I don’t know about you, but my splinter of ice has never been more icy or splintery. I try not to feel guilty about it.
That is, the splinter of ice that lurks in the heart of every writer, according to Graham Greene. No matter how terrible the tragedy, there is a small part of you tucking it all away – the thoughts, emotions, feelings, impressions – for future use.
When I was starting out as a writer I heard an author talking about how she had had a blazing, ding-dong row with her partner – yet even then, with the relationship hanging in the balance, a small corner of her mind was thinking, “I can use this!” And she did. The anger, the passion, the words, the logic (or lack of it) in the argument all went into the piece she was writing. The relationship obviously survived because the partner later read it and said, with a grin, “I won, didn’t I?”
In Greene’s case, the realisation came to him as a young man when he was in hospital with appendicitis. It was a mixed ward, with adults and children. Elsewhere in the ward, a 10-year-old boy died. The family came to grieve and mourn. Screens went up around the bed to give them privacy but they couldn’t block out the sounds. No one wants to be party to that kind of tragedy so everyone else in the ward put on headphones… except Greene. He wrote: “I watched and listened. There was something which one day I might need: the woman speaking, uttering the banalities she must have remembered from some woman’s magazine, a genuine grief that could communicate only in clichés.”
Note what Green noted. The insight that this woman’s world was informed by “some woman’s magazine”. (Green’s sneering tone doesn’t make it less true.) The fact – perhaps the tragedy – that the grief was genuine but its only outlet was in this limited vocabulary. The words themselves – not stirring, moving, comforting or anything you would want to hear but banal.
And here we are in the grip of a global pandemic…
I don’t for one second discount the tragedy that is going on all around us, but I know that stories are going to come out of this, and that my colleagues and I will be writing some of them.
There will be tales of heartbreak. Loved ones lost, lifelong dreams shattered, plans and prospects that have gone down the tube.
But there will also be tales of hope. Lives that hung in the balance but slowly tilted in the right direction. New opportunities that opened up and were duly seized. People who only met because of the pandemic. As some wag remarked, a popular babies’ name for 2021 will be “Lockdown”.
And there will be a whole lot of business practices to rewrite.
The clients who approach us will have been touched very deeply by all of these things. We can’t afford to be. Perhaps there will be tears as we interview them, maybe the odd break needed for gathering oneself together before the next session. We will be dispassionate so that you don’t have to be. We will listen, and probe, and the book that we write for you will give testimony to everything you have been through and felt, because we were there too, noting and experiencing it with you.