How much of you do you put in your writing? Your life, your thoughts, your experiences?
I’m talking fiction here, not non-fiction. My kind of non-fiction is unashamedly (and sometimes painfully) autobiographical – but that’s the only way I can do it. How can it possibly help someone coping with a loved one’s dementia if I don’t tell the truth about my experiences, Marigold gloves and all?
But fiction? Don’t you just make it all up?
A writer friend and I were having lunch a while back. She had just returned from a family funeral which had turned into a reality tv contest with each side vying for the most lavish eulogy, the most touching child’s poem, the prettiest posy of flowers, and so on. Steam was coming out of her ears as she poured out a vivid description of the event.
And then she caught sight of my face and held up her hand in surrender.
‘OK,’ she said. ‘I know. It will come in handy one day.’
I suppose this has become a kind of mantra for me. (With the kind of life I’ve had, it’s not surprising.) But I do believe that as writers, everything – but everything – may come in handy one day. But not necessarily as is, au natur as it were. I think it needs time to gently compost down into something rich and fertile and useful.
Sometimes we need prompts: photographs, scrapbooks, journals, letters. When my mother died and my sister and I cleared her house, I was staggered to discover she had kept every single card and letter my sisters and I had sent to her! For me to find once again the excited letters I sent back from my travels in Nigeria, West and North Africa, and Europe, complete with sketches, was treasure indeed – and the memories they brought back were priceless.
Life is precious. Every aspect of it is valuable – and yes, I do mean the pain and sorrow too. ‘We know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him’ (Romans 8:28) but meanwhile, we can let it settle in trusting peace that it will compost down to something beautiful.
There was a time when I gazed, eyes filled with tears, up the lane from my home in Somerset. My eye spotted a sign the neighbouring farmer had set out: “Pig Manure, £1 a bag”. And I found myself complaining to God that I might as well set out such a sign regarding my life at that point.
The gentle, humorous murmur I heard in reply suggested however that the thing to do with such rich manure was to grow roses in it! So, as a writer, I did.