Her book on anxiety, First, We Make The Beast Beautiful, was a best-selling masterpiece. Now, Sarah Wilson is back with a new novel about how to live a meaningful, joyous life in a difficult world.
In early 2020, Sarah Wilson had sent her second non-fiction book to the printers. It was initially going to be called Wake The F**k Up, before she switched the title for the more charming This One Wild and Precious Life. The book was a sprawling conversation on finding joy and purpose and a meaningful life despite the things that are seeking to destroy or disrupt such a way of being – be it capitalism, disconnection, political fragmentation or the really big elephant in the room, climate change. Her deadline to have the book delivered to the printers was February, and then the devastating bushfires hit Australia. The elephant in the room started stomping even louder.
Remember those end-of-the-world photos that hit our newsfeed from Australia, with a blood red sky and people and animals cowering for shelter on the beach? Remember the pale, unearthly yellow smoke that lit up Auckland that morning in January? Now, knee deep in the continuing global wreckage of 2020 – and a new set of red skies – those ghoulish photos feel like an omen we missed.
It was two days after Sarah’s book arrived at the printers that Covid-19 was declared a global pandemic. She pulled the book back from the printers, worried that her work of three years would now look irrelevant. Turns out, the subsequent shut down and then breakdown of much of our global society meant her writing was timelier than ever.
“Covid-19 turned out to be almost the best PR machine for my book – all these complex ideas that I was writing about, to do with capitalism, consumption, our disconnect, our removal from what matters in life, were suddenly brought to the foreground,” she says on the phone to Capsule from her flat in Sydney. “I call Covid-19 the great revealer – it stripped everything back and we saw life for what it was. I had spent three years exploring all of these things and suddenly here it was, on a plate.”
Her bestselling 2017 book First, We Make the Beast Beautiful, mixed Sarah’s personal experiences with anxiety, bipolar and OCD with the wider conversation of how we talk about mental distress, the expectations we place on ourselves, the ever-ramping-up-pace of modern life and how our minds and bodies are often struggling to catch up. It was a phenomenal piece of work. I, like a lot of people, have found it very helpful during the lockdowns of 2020 – and it took Sarah out of only being known for her I Quit Sugar business.
“I write these books to heal my own stuff and that’s what my life has become,” she says. “It’s worked out to be a very good career path for me – I have curiosity, I go off the path to explore it and find the answers… how lucky am I to have that as a job?”
The saying “what is most personal is most universal” rings true for many female authors, who peel the veil back off difficult topics – marriage break-ups, mental breakdowns, living through trauma, the works. Quite often, they are writing the books they themselves have needed.
“I literally did write [First We Make the Beast Beautiful] in order to feel less alone – and it worked,” Sarah says. “With that book, and then the conversations I had with people afterwards, I felt less lonely; I felt less like a freak alone in the world. And as a result, my anxiety has gone right down to being completely manageable… it’s been the most incredible “fix” I could have asked for. And then with this book, I’d written it because there was another aspect of enquiry I wanted to explore and it came down to a different kind of loneliness. I needed to find the hopeful path – it was missing for me. So, I went off and did it.”
The book paints a stark picture of what we – humans – are up against, in terms of climate change in particular, but also in the other insidious malaises like disconnection, the political clusterf**ks of our times, the general hopelessness felt by a lot of people. “I think the truth is the only way to be hopeful,” says Sarah. “Whenever we’re talking around the elephant in the room, I find that more despairing. I also think that the salve is coming back to nature. Everything that’s happening in the world, it might take us to the kind of human being, the kind of life, that we’ve been craving. It’ll force us to become adults. The hope lies in our hopelessness – we’ve given up on anyone coming to save us. We’re going to have to save ourselves.”
Just like the dual storyline of Beast, This One Wild and Precious Life also balances the wider context amongst Sarah’s own journeys, as she hikes her way around the world in places like Jordan, the US and Japan, while undergoing the internal journey of trying to become a mother at 45. The logistics of hope versus reality in terms of fertility are presented just as honestly in the book as the logistics of hope versus reality in terms of the world itself. The book gets very real, often. “I do this with all my books – I use my books to push myself to the next level,” Sarah says. “I had this sense that here I was, writing this book about being open and raw and connecting and it would be entirely hypocritical of me if I then didn’t adhere to that. I had to test my own theory, that radical openness would bring us closer.”
It already would have been a radical book to release into the wild, then of course it came out in the most radical year possible. Even getting the book itself took a long time – when we speak on the phone, Sarah has only just got a physical copy two days previously. Live Nation have organised an Australasian book tour – “They normally tour Beyoncé and Bill Gates; they can’t come, so they’ve got me” – but of course the possibilities of being able to fly trans-Tasman change every other week. We are living through the biggest period of uncertainty humans have faced – and modern life has left us thoroughly unequipped for such an environment. “We are a generation that’s been cocooned from uncertainty. Every app that’s out there is designed around being able to check – check information, check how long our pizza is going to take. We don’t ever have to be uncertain. So, when something happens – like a global pandemic and a global recession – there is just so much unknown there. We don’t know if we’re going to have our jobs, we don’t know if our children are going to be able to experience the freedoms we took for granted. Ditto with the climate crisis. We are in a state of absolute anxiety. Doesn’t matter where you are in the world – that’s a common pain point.”
She describes the reality of not being in lockdown, but knowing it’s an imminent possibility, as being like watching a horror movie. “You can tell by the music that something bad is about to happen and these unsuspecting actors you’re watching have no idea; it’s surreal to be observing it – that’s how a lot of us are feeling. We have a sense that Covid-19 is only just one expression of the wrongness that’s out there and that’s what’s really frightening,” she says.
“In terms of writing the book, in terms of managing my own anxiety around it, I found it helpful to not think [that] I had to find an answer for the coronavirus, for the climate crisis, for the political fragmentation, racism – Black Lives Matter has happened amongst all of this as well. Really, it’s all the same path that we’re going to have to tread and that is getting back to nature, coming back to our [own] real nature, coming back to what matters. It’s all the same thing.”
Uncertainty inexperience aside, Sarah says we’re actually a lot more mentally resilient than we might think we are. In the book, she writes about the fact that following trauma, people are less likely to experience post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) than they are to experience post-traumatic growth. We can often grow sharper, clearer, in the wake of disaster. You might have noticed this in the conversations you’re having with friends in this ‘new normal’ – for some, there’s been a palpable shift in what matters.
“We underestimate our ability to handle tough times, and it goes back to that society where we’ve cocooned ourselves, and secondly we also underestimate our ability to grow, and in fact our need to grow, from harsh experiences. And when we’re put in those situations, a disaster happens, somebody dies, we have to go to war, whatever it might be – it’s incredible how we rally to our truest, strongest self. When we’re going about our everyday life, that aspect of ourselves isn’t present. It only comes out when there’s a really tough moment.”
“Human history is defined by moments like football games or baseball games where at the last couple of seconds, the losing side comes through with some sort of super human touchdown. We mobilised in WWII in a matter of weeks, when nobody thought that was logistically possible. Human history is filled with these kinds of magical experiences where we rise [up] in adversity – and we pretty much only do it because of adversity. And we can see what’s happening now as the trigger for us becoming the kind of humans we want to be.”
This One Wild And Precious Life is out now in all good book stores. For more information on the title, including a book club discussion guide, visit Sarah’s website here.
For information on the upcoming book discussion tour, visit https://www.livenation.com.au/artist/sarah-wilson-tickets