Do you have to be moving a pen across a page or tapping fingertips on a keyboard to be ‘writing’? Yesterday, I wrote the first 500 words I’ve managed in the last two weeks, barring blog and journal, and all of them were a load of rubbish. Just now, I deleted the lot. But I have been thinking about writing, dwelling on my stories like problems. Does that count?
Nearly two weeks ago, my folio was workshopped by my classmates/colleagues/amazeballs-writers at the IIML. It went really well and I came away depleted but happy. I had a stress headache for the next couple of days though; I guess the intensity of the work leading up to the workshop and the workshop itself had taken its toll. The lovely thing is, I am getting ever closer to knowing where I’m going with those narratives now as a result, and am figuring out what I want to try with each one.
There’s fourteen weeks to go before we have to hand in our folios. Fourteen! There’s a lot to do in fourteen weeks and so I can’t afford two weeks of not producing word count, or at least improving existing word count. All that work is a little overwhelming, and I still need to produce a couple of brand new stories before I’m done.
Distraction is not preventing me from putting pen to paper. I am used to coping with distractions. As I sit here at my desk, the film The Incredibles is playing in the background, my six year old is asking for help with her Rubick’s Cube and the youngest is coming down with some sort of coughing bug. But I’m writing. So,that’s not what is stopping me from forming words, and nor is the size of the project. I’m used to deadlines and big tasks – you chip away, that’s the key; I’ve learnt that.
But there is something that keeps tripping me up when I write. I think I’ve finally got to the point where the non-fiction elements of these stories are getting in the way of their success as fictional stories, and I have to let go of the truth in order to achieve something like authenticity.
Take the death scene in one of the stories I’ve written. An old lady is dying in hospital surrounded by her family. She’s gripped by a painful death rattle for a few hours, which gets steadily worse. Finally, her breath stops, and she becomes lucid for a few moments while she looks at each member of her family in turn. She hears her husband telling her that he loves her and then she winces as her heart stops and she dies. It sounds like a corny scene from out of a Hallmark movie, right? Well, in fact that’s how my father died. Almost exactly. Even down to the last words he heard from his girlfriend as she held his hand.
Shortly after my marriage ended, I had a brief relationship with a farmer down in Leeston, just South of Christchurch. One night he told me how his father died and it was exactly the same: the death rattle, the last few moments of lucidity, the last connection with the people he loved who’d gathered around him. So, it is real life. It wasn’t just my dad who went that way, but is it good fiction? The answer unfortunately is no.
I have been instructed by my supervisor, and she is right, to mix it up a bit to create a believable death scene, even though I know from experience that some people really do die like that. Something has to happen to take away the sentimentality for it to become ‘real’ on the page.
But maybe the answer is to take another look at what actually happened when my father died?
One thing that I’ve left out about my father’s death may actually be the way to save the scene in the story.
My sister, bless her, is controlling and bossy to say the least, and that night six years ago she bustled into the room where my dad was dying to be welcomed by the death rattle at full throttle. It was a hideous noise, and a result of the cancer in Dad’s oesophagus and mouth that took his life so quickly. My sister got angry with us for not getting the doctor round to give him something to ease his breathing. I didn’t want us to interfere with anymore drugs or treatment, and so I argued about it. He’d had enough ineffective medical treatment. He was fighting death to the last, that was the problem. But she called the doctor and he got his needle out straightaway. He searched my father’s skeletal body for a place to inject him with God knows what. He found some flesh on his thigh and dad writhed in pain as the needle went in. I had to look away. As the doctor closed the door behind him, that’s when the moment of lucidity came. The looking one last time at each of us in turn, then dying.
My brother, Dad’s son, heir and family comedian, said: ‘Well I don’t think much of him as a doctor.’ And in the midst of our misery, we fell about laughing. Dad would have been laughing the loudest. As the laughter turned into tears, last goodbyes, and desperate holding, my brother slipped out and opened the front door, as is tradition, to let Dad’s soul out of the house.
That’s the sort of detail I need to inject into my scene. A moment when real life can help art rather than hinder it. Perhaps that’s just one more aspect of writing that this course is teaching me – what to put into a narrative from real life and what to leave out. I also want to honour my father in these stories. He above everyone else encouraged me to be a writer. I have a comforting idea that he’s very happy playing golf and going to the pub with his (also deceased) brothers somewhere in the ether, knowing that I’m pursuing our dream.
On a personal note, that’s the part of not having a beloved that disturbs me the most, having witnessed Dad and his girlfriend saying goodbye six years ago. She held his hand when the rest of us were too exhausted from his battle. She kissed his mouth when it was blackened and stinking and full of cancer. Her ‘I love you’ was the last thing he heard. She meant it too. I’ll always be grateful to her for that.
Living alone, I can cope with very easily. But dying alone? That terrifies me above all else.
Anyway, I’m fairly sure that once I’m ready to start writing again, the words will come. I just need to open the door – let them out.
(Thanks blog – Now I know which story to redraft tomorrow 🙂