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Some of my brightest memories are from the acting I’ve done, at school, at university. It all felt so natural – I never had stage fright, the lines always came, my confidence on stage always several levels of tonnage higher than in my normal life.

But though I was good I would have faced a struggle if I wanted to be great, to be a professional. Because every character I played was me. My approach was simply to soak up the character and imagine what sort of me their situation, their backstory, would have created. I reacted, I spoke, I moved as a slightly different sort of me.

In acting it’s not such a problem, unless you want to really become a true actor – someone who doesn’t just put on different clothes, but different people. In writing, though, my impulse to put myself before everything else has strangled me, and continues to do so.

I wouldn’t want to escape my natural talent for taking things I experience, moments I live and relive, and being able to turn these out on the page. But now deep into my first real writing project my weakness in character, in understanding other people, comes out.

There’s parts of me, or potential parts of me, in my characters. But there must be more than that, unless I want a book staffed by facsimilies. Without differences there’s no tension, there’s no direction.

The other night I sat down with a new book my wife has bought me, a text book basically, and gave an exercise a go which asked you to examine your philosophy of life. Use a few lines of dialogue, it suggested, use images.

I’ve written about using books like this before in my journal – this whole exercise is from the first book she bought me. I always feel a bit dirtied, almost, by using something so workmanlike (in my perception) in the pursuit of connecting with my passion.

Sometimes I think it’s because sections are so obvious, or Fisher Price level to me that I question why I’m even reading the book – I know all this stuff, don’t I? It feels like a dumbing down of me, of the process of writing. It takes the magic away, and makes it all into something that anyone could do. It devalues my image of writing.

But only because I see what I want to see, or see what I don’t want to see. When I’d finished the exercise what I had to share with my wife wasn’t anything to do with my life’s philosophy – it was a sugar-shell bit of fun with words and images. It was easy.

I didn’t engage with the point of the exercise, I just saw in it what I could do without thinking about it too much and fired something out. My technique is practiced, I’ve had years and years of writing to hone the ability to develop something surface-level in a matter of moments. Well done me. But one tap and it all shatters into worthless pieces.

The fact my wife wouldn’t allow me to get away with what she called a missed opportunity really cut me. I wanted reaffirmation that my cleverness with words, my unformed quick-and-easy natural idea was something to be proud of, to celebrate.

I always react badly to these books, and it was clear from our conversation that it’s because I want to be able to do what comes naturally, easily, and get somewhere without having to do anything more. Which isn’t possible. I can be good, if I like. But wouldn’t I want to be really great?

So the challenge suggested by all these books is that I’m not working hard enough, that I’m lazily drifting through something I want to succeed at, and succeed in big, big terms. But if I’m serious about getting better, I’ve got to do more than just do what I’m good at.

The evenings are getting lighter and I’m getting increasingly excited about this year’s cricket season with my village club. Any suitable moment I have between now and April’s first match I’ll be practicing, pushing myself, working on ironing out the flaws in my bowling and getting consistent. Consistency is my only ambition. It’s doable.

Why I can’t look past my natural writing talents and start cracking on with practicing and improving my natural writing weaknesses is beyond me. Well, it’s not beyond me. It’s down to me. It’s up to me. It’s my fault I didn’t push myself in the exercise, and I deserve all the stick I get, much as I’ll deserve any praise if I target my weaknesses.

But I’ve not been writing this for a long time. I’ve been reaching for journalism on a low level, personal questions. I’ve been expressing a lot, my writing’s been about taking action or actively expressing something that I’d arrived at or come up against. But I haven’t been journaling, I haven’t been questioning, I haven’t been getting myself out of the way.

I’m sure my wife, reading this, will see that I’m casting about wildly for a direction, and that probably I’ve arrived at the direction right now, and will be frustrated that I’m about to stop writing just as I arrive at the direction. I feel blind, I feel lost. I feel like I’m blathering on about old, old stuff. Tired stuff.

I need to be asking myself new questions, not repeating old journal entries in different ways. One of the greatest things about our relationship is that we talk openly and intricately about everything. I’m a natural confesser, I can’t move through something unless I express it, and I don’t want to express something without expressing it to her first.

That’s why I’ve talked with my wife about visiting a strip club. About looking at other women, girls. About my feelings of uselessness, or my fears of getting things wrong, my emotional weariness. My sense of how pathetic all this sounds.

I drag these feelings I have around and around trying to make sense of them. I question myself, and if I don’t reveal these questions to my wife – the one person with whom I share my entire life – then I can’t fully answer them, and I wouldn’t be able to express or discover the answers with her if I didn’t reveal the questions to her.

At the same time I don’t want to be a stuck record, always having the same tensions, the same questions, the same confusions, and so often I’ll just brush away recurring conflicts in an attempt to save her from the same conversations. Like an idiot. Because largely the conflicts only recur because I don’t share them with her.

There’s no direction here, only a need to write something honest and open and exploring at work, because I’m getting sucked under the tide of my job, and my job is not who I am. I want to give it what I can, but it can’t have the whole of me. And yet, I have to stay whole somehow, I have to prevent myself splintering into work-me and real-me.

I’ve been running a weekly blog thing called Open Minday, writing some theory blogs, some economic thoughtblogs, basically just examining and exploring my feelings about topics and issues. But I think I need to put those away for now. I need to concentrate on the book, on myself, on character and other people, other humans.

I need to get back into journaling, digging around in my head, giving the papers of my mind a shuffle, file away bits and pieces, take out things and consider them. I need to get back into journaling so I can get back into writing, and back into the book. That’s what’s really important. That’s the writing that really matters.

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About Ben Catley-Richardson

Writer, reader, husband. Father!
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