Speak

Other people’s words about … despair

She sat across from him. For some reason, he removed his glasses and set them on the gold table. His naked eyes were as dark as the burnished leather they sat on and held a startling amount of despair. The effect struck her as indecent, as if he’d disrobed. ‘Put your glasses back on,’ she wanted to tell him. ‘For God’s sake.’

from ‘Vacuum in the Dark
by Jen Beagin

I’ve been thinking a lot recently about the things people say to each other and the things they don’t. And about subtext, which is not quite the same thing but is part of it all the same.

Over the last couple of years, having written and submitted a middle-grade fiction manuscript to my agent which has as yet to find a home with a publisher, I’ve been writing a literary fiction manuscript. I haven’t mentioned this here till now, in part because my writing in that area is still so new and tentative, and in part because when I say the words, ‘I am writing a literary fiction manuscript’, all I hear is my own internal mocking laughter.

You? says the voice in head, that little internalised voice. How could you possibly presume to have something to say in the literary fiction field? How could you assume that much writing talent of yourself? That much wisdom?

Bracken fern, light and shadow, January 2023.

It’s impossible to say whether what I’m writing will ever be something complete, let alone publishable. That’s the risk any writer takes, whether they have had previous books published, as I have, or not. But what I am writing about in that manuscript is in part what Jen Beagin describes so beautifully in the passage I’ve quoted above: our unwillingness to witness each other’s despair. Our inability to talk about it or bring it to light. Our constant need to reassure each other with upbeat, optimistic conversation and good cheer.

I am not by nature a cheerful person. Nor am I an optimist. Nor am I a skilled conversationalist. At fifty-two, I still find myself getting midway through a conversation with another person, only to realise that I have revealed too much of myself: my fears, my doubts, my sadnesses. (Actually, ‘I still find myself’ is the wrong way to put this; in fact, the right way to put this would be, ‘I increasingly find myself’.) Maybe this isn’t evident to the person I’m talking to, or maybe it is. I’m never sure. But I often feel like the man Beagin describes in the passage above: glasses off, the truth in my eyes revealed. This is not a comfortable place to find myself.

But increasingly I believe in the importance of confronting the secrets we see in other people’s eyes. I believe in meeting those secrets head-on. I believe in talking about them. Perhaps what I am saying here is that secrets don’t have to be the subtext to the conversations we have with other people: they can be the essence of our conversations. They can be where we meet.

Common everlasting flowers, January 2023.

Lately I’ve been reading …

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