Everyone has their boundaries, but writing means having to cross them. When I had my first child I was unable to write for a long time – I found that as life was stretching my boundaries I was trying to keep them in place. With everything around me changing it was difficult to pursue the change imposed by writing.
Although I was unable to write, I could still read. In a bag in the hallway I had a copy of Naja Marie Aidt’s grief-imbued When Death Takes Something from You Give It Back, a book about the loss of her son Carl. It had been there for some time. Losing a child must be the most unbearable thing in the world. I thought at first that I wasn’t equipped to read that book, I was still too vulnerable after giving birth. I couldn’t face even the idea of losing a child. But I knew too that being unable to read the book meant that I had to read it. This is the same resistance I often encounter in writing – if there’s something I feel I can’t write about, I ask myself why, and then I know I’m going to have to write about it anyway. It’s the only way I can work things through.
Some books need you and make room for you as a reader, and that’s how it felt with Aidt’s book. I read the first few pages, and as I took in its language, a language broken by grief, I did not, as I was expecting, feel dread, terror, nausea, but rather a deep-felt gratitude at being allowed to experience the love I saw in the words I was reading, the love for a child.
Reading about death touched on the experience of bringing a new life into the world. Losing a child appeared to be a physical experience – the body that had contained the living child also had to contain and carry its death. Furthermore, giving birth resembles death in its total loss of control, its giving over of everything to nature. It means, too, having to lose the life one has known before. Loss is darkness, an empty void, and something lost is something we cannot see. In her collection entitled Pas revoir, French poet Valérie Rouzeau writes about the loss of her father, and as in Aidt’s book, language breaks up. Loss becomes a place language is never quite able to reach, or rather it is stretched into the most unrecognisable shapes, and thus a broken language, a new language, may lend form to loss and hold it up to the reader.
I can’t really say what it was that allowed me to start writing again, but gradually I did. In the place I was, though, I realised that I wasn’t capable of establishing a new, fictional universe for a novel, that I couldn’t control the sweeping lines of any holistic narrative. Quite simply I was unable to ‘use my imagination’. The experience in which I stood was too strong. The ancient Chinese text the Hanfeizi, attributed to the philosopher Han Fei-tzu, contains an anecdote in which the king asks an artist what subject is the easiest to draw and what is the hardest. The artist replies that dogs are the hardest and demons the easiest. What he meant was that it can be challenging indeed to capture what is most tangibly real to us.
So even if I wanted to write about something that was close to me, it didn’t necessarily mean it was going to be easy. But something started to happen when I cast fear aside and allowed the circumstances under which I was trying to write feed into the text itself. I was unable to keep track of time, in my life and in the story that was emerging as I wrote; it was as if time ceased to exist at all, or at least had decided to abandon its usual logic. I had to accept that what I was writing was fragmentary, that it kept skipping from one thing to another, the narrative shifting in content and character, because that was what my life was like. To my surprise I discovered that the writing that came out was more truthful, being closer in both form and expression to my own experience. At some point these fragments came together as a novel, The Child.
And now, as I write this piece, I think about my reading experiences as that novel progressed, and how they instilled in me a belief that even if language can seem inadequate to describe what we’re going through, we may still discover – if we surrender ourselves to it – that it will nonetheless suffice.
Photograph © carlfbagge