“I have written you down now/You will live forever” -Bastille, “Poet”
Can I call myself a writer now?….how about now?
I’ve always envied people who, even from childhood, knew what they wanted to be when they grew up. Those people who have that one great passion-one calling: to be a doctor, an actor, a musician, a writer, a teacher. I suppose for them it can be both a blessing and a curse. I suppose they also suffer crises of confidence-perhaps they too doubt themselves, but at least for them, at the end of the day, their one great passion is also their refuge, the thing that they can pour themselves into and for that moment, be fulfilled. It gives their life meaning.
My passion has always been pretty much everything. I am that most unfortunate of creatures. The jack-of-all-trades, master of none. And the older I get, the more frustrating it becomes, the less content I am with not really knowing my place in the world. And I ask myself “who am I?” Then, “does it matter?” Should it matter? Should I be content to simply exist?
But something strange and wonderful happened when my mother died. As the grief became more manageable and I started putting the bits and pieces of myself back together, my search for meaning became clearer. There came a day when I decided it was time to sort through her photographs and 8mm films. No small task, considering she had once been a photographer by profession and her love of photographs meant that her collection spanned nearly 100 years of family history. As I sorted through a massive plastic tote bin of loose photos, I began to realise that life itself is meaning. I began to realise that finding meaning in life is about preserving who we are so that we will live forever in what we leave behind. I knew in that moment that I had to preserve the person my mother was so that she would live forever-for my children, their children. So that like the photographs, someone could one day look back and see who we were. I had to write it down.
I’d like to say a writer was born that day. But I soon discovered that that’s not quite how it works.
Being of a logical sort, I decided that in order to write anything I had to first buy myself a nice notebook. Pen in hand, I sat and stared at the lovely off-white page for what seemed like forever before I started with the brilliant first line “My mother was born in…”
After numerous awful iterations in a similar vein, I decided I needed some help. I bought scads of writing books by the likes of Steven King, Anne Lamott and Natalie Goldberg. But still, every attempt I made reeked. I decided I should take a course on memoir writing. New notebook in hand, pencils sharpened, I was the first student to arrive and the teacher and I introduced ourselves. She asked me to tell her why I was taking the course and I proudly announced “I want to write a memoir about my mother’s life.” She replied “No one wants to read about your mother’s life.”
There were several possibilities for what would happen next: I’d burst into tears or I’d leave the class. Maybe both. But then she added “You have to write your own story.” Hmm…I decided to stay. Over the next few weeks, we learned about runways (yes, that’s one right at the beginning of this piece…Hmph), we struggled to find our inner voice, to avoid adverbs, to “show don’t tell”, to write from scars not wounds. And as I listened to my companions read their work out loud-pieces that touched on massive, extremely personal life changing events, struggles and challenges, all I could think was how lame my story was. I had a mother, she had an interesting life and she died, it was sad, the end. I felt like an impostor with nothing important or interesting to say. Certainly nothing of the calibre that would warrant writing about it.
We were told that the two things all good writers have in common is that they’ve been writing from an early age and they love to read. Well, I wanted to be a good writer, so I took stock: I’ve always been a voracious reader, and I wrote stories when they were assigned at school, papers in university, business proposals, the odd letter to a friend and an occasionally witty facebook post, but writing stories as a vocation? Journaling? Nope. Was I too old? Did I need a degree in English? A love of classics?
I began to wonder if my epiphany about becoming a writer had been akin to Ebeneezer Scrooge’s “..bit of underdone potato.”
But as time passed, I knew I couldn’t give up. Despite all my self doubt, I’d tasted that moment-that shining moment when the words work and you look at what you’ve written and it is good and it is right and while your mind says “where the hell did that come from?” your heart is giving itself high fives. And so I struggled on.
Until I eventually did give up. Who was I kidding? I’m a 43 year old housewife. Somewhere along the way, I had turned my idea of writing my mother’s life story for my children into a mountain of insecurity and doubt. I tried to tell myself it didn’t matter who read it, it was for my kids, but it wasn’t happening. It would never be good enough. I couldn’t scale the mountain.
One night as I got into bed and turned off the light, a character appeared in my head, and like me, she had a story that needed telling. But her voice was easier to hear than my own, so I got out of bed, found a scrap of paper and a pen, and I started writing it down.
Not long after that night, I now had some more characters and a plot outline but I also had children and a busy life-it was tough to get into a writing habit and the type A personality I have been harbouring all my life, the one never content to just “be”, wanted carrot and stick. So I took on the NaNoWriMo challenge. I vowed to give it the best shot I could, and to just write. To not look back, to not edit until I was done, to always finish the day’s writing on a cliffhanger and to write every day. Thirty days and 56,000 words later I had two thirds of a story that wasn’t half bad-a work of fiction into which I had lovingly tucked my own life and the lives of the people I have both loved and hated. Printing off those pages, looking at the words, I understood that I could do it. I just had to keep at it.
So I am a writer now. Perhaps not destined for best sellers and awards, but I know now that one day I will scale that mountain and write my mother’s story-my story; for her, for me and for my children. And I hope that it one day finds its way onto a bookshelf somewhere, and that it gives some meaning to the vagaries of life.
Now I just have to finish writing it all down.
“All sorrows can be borne if you put them in a story or tell a story about them.” Karen Blixen under the pen name Isak Dinesen