There is a general consensus that broken hearts are fertile ground for creativity. The break-up album. The affecting, painted canvas. The revealing memoir. Joan Didion wrote eloquently about loss and grief after her husband’s death in The Year of Magical Thinking. Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds wrote the dark and dazzling album, Skeleton Tree after the tragic death of Cave’s young son. Sir Francis Bacon produced some of his most important and moving paintings after the suicide of his lover. Meryl Streep once famously concluded a Golden Globes acceptance speech with, ‘Take your broken heart and turn it into art.’ There is a clear sense that the experience of deep emotion can be somehow as transformative and productive as it is painful.
Not so, for me. In the earliest days of loss my feelings were out of control. Everything felt sharp and hyper-real. I was on the edge and capable only of emotional outpourings in my diary. Real life had become more scary and far less predictable than any plot twist I could envisage. I was holding on by a thread, focused on the nuts and bolts of living, of getting out of bed in the morning and facing the days. I was trying to fathom life as a suddenly-single parent, with all the responsibility that brings. I had a half-finished first draft of a novel sitting on my laptop and a looming deadline, but frankly, writing fiction felt like a luxury I couldn’t afford.
It turns out, however, that just as we cannot hold on to perpetual joy, we also cannot spend our days at the coalface of raw emotion. Feelings are ephemeral, cyclical. After the emotional overload of the early months, I sank into a different state. Numb paralysis. The empty heart. I fell into the depths of winter. It was, in a way, worse.
I once said in an interview that as a writer, it’s important to try and feel what your characters are feeling. If you don’t feel it, your readers won’t either. After months of heightened pain, I realised I wasn’t feeling anything. My senses were dulled. And the half-finished first draft of The Peacock Summer sitting on my laptop? Well that seemed to belong to a different writer, from a different time. Not me.
So how do you return from the empty place? How do you find your creativity again, when it feels as though it has been lost for good? Well, as so often in nature, it involves a long, slow thaw. It takes time. And it takes work.
I carried on writing in my diary – private excerpts of sadness, as well as more hopeful pieces about the life and love I still glimpsed around me. I joined a closed writing group for fellow broken hearts led by widow and writer Megan Devine. A month of writing prompts allowed me to explore my feelings in a safe place with fellow grievers. I slowly began to return to reading, dipping in first to those books that mirrored my experience and made me feel more sane for echoing my emotions. I took advice from other writers, particularly the late Penny Vincenzi who reassured me that I would get back to it and that writing could become a kind of therapy, in time. I read all the Harry Potter books with my children, religiously, night after night. Together we explored love and loss through the words of J.K. Rowling and slowly, gently, I rediscovered my love of fiction and the escape it could offer. I began to pick up novels again, and fall in love with the power and beauty of the written word. My own writing became a personal release. It offered escape. It was a chance to leave my life and immerse myself in another’s. Slowly, the numbness faded and the feeling returned.
Just as ‘you can’t hurry love’, I think it’s fair to say that you also can’t hurry grief. You can’t fast forward through pain. It’s a gruelling exercise of endurance. A little like writing a novel, it simply takes as long as it takes. Until, one day, you raise your head and realise that the fog has cleared a little and there, in the distance, is a path. Not the path you thought you’d be taking, but a path none the less, and with the arrival of the path comes the renewal of something else: the curiosity to step onto it. Just as in writing a novel, you may have a rough map in your head of where you hope the path will lead, but you also have to be open to the unexpected twists and turns ahead. Both the joy and the sorrow that you know will come.
For today at least, I feel like the depths of winter are behind me. Today sees my third novel, The Peacock Summer, (that half-finished first draft I once couldn’t bear to look at) published in Australia and New Zealand. In another two days it will be released in the UK. I have just signed the contracts for several more countries to publish the book next year. On a perfect English summer’s day like today, with the sun falling through a window onto my desk and the sky a holiday snapshot blue, and with a book on the cusp of release, it’s almost easy to forget the personal and professional work that it has taken to get to this point. It’s almost too easy to forget that these are events I truly thought were beyond my reach even just a year ago. And it’s also a little too easy to skip forward and to focus now on the worries of publication … the anxiety of reviews, promotion, events and sales.
But today I won’t future gaze. Today, it feels important to take a moment to recognise the person I have become and the work that has gone into getting here. I am remembering exactly what it took and just how many people were involved in helping me. Today, I acknowledge the painful – but real – transformation that has occurred. Not necessarily a better version of myself; but certainly a different one.
Because I am now a person who knows that grief will never leave me. I understand the ebb and flow of it. I know that just as it can retreat and soften, it can also surge back, sharp and painful. I know that it will always be a part of me – just like the love it stems from. I know I will keep living and writing … changed in ways I never could have imagined … my heart more broken yet more capable of feeling both sadness and joy than ever before. And as I write these words, I do shed a tear for the man I loved deeply and unconditionally, and for the person I was who loved him. And I take a moment to acknowledge him, before I hit the ‘publish’ button on this post, close the window and turn back to the new document sitting on my laptop, ready for the work ahead. Creativity as release. There are worse things to throw your bruised heart into.