One of my favourite Peep Show episodes is the one where Jez and Mark get lost in the country at night. Jez immediately wants to call mountain rescue, despite Mark’s withering ‘this isn’t the Matterhorn, Jeremy, it’s the Quantocks.’
Jez isn’t having any of it. ‘You’d prefer to die than ask for a simple piece of help,’ he huffs.
Oho. Help is rarely simple, to us Marks. It’s deeply, mortally awkward. It’s embarrassing. Inconvenient. We’re supposed to manage. Asking for help is the end of the world. It feels exactly like making a Matterhorn out of a Quantock.
Brian Blessed has a thing or two to say about this. ‘We all need help,’ he booms, on Richard Herring’s Leicester Square Theatre Podcast. ‘None of us can do this on our own.’
Imagine if we could. If we all ran our worlds in beautifully functioning isolation, we’d exist like an archipelago, a string of atolls and islands. If everyone was perfectly fine, thank you very much, there would be nothing to bring us together. We wouldn’t know how to cohere. We couldn’t build.
Shame-meets-vanity about your struggles may feel like it keeps you safe; but it hides something far more important. What hurts you is pointless suffering, until you remember that other people are hurting too. Your time on the floor is what makes you even more precious to others, because the more you’ve been helped, the better you can help in turn. Your kindness becomes a patchwork of everyone else’s; your strength is topped up because of the breach in the wall which let others flood in.
When it matters, I write it down. If it defies the words at hand, I get drawing. Since we had cave walls to paint on, and fires to sing around, others have done the same. Refusing to believe that it is not important, what we love, what we lose; how we live. Knowing that the best way to honour human experience is to witness it. To, in T.S. Eliot’s cry, set down / This set down / This…
There is more help than you could ever realise, if you know how to let it find you. It’s in books, in poetry, in film, in music, in theatre, in art, heck, even in online articles and podcasts. Human beings you have never met, ready to slip their hand into yours. Some of them have been waiting for silent centuries. Their ideas, their stories, glint like sea glass among the pebbles, waiting for you to pick them up; you, someone they never knew existed. When you need to regather the pieces, fragments of their soul become yours too.
Here are just a few of the shining threads I’ve discovered, to stitch myself back together. Please, please. Help yourself.
On creative life
‘You are here to witness and celebrate. To witness and celebrate.’
Ray Bradbury blasts through writers’ block on Radio 4’s Invisible College podcast series
‘Easy reading is damned hard writing.’
Maya Angelou, Invisible College, Lesson Fifteen: ‘Write and Repeat’
‘By the way that we tell what’s happened to us, [we are] giving it back to ourselves instead of being powerless within it.’
Jeanette Wintersen, 2010 Edinburgh Book Festival talk.
‘It doesn’t matter if your dreams come true, if agents swoon and audiences cheer… What matters is the feeling that you’re doing it, every day. What matters is the work–diving in, feeling your way in the dark, finding the words, trusting yourself, embracing your weird voice, celebrating your quirks on the page, believing in all of it.’
Heather Havrilesky, Ask Polly and author of How to Be a Person in the World
‘It starts with passion even before it starts with words.’
Rebecca Solnit, How to be a Writer
‘The very reason I write is so that I might not sleepwalk through my entire life.’
Zadie Smith, Fail Better
‘Olé to you, for having the sheer human love and stubbornness to keep showing up.’
‘Your Elusive Creative Genius’, Elizabeth Gilbert’s TED talk.
‘I would it were not so, but so it is. Who ever made music of a mild day?’
Mary Oliver, ‘A Dream of Trees’
On the debt owed to truth
‘You don’t become a novelist to become a spinner of entertaining lies: you become a novelist so you can tell the truth.’ Hilary Mantel, BBC 2017 Reith Lectures
On making mistakes
‘Failure teaches us precisely what we need to know; it is intimate knowledge, custom made, which cannot be gained any other way. Failure is always forward motion.’
Anne Michaels, Infinite Gradation
‘A field is enough to spend a life in.’
Helen Dunmore, ‘Crossing the Field’
‘I am rich I am poor. Time is all I own.’
Marie Ponsot, ‘Reminder’
On how not to be quite so much of an idiot
The School of Life’s Book of Life
‘We should not feel embarrassed by our difficulties, only by our failure to grow anything beautiful from them.’
Alain de Botton, The Consolations of Philosophy
On working out what you want to do when you grow up
‘For most of history, the question of whether we might love our work would have seemed laughable or peculiar.’
The School of Life, ‘A job to love’
‘When you are away, you are nevertheless present for me… I live in you then like living in a country. You are everywhere. Yet in that country I can never meet you face to face.’ John Berger, And Our Faces, My Heart, Brief as Photos
‘If you were coming in the fall
I’d brush the summer by’
Emily Dickinson, ‘If you were coming in the fall’
On courage and (im)mortality
Marcus Sedgwick, Saint Death