The Cure for Sleep: Why Do You Write &...
Season 3, 006: ...what challenges do you face when doing so? Something different for this month's prompt, & a chance to be considered for mentoring...
Welcome to Issue 6 in Season Three of The Cure for Sleep on Substack: this long-term companion project to my memoir of waking up, breaking free and making a more creative life. It’s a place where you can explore your own most important memories and motivations in the company of others who are also interested in the art of life-writing and self-examination.
Why do you write? And what are the biggest challenges you face when doing so?
I turn fifty at the end of October, and as a birthday offering to you all, I’m asking you to reflect on this question (with a word limit of 500 words rather than usual 300) - I will then be offering a free phone/zoom mentoring session to one respondent. In addition, everyone who writes for this prompt will receive feedback that includes links to resources that I feel are relevant to your specific concerns, challenges or ambitions.
I will be choosing my mentee in the first week of the new year, from among those who have submitted their pieces as a comment to this post by 1 December 2023. The writer chosen for mentoring will have their essay/story included in the first issue of Season Four.
Please note: I usually curate all responses to the monthly themes over on the book’s website. For this prompt, I want to focus my time on longer responses to each submission, so I shan’t be taking work across to the other platform. Any contributions you make to themes in the archive will be curated as usual, if they meet the project’s community guidelines.
If you’ve read The Cure for Sleep then you know that it is - at heart - a story about becoming a writer, an artist. What it took for me to own that lifelong desire and make it material, when I come from a place and people where the use of pen and paper was confined to school and business. So that, even with an agent asking for the story of my life, I was still having to do battle with myself at a desk to believe I could do it (even with a public mile of writing, paid residencies, and many small published pieces behind me):
I look now at the hand holding the match and I circle it this way, that. Still there, and working. In the night it was taken off clean at the wrist, so that I carried it about in my left one, help- less. This repeating motif through my whole childhood made urgent, and appalling, through dream code: how my father as a young man, disinherited from the family farm, was told he had his hands and could be a mechanic; how I, clever, in the next generation was taught by Mother and my teachers that I wouldn’t need mine.
Knowing then that here it was, the great decisive moment of my life. Concluding, in sleep, that writing – the expression of belief – is, after all, a manual labour no less than the care of farm animals and small children. And need not be the severance from family and class I always feared. Or if it is, then I’m ready now to bear those losses.
Who am I then, and where, this woman awake in her only and third life who is writing a book at last, after reading so many for so long?
Here, in this wooden room on wheels, it the end of January in a year when my small country begins its retreat from Europe. In the silence I feel the hut and my tiny island drift away from the protections and constraints of being joined with those other countries.
How shrunken life has begun to feel: resources and freedoms being daily stripped away. It is so easy to feel inert and without purpose. What use any one small soul?
But then a phrase from my time as a hospice scribe returns to me: It’s not much, but neither is it nothing. And so I will try and write a book of my own, inch by inch, that might reach beyond my narrow self and add to the ration of courage that stories are for us all.
During the long years of my self-made apprenticeship, I spent many hours studying the journeys to publication of authors I admired, in order to become a person who could make her own public statement of purpose. Of all the many stories I collected during that time to create momentum and self-belief, the ones I still find the most exhilarating are Turkish writer Orhan Pamuk’s responses when made a Nobel Laureate of Literature in 2006. His shorter one for the Banquet speech is as follows:
Why do you write? This is the question I’ve been asked most often in my writing career. Most of the time they mean this: What is the point, why do you give your time to this strange and impossible activity? Why do you write … You have to give an excuse, an apology for writing … This is how I have felt every time I’ve heard this question. But every time I give a different answer … Sometimes I say: I do not know why I write, but it definitely makes me feel good. I hope you feel the same when you read me! Sometimes I say that I am angry, and that is why I write. Most of the time the urge is to be alone in a room, so that is why I write. In my childhood I wanted to be a painter. I painted every day. I still have that childish feeling of joy and happiness whenever I write. I write to pursue that old childish happiness and that is why for me literature and writing are inextricably linked with happiness, or the lack of it … unhappiness. In my childhood, I felt happy, painted a lot, and all the grown ups were constantly smiling at me. Everybody was gentle, polite and tender. I wrote all about this in my autobiographical book, Istanbul. After the publication of Istanbul, some people asked me this question: Aren’t you a bit young to write your autobiography? I kept my silence. Literature is about happiness, I wanted to say, about preserving your childishness all your life, keeping the child in you alive … Now, some years later, I’ve received this great prize. This time the same people begin asking another question: Aren’t you a bit young to get the Nobel Prize? Actually the question I’ve heard most often since the news of this prize reached me is: How does it feel to get the Nobel Prize? I say, oh! It feels good. All the grown ups are constantly smiling at me. Suddenly everybody is again gentle, polite and tender. In fact, I almost feel like a prince. I feel like a child. Then for a moment, I realize why sometimes I have felt so angry. This prize, which brought back to me the tender smiles of my childhood and the kindness of the strangers, should have been given to me not at this age (54) which some think is too young, but much much earlier, even earlier than my childhood, perhaps two weeks after I was born, so that I could have enjoyed the princely feeling of being a child all my life. In fact now … come to think of it … That is why I write and why I will continue to write.
His Nobel Lecture - ‘My Father’s Suitcase’ - develops this theme in more depth, to moving effect. And begins so…
Two years before his death, my father gave me a small suitcase filled with his writings, manuscripts and notebooks. Assuming his usual joking, mocking air, he told me he wanted me to read them after he was gone, by which he meant after he died.
‘Just take a look,’ he said, looking slightly embarrassed. ‘See if there’s anything inside that you can use. Maybe after I’m gone you can make a selection and publish it.’
We were in my study, surrounded by books. My father was searching for a place to set down the suitcase, wandering back and forth like a man who wished to rid himself of a painful burden. In the end, he deposited it quietly in an unobtrusive corner. It was a shaming moment that neither of us ever forgot, but once it had passed and we had gone back into our usual roles, taking life lightly, our joking, mocking personas took over and we relaxed. We talked as we always did, about the trivial things of everyday life, and Turkey’s neverending political troubles, and my father’s mostly failed business ventures, without feeling too much sorrow.
I remember that after my father left, I spent several days walking back and forth past the suitcase without once touching it. I was already familiar with this small, black, leather suitcase, and its lock, and its rounded corners. My father would take it with him on short trips and sometimes use it to carry documents to work. I remembered that when I was a child, and my father came home from a trip, I would open this little suitcase and rummage through his things, savouring the scent of cologne and foreign countries. This suitcase was a familiar friend, a powerful reminder of my childhood, my past, but now I couldn’t even touch it. Why? No doubt it was because of the mysterious weight of its contents.
I am now going to speak of this weight’s meaning. It is what a person creates when he shuts himself up in a room, sits down at a table, and retires to a corner to express his thoughts – that is, the meaning of literature.
It was moving, unbearably so, to find myself in a similar situation this summer: on the first day that I arrived to nurse my mother for the final time, she asked me to reach into the back of her wardrobe - ‘there’s a suitcase of my diaries I want you to have.’ They are upstairs now, unread months later. Perhaps I will spend my fiftieth birthday - my first without her - daring to read her words, and allowing myself to feel fully all in her life that never called forth a response from others. Whereas I share that joy which Pamuk describes, despite the great difference in my reach and reputation. Like him (and unlike his father, my mother) from my small room in which I spend long, unseen hours, I’ve found a way to share my stories with others, and to hear stories in return…
Which is why this feels like the most soulful prompt to set in the days before my birthday month begins.
how to take part
For this prompt only, you have 500 words instead of 300. Use the comments field below this post on Substack to submit your words.
write with me at Arvon Lumb Bank…
27 November to 2 December 2023
RESIDENTIAL WRITING WEEK: NON-FICTION
Bodies of water: writing through the senses
It’s a special feeling to have been invited to tutor on this week-long residential at Arvon’s Lumb Bank - former home of Ted Hughes, near the gorgeous town of Hebden Bridge (home now to many more acclaimed authors, & with a thriving arts scene).
Like many aspiring writers, I travelled to the area in my early 20s to feel the landscape which was so fully part of Hughes’ poetry and also Plath’s. And so it’s moving to be invited there now as a tutor, in what will be the month after my 50th birthday (proof that while we can’t all be prodigies like Plath & Hughes, the writing life takes many other equally satisfying forms).
If you’ve been saving up for an Arvon course for a while now, I’d love it if you’d consider choosing this one.
Water has long been a rich motif through which writers can explore the interplay between private and public embodied experience, internal and external landscapes, ‘the geography closest in’, as the poet Adrienne Rich puts it, and the geography of the wider world around us. Many of the most-loved recent works of memoir and narrative non-fiction take us into exhilarating physical and emotional territory, as well as being philosophically and politically stimulating, via bodies of and in water – from Roger Deakin’s iconic Waterlog onwards.
Join Tanya Shadrick and Miranda Ward – authors with a shared love of swimming and psychogeography – for an immersive, water-themed week of embodied writing that will help you bring your whole self to the page. Using workshops, readings, outdoor sensory exercises and one-to-one tutorials, you will learn how to take readers on deep dives into personal experience and important landscapes of all scales in a way that has them resurface with their skin and senses singing – whether you want to write about, around, through, from or to the water, or are simply inspired, challenged or moved by water to write.
Guest tutor: Malachy Tallack
Prices & concessions
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let’s all say hello to each other…
Thank you to all of you who’ve already used the new introduction thread to say hello and share links to your own Substacks or other online projects. Do take a moment to introduce yourself if you haven’t already - it’s lovely to see people finding like-minds there…
ask me anything…
about The Cure for Sleep or writing more generally! I have an always-open thread for this. I always try to give answers with links to further resources that might keep you good company in your own creative journey. Do read through questions asked by other members of the community too, in case my answers to them are of use to you too.
explore the story archive
Desire, time, longing, friendship, regret, faith, promises . . .
There are now hundreds of thought-provoking true tales on these themes and more in The Cure for Sleep story archive.
There are several ways to explore it:
By theme - all the stories, organised by monthly prompts
By A to Z - read a single story from each contributor
By name - search for all the stories written by a single author