Adele and I don’t share many similarities, but we are united in one thing – heartbreak. When it was announced last month that the singer was separating from her husband Simon Konecki, the father of her child, there were the usual platitudes, commiserations and inevitable trolling. There was also a groundswell of glee.
Fans were breathlessly chattering in online forums and on Twitter and Instagram feeds about whether the emotional fallout from the break-up would be the trigger for another spine-tingling, heartfelt album.
Heartbreak has long fired creativity. Think of Sylvia Plath’s poetry or Ernest Hemingway’s novel A Farewell to Arms. Remember Edvard Munch’s Love and Pain and Frida Kahlo’s Little Deer. In music the list is endless: Amy Winehouse’s ‘Back To Black’, Velvet Underground’s ‘Pale Blue Eyes’, REM’s ‘Everybody Hurts’ and Beyoncé’s album Lemonade, to name but a few.
‘If I was truly happy I’d be useless,’ said the singer Pink recently. And pop star Sam Smith has thanked the lover who broke his heart and inspired his album In The Lonely Hour, saying, ‘You won me four Grammys.’
So if heartbreak fuels artistry, does domesticity do the opposite? Do stability and happiness smother creative flames like a fire blanket?
Can it be a coincidence that musicians struggle to find their muse when they are safely ensconced in a Home Counties mansion, immune to the exquisite pain of real life? Singer Florence Welch thinks so. ‘Contentment,’ she says, ‘is a creativity killer.’ The truth is, we want to read and see moments of crisis, of extreme high-octane emotions. And now I have experience of that in spades.
Let’s rewind. Just last summer I thought that stability was what I needed in order to be creative. That early nights and solid foundations gave me the essential headspace to produce my best writing. I was wrong. Yes, the cottage in the countryside, the beautiful children and the strong, steady husband gave me the base from which to work – and I did so happily. I deliberately chose, deliberately created, a life that was the opposite of the one I grew up with.
I was brought up an only child of a single parent, where money was tight but love abundant. It made me want the full family of four, the roses round the door, the conventional setup. I wanted a happy marriage. For years it was – blissfully free of jealousy, insecurity, doubt. I felt the surety of love. Then, after 26 years, my marriage imploded. My husband did and said things that I could never have imagined. He grew cold and angry. It left me unable to eat, sleep and – crucially – write anything beyond the superficial.
I didn’t ‘‘consciously uncouple’’‑ I had my heart ripped out AND stamped on. I’m not about to put a PR spin on it
For six months my brain skittered about like a pinball. I waited anxiously for each ambiguous, lacklustre text and the footsteps on the path that never came. I couldn’t concentrate on anything. I lurched from phone call to phone call, chain-smoking through friends’ kind words. Every morning I woke and for a blissful split second felt nothing, until the darkness smashed through, flooding my body with hopelessness and sorrow. There was no space for achieving anything other than the essentials of the kids’ daily lives and writing my routine, bread-and-butter copy.
I thought this proved my theory that I needed safety and security to give me the headspace to be creative. I was wrong.
‘Write your feelings down,’ urged my counsellor. ‘I say that to everyone, but surely for you – as a writer – it makes even more sense.’
But I didn’t want to write it down, because that would make it real. Then, one day, my husband walked down the path to a new life, leaving my and our children’s smashed hearts behind.
When he moved out of our home – the home he had so painstakingly created – he took with him any hope of restoring our love. I thought I could never bear the loneliness of writing about it, of revisiting the pain. Yet when I did, the words came tumbling out. I had last written with such honesty and ease when I was a student, then a young intern, in London – when I felt rootless and unsure. When I didn’t have the safety and security of the familiar. When life was exhilarating but also frightening. When I found myself living in unfamiliar postcodes. When I spent weekends on National Express coaches visiting old friends in their strange new cities. When we would spend our nights in clubs, abandoning ourselves to the music, then wake up in houses we didn’t know. When there was no money to immunise us from the hardships of life. No chance of a cab in the rain, or a hotel room if we ended up locked out. And I was the richer for it.
Because when I started writing, I realised my unconventional childhood had gifted me a rawness that connected with people. I realised that that rawness had been buffed away in recent years, polished smooth by the life I had so carefully created.
Now it was as if I’d been dipped in paint stripper and my naked self was exposed. I’ve always had skin a few millimetres thinner than your average Joe. At this point, though, it seemed even more permeable to every emotion.
Post heartbreak, the songs on the radio suddenly spoke to my soul. My daughter insists on Radio 1 and Freya Ridings’ ‘Lost Without You’ was played on repeat. The line ‘You were the only safe haven that I’ve known’ makes my heart constrict and my eyes prick with tears – even as I write this. Ditto with Post Malone singing ‘Better Now’. The movies on flights (even the rubbish ones) seemed to contain truths that pierced my heart. (Why is it that films at 38,000 feet are exponentially more touching?)
Now when I write I am determined to stay true to my feelings. To not hide the reality from myself or from others. The fact is I didn’t ‘consciously uncouple’
I had my heart ripped out and stamped on. I’m not about to put a PR spin on it.
The whole, ‘it was a mutual decision and we remain the closest of friends and look forward to co-parenting amicably’? No.
I sent my words to a book agent who responded instantly to the honesty. After years of procrastinating about writing a book, this has given me the impetus and the story I needed. In an age of Instagram, where people not only filter their image but put a gloss on their emotions, it is that honesty – the sobbing on the bathroom floor, the true anguish of betrayal and rejection – that makes us identify with Adele, Beyoncé, Dolly Parton, whoever.
You often only get to glimpse this in their chosen oeuvre. You definitely don’t see it in a press conference or a guarded magazine interview. But in their music these artists can own their heartbreak, rather than see it refracted back through the media circus’s hall of mirrors.
Knowing that they, too, have suffered helps. It helps me to know that someone as beautiful and talented as Beyoncé has experienced the same searing pain and desperation that I have – and emerged from it stronger. They help me and I, in turn, hope my writing can help someone. Anyone.
So the irony is, while I am at an emotional all-time low, my career is flying high. Like Adele, I’m turning ‘my sorrow into treasured gold’. Silver linings…