two blue ticks

Olivia Sudjic, Exposure

Peninsula Press, 128pp, £6.00, ISBN 9781999922337

reviewed by Rebecca Watson

You know the image: the apartment is clean, airy and quiet with a just ripe fruit bowl. The shower is even in temperature and power, and the bed not too soft, nor too hard (‘Ah’, you sigh at the end of another productive day, ‘just right’). There’s a large desk by the window that looks out across the endless, slowly swaying sea. The sun warms, never glares.

You place, gently, in the middle of the desk, a notepad. Next to it sits a smooth-nibbed pen. The cliché comes to you (a blank canvas!) but you smile it away – there are no clichés in this hopeful space. Your task is to write, well and effortlessly. You begin.

But you stop, you still, you delay. There are no distractions and yet you find yourself seeking them. Your phone (turned off) is turned on. You take a photo of the uncluttered desk, sunlight drawing an interesting line across your notepad. Perhaps you Instagram the photo, perhaps you tweet it, perhaps you consider doing one or the other before finally deciding not to after all. You lock your phone, but the writing still doesn’t come.

Why is it that we believe then, right at this point, that inspiration arrives? It’s the irresistible dream: the writing retreat. It can work, but often it doesn’t. Or at least, often it takes time, often it’s far from effortless.

In Exposure, Olivia Sudjic, describes the unexpected pressure after she finishes her debut novel and is unable to extricate herself from it. She faces the book’s reception, media appearances, expectation. ‘I realised I was still that book’s prisoner’, Sudjic writes, ‘its physical embodiment – though in writing it, I’d imagined freeing myself.’

She goes to Brussels for a two-month writing residency and sets about to write something different - to distance herself from her debut by diluting it. But she struggles. Days pass, and the writing doesn’t come. She avoids interacting with people, ignoring phone calls and pretending she’s lost her voice to takeaway drivers. She watches construction workers out of the window, knowing as she looks that she too might be seen. She feels exposed – in an apartment that people can see into, and with a blank word document in front of her. ‘Brussels’, Sudjic writes, ‘now seemed like limbo’.

Describing this state of in-between, Dan Fox, in his recently published essay, Limbo, writes, ‘Take your pick’:

‘on standby, out-of-sync, in the wings, up the creek, in a ditch, in a fix, in a funk, in stasis, in suspended animation. Muddled and moribund, mudbound in muddy waters. Clogged, congested, confounded, choked-off, jammed, stumped, stonewalled and stymied. Flummoxed, bamboozled and blocked. Frog in the throat. Bone in the gullet. Crashed into a wall. Also: dithering, floating, unanchored, unmoored, untethered, blown on the breeze. Caught between a rocky trope and a hard cliché. Stuck in limbo.’

The state of limbo is involuntary. It is between two bookends, each hopeful and distant – stuck between writing past, and writing future. It’s unclear how long a state of limbo may last. Maybe you’re busy and can’t make time to write. But what if, when you designate the time, limbo doesn’t end? What if you still cannot write?

Attempting to end limbo, Sudjic isolates herself in Brussels. (Fox does an eccentric alternative: spending six weeks in a cabin of a container ship which is sailing from the Thames Estuary to Shanghai). Guilt and doubt ensue. ‘Stillness’, Sudjic writes, ‘cannot make me calm.’ ‘It feels claustrophobic, as if the wrongness of a new-normal is setting around me like cement.’ (For Fox, ‘Writing limped. Writing crawled. Writing stopped. Words became gummed-up and gear-seized.’) Though limbo is conceptual, it is felt physically. It provokes heavy lethargy. It’s claustrophobic: setting in, cementing itself, spreading and lingering like rising damp. As limbo settles, what intends to be Sudjic’s second novel (and for Fox, a collection of travel essays) becomes a different book entirely. Struggling to produce, they write about the struggle. Both are wiser for their sidestep.

The process of writing is a to-and-fro between can and cannot. Time – precious and measured – adds pressure. Designating time to write, whether by cancelling plans, cornering off a weekend or going on a retreat or residency, can feel fraught, the pressure heightened. Walking feels reckless to Sudjic; ‘I was wasting the privilege of my residency if I didn’t sit still.’ But as the writing doesn’t come, she finds herself leaving the apartment to gratuitously loop the streets.

Sudjic’s anxiety builds. The initial inability to write is reinforced. In trying again, with the weight that you’ve tried and failed before (and before that, and before that), it only grows harder. Why would it be any different this time? By the second month of her residency, anxiety no longer feels like a symptom. Instead, she inhabits it. The ‘too sharp’ intensity of anxiety and its simultaneous sluggishness is acute in Exposure. Sudjic describes its baseline feeling in a pithy millennial analogy:

‘imagine [. . . ] having just finished a third coffee when someone texts: ‘we need to talk’ and then doesn’t call for hours, or at all.’

Writing leaves you exposed – whether you’re writing fiction or a Whatsapp message. Sudjic is excellent on this overlap; on the fear that ‘attempting to communicate [has] done more harm than good’. She describes how being ‘left on read’ – those dizzying two blue ticks – mounts with anxiety. Would it have been better to have said nothing at all? To not write at all? Writing fiction and anxiety overlap, Sudjic points out, because both ask ‘what if’. But despite this overlap, anxiety doesn’t aid writing, it freezes it.

Sudjic scrutinises beyond a state of in-between, using her experience of limbo to interrogate how writing is complicated by anxiety and hampered by social media, self-doubt, and the enforced vulnerability of writing as a woman. People would speak to Sudjic about her book with a side-glance, as if they both knew really that the novel was non-fiction. She is subject to sexist presumptions. Subject to readers shrinking the female ‘I’, designating it back to the author – the universal first person a male privilege alone.

How do you write with a sharp flash still burnt onto your pupils? Despite exposure and anxiety, Sudjic writes nonetheless. (After all, ‘anxiety will fill whatever receptacle I give it’.) Her decision is valuable not just as an act of reckoning, but for us. For we gain Exposure. Though this essay is a personal memoir, Sudjic extends beyond herself. Her ‘I’ is not just her own – it’s universal.