The Real World: a bisexual book, as it turns out

'The Real World' with two pin badges, one reading 'EMBRACE THE POWER OF "AND"' and the other, 'ASSUME NOTHING'

If you’d asked me, say two years ago, what I was writing about, I would have said, Marriage. And academia. And the Church of England. I might have been clever and summed it up as Institutions. Then I might have added, Impossible choices. And Disillusionment. Six months further on, Vocation. And it is true. The Real World is about all of those things.

What I didn’t quite appreciate until a couple of my beta readers remarked on it was how very much it is a bisexual book. I suppose I shouldn’t have been quite so surprised: two things I knew all along were that Colette, the point of view character, is bisexual, and we spend the whole novel inside her head. And this appears to be one of those things where personal experience does help, because it didn’t take too much work to make it feel right. (Unlike some other things in the book.)

It isn’t really about bisexuality – not as a theme, anyway – but there’s plenty of it in there.

There’s the Invisible Bisexual Blogger, who shows up (in this book, anyway) only in the chapter headings. In an early draft she came to Lydia’s birthday party, but I was introducing too many characters there as it was. She serves the same purpose as she did in the first book, where she was in the main narrative rather than the chapter headings: to demonstrate that there are plenty of LGBTQ Christians hiding in plain sight (and possibly feeling somewhat ambivalent about that fact).

There’s the correlation between bisexuality and depression (which is a statistic I myself resemble, yes). There’s the second-guessing and the self-questioning.

There’s the scene with the celebrity ex-vicar. I regret to say that this is only slightly exaggerated from something that I witnessed in real life. I needed that scene in order to explore one possible future for Lydia and Colette. I didn’t have to make the speaker as biphobic as the real one was, didn’t have to push it that bit further to provoke a minor walkout. But it felt truthful. That sense of never being quite sure whether a putatively LGBTQ space is in fact just LG, whether the welcome that has just been extended to you might be withdrawn when you can’t produce a gold star, that’s something I’m very familiar with. It works in the trajectory of the book, too. This is a point where sources of support are dropping away from Colette, and she’s becoming increasingly isolated; this space that’s a source of support for Lydia turns out not to work for Colette at all.

And then, on the flip side of that, there’s the spontaneous little gathering outside the meeting, where the angry bi people come together to rant. My experience of the bi community, online and offline, has been similar: that wonderful holiday from having to explain yourself.

I didn’t set out to write a bi novel. That happened without my knowing. I didn’t have to wrestle with it, the way I had to wrestle with vocation (in and out of the writing). Actually, those aren’t so very far apart. I have a post to write about my experience of vocation as a queerness, but that’s for another day. If someone asked me today what The Real World is about, maybe I’d say, Institutions. And identity.

Badges in the photo above came from Biscuit (‘Embrace the power of ‘And’) and Uncharted Worlds (‘Assume nothing’).

December Reflections 15: difficult day in 2020

 network of bare tree branches, lit up greenish in winter sunlight, with clear blue sky beyond

I used this photo earlier, posted it as number 350 of my 366 days of delight.

If my difficult day is today, it’s because 2020 has been kinder to me than it has to many other people I know, or know of. And it’s because I can be sad and slow even on beautiful sunlit afternoons with clean blue skies. If this is as bad as 2020 gets, then I will have got off lightly. And I would also have liked to have been able to take a shower this morning without crying about it. No morning walk for me today. No morning prayer. If today has not been very difficult, it has not been easy.

It may be that strange thing that depression does to memory, by which I can only bring to mind a very narrow now and the current emotion convinces me it’s permanent. I went back through my diary, looking for other difficult days. There were plenty in which I felt more or less like this – 16 July, for example, reads:

presumably this day happened? (i was not happy)

reading all of the internet

Zoom mimealong to Steal Away

I didn’t write, but I remember, that I had to go and cry on the stairs halfway through that.

On 17 June there’s:

FEELING ABSOLUTELY AWFUL

which I think was fatigue rather than anything to do with mental ill health.

There was a Monday in which I broke my phone and a kitchen knife and received an unsolicited review request for a deeply distasteful lesbian Nazi mystery novel followed by a Tuesday in which I had to deal with an ant infestation. There was the week clouded by worry when my father was in hospital back in March.

(And I know all of that’s very small beer compared with what some people have had to deal with, this year in particular.)

But today, because I’m in it, feels like a difficult day, if not the most difficult day. A slow day, a sad day, a day in which it took me an hour to get out of bed and tears to get me into the shower. The first day in a long time it’s been as bad as that. A day in which I did some little work, but also read a lot of irrelevant Tweets.

A day in which I wore silver shoes to go to the postbox. A day in which the sky was a clean clear blue and the trees were as lovely without leaves as they were with them.

The miracle

A deciduous tree, with most of its leaves gone, with three cormorants perching in the upper branches. It is lit up by rose-gold morning light.

Last year. An autumn morning, probably very much like this one. Sunday. October, rather than November, because the clocks hadn’t gone back. A slow morning. Not the morning, really. Me. Sluggish. Lethargic. I couldn’t summon the energy to get out of bed because getting out of bed meant crossing the room to find my dressing gown and then I would have to have a shower and how do you even take a shower, I’d have to take my pyjamas off and step into the bath and ugh, then decide which clothes to wear, as if anybody cared, and eat something, and probably I hadn’t done any washing up, and could I face making toast…

But something wonderful had happened. Something had changed. All that was true, but I no longer felt like the worst person in the world. The moral judgement that usually accompanied such a morning had evaporated. It was as if someone who actually liked me had taken charge, someone who thought it was perfectly reasonable to take an hour to get out of bed if that was what was needed.

Every book I write disentangles something in my mind in some way. Speak Its Name sorted out a lot of internalised biphobia. A Spoke In The Wheel showed me how to deal with burnout and overcommitment. And The Real World seems to have taught me about depression.

The Real World is very much a book about depression. I’m not sure that I even mention the word in the text, but it shapes the protagonist’s experiences and, even more, her perceptions, in a way that’s almost bigger than the text. I nearly painted myself into a corner with it; had to tear the walls down to get us all out of there. There are several levels of irony to the title, and one of them is the fact that depression creates a world that isn’t real at all and keeps you trapped in it.

Writing about a fictional character’s depression, writing both the world she’s moving through and the world she’s limited to, reaching deep into my own experience to convey the sheer awkward clumsy fatigued too-bloody-muchness of it all, the way it narrows your horizons and stalls your momentum until it’s as much as you can do to put one foot in front of the other, I was able to find the compassion for her that I’d never been able to find for myself. Writing about someone who loved her and could see her as she was, not as she thought she was, helped me understand that I, too, could be loved as I was. And something inside me, something wiser than my rational brain, was able to apply it to me, too.

It’s still here. Even having been relieved of my 6am alarm and my commute by the lockdown, I’m still finding mornings difficult. I prickle at sympathy and suspect well-wishers of wanting to fix me, of thinking me unacceptable unless better. But my miracle is here, too, singing its serene quiet song: I am loved. I am enough.

This was not the only interesting thing that writing The Real World did to my head. I’ll tell you about the other thing another time. But I’m not sure it wasn’t the most important one.