I’ve been working on various applications recently and I’ve found that it’s easier to write about anything other than myself. I think that’s going to hold me back, both in the career I’ve chosen in poetry and because of the ubiquity of social media. I don’t really know what to do about it, because at least some of it is just the way I am, but I think it’s also something to do with class.
I come from a working-class family and that means that you don’t complain. I think it’s great that things are changing. People can now talk about their difficulties, particularly when it comes to areas like mental illness, but I’m uncomfortable with the idea that it’s almost essential to share every aspect of yourself.
If you don’t have much, you learn to cover it up without anyone telling you to do so. You keep things nice, or paper over the cracks so they don’t show. I don’t know why this is, why there’s an internalised shame about having less money than other people. In the case of my parents, they were both nurses, which is a noble reason to be broke so of course it would be great if that changed. However, it hasn’t changed yet and that means there are generations of people who grew up thinking that it’s important not to let these things show, even when other people are doing so.
There’s also an emphasis on work – having parents as nurses meant that there was literally no chance of me faking being ill to get out of school. I don’t think it’s just my experience, though. I think again there’s something about weakness, about soldiering on, and that perhaps class lies somewhere near the bottom of it. Again, I’m not saying it’s a good thing but I am saying it’s there.
Finally, there’s a certain amount of pride. When I was at university, both the place and the subjects I chose meant that a lot of the other students had come from private schools. I felt some weight to, as my Dad would have said, “show ‘em what you’re made of,” and that meant to do my very best on their terms. I never thought about how they would have had extra tuition, or didn’t have to work to get through university. I didn’t ask for concessions because that wouldn’t be showing them, at all. That would be something else, something that would have felt like pity, or a pat on the head.
I don’t think these things are right, but I do think they’re embedded and it means that if you’re trying to get ahead in the arts, then as well as the obvious barriers that face people from the working class, there are also invisible, psychological barriers. I think at the root of it is that often people don’t ask for help because they don’t know the help is there. Even if they did, they wouldn’t necessarily believe any help would be forthcoming.
Social media is changing things; a lot of younger writers are digital natives. That means that it’s second nature to share their thoughts and feelings online, ask for what they need and even demand a seat at the table. I don’t know if I’m just too old to change, but I’m not comfortable with that. It doesn’t matter how much I read about it, in my bones I don’t believe that any cry for help I uttered would be answered, and to rely on such a thing happening could be my downfall.
Of course, this isn’t just about class, or about age - it’s also about personal preference. I’m not great at asking for help. My Mum used to say I would have “I can manage,” on my gravestone because I insist on doing things my own way, usually on my own. But as much as I acknowledge that this is a weakness of mine, I also resent that it’s expected. Why do I owe the world all my pain before it takes my work seriously? And is it taken seriously, or am I just getting a pity vote? How will I know the difference?
I watched Hannah Gadsby’s stand up show Nanette last night and I had a really visceral reaction to it. I saw how powerful it was that she told her story, and that she had every right to, but I also saw exactly what it was costing her to do so. I don’t like the idea that opening up your rawest wounds for all to see is the price to pay for being considered genuine. Gadsby herself challenges the notion of the suffering artist and sometimes I wonder if all these personal narratives aren’t partly responsible for perpetuating it.
I’m not saying that we should go back to the days of papering over the cracks or maintaining the British stiff upper lip. However, I don’t think the world is owed my story, my pain or my troubles, either. If I want to talk about those things, I will. But if I choose, as I do, to send my work out into the world and keep any difficulties to myself, I think I should be allowed that too. It doesn’t mean the work is any less heartfelt, or that I’m any less sensitive. It just means that I’d appreciate the help immensely but honestly, I can manage.