For all the uncertainties I had at the start, I am very glad that I did the writing course. There is nothing like being forced outside of your comfort zone to make you pay attention and learn new things. Plus, for fatally curious people like me, there’s always an intriguing narrative to be uncovered when a bunch of strangers get together. On this occasion, what made the course a pleasant experience – a group of quiet, polite and well-mannered participants – reduced the potential for good anecdotes afterwards. Out of a group of 12 there was only one person by the end who I really didn’t like and only one person who semi-dropped out. I thought that was pretty good going.
We were trying our hands at three different techniques. The first was braiding two or more lines of narrative. This was by far and away the technique I found most difficult and my first attempt at it was frankly a mess. I had a look around the internet and came across an extremely useful piece of advice. Take each line of narrative separately, this author suggests, write each story out individually and only then combine the two and tweak from there to make them speak to each other. This made all the difference to me. I rewrote the piece almost entirely, and found it worked much better. Call me sick, but I really enjoyed the process of getting this wrong and then figuring out how to make it right. It reminded me how inordinately satisfying it is to learn, if you can give yourself plenty of licence to make mistakes. Plus I’d gone into the course uncertain whether I’d be able to write anything at all, so the sheer relief of completing an assignment gave me a boost.
The second technique was incorporating research. I felt that this one ought to be a doddle for me as it’s generally what I do. So I thought it might be the moment to pick more challenging content and decided to write about the experience of chronic fatigue. Well, by the time I’d reached the end of the first draft, I realised that fifteen years of experience could not be fitted into 3,500 words. You might think I’d have figured this out beforehand, right? Well, I already knew that writing is like taking a pencil torch into a windowless cellar. The thin beam illuminates a contour here, a detail there, the shadowy mass of an object in the far corner, but a full picture of the entire room is out of the question. The first draft is like putting a burning torch in a wall bracket, but you never really get to see everything. I never expected to write the entire cellar, but I’d believed I could pack in more than I could. To swap metaphors a moment, I thought I might be able to write the piece like skimming a stone, glancing off the biggest ripples across that sea of time. But no. Once again I had a 3,500 word mess on my hands.
The answer was to go smaller and more detailed. I figured I’d only be able to write half of an essay at best with so few words at my disposal. So I spent a lot of time trawling the past in my mind, trying to find the scenes where the material was full of the ineffable. I’d been a bit unsure about tackling this subject in the first place, but my fellow participants and the instructor had assured me that writing lends distance and emotional liberation, and putting it down in words is a way of saying goodbye. I sort of agree, but it works best when an episode in life is over and finished. And whilst I am sure I’m in the end game of chronic fatigue here, I don’t think it’s exactly the end. Writing the theoretical parts was, by contrast, a delight. Unfortunately, I did them too quickly. I finished the assignment, and it was okay, and I submitted it. But was it a coincidence that shortly afterwards, I must have trapped the nerve in my neck that led to my bruised nerve in my gum and my sore arm? ‘Those nerves must be really irritated,’ the osteopath said to me (and they still are troublesome). And what was the feedback? Less theory and more you! my readers cried. I gulped and decided not to finish the essay during the course, on the grounds that so much emotional liberation might kill me.
By the time I was in any sort of state to write my third and final essay, I had five days left before the deadline and still had a jangling tooth, a sore arm and no idea what to write. The course participant I did not care for had annoyed me by leaving a highly critical comment of the reading we’d been assigned. It had not been to her taste, and so therefore she declared it bad, and demanded to know why we had been given it to read at all. My nerves were already irritated and so I was not impressed by such an attack of solipcism. Around that time I read a phrase on a blog that really struck me: empathy is the job of the reader. How I wish I remember where I read it! That phrase saved me. The assignment was to write an essay that moved about freely in time and I decided to write about the experience of extreme empathy, both as a reader and as a mother. I knew I had one shot at getting it right, wrote a steady 700 words a day and produced my best essay of the course. Isn’t that ironic? I thought that if, as I had often suspected, I did my best work up a corner with everything stacked against me, it was time to retrain as a plumber. That was not a deal with destiny I was willing to make.
So what did I learn? Well, I learned that you can say a great deal less in 3,500 words than you think you can, thus the skill is in knowing what to leave out. I learned that a good scene can do an immense amount of work for you. I learned that the past is stored in more detail and intensity than we think, but that looking back over it is never easy. I learned that I can write more to order than I feared I could (I was afraid I wouldn’t be able to do it at all). And I learned that other people’s problems are far more entertaining to me to write about than my own. The best part of the course was an experience that I wasn’t expecting. The emphasis throughout was on slowing down and taking the time to figure out what we really wanted to write about. The story we think we want to tell often turns out to be a screen or a veil over the story that actually needs to come forth. Like all the best art, that concept has a lot to say about life. And that’s why art is not some frippery or foible, but deeply worthwhile.