I’ve been in one of my Hemingway periods (long bouts of thinking followed by short bursts of writing) and find work on The Book slow as a consequence. To that end I promised myself three hours of today of proper pen-to-paper writing.
For me, the following rough-cut excerpt is the closest I’ve yet come to saying what I want to say. What do you think? If this was the introduction would you keep reading?
Each story you are about to read hinges on this simple truth: extraordinary people become who they are by fixing their eyes on a goal and moving towards it. That’s it.
Their magnificent, heart-warming, inspiring stories are possible because they are doers. There is no magic formula, no prerequisite, no mystery to their success. They simply set out to do something, to live a certain way, and the act of doing it was the sole precondition for their success.
Along the way each of them developed the skills, knowledge, and beliefs that sustain them and help them progress, but those only followed the first, the essential thing: action.
They have lives like Goldberg Devices – fantastic contraptions that no one else would have dreamed up, with outcomes decided by a single motion transferred through weird and wonderful mechanisms. Unexpected twists, peculiar levers and unnamed bits of machinery that come together to propel their lives forward.
They stopped waiting for the perfect moment, the clear-cut path, the secure position, the external affirmation. They decided: this is what I’m going to do, and did it, without guarantee or assurance.
Once they took that step, things happened. They found ideas, courage, inspiration, experience, friendships and knowledge that became part of their progress. As they moved forward, each step revealed the next. They gained momentum. They achieved their goals. They created news lives and saw the world through new eyes.
They discovered that those who do, can.
What matters isn’t what you have or know; where you live or how much you earn. What matters is what you are willing to do. As you’ll discover, anything is possible. You can conquer illness, climb mountains, unite a nation, change your career or save a child’s life. You can become an artist, an explorer, an athlete, a hero. You can live the life you’ve always dreamed of – if you will.
The following short essay was my entry to the Frieze Magazine 2012 essay competition. It didn’t win but I rather like it (prejudiced as I am) so here it is.
Picasso – Encounters with Genius
(Picasso & Modern British Art, Tate Britain 2012)
I used to be anxious in museums, dogged by a guilty suspicion that my failure to find joy there was due to some congenital internal defect. Vapours of self-doubt clouded my vision. If I read more about art, purchased the audio guide or better-suppressed my impatience with shuffling tourists and hyperactive schoolchildren would I feel something? Once, I stopped and said hello to a little girl sitting on the floor of the Tate Modern, engrossed in Enid Blyton. “I like stories better than pictures,” she said.
As a rule, I do too – with exceptions for genius. “I may say that only three times in my life have I met a genius and each time a bell within me rang and I was not mistaken.”* The first time that bell chimed in me was on the dim-lit first floor of a municipal building in Mérida, Mexico. Sixty-seven of Picasso’s drawings were arrayed across two rooms, the pencil-lines of the sketches beckoning like fingers. Forgetting art exhibition etiquette, and my date, I stood nose to glass, trying to memorise the invisible something captured there. I went back three times in as many weeks.
The next chime sounded in Mallorca. After a late-night ferry crossing my friend and I stumbled into the train station, mute with exhaustion and simmering irritation. There was something insistently familiar about the ceramics exhibited in the main hall. Finally it clicked: “I didn’t know Picasso made plates.” We clutched each other’s arms, giggling like teenyboppers at masks with poked-out tongues and playful pitchers in the shape of fish with painted smiles and – I swear – a twinkle in their exaggerated eyes.
Picasso & Modern British Art arrived at the Tate Britain. I went warily, half expecting Picasso to sag beneath the weight of expectations. Sure enough, some of the paintings were heavy, clumsy, jaded. The bell was silent. Then my eyes shifted and my ears rang. Picasso’s work clamoured its existence, a barbaric yawp that drowned out the adjoining British artists. I don’t go into a museum expecting to feel sorry for artists, but seeing the canvases of Duncan Grant, Wyndham Lewis, Ben Nicholson, Graham Sutherland and Francis Bacon hanging all limp and seasick I thought: oh, you poor things. Nobody who isn’t a genius should have to share wall-space with Picasso. “I have met many important people, I have met several great people but I have only known three first class geniuses.”*
Each piece pulled me closer. Once or twice, I laughed aloud. The twined black and white fingers in The Three Dancers; the playful, tender sexual energy of his nudes; the puckishness of a domestic collage; beneath the surface of each an unmistakeable, ineluctable energy. What is it? Technique, innovation, and colour; yes. Audacity, humour, sensuality, also. Love, death, politics, and beauty, too. But not one of these things alone, nor any combination, was satisfactory explanation for my smiles or the swift prickle of tears. Enriched and refreshed, but none the wiser, I left and went for a long walk, listening to the bells.
When I described the exhibition to a friend he picked up on a word I kept repeating and asked: “What defines a genius?”
This was an unexpected challenge. The only answer I could think of was: “I don’t know, you just know.” We sipped beer and talked about something else. Then I realised there is a common bond of genius – all genius, whether in music, art, literature, or life. To be a genius is to have a unique perspective on the world and the ability to create something which transmits that vision. Picasso rings true because when you look at his work you see what he was seeing. You are looking through his eyes.
Now, I feel more comfortable in museums. A gifted artist can create something to please the eye but if there is no gong-strike in my soul I don’t worry. “In each case on sight within me something rang. In no one of the three cases have I been mistaken.”*
*Gertrude Stein from The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas
Drive 1000 miles in Europe and you get through 12 countries. In the US that will take you from California all the way to — Oregon. Specifically, from Los Angeles to Portland.
My 1000-mile adventure began in the mind-bending snarl of LAX, an airport as labyrinth as the freeways in whose tentacles it nestles. Sarah and I had set out from Los Angeles three weeks earlier, armed with an atlas, a kettle, a tent with no poles, and a carton of super-hot wasabi peas. Four-thousand miles, several national parks, one whisky-soaked birthday bash, and a midnight marathon later she was on her way back to London.
Everything up to the farewell had been meticulously planned, mostly by Sarah, whose talent for organisation I admire but don’t share. Now the brains of our operation was airborne my only thought was to find I405N and stick to it like rubber cement until I escaped the LA sprawl.
Driving Los Angeles freeways feels, appropriately, like a video game. You need total concentration and whip-like reflexes. One minute you’re bumper to bumper at 70 miles per hour; the next at a 15mph crawl. Cars swarm and dart like outraged insects with expensive exoskeletons. Me and Bobby McGee, our trusty Toyota hire car, could buzz with the best of them, though. I cranked the Lady Gaga tunes, rolled down the windows, grabbed the wheel with both hands and hit play.
It takes about forever for LA to peter out. There always seems to be just one more suburb. Finally the landscape muted as we slipped the clutches of la la land. I had 300-odd miles before my next decision: to fly through central California on I5 or hook a left at San Francisco and follow Highway 101 along the coast.
Gaga gave way to Bruce Springsteen. Apropos, given that central California has more in common with working-class Jersey than it does with LA or San Francisco. Those two cosmopolitan dots on the map mask the fact that most of the enormous state is empty space studded with sullen, forgotten little towns. The beautiful bits are ring-fenced as national parks or were plowed under to feed the nation.
The part I was driving through was demarcated with tubular metal fencing around cattle yards that were heralded, miles in advance, by a throat-closing stench. Imagine hundreds of warm bodies crammed together in pits of putrefying sewage and you have some idea. If I wasn’t already a vegetarian, that would have been my road to Damascus. The idea of putting anything in my mouth that came from that smell was revolting.
Three hundred miles in Europe can take you through a variety of languages, borders and landscapes. California offers no such break from the tedium. The grey slice of interstate drags you on, hypnotised. Approaching the San Francisco junction I pictured myself pootling up 101. I could stop over in San Francisco, eat sourdough bread, smell the sea, take another picture of the bridge, stay in a cosy motel then head homewards at a civilised pace the following day. But Bobby was running on tracks and we had far to go.
For the same reason I only start enjoying a 10-mile run at mile six I kept driving.
Bobby and I whisked past Sacramento, California’s forgettable capital. The next significant town was Redding, 150 miles away, roughly the halfway point of my route. It offers no speciality breads or romantic views. I knew I wouldn’t stop. I was in the grip of distance-related cognitive dissonance, a disease all driving fanatics suffer. On the one hand, I knew it would take me at least two hours to Redding, itself still two hours from the Oregon border. But it was only 150 miles. Just a couple of inches on a map.
Redding vanished, taking the stultifying dullness of central Cali with it. I was locked into a mission now: to make it to Portland in one grand dash. Could I make it across 1300 metre Siskiyou Summit before dark? As the sun dwindled I fell in behind a Honda four-by-four and formed one of those informal and, on its part, involuntary road alliances. I have fallen afoul of the California Highway Patrol before, and as Bobby and I climbed there were plenty of places for avaricious traffic cops to lurk. The Honda was cruising at about 80 and I tucked in right behind.
Our mechanical dance carried us into the mountains, taking turns to dip in and out of slower traffic, overtake, lunge forward and linger till we were once again moving in harmony. Its taillights led me up the pass and into the fast descent that followed. By then I was in Oregon and hey, Oregon is home. No stopping now.
Time and distance started to play accordion tricks, stretching and contracting. I was obsessively mile-counting now: 97 from Medford to Roseburg. The Boss had worn thin. As had the Lady. And everything from Pulp to Jay-Z. Every sing-along song had been sung. My fingers were glued to the wheel and my nerves were stretched like rubber bands. The friendly Honda turned off and was replaced by a looming redneck beast of a truck whose jacked-up suspension and massive wheels put its aftermarket halogens dead centre in my rearview mirror. Every time my eyes flickered up I got a nervous jolt: the retina-stabbing bluey-white looked like police lights.
My speed reflected varying levels of prudence, stubbornness and temptation. The roads were practically empty so I felt safe at illegal speeds. That made me easy prey, though, and after 5500 miles and counting I didn’t want to end my adventure with a massive traffic fine. On clear, straight stretches I risked fast runs, drafting on any available vehicle. When I5 took me past small towns I eased off; nobody wants to tangle with local boys in blue.
I considered stopping in Eugene, where I used to live with my brother. Friends there would put me up, no problem. But I wasn’t tired, just bored — and fixated. It’s about a hundred miles from Eugene to Portland and I know every detail of the road. Familiarity would make the miles fly. For most of the trip I’d made a conscious effort to not think about the destination because it was too far away. Now, as the lights of Eugene and Springfield flashed past, I let myself picture my sister and brother-in-law’s house. With any luck Saturday night socialising would still be in full flow. They weren’t expecting me, which makes for the best reunions.
Willpower-fueled concentration carried me to the outskirts of the city where I promptly forgot which exit I needed. My brain was tottering towards collapse. Was it 72nd Avenue? Did I hang on till Barbur Boulevard? I can’t now remember which I took, only that it wasn’t the one I wanted. This is my navigational Achilles heel. Give me 6000 miles of open road and I’m dandy. Put me on an unfamiliar street in my neighbourhood and I’m screwed.
There was no point in calling for directions because I didn’t quite know where I was. Nor would well-meant advice have sunk in, at that point. Somehow Bobby and I found our way onto 72nd and nosed tentatively along guided by half-familiar landmarks. Then, bliss. I recognised the cut of a particular intersection. Straight down, right then through the traffic lights.
I drove the last mile slow, slipping silently along Tigard’s low-lit suburban streets, uphill and down. When I killed the engine it was a few minutes before midnight. One thousand miles in 15 hours of solitude, splendour and monumental boredom. “The scary thing”, I thought, trudging up the steps, “is that’s only a tiny little sliver of America. Where shall I go next?”
In case you were wondering, I am 100% serious about the I Quit Club. For real. Quitting can change your life.
Quitting is tough though. Not the act itself, which is as easy as falling off a bike (and a lot more fun) but getting your head around the idea that it’s okay to quit.
I was brought up to think quitting was bad. Grown-ups told me that “winners never quit and quitters never win”.
It never occurred to me to ask: “win what?” so I carried on not-quitting like a good girl, right up to my second year of university.
To put this in context, I’d wanted to be a doctor since I was 12. My big crush was Noah Wyle in ER and a steady diet of white-coat heroics convinced me medicine was my calling.
It was a logical choice: secure, predictable, good money, and above all respectable. Off I waltzed to uni: confident, determined and oblivious to the implications of the fact that I hated physics, struggled with chemistry, shrank from biology, and shuddered at maths. I also studiously suppressed my love of English and writing.
Looking back, I am half-amused and half-horrified at how dumb a bright girl can be (“Was anyone ever so young?” Joan Didion sighed). Nothing got through until my second year when I hit term two of physics. Most stuff I can bluff through but physics stopped me cold. You can’t bullshit an equation. Lectures were torturous and the coursework reduced me to tears.
The idea forced itself into my head, unbidden: “why don’t you quit?” Oh god. That was not in my plan. Quelle drama. I freaked out. Bored my poor friends witless with my teacup tempest. In the States, physics is a pre-med requirement so quitting the class meant the end of my doctor dream. Oh my god. I had my WHOLE LIFE mapped out. Quitting would fuck everything up. But I still couldn’t do physics. So I quit.
The minute I made the decision my anxiety and guilt vanished in a rush of relief. I didn’t have the right answers, but I had definitively eliminated a wrong one. It felt amazing.
What I didn’t appreciate until much later was that you can’t have everything at once. You can’t reach out for something new, or receive a gift, if you’re hanging on to your baggage with both hands.
This was scribbled in pencil on the first page of an orange spiral-bound notebook discovered at the bottom of a box. Written, I guess, around Christmas 2009. Thought I’d share in honour of National Poetry Day.
The Reason for the
Season is a fantasy.
Dragons, the Four
Horsemen, blood and
Do we celebrate?
A hole torn in the fabric of civilisation. The
Pulse of the planet
Skipping in fear or anticipation.
Twenty centuries of
Stony sleep vexed
To… a storm in heaven?
Nine years: one for
Every alleged feline life.
Signs and wonders, three
Wise men. Three
Blind mice. See how they
Run. Salvation isn’t
Raw Mocha Truffle
1tbsp cocoa powder
1tbsp light agave syrup
1tbsp coconut oil
1/4tsp ground coffee
1/4tsp ground cinnamon
Combine all dry ingredients in ramekin
Add agave, coconut oil and Marmite (dilute with a few drops of hot water)
Stir vigorously with a teaspon till smooth
Refrigerate at least 20 minutes or until coconut oil sets