Dylan Thomas once said ‘It’s easy to write poetry: just open a vein and write’. There’s the rub, though: opening a vein hurts, and you bleed.
For the past year I’ve been trying to write a memoir of my late brother, who killed himself forty years ago after nearly a decade of severe mental illness. The first part was fun: our 50s childhood, the difference of growing up in a continental home, our parents’ huge circle of friends and their interest in music, the arts and literature. As I wrote, more and more details of those good times surfaced in my memory and I realized once again how privileged we
were, and at the same time how deprived of extended family and of ‘belonging’ in a British culture.
Then it came to the hard part: the times when our happy family felt more like a broken one, the constant admissions to psychiatric wards, the repeated attempts and failures on his part to live away from home. And finally, the hardest paragraph: his death. That was all I wrote that week (stupidly, I’d reduced my own anti-depressants just before reaching this part). I’ve barely written anything since, and I’m struggling to motivate myself to begin again.
The thing is, I’d opened a vein. And it hurt, it really hurt. I started dreaming about my brother again, something I hadn’t done for a long time. I started remembering how hard things were and how much I still feel his loss. But I have this suspicion, that if I can keep the vein open and bleeding, I will produce the best writing I have done in a long time, maybe ever. Do I want to go through that pain, though? Or do I just say ‘It was worth trying’ and turn my attention to something I can write with the head, not with the heart, something I can forget about when I leave my desk?
Does writing have to hurt? I think maybe it does; that really good writing has to come from a place we are reluctant to visit, the place of our deepest feelings and our scariest fears. Take the novelist Barbara Kingsolver. I devoured her first novel, The Poisonwood Bible, which fictionalized her experience of being a missionary’s daughter in Africa, and which she said had taken her 30 years to write. Every word was written in her heart’s blood. Nothing she has written since has had the same impact on me, even though I enjoyed them. That first book was written from an open vein.
So now I have to decide. Will I go where I really want to, into the unknown (and yet well known) darkness of writing from the most sensitive part of my being, or just churn out more witty and provocative, but ultimately ephemeral, opinions? Does it have to hurt? I suspect it does.
Veronica Zundel is a freelance writer whose latest book is Everything I know about God, I've learned from being a parent (BRF 2013). She also writes a column for Woman Alive magazine, and Bible notes for New Daylight. Veronica belongs to the only non-conservative, English speaking Mennonite church in the UK, and also blogs at reversedstandard.com