In Dreams Awake

Our truest life is when we are in dreams awake.

(Henry David Thoreau)

Friday, 25 July 2014

So Bends the Tree

 Every artist - writer, painter, whatever - draws on his or her own experiences. I don't wholly buy the popular advice of write what you know, because if we all stuck to that there would be no sci-fi (who's ever really flown between stars?), no Fantasy, not even any Victorian Gothics. But the things we know and feel do find their way onto the pages, because they're what shaped us as people - we're each the sum of our own experiences.

 The most important factor of all this is family. Nothing does as much to form our character as that. There are proverbs about it, such as give me the child until he is seven and I shall give you the man. Or as grows the sapling, so bends the tree. As children we can be conditioned to respond a certain way, and as adults we still do. Habits like that run very deep, and are fiercely hard to break.

 Now, I don't have a great family. I knew it even as a small boy, the sort of age when most children accept their world almost without question. My parents made a bad marriage and I can't remember a time when they didn't hate each other. My elder brother was effectively a functioning sociopath, unable to feel or empathize as normal people do; he saw others as pieces to be moved, there for his own amusement but without valid lives or cares of their own. And my mother couldn't see that - wouldn't see it, in truth - because she'd invested such hopes in him she couldn't bear to see them crushed, or accept he wasn't capable of achieving the things she dreamed of.

 (Incidentally, I think it's interesting that I saw this so young. Even aged 6, maybe before, I'd begun to stand aside from events and watch them. see how people behaved and how it differed from what they said. Any artist needs that distance, I think, while also being involved enough to empathize. It's a curious thing. Some people believe writers are born, not made; when I think about this I suspect they might be right).


 All that conflict and chaos in my childhood affected me. Of course it did, it's inevitable. I'm sure there are people who suffered worse and dealt with it better; I know some of the wounds I carry are due, in part at least, to me not coping well. But I was a child, and it's hard to beat myself up. It was dreadful and too often there was nobody there who would protect me from the barrage, but I got through it and here I am, still standing. If we find a way to deal with our scars and move on, that's a win.

 As a child, I used to think my friend Mark's family was perfect. I'd wish I'd been born there instead of to my own parents, but of course I hadn't been and I'd missed all the internal arguments, the shouting and tears, a thousand things that would be inconsequential to anyone else but are agony for a child living through them.

 As an adult, I've discovered there are families much worse than mine was. Forget the child abuse cases on TV, these are just ordinary people who don't seem able to stop hurting each other, day after day. People for whom the love and bitterness have become so entwined they can't be separated anymore, so they twine around each other in spirals that go on and on and on... There might be no major events, nothing that would make it onto Jerry Springer, but there's a parade of little things, like the Death of a Thousand Cuts. And even in the good families there are still sore places, memories nobody speaks of at the Christmas or Thanksgiving dinner. Everyone's wounded. Nobody grows up unscarred.

 Cheery thought, eh? Actually I think it is, in a crooked sort of way. Because scarred or not we do grow up, and we deal with the shit and move on - and that's a win.