There’s a scene in BoJack Horseman where the character of Diane Nguyen, having received a large advance for her next book, is stuck.
This is a world of anthropomorphic animals. Diane’s best friend is a horse, her agent is a cat, and her husband is a Labrador, delightfully called Mr Peanutbutter, a character who—being a dog—finds joy in everything. He chases postmen, rollicks through life and wags his tail when his wife comes home. Diane is the opposite—serious and self-sabotaging, vulnerable and sanctimonious.
Throughout the series, she struggles to write pieces that are “worth something”: the perils of #girlbossing; takedowns of abusive male celebrities; an exposé on corporate manslaughter (this ends with Congress passing a law that legalises murder if you are rich). But the one thing that brings her fame is writing a biography of BoJack Horseman, an alcoholic horse who, back in the 90s, was in a very famous TV show.
Afterwards, Diane is commissioned to write a book of essays, working title: One Last Thing and Then I Swear to God I’ll Shut Up About This Forever: Dispatches from the Frontlines of the War on Women: Arguments, Opinions, Reflections, Recollections, The Razor Tax—she is forced to stop there.
But she can’t write it. Instead, she finds herself dreaming about a mall detective, which morphs into a children’s book about a teenage girl who solves crimes in food courts across America. She’s disgusted at herself, because she’s a serious writer. She wails to her agent:
‘If I don’t write my book of essays now, that means all the damage I got isn’t good damage. It’s just damage. I have gotten nothing out of it, and all of those years I was miserable for nothing. I could have been happy this whole time.’
Shame got its hooks into me early. It flavours some of my earliest memories like the tang of an overly sharp apple, and I wrote pleading letters to Santa begging forgiveness for my imagined sins. Tarry clots of sadness began to follow me everywhere, and I was first diagnosed with major depression when I was sixteen.
I needed help, of course—I was drowning—but it was a victory of sorts, too. Teenagers are naturally narcissistic: there I was, with my prescriptions and my therapists, my angst and my self-harm. Surely mine was a superior sadness; surely Thom Yorke wrote ‘Creep’ about me. Soon after, I produced a thin short story about a girl with depression. The English teacher wanted to read it to the class; I didn’t let her, but it felt good to have written it. Then I felt empty all over again.
Nearly two decades later, I am still depressed, I am still writing, and I have never managed to stick with a therapist for more than a couple of months. Part of it is, I think, that long-ingrained notion that my sadness is so unique and self-shaping I cannot grasp the idea that I have agency over it. That arrogance makes the spiral worse: I am an awful person, unworthy of any grace for the mistakes I have made; shame wracks me until I am stalking the kitchen, listing numbers out loud to distract my brain from its favourite sport, bruising my fingers against the wall.
I have spent the majority of my life unhappy. I’m still unsatisfied after becoming a published author, a dream I harshly punished myself for every time it dared to surface. I feel this ingratitude keenly, and worry that there may be no better version of myself.
At one point in BoJack Horseman, Diane is accused of fetishising her own sadness. I believe I will always be miserable, and that fear, rather than the actual thing itself, is what terrifies me. At night, I worry that I am doing this all to myself. That I could have been happy this whole time.
As a writer, I have no words of wisdom to offer, only confessions: I am crippled by the belief that everything I put on the page has to be worthy, that wasting words is a form of failure. I read every one of my reviews; I am burningly envious of others; I cringe under positive attention and immolate under negative.
And yet I don’t think I could do anything else. Writing is the only time when the papery thinness of my skin feels like an asset; when curiosity climbs over shame to burn like a guiding beacon; when the right arrangement of words feels like the gentle closing of a door. And this is the hardest part to admit: I am good at it.
I sometimes think of that early experience with the teacher—the quick reversal of emotion—and how often it has repeated itself over my career. As writers, we flip from crippling insecurity to narcissism about twenty times a day. We have to. In order to send anything out into the world, we must believe we are the best, just for that brief second it takes to press the button, even if we punish ourselves for that belief afterwards, let shame crawl back into our laps.
Writing, like depression, is a fundamentally selfish state of mind: these dual drives of abjection and expression spring from the belief that we are the black hole at the centre of the universe.
One hot summer’s day, one of those perfect days that only really appear in Enid Blyton books, I was ferrying children across to an island in a sailing boat my father built. I have been sailing since I was a child, small wooden dinghies that did their best to capsize or break apart or sink.
I hadn’t been sailing for a few years and was worried that I was too rusty to be entrusted with four small children. One of them was nervous of the white horses that clipped along in the freshening breeze. I turned to him and said: ‘You can trust me. I know what I’m doing.’ I was surprised to realize it was true.
After dropping the children on the island, I turned around to sail back, single-handed, in a boat built for two. When helming a two-hander on your own, you have to wrap the jib-sheets around your elbows, wedge the tiller between your knees, and your tacks across the wind are slow and ungraceful. I wouldn’t try it in heavy weather, but on a perfect day, which this was, it can be, well, perfect.
Alone in the boat, there’s nobody to communicate with: when you want to tack, you tack, without asking your crew if they’re ready. Leaning out over the gunnels as the boat heels in the gusts, every tiny movement is yours alone. Silence, except for the slicing of waves and the whippering of the sails. Wind and water and weight in perfect balance. I later found out that my father was watching from the shore, proud of all he had taught me.
As writers, it is so rare to have a moment of trust in our own competence. What poison that is to our brains: to constantly be the imposter, to never know if we are good at our job, to attribute any success to an elaborate conspiracy. To constantly seek approval, to be told not to seek approval, even though writing implies a reader, a judge. To have our self as a person so tied up with what we do, to believe that our damage has to be good damage, or else it was all for nothing.
And we feel like we are the first to ever feel this way—that flip from insecurity to narcissism again—until we actually listen to each other, and then say, surprised: You too?
Every morning, at 08.45am, my phone buzzes. A reminder pops up: FIND YOUR CORE. It’s some fragment of self-help advice I picked up somewhere. I spent years editing self-help books, which has made me extremely resistant to mantras and affirmations and the very idea that my self can be helped. (Shut up, Diane. Go write your book of essays.)
I can’t remember the context for this particular fragment, but to me it means this: there is an old, familiar place inside you where you are who you are. It is wrapped in layers of self-loathing and egotism and uncertainty and false faces. The skin around it may be proud or bruised or bitten, but this core is there. It is the place where you stop retreating from shame, and stand.
At the moment, if I am not happy, I am closer to the ceiling than the floor. And these are the things I try to remind myself:
That at the end of BoJack Horseman, instead of her book of essays, Diane writes a novel called Ivy Tran, Food Court Detective, and she is happy.
That the room in my house where shame lives has a door, and it is not locked.
That there is a place where I stand, tiller between my legs and sheets in both hands, feeling the sway and the bump of the waves, beating into the wind, and not for a single second do I lose my balance.
This essay forms part of a series of reflections on the writing life.
Previously: Traditional Music by Kevin Doherty
Next: Doing the work by Kevin Curran