I don’t know about other writers, but for me, for over two decades, there has been one story I’ve been trying to tell, one way or another, a story that won’t go away. It’s rooted deep inside me, a part of me, inspired by my life and by the most significant events of my life. At the same time, it is a story that is so difficult to tell, I still find myself lost for the right words to retell it.
And yet it’s not a story that I haven’t told before. As a ‘factual’ story I have told, and retold, this one narrative more times than I could ever count. It has become so much a part of my life that telling it is routine, comforting, familiar. Yet this is the story I want most to write, in the best way that a writer can write, because it is the deeper story that never emerges, the vast ocean of meaning that lies beneath the facts. It is this ocean that I wish to tap into, to release, to let flow on the blank page. I yearn to bring to life the dead past, the living soul that carries it, the future, and the world that could have been. As a newly-fledged author and lifelong wanna-be, I feel inadequate, as if four decades of honing my craft still leaves my skills unequal to the task. Perhaps it is the fact that this story is a reservoir of vast meaning and deepest emotion that makes it so difficult to express effectively.
People ask me, frequently now as I discuss the upcoming publication of Inshallah, about what inspires me. With Inshallah, my first novel, it is easy to say that it was someone’s life story that inspired me, that it was the utter and innate strength of women in carrying the burden of daily life, or it was the concept of an unfathomable choice, life changing and forever, that brought about the urge to enter into the character of Amanda and explore her experiences. I am practised at this now, having spent 6 years of a PhD examining my own work and coming to some kind of understanding of the processes of inspiration and creation that brought about my debut novel, and having also spent months revising it so that the editor at Honno Press would accept it for publication. Many things inspire me: an overheard conversation on a train; an odd character in a pub; a piece of music or song; a book; a film; something someone says on a quiz show. The outside world inspires me, the beauty of each morning and nature’s changing face, or the smell of rain after a dry spell. These things can make me ache with the wonder of it all, and I feel small, and pitifully inadequate. Still I write, because that is my outlet – others paint, or make beautiful music, or sculpt. I write.
The deepest story, the one that is never fully told, somehow, never satisfactorily expressed, is the one I have been trying to tell all of my life, it seems. It is the ache and yearning for love that drove me as a teenager to make some odd choices. It is the greatest and most inexpressible grief, compounded by brief joy and sudden understanding of my place in the world. Does all of this inspire me? Or is it something else that compels me, and other writers, to keep on writing, some kind of shameful need for the confessional, for public exposure of the most private parts of self? I do not know. Certainly, I am aware of the current trend for almost compulsive self-expression in the blogosphere, twittersphere, facebookland, and I wonder at my own denigration of this at the same time as I relentlessly express my own ideas and thoughts. I am an uncomfortable narrator of my own life – which is why I much prefer fiction.
What inspires me to write, I think, is what inspires me to live, to wake up each morning, breathe in and out, and take up the yoke of each day. It is the knowledge that there is something greater than me, perhaps, that writers before have tried to express, and no doubt writers who come after will make the same essay into the territory of the unknowable. But it is also the knowledge that there are reasons to write, to share things that would otherwise be unknown, because others want to hear these stories, want to know, or perhaps they need to know, or should need to know, or should be told of the lives they dismiss or remain in ignorance of. I wonder at my own urge to education others, and know that although it comes from a place of sharing, it also comes from a self-conscious assumption that others would benefit from greater knowledge. Thus, perhaps being a teacher also inspires me to write, because to write is to inform and to instruct.
But this story, the one that I am writing now, in different ways, this is the story that keeps coming back. On the one side is the reality, the other the fiction I create that is hung loosely on the tree of experience, an acknowledgement, a ribbon on a tree by a well, an offering at the shrine of life. When I finished Inshallah, I had no idea what to write next, and then this story returned to me, having been attempted once and abandoned. There is no doubt it will form my next novel – another tale of love and loss and survival, but entirely different from my debut. I will keep trying, and bring some shape, some form to the nameless waves. It is indeed a compulsion, and I hope I never lose it.