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On writing of difficult things


Sometimes I wonder why I bother. No, really. What with Climate Change and Brexit and so much depressing news, sitting at home writing stories seems a very inadequate response to the challenges of this world. I have started writing poetry too, which is even more useless; it makes no money, earns me no accolades, takes a lot of creative energy and isn’t even very good.

Though I’m a writer, I can’t claim I’m competent at communicating, not when the stakes are high, when someone is sick, bereaved, dying: I dry up. I am as much at a loss for words as if I were stranded in a foreign land without a dictionary, barely able to express the most basic level of concern and empathy. I was particularly useless when my friend, the broadcaster, counsellor, priest, clown-magician and all round superwoman, Ruth Scott, was diagnosed with cancer.

Our friendship was hard to define. She was the kind of person who did not do small talk, so we drank a few glasses of wine and engaged in big talk: she was funny, honest and the connection we made was oddly intimate for the limited time we spent together: I think that was her gift.

When she fell ill, I was at a loss. A nurse first then a priest, there wasn’t a cliché about death and dying that she hadn’t already heard. Besides, Ruth challenged cliché and easy platitudes more than anyone I’ve known. So I did what most people do - absolutely nothing. Maybe I sent a text and promised a visit, but I had no words.

I tracked her progress and kept in touch through a good friend who, having lost her husband a few years earlier, was a native speaker of that tricky language of pain. She suggested I send a card. I was looking for something funny, something off-beat to which I could add some quirky, hopeful message when I found a black and white image of a lighthouse on a rock under wild assault from the sea: it seemed to me a perfect metaphor for Ruth and her situation. Lacking the right kind of everyday prose, I wrote her a sonnet.

I hesitated for a day or two before I sent it: writing a poem to a woman who might well be dying was perhaps too personal, too intrusive, too awkward, and God knows, I walk far and fast away from awkward.

My lovely friend died in February 2019 and, as only Ruth could do, wrote a book in the throes of her illness. Ruth was a person who embraced the business of writing about difficult things: she specialised in speaking about the unspoken. Her book ‘Between Living and Dying’ her reflections on living so close to death, has just been published and is as wonderful, thoughtful and inspiring as I knew it would be.

I was moved and surprised to see that in the epilogue she reproduced my poem and wrote of how my Lighthouse image helped her to rediscover that part of herself that was almost lost in the dark storm of her illness. It isn’t a good poem by normal standards – it wasn’t written for publication - but I am happy if, just once, I found words that said something I wanted to say to someone who needed to hear them. Isn’t that all we ever want to do as writers and as human beings?