Coming of age, page by page: What 40 years of diaries tell me about writing and myself

‘Maybe at 49 I have come to writing late, in public at least. But it’s been in me forever’

Stephen Walsh: “if writing is for anything, I think it’s to take the edge off that loneliness, and let each other know we’re all in the dark, it’s not just you.”

Stephen Walsh: “if writing is for anything, I think it’s to take the edge off that loneliness, and let each other know we’re all in the dark, it’s not just you.”

 

Though I’m coming late to writing for readers other than me, I’ve been writing for myself in my diary for 40 years. I know. Why would anyone do that – write privately for so long, and then publicly, at this stage? What’s wrong with me? Fortunately, I have quite the box of evidence to help dig into that question.

When I was nine, I announced to my mother that I wanted to be a writer. She replied with the only three words anyone with such notions needs to hear: read, and write. I was not a great reader. I didn’t get beyond Doctor Who novelisations and Blyton for years (all great – see early diary reviews). I sort of tried writing. Picture me, pacing furiously around my bedroom, annoying my brother in the top bunk. “What are my themes? Secret Seven? Cybermen? Secret Seven meet Cybermen?”

I had no mind for fiction. I didn’t know anything beyond what was happening to me. So I started there. I wrote something in my diary every day. The early years are mainly transcripts of extraordinarily small events. Some highlights of 1985: Today I went to Funderland with John and Kevin. I bought the new Simple Minds in Dundrum and it is amazing. Live Aid was on but we were on holiday so missed it.

Pepys in the plague this was not. Adrian Mole would have begged for a more interesting character, ideally a girl, to appear. Me too, but you have to pace these things. There are lots of lists. I recorded my intake at McDonalds for the whole of 1986 (33 hamburgers, 37 large fries, and the rest. No judgement – there was no better, or other restaurant in Dublin as far as I was concerned at the time).

Skip to 1987, when I put down childish milkshakes and became, well, more of a boy. Today I finished my inter cert. I stole vodka from my parents. I kissed [very much redacted] in Stephens Green (that was quite the Wednesday by my standards). There’s the comings and goings through the ages: Today I started college. I started in the bank. Today (9 months later) I quit. Tonight I wrote a letter to [even more redacted] but she’s never going to answer, she doesn’t care. This morning I left Ireland for Chicago. I don’t have any plans to come back, or any plans for when I get there. And on, and on, for four decades, across continents, careers, breakups, weddings, births, deaths, and all the rest that comes at us all.

But so what? Everyone goes through moments like these. Why did I write about them? And why do I go back over them, reliving them like a mortifying first-person narrative, in which I can see the end of each episode a mile off?

Shine/Variance, by Stephen Walsh, is published by Chatto & Windus
Shine/Variance, by Stephen Walsh, is published by Chatto & Windus

Because I didn’t just write down what happened. It was more real than that. You can record events, even force an arc onto occurrences. But you can’t fake a feeling. Though I was not a very open person (which led to many it’s very much me not you relationship denouements – see 1992-99), I was deep in feeling on those pages. And I was sure my feelings were unknown by anyone else. Not because I didn’t talk about them. But because I thought they were unique to me. I’m not alone in this misplaced belief. Joan Didion, also a diarist (that’s where the comparisons end) wrote:

“One of the mixed blessings of being twenty and twenty-one and even twenty-three is the conviction that nothing like this, all evidence to the contrary notwithstanding, has ever happened before.”

You can read that as a little hard on twenty somethings: Hey, coming of age-ers? Get over yourselves. You’re not the first. But I’ve come to read it as more forgiving, even wistful. Every age we come of, and through, is the one and only time. So why would we not have that conviction? None like this has ever happened to us.

That’s why I keep a diary. Not to remember what happened. But to remember my feelings in each moment. And to see if I ever change. And (because I was still that nine-year-old with notions), to try and turn a phrase or two while I was doing it. I loved trying to make the diary, well – writing – but that’s where the notion stayed. I kept my lines to myself, and walked along the more expected ones: into a career, up the corporate ladder, around the world. Everything great, on paper. Except on some pages.

The truth is that all along there have been some root feelings that did not change through each age. The loudest of these in my diaries: Immense anger with myself for not doing something “more” with writing, and immense fear of what might happen if I tried. Fury at inaction, balanced with fear of failure: the two equal and opposing forces that kept me on a track, at work, gliding on the surface and burning underneath. I wrote down any number of soothing lies to push that boy under. I told myself over and over to forget about this writing thing. That’s not you. The moment’s passed. You’re too old. Too busy with work. Nobody’s asking. What would your family think? I made enough noise to drown myself out. The loudest of which, ringing through the years: I’m no good. And if I try, I’ll shame myself. That’s enough to scare any nine- or 39-year-old into silence.

I kept it up, stayed in character for years. But you can’t not come into the next age, or deny the unfinished business of the ones before. After 25 years of travelling and working, a few years ago, I wrote: “I’m in crisis. I can’t go on like this.” These are first-world coming-of-age problems, I know that. But it was enough to shake me into a change. To let go of the fear of failure, and realise it is nothing in the face of regret. And, maybe only because I was older, and I was finally home again, it was time to face up to myself, and let me out.

I went on a course at the Irish Writers Centre. And another one. I was still no good, but I was in a place where the work was taken seriously, and I went to work. I pushed myself, pushed into myself, got rejections, felt all the shame and fear, but that’s just what happens. I kept going. And with no small amount of love, luck and the belief of others, amazing things happened.

My first collection of stories, Shine/Variance, came out on July 1st. It’s about the tiny crises and wonders of ordinary life: children and parents trying to figure out who is more clueless about what to do. Workers and commuters, walking the line and doing their duty, while wondering what might happen if they just said no. Running from yourself, but realising there’s no way out. It is not, you will be relieved to hear, excerpts of my diaries. These stories are not what happened to me. But the feelings in them – well, that’s all I have to go on.

So maybe at 49 I have come to writing late, in public at least. But it’s been in me forever. What took so long? I don’t know. The voices that have been way up in the mix for me, those of fear, doubt, shame: I danced to their tune for decades. Maybe I had to get to that strange clearing, in the middle of life, before I could trust myself to try.

As George Oppen said about getting older: “What a strange thing to happen to a little boy.” And it is very strange to put my thoughts on a shelf, where people can take a peek and pass judgement. And while that’s scary, it’s not petrifying anymore. Does that mean I’ve come of age? If my diaries tell me anything, there’s no such destination. There’s no numbered threshold we cross over, no door on the woes of youth that we shut in relief and say “Now I know how to be. I fear no more”.

One-way traffic that we are, we’re all coming into a new age every morning. Each will bring its own new feelings, joys and sorrows, utterly unknown to us, and ours alone to experience. But if writing is for anything, I think it’s to take the edge off that loneliness, and let each other know we’re all in the dark, it’s not just you.

I’ve no idea what will come next as I start a new age of writing aloud. All I can hope is I learn a little more about myself on the journey. And I’ll keep up the diary, of which this is pretty much a public entry. So while you’re looking in, here’s me saying to that nine-year-old boy: I’m sorry I didn’t listen to you for so long. I don’t think I was ready. I had to go through some hard feelings first, that’s just life. But I’m glad you never left. How strange and wonderful it is to meet you again.

Shine/Variance, by Stephen Walsh, is published by Chatto & Windus

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