By Jennifer Miles Davis
I’ve been the queen of self-doubt lately. I tried to write something profound and witty and brilliant for this column two days ago and it just wasn’t happening. Even sitting in cool, bohemian Coffee Corner my main thoughts were, another month, another café, another column. Do I actually have anything to say? Is it time I knocked this on the head? Would you even miss me? Would you, dear reader…?
It’s been the same with jobs that I might apply for and that novel I am trying to write. I’m not even looking for a job, but when a cool one crops up I get excited for about three seconds before realising that they are probably looking for a dynamic and vibrant twenty-two-year-old, with boundless enthusiasm and energy to work late and schmooze clients until the early hours (yes, that was me, in the distant past). These days, with school runs to attend to and general midlifeyness going on, just the thought of it has me reaching for the Horlicks.
I don’t have that excuse with the writing, though. There is no age limit there, so it’s purely self-sabotaging thoughts topped with my usual dollop of procrastination that hinder me. On (another! I know!) recent Guardian Masterclass, ‘How to Structure your Novel’, I was reassured a little by writer and course leader Ed Docx. Self-sabotaging thought no. 1: I’m not ‘creative’ enough to write. Response: writing is twenty percent creativity (even I have that much), thirty percent structure, and fifty percent stamina. So if you wanna write, you can write, it’s just … blooming hard work. Ok, point taken. Just crack on! Self-sabotaging thought no. 2: what if it’s rubbish? Response: chances are it will be rubbish, until around the fifth draft. Just go with it. Self-sabotaging thought no. 3: it’s been done before; I am essentially a plagiarist. Response: however similar to other stories the basic idea is, every story is unique to us, and only we can write what is in our imagination, in our style, with our authentic characters. Ed went on to demonstrate the protagonist in a novel needs a strong supporting cast to bring out his or her different character traits.
I realise I’m going on (again) about my course, but there is a point, and here’s my clumsy link. All this talk about authenticity and character got me thinking about our own true, real life characters. If we can design characters for a novel, we can do the same for ourselves. I am not suggesting that we create an entirely new, false persona – quite the opposite, in fact. Life can sometimes lead us to water down our authentic selves, or edit ourselves beyond recognition to suit different situations. I think we need to remind ourselves of our most authentic character traits, and ditch the ones that no longer suit us. (For me, the self doubt thing is just annoying for everyone. It can go.).
Jack Kerouac said, “I saw that my life was a vast glowing empty page and I could do anything I wanted.” Practicalities aside (sigh – school run, remember!), let’s – just for a second – indulge in what a fantastic notion that is, that we can be the (self-assured, delightful, exuberant, inspired!) hero in our own life story; that we can cherry-pick our character traits and design a strong supportive cast and scenes – those amazing friends, that cosy cottage, that wonderful soulmate – that bring out the best in us – the true ‘us’ in us. However unrealistic this utopia may be, allowing ourselves to daydream helps us to recognise how we want to be, and maybe some bits will sneak through into how we actually are, so that we become more ‘Xtreme’ rather than ‘Lite’ versions of us, as Vassos put it. Ralph Waldo Emerson said, “To be yourself in a world that is constantly trying to make you something else is the greatest accomplishment.” And, I think, one worth aspiring to.