The below is a version of something I posted to my friends on Facebook during my month as Writer in Residence:
This morning I put my swimsuit on under my clothes and drove from the Library to Snowdonia. On the way, I stopped at a Holy Well (‘The Welsh Lourdes’, 1 pound entry) where they displayed the crutches of pilgrims, no longer needed after taking the Holy Water.
It’s the spring equinox and I have been sober for five years today. Somewhere after Capel Curig, I parked, walked up a hill and swam in a loch/lake/llyn. It was sunny but the water was gloriously cold. I gasped and yelled, drank some lake and didn’t care when passing motorists saw me naked.
On my way to the Library three weeks ago, I pulled into the side of the road and, as lorries rattled past, heard over the phone that my first book, The Outrun, was going to be published in Sweden and China. This moment has characterised much of my month here: unexpected news and communications incoming, time passing at high speed as I try to hang on.
The book was published nine weeks ago and since then I’ve had many new experiences and feelings. I’ve done readings and events around the country and I’ve talked to journalists, readers, editors and booksellers. It got good reviews and is selling well. It’s on the shortlist for a prize, is going to be translated and published in several other countries, and I’ve been talking to people interested in adapting it for screen. I took a copy back to the treatment centre I attended five years ago. Next month I’m visiting a prison. And... people have been reading my highly personal book. The most startling, disarming thing is people taking the time and understanding and seeing the subtleties and learning things and liking it. Some of them have got in touch with me. I’m slowly absorbing and replying to these responses and realising what a privilege it is. Last week, I saw a woman in my peripheral vision, on the other side of the library, reading my book and each time she turned a page my nerves fizzed. I’ve learned ‘being read’ can be a physical experience. I’ve gained online followers and lost weight. I’ve cried every day in 2016.
Because recovery is ongoing. And because there are things I don’t post on the internet. While all this (wonderful! exhausting!) has been happening, I’ve been hurting, part of my heart left in Berlin, a dream I had with another person broken. I’m telling you this so you can understand that life is not a pleasing narrative and as a way of explaining why I’ve not been doing so much writing.
Instead, I've been creeping around the library at night and picking up obscure Victorian books that belonged to William Ewart Gladstone himself, eavesdropping on American theologians at lunchtime, sitting at the top of the fire escape 'doing astronomy' (smoking), and getting some decent food and sleep after a crazy couple of months. I’ve walked in the woods in wellies and longskirt, scent of sheep on the wind, trying to identify bird calls. I've talked to other residents and visitors. One day at dinner, I mentioned that I was nervous about giving a talk the next day. A stranger sitting next to me turned out to be a public speaking expert who that evening gave me a short but useful tutorial in breathing and posture techniques.
Most importantly, inspired by Gladstone, who reportedly read a book a day, I’ve been reading. Among the noise of book publication and social media, I’m gently training myself to focus again and remembering what interests me and what it is that I need to write next. I’ve got excited by books by Annie Dillard, James MacDonald Lockhart, Tim Morrison, Rebecca Solnit, Sarah Perry and Naomi Klein; by strange poets operating on Twitter; by a radical, poetic, enterprising, green essay about ocean agriculture. I’ve done much introspection and internal strengthening both in my writing and my life in the last five years and am now trying to turn my attention more outwards. I’ve been thinking about responsibility, not just in how it affects the outside world but also how it affects our psychology, and also about compassion. Problems with addiction (drugs, food, technology, damaging relationships) are so common - people who are not alcoholics have told me they identify with things I have written about alcoholism - and I’ve been thinking about the decisions we make and how we focus our time and effort in a time of incredible choice. But I can’t do any of this without looking after myself, and this is where this month at the Library is helping.
I’m nervy and tired and grateful and proud and have a million things in my head. But today when I got in that cold water all I could do was move my limbs and feel my skin and not drown and it was clarifying. Five years ago I was taking a dose of sedatives to help me through my first week without alcohol. The night before I’d run away from a taxi I couldn’t afford after finishing the dregs of strangers’ drinks. But a year ago I was working in a bookshop in Greece and today I’m living in a library, eating puddings, and am going to be able to try to keep on writing. So many people have been very kind.
On the way back from the lake, my car radio struggled in the mountains but tuned into Radio 4 in the middle of my own voice reading a passage from The Outrun and being interviewed by Mariella Frostrup, recorded a few days ago. This identity as ‘an author’ feels as untuned and surprising as that radio, and these days as unfamiliar and sunlit as the Welsh roads.