To the woman sitting in the front row at the ISLA festival yesterday, who’s writing a chronicle of grief and asked how to write her pain – I wish I’d got the chance to speak to you after the session, but since I didn’t:
Writing something big like that – it doesn’t happen all at once. Like the illness and treatment, it’s so enormous it threatens to drown you, but you don’t have to deal with the whole enormous weight and heft of it at once. Try breaking it into manageable bits. In my case: the big thing (operation) is not happening now, today. This is just a scan, I can do that, I’ve had scans before. All I have to do now is go down the stairs; all I have to do now is wait in the x-ray department; now let them give me this injection – and I’m so used to those; now lie down on this machine and let my mind drift while it whirrs and clicks around me …
Try writing it in small, manageable increments like that. One word at a time. Think of Hemingway’s question: What’s the truest thing you know, right now? Write that.
When I wrote the notebooks that grew into In Your Face, it began as letting everything stream out onto the page uncensored. But writers can’t keep that sort of thing up for long. Next thing you’re looking for better ways to say it, how to capture this nuance, this precise shade of feeling; how to shape an image, a phrase, a sentence. When I was ill and in danger this way of writing felt like the most urgent task that faced me. It was the only thing I could do to help myself in a hospital/emergency situation. I had to find my way inside the experience and claim it. The only tool I had was language.
When I found the right words to express whatever nightmare was riding me at that time, I felt the balance of power shift in my favour. For example, when I understood that My mouth is eating me I was less afraid. I was in charge of this at least, the order and meaning of words in that sentence.
I hope that makes sense to you. I hope it helps.
And to lovely David, who asked about the title of In Your Face (and thank you for your questions), what I should have said is this:
One day when I was home again but still a bit of a mess after surgery etc, I slipped out to the bins with my head down, hoping no one would be about on the street to see me. This is the kind of thing you must never allow to creep into your fiction, but I swear it’s true: the sun came out and touched my head, my neck, my shoulder – and yes, my face. It was a cold winter’s day but light and warmth came out to find me. And I thought – you idiot. You’ve been given a second chance, what are you going to do with it, hide behind the curtains for however long you’ve got? Take it with both hands and a whole heart and go out and face the world. The title, In Your Face, was a kind of inner standing up and saying, yeah my face is wrecked, so what?