Rachel’s hand shook. The letter, written on old-fashioned airmail paper, was as flimsy as the future she had once imagined. She remembered being twelve years old, looking up to her brother who by then was six feet one and a half inches tall as compared to her five feet six. Being the tallest in her class, it mattered to her that her big brother was bigger than her. He made her feel secure. He used to smile at her softly, telling her with his eyes that whatever she did she would always be his little sis. Loved. Or so she thought.
He had written in brown ink on shiny blue paper. When she saw the airmail envelope, her heart leaped. Perhaps he was coming home? Silly thought really. She knew he was settled in Perth. He had children. He had a new family. And he hadn’t made it home when their parents had died on separate wards within hours of each other. Nearly a year ago. Rachel forgave him that, though. He was busy. Flying a plane all over the world, why would he want to fly back just to support his little sis? He told her he would say goodbye to their mother in his own way.
Why were you so stupid as to think he would still care about you?
Oh yes, she could always count on her inner, snide little ‘best friend’ at times like this. The voice that never quite left her alone. The voice that started the day her brother went to Australia. It got in there, now that no one was around to protect her from the bully inside herself.
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Life doesn’t have neat edges
By Bonnie Meekums
In March 2011, my husband and I drove across the Pennine hills from west to east, turning right for the long journey south. At Dartford, as we climbed over the bridge I looked to my right, towards where I once lived as a child on the south-eastern river banks of London, wishing for just a moment that I could fold back the years, to see my mother young again.
After that visit, I wrote a short story, crafting recent experience into fiction, about an old woman whose body no longer did her bidding. After reading it aloud, my writing tutor Ian Clayton said, with a softness I will never forget:
‘That’s your mam, isn’t it?’
That short story was later woven into my debut novel, A Kind of Family. I remember not having to do much reworking on that section, unlike others. I sat in front of my screen in tears, reliving that day and my sense of loss for the woman she had once been. Grief was layered like one of her sponge cakes, the jam in the middle being relief that we had managed to coax her out, for a short trip in our car. She sat beside me, no longer big enough for an adult sized seat belt, terrified to be out and yet loving it more with every second. I stopped at a garage when she declared she was thirsty, and bought her a child’s ‘fruit shoot’, because that was the only thing she would be able to hold. Three months later, she was dead.
All novelists make use of their own experience, inserting themselves into memory and imagined scenarios, creating a patchwork that holds up a mirror to human experience, yet is not autobiography. Still, I would argue that one of our tasks is not to overdo the jam in the sponge. Life doesn’t always work out as we hope. If it did, we would not be able to recognise those times when we feel blessed, or very lucky, or just plain deliriously happy.
One of the things that helps me enter into the embodiment of emotion, is the work I do when I am not writing. I am a Dance Movement Psychotherapist – a psychotherapist who works with metaphors like ‘sinking into the abyss’, ‘growing apart’, ‘wanting to hold onto what has been’, or ‘treading on eggshells’. All these figures of speech, as Lave and Wenger in their seminal work Metaphors We Live By highlighted, have reference to the body – and what interests me, is their capacity to suggest forms of movement. When those movements become a dance improvisation, the possibility arises that new ways of being can be explored, without having to sit right in the middle of a paralysing whirlwind of emotion. Metaphor also seems to be understood by others (did you intuitively understand my reference to a whirlwind there?), without the need for lengthy explanation. Add to this, the fact that all Dance Movement Psychotherapists must have their own therapy, and you end up with a writer whose capacity for self-analysis on an embodied level is honed.
Of course, I am not claiming my skill is any more developed than most other writers, but perhaps it has been an easier transition for me, from bland description (which I most certainly have done my fair share of), to close encounters with my characters.
One other interesting thing about writing is, writers often (especially in their first few novels, until they have worked it all out of their systems) make use of their own unconscious preoccupations. One of mine, I realise, concerns abandonment, and when I look at my early years, that is no surprise. My parents were good enough; I just happened to be hospitalized and in isolation at a crucial time in my childhood. A recent article by Arabel Charlaff, in issue no. 84 of Mslexia Magazine, suggests that writers can learn a lot from psychotherapy theory in order to produce more rounded and interesting characters. Unsurprisingly, she suggests writers ask themselves what early experience led a character to be the way they are. What I am proposing is, that when the writer also understands herself, she can spot when she is using the technique effectively, and when she is overlaying her own story onto another character when it simply doesn’t fit, or when the only story she tells is the broken record of her own sad song.
I could go on. There are so many instances where my own, or my family’s story has impacted on my urge to write about particular topics, but I will end with a positive one. Twenty-seven years ago, I married a man. At the time we got together, we each had two children. We did not live together before the wedding, because we agreed this had to work; the kids had been through enough. And so, we blindly stepped into the territory of step-family life, holding onto each other for fear of falling and failing. Another child came along two and a half years later. Now, we have seven grandchildren, none of whom will experience any difference in my love for them, though some are genetically related, and others not. For all of them, I am Nana. Together, my husband and I created our own ‘kind of family’. My journey inspired me to write about non-traditional families, from which came the title of the book. I chose not to write about a step family. Instead, there is a same sex couple at the heart of my novel. My hope is, readers will find something of themselves sewn into the pages, will be moved by the characters they get to know, and will feel at the end that all is exactly as it should be. Because life doesn’t have neat edges, but what we create as we stumble along can be far more beautiful.
A Kind of Family is published on January 7th, 2020, by Between the Lines Publishing.
But wait, there’s more! Bonnie Meekums has added a giveaway of this book. Click the link down below to enter for your chance to receive a pdf copy of A Kind of Family.
Click here to enter the raffle.
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