‘ – or was that in a later imagining? There have been so many that they have gradually merged into each other. I don’t think I could bring myself to describe any of them in detail because, though they are wonderful at the time, they give me a flat, sick, ashamed feeling to look back on. And they are like a drug, one needs them oftener and oftener and has to make them more and more exciting – until at last one’s imagination won’t work at all. It comes back in a few days, though.’ Dodie Smith, I Capture the Castle.
I lead a double life. Doesn’t that sound exciting? Or maybe just hackneyed. But it makes everything so much easier, you see, when I can run away; when I can bury my head in the inner core of myself. That’s frightening, actually, even as I write it. Is my inner core nothing but imagining? Not real at all? What does that make me?
I Capture the Castle is one of my most beloved books. Surely protagonist Cassandra – pompous, overly-confident, ‘consciously naive’ – is the essence of every seventeen year old? As so many do, she falls in love, and, as so many find, it is not requited. So she finds solace in her own mind, her ideas, her fantasies, and above all her writing. It works out for her, in the end. She kicks the addiction, grows to accept her situation for what it is, and makes the best of it. What better way to become content?
But I don’t ever want to stop imagining. And my worry is that I will lose myself altogether, in my fantasies, and in my work, lose track of who I am. But what if my imaginings are who I am? What if this was me, all along?
Romola Garai, one of my most beloved actors, talks about this issue in an interview with Olivier Bombarda (on the Novo cinema YouTube channel), discussing the film Angel, directed by François Ozon. She talks about ‘how an artist can lose all perspective on themself and their place in the world’, about ‘the fear that every artist has, every artist who feels as passionately about their work as Angel does, that you can get cut off from reality, you can lose a sense of who you are, who loves you, who appreciates you, and their motivations for loving and appreciating you’. The eponymous Angel, you see, is (yet another) arrogant, selfish young female writer, who is utterly bowled over and arguably destroyed by her success.
Sometimes I wonder if I’ve ever lost myself, if I’m losing myself now. I’ve always been arrogant about my writing, but this is entirely unjustified, since I have never been gloriously successful. When I first started thinking up stories in earnest I was nine years old, and my characters were based on my friends that I’d left behind when my family and I moved away from our village. I’d pretend I was still with them, and I must have got carried away. By thirteen, writing was my life, my original ideas so totally warped that I’d moved into the aptly named fantasy genre. My life extended no further than my bedroom, where I’d sit and type for hours; our nearest town, where I’d scan the streets for ideas; the clifftops, where I’d plod along behind my parents, never really engaged in the world around me, because I was worlds away. By fifteen, I was depressed, and I’d given myself an RSI from too much typing. How embarrassing. Fortunately sixth-form saved me, and I took a break for a few years.
‘Be Off!’, by Stevie Smith, is a useful poem on the topic:
‘I’m sorry to say my dear wife is a dreamer,
And as she dreams she gets paler and leaner.
Then be off to your Dream, with his fly-away hat,
I’ll stay with the girls who are happy and fat.’
This is a 20th century poem, written at a time when being fat is not widely considered a desirable trait. As a sad, fat dreamer, I can only think: who wouldn’t want to be lean and be off? But of course, that’s not what the speaker means by lean/fat, not at all. My illnesses may have made my body fat, but they’ve made my life pale and lean. Depression is extremely exhausting, and leaves very little energy for anything other than recovering from depression. So what do I do with my rare moments of truly free time? I’m working on my novel.
Of course, there is a solution. There are many happy artists in the world, and I’m determined to be one of them. I’d like to say that the trick is to make one’s life as good as one’s imaginings, but of course, this is not always possible. Life has a habit of being dreadful, sometimes. What I have to do is find balance, put a sensible proportion of energy into reality, and a sensible proportion of energy into fantasy. Does this seem obvious to you? It wasn’t to me, not for years, and all this time I’ve been burying my head in my head, in my mind, in my keyboard. But that stops now. Here is my head, in the air and the sun, for all to see. And soon I hope to show you my imaginings.
Here is the interview with Romola Garai. You can find the quotations I’ve used, in context, at 3:27 and 8:40. I also highly recommend the film Angel, particularly if, like me, you enjoy romances, period dramas and/or coming-of-age stories. Just do please bear in mind that it’s very much a satire! And of course, please also take a look at I Capture the Castle, and at the poems of Stevie Smith, if you’re after something brilliant to read!