‘Do you have trouble finishing things?’ asked my great-aunt, shortly before she died. No one had dared ask me that, but plenty more must have thought it. Even to those who understand the long haul a creative project and a creative career can be, my progress must look murky, and I do sympathise. My stories seem to grow like elephant babies, so slowly that only my mother is still confident they will eventually see the light of day. Mum, the only real partner in crime I have had to date, also knows that my struggle with the juggle is real.
Summer is over and like every year it is a kind of relief. Every year I plan to spend the warm weeks working on projects I can’t seem to find time for normally, finally banging out that story while the world is away on holiday, then taking off in September when the hordes return. I imagine I’ll be at my desk bright and early, enjoying the view of the garden I have busted my guts getting into shape in spring, communing with material I have gathered in fits and starts while other work took precedence over months and years.
Unfortunately, summer, for those who don’t delegate the upkeep of their homes to whatever half-decent handymen are left, is also the time for painting the woodwork, for sanding and varnishing floors, for ticking off long lists of repairs and cleaning; endless things that have to be done before the weather turns, before the garage gets too cold and daylight becomes too weak to see by – to say nothing of the lights going out. Summers are when naughty neighbours build illegal sheds against your wall, when people already on the edge go off the rails completely, when there is quiet only at ungodly hours because whoever else has stayed home has got the windows wide open and is making all their calls on speakerphone. It is a time for learning zen meditation, reviewing one’s insurance policies and refamiliarising oneself with the law.
So summers, here, tend to disappear in a cloud of dust, bent over power tools and buckets of paint and having beer and crisps for dinner because by evening there isn’t enough energy left in the tank even to knock a salad together. They are marked by moments in conclave with new allies, bewilderment at the short-sightedness of some humans and an uncomfortable feeling that while many are getting suntanned, too few are preparing for the bad times ahead. Come September, the fort is as ready as it’s going to get, a detox is in order and all I really want to do is find my desk again. And I simply carry on struggling to fit in those babies I meant to tend to with everything else I’m supposed to be doing. Every year I forget this and every year, somehow, it ends up this way.
Excuses, excuses, I hear you say. You have a disease, Vanessa, a disease called Taking On Projects. Yes, I will admit it. I am hard of hearing when it comes to restricting myself to one or two jobs at a time. My creativity wants to go in all directions and for years it sort of did, but then it sort of had to. While you’re waiting for the next chance to audition, you work production jobs and learn about optioning things and writing. While you’re writing and developing films, you read manuscripts for money, edit other people’s texts, support others; you cater weddings and polo matches and take lots of mental notes. While you hope for luck to find you, you move around the world and get sucked into new ventures focused on those places, you beat on doors for one thing and tinker away at the next, and if you’re lucky perhaps the third one pays off and you reach the point where you can afford to do just one thing. Then life inevitably also has its say and because family always comes first (what gives life meaning, my friends?) some business inevitably goes on the shelf. And some work probably isn’t meant to make it anyway. Best to set fire to it and grow something better from the ashes.
Lately my life has been full of things ending. For all the talk of us appreciating togetherness more due to Covid, friendships still fizzle out most unromantically. Priorities shift. People die, households recompose and there are attics to clear, mess to sort out. More days, weeks, months. There are memories and hurt and decisions to digest. Deep down I hope this is fitness training before I sort out the mess of my long-gestated stories, the way doing a spot of gardening or housework often gets you out of a rut when you’re stuck thinking something through. Whittle it down – that is the order of the day. I perform for the little people in my life. I’m wrapping up side hustles. I wrote off a film I was trying to finish for more than a decade. It will become a book. Concentrate.
At the same time, with the world seemingly coming to an end, I wonder what is useful to put out there at all. There is such a tsunami of threat on the horizon, an ocean of heartbreak I don’t think half of us even comprehend, that I want less than ever to add slush to the pile. I used to feel this great urgency to tell what I thought were important stories and meet the kind of people I could make films with. Now it’s all I can do not to feel defeated and reduce my career to damage control. Still, whether I like it or not, my stories are in here and I know they will rot my system if they don’t get out. In life we may not always get the chance to clear unfinished business – people refuse to talk, believe their friends’ lies, prefer misunderstandings to possible bollockings – but in art at least we can flush the drains.
On the upside, it would appear that I have finally learnt to estimate correctly how long things take to get done. After all the mistakes, I’m identifying slightly earlier if, in the words of Holly Golightly, I’m trying to knit a ranch house. But then the urge to grow a vegetable garden presents itself, or to learn chess, or another language, or fix something that involves six months of needlepoint. I am still learning to keep writing until I’ve got to the end of a draft, to strike the iron before I do the ironing. I will probably never stop trying to spark, mend, rescue what more sensible people never bother with at all, and I will never stop buying books I don’t have time to read, or dreaming about seeing countries it won’t be possible to visit for years. I know I should simplify my life, but I also don’t want to be a self-centered horror, and we should keep trying to suck the marrow out of life, and to contribute, right? So fuck it. Have a go. It will all be over soon enough.
I won’t ask you what you have made lately, or how long it took, or if it was any good. I won’t ask you how much of what you do is really done by somebody else. I suppose, in moments of weakness, I would quite like to ask people to investigate before they brand someone a flake. Or even offer some help? I know, it’s eccentric of me. And no, I did not finish my great-aunt. A patch of ice and a nasty fall did that. Somewhere up there I hope she is smiling down on me, watching me struggle my struggle; understanding perhaps a little better that life would be different if one still had staff; and agreeing, I hope, that good lives are built over time and even the scattered can finally pull it together.
Image: Richard Adams – The Vegetable Garden