About two months ago I found myself jammed between two elderly people on a plane somewhere over the Atlantic Ocean. It was twelve midnight, or it was five in the morning depending on whether I was taking my bearings from my leaving point or my destination. I was inclined to favour my leaving point. I’d been in the States for almost three weeks: reading and writing, listening to people read and having the most wonderful conversations with people who had wise and interesting things to say. It had been easy. If I’m entirely honest life is occasionally exciting and often challenging and definitely rich with community here in Belfast. But it is rarely easy.
Many of you who work in the arts and culture sector here will know exactly what I’m talking about. There’s never enough money to do things as well as you’d like to see them done. You’re always short of time and tired and frustrated by the box-ticking exercise which is trying to get money out of the arts funding bodies. You compromise your own artistic practice to run community arts projects because you believe they’re important and also -let’s be honest- because they pay the electricity bills. You feel guilty every time a fixed term community arts project comes to an end because you’ve invested in the participants and you don’t want to leave them high and dry and disappointed because a good thing has come to such an abrupt halt. You often feel defeated before you’ve even begun and, at the back of your head, is the niggling suspicion that things wouldn’t be half as hard if you relocated to London or New York or even Milton Keynes. You are good people but you’re weary.
In the airplane over the Atlantic I was listening to Van Morrison on my headphones. It’s a little tradition I have every time I come back from the States and have to re-adjust to my ordinary life in East Belfast. That evening/morning I was listening to “Cypress Avenue” in the quiet dark, (the cabin lights had been dimmed for sleeping and both elderly people had duly fallen asleep, the one to my left, twitching a little against my shoulder). I’d never really listened to the lyrics before but the words, “I may go crazy before that mansion on the hill,” sucker punched me right in the soul, and there I was crying, as quietly as possible, in the pitch dark belly of steerage.
Many of you know this feeling. You’re not cynical or jaded enough to have forgotten what it is to want to help, to want to be part of dragging this country kicking and screaming into the twenty first century. You want to foster community and make powerful art, art which isn’t just good for Belfast but really, bloody, terrifyingly good regardless of where it was conceived. You want to be able to say with absolute confidence, “I am proud of the place I come from,” and to never have another Northern Irish child told, “if you want to make it in business/art/sport/anything really, you’ll have to move to the Mainland.” You want to serve this place and still flourish as an artist and also a human being. You also know how far away these goals seem right now. You know what it is too feel like you’ll go crazy before you get anywhere even close to the destination.
Today, you feel even more bruised, even wobblier and wearier than normal. Today you feel like not getting out of bed or letting your anger explode all over social media. Today you feel like packing everything you own into a van and getting as far away from this mess as possible. You want to go somewhere easier. There are so many places that would be easier than here.
Here’s the thing you need to hear this morning. You are brave for staying. You are brave for investing in this place. Goodness knows it doesn’t make it easy for you. You could be making more money elsewhere. You could be climbing the career ladder. You could have much more time to focus on your art and your family and your mindfulness and well-being, not to mention your vegetable plot. Everything could be so much easier. But, I know you all well enough to remind you that you never signed up for easy. You signed up for change and moving things forward and scraping tiny slivers of hope from the bottom of the bucket. And, just in case you forgot, you also signed up to be part of the most amazing community of creatives on the planet: people who will cry with you today and laugh with you tomorrow and give you wine and food, (in that order), encouragement when your work in progress isn’t progressing very fast and critique when you’re genius gets out of control, space and time and inspiration. Wonderful, wonderful people. You are blessed despite your circumstances.
So, this morning I am going to get up and write because that’s the only thing I know how to do. I suggest you do likewise, in whatever medium your hand turns most naturally to. I suggest that you learn to write when you are tired and when you are hungry and when you haven’t been paid a penny for what you write. I suggest you write even though the fear and anxiety is an actual, physical lump in your throat. I suggest you write angry if angry is the only thing you can manage right now. I suggest you keep writing when nobody is buying your books and there are only four people in plastic chairs at your readings. I suggest you write through the critics’ attacks and the skeptics’ derision and you keep your ear open to those wise voices who have only your best words in mind. I suggest you stop giving a damn about all the boxes which require ticking and write what you can write, write what you need to write. This is all that’s asked of you. I suggest you stop writing lazily, sloppily or without the desire to grow as a writer. I suggest you let ambition swell in your belly and begin taking steps towards becoming the best writer you can possibly be. I suggest you scare yourself with your writing. I suggest you write with an urgency you’ve never experienced before because now is the time for urgency.
Last night I listened to Senator George Mitchell talk. He said an awful lot of things about peace and progress in this place which, in light of yesterday’s events, were already tottering on the edge of irrelevance but the sentiment I chose to take home and consider was his reminder that every act of oppression, evil and intolerance tells its own dark, and oftentimes persuasive story. If we are to have any hope of affecting change our stories must be so much more compelling than those dark stories we’re currently surrounded by. Our stories must be loud and urgent and very, very good. We must be writing.