The hiatus from writing builds up, until I find myself awake in the small hours, furtively typing misspelled notes on my phone, afraid I’ll lose the gist before daylight. Notes which turn out to be jumbled expressions of my half-asleep brain. Not much use for anything, and yet I still dodge writing in the daytime. Last night, I decided I needed a writing shed. In our garden there is a disused shed; I say disused, I mean it’s full of the kind of family detritus that assembles when your children peddle through the stages of toddler to child to teen. Redundant pieces of sports equipment, boogie boards, bike helmets (out-grown), the polystyrene edges nibbled by mice, unused barbecue briquettes from long lost summers. There are pieces of furniture which we’d felt we couldn’t part with, so instead relegated them to the shed and now, years later, they’ve moulded, veneers lifting away with damp. There are vestiges of the failed beauty business I once embarked on. A broken kite.
So this shed, I think, could be the answer. I could renovate it, Scandi-style, and sit out there with the dog and write. What an idea! I look on Pinterest for ‘writer’s shed’ (by this time it is 2.08am; the brain is awake) and note Roald Dahl had one. By 2.10am I am my own version of Virginia Woolf in a room of one’s own. A whimsical notion of old fashioned type writers and battered note books. The romantic, cinematic version of what it is to write a book.
There is some normality to restore now, after a couple of months of upheaval. I revert to where I left off, but have lost my rhythm. The writer’s shed idea is undoubtably a ploy. Like the part in ‘Eat, Pray, Love’ where Liz Gilbert tries to meditate but instead her thoughts turn to what her meditation room might look like should she design one. I listen to podcasts to distract myself and realise I have fallen into a groove of listening to clever, millennial journalists who have, in their cleverness, nailed the podcast medium with alacrity. For example, the eloquence and self-awareness with which Dolly Alderton articulated herself on Emma Gannon‘s ‘Control, Alt, Delete’ was so impressive, it was, quite frankly, disarming. I was not like that at thirty years old. Far from. There’s an openness that is so refreshing. And don’t get me started on the impossibly good commentary of Pandora Sykes. Elizabeth Day is another. Her podcast asks the profound question: how to fail?
I ask myself, were I to answer that question: what would my failures have been?
I flunked my A-levels. I thought I had put this one to bed, but actually it remains the single defining moment of my education and led me down a path that I might not otherwise have taken. It wasn’t catastrophic, but it was sub-par and I wish I’d done better. I wish I’d worked more. The fact was that at 17 years of age, the last thing I wanted to do was revise history. Entirely not interested. I suspect I relied on the possibility that I might be a genius and snag ‘A’ grades regardless, simply from my intellect. Turns out that doesn’t happen (at least not for me) and the only way to get those grades is solid hard work.
I landed a job when I graduated university, in the marketing department of a large publishing house. This was a gift of a job and was exactly what I should have excelled at. I had a three month contract and fully expected to be extended to permanency. But then, when the three months came to an end, they let me go. On reflection, years later, when I was adept at hiring gradates myself, in an other career, I realised I’d been too sure of myself, and it had concerned my superiors. I could not comprehend it at the time, but after I saw that I had breezed in, newly qualified with my degree, and thought I have arrived. Turns out that professional arrival is not about turning up; it’s about time, energy, humility and graft. But most of all, time.
The difference for me and my generation was that there was no constant analysis of these failings. These failings were the natural stepping stones to building a career, to maturing as an adult. There were no ready-made reassurances that I would survive and thrive again, there were no life-affirming quotes on Instagram. I did not, as it happened, look inward to assess whether I was suffering from depression or burnout. I did not cross-reference whether I was exhibiting anxiety symptoms, and I did not reach for a self-help book on managing said anxiety. Life just went on, and not much happened other than I eventually worked it out and continued on my way. Of course the preoccupation we now all have with our own psychological landscape is good; we check our emotional pulse on a daily basis. But I can’t help questioning whether this self-regard might be detrimental. I spend a lot of time level-setting things with my teenage children, helping them to see that the world will keep spinning even in they fail that test or fall out with that friend. It will all be OK. Even during the darkest days, evidence bears out that in time, it will be all OK.
My most potent sense of failure was in early motherhood – when my days were punctuated by the small successes (she sleeps!) and the small failures (she cries!). These moments would linger like a haze as I learned to come to terms with the complete lack of control I had for my own life, and that of this new human we had created.
So whilst the millennial fixation with self-care, self-analysis and self-knowledge makes for great podcasts, articles, essay and novels, the pressure must be immense. Like so many comparisons of past and present, was my being unaware an explanation for my experience? I am a member of Generation X. I came of age in the late 1980’s, was at university in the early 1990’s. I am the slacker generation. I didn’t know to douse myself in self-regard, so instead forged into adulthood feeling untethered. This led to years of stumbling with the lights out. I couldn’t have been less self-aware. But the result is that now, when self-awareness has arrived at the door, it is a revelation. This is why women in their forties these days exude an aura of zero fucks given. We’ve worked it out and I sense that will only continue. Millennials speak of having it all and I am struck by the consideration they give to life choices – but are almost paralysed by choice. Whether to get married and have a family. Or not get married. Their liberal sensibilities untested as life lays ahead of them, rather than behind. ‘Quarterlife’ and the early milestones of a passing decade denotes the transition of youth, but crucially, not the loss of it. They talk of having babies, but they haven’t decided yet. Career jostles with fertility. Can we have it all?
I have yet to read millennial-favourite Sally Rooney‘s second novel ‘Normal People’. My mum did and remarked ‘…there’s a lot of not much happening; they get together, they break up. It’s not really my thing.’ Her generation need substance in their fiction; the minutaea is not enough. After all, they grew up post-war. They really knew about people losing their shit.
What would I have been like as a millennial? I am a full generation ahead of them; I am pre-internet for crissake. I have written before about the gulf between my generation and my daughter’s here, and this preoccupation endures. The canyon of life experience between thirty and forty five – the milestone I will reach next month – is vast. Motherhood a raging river. Career a river bank. Marriage a raft. It is these things that I muse over now, in readiness for my mid-forties.