Updated: May 26
It was a Saturday. Just a few weeks ago. As usual, I was wrestling with writing edits, struggling in the final stages to achieve whatever it was I set out to do and not being sure what that we anymore. Sun poured through the window, though the air outside was cool, steam rose from my coffee cup, and Joni Mitchell songs streamed through my Alexa. I’d been in such an unwavering state of dissonance recently that even Joni Mitchell was no match for my melancholy.
Maybe it's the ongoing wrestling I’m locked into with fiction writing. Maybe it is balancing motherhood and freelancing having undergone a house move and various other upheavals. Perhaps it's the serial dating that fails to spark anything in me but despondency. Perhaps it’s because I am so close and yet feel so far from completion of my novel. Or maybe it’s the need to suppress my urge to travel. Whatever the cause, it’s true to say I had recently found myself adrift.
Uninspired is not a place you wish to find yourself when it’s taken you so long to follow the path you always felt destined to embark upon. I spent many years waiting for someone to declare me a writer before realising I could do so myself. So, a few years ago I became a copywriter and began taking fiction writing more seriously too. Though widely unpublished I continue to write and have found the courage to admit I want to be an author. That being, in the past couple of years I’ve embarked upon a dream. A voyage mapped out having delved deep to explore the truest passions and pulls within. Bypassing the guard dogs that preserve the most hidden fears and twisted ropes that teether us to pride. It's an adventure that can only be set upon when you release yourself from the fear of failure or, more accurately, when you free yourself from all dedication to destination. For these are the roads taken for the journey because the destination is unlikely to ever be reached. It is an Ithaka.
“Arriving there is what you’re destined for.
But don’t hurry the journey at all.
Better if it lasts for years,
so you’re old by the time you reach the island,
wealthy with all you’ve gained on the way,
not expecting Ithaka to make you rich.”
- Extract from the poem Ithaka by C. P. Cavafy
It is unsurprising then, given the fragile nature of the quest, that I would be distracted and on this day it was by the words of a song I thought I knew. By the song 'Amelia' pulsing through my writing space and stirring my senses. I followed the words as I never had before and I flew away. There it was. All the feelings I had had but could not dictate, all wrapped up in a discordant electric guitar with Joni’s thick wavering voice carrying a story so familiar I felt it was written for me.
Of course, Amelia was not written for me. It is a musical letter to Amelia Earhart from one solo traveller to another. A homage to the fated pilot. The song was penned as Joni crossed country alone contemplating the sometimes lonely existence her dreams had led her to embark upon. One an artist and one an aviator, Joni ponders over the shared connection she feels they have due to each having chosen a journey of solitude. Within the song, Joni appears to wrestle with questions over the distractions that lead a solo traveller off course - were they real or, as she puts it, ‘false alarms?’
To write is to allow the mind to wander. To perfect writing is to commit the mind to a mission. Neither can be done in any way but alone. At least, not novel writing and not the kind of songwriting that Joni Mitchel has achieved. That’s not to say that others do not inspire it, bolster your resolve or help the material into something palatable and relatable in the real world. Yet, mostly it's an isolating process. And that it doesn’t always feel good.
I both love and hate writing. It can be a time when I reach far-off places and it shows up like an unexpected gift. I can be at my kitchen table and travel worlds. I live both in the real world and outside of it. I can pour into the being of another fictional person and know things only they can know. It can be magic.
It can also be a harsh and unforgiving battle between your instincts, your ability and your ego. Sometimes the story is more pulled out of me than flowing and editing means taking a scalpel to parts that pained you to create and are then forced to destroy so that everything else might mean more. Writing is not always the peaceful process many envisage it to be - just a person and a laptop in a window with a view that gives way to rolling hills as they daydream, and type, daydream, and type.
The process moves more like a river. It changes pace - at moments calm and other times erosive and cruel. And, it can only be travelled alone.
This goes a long way to explaining why hearing the song Amelia somehow stole my attention. Apart from the fact it's always both inspiring and demoralising to hear the words of a far better composer than you, I found myself turning into the story.
Sung at the end of each verse, it was the refrain, 'Amelia, it was just a false alarm,' that most intrigued me. It was a line I had never fully contemplated. Yet, on this day I found myself connecting with the idea of false alarms as a metaphor for unfulfilled dreams and missed opportunities. The line follows each verse, all of which seem to describe an ambiguous scenario. One perhaps of Amelia responding to a false alarm that veered her off course. One of a vision Joni had upon her journey that felt like it meant something but, she seemed to decide, didn’t. Then there is love - an affair that led to nothing. In one verse, Joni acknowledges the pain but in the next verse she attests to hiding the pain by telling Amelia, ‘It was just a false alarm.’
Was it a false alarm? Is it true, as she claims in the song, that the author never really knew love at all? That she was so far up in the clouds that so ‘crashed into his arms’, as she muses? Was it really only a false alarm? Or is it a lie she tells herself because it's impossible to embrace the dreams destined to be met if we are distracted by such things as love? Or, is it possible that this is a lie we tell ourselves when our wants go unmet? That it is part of a bigger plan, a routed-out destiny that would not allow for such frivolous things as romance or domesticity.
Certainly, this is something I have been distracted by and that I might hold responsible for delaying the pursual of other dreams. I have replaced the photos in the photo frames a few times now. Said goodbye to gardens I never got to see thrive and I never stayed long enough to learn to sleep as deeply beside someone else as I do when alone. And yet still they come and they fool me, these false alarms. Sometimes, they have veered me off course completely and I have followed, willingly, barefoot, and with childlike curiosity only to discover myself lost. Occasionally, I’ll meet someone like me. Another dreamer. We recognise one another and there is an invisible pull yet, these fellow wayfarers will never stand still long enough to let you love them. Even when it hurts enough so it feels almost as if you did. And yet, I have been the one to walk away too. I have never learned to love without losing myself and at some point, I have always had to stand still, gather myself up again, pick up the dreams and ambitions I had cast aside, only to look back up and find that the gap between us now is too wide.
There are many reasons this song meant something to me on that day, and ever since, but it is also, though not typically on a greatest hits album, heralded as one of Joni's most splendid creations. One that speaks to all dreamers of all kinds, and to women in particular.
Constructed as an open letter from one woman to another, generations before her, the imaginings of the song Amelia are in many ways it’s not unlike Virginia Woolf’s Room Of One’s Own where Woolf imagines Shakespeare had a sister. Through this fictional scenario, Woolf explores the possibility that a talent of that magnitude could have survived in the body of a woman. The conclusion, of course being that it would not. A woman at that time would not have been given the tools, time or opportunity to make her mark, despite the talent and fire she may have been blessed with. History and art are littered with lists of women who have broken through and those who could not and there pulsates an invisible connection between them, breaking genres and professions even. These women find solace and comfort in one another even having lived generations apart because we need to. Though we may be of different times and places, though the barriers have eroded somewhat as decades have passed, we are still brought together in the strange perusal of dreams and ambition and disappointment.
It is not easy to be a solo pioneer as a woman. Indeed, it is almost considered unfeminine or selfish to want for anything outside of the role of nurturing family and striving for romantic connections and domesticity, much less to admit you are endeavoring to make a mark upon the world. Yet, the fictional sister of Shakespeare did. So did Woolf and Earhart and Joni Mitchell. So do I. So do many women I know who run businesses, freelance, make art, make music, or simply refuse to be conventional.
Maybe we can never really have everything. Perhaps there’s a price for the kind of freedom that comes from within and it’s not truly possible to have both roots and wings. Still, it’s a beautiful, lonely, privilege to be able to travel through dreams and imagination.
I am a dreamer and a traveller at heart. And whatever false alarms may come along, I return always to writing. Because I am another Joni, another Amelia, another person who sees maps in the clouds and visions in jet plane vapour trails and who moves through dreams - 'dreams, Amelia, dreams and false alarms.'