When someone has stolen the bright colours from your palette, do you paint with what is left? Does smearing your greys and blacks onto a canvas help anyone, but you?
Before a few months ago, I could access the hurt, the pain, the fear, and I could pour it into fiction, even the worst of all the bad things that happened- watching my mother’s breath being switched off, hearing the silence after and knowing that space would never be filled again, I could put it into a novel, a story about a woman that wasn’t me, despite the obvious similarities. I could put all the bad that has happened, that has been done to me, that I have done, and make my characters do the same, and watch karma pay it all back by the end of the book.
What could be worse than losing your dearest loved ones? Losing yourself? Your belief in love and goodness and karma, in the idea that everything will be all right in the end. I am not an overly religious person despite, or probably because of, having a priest as a father. I don’t believe in the organisation of faith. I believed that if we figure out what we really want from life, we can paint that into existence. And I did, and still to a certain extent, believe that there must be more than what is visible. I was sitting in a church a few days ago, a stopgap, a quiet place to wait for an interview that could change my future, and I felt the heaviness of silence and asked the question that weighed heaviest on my mind in that moment. “What decision do I make, what path is the right one?” The one that doesn’t lead me to fall off a cliff. Because my previous decisions have left me stranded at the bottom, broken and unable to take more than a few steps in any direction, unsure whether there are more cliff edges to come and where they are.
The unsettling answer I got back very clearly was that there was no pre-ordained path. That I write my life myself in every moment. That I could choose security or adventure. That nothing is written anywhere that says I will not fall off the cliff again. Nothing is written that says I will not feel that betrayal, that hurt, that absolute depth of pain that comes when you place your foot on what appears to be solid ground and out of nowhere there is nothing but an abyss, into which you fall mostly bewildered, until the ground that was solid and firm beneath you is now actually the hard surface against which you smash and break.
I broke my ankle about ten years ago during a simple soccer training session. Training that I had been doing for years, every week, twice a week. Until that day when I took a step forward to stop the ball with my right foot and my left foot got lost, leaving me with only a round moving object to provide balance. Before that, I belonged to a world where a fracture was a theoretical concept. I was brave, I thought proudly, I would make any tackle, put my head in the way, save a goal from going in against my team, but this wasn’t a heroic goal-saving ‘worthy’ moment, this was an innocent, ‘whistle as you walk’ ordinary moment. When my ankle fractured, when all everyone on the training pitch could hear was the sound of bone breaking, ligaments tearing, muscles ripping, as a foot swung in ways it was never designed to do, in that ordinary moment, something more fractured, more than just a tibia and a fibula. Belief in the physical fractured. The belief that nothing so bad, so painful, so awful, could happen to your body in those ordinary moments of life. Not when you were not prepared. And certainly not when you were careful. Not when there was no use, no purpose for the pain.
Before my ankle fractured, I used to dance freely, with rhythm. I used to be able to pick up any sport and play it pretty well almost immediately, which I’m sure was annoying to others, but it gave me a sense of confidence, in my world, in my body. The broken ankle was patched up and bolstered with a titanium plate which is strong I have no doubt, but now I do have doubt in my bones, my muscles, my ligaments, my body. I dance awkwardly now. With fear. I still have rhythm, an inbuilt memory of the movements, but no grace, no confidence, no laughter in those movements.
When everything, and I mean everything, went wrong a few years ago, it was slow coming. I could see the cliff edge approaching, could prepare my mind and body, could distance myself and watch as loss after loss buffeted me. And after, I could collect the pieces and even on that lonely beach at the bottom of the cliff, I could still marvel at the spark off a rock, the glint of light off the waves, something to brighten my moments and possibly a laugh or a smile to brighten the moments of others. I wrote my novels and included the darkness, but also the light because I still had an open heart, a childlike innocence because I believed that there was a purpose, a light, a love waiting for me. That for someone somewhere I would be enough, more than enough, that we would blend the colours that would make our lives shine truer and deeper, that there would be someone I wouldn’t lose and who would not want to lose me.
But instead something happened a few months ago. My mind was fractured. There are no visible bruises and only I heard the sound of breaking. It was not the heartbreak to which I have grown accustomed at the end of relationships. Not the well-worn track that I know and can adjust my gait, my movements, my expectations. I loved someone who I believed with everything inside me to be my soulmate, who used the dreams I showed her to portray herself as everything I wanted in my life, who made me believe that everything I had wished for could come true. Maybe I was a fool to believe, maybe I was vulnerable clinging on to the wreckage on that beach, fighting against being drawn out into the sea, of drowning. I had built a life raft from the pieces of my life and she offered me a safe haven designed to protect us. When I discovered that it was all fiction, that she did not even exist except in that fiction, something snapped in my mind. A mind walking along in the innocent belief in the ‘ordinary’ truth, that things are what they are, suddenly had no ground beneath it.
And now, my mind cannot dance anymore. It is awkward and shy, without grace, without confidence. It peeps out, makes a half-hearted attempt, and then crawls back inside. There are no visible scars, no crutches, no few months of ‘keep the weight off’. There is no Plaster of Paris cast to be signed. There is only the grind of bone against bone as I hold the ends together to get through the day. Making sure not to let others see the break because in my world, where even before reality was twisted in on itself I would not show vulnerability, a fractured mind leaves me more vulnerable than a fractured ankle. And is less acceptable.
As a writer of fiction, I could escape into stories. I could connect with others without being too vulnerable because, ‘they are fictional characters in pain, not me’. And, until a few months ago, I have always been able to use bright colours to lighten the darkness in some little way and hopefully even bring a smile. When readers connected to share their wonder at the concept of a vision painter, at the pleasure in the thought of being able to paint a life with happiness, I felt the same wonder and pleasure again. That even through pain and darkness, my words could reach others and we could share hope. I was pleased that despite the obvious negatives in the novels, what had connected and lifted spirits and remained even for a brief moment, were the positives.
Now, all I can do is post up pictures on Facebook of Clio, my saving grace, the main reason that I can smile. I can hide my fractured mind behind that smile and we could go on existing like that. I’ve been working on my next novel, though I haven’t written anything for the last few weeks, wary of adding more negative than positive, more shadows, making another dent in innocence, adding falsehoods to a world already brimming in them. I know that my writing is not that important in any grand scheme of things, but it is to me. It is important to me that my words have integrity whether they are in the guise of a medical thriller, a romance, or a fantasy of magical realism. It is important to me that when someone reads my words, they do not feel worse after, do not have to endure the grinning companion of hopelessness that stamps out any flicker before it can become the flame that might burn bright and leave me destroyed, or might light the way.
Existing now without my palette of bright colours is gloomy enough, should I put that out there into the world and darken what can already be a shadowed canvas? Should I stop writing and connecting with others now, when I need it most? Or, should I just put on my big-girl pants and invent a Happy-Ever-After, because dammit, I’m a writer?
I feel the need for answers from outside my own fractured mind. I want to know from authors – do you put your novels on hold at times like these, until the story that pushes to be written can offer something more than what life at that current moment holds for you? From readers – do you wish to be drawn into the darkness in the same way you were captured previously by the story?