2019 highlights reel

I’m late to the list party, and that perturbs me because I’m never late.

But I read this manifesto on Another Gaze about how the list is a capitalist concept that “colonises the mind and impoverishes the imagination” and basically shits on all things filmmaking and suddenly I felt swayed and decided not to publish one in protest of bad and pernicious and arbitrary things.

But then it felt disingenuous, because I bloody love a list. So here it is: the films and books and TV that I consumed in 2019 and now consecrate with these lists.

Favourite Films of 2019

  1. Portrait of a Lady On Fire (Céline Sciamma)
  2. Uncut Gems (The Safdie brothers)
  3. Parasite (Bong Joon-ho)
  4. Little Women (Greta Gerwig)
  5. Saint Maud (Rose Glass)
  6. The Last Black Man in San Francisco (Joe Talbot)
  7. Matthias & Maxime (Xavier Dolan)
  8. Waves (Trey Edward Shults)
  9. Beats (Brian Welsh)
  10. The Hottest August (Brett Story)
  11. The Souvenir (Joanna Hogg)
  12. Hale County This Morning This Evening (RaMell Ross)
  13. Babyteeth (Shannon Murphy)

Favourite ‘New-to-Me’ Films of 2019

I loved this Tweet from Durga Chew-Bose (a brilliant writer on film) about films you discover long after their release. It does seem more interesting to consider why and how they surfaced to you that particular year. What compelled you to watch it? What enabled its excavation? Whatever the reason, there’s something somehow more enjoyable about finally getting round to a film you’ve been meaning to watch and having it match up or surpass your expectations, or even better watching something with no expectations whatsoever and finding yourself spectacularly surprised and wondering how you’d never managed to see it until now, but then finding yourself glad you hadn’t because it meant you got to see it just then and what a perfect two-or-so hours you just had because of that.

Here are the gems – hidden, or obscured to me – that I finally made time for in 2019, in order of when I saw them rather than adored them.

  • River of Grass (1994, Kelly Reichardt)
  • Still Walking (2008, Hirokazu Kore-eda)
  • Girlfriends (1978, Claudia Weil)
  • Hard Eight (1996, Paul Thomas Anderson)
  • Barry Lyndon (1975, Stanley Kubrick)
  • Broadcast News (1987, James L. Brooks)
  • Maborosi (1995, Hirokazu Kore-eda)
  • Don’t Look Now (1973, Nicolas Roeg)
  • Punchline (1988, David Seltzer)
  • The Master (2012, Paul Thomas Anderson)

Favourite Books I Read In 2019

  1. The Rules Do Not Apply by Ariel Levy
  2. Notes to Self by Emilie Pine
  3. Pachinko by Min Jin Lee
  4. Severance by Ling Ma
  5. Florida by Lauren Groff
  6. This Really Isn’t About You by Jean Hannah Edelstein
  7. What We Talk About When We Talk About Love by Raymond Carver
  8. She Wants It by Jill Soloway

Favourite TV Shows of 2019

  1. Chernobyl
  2. Succession (Season 2)
  3. Fleabag (Season 2)
  4. State of the Union
  5. When They See Us
  6. Barry (Season 2)
  7. Giri/Haji
  8. This Way Up
  9. Unbelievable
  10. Catch-22
  11. The Virtues

Favourite Albums of 2019

  1. Salt by Angie McMahon
  2. Ventura by Anderson .Paak
  3. Chasing Summer by SiR
  4. All Mirrors by Angel Olsen
  5. i,i by Bon Iver
  6. Kiwanuka by Michael Kiwanuka
  7. Wasteland, Baby! by Hozier
  8. Cuz I Love You by Lizzo
  9. Late Night Feelings by Mark Ronson
  10. Assume Form by James Blake

LFF 2019 | The Last Black Man in San Francisco

I’ve never seen a film like The Last Black Man in San Francisco. Written, directed and produced by Joe Talbot, a San Francisco native, with his friend, co-writer and lead actor Jimmie Fails (on whom the story is partially based), this biographical voyage is in turns poetic, elegiac and crackling with vestiges of cinéma vérité.

It almost feels impossible to write about – the kind of film that words won’t do justice to. Not least because I’m a white woman in North London, whose visited San Francisco once to see Alcatraz, the Sea Lions at Pier 39 and the Giants.

And yet, therein lies the merit of cinema – that something which shouldn’t necessarily appeal to an individual is able to transcend characteristics to speak directly to your soul. The Last is about black identity, yes. Particular to a city where poorer communities are increasingly peripheralized and priced out by baby boomers and millenials. And yet, it remarks on loss, nostalgia and wanting something to be true so much that invention warps into narrative and then calcifies into reality. It’s about creative and financial struggles, interior design and property porn. It spoke to my fear of never making it onto any kind of ladder. Metaphorical or otherwise. It’s about the disintegration of friendship and the daily hardship that is life.

It plays like a great American novel – searching, sprawling and underpinned by social consciousness as Jimmie (Jimmie Fails) and his best friend Mont (Jonathan Majors) skirt around propriety (and skate around the city) to reclaim the majestic house that Jimmie’s grandfather built. A historic and eclectic Victorian building, in a city increasingly falling victim to architectural homogeneity.

Image result for the last black man in san francisco

There is a wildness and largesse here that cannot be contained (by genre, adjectives or comparison), as the film encounters street preachers, vagrants and pavement-dwellers, recalling Faulkner, Morrison and Of Mice and Men. But for all its literary allusions (Mont is an aspiring playwright who pens and performs a piece named after the film’s title), cinema pulses through its veins. Talbot’s directorial impulses share DNA with contemporary black cinema such as Moonlight and Blindspotting, as well as the visual mastery of contemporary Andersonian cinema (Wes and Paul-Thomas). Indeed, the framing of every shot is so exquisite it sometimes felt like being at an exhibition.

Image result for the last black man in san francisco

The soundtrack is another feat of perfection; with original riffs on classics such as Jefferson Airplane’s “Somebody to Love”, Joni Mitchell’s “Blue and Scott McKenzie’s “I’m going to San Francisco”, and stirring compositions from Emile Mosseri. Hairs will stand on the back of your neck and your heart will thump in time to the beat.

As Jimmie’s dreams of owning his ancestral home are met with bureaucratic and capitalist obstacles (encapsulated by a smarmy Finn Wittrock), the film begs the question where do we belong when the past has been plastered over, and the road to the future looks foggy?

As Mont makes a final tour around the house – now for sale – we see idiosyncratic antiques and storied clutter replaced by Pinterest-worthy ‘corners’ and clean design. But Talbot ensures this poignancy never gives way to pity. The city still belongs to Jimmie and Mont and their motley crew, because as Jimmie says to a pair of interlopers, “you don’t get to hate it unless you love it.”

 

 

LFF 2019 | Clemency

If not a call to arms, then Clemency, from director Chinonye Chukwu (the first black woman to receive Sundance’s Grand Jury prize), is a call to attention.

Exacting and spartan, this death row drama begins as prison warden Bernadine Williams (Alfre Woodward) oversees her 11th execution, and ends as she leaves her 12th. What happens in between is the slow unfurling of a tightly coiled woman.

Image result for clemency filmRarely veering from Bernadine’s perspective, it’s as narrow in its focus as the prison corridors it stalks (shot with ingenuity and precision by cinematographer Eric Branco). And this sometimes wears thin. Bernadine is stoic to a fault, unerring in her formality (note how she uses the same refrain to both a death row inmate and his mother as a source of comfort: “We’ll let you know when it’s time.”) and she’s a hard protagonist to penetrate or empathise with, even when the internal crisis between doing her job and doing what’s right begins to bubble over.

Clemency is relentless in its sobriety. Bernadine’s crisp white suits and beige cardigans further reflective of a world without colour, or hope. Both inmates and civilians alike (including her high school teacher husband Jonathan, played by Wendell Pierce, and public defender Marty) seem jaded and dormant. The 12th inmate – Anthony Woods (Aldis Hodge) – gives a particularly poignant performance as a man whose light has been extinguished long before the state declares it.

Conversations have a tendency to feel a bit rote and lifeless – although a scene with Danielle Brooks (on the other side of the glass) is electrifying for both its writing and performance – and contrivance occasionally rears its head.

Yet Clemency rewards viewers who take note of detail – flinches in movement, the slightest grimace, the jolt of waking up from a bad dream – and Chukwu’s calculations pay off in two potent outbursts. The first, a desperate, self-inflicted, and flinch-inducing act of violence. The second, an emotional reprieve and a jolt from a living nightmare that serves as a welcome gasp of air in a film that keeps you underwater and under its spell for much of the running time.

 

Some feelings on heartbreak.

Writing is my way of processing – pain, trauma, joy, struggle, conflict – whatever it is, I find my way through the tangle and tussle with words. Putting this out there because I’ve been in need of writing about heartbreak recently and what it actually feels like, and for me this is it…

***

It’s as shit as everyone told you it would be. It’s worthy of ice-cream binges and pillow-smothered ugly cries and hours lost to reverie with your hair still wrapped in a bath towel.

It’s trekking halfway up a mountain, fuelled and equipped and intent on going further, not even considering whether you’re fit for the summit and discovering they’ve turned back to base camp without you. The fucker. 

It’s constantly battling your own mind. Daring yourself to remember and see if it still hurts. Memories become a weapon in this war of attrition. 

It’s wanting them to text, just so you can reply I really don’t want to talk to you right now. Even though you do, even just to tell them how much you’re hurting, even when you think that’s the last thing you should be doing. 

It’s realising that that person does not have a duty of care. They chose to care and nurture that relationship and ask how you were and what you were up to. And now they choose not to. They release you back into the wilds of independence, that churn of solitude with its periods of calm, followed by unexpected ferocity. 

It’s loving someone, violently. And realising, perhaps for the first time, what it feels like to be angry at and disappointed in them. To realise they’re fallible and human and imperfect, despite the beliefs you’d held otherwise.

It’s learning the hard way (the only way?) that how much you love someone correlates positively (although it sure as hell feels negative) with how much it sucks when it’s over (i.e alot = alot). 

It’s not knowing where to put the accumulation of details and desires and stories and jokes and intimacies that might never again have an audience. Do they have storage lockers for that?

It’s walking past the Greek restaurant where you first vocalised that you liked liked each other and feeling as skewered as the grilled vegetables you consumed.

It’s going to a gig you’d had plans to attend together and being asked how you became a fan of the band and stuttering that a friend recommended them. The friend was him. And it was the music we fell in love to.

It’s needing him back in my life because laughter is the best medicine.

It’s the lull of an evening that beckons a loneliness that creeps up on you like winter. It’s the urge to tell you I still love you, despite everything. It’s the stab of knowing I can’t, or shouldn’t or wouldn’t hear I love you too.

It’s knowing that a future version of yourself exists whose heart is fuller, whose eyes are wider and who stands taller because of this, and that there is no shortcut to acquainting yourself with that person. You’ll meet when it’s time. 

Favourite films of 2018

It’s a testament to the power of cinema – not just the artform, but the actual theatrical experience (the physicality of holding a ticket, the anticipation as you wait to enter the cinema, the settling into your seat, the curtains opening, the darkness, the silence, the immersion) – that 10 of the 11 films I consider my favourites released this year, were seen in that setting.

This is largely due to a position of privilege I have lucked into. In working for the BFI I have access to perks, one of which is free tickets to its Southbank cinema. The sense of ‘event’ that swelled around these viewings perhaps influenced my succumbing to their powers of poetry and persuasion. Maybe I like them so much because I saw them in the cinema. Then again, many of the much-hyped films I didn’t connect with, I saw on the big-screen. So perhaps whatever resonated with me was merely amplified by the venue. 

Something else that unites these films is the experience of crying through them. I’ve always been more inclined towards ‘serious’ and sombre independent cinema than the funny-bone tickling predilection of mass entertainment. Game Night, To All The Boys I’ve Loved Before and Black Panther were brilliant, but I didn’t ponder on them for much longer than it took for the credits to roll.

Perhaps since I declared Titanic my favourite film of all-time at the age of 12, I have placed an importance on the medium’s ability to move me. To invite my emotional investment, to encourage empathy, to demand tears – that is what good art achieves, according to my rulebook. It’s how I know I’ve fully succumbed to the world on the screen.

It appears I have a preference for darkness over levity, a disposition for difficulty and reality. And so this is how my favourites of 2018 came to be populated by stories about political conflict, the AIDs crisis, parental abuse and abandonment, brain injury, infertility, and manipulation. Which isn’t to say they left me dispirited. Another shared trait is their appreciation of humanity in all its complexities – its ugliness and illnesses, alongside its capacity for heroism, forgiveness and kindness.

So without further adieu, here are the films that gave me all the feels in 2018…

Summer, 1993

DIR. Carla Simón, Spain

I felt a profound sense of kinship with the 6-year-old female protagonist in Carla Simon’s Summer 1993. Not for the grieving process she must endure after the death of her mother, which results in one helluva emotional sucker punch, but for the navigation of a world in which she is no longer the centre. Such is the strange burden of being an only child. After moving in with her aunt, uncle and young cousin, Frida (Laia Artigas) is thrust into a bewildering rural environment and resorts to the toolbox of the very young – grandstanding, tantrums, sulking, sly manipulation, even cruelty – to beckon affection. Simon’s talent as a director, not least of which is coaxing performances of astounding naturalism from her young cast, is balancing the melancholic with the amusing. It basks in its landscape, but never dawdles and every moment of empathy feels hard-earned. Simon rewards our patience with a story that is as textured as it is tender.

Roma

DIR. Alfonso Cuarón, Mexico, USA

The personal is the political in Alfonso Cuarón’s epic, monochromatic exploration of Mexico City in the early 70s. A tale of two women amid domestic and civil unrest, there is a level of intimacy on display that feels novelistic; small moments that might have ended up on the cutting room floor in another film are given full focus. It’s painstaking detail brings to mind a line from Greta Gerwig’s Lady Bird: “Don’t you think maybe they are the same thing? Love and attention?” Cuarón’s microscopic and memory-infused evocation of this time and era radiates with affection.

120 BPM (Beats Per Minute) 

DIR. Robin Campillo, France

A political and medical movement is given its due, and at times dazzling, attention with Robin Campillo’s drama. Following the activities of Act Up Paris in a procedural of-sorts that details the ups and downs of activism, particularly through the eyes of a new member as he falls in love with an HIV-positive one, Campillo imbues his edifying drama with scenes of passion, fury, sex and dance. Even as it deals with the inevitability of death, this is as enlivening a film as I saw this year.

The Favourite

DIR. Yorgos Lanthimos, Ireland, UK, USA

Coruscating, saucy, foul-mouthed and uproariously funny. Like Marie Antoinette by way of The Thick of It, made all the merrier for the sublime ménage à trois at its expertly staged centre.

 

Cold War

DIR. Pawel Pawlikowski, Poland, UK, France

Pawel Pawlikowski returns to the palate and period that garnered him a golden statuette (for 2015’s Ida) with a story loosely-based on his parent’s love affair. Tomasz Kot and Joanna Kulig are the gorgeous pair at the centre (he’s the composer, she’s the star) of a folkloric musical road-show, increasingly suffocated by Communism’s grip. Jazz and jealousy spike a narrative as distilled as a shot of vodka with enough substance to match its elegantly framed style. But what a style it is. I don’t think I’ve laid eyes on anything as exquisite this year.

Leave No Trace

DIR. Debra Granik, USA

Debra Granik, who bequeathed us with Winter’s Bone, and did Hollywood the favour of discovering Jennifer Lawrence, does the world another solid with Leave No Trace. A film which quietly and captivatingly delves into the lives of a father and daughter existing, geographically and economically, on America’s fringes.

Private Life

DIR. Tamara Jenkins, USA

Kathryn Hahn and Paul Giamatti are the literary, near middle-aged couple struggling to conceive in what appear to be tailor made roles. Tamara Jenkins is the deft hand at the helm – having already proved herself a master of unflinching honesty and wit with 2007’s The Savages – documenting the trials and tribulations of IVF treatment with grimace-inducing candor. (The films opens with an ass-bound needle). Speaking of injections, theatre-kid Kayli Carter (familiar to some for her role in Netflix’s Godless, also playing a character called Sadie) is effervescent as the step-niece turned potential surrogate, mainlining charisma and chaos into the fraught (but impeccably furnished) lives of her baby-bewitched relations.

There’s a lived-in-ness to the characters, hammered home perhaps somewhat hammily by the home-movie feel of the cinematography. But this is dramedy as it should be – wry, profound and rewarding.

Also fun fact, Chris Ware, the artist behind the mind-bending graphic novel Building Stories, designed the film’s poster.

The Kindergarten Teacher

DIR. Sara Colangelo, USA

Maggie Gyllenhaal continues to prove herself one of the most intriguing, and versatile performers working today with the story of a morally dubious teacher who discovers one of her students possesses great poetic talent, and goes to boundary-pushing lengths in order to nurture it. Provocative, complex and intelligent, The Kindergarten Teacher raises more questions than it answers, but perhaps like any good educator, that is exactly the point.

Shoplifters

DIR. Hirokazu Kore-eda, Japan

Kore-eda’s keen eye for the fragility, and necessity, of human connection is woven into his most heartbreaking fable yet as a ragtag ‘family’ of bandits are broken apart by the authorities. 

 

The Rider

DIR. Chloé Zhao, USA

An all too real tale of an injured Bronco rider grappling with identity, masculinity and tradition, against the spectacular backdrop of a South Dakota reservation. Chloé Zhao has the same taste for downbeat Americana as Debra Granik, the same ear and eye for authenticity as Kore-eda, but a talent for blending spirituality and majesty that is all her own.

Petra

DIR. Jaime Rosales, Spain, France, Denmark

If The Favourite was the most hyped film I saw this year, this has to be the least. After watching the delightful and sensual South Korean film Little Forest at the London Film Festival, I decided to stay put at Ciné Lumière and check out the next film on the schedule – Petra. I knew next to nothing about, and ended up having one of the most riveting cinematic experiences in recent memory.

The elaborately-structured plot – non-linear vignettes are introduced with a short precis detailing twists and reveals – is matched by towering performances, particularly that of Bárbara Lennie as the titular artist in search of her biological father. Thrilling, labyrinthine and devastating, Petra is name to remember.

Honourable mentions:

Nancy, First Reformed, Mid90s, Skate Kitchen, A Star is Born, Wild Rose, If Beale Street Could Talk, United Skates, Jeune Femme, The Tale, Game Night, Phantom Thread

Things I’m chomping at the bit to see which might have made the list had I…

Zama, Burning, The Old Man & the Gun, Western, Sweet Country, Dogman, Wildlife, Minding the Gap

Things I saw but didn’t care for as much as other people…

Widows, You Were Never Really Here, Peterloo, Shirkers, BlackKklansman, Support the Girls, 

 

 

Review: Summer 1993

Out now in UK cinemas.

DIRCarla Simón. StarringLaia Artigas, Paula Robles, Bruna Cusí, David Verdaguer.

Akin to Celine Sciamma’s Tomboy or Scott McGehee and David Siegel’s What Maisie Knew in which a precocious, perhaps conflicted child is experiencing emotions beyond comprehension, Carla Simón’s microscopic directorial debut is a sensitive, delicate and captivating rarity.

An autobiographical slice of life, a summer in 1993 to be exact, fleshed from photographs and memories and feeling, it has the mood and tempo of something deeply personal, alive with a tactility and vibrancy that permeate even the smallest of moments.

Simón’s own childhood experiences are transposed onto Frida (Laia Artigas), a curly-haired 6-year-old we are introduced to in the midst of upheaval. The apartment in Barcelona in which she lives is being packed up and along with her dolls, she is being shipped off to stay with family in the rural outskirts of Catalan. Why?

Frida’s mother recently died from AIDs-related pneumonia, a fact which is never explicitly stated but becomes slowly apparent from the doctor’s visits Frida is required to attend and from the standoffish attitude of a fellow parent when Frida falls and grazes her knee in the playground.

Drama and solemnity exists at the film’s fringes: in fraught adult conversations behind closed windows, or across dinner tables as children play beneath them, but in locating her perspective firmly with Frida, Simón creates something all the more affecting.

Her aunt Marga (Bruna Cusí) and uncle Esteve (David Verdaguer) are young parents with a toddler of their own, who live a seemingly carefree and bohemian existence. But even their easy-going acceptance of Frida can’t paper over the cracks that begin to surface. Frida is acting out, a response that’s to be expected in her circumstances, but for reasons that perhaps she can’t even articulate. What’s more, she’s not used to having a younger ‘sister’. Anna (Paula Robles) already adores her, but Frida is used to having her own way and being the centre of attention and the affection Anna receives from her parents can’t help but highlight the neglect that has hitherto characterised Frida’s upbringing.

Tension emerges from ordinary situations – a lettuce-picking rivalry, a bad hair day, small jealousies, a juvenile prank gone wrong and differences of parenting opinions, but never to the extent that it feels overwrought or melodramatic. This is life lived during adversity. For all the strain, there is still the joy of bathtimes and fireworks and dancing and ice lollies. It’s a summer that seethes with occasional stress, but the presence of a caring and nurturing family equally soothes. Frida is well-loved and the warmth that emanates from watching these relationships deepen is the film’s sustenance.

Meandering and melancholic though it may be, frequently letting moments play out in real time, Simón’s restraint is the film’s beating heart. Histrionics are largely absent, except for one painfully real tantrum that Frida throws after her grandparents visit. Death is clearly on the poor child’s mind as she pesters Marga not to get sick, but mostly the grieving process is glimpsed in Frida’s somewhat devious childhood games and glowering.

The child posturing as adult is always a strange and strangely somber thing to behold. Behaviours absorbed and copied, without realisation of the weight they perhaps carry or the meaning behind them. At one point Frida is lounging in the garden, face daubed with make-up, and proceeds to order Anna around, alternatively selecting thing from a ‘menu’ for her to fetch or complaining about ‘being too tired to play’. These are words no doubt extracted from Frida’s own life, formerly directed at her, and now reissued in poignant playfulness. It is heartbreaking to watch. The insouciance with which they’re uttered completely ignorant to the situation in which they might have first been spoken.

Films that rely on the performances of their child actors are difficult to pull off. How does anyone so young comprehend and then convey such complex emotion? And yet Simón has found, and nurtured, perfection from her two young stars.

Arguably it is beyond performance, they are just playing make-believe, as children are want to, and onto them we impose our interpretations of, and reflections on the film. That’s the world this film exists in, a transcendent space beyond staging or editing or narrative. Cut from the same cloth as Andrea Arnold’s American Honey although distinctly less explosive. Wrought from memory and given meaning by how close to the bone you feel Simón must be cutting.

But Frida is imbued with a prickly tenacity, and wide-eyed vulnerability by Laia Artigas, whilst Paula Robles as the adorable and incredibly capable Anna, is just as spirited and sparkling. Despite the age difference the two of them have a natural chemistry, and their relationship manages to encompass the difficulty of Frida suddenly having to assume responsibility for a younger sibling – a level of maturity she is not prepared for – and Anna’s own acceptance of a new family member, undeniably bringing divided attention with it.

Simón’s writing and direction display a soulful command over her own life, this is a past she has clearly reconciled with. It never feels like a naval-gazing nostalgia trip, but merely a raw meditation on the complexities of illness, loss and family.

On a technical level it effervesces with authenticity, the camera captures the Catalonian countryside in its sun-dappled splendour, while the sound design seems to emphasise outdoor elements – flowing water, thunder, mosquitoes – as if to express the power that external forces wield over us.

And then, there is the final scene. Unexpected and fierce and full of such emotion I found myself mirroring the central character and bursting into hot, spontaneous tears. Watching a child who perhaps doesn’t comprehend the sadness she might later feel, the deep sense of loss that will stay with her until adulthood, until she feels compelled to make a film about that very loss. Only that she cannot quell her sobbing, and after weeks of stoicism, if occasional tantrum-throwing, the grief has bubbled over and into being.

Summer 1993 is wise and wistful, filled with as much warmth as woe and as with Call Me By Your Name or Our Little Sister you just feel glad to live in this cinematic world for an hour or so. Seek it out.

Why I Write | A Manifesto

I haven’t been writing much lately. Strike that. I have been writing. Emails. Tweets. Shopping lists. My job in social media requires that I write about 1500 words of content a day – I fire out aphorisms and axioms, trade in puns and something passing for wit, and publish reams of writing for an audience of over a million people with the click of a return key.

But it’s anonymous, and though not meaningless, it’s weightless when compared with the long-form, lyrical and lasting type of writing to which I aspire. It doesn’t carry the gravitas I crave, or the recognition that bylines and names on book spines bring with them.

Creatively, I feel spent. I’ve barely strung a sentence together in months. Good intentions have become best-laid plans and projects undertaken sit unfinished and gathering whatever the digital equivalent of dust is.

So this a reminder of why I write. Why I want to write. What I seek when I write. What I hope to accomplish with it.

The writing stalemate has occurred because I have found and erected barriers. I have found the time, but not known where to begin. I have perpetuated deceptions that writing ought to be devoured and digested and dissected or commissioned and requested to be completed. That writing without a purpose, or an endgame isn’t writing at all.

So this manifesto is an indulgence. It’s just for me. It’s going to be unapologetic and an unforgivable exercise in navel-gazing. And perhaps because I’m publishing it on my blog and promoting it on social media, it’s self-defeating and hypocritical.

But right now, in this moment, I’m writing it to write again. I’m writing it for me. 

***

For a few months now, I’ve been looking for permission and payment, rather than revelling in the process and pleasure of writing. I have been pitching and peddling. Squeezing ideas into captivating titles and condensing the sheer wilderness of writing – its limitlessness, go-anywhere-ness, its John-Cusack-holding-a-boombox-atop-his-head-say-anything-ness – into a cage, a count and the conciliation of contribution. And I have taken rejections as an excuse not to.

They’re not letting me. I don’t have anything to write.

That has put pin in pen many times.

But writing doesn’t always have to be a contribution. It shouldn’t have to make up a larger tapestry, or a thematic exploration. It can be an expression of a fleeting thought. It can exist in the here and now and be just because.

It’s thrilling to see words you have written accepted and published by someone else. You’ve been admitted to a club, you have a surpassed a gatekeeper. You are good enough. This time. I write for acceptance and accomplishment and attention. Sometimes. I write because I can. Because I can do it well. And people say so. But people also say no, so it can’t be the only reason. Writing exists well before its destination, so you have to find a reason to go on that journey.

***

I write because I think. I write to exist. Because it matters to me, perhaps more than it should, to be remembered. I write because sometimes it pours out of me like hot coffee from a cafetiere and because in those moments I can’t think of anything else I’d rather be doing.

Writing is both salve and chasm.

In this wearisome and whelming age, writing is curative. It is a slowing down and pausing to think. It’s the breath you take between each stroke swam.

I was reading an article in The Times written by Laura Freeman on literature as meditation. She writes,

We live in a mindful age where meditation is promised as the cure to all our Insta-ills….The problem is not that we are exhausted by a rushing world. Many of us are under-stimulated by days spent poring over emails and Excel, and then over-stimulated by nights full of twittering screens. What we lack isn’t silence, it’s sustenance. Something for starved imaginations to feast on.”

To read good writing is a joy unparalleled. It is an Eden. A quieting of aches and afflictions. A broadening of mind. A burrow of warmth and safety. A sublime expanse of scenery from the comfort of a sofa. It’s shaking your head in astonishment and nodding in agreement.  

I write to be that good. To give back what I’ve taken.

I write because writers are my heroes. (Call that a God-complex or ‘big dick energy’ but it’s the truth). I write because its my aspiration to be an inspiration.

I write because on the invite list to my fantasy dinner party there would be Joan Didion, Rebecca Solnit, Naomi Klein, Toni Morrison, Jonathan Franzen, Annie Proulx, Maggie Nelson, Richard Yates, Sarah Manguso, Nora Ephron, Ta-Nehisi Coates, Simone De Beauvoir, Daniel Woodrell, Claudia Rankine, Sarah Moss.

I write to be invited to fantasy dinner parties.

I write to be seen and heard.

My writing says, in between all its jammed in adjectives and compound sentences,  I am here, I am alive.

***

But within writing lies the possibility to be misunderstood. To be heard and not listened to. To be seen, but ill-framed. To be judged. And harshly so. To be rendered more invisible by having written in the first place. Writing can create a fissure, a cleft, a canyon. It can put colour to an idea, but if you think something is blue and someone else reads it as green, writing can be divisive.

There is beauty in that. Writing is chromatic and contradictory and if we all saw things the same way wouldn’t life be boring? Etc etc.

But there is risk in writing. It’s like saying I love you for the first time. It’s a feeling inside of you that needs to come out, that only in verbalising and iterating and claiming can it feel true and only in the saying of it can you expect reciprocation. Silent I love yous are always regretted. There is joy in being declarative and decisive. Only then can you hear the words I feel that too. I think that too. I love you too. And yet…

And yet and yet and yet and yet

This is a chorus that threatens to drown out many dreams. In between every verse of victory, in doing something you feel proud of, there is this.

And yet, it could go wrong. And yet, they might not feel the same.

The I love you can linger in the air, unreturned and the silence of being unloved in that moment is bruising, deafening, squalid.

Writing that is misread feels the same.

In many academic essays I had the phrase I’m not sure what you are trying to say here scrawled in red next to a brutally dense and ambitious paragraph that contained so much but probably said very little. And yet every time I saw it I felt sick. I felt like crying.

I write for clarity. And I had been ambiguous. Or at least, and I often felt this at university, I had expressed something in the way I wanted to, but not in the way it was meant to be written. Meant as in according to marking guidelines and academic architecture. Rubrics and frameworks and and fretworks I had failed to exist within and comply with.

There is a profile in The New York Times that recently came out, written by Taffy Brodesser-Akner on the frankly, phenomenal Jonathan Franzen.

“He’d been surprised at how some of those essays were received in the world…Had they even read the work? Had they fact-checked? Ultimately, it didn’t matter. He had to look at those essays again. A writer doesn’t write to be misunderstood.

And yet how does one respond? Those incidents, which have come to number many, had begun to precede him more loudly than his proudest contributions to the world: his novels, which number five….people don’t seem to understand him or his good intentions — that she can’t figure out when exactly they all turned on him. “

Writing can skate a thin line. Writing is both salve and chasm.

***

I write to give purpose and structure to a day. To put reins on an imagination that has only ever known how to run wild. It soothes the sensation that a wordless day, albeit a lived one, is a wasted day.

“How was your day?”, my housemate (and so much more, this label is a callous précis of her true function to my sanity) always remembers to ask.

“Good. I got some writing done” comes the all too scarce reply.

But that’s my definition of good. Of productive. Of fulfilling. I am content with a day that produces a handful of sentences, a cluster of prose that contains within in it the power to placate. I write to humour myself. To be able to tell myself I did something honest and worthwhile. Whether it becomes that remains to be seen.

My writing is a work in a progress. Just as I am. But it’s the only construction I want to devote myself to (right now). It is my Sagrada Família.

I write to learn. I write to self-improve.

Therein lies the issue with writing – it’s a lonely pursuit. And a selfish one. You can write to be read and you can write for an audience – therein lies its nobility and magnanimity – but its presumptive to be writing that way.

I currently do not have the privilege (though I possess a lot of others) of assuming that my work will be read, so to write for those reasons is futile.

I write for myself. I have to.

And so it’s self-centred. An exercise in narcissism. I spend hours a day forming thoughts and thinking they’re special enough to be documented. What a life the writer’s life is! You lock yourself away, retreat, scarper from family suppers and make excuses not attend social gatherings because you have to write. And it’s a discipline. To commit to it is to turn down other adventures and pleasures. To devote yourself to you and the words you want to say. You can’t be a writer without having written something.

This is a quandary that plagues me. I can’t call myself a writer. Perhaps I should. But it feels disingenuous.

What have you written? People would ask.

I wouldn’t be able to name something they had read. So although I don’t write to be read, you have to be read to be a writer. At least that’s how it feels. Those are the rules of the game.

I would be lying if I said I didn’t write to be writer. That’s the ambition. But in the meantime, whilst it doesn’t compel a salary and serves only as a side-hustle, I write to tell stories. In order to live. I write to live my best life.

***

I write because it’s my jam. And bread and butter (though we established not in the monetary meaning; it brings all the insides together.) It’s chicken soup in the miserable midst of a cold or a cup of tea on the top of a snow-capped mountain. It’s the first robin spotted on the cusp of winter. It’s a pair of jeans that slide on like a dream and caress your hips but don’t gape at the waist. It’s getting a text back you’ve been pining for. It’s a new kitten. It’s blowing out candles on a birthday cake to the symphony of gathered friends commemorating you. It’s feeling the sun on your back as if thawing your spine. It’s falling asleep in a park and having nowhere to be. It’s waking up in the morning to absence of alarm. It’s a bowling strike. It’s a penalty scored. It’s a home run. It’s an impetuous, top-of-your-lungs-windows-down-sing-song in the car. It’s the first lick of an ice cream, the smoothness a surprise for your tongue. It’s making the last train home, panting with irrepressible relief that your legs had the strength to see you through. It’s the cat with the hearts in his eyes emoji. It’s a gifted book with a note written on the first page.

It’s being told I love you too.

It is nourishment and reprieve. It is both palliative and restorative.

I write because it’s hard and they say anything worth doing is.

I write because it makes me happy.

***

“I write to give my life a form, a narrative, a chronology; and, for good measure, I seal loose ends with cadenced prose and add glitter where I know things were quite lusterless. I write to reach out to the real world, though I know that I write to stay away from a world that is still too real and never as provisional or ambivalent as I’d like it to be.”

55772ac69399217d87faa2de3222ae39.jpg– André Aciman, The New York Times

“Writing is finally a series of permissions you give yourself to be expressive in certain ways. To invent. To leap. To fly. To fall. To find your own characteristic way of narrating and insisting; that is, to find your own inner freedom. “

– Susan Sontag, The New York Times

“In many ways writing is the act of saying I, of imposing oneself upon other people, of saying listen to me, see it my way, change your mind.

– Joan Didion, The New York Times

“Groping through the dark is, in large part, what writing consists of anyway. Working through and feeling around the shadows of an idea. Getting pricked. Cursing purity. Threshing out. Scuffing up and peeling away. Feral rearranging. Letting form ferment. Letting form pass through you…Writing is losing focus and winning it back, only to lose it once more. Hanging on despite the nausea of producing nothing good by noon, despite the Sisyphean task of arriving at a conclusion that pleases.”

– Durga Chew-Bose, Too Much and Not the Mood