say, and repeat without hesitation, that I don’t dream of fame; even though some have replied to this by saying it proves I don’t have, what was the word?, ambition.
But then there’s the other half of my sense of self. That half burdens me most because, although I can push it to one side while in full writing mode, it’s always present in one way or another, as what made us in the beginning, unfortunately, is bound to be with us till the end — even when countries apart. I refer to the fear of being hated or misunderstood or taken as someone who doesn’t deserve the least effort from anyone’s part in this society. These were the ideas that my mother and father engraved deeply in my mind since I was a young child. These are the ghosts that tell me I’m never good enough to be freed from my own uselessness. This was the source that made me aim for perfection and study beyond it, if I was ever to reach it.
My father always believed, and I’m afraid he still does, a good education should challenge the child to always be better than what she already is. The problem with the way he set this in motion became evident as I understood that whatever I ever accomplished was never good enough. When the source of one’s upbringing is wrong, even a child (and I believe all of us are born with an innate sense of balance), no matter how young, can grasp that it is wrong. However, a child can never turn its back from it and walk the other way.
If what I did was never good enough, even while I was receiving straight top-marks at school, I never learned to enjoy it. My mind was already working away in ways to make it even better. If I was already the top of a Class, the teacher’s praises only reminded me how I was not top of another Class, like Science or Biology or Mathematics.
The only subject my father never had a bad effect on was Sports. I had, and have, a serious back problem, which already made me undergo two long cervical column surgeries and is now a continuous, sometimes mood distorting, chronic back pain. So not being good at Sports wasn’t a bad thing, even when one year a snob, cocky teacher tried to use the same method as my father’s and push me by telling me I was a failure. I must be a magnet for this type of men. (If you’re wondering what my mother ever did as a parent, my answer is ‘not much’; she used me as her personal psychologist from a very young age and for years I aimed to be perfect at it. When I stopped, and ceased to be useful, she got herself out of the picture.)
Anyway, reading Diana Athill made me realise why feeling older than my age was so soothing. The youthful part of me is the one that reflects every one of my actions as ‘what the world thinks of me’. The oldest half is what sets me free and keeps me away from compulsive behaviours like: if you start something, you have to finish it, or you’re a failure. (If you still believe that this last statement is good motto, let me assure you that it is in fact very diminishing in a practical, daily-life, if you apply it to everything, like, say, reading books.)
Another thing that Diana Athill has come to terms with, and I’m sensing my second half going towards it, is her lack of patience for novels, especially the ones that are movie-like and aim for hollow entertainment. After I finished reading “Somewhere Towards The End”, I finally had the courage to pick up yet another book from Nora Roberts, take the paper marker out and lay it in the pile of books catalogued as “Return to Library”.
I’m aiming to respect the part of me that feels older than my body’s looks (because the pain often makes me feel older as well). My goal is to respect my older self, because it has given me much more in this life than anything else. I’m not ashamed of not feeling a thrill about bars every week; I’m not ashamed for enjoying one beer and being happy to sail home to ease off the pain in my legs. It’s that older part of me that connects to the real word, because only when not giving that away, only when assuming proudly that my time is limited, my days are not shortened by my condition and my writing is not delayed by an abstract desire to be perfect.
I can give to others who matter, the real me (although people who matter to me are scarce) and enjoy it because they get it, but not mind if they don’t. My most pleasurable habits (apart from loving my husband in any way I can) coincide with someone of old age: hiking, reading, talking about abstract subjects and people and books and the Universe… writing, studying it, and thinking for hours about writing. Am I a bore? Probably.
To be completely honest, most of the time, I’m happier alone and with my husband or, occasionally, with a very small group of people, than at a party full of youth, testosterone and craziness. Am I acting like an old bore, like some said, or have I simply come to terms with what every other adult already knows but pretends it doesn’t matter, that is the substance bellow the fog of a large group of people? For that matter, the substance of most people in a group, large or small: to be reflected by others, to seek desperately for some pointless teens-like acceptance, to make others laugh or to see them nod robotically at your insights; a grip on reality that is in fact the less real of all. Would you really find it odd if I confess they are a bore to me?
The lesson I’ve learned about perfectness, at this point in my life, is that I was not born a genius and cannot shape myself into one (my apologies, father); I know better than to seek happiness while trying to look perfect to humans, just because I feel like an alien around them. However remotely, I am a human myself, and there is where the loosening of rules should begin, to give space to who I truly am as a writer.
There is no writing method, there is no set-in-stone writing rule, there’s only common sense and, above all, what feels right. However, one can only separate what feels right to a vain self from what is in fact well written, when we distinguish our reading habits with the same intelligence. The sense of brilliance or perfectness (if there was ever one) comes from comparison to others, comes from a personal growth that should never be taken as innate in anyone and starts in being humble enough to accept critic. No good writing comes from a shell of self importance. That’s why I don’t believe in vanity publishing and have my doubts about books that were self-published.
The occasions where I was closer to brilliance in my writing have always been when I was reading books that are themselves well-written; not reading them as any other reader, but reading them from the mindset of a writer. I usually say I’m a slow reader because of this. And you can never be brilliant without understanding fully and deeply, how others accomplished brilliant things. That’s why I study so hard and enjoy studying far away from my father’s frown; because now I don’t study to please others into believing I am brilliant, but to someday be able to say to myself that I am. If that’s not ambition, I don’t know what is. However, it is not a blind ambition.
“When you are young a great deal of what you are is created by how you are seen by others, and this continuous to be true even in middle age. It is most obvious in the realm of sex. (…) In my eighties that couldn’t be crucial to my self-esteem in quite that way any more, and that was strangely liberating. It meant some sort of loss, I suppose, such as the end of thrilling possibilities; but it allowed experiences to be enjoyable in an uncomplicated way — to be simply fun.”
Diana Athill, in Somewhere Towards The End