(Warning: this post will make the most sense to someone who has a) read The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman; b) has ever been deeply impacted by someone’s art. (a) is not obligatory, but recommended. (b) is highly desirable, for your sake more than mine.)
This spring, I came back to Edinburgh, for the first time since a very memorable night in 2010. That was the night I met Gerard Way for the first and, so far, only time (I’ve seen his band My Chemical Romance play once before then and three times since, but never got to talk to him again). We exchanged a few words and two-and-a-half high-fives (nerves play havoc with my hand-eye coordination). The whole encounter took no more than two minutes. To date, my only tangible proof that said meeting took place is a packet of cigarettes with a Californian tax stamp, which Gerard had traded me for a pair of goggles that were part of my costume.
Out of context, the meeting itself was hardly anything special. But in the context of my life at the time, it was one of the ‘shining moments’ that make their way into poetry. A perfect alignment of time, space, heart, and soul.
It wasn’t something I could see right away. Moments like that are too big to see when you’re close to them. At the time, all you feel is overwhelmed. Deep down, you know that something strange and wonderful is happening to you, but all you’ve got to show for it is the vague feeling that somewhere, the proverbial stars aligned, the proverbial cogwheels clicked into place.
But as time passes, you look back, and realize, with ever increasing clarity, that you were right. If your life were a universe, that moment was the fleeting instant of perfect universal balance. Bodies in every orbit, from an atom to a galaxy, each in a place that’s inexplicably yet unequivocally right.
Things only stay in that perfect balance for a few moments before moving on. I don’t know how long that moment is on the scale of an average human life. On the scale of my own, it was under twenty-four hours. One day, in which I felt that I could take my life anywhere I wanted. And as I wandered through Edinburgh, at the close of those twenty-four hours, I felt the gravity of the regular, boring, normal life, and I struggled against it harder than ever.
I couldn’t go back to normal life. In normal life, people don’t travel roughly two thousand miles to catch a rock show, refusing to get thwarted by expiring visas, lost luggage, missed buses and denied credit cards. In normal life, rockstars from across the world don’t turn out to be the same sweet person the internet makes them out to be. In normal life, people give up. People have their hearts broken. People swallow another portion of disappointment, watch another little piece of their soul die, and move on.
Looking back now, I can say with certainty, that on October 26, 2010, I had a twenty-four hour window for choice. Go back to normal life. Or fight to hold on to the world where I dared, for the umpteenth time, to have faith, and, for the first time, had it rewarded. I decided to fight. Fight, tooth and nail, blood and sweat, for my strange and wonderful world that had room for faith.
I took a bus, a train and a plane to my home in Ukraine. And I fought, in the years that followed. I wanted to be a singer. I wanted to have a rock band. I wanted to move to the UK. I wanted to be a writer.
For three-plus years, I tried to do all of these things, often at the same time, and had varying degrees of success. In late 2013, my achievements included a UK residence permit, one-and-a-half novels in a planned six-book series, a few scraps of painstakingly acquired vocal skill, and a handful of original songs. 2013 was difficult, and one of the many hard things I had to do that year was admit that something finally had to give. A popular saying teaches us to whole-ass one thing rather than half-assing two. I had to make a conscious choice between writing and music. Pick one, or end up failing both.
I chose writing. Not because I loved it more than music. But because I was better at it, if only by virtue of having done it, one way or another, all my life. Choosing music would mean dedicating the next ten years to starting from scratch, only to become a newbie frontlady of a rock band in my late thirties. I wasn’t prepared for that. So I stuck with writing, and felt a coward for it. I stuck with writing, knowing that even if I succeeded beyond my wildest dreams, there would always be a voice at the back of my head, telling me that I failed at music. Failed at something I loved so strongly. At age 28, I already knew what one of my dying regrets would be.
Don’t get me wrong, even in the darkest hours, I never hated writing or wanted to give it up. But it was a steady, long-term (however loving) relationship, one that can feel a bit bland at times. Music, now, was a whirlwind romance – one that I could no longer keep up with, and had to let go of.
So I wrote. I still loved writing. I love my current story more than any story I’d tried to tell before. That was probably why I was still trying to tell it, 1.5 years and a first full-length, thoroughly rejected, novel later. Two years ago, if I were offered to trade my pen and notebook for a microphone and a few extra band members, I’d take the deal without thinking. One year ago, I’d think about it. By the time I finished my second novel (currently being edited), that ship had sailed. I was still mourning music, but I was in love with the story. It was the story I was prepared to spend a large chunk of my life telling, a story that would not be a waste of my time.
And then I came back to Edinburgh, equally on holiday and business. I didn’t go to the venue – the Edinburgh Corn Exchange – or purposefully visit any other places that would take me back to 2010. So my first and only flashback came in the last few minutes of the trip, at the Waverlee train station, where I stood and watched the screens, waiting for my platform to be announced.
For those few minutes, I was back. Back in October 26, 2010. The day my universe stood still, allowing me to decide which way it should spin from there on. The day when everything appeared possible. The day when I decided to fight for my world – tooth and nail, blood and sweat, remember? Almost four years later, I wasn’t sure if I still had that world. I couldn’t help but wonder if I should’ve shed more blood, or broken more nails.
Then, still full of feelings, I sat on the train and opened my copy of The Ocean at the End of the Lane, a book I knew nothing about except that it was written by Neil Gaiman, an author whose work never failed to evoke every kind of emotion in me. In the words of the author himself, it is “a novel of childhood and memory. It’s a story of magic, about the power of stories and how we face the darkness inside each of us. It’s about fear, and love, and death, and families. But, fundamentally, I hope, at its heart, it’s a novel about survival.”
Several hours later, I finished the novel. It was all the things Neil Gaiman said it would be, and for me, it was something more still. For me, it was also a story about a person who comes back to a place where a life-changing experience happened, and finds himself wondering whether he is worthy of the people who made that experience possible (and paid a steep price for it). To make matters worse, his memories of the experience are only alive when he’s physically present at that place. In-between his visits there, he can’t remember any of it.
Perhaps at a different time, in a different place, the impact of this book on me wouldn’t have been so profound. But I read this story on my way back from Edinburgh, with a head full of memories and doubts, of quiet wondering whether I’d squandered my shining moment of a perfectly balanced universe, whether I let it slip out of my hands, let it spin back into the old groove of normal life…
I walked home from the train station through a haze. From that haze, by the end of the half-hour walk, a number of things had crystallized. And now, just like I can pin-point the twenty-four hour window for my choice of life back in 2010, I can narrow down the day and even the hour when I stopped mourning the demise of my brief affair with music.
The truth is, I will always consider music magical. But the reason I wanted to create art with it was to evoke emotion. I wanted to write songs that would touch people, make them feel, make them think, and, if I was very, very lucky, inspire them to do something they were otherwise scared to do. In short, I wanted to do for someone what My Chemical Romance and Gerard Way had done for me. If I reached even one person, I would consider myself a success.
On the evening of May 8, 2014, I realized that a story can be wielded with just as much power as any song. I always knew that, on a rational level, but I had to take the storytelling blade to my own heart in order to truly know its power. And that was the evening when writing stopped being my Plan B, something I was merely settling for.
I’m not a writer because I didn’t manage to become a singer. I’m not a writer because it’s one form of art where I have some skill. I’m a writer because I believe in stories. I’m a writer because humanity needs stories. I’m a writer because stories matter.
On the night of October 25, 2010, something strange and wonderful happened to me. Then, on the night of May 8, 2014, I looked back on that moment, and I saw, clearer than ever, that the proverbial stars had indeed aligned, and the proverbial cogwheels had clicked into place.
For the moment in the year 2010, I thank Gerard Way.
For the moment in the year 2014, I thank Neil Gaiman.
I thank you both in equal measure. Not for my being a writer. But for my finally being a writer for the right reasons.
I’m a writer because that’s what I want to be.
P.S. Apparently, Neil Gaiman approves of what I had to say:
— Neil Gaiman (@neilhimself) May 31, 2014