Into this new year and already the days hurtle past, there are visitors at the door, work to be done in the garden, workshops to be diarised, deadlines to be met. I’m busy writing a new story, dealing with unprocessed issues, a life lived elsewhere, a trip to Hong Kong in a wet spring, trying to get at something I have not yet told myself and may not be able to put into words. Sometimes writing is so akin to daydreaming except that the purpose is not pleasure or escape but something more menacing, elusive, more truthful. Hong Kong, the ‘fragrant harbour’, the Star ferry boarded at Kowloon, the typhoon bending palm trees on the sea front, an ocean shuddering and two people bracing themselves on a deck for the impact of what has just been said between them and cannot be unsaid. A life more real to me than here, this life, the one I can’t escape, my irrevocable here and now.
“We make our lives pleasurable, and therefore bearable, by picturing them as they might be. It is less obvious though what these compelling fantasy lives — lives of, as it were, a more complete satisfaction — are a self-cure for. Our solutions tell us what our problems are; our fantasy lives are not — or not necessarily — alternatives to, or refuges from, these real lives but an essential part of them… There is nothing more obscure than the relationship between the lived and the unlived life. (Each member of a couple, for example, is always having a relationship, wittingly or unwittingly, with their partner’s unlived lives, their initial and initiating relationship is between what they assume are their potential selves.) So we may need to think of ourselves as always living a double life, the one that we wish for and the one that we practice; the one that never happens and the one that keeps happening.”
But of course the writing down of fantasy is what I do in this life and there is no escape from that. Alternative lives for characters, not for the writing self, although a little speck of me goes into each character. Telling stories about imagined lives in the hope this sheds light on reality, the hidden depths of our lives together, what has not yet been said, what has been said but not understood.
“The most important stories sometimes can’t be talked about directly,” he says. “People don’t have the words. Maybe nobody ever helped them to talk about their experiences. They are out of touch with their feelings, trapped in some unhappiness or fear: frightened, anxious, in pain. But they may insist everything is fine. Their life – their boss, their partner, their kids – needs them to be neurotic, or depressed, whatever they are. They want change, but as one patient once said to me, ‘not if it means changing’.”
Not if it means changing — and characters in fiction resist change as fiercely as we do in reality. A friend talking to me on a long night drive about how she does not want to stop being a ‘wife and mother’ even though her adult children have left home and her husband has remarried. ‘That was my role, my identity, the core of how I understood myself as a person,’ she says sorrowfully. ‘To be a good mother, to be a loyal and faithful wife. Now others define me as a divorcee with empty nest syndrome. But I am still that mother and wife, those were the best years of my life. I go on living back there.’
When I was studying clinical psychology (bewailing my own self-diagnosed pathologies), a lecturer told us how to watch for that resistance to change in a therapeutic setting. A person would talk about something that had happened perhaps 15 or 25 years before. A family Christmas that ended in tears, a boyfriend ending an affair, a work colleague making an unfair accusation. As the person spoke of this incident or event, there would be animation, great feeling. The story would be recounted as if it had happened yesterday, so fresh and raw you could see the new bruise, the blood flowing. This was the cherished grievance, the alternative life. If she had not said this, if he had only heard me, if I could go back and show them what I felt. And there is the wounding memory stuck in place, unchanging, nurtured an d fed by the same feelings. No space for forgiveness or moving on, the secret life of the victim, the abandoned woman, the unvindicated innocent.
‘There is no substance to memory,’ said the lecturer. ‘The past is gone, cannot be retrieved. We all know this. That person, that family, that colleague are now different people. They remember it differently, if they remember it at all. But for the client, the past is what matters and to release that memory would be to lose something of that former self, to lose the story that is so important. It is just a story, a way of explaining one day in the long-gone past. This was done to me, this was how I was wronged, this is what damaged me, shaped me, destroyed me. This is why I am not who I might have been, this is what held me back, this person is to blame. The story is self-serving and only part of the truth. But for some it may be the only story they have or want to have.’