Here is the text of a short speech I gave at the wonderful Good Girls Eat Dinner event in London on Wednesday 22 August 2018. I thought I would share it here in case it was of interest to anyone.
Let me make a confession. I think that I have writer’s block. That may seem like a strange thing to say, given that I have been writing non-stop all summer. But let me explain.
Writer’s block isn’t the inability to write anything at all. After all, writers who have writer’s block still fill out their tax returns, they still reply to their emails – eventually, at least. No – writer’s block is something different. It’s the inability to complete, or even to begin, the work that you really care about. It is rooted in fear. And that’s what no-one warns you about the power of words. Sometimes, it is overpowering.
What am I afraid of? Well, I think it is this. Creativity is a muscle. If you don’t keep using it, if you don’t keep feeding it the twin proteins of knowledge and experience, then it wastes away. And over time I have begun to fear – that word again – that I have not worked hard enough, that I am not wise enough. I think that I have good ideas – maybe even great ideas – but, at present, I am not sure that I have the strength of creativity to hold them aloft.
This is not a good time to have writer’s block. My work is on very public display. I am about to begin my most ambitious programme of work yet. I am planning to update the first book that I wrote about football. I am planning to write a third book about football, to complete the trilogy that I started in 2007. I am planning to write a sequel to the sci-fi novel that I wrote in 2016, and for which I am still seeking a publisher. I am planning to write monthly essays about how to navigate the world of race and the world of bisexuality. I am preparing to write a book of short stories based on the four years I have so far spent in Berlin. As a musician, I am about to play three play of the most important gigs of my career to date. This is not a good time to be feeling any creative self-doubt.
But perhaps this period of fear is necessary. We all make our living in the world of words. We know just how powerful are the tools of our trade. Whichever way you voted, you can’t deny the force of the call to take back control or to make America great again. I am afraid because I am fiercely aware that, just like black lives, words truly matter.
How do I rid myself of this fear? How I stop being scared? I need to remind myself, first and foremost, that fear is a luxury. Just as I have writer’s block, I think that a lot of us in this room have climate block. I think that climate change – the heatwaves, the fires in the Arctic, the floods in Kerala – is a threat so terrifying that we feel immobilised before it, that we have to look away. We didn’t expect to have to deal with this in our lifetimes, but it’s right here, right now. And we don’t think we have the tools to deal with that’s coming. But we can start with words. We can start with empathy and with hope.
I have just arrived from Helsinki, where I have been advising a social enterprise, LYFTA, on how to raise media awareness of their brilliant work in almost 400 schools. LYFTA, with the aid of virtual reality technology, aim to connect students all around the world – the future of our civilization – through a series of interactive video exercises. When I return to my home of Berlin this week, I will be helping to launch a social enterprise, a cafe which pays a percentage of its profits to support local projects. Given the arrival of extreme climate change, I cannot afford to be afraid. I cannot afford to be too frightened to write.
The fear isn’t completely without foundation. I am thirty-eight years old and I worry that I have not done enough with the gifts that I have been given. In some ways those fears are valid. But this isn’t about me and it never truly was. This is about using every moment as courageously as we can not only to endure but to embrace what is coming. It’s about building community wherever we can. It’s about that kind word, delivered with a gentle nod and eye contact, to the homeless person. It’s about asking each other and ourselves why we aren’t doing better as a society. It’s about reaching through what may feel like justifiable rage for something which may make us collectively happier.
These may sound like nothing more than words. And that’s exactly the point. My address tonight is an invitation: an invitation not to dwell upon what is wrong with the state of our world, but what, with sufficient time, care and urgency, could be right. And if you, like me, feel overwhelmed by doubt, then start with a single sentence. You can keep it in mind if you find it helpful, maybe even save it on your iPhone as a reminder, stick it on a post-it note above your bathroom mirror or next to your desk. And that single, simple sentence is: “Fear is a luxury”.
All of us in this room are both fortunate. Words are our trade. In a time when winning arguments has never been more crucial, we are experts in the business of persuasion. I think we all know that we can’t continue as we are – that it’s going to take so much kindness, patience, and imagination to extract us from this mess. So let’s start now – whether it’s advocating with greater passion for a stronger renewable energy policy, or signing up for that shift at the local soup kitchen. Let’s not only do the best we can, but do better; and, crucially, let’s not be afraid.