The thin-skinned writer
I have a thin skin.
I think it comes from the fact that I suffer from depression from time to time. I had a breakdown years ago. And if the stone falls hard enough the ripples last a lifetime.
I woke up last Sunday and felt dark wisps around my head, that ominous life-is-fear feeling. But then, after a morning with the best four-year-old girl in the world, it subsided. (The way out is never through yourself.)
Don't get me wrong. Though I am a neurotic person, I enjoy life immensely much of the time. I enjoy my friends and family. I enjoy books and poems and chatting to people online. I can look at an empty crisp packet foxtrot along in the breeze and find it the most miraculous thing, because everything is a miracle if you think about it hard enough.
And really, my kind of depression isn't done justice by the word depression. The word depression makes me think of a flat tyre, something punctured and unmoving. The depression I have known is more like an intense, inner hurricane, that sometimes whisks me up into Oz or carries me far into the sea. At its worst you find yourself wishing, desperately, for any other affliction, any physical pain, because the mind is infinite, and its torments - when they happen - can be equally infinite.
Yet, as Graham Greene and thousands of others before him said, that pain is a useful bank from which to draw out creativity. That sounds dark. Let's replace 'pain' with 'feeling'.
It is unfashionable to say that now. But I believe one of the jobs of a writer is to feel life and then report on feelings. Fiction may be fantastical, but it is also emotional reportage. (Non-fiction = external truths. Fiction = internal ones. Discuss.)
The paradox is that while having a thin skin might make for better writing, it is not good for the process of being published. I have a new book out next week. There will be reviews. The bad ones will trouble me more than they should. Just as that one tiny hair you find in your peanut butter makes you want to throw away the whole jar.
As The Humans is the most personal thing I've written, and encapsulates everything I believe in, I am even more hyper-sensitive than normal.
But would I go along to a magical mind spa and ask for a skin-thickening treatment? Probably not. You need to feel life's terror to feel its wonder.
And I feel it today, actually, right now, on what could seem like quite a grey overcast afternoon. I feel the sheer unfathomable marvel that is this strange life we have, here on Earth, the seven billion of us, clustered in our towns and cities on this planet, the 'pale blue dot' as Carl Sagan called it, spending our allotted 30,000 days as best we can, in glorious insignificance.
I like to feel the force of that miracle. I like to burrow deep into this life, and explore it through the magic of words and the magic of human beings (and the magic of peanut butter sandwiches). And I am glad to feel every tumultuous second of it, and glad for the fact that when I walk into the vast room with all the Tintorettos in it in the National Gallery my skin literally tingles, and my heart palpitates, and I am glad for the synaesthesia that means when I read Emily Dickinson or Mark Twain my mind feels actual warmth from those old American words.
That is what it is about.
People place so much value on thought, but feeling is as essential. I want to read books that make me laugh and cry and fear and hope and punch the air in triumph. I want a book to hug me or grab me by the scruff of my neck. I don't even mind if it punches me in the gut. Because we are here to feel.
Yes, I am too tender to the touch and shouldn't worry about what people think. Yes, even as I write this blog I am thinking I am laying myself too bare and that I should have written that moderately controversial list about e-books I was going to write.
But I want life.
I want to read it and write it and feel it and live it.
I want, for as much of the time as possible in this blink-of-an-eye existence we have, to feel all that can be felt.