You can define a net in one of two ways, depending on your point of view. Normally, you would say that it is a meshed instrument designed to catch fish. But you could, with no great injury to logic, reverse the image and define a net as a jocular lexicographer once did: he called it a collection of holes tied together with string.
Julian Barnes in Flaubert’s Parrot, then goes onto explain how the same could be said of biographies as so much does escape. And yet, as Ted Hughes once wrote, ‘I hope each of us owns the facts of his or her own life.’ And that is the other point: we must.
There are parts of our lives regarded as, not quite us. We look back at a particular period as if peering at a naughty child through a classroom window, neither wanting to disturb, yet unable to believe our eyes. We shy away from the parts of ourselves that aren’t too pretty, editing extensively to make them shiny and admirable from all angles. But few, if any, lives pan out this way. Everybody has blips, failures, sicknesses so that the list of disasters is endless, but the question becomes, not the extent of the pain, but what actions were taken thereafter; how, in other words, you responded. More often than not, such events appear as bitter bolts from the blue; we were planning against one disaster while another came up and nipped at the ankle. But this happens to be the point of transformation’s promise. It takes one by surprise and yet attempts to comfort with the distraction of challenge and growth, despite our many protests to the contrary.
What I have learned in recording people’s lives, is that the more successful a person is, quite often the more misshapen it once began; the more inspirational, the greater the loss at pivotal moments and the richer, the greater the deprivations in early life. Of course, there are no hard and fast rules, but these are the patterns I’ve noticed.
And so what becomes more important than hiding secrets is revealing transformation, that peculiar kind of alchemy more familiar to the human spirit than we care to attest. It must grow from a foundation of hope, like the lily bursting forth from mud, often unconscious, yet once noted, capable of attuning the mind to future possibilities. Much later, we must look back but with objectivity and distance to gain a greater understanding of how these – all too frequently - awe-inspiring acts were accomplished. Firstly, though we must comfort ourselves knowing dreams can reform at any moment. Most of all we must believe – just as the toddler did when learning to walk – that great things are possible. Yet biographies show us more than the end: they show us the journey, providing signposts along the path. You might say that they direct us toward our dreams.
Unrecorded lives still move human evolution forwards, that is society, forwards but even these apparently normal lives make up an essential part of the whole. Some are more exceptional in resilience, but everybody has something to teach and everybody something to learn.
The stories of our lives must thus be enthusiastically tied together to form a net, no matter how frequent the holes. Failures that had bright and gleaming linings need to be celebrated, as do the wrong paths and the crazy people and places or those events that eventually lead to greater joy. But without the calamities and the suffering, would our lives - the world - really change? Not so fast, I expect. So go tell your stories as if retelling a great epic, for in five hundred years, no matter what you have achieved, nobody will quite believe the circumstances you lived through.
Therefore, harness hope and look back with a sense of fondness. Many fish will continue to escape and return to the stream, but there always remains enough to determine character, cultural contextualising and social peculiarity. Naturally, there will be areas of obscurity and absence because, at times, human beings are a mystery unto themselves, but record we must of for no other reason than to throw off and release the past and move closer to some, as yet, unattained form.
As a biographer, it is always the inner life that holds more interest than external situations; for the patterns of life are firstly held in the mind. Once this is gently unravelled, however, events become explicit, making individual sense and then it is those that have understood the peculiar mechanics of their own mind who produce the greatest and most flourishing lives.
The New Year has brought with it a sense of renewal, a feeling that this year could pan out much better than last. There is even the sense of relief that I'll be avoiding last year's mistakes - how could I not! There is basically an overriding sense that I can accomplish anything. It doesn't last long, however, not much further than January 2nd, and yet those moments have at least resulted in a plan, goals trailing behind my plan like tin cans attached to a wedding car. If nothing else there will be new experiences, new places to visit and novel ways of stepping outside the straight jacket of routine and it's a sensation that sits in my chest like a lit sparkler. Newness. Perhaps, a second chance.
I'm reminded of a short poem my grandfather would often quote me: Your life lies before you like a path of driven snow; be careful how you tread it, because every mark will show. It has now, as it did then, the habit of immobilising me. So I hover for a while in the world of possibilities, a world that remains a close cousin to make-believe, and for a time just stare at the white vista. Taking that first step is both a blessing and a curse. Perhaps it could, in fact, go as badly wrong as last year. Have I really learnt anything after all? Maybe it's better just to stay here, at the start, and dream long, happy dreams. But time waits for no woman and so I take, tentatively at first, a small step followed by a more purposeful step in a slightly new, slightly different direction, a personal mantra lightening my steps as they crunch through the untainted snow: just believe. That's it for this year. Just believe.
All our paths are virgin paths, the journey never quite the same with each passing year.. And yet as a writer the path is well-trodden, other writers having trudged it countless times with their own troublesome, perhaps equal burdens. The important part is to start, to walk fearlessly and with faith, to know that if nothing else paths end somewhere. All paths. So just begin and just believe and in time you might just build something out of that snow, a crystal palace comprised of ice perhaps. Indeed, the snow could be just the beginning...
This week has been a week of computer glitches, of visiting the computer repair shop not just once but three times because my problem seemed to be reserved for my eyes only. It was part way through, however, that I decided to see an otherwise irritating experience in a fortuitious light. Prior to the interruption, my writing days had been quietly ordered and predictable, enmeshed - as our lives so often are - in routine. Yet, our creative brains thrive on novel situations and new landscapes, situations that take us away from the norm. This provides fodder for our creative souls and it doesn't have to be a trek through the Andes, or anywhere particular glamorous so long as its set apart from our usual habits.
And so, part way through my week the thirty minute drive through south London stopped being a battle against reckless van drivers and became instead a chance to observe and appreciate the different cultures that lay beyond my windshield; the way one road might epitomise middle class England, whilst another might well be a street in Iran or Turkey or even urban Jamaica. I saw the metropolis of London for what it was: a delightful melange of cultures, of different fashions and foods and religions and no longer a great swath of land between my house and the computer shop. I delighted too in the characters I met in the computer repair shop, the stories they had to tell so that any archetypal myths were rapidly laid to rest.
I soon realised how other irritating interruptions could be viewed in a similar way so that one's creative mindfulness, rather than one's frustration, could be immediately brought into play. Perhaps you all do this anyway, maybe I'm just a bit slow to catch on here. All I know, is that my internal notepad won't be coming out only when I'm floating through the canals of Venice (which of course happens often) but when I'm tempted to otherwise pull out my hair!
Albert Einstein once said, 'Everything that is really great and inspiring is created by the individual who can labour in freedom.' The idea of group creativity is almost an oxymoron. But perhaps it is unhelpful to separate the creativity of individual minds from the communities within which they flourish. People, after all, understand themselves not only as individuals but also as members of the groups to which they belong.