lxxxix

I’ve hung on to a lot of loss. Some moments in particular are still so clear that I can, for instance, summon up the image of my favourite toy as a toddler going down the plughole after a bath and see the exact hue of sea green bath and cheese yellow spaceman.

One of the losses I mourn the most for the fact of what I lost, not the consequences of the loss, was the contents of the plastic cardboard-backed art folder that I put down in the canteen of my upper secondary school and never remembered to pick up.

I have always wanted to draw, always. I instinctively reach for images anyway, my ideas are often defined by a single or series of snapshots. It has pained me for years and years that I couldn’t translate these vivid images into drawings that did them justice.

Unlike music and playing the guitar, drawing feels like something I should be able to do but can’t because my biomechanics won’t cooperate. I don’t feel or think in music, which is something I just know you need in order to play the way I want to, from my bones. But I feel and think in images, I play with ideas visually. Why can’t I draw them properly?

In my GCSE art class we had what I think must have been a TEFL or training teacher for a month or two, and after days watching me do nothing in the class he speared me with the question, “Why don’t you try?”. I could tell that he was asking because my self-defeating fecklessness was actually upsetting him.

Goaded or inspired by his challenge, I did try. I drew two pictures, the only complete drawings I have ever been proud of. One was an earnest attempt at surrealism that really did replicate what was in my head, what I wanted to see on the page. The other was a clean, sharp still-life that I had great fun embellishing.

Of course both were possible because I concentrated on them, I tried very hard to achieve something – instead of launching into something half-hoping that it would just work out without me knowing much about it, half-waiting for it all to be shit. Just like always.

These pictures made me so happy that I carried them around in the folder everywhere. And, of course, they were in the folder when I left it behind. When I lost it. I never saw them again. But shamefully I never tried again.

What was the point? I had lost the only proof of my effort, and I’d never remember what I was able to do, once, how I was able to surprise myself. With my best work lost I simply gave up. In my GCSE exam, my half-hearted attempt just wasn’t good enough and I threw it away, instead handing in a piece of paper covered in scribble with ‘Scribble’ written on it.

The pain of losing something I had really tried hard to achieve was far too much for me to bear, and any chance of me giving it another go, of me trying just as hard or harder again, was completely out of the question. Looking back now, I am astonished at my weakness.

Nowadays even though I carry notebooks everywhere I know that, as Steinbeck said, nothing good gets away. Some of my best ideas have sat within/outside of reach for years before I’ve got a hold of them. I don’t worry about forgetting great ideas anymore because the best ones never get away.

But back then I had no hope. I think I had looked to this man (though he might only have been 20 or so) who challenged me and felt that it was his challenge, his insistence that I try, that had made it possible for me to put such effort and achieve such results.

Part of coming to terms with being a writer, or to be more honest part of coming to terms with continuing to be a writer, has been to accept that everything that burns powerfully in my head can be expressed with the same power on the page, by me. I just have to try.

Why did I hang on to that loss? I used the sheer scale of the pain I felt in losing something I loved, something I had created, to convince myself that in creating it I had removed something from myself that could not be replaced. By losing it, I had lost a part of myself.

And the pain of losing was easier, irrationally, to cope with than the perceived pain of renewed effort. Last week I lost a very powerful blog post that I had taken a long time to work through and was heartened to feel a sense that it didn’t matter – the fact that I had written it once was proof that I could write it again. And, perhaps, better.

Last but not least it was an opportunity for guilt. If I had loved those pictures so much, how could I have possibly been so careless as to lose the folder I carried them in? I beat myself with this so much that hearing it from someone else was excruciating.

This though is finally the real reason that the memory still hangs around. As much as I hated myself, was furious with myself, for losing the folder – and as much as I seethed and recoiled when anyone else piled on the same judgement – by clinging to the guilt of my actions I was succeeding in avoiding the responsibility.

Not only did I lose something through my own carelessness, but then I gave up and failed to find it again. I may have talked to everyone I could in order to find the folder, to track it down, but I never once did the human thing and turned to myself. I looked for an external force to take away from me the responsibility to replace what I had lost.

Had I done so, had I expended the effort to replace the pictures that I had stupidly left behind in a moment of dumbness, I would have truly understood the cost of my loss. I would have also learned a hugely positive thing about myself – I could do it again.

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About Ben Catley-Richardson

Writer, reader, husband. Father!
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