“It takes a while for our experience to sift through our consciousness. For instance, it is hard to write about being in love in the midst of a mad love affair. We have no perspective. All we can say is, ‘I’m madly in love’ over and over again.” - Natalie Goldberg Writing Down the Bones
When my grandmother died five years ago I wanted to write about her. It was my way of holding on to the memories I had. I have always kept a diary, but I needed to do more than merely jot things down, and so I thought I would write a story about her.
I wrote about the tricks Grandma used to love to play on her long-suffering husband, using me and my sister as willing and innocent pawns. I wrote about the regular trips I took with her to a large, now long-forgotten, department store in Tunbridge Wells where Grandma would head straight for the haberdashery and flick through pattern books while I stood in front of shelves of Silko, rolling my fingers down over the rainbow colours. I wrote about her garden where she allowed me and my sister to have a patch each to grow whatever we wanted, me with my boring, neat rows of bulbs and my sister with her unruly and ambitious patch of vegetables.
None of these scenes came together into anything other than a personal account of past events that held no interest for anyone other than myself. I was frustrated and gave up.
At the same time I was trying to write a book which was a new departure for me as it was not about animals and was aiming at an older readership for a change! All I knew about the emerging story was that I wanted to set it in a particular part of Cornwall and that the main character was a girl, taken away from her normal life. I struggled with the plot and had many false starts. The book took three years to write, and during that time I had no idea what was actually going on in the writing process. I thought I was simply inventing something new and fresh that had no bearing on my own experiences and that I was finding it tough-going because I had never written anything that long (or serious!) before.
Then, after a six month break while I was writing other things, I came back to re-write the book, now called Summer's Shadow. I read the first scene, in which Summer learns of her mother’s death, and wondered idly whether my grandmother’s death had had any bearing on that opening chapter. As I read on, revising as I went, I realized that of course it had; that in fact, the whole of the book was about the loss I had felt when my grandmother had died. Everything which Summer feels about the death of her mother and the ensuing sense of having lost a part of her own identity was how I had felt in the autumn of 2008.
I had not set out to write a book about grief. If you had asked me during the first drafts what the book was about I would have said it was a family mystery. Now I know it is about more than that: it is about how life changes when you lose someone dear to you.
Natalie Goldberg calls this writing process “the richness of sifting”. She compares our journey through life to an accumulation of rubbish which sits and decomposes over time to create a “very fertile soil out of [which] blooms poems and stories”.
And there is the key word in all of this: TIME. We all need time to process our emotions and experiences if we are to make sense of them and writers need this all the more if they are to be able to express them in their work.
Summer's Shadow is due for publication by Macmillan in July 2014