So, a couple of weeks ago I was invited to be a member on one of the British Fantasy Society award juries. I was - I am - ridiculously flattered, though it brought into sudden and rather frightening relief memories of high school and what it meant to be popular. To be picked.
My sister was popular. She had friends coming out of the wazoo; she dated the school captain; she was Prom Queen. She will be horrified by my saying even just that, though those are indisputable facts. But that’s only because she’s one of those rare breeds: a beautiful and popular person who’s actually grateful; who can’t quite understand how or why it happened. Why it keeps on happening. Had she not been, then I’m sure that growing up alongside her, growing up in the same schools as her would have been a lot harder than it was.
I was not popular. I didn’t even go to the bloody Prom. High school is a zoo. We all know that. I felt nothing but a profound sense of freedom when it was all over, because I genuinely couldn’t imagine anything worse, anything harder. And so far I haven’t been proved wrong, thank Christ.
And anyway, how can you blame another person for your own inadequacies, your own insecurities? You can’t, of course. Although almost all of us do. Because life is unfair. Genes are unfair. Perception of beauty is unfair. Being born with the ability to either charm or alienate is unfair. Such is life. And for all of our lives, even the most antisocial and indifferent of us strive to matter, to belong.
I spent most of primary school praying to God every night that I’d wake up in my best friend Catriona’s body. That I’d get to forever be her, and that she’d be stuck with being me. I was never granted that genuinely fervent wish, and it took me a horribly long time to stop wanting it. And even longer to be grateful that it hadn’t happened.
I squandered my twenties in a fury of aloof insecurity and pre-emptive rejection. It was only in my thirties that I started realising that there might be something - anything - good in being me. That there might even be things to be proud of in being me. And then later still: that it wasn’t so much what I had to offer that mattered, but what other people had to offer me.
Someone once told me a long time ago that everyone is different, that everyone has a unique talent or gift that might perhaps go forever undiscovered, but would go on existing nevertheless. I’ve come to believe that absolutely. If you’re open to whatever crap life throws at you, then you’re also open to what is already there; what might be buried deep inside.
I’ve written my whole life, but it was only when I realised what other people were willing to offer me in return for what I wrote that I recognised my own worth, my own gift. More than that, it led me to people who liked and valued and respected me; it led me to genuine friends whom I liked and valued and respected more. And no matter how furiously aloof you might pretend to be, that’s all any of us want. How much harder must that be for those who have never had all that crap thrown at them? How much harder to find the thing that makes them unique, if they’ve never felt that furious longing to belong?
And now I’m genuinely glad that I never became Catriona, wherever she is, whatever she is or isn't doing. I’m genuinely glad that I’m not anyone else but me. I still have insecurities, of course I do, but now these are mostly good insecurities: the kind that push me to try more, risk more, do more, feel more. Perhaps it’s a little sad that it’s taken me to my late thirties to think so, but I’m sure that there are many more people who never do at all.
There is no one exactly like me. And finally - mostly - I’ve made peace with that. Some days it even makes me smile.