Below a wooden stage with heavy teal curtains, I shuffle around with the others, chatting, waiting to be called. An amateur orchestra of harps and fiddles and accordions, of concertinas, whistles and flutes, drums and pipes. Eighty musicians and fifty singers waiting to be counted in, for hands to cut time. It is our final rehearsal before we perform in the National Concert Hall, and our choir leader Lorna keeps telling me I don’t have to be nervous. It’s not a big deal. It’s only singing in front of a thousand people and the President of Ireland. I’m pulled tight until the music strikes up in the sun-washed room and my body gives in. Capitulation. The Overture starts with an accordion, then droning strings, and then Lorna sings Deus Meus, an 11th Century plea to God, half in Latin, half in Irish, and I think yeah, if God is anything, it’s this.
This is ‘Inishowen’, a celebration of music in the peninsula, organised by the Inishowen Traditional Music Project. Source material reaching back a thousand years, and I didn’t know it existed. I thought traditional music was staged, a re-enactment for tourists. I didn’t know it could sound as vital, or sublime. I didn’t know about the people in this room, that they are the repository of specific rhythms and styles handed down, of virtuosic skill and understanding.
Looking around, I think these lives are so full of music, maybe music is a way of being alive.
I write to be alive and it’s a performance too.
When I wrote my first story, Penny Baps, it was because I thought I would die if I didn’t. I had to write my odd little man and his doomed patch of trees. His arguably pathetic and irrelevant attempt to make something out of his home place that would prove his existence, wring sense from his life. So he could say to himself and to anyone who asked, look, I made this. It’s beautiful and good and that must mean I’m enough, that I have something, that the life I’ve made is not wrong.
The book took years to finish and in that time writing became my only cause. Too embarrassed to tell anyone, desperate for control and safety, I wrote in secret. I sat alone, arranging ideas and training a voice for the day I might be good enough, ready for exhibition after all the work, finally perfect.
I am split in warring parts. I don’t want to be looked at but I sing, amplified in a crowded hall. I don’t believe in admitting opinions but I agree to explain myself in essay format. I don’t want people to know about me, but also, here is my novel where all the main characters start as versions of me.
This is the want and the shame of wanting.
I got what I wanted and it was great. I wrote a novel and worked on it for months with an heroic editor to correct a severe excess of fictional deaths and Christmas descriptions. That work was made public. It was presented as a colourful object for sale. I was paid small sums of money and I submitted a promotional photograph. My first story was an arrangement of all the things I’d ever loved and it was like the end of self-imposed, unnecessary and self-destructive silence. It was a happy ending, a dream fulfilled. Complete now, thank you very much. The End.
Surprise; I was not complete. It was not the end.
That story was not my whole life and if I wanted to keep writing, even if only for myself, then I would have to come up with a second story. This comically late realisation left me scrambling after old motivations, hoping that whatever worked the first time would work again, trying to remember why I first started writing and why I kept going.
Other than fear of dying, it turns out there are several diverting explanations which could be just as true. Self-obsession goes without saying, but there was also the requirement for an activity that could function as a complete replacement for life. There was a certain rigidity within rules and habits once established. I started so I had to finish. There was an innocent belief that Art is the best of us, the most holy, the way to celebrate and mourn what we are. There were, of course, the various unmet and perhaps unmeetable emotional needs that writing a novel can distract you from. And there is applause. I am the child performer who couldn’t grow out of it. The stuttering, lisping young singing champion looking for socially acceptable ways for an adult to stand and bow. To seek cups and medals and praise from the adjudicators. So the audience can find me after and talk about my talent.
Oh, wow, you are so talented.
I was crying.
Like, your voice. Oh, my God.
And I mean, is it too much to ask that I be bowled over breathless with gratitude for my own dizzying, life-altering, world-shaking success?
After the book was published, I opened my eyes to a small audience turning away, unsure if they had even heard my performance. Nobody rushed to the stage with a tarnished cup, or a medal, or even a certificate of commendation. The adjudicators remarks were cursory, glancing. I was left with the fading effect of applause that wasn’t loud enough, that never could have been loud enough. I was on my knees in the shop where I still worked, mopping spilt milk with blue paper towel while a lady buying Cumberland sausages calmly explained that even though I had messed up the ending, you know, it was a good first effort.
And why should I perform again, knowing for sure what you get for a public display of yourself? Knowing how difficult it is. How long it takes. How little dignity there is in it.
And what was it for anyway? Because I’m still the same. Not fixed. Not whole. Not certain.
Maybe there was nothing wrong with silence.
Sitting on the stage, low under lights that push into the dark like starlight, my heart is hammering, my chest will open so far and no more. My nose is running and catching in my throat. My belly muscles won’t answer, might not hold. There is no guarantee of support, of breath, of sound. The moment is coming.
On the stage I am in the middle of the noise; playful, rallying, heart wrenching and so loud. Hip swinging joy and flat out beats that come round and round the tunes, building new layers, calling new players, quickening until I can’t stay still. How lucky we don’t have to stop ourselves. We can give in to instinct and sing.
This is the intoxication of a chorus, listening together to moments of pleasure and pain, a shared resonance thrumming in our chests. You can see it in bowed heads, in stooped heartbroken stares, in feet going in time to each new rhythm, in smiles of uncontainable delight. It’s the overwhelming feeling and the way to get there. I could laugh it feels so good. I’m on a national stage and I don’t know what I’m doing but I step up to the microphone anyway. Two beats to count before our trio moves from silence into song. I try my best to relax. Trick myself and trust that I’ll hear the sounds around me and respond. Listen and let the harmony come into my head. Breathe, because I can make no connection when I have panic in my body. And that’s the better explanation, the kinder excuse for why we stand, trembling, on all these stages: we do it to communicate with each other. To share briefly one moment, some feeling of being alive. To connect.
Choosing to perform alone at a desk, I only want to use my own voice in the world, to sound like myself, test myself, please myself. There are tunes that won’t stop playing in my head. I write them out and arrange them until they feel alive. I’m back at work and full of stupid hope. Maybe next time I’ll be perfect.
This essay is the first in a series of reflections on the writing life.
Next: The House That Shame Built by Sheila Armstrong