The most common question people ask when I tell them I’m writing a book is:
‘What’s it about?’
So I say:
A journalist goes to Madrid and discovers that the death of a celebrity is not what it seems.
‘But what’s it really about?’ The bookish or the curious inquire.
Trying to describe a deeper ‘Story’ is much harder. Like hinting at the essence of a song.
‘It’s a Mystery. With some thriller turns.’ doesn’t really do it, for a novel’s ‘big idea’ is something like its soul. Hard to put into words.
Last week a relative asked me the same question. I managed, in the end, to share the idea.
‘My book, I hope, will be about mourning.’
Dear reader, before you close this page, run out the room or start yawning, there will -fear not – be a plot.
But what I had in mind, beneath the action, is this:
It’s about what happens when we don’t grieve our losses – not just of loved ones – but the smaller deaths of everyday: disappointments, old resentments, pains, misunderstandings. How something softens when we allow ourselves to cry, the walls inside come down. And generation by generation there may be no progress until we fully mourn the difficulties of our own – and collective – past.
Sadness is not fashionable. Public crying in Western culture is still taboo. Last year I spent some time in the UK and I remember speaking on the phone while sitting in a cafe, with tears streaming down my face. My sadness was soundless but the couple on the sofa in front of me stood up like they’d sat on a scorpion. They balanced their newspapers and their lattes, awkwardness seeping from their brows, and legged it.
The idea of facing and feeling sorrow can frighten folk, but I like to think of our histories – however wonderful or painful (often both)- as a hidden alchemy.
Much of the time it stays buried, beneath our habits and opinions. It lodges with the child we left behind. But when acknowledged and used right, it can change lives. The Midas touch of tears has the power to transform past pain into the greatest art on earth.
During his long and creative life, the German composer JS Bach suffered loss on almost a permanent basis. Both parents died when he was young, then an older brother. And in 1721, his other brother, the one who had brought him up, fell ill and passed away.
His beloved wife Maria followed, leaving him with many young children.
What did Bach do?
He wrote the Goldberg variations. A language through which he felt and shared life’s joy and pain. A vehicle for his grief.
The novels of Thomas Hardy are not for the fainthearted but read his poetry and you’ll meet a different man. In his ‘Poems 1912-13’ on the death of his wife Emma Gifford, it’s Hardy’s tears which touch the reader.
Woman much missed, how you call to me, call to me
Saying that now you are not as you were
When you had changed from the one who was all to me,
But as at first when our day was fair.
Can it be you that I hear? Let me view you, then… From The Voice, by Thomas Hardy, December 1912
Grief has many guises. It is said that the Prophet of Islam would often walk with his face moist, that he cried easily. Babies and children don’t need to be told to let it out when they feel pain.
But what about men and women? I wonder what would happen if crying became not only socially acceptable but encouraged. After all, laughing is, so why not its watery cousin? How cleansed we might feel from our collective past. How avoidable the repetitions, addictions, tyrannies borne of buried grief.
Trapped unconscious energy makes us bend into weird shapes which aren’t who we are at all. In the world it burns bridges, fuels wars, builds walls so wide we cannot see each other anymore. We cannot see ourselves.
When traumatised holocaust survivors formed the state of Israel, successive governments unconsciously began the re-enactment of a torture that they, or their parents had endured in 1930/40s Europe. The persecution of their fellow land-dwellers continues to this day because the personal work of the traumatised, the act of mourning has not properly taken place.
At the recent golden globes, Meryl Streep spoke about the tragedy for the Arts in the United States that is the new president. But fully mourning such ill-fortune could transform it to something else. It was her friend, Carrie Fisher who said :
‘Take your broken heart, turn it into art,’
Art could mean anything here: work, energy, scientific endeavour but it’s the process between the broken heart and its product that matters. It’s the very act of crying that opens the floodgates to renewal. The river which may take us – and those with us – to a very different place.