I am afflicted by shyness. Not the coy kind that causes you to blush attractively when approached by handsome men at single’s nights, but a debilitating fear of strangers that borders on pathological. At least, it used to be. I’m a little better now. During my adolescence even most mundane social intercourse gave me palpitations, a task as simple as ordering sandwich ham was an ordeal I’d do anything to avoid. When the need for ham overrode the desire for anonymity, usually because my mother insisted I go and get some to save her time at SPAR, I’d stand hunched into myself at the end of deli counter rehearsing the order in my head while trying not to draw the attention of the server. Fifteen minutes could pass without anyone noticing me. I wasted an awful lot of my teens hovering around deli counters.
Like I said, I’m a little better now. Even though I still tend to gravitate towards corner tables in restaurants, I’m able to ask for gorgonzola while making small talk about the weather, greet Big Issue sellers as if they’re old friends and crack jokes with the man selling mangoes at the traffic light. These minor social skills don’t an ace networker make however, so last week at the launch of Lava Lamp Poems I had to fortify my resolve to introduce myself to poet and publisher, Colleen Higgs, with two hastily gulped glasses of wine and a pep talk from my mother. To see me stumble over my words, you’d never guess that five years ago I was dashing from interview to interview, lunching with journalists and being wooed by publishers and agents. Looking at the unknown author seated between Mark Kermode and Sir John Mortimer on News Night Review, hand draped casually over the back of the sofa like she’d lived in TV studios her entire life, you’d never think that here was the wallflower that could be found hovering around the punch bowl at cocktail parties praying some kind soul would talk to her while trying to blend into the carpet.
So how did I go from being a geeky teenager terrified of chatting up her own shadow to a self-confident author who thought she deserved all the recognition she got? The answer is simple. I believed I’d found my true talent. When I gave up my career in advertising, moved half way across the world to a country where I had no friends, no work and no visa, I believed passionately that I was doing the right thing because I’d tapped into the creative source in my soul. Living with that kind of self-belief (delusion?) required me to flip the finger at reality. In reality I was jobless and becoming more unemployable by the minute, day to day living in London was chewing through my savings and there were hundreds of thousands of talented writers competing for shelf space. In my head, I had a direct line to the source and was guaranteed success. When asked what I did, I told people I was a writer. The next question was always about publication. I’d shrug and say, ‘Nothing yet, but I’m working on a novel so it should be out next year. ‘ My friends thought I’d gone mad. My husband, though outwardly supportive, secretly wondered how we’d ever be able to afford to buy… well… anything, ever again.
I did succeed, I’d like to use the phrase beyond my wildest dreams but those had me topping best-seller-and awards short -lists. I thought once I’d accessed success, the doors would never shut, yet I find myself standing with my foot jammed painfully in a shrinking crack, desperately trying to keep the door from slamming and taking all my dreams back to la la land. Success, as it turns out, isn’t necessarily something you can wrap in brown paper and transport across continents. To make matters worse, somewhere between the publication of Gem Squash Tokoloshe and here, I managed to lose hold of that self-confident woman. Perhaps she stayed in London and still rides her bike down to the Tate Modern on a Saturday morning. The truth is, and I’m struggling to accept this, is that she made her life in a place where she no longer lives, and therefore, she no longer exists. I need to carve out a new life in Cape Town, find new circles to write in, new friends to support my work and whose work I can support and be inspired by in turn. I thought it would be easy, I thought I’d laid the ground work, but I’ve found it more difficult to make inroads into the the literary scene here than I ever did in London. Over the last five years I’ve battled feelings of anger, resentment and bitterness. I’ve given in to depression, worked with a manic energy that taps into fear instead of joy. I’ve spent the better part of five years showing up for work instead of nurturing the creative process. I’ve sent my muse into hiding and my friends are sick of my complaining. I’m disheartened and sad and all this has to change in order for me to survive, not as a writer, but as a person. I can no longer cling to memories of all I have lost, I need to let go of everything that came before and plot a new path to success.