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Letting go

Sarah Alexander

A year of holding on and a day of letting go.

I’m always a bit behind the times when it comes to movies. Despite having several nieces and nephews who are Frozen obsessed, I only watched the film for the first time last week. The let it go song has been looping around in my head ever since and, finally, I’ve had an Elsa epiphany.

Exactly a year ago today, I sent my final version of The Art of Not Breathing to my editor in the US and she sent it straight to copyedit. The book was done. But instead of it being a glorious moment – no more edits, no more plot-hole filling, no more spending every waking minute attached to a keyboard – it marked the beginning of a twelve-month period of unfathomable anxiety. I’d emerged from my writing cave into blinding, disorientating daylight. The cave was dark and lonely at times, but it was safe and silent and there was always a tiny sliver of light – at some point, I would be handing over a perfect manuscript and everyone would buy it, read it and love it. Until then I had time to work on it, make it better, make it the best I could. And the best I could make it would be good enough.

When I handed over the manuscript, I knew it wasn’t ready – I wasn’t ready. Here are some of the thoughts I had at the time: I could have worked harder, I shouldn’t have done Day Job at weekends, I should have said no. I should have learned how to write properly before I tried to write a book. I should have re-read the entire manuscript every time I worked on a new draft instead of only fixing the bits that were marked as wrong, not making sense, too violent, too clichéd, too weird. I should have asked for more time to do another draft. I should have written a different book, a better one. I should have read more. I should have pulled the book from publication, I should have said, ‘Don’t print it yet – it’s not ready.’ I didn’t do any of those things because there weren’t enough hours in the day, because I was exhausted, because the rational voice in my head – the very teeny far away one – told me that this was a normal reaction, that I was too close to my writing to have an opinion on it, that soon I’d get over it, that after a couple of months I’d be able to let go and move on, focus on the next book. I discovered that most writers feel like this at some point. Knowing this didn’t help. I discovered that knowing this doesn’t help most writers. That didn’t help either. I wanted the book to go away. I wanted everything to go away. Imposter Syndrome was aggressive and debilitating. In a few months, everyone was going to know the truth – that I couldn’t write, that I wasn’t interesting.

Between January and April this year, I received a number of trade reviews. They were all very positive. The reviewers used phrases such as, ‘atmospheric writing’, ‘vivid and breathtaking’, ‘strong debut’, ‘haunting and heartfelt’. None of the reviews was starred. If I’d just done one more draft, maybe I’d have gotten starred reviews. I stopped reading reviews online. A few days before publication, someone tweeted a beautiful picture of my book on a display table in Foyles. And there it was – a tiny, fizzy bubble of excitement. Relief. Finally, I was letting go, wasn’t I? The bubble dissipated within a few minutes. I tried to run after the pieces, but they had gone high into the atmosphere where the air was too thin to breathe.

The day my book came out I was at the office doing Day Job for thirteen hours. I went home and cried. I wasn’t ready to be an author. I wasn’t ready for anyone to read my book. I wasn’t ready for people to tell me that I must be delighted and proud. My cheeks ached with forced smiles as I shrugged, said the whole thing was weird and then changed the subject.

Sometimes I felt like the world was strangling me; other times like it was so far away I’d never find my way back to it. My brain bubbled constantly; I was a kettle on the boil with no spout. I’ve had panic attacks on trains, in the office, in other people’s houses, on walks – miles from home, in hotel rooms miles from home and alone, in the car, on planes, in the shower, in my sleep – the little sleep I’ve had. I’ve spent months lying awake all night rewriting the book in my head, as if that would magically change the words on the pages.

Last weekend, exhausted and plagued by a fear that I would never be good at anything, I hit rock bottom and decided I couldn’t be a writer. I wasn’t even sure if I could be a person. On Monday, I had to get up and go to work and make normal human interactions with people, even though on the inside I was raw. I got through the week on adrenaline and caffeine. I told people about my book. They said they were proud even though they didn’t know me. I slumped in my seat and told them I wasn’t proud. The conversations moved on. Later, embarrassment hung over me like a heavy wet blanket when I realised I’d been so negative, that I'd let anxiety win. Something had to change, and I had to make it happen.

It’s been six weeks since my book came out in the UK and three weeks since it came out in the US. My feet have barely touched the ground – not because of being inundated with interview or book-signing requests, though there has been a bit of that, but because of life and work. I forced myself to have a day off today. On TV, 24 Hours on Earth took me to the bottom of the ocean and I glided along the seabed, listening to the roaring of whale bubbles. On the way up, I exhaled until my stomach went concave, until I’d released all the stale air I’d been hanging onto. I drunk tea, ate a bagel, didn’t check my phone or social media for nearly two hours. Outside for a few minutes, I let the sun warm my eyelids. It was the first time in months I’d allowed myself to not think about writing or work. A friend called to invite me to his seventieth birthday party. He asked me how sales were going, I politely told him it was too early to tell. He talked about the book he wrote sixteen years ago. The publisher went bust just after publication – his book never made it into any bookshops, and after the few printed copies available sold out through Amazon, it was never reprinted. I have his only remaining copy (there’s no electronic version) – I’ve had it for years. He trusts me with it because he values me as a friend and a reader. He’s OK with his book not being in the bookshops because he had fun writing it and though he’s proud of the achievement, it’s not his only achievement. We talked about travelling and our gardens. My friend is turning seventy. He’s met hundreds of interesting people throughout his eccentric life and yet I’m on his guest list. Then I realised, I am more than a writer. I am more than one book. This one book has consumed my life for too long.

One of the main themes of my debut novel is letting go. I spent years writing about letting go and months talking about it. I’ve spent a day doing it. The files on my computer are tidied and archived. The whiteboard outlining the synopsis for my first book has been wiped and replaced with an outline of Book 2, and ideas for Book 3. I’ve made plans for several weekends throughout the year without wondering if I should perhaps be spending those weekends writing. I had a conversation with a lady in the Cherry Lodge charity shop about how much I love jigsaw puzzles and I smiled and laughed without it being forced.

My book is out there. People are buying it, reading it, loving it. I’m never going to have the chance to rewrite it, but why would I want to write the same thing again? It’s done. I am proud of the fact that the first book I ever wrote is in the hands of readers. It’s over to them. And it is the best I could make it; it is good enough. In fact, it's more than good enough – it's a great book and I'm lucky to have so many champions of it. Believing in the book isn't my real problem; believing in myself is. My job now is to remember how much I love writing, how much I love exploring the world, how much I love talking to my friends and family. Today, for the first time in a year, I’m taking deep breaths without them catching in my throat and oxygen is getting to all my vital organs. I’m not saying every day will be like this – but it’s a good start. This is The Art of Breathing. This is The Art of Letting Go.

If you’re still reading, thank you. Here is your reward.

Frozen - Let It Go