ACW

ACW

Friday, 19 June 2015

Does it have to hurt? By Veronica Zundel

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

9 comments:

  1. Veronica, you are very brave. It takes resolve to write about painful memories. I am trying to do a similar thing, and like you I am not making much progress having reached the painful part of the story. My advice to myself is to have two types of writing going at the same time, so that I can take a break from the difficult task and do something lighter. (In my case this might be revising the early part of the story, which is written in a lack-lustre style. Sue

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  2. I definitely write better when I'm hurting. But I also find the whole process of getting it down on paper, however painful, ultimately eases the agony a bit. An honest post with many challenges. Thank you...

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  3. I think you answered your own question with the reference to Kingsolver and the fact that since then she's written nothing quite so outstanding or moving. I totally agree with you on that novel. It stayed with me for a long time after I'd read it, and one day I hope I'll get the chance to teach it.

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  4. I am battling against writing from the heart it is a vulnerable place to be and yet God calls us into a place of openness and vulnerability to lean into him. Your story, the story of your brother, spoken from the heart could be the healing of another's heart. Keep going :)

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  5. I was going to say you've hit the nail on the head, Veronica, but knowing your humour, it might be more accurate to say you've hit the nail into your heart. I have a quotation on my books page, attributed to American author, Paul Gallico, for whom I used to work. It says: "It's only when you open your veins and bleed onto the page a little that you establish contact with your reader." Paul Gallico And I'm afraid he's right.
    Having written about my daughter's death - five years after she gave up a 13yr heroin addiction - I know just how tough it is. The book was exactly what it's title says it is - A Painful Post Mortem. All I can say is, keep at it no matter how painful you find it. Because although I still weep at times, the reward is in knowing that you've given meaning to your loved one's life; and you've enriched your readers lives. That may be simply in by enlarging their vision, their understanding of something quite outside their experience. Or it may be that they're going through something similar themselves. Or it may be that you're bringing peace to those who've lost someone. Whatever it is, I believe you'll find peace and satisfaction eventually. May God bless you - and your work.

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  6. Really powerful and moving - and so true. Thanks for sharing your thoughts with us Veronica x

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  7. You are immensely brave, Veronica. I once told someone the true story of my childhood. She asked me why I'd never written about it. I said I can't. And I still can't. It's complex, it's not just about avoiding the pain, but about protecting the people who don't know - and perhaps don't want to know - the truth. But I draw on the emotion of that in my other writing. At least that's what I tell myself. Keep on writing, Veronica.

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  8. Veronica, I admire your courage and resolve in pursuing memoir writing because I have begun and faltered several times. My reasons are very similar to those stated by Fiona above. And I can also relate to the way our stories still tend to bleed onto the page, although maybe not in the manner we'd intended.
    It's in blog posts and poetry that I yield to my emotions and feel led to share some deeply personal things which may never make their way into a book. It sounds like you're going through the toughest part and I would urge and encourage you to keep going if possible. Someone out there needs to read the words you share.

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