In 1989, when I was 16, I moved into a pub with my parents and younger brother Matty. It was very exciting. I started working in a bar because I liked chatting and I also appreciated the listening opportunities. I was curious about the adult world and until then I had learned most of what I knew from books. Now I had all these real lives to study. I should write some of this down, I thought, and jot down in my journal before I go to bed.
We couldn’t believe how busy it was on that first Christmas, culminating on New Years Eve, when everyone piled into Main Street at midnight and exchanged drunken hugs and warm wishes for 1990. After the pub emptied and the colossal cleanup job was done, we gathered with our staff for a few drinks and the discussion turned into resolutions. All women wanted to lose weight. A few people wanted to quit smoking. I announced very firmly that I wanted to write a novel.
I wish I could tell you what Matty said, but I can’t remember. Perhaps he is committed to striving for good results in GCSE. If he did, he was successful because he got the best grades in school. But by the time the results came in that summer he had been hit by a car and was in a coma after emergency brain surgery. I was by his bedside in intensive care, chatting with him because everyone from the ambulance drivers had suggested it might help keep him with us and then bring him back. I even tried to pray in the hospital chapel: “Please God, please. Please don’t let him die. He is too young. He’s too good. I love him too much. Please help him.
When I wasn’t with Matty, I was at home. I could look good behind the bar, but when I was alone I gave in to my desolation. I couldn’t believe the enormity of what had happened. I had no words. I knew that unless Matty woke up, I would never be able to write anything again. Just seeing my journal made me sick. I flipped through the pages, hating my younger, innocent self. I gathered them all and threw them in the dumpster in the back of the pub, pushing them under the flattened boxes and trash bags full of crisp packets and cigarette butts.
Matty isn’t dead, but he hasn’t regained consciousness either. He lived for eight years in a persistent vegetative state until my parents and I went to family court and got permission to remove nutrition and hydration so he could die and we could finally , eight years after suffering his loss. , have a funeral.
I was private. Over the next decade my words went back and I tried to figure out what had happened to Matty and what it was like to be the witness at his bedside. But it was still too hard. Surely if I was talented enough to be a writer then it would be easier and I would have less doubts. Anyway, what was it for? No one would ever want to read such a dark story. I tried writing novels instead, but sooner or later Matty would come up with the page wanting to be heard. I was stuck. Every now and then I would try another attempt and give up. I felt like I was destined to fail in this area, as in everything else, that the car that ran over Matty got me out too, that I was alive, but barely, and that I couldn’t ask for too much. I put my notebooks in a drawer and tried to take care of other things.
And then, after the birth of my son, I was filled with a renewed determination. I didn’t want to keep ending up in the drawer and realized that the only way to break free from this cycle of trying and failing was to drop everything. I took a new resolution. I just had to do it. It didn’t have to be right, or even in the right order. And I wouldn’t show it to anyone, so I didn’t have to worry about what other people thought. I read a novel where a priest said that it’s our secrets that make us sick. This is it, I thought. I need to purify myself, to confess everything on the page. Only then will I feel better.
It was hard. Often times I felt like I was fighting an octopus as I struggled to tame all of the different tentacles in the story. I felt tired and discouraged, but this time I was able to go on, and word for word, I rummaged through the pages, which eventually became The last act of love. It was a long journey. I was 17 when Matty was knocked down, 25 when he died and 42 when I managed to finish my book on him. And I did it and I feel better. There is an incredible sense of accomplishment to be gained if we can be brave enough to make a commitment and then have the stamina to hold on through all the ups and downs.
I am still in awe to the writing process. The first steps are so simple. We find paper or we turn on a computer. Then we jot down a few words and fiddle with them and something magical begins to happen. Writing is what brings me the closest to the divine and I feel a little evangelical when it comes to encouraging others so let me suggest it to you as a New Years resolution. Much better for us in the long run. term as any goal of eating less or being less. Do not resolve to shrink your body! Instead, consider the perks if you’re bold enough to mine on your own, to unearth your secrets, to finally try to tell that story that you carry, maybe as long as I am. Or, if that sounds a bit too much, just write your life down; Take a personal look at these interesting times we live in. What you see on the way to work, maybe, or what you dreamed about, or what you feel right before bed. Three things to be thankful for, four blue things you saw that day, how you fed yourself, or exercise notes. Wouldn’t it be satisfying around this time next year if you had written a few lines about each day?
Or bitch. I like to have a good old whine in my notebooks. There is a liberation to be had by having a private space to let off steam. In this world of hyper communication where anyone with a social media account may feel compelled to post press release style comments on every issue and event, there is a glorious privacy in picking up a pen and jotting down our own. thoughts without aiming at anything other than making sense of things on our own.
The best advice I have for you is that you have to accept that you have to put in some effort. Unfortunately, our culture is too focused on talent. We think writers are special and imagine these anointed ones just sitting at their gorgeous desks in a room lined with books and allowing beautiful prose to flow out of their pens, all in the right order. From my own practice and observing other writers, we get along much better when we escape this idealized picture and focus on the effort instead. The most interesting activities involve preparation and transplant. We accept that if we want to run a marathon or climb a mountain, we will have to work hard. My life as a writer has become less stressful since I stopped being angry with myself, which I don’t find easy.
Another cultural the misunderstanding that I would like to get rid of is that writing should lead to publication and profit. We can do this just for fun and personal development, in the same way we might take a watercolor class, or learn to play the ukulele, or run or swim. Not all activities in life have to be for a business purpose. Writing gives us stimulation, meaning and purpose and a way to keep our eyes on the stars. Let that suffice at the beginning. Don’t put any pressure on those tender shoots. However, who knows what could happen? Writing is really an acorn activity. The important thing is to start and then we can be amazed at what we end up cultivating.
And my resolution this year? Well, I want to dabble in watercolor and the ukulele and I want to finish a book too, of course. Recently when I visited the pub an old friend of mine said to me, “You were still writing. And now you’ve done a lot of things. I hope that more than three decades after making my first resolution, 2022 will see me complete my sixth book. I know there will be ups and downs, but I’ve learned that it’s definitely worth sticking with it.
Write everything: How to Put Your Life on the Page by Cathy Rentzebrink is published by Bluebird on January 6. Buy it for £ 13.04 at guardbookshop.com