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:
http://www.guardian.co.uk/lifeandstyle/2008/mar/15/familyandrelationships.family1

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.


2 comments:

  1. It was great to re-read this article Derek. I'd forgotten how moving it was, and how strikingly honest. I wish I felt able to be so honest in writing about some of my own complicated family relationships and your article gave me hope that if only I can then the very process could be restorative - sorry if that all sounds very heavy but just got back from week of family visiting and it always leaves me very reflective. Nice to see you blogging here. Kath x

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  2. Thanks for posting, K.
    I might have written a slightly different newspaper article if either of our parents were still alive but not by much. One of the challenges was what to leave out!

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