‘Give sorrow words…’William Shakespeare
Write to be understood, speak to be heard, read to grow.’Lawrence Clark Powell
I’d like to write about why I write. Why I need to write and when I say ‘need’ I don’t mean that in an ‘arty’ self-important kinda way, like the ‘need’ to craft a beautiful piece of breath-taking prose to then share with the world to wide acclaim… though that would be nice. No, I mean just to write it out, scribe it out; just writing down ‘stuff’.
I do that a lot. I write about how I feel. I express my emotions on paper, however mad or bad or sad they might be, in a daily journal. I rarely read what I write, when I do I’m often amused, sometimes astonished and sometimes dismayed that I’m still going on and on about a same old, same old issue.
I find that writing soothes me. I use it as a tool to work through things, to work things out, to simply help me through my daily round and to deal with bigger issues. I write to understand. That is to understand my feelings. To understand myself. I think in a way I’m also trying to find validation for those feelings. Through my writing I might also explore why I have acted in a certain way, and quite naturally I will also speculate as to why others have taken actions that might puzzle me. Though I try to take a conscious detour whenever I find myself doing that, as trying to work out what’s in the head of another is of course impossible and futile. It’s hard enough to sort out what’s going on in my own head at times.
I wrote in Dear You that writing is my solution. I’m not sure that solution is the right word as it doesn’t ‘solve’ anything but it helps me work through ‘stuff’. For example, I have written my way through my infertility treatment. I scribed away throughout the heartbreak of my first marriage breaking down. I also wrote through my father’s dementia and later his death. I think I can bung in a quote here – I love quotes from wise and wonderful people. Dear You is peppered with them. So, I’ll quote Shakespeare (no less) he says simply ‘Give sorrow words…’
At times I find my writing can be measured and patient and at others it can come out in a big rush. There are times when I can hardly write the words down quickly enough. I think this simple act of putting a pen on a piece of paper, the time it takes write out the words, allows time for the thoughts to bubble up. I feel there is a power in writing down how something feels, it doesn’t have to be read by anyone. You don’t even have to read it back to yourself, but it’s out there, and it can, at times feel like that emotion has been released, however trivial or petty it might be.
A very dear friend of mine who is into mindfulness and meditation, as I am, only I tend to fall asleep in meditation, or let my ever growing ‘to do’ list crowd my thoughts, but I think meditation is a wonderful thing to practice; bringing some calm to a stressful day has to be a great thing. My friend said to me ‘Writing is your meditation Tess’ (she’s is very insightful). I hadn’t thought of it in that way before, but it felt so true.
I’m talking about everyday ‘journaling’ here (if that’s an actual word) and I suppose as in meditation where a quiet place and somewhere comfortable is required, I too need that quiet place, I also need a my lookie-likie Moleskin notebook (from Lidl’s – who knew?) I write with a fountain pen and in brown ink. It’s just a quirk of mine, but what I’m doing here I guess, quite subconsciously, is making a ritual of my daily words.. What I don’t need is wi-fi, a fully charged device or the Headspace App. I do however require a cup of tea by my side.
Throughout my life, I have written at different times of the day, when I was going through my marriage breakdown I wrote in a Muji Kraft paper notebook, I wrote in pencil and at the end of the each day. It wasn’t a happy read. Though actually there were some funny bits. When I read Nick Hornby’s High Fidelity (just love Nick Hornby) the confessional intimate style in this novel is like you are a mate he is confiding in, it’s a joy. For those of you who haven’t read High Fidelity it’s a novel about a relationship breakup and it took me back to my journals and when I read them, I thought the odd line here and there was quite profound. I then wrote my first novel, about my marriage break down, the autobiographical one we all need to get out of our system. Reading some sections of my journals sowed a seed in me that made me think that perhaps I could write. I mean really ‘write’. I’ll admit here I struggled when I first thought of sharing this with you, as I wasn’t brought up to parp my own trumpet. I share this scenario with my imagined children in Dear You.
I’ve been brought up to dislike the ‘blow your own trumpet’ brigade. I learned this quite young; aged about five or six I was bridesmaid to a cousin of my mother’s. I remember the outfit vividly; the dress, a pale sage green fabric with lace overlay, and a matching pillbox hat. All beautifully made by my dear mum. I also had a pair of silver ‘party’ shoes, which I had coveted for what seemed like for ever and had previously been denied. Suffice to say I was feeling good. I said to my mother: ‘Lots of people have told me I look pretty!’ I presume I must have sounded rather too far to the right of precocious, as my mother replied, through pinched lips: ‘You don’t say so yourself though, dear.’ Zap. The flames of my bonfire certainly weren’t going to get any fanning that day. That little girl wasn’t being vain though, was she? Enjoying the attention? Yes probably and no one likes a show-off, constantly parping about their triumphs. She needed to learn the difference between being boastful and feeling confident. That little girl knew she looked good. What she needed to learn that day was that she did not need to seek proof via the approval of others to feel good about herself. What that little girl didn’t know was that it would take her nigh on fifty years to suss this and still not fully live it even then!
So, if like me, you’re not the sort of person who ever says out loud ‘Yea I’m good at this’ or even a timid ‘actually this is something I’m sort of ok at doing’ the joy of a journal is that it can be a place where trumpet blowing can be done without a qualm. Tell your pages how fabulous you are! Especially if you feel no one else will.
Around the time I started dreaming of a future where I could be Nick Hornby in a skirt, I discovered The Artist’s Way by Julia Cameron and adopted her, now fairly well known practice of ‘Morning Pages’. She is quite specific in how these pages should be written, they must be done ahead of any other activity and kept to 3 pages only. She also advocates doing something called an ‘Artists’ Date’ too, where every week you’re required to do something, go somewhere pleasant/inspiring on your own, this is to fuel the creative mind. It feels like such an worthy thing to do, to nurture the self, re-charge the creative batteries, but I find, despite my best intentions I have rarely managed this practice for more than a couple of weeks. The pages though, I do accomplish most days and in my own way. I just write for as long as I need to, as soon as I can get to my desk and I do try to do a minimum of 3 pages (in my fake moleskin) with my fountain pen…and my brown ink
I also write to escape. To escape to a world where I’d rather be. When I say escape I don’t mean that I live some sort of dark traumatic existence that I need to find solace from, that’s not the case. What I mean is I use my imagination to cope with situations and scenarios that I’m struggling to live with. In the early days of separation from my first husband I created joyful, tearful reconciliations in my head. It made it easier to live alone. Imagining the children I couldn’t have also made that experience lighter and easier for me to bear.
I think that is what I was doing with Dear You – I was writing ‘pretending’ to be a mother , a role I am unable to play in real life but that felt good to imagine.
It wasn’t the first letter I wrote to my unborn children as I tell them in the book…
It’s not the first letter I’ve written to you. I wrote to you in November 2001; it was around the time when I was struggling with the news of the ‘oldie’ pregnancy. The letter around two pages of A4 was a gushy missive full of love and wonder. You would only have been aged about eight, six and if I’d had a third child four. Again I wrote of the sort the mother I would have been to you then and the life we would have shared. How I would have loved you – oh how I would have loved you. I signed it ‘All my love my angels, Mummy’ and I put three kisses beneath. I can hardly put into words how it felt to write the word ‘Mummy’; for the briefest of moments it felt real. I think that first letter heralded my acceptance. It was a cathartic exercise to express my love for you at last.
I still feel this love for you, it’s deep within me, but with no- where for it to go. Sometimes when I feel a little tug of grief at having never really known you, I read the first letter I wrote to you, and yes dear children, I read it and weep.
So why did I feel the need to write this letter to my unborn children… this very much longer letter. I think that many of us who find ourselves childless not by choice regret that we have no heirs to bequeath family traditions to, no kids to pass on little nuggets of advice to, to share stories and anecdotes with. I have a very clear picture of the sort of mother I would have liked to have been had I been lucky enough to have kids and I hoped to reveal that in Dear You.
Telling it how it is feels great. For me to speak out at last, especially on a taboo subject like infertility felt like a release. To write of the shame, my utter embarrassment that my defunct reproduction kit meant that I couldn’t have a family, felt freeing. I think I also needed to validate my experience and for that I needed to be honest.
If you are writing for yourself there is very little point in not being honest. Especially I think in this world of social media where we’re so very busy projecting images of ourselves, how we want to be seen which can sometimes be quite a long way from reality. If you do that in your writing… it will find you out. In fact I believe that writing an honest journal could be an antidote to those who suffer from the pressures of social media where the image of ourselves is expected so be close to perfection it’s ridiculous.
When writing Dear You: A Letter to My Unborn Children, I wasn’t going to lie to them. I had to be completely honest and that I think is also the key to writing memoir.
When I first submitted my manuscript to Clare Christian at RedDoor she came back to me with a number of editorial suggestions but the most striking was this; Clare felt that I’d given rather too much detail on my relationships with other people’s children and also commented that at that point in the book my voice had changed. I was puzzled initially and thought ‘I don’t think so Clare!’ but I went back to the manuscript and I realized she was absolutely right (editors are there for a reason) and the cause of my change of voice in that section was that I wasn’t being honest. In the first draft I had wittered on about what a salve other people’s children were for me, going into great detail about various relationships and how wonderful they were. I went on and on about how they made me feel better about my childless status, but I was writing what I thought people wanted to hear. I reduced that very long section to this short paragraph.
At times I have tried to kid myself that my relationships with other people’s children have been a salve for my childlessness; that they have helped me get over the fact that you never happened for me; but it just isn’t so. The children and young people in my life are not the daughters and sons I never had; they could never, ever, be a substitute for you.
Writing this passage felt freeing for me, it flowed and it felt great, for the simple reason it was the truth. Honesty will help your words flow. In my experience you will get stuck if you try to write what you think people want to hear. I think I knew I wasn’t being true to myself but I had this attachment to being this person whose pain had been abated by other people’s children. This, I think, was in part because I didn’t want to offend the young people in my life whom I love. That’s another area of difficulty in memoir writing, the risk of offending others. I worried about that but if I have, no one has said as much to me. Guess they wouldn’t say it to my face anyway. Quite possibly they haven’t even realized that I was referring to them. I did feel quite exposed when the book was first published but found that a good review from a stranger soon quelled any fears.
I’d like to quote a wise old geezer here,
‘Everything we hear is an opinion not a fact. Everything we see is a perspective, not the truth.’ Marcus Aurelius
Writing this letter as an imagined mother has given me a peace within myself…
I used to get angry when I heard sentences that began with ‘Now that I am a parent, I do/feel/see X differently.’ Comments like, once you have kids you become a universal parent; that parenthood brings a different set of emotional sensitivities; that being a mother means a greater empathy for other mothers. I have wanted to rail at these women and say that, of course, I ache too when I see a starving child in a drought-scarred African landscape; that the sight of a kid scavenging for food on some rubbish tip in South America will make my heart break too. I will be blubbing and calling Children in Need with my credit card number when I hear the story of an eleven year old in Glasgow who is carer for her bed-ridden mother. I will also weep when I see a photograph of beautiful baby boy washed up on a beach in Turkey. I fear I have been too sensitive in viewing such remarks as an implication that as a non-mother I would feel less; I’m sure that wasn’t the intention. My anger in the past I think was from my frustration at feeling excluded. I tried to convince myself that by using my vivid imagination I could know how it feels to be a mother; but I now know that to be a falsehood. I am ready to admit defeat. I am no longer battling to have a status I cannot own; it’s a gentle acceptance only now settling within me. I love you my imagined children, but I cannot know what it feels like to love my own, real, living child and it’s a hollow sentiment to say out loud.
Writing about the upbringing I had envisaged for my children, telling them of the life we might have shared has obviously at times felt sad but I’ve also had a lot of fun. Waffling on about the importance of thank you cards, good manners in general, career advice, all sorts of stuff. It’s been a bit of an indulgence for me. It has also felt good to share how it feels to be childless alongside immersing myself just a little, in the pleasure and joy of parenthood; it filled a void for me.
So how about you? Perhaps there is someone you’d like to write to, alive or dead, real or imagined. Or maybe write to yourself. Your younger self perhaps, or your older self. You might want to write to a person you’re in love with or at odds with or perhaps or just write about them and keep it to yourself.
If you’re someone with ambitions to be published my advice would be to make sure that desire doesn’t stop you from enjoying your writing. I first wrote about my fertility struggles in a straight memoir, it was ok, but when it developed into a letter to my unborn children I absolutely loved writing it and cared a lot less about whether it would get published or not.
I saw a lovely Tweet from best selling author Matt Haig of Reasons to Stay Alive. Someone tweeted to him how many books do you need to sell for it to be a success. Matt’s reply ‘One book with one reader who truly loves and appreciates it, is a success.’ Umm, ok if you’ve got the mortgage covered but you know what I’m saying here. I shared my views on success when giving a spot of career advice to my unborn children…
It’s easy as the parent of imaginary children for me to say I would have encouraged you children to go for lives and careers that just simply made you happy however impossible your dreams might have seemed.
‘Everybody is a genius. But if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing that it is stupid.’ Albert Einstein.
I like to think I would have very quietly guided you within the boundaries of our education system to spot what your passions were and to have encouraged you to follow them however mad or hare-brained. Though you may have inherited my ‘people pleasing’ gene and only voiced ambitions that you knew would suit me. Complicated isn’t it? Luckily I’m not under the pressures of our society to push you to lofty academic achievements, or sporting triumphs. I don’t have to mourn the lack of A*s and blame your teachers or myself. But I believe that whatever someone’s wealth, intelligence or achievements are, the only really successful person is a happy one, whether living in a shoebox or a mansion. In my view any parent who has raised a child that has had a happy childhood can sigh with contentment at a job well done.
I’m presently compiling a list of ‘ Notes to my 82 year old self’ which includes things like – always assume the generation below you know more about technology than you do; to always be on the alert for the appearance of facial hair (the white fishing line variety) for which the purchase of a magnifying mirror might be advantageous; to know that it’s safe to assume the cost of EVERYTHING is pretty much twice as much as you think it should be. I am writing these so that I can be the daughter I never had to my old biddy self. I will file them – or they might get published – but I will read them when I become an octogenarian (hopefully) that’s if I remember that I’ve written them at all and of course where I’ve put them.
Excerpts from Dear You: A Letter to my Unborn Children available to buy here Buy Dear You…