We Often Fail to Keep Our Resolutions – But Writing in a Notebook Brings Big Rewards | life and style
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 at the bar because I loved chatting and also enjoyed the opportunities for eavesdropping. I was curious about the adult world and so far 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 scribble in my journal before bed.
We couldn’t believe how busy it was that first Christmas, culminating on New Year’s Eve, when everyone crowded the high street at midnight and exchanged drunken hugs and warm wishes for 1990. After As the pub emptied and the colossal job of cleaning was done, we got together with our staff for a few drinks and the conversation turned to 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 was committed to striving to do well in GCSEs. If he did, he passed, because he got top marks 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 paramedics to paramedics 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 is too good. I love him too much. Please help him.
When I wasn’t with Matty, I was home. I could put on a good face 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 could never write anything again. The very sight of my diary made me sick. I flipped through the pages, hating my younger, innocent self. I wrapped them all up and threw them in the dumpster at the back of the pub, stuffing them under the flattened boxes and rubbish bags full of crusty packets and cigarette butts.
Matty didn’t die, but he didn’t regain consciousness either. He lived for eight years in a persistent vegetative state until my parents and I went to family court and were granted permission to withhold nutrition and hydration so he could die and we can finally, eight years after suffering his loss. , have a funeral.
I was deprived. Over the next decade, my words drifted back and I tried to figure out what had happened to Matty and what it was like to be the witness by his bedside. But it was still too hard. Surely if I had enough talent to be a writer, then it would be easier and I would have fewer doubts. Anyway, what was the point? No one would ever want to read such a dark story. I tried writing novels instead, but sooner or later Matty would come onto the page wanting to be heard. I was stuck. Every once in a while I had another try and then I gave up. I felt like I was destined to fail in this, like everything else, that the car that ran over Matty also took me out, that I was alive, but righteous, 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 my son was born, I was filled with 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 trial and failure was to swallow it all. I took a new resolution. I just had to. It didn’t have to be good, 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 would think. 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. Oftentimes, I felt like I was battling an octopus as I struggled to tame all the different tentacles in the story. I felt tired and discouraged, but this time I was able to continue, and word by word I searched through the pages, which eventually became The last act of love. It was a long trip. I was 17 when Matty was overthrown, 25 when he died, and 42 when I managed to finish my book on him. And I did and I feel better. There is an amazing sense of accomplishment to be gained if we can be brave enough to commit and then have the stamina to stay steady through all the ups and downs.
I’m still in awe to the writing process. The first steps are so simple. We find paper or turn on a computer. Then we put down some words and fiddle with them and something magical starts to happen. Writing is the closest thing to touching the divine and I feel a bit evangelical for encouraging others, so let me suggest this as a New Year’s resolution. Much better for us in the long run than all goals around eating less or being less. Don’t resolve to shrink your body! Instead, consider the benefits if you’re bold enough to tap into your self, to unearth your secrets, to finally try to tell that story you’ve been dragging around, perhaps as long as I have. Or, if that seems a little too much, just write down your life; give a personal account of these interesting times in which we live. What you see on the way to work, maybe, or what you’ve been dreaming about, or what you feel just before you go to bed. Three things to be grateful for, four blue things you saw that day, how you ate, or notes from your exercise. Wouldn’t it be satisfying this time next year if you wrote a few lines about each day?
Or grumble. I like to have a good old moan in my notebooks. There is a release to be had in having a private space to let off steam. In this world of hyper communication where anyone with a social media account can feel pressured to issue press release style comments on every issue and event, there is a glorious intimacy to be found by picking up a pen and by jotting down our own thoughts without aiming for 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 will have to put in some effort. Needless, our culture focuses too much on talent. We think writers are special and imagine these anointed simply sitting at their beautiful desks in a room lined with books and allowing beautiful prose to flow from their pens, all in the right order. From my own practice, and observing other writers, we get along much better when we break away from this idealized image and instead focus on effort. The most valuable activities involve preparation and grafting. 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 anxious since I stopped being angry with myself that I don’t find it easy.
Another culture The misconception I would like us to clear is that writing should lead to publication and profit. We can do it only for fun and our personal development, like taking a watercolor class, learning to play the ukulele, running or swimming. Not every activity in life has to have a business purpose. Writing offers us stimulation, meaning and purpose and a way to keep our eyes on the stars. Let that be enough at the start. Do not put pressure on these tender shoots. However, who knows what might happen? Writing is truly an acorn activity. The important thing is to start and then you can be amazed at what you end up cultivating.
And my resolution this year? Well, I want to play watercolors and the ukulele and I also want to finish a book, of course. Recently, when I visited the pub, an old friend of mine said to me, “You were always talking about writing. And now you’ve done tons. Hopefully more than three decades after making my first resolution, 2022 will see me finish my sixth book. I know there will be ups and downs, but I have learned that it is definitely worth sticking with.
Write It All Down: How to Put Your Life on the Page by Cathy Rentzebrink is published by Bluebird on January 6th. Buy it for £13.04 at guardianbookshop.com