Earlier this summer, one of my Necessaries asked me to do reading at her wedding. In an attack of hubris I chose to read something I wrote. The night before, I tried to manage expectations by telling everyone who would listen how nervous I was. One friend said “If you’re this worried about it, it means that you’ve written something that’s more about you than them. If it’s about them and it’s honest, there’s nothing to be worried about.”
The next day, I stood up in my bridesmaid’s dress and walked, heels sinking into the grass, to the middle of the aisle. During the rehearsal there had been some discussion about where people ought to stand when giving readings- straight on or off to the side. I had said ‘straight on’, a suggestion I now regretted as there was nowhere to hide. There was no lectern, so the wind was free to tug and pull at the double-spaced pages in my hands. As I read, I began to feel that the pin-drop silence, broken only by the occasional cry of a hastily shushed baby, was a good sign. I risked a few nervous glances at my friend and her husband, they seemed to be smiling. This, I thought, was also good. As soon as I finished and had a proper look at the faces of the guests, I realised in a quick cold second that I had made a terrible mistake. Maybe, as my sister had warned me, it was not a piece to be read out loud – ” it’s all metaphor and no cadence. You’re trying too hard”- and it wasn’t a piece suited to their simple, elegant wedding. Or maybe it was a failure of delivery- when I watched it back on the wedding video, in the vain hope that memory had made a mountain of things, I realised that memory had in fact been protecting me from truth. I’d rushed and stumbled my way through it. But listen, delivery, style and quality aside, it just wasn’t the right thing to have read.
You have not known pain until you have been sliced up by British politeness. “I thought that African bit at the beginning was very unique.”, “You know, I don’t think I’ve ever had to work that hard to follow along with a reading before! Ha ha! It felt like I was back at school!”, “I’m sure it wasn’t to everyone’s taste, but there were, um, so many lovely phrases in it.” It’s like being told that your outfit is ‘interesting’. Of course my pride took a hit, but that wasn’t the real killer. It was that I’d wanted so very much to do well for my friend and I had thought of them as I wrote every word. And also that, since I’ve moved to America, I’ve become newly conscious of how being the only black person in a room can sometimes make one into something like an ambassador. So, a triptych of failures – myself, my friend, my PEOPLE! (These were the kind of overdramatically silly thoughts I indulged in, and they made smooth the path to intoxication.)
My nonsense aside, it was a perfect wedding which couldn’t have suited my friend any better. She’s the sort of person who seems entirely untouched by the chaos of the world. Or perhaps it’s better to say that she is entirely unfazed by it. Her dress was a clean white line, the speeches were achingly heartfelt and hysterically funny as appropriate. They had chosen for their venue a French estate made of seas of green fields and ancient trees, flowing around a castle so old it felt like it had simply decided one day to be. It emphasized, I thought, the confident ease of their relationship and the essence of my friend; it didn’t need any dressing up as it was perfectly lovely just as it was. The lesson: doing a simple thing well is always better than doing an overwrought thing badly (or at all).
During Spring Break, I planned and got wildly excited over a shiny Miami holiday. Two days in, I left my friends in the airbnb I’d booked and paid for, feigned illness and flew home early. A few months later, I did nothing but pay my share for a holiday in a rural vineyard in France. Save for trips into the village for fresh pastries every morning, we never left the cottage. (Okay, I didn’t even go on the village trips) We saw no-one but ourselves and Thierry who came to bring us wine. We mostly read in the summer room that was half stone and half sunshine, or outside by the pool. From time to time we’d chat in the lazy way you can only do with old friends. In the evenings, we’d go for a little wander to look at the sunset. The ice-cubes in our wineglasses would jostle and clink as we walked, like cowbells.
Miami, with its flashing clubs and shimmering beaches, had bored me to tears. That quiet week in France felt like all my favourite songs played one after the other. The lesson: I am made for small groups and quiet. In truth, I now find most socialising to be exhausting and socialising IN CAPITAL LETTERS to be a bit of a nightmare. My friend says that, being for so long made of wet cement, I got used to setting and resetting myself in social situations and now I’m just too old to bother. W, before we broke up, used to call me Bilbo, because all I wanted was to find a quiet place to finish a book. I have almost always felt that that I had to do, or learn how to do, the done thing. The second lesson: stop.
On my way back to America from France, I had a little time in London during which I was lucky enough to be invited along to hear Zadie Smith speak. I listened to her and her cheekbones confess to only recently appreciating the value of being in the real world. Before, she said, she’d always lived happily in books . Later, I imposed myself on her mother, a woman so set in herself (and why wouldn’t she be, having taught and raised Zadie Smith!) that she was dancing, right there in the middle of the foyer of the Southbank Centre, to swing music. She told me how intensely Zadie Smith had studied and lived in books. My friend who’d invited me told me of a letter he had written to Zadie when he and I had been at university together. Zadie had written back and encouraged him to stay “in the world of words”.
When my chance came to meet Zadie, I approached her with my copies of all her books clutched to my chest. I had spent that last 2 hours drinking wine in the midst of a group of v intense literary people (what in God’s name is the “neo-classical British resurgence?!) while Zadie had been signing books for what had appeared to be all of London. The room was now empty of everyone but her family, her publishing team, my friend and me. My friend introduced us, and I saw that she looked tired. I must have said something, I hope I said something, but what I do remember is suddenly feeling greedy and parasitic, so much so that I tucked my books back into my bag unsigned. Someone pulled her away for a moment, and my friend urged me in an aside to chat with her. Later he tried again to get me to join a photo. I stood apart, waiting for him, most of me deliberately hidden by a pillar. I was embarrassed. I had never fully committed to the work of writing the way she and my v kind friend had, and yet this had never stopped me from being very free with my grand dreams to write. I was the worst kind of fraud . I mean yes, my appreciation for the “world of words”, made wonderful by writers like her, is true. And yes, I hadn’t known it was something I wanted to do in a serious way until relatively recently. But I was suddenly realising how lazy I’d been about my writing. Sometimes I feel like writing things, sometimes I don’t. Sometimes the things I write are ok, sometimes they’re not. Sometimes the things I write feel right to me and sound right to other people. Sometimes they don’t. I have never really, consistently, worked at turning ‘sometimes’ into ‘more often than not’, and I’ve never treated writing like an essential. I’ve not yet earned a place in the world of words. The lesson here; put in the work even if (as is 99.9 percent likely) I remain only an enthusiast. I’m never going to learn what the neo-classical-whatever is though, that’s for damn sure.
But, my bounce-about life, the very thing I’ve spent the last year declawing, is really a gift I don’t deserve. It’s forced me, I think, to be clearer about who I am because I don’t have a pre-set mould to fill. Even though I’ll inevitably set into something full of smudges, graffiti, scratched initials and unwanted signatures, something ‘interesting’, at least I’m on the way to setting into something honest.
Thanks for sticking with me. Love you all.