Everybody has a book in them, apparently, and I am no exception. In January this year I started a professional writing master’s degree. I thought I might pull off writing a book if I actually knew what I was doing. I still don’t, but I’m starting to feel a little bit closer to identifying what my book is going to consist of. Words, for one. Hurrah! It’s a breakthrough. It’s so easy to tell people you are writing a book – and, as I did, to leave work in 2002 telling everyone with smug certainty that’s what you’re going to do – but it’s not so easy to admit, seven years later, that not only are you nowhere near achieving your goal, you haven’t even started, and furthermore, you don’t actually know what kind of book you want to write. I have been in the dark for a long time.
This week, everyone on the MA course had to pick a specialism, and for me, that choice came down to fiction and non-fiction. In order to make the decision, I had to look very closely at my motivation for writing. The reason I’d given up work to write a book in 2002 was because my daughter had died, and I desperately needed to write and tell the world about it. At the beginning, I shared everything: the grief was my guiding force, and I couldn’t believe anyone wouldn’t want to read about it. I even sent one of my heartfelt poems to the New Yorker: that’s how good I thought it was. (Now I know I was mistaking depth of feeling for good writing. I don’t know anything at all about writing poetry for public consumption.) As time went on, I began to feel embarrassed about my wretched prose as well, and I didn’t want anyone to see my naked grief any more. Deciding to do the master’s course was a push to make good on an old resolution in a way that wouldn’t be just writing-as-therapy. The grief is a guiding force for my writing, but now I understand it is not the only one.
I browsed my bookshelves looking for a sign, something that would inspire me to make the right decision. I came across Isabel Allende’s Paula, a book she began writing while her daughter was in a coma and finished after Paula died. I pulled the book down to examine it again. I’ve read it many times. It is a book mired in sadness, but it is also a book about the joy of living. One reviewer described it as “beautiful and heart-rending…Memoir, autobiography, epicedium, perhaps even some fiction: they are all here, and they are all quite wonderful.” For me, the book was like a grief potion: as soon as I opened it, familiar waves of loss came streaming out of the bottle. I sat curled up in my favourite armchair, lost in the narrative and sighing at Allende’s prose, and realised this was a format I wanted to explore. It reflected something I wrote in my MA application, and somehow I’d forgotten: I want to document my daughter's story and help others understand and deal with grief and loss; I would like to help others avoid feeling, as I did, like an undignified, invisible, stupid human being. Then I wrote to Isabel Allende in bold sorrow and told her I was going to write a memoir.
To my astonishment, Isabel wrote back, not just to tell me she was sorry about Maia’s death, but also to offer some advice. Could I have received a clearer sign? I don’t think so. I am finally going to get my words down on paper, although I am well aware that the hardest part is yet to come: I’ve got to start looking the facts in the eye again. Isabel told me this: “Writing a memoir about loss is like going into a cavern with a candle, illuminating every corner slowly, finding your way in the darkness.” I haven’t gone into the cavern yet, but I’m glad to have found the candle.