I cannot remember ever really wanting to be anything other than a writer. How then did I get to mid-life believing that my aspirations would never extend beyond the inevitable writing and editing of newsletters and promotional material with every job or volunteer position I have ever held? Why have I been hit with a curious mix of pride and anxiety every time someone has commented on my facility with words?
In truth, there was a point in my late teens or early 20s in which I made the conscious decision to wait until I had lived a little before writing. I assumed a little experience would provide material and perspective. I had not bargained for the complicated experiences that awaited me or how long it would take for me to wade through and unravel it all. And when I did find my way through I found myself unwilling to bare my soul on the page. But every writer has a story they were born to tell, or as James Baldwin said about Go Tell It On the Mountain, the story they have to tell if they tell no other. Frequently it is a coming of age story, a coming out story, a tale of childhood loss or trauma. But that not need be the case. Nor is it necessarily the first story a writer sits down to tell. It can be recounted in fiction or presented as memoir, but the telling is essential, cathartic and close to the bone; even if no one beyond a few friends or relatives ever see the manuscript or hold a copy of a self-published book.
As I look back, I finally understand why I decided to put my writerly aspirations on hold so many years ago. I also understand the barriers I have placed between my impulse to protect myself and my identity and any story I thought I might tell. In this context those reasons are not important. I have also come to recognize the story that I really need to tell is one which I have only recently come to understand myself. So with the unexpected time that my present inability to return to work has afforded me, the gift of introspection and a desperate need to get this story out onto the page and hopefully gain some distance; I want to see what I can do.
But the challenge with stories that find their source close to life lived, is that this same life not only belongs to me. It cannot be divorced from real people. Or real experience. I am not certain how to balance the need to breathe truth into an experience and the desire to protect those I love.
My latest read has inspired these questions. After my enthusiastic encounter with Will Eaves’ The Absent Therapist, I turned to his 2012 novel This Is Paradise, which I have had on hand for nearly two years. The right book, at the right moment it seems. A relatively spare novel that is at once intimate and ambitious in scope, this book opens with Emily Allden’s difficult pregnancy with her fourth child, and closes decades later following her death. Benjamin, the youngest, unborn at the beginning is an enthusiastic traveller on his first chance to join his older siblings and parents on their regular holiday trip to France in the first half of the novel. In the second half Benjamin, now grown becomes the lens through whom we see the family – his well meaning but emotionally distant father; his intelligent but volatile older brother Clive (who is clearly dealing with perhaps aspergers or a mental health disorder) and his two sisters, the capable Liz and the delicate Lotte – as they cope with their mother’s increasing dementia, the decision to place her in a care facility, and the lingering final days of her life.
Eaves’ deft ear for the nuances of conversation, sensitivity for the complex social dynamics that bind and divide family, and keen eye for visual detail allow him to create a coherent interplay between the members of this large family and a handful of supporting characters across the decades. He does this by employing a style that is at times fragmentary, sometimes reflectively slipping back into passing remembrances, but always evocative of the way that we tend to think about and experience our lives over time. The result is rich with wonderful moments that add depth and resonance.
Yet as I was reading This Is Paradise, I was especially struck by the pivotal account of Emily’s illness, the details of her physical and mental disintegration, and the mixed emotions that rise and fall between the various members of the Allden clan throughout this process. It rang true in a way that made me wonder if it was grounded in lived experience. It was then no surprise to find that Will Eaves had in fact published an essay in The Guardian about his mother’s struggle with Alzheimer’s. When he recounts an event repeated in the novel I naturally wanted to know where reality and fiction intersect in his story. And how does an author decide what to paint clearly and what to disguise?
To be honest I am not generally drawn to family dramas, especially ones with such a sprawling cast and ambitious reach across the years. Mind you in another writer’s hands this would likely be a book at least 600 pages long. In half that length, we trace a loving portrait of a complex and deeply human family from childhood spats through adult stresses and concerns to the bonding moment of shared loss.
And since it is from my own immediate family that the story I want to tell arises, I suppose I will be paying closer attention than ever to the way such dynamics are played out in literature.