Tag Archives: memoir

Chaos out of chaos

Fluffy Chaos (via xdxd_vs_xdxd on Flickr)

Fluffy Chaos (via xdxd_vs_xdxd on Flickr)

I used to write in a journal every day, except I called it a diary. ‘Journal’ seemed too American. I, a stubborn an impressionable 16-year-old, was proudly aligned to British English after the influence of my crusading older brother and my Received Pronunciation-tinged mother. Both have either said or written the words ‘don’t forget your roots’ to me in the years since, usually in relation to a point of language.

(For some reason, ‘journal’ is acceptable to me now, and seems more appropriate than ‘diary’. Perhaps I have become Americanized, despite the best efforts of my kin.)

The storm of angst in my teenage head poured out into those Word documents at the end of each day. As I became more and more reliant on my journal to make sense of my thoughts, and of my burgeoning selfhood, I took to writing in it first thing in the morning, during free periods at school, and after dinner — whenever some frustration in my head demanded the indulgence of my complete attention.

The first few years of entries are often unreadable and fall largely into two categories: 1) angry screed against authority figure, or 2) hopeless pining for crush. Confrontation was too terrible to contemplate, and the idea of actually telling a girl how I felt about her was even more mortifying. Thank goodness I had my journal. Without it, I might have exploded and started a war by now.

I remember taking great pride in some of my entries, such that I wished I could share them with other people. But that was simply out of the question, as likely as walking down the street naked. I resigned myself to the fact that I would have to keep my journal all to myself; to revel privately in my finer paragraphs.

Sometimes, even early on, I would address my future self directly, and as an authority figure. Don’t fucking write this off as the stupid fucking ramblings of a fucking teenager, etc. (I swore as much as possible.) I have to admire my committed defence of my thoughts, just as I would admire a carefully considered rebuttal of climate change, no matter how blind it were to the truth. I seem to have known exactly how immature my thoughts were, and sought to preempt criticism by firmly stating that my experience was nonetheless valid: that there was order in the chaos of my mind.

*

When I got into my first proper relationship, aged 22 and living in a foreign country, my journal faded into the background of my life. For years it had provided me with a non-judgmental space in which to bash out how I really felt about something. Now I was spending a lot of my time with another person, and often confiding in her, rendering the journal obsolete — except when I wanted to analyse our stuttering relationship, which occasionally brought me back to the keyboard. Fuelled largely by the fear of losing her, these entries were laden with far more painful frustration and inadequacy than the pining of my teenage years.

But these occasions were irregular. I feared she would discover my journal, and that was unthinkable, so I kept away from it as much as possible, only returning when things got really bad. You could chart the good times in our years together by the gaps in my journal.

She did eventually read the journal — without my permission — and was aghast as the tide of negativity swamped her. It didn’t matter, though. The relationship was already lost.

*

Since meeting my current partner, my journal entries have become even more sporadic than they were during that earlier relationship. The main difference is that I have less time to write in it. She refuses to waste any opportunity for a new experience, leaping out of bed on sunny Saturdays and planning a hike or some other outing, or planning a minute-by-minute itinerary for our holidays.

After some initial resistance, I have been swept up in her zest for exploration. Weekend trips away often transpire in a chaotic flurry of activity: of last-minute packing; of wrangling other family members; of board games and large meals and swims in the sea. My participation began as a somewhat grudging attempt to connect with her, coming as it did at the cost of the hours I used to spend sitting at home, but I now go willingly. Getting out and doing things gives me more satisfaction than staying in and thinking about them.

But what of the difficult times? In my previous relationship, the worst of both of us was privately poured out and dissected in my journal. The openness I share with my partner makes that analysis redundant. We aren’t perfect communicators, but where possible, we figure things out together.

I remember it all much less clearly than I used to when I noted and discussed everything I did in my journal. But the moments themselves are more vivid, like a sheer curtain has been pulled away. It’s a trade-off I happily accept, and my hope is that as we grow older, we can keep our experiences alive by filling the gaps in each other’s memories.

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In praise of Roger Ebert

'Life Itself' by Roger Ebert, on release this week

“But now it’s getting late, which means he has his own work to do. Chaz heads off to bed. Millie, for the moment, hasn’t been seized by night terrors, and the brownstone is quiet and nearly dark. Just the lamp is lit beside his chair. He leans back. He streams Radio Caroline — the formerly pirate radio station — and he begins to write. Everything fades out but the words. They appear quickly. Perfect sentences, artful sentences, illuminating sentences come out of him at a ridiculous, enviable pace, his fingers sometimes struggling to keep up.”
-‘Roger Ebert: The Essential Man’, by Chris Jones, Esquire, March 2010

Roger Ebert, more than anyone else, is the reason why I wanted to be a writer. I think most of us have an initial reference point from whence our passions arose, like a car enthusiast’s formative obsession with the 1961 Lincoln Continental convertible or a young swimmer watching Michael Phelps sweep eight golds at the Olympics. I write because I have always written, since I was a small child, but I take my inspiration from Ebert above all others. His writing is honest, principled, informative and articulate, always entertaining, never boring.

When I first started this blog on Blogspot back in 2004, it was to practise writing film reviews, and I said in the first entry (since deleted, time wasn’t kind to those words) that I hoped I would one day be Ebert. I hadn’t actually been reading him for very long at that point – maybe a year or so at most – but he’d already become the standard to which I aspired, for reasons I’ll attempt to put into words further down the page. It was my plan to write reviews of most of the films I saw in an effort to get better at watching them, but my bigger hope was that I would at least become a better writer, if not a successful one.

Over time I’ve written less and less about film, and taken on a wide range of other writing influences. To my great surprise, it is India that has given me the inspiration, impetus and support to be a bit more successful as a writer, and not film. However, I’ve continued to read Ebert – who in fact has also written less and less about film, proportionally at least. In addition to the weekly film reviews he’s been filing regularly for over 40 years, and the other writing he’s compiled in the form of interviews, features and books, Ebert now has a blog, too. He writes on many subjects besides film, most of them aspects of his colourful life Every entry is a joy to savour. The blog was the main reason behind his winning the 2010 Webby Award for Person of the Year – not only for the quality of the blog entries he posts but also for the quality and depth in the comments he receives, which are sometimes even more fascinating than the entries themselves.

The definition of a good writer is elusive, and likely subjective. The standard of one’s readers, like the myriad folks who comment on Ebert’s blog, might be a pretty good one. But a definition that appeals to me is this: a good writer articulates thoughts in ways the reader might not have arrived at on their own. Even if they are thoughts with which the reader strongly disagrees, the writing itself can still be compelling in the hands of a vivid wordsmith. Take, for example, Arundhati Roy’s work in recent years, which can be as misguided as it is literary. On the other hand, saying what a lot of people are thinking can be even harder; one has to work the words on the page into a form that somehow impacts on a reader who agrees with them before he or she even reads them.

With Ebert, whether I completely disagree with him, completely agree or am ambivalent (I usually agree), there is always something new to discover in his words. Perhaps some film fact I never knew, or the name of a new actor to watch; most often, it is the sentences themselves that offer the greatest delight. They frequently surprise me, flicking a ‘how did he do that?’ switch in my head.

I find Ebert’s words returning to me at unexpected moments as a way of articulating what I see before me, or to offer something of value to a conversation with someone else. Ebert’s words are often so tightly formed that they sometimes seem to have always existed, like he plucked them from the sky and set them before me. And his words become part of me even as I read them.

After decades of getting those words in small chunks (though nowadays, with his blog and Twitter and Facebook etc, those chunks arrive more frequently), now we have Roger Ebert’s memoir ‘Life Itself’. Thousands upon thousands of those words, all arriving at once, and I am certain they will be just as much a joy. Thank you, Mr Ebert, for being such an inspiration.

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