Tuesday, 4 August 2009
The Business of Writing: Crossing the Line
In March last year, I crossed a line; I had a commissioned feature printed by The Guardian - Last of the Line - an intimate piece about my relationship with my late brother, David, and reflections on life without him.
I'd pitched the original idea six months previously, but a combination of moving editors and the email Bermuda Triangle added to the delay. It was an interesting process, start to finish. Part of you feels like you are selling off the family silver at best, or whoring your soul at worst.
Above all, I wanted to tell some of David's story and the amazing way he dealt with the cancer that claimed him. But the ambitious writer in me also wanted to produce something intensely personal and meaningful. To see whether I could translate my experience to another person, a nameless reader who might understand it and feel it. In short, to see whether I could cut it as a writer.
Unsurprisingly, it was a challenging piece to write, to accurately portray David's character and our interactions without overdramatising or diminishing them. I carefully prepared the ground with friends and family who knew him well. People were generally supportive although there was some unexpected fallout much later on.
What really made it all worthwhile though was the letter I received from a newspaper reader, about the sudden death of his own brother, unlike the 9 years I had to get used to being without David. When I read that letter it was a sobering moment, to realise both the power of the written word and its ability to touch strangers. This is what real writing is about - not fame or fortune or books on shelves - connecting with people. I should add though that the feature paid well.
It affected the way I write fiction too. I'm less afraid now to draw directly on personal experiences or incorporare aspects of a person or memory. I don't know if it makes my writing any more powerful but I feel liberated as a writer.
Here's a link to the piece which you may have read previously:
Objectively, it's an okay piece. A little hammy, here and there, and I still cringe at the ending. In my defence, I didn't get to do a second edit - the first time the new editor contacted me was a week or so before publication.
Today would have been David's birthday, and without doubt he would have hating me writing about this. It won't shock you to know that I can live with that. Here's to you David.