Widow and Writer: Creating From Chaos

Every so often, I come across an article about some shiny young entrepreneur who runs a million dollar business using only their Smartphone, a laptop and a table at the local coffee shop. Apparently, these minimalist moguls have no need for an office: everything is researched, written and filed electronically, their entire lives stored on a ‘Cloud’, a sort of giant filing cabinet hovering in the ether. This new way of working (which someone is bound to tell me has been around for a decade or more) explains why I see trendy young things at airports entering security with a laptop under their arm, a passport in their hand and a bulge in their jeans (you have to have somewhere to store a wallet and your keys), whereas I am lugging a carry-on bag and a handbag, both stuffed to the gills with things I might need at 33,000 ft, whilst complaining about my bad back/stiff neck/crunchy shoulders.

I am a total dinosaur when it comes to the VO. (You mean you didn’t know VO stands for Virtual Office?) Mind you, look what happened to dinosaurs. The book of the blog is out later this year, and I am desk-deep in paperwork as I write new material, edit old material and look back over almost four years of Planet Grief blog posts and the thousands of comments that accompanied them. The picture above is not of my desk. Oh no. I suspect it is the desk of one of the aforementioned whizz kids, a prophet from Planet Paperless who preaches a ‘portable lifestyle’ and how clutter leads to chaos. I did intend to take a picture of my desk to illustrate this post, but even by my own sluttish standards (remember, I am the woman who opened a ring binder during an important presentation to find a cold sausage lying along the spine) I couldn’t bear you to see the chaos. On the other hand, perhaps you’re not as nosey as me and wouldn’t have downloaded the photo and enlarged it to take a closer look at what you thought was a white Tippex pen next to the stapler, only to discover it’s a random Tampax decanted from my handbag and yet to find its final resting place.

Although I have more than twenty published books to my name, this is the first time I have taken on a non-fiction project. It has been far more emotional than writing fiction, but my way of working has broadly followed the same route. At the start of any project I have a pile of ideas, scribbled notes, diagrams, random quotes and articles torn from magazines and newspapers, which once they have reached the Leaning Tower of Pisa proportions, I ram in to folders before going nuts with my labelling machine, anointing files with sticky strips proclaiming Inspiration or Notes or Research, which all amount to the same thing, but means I fool my brain in to thinking I am working, even when all I’m doing is trying out different fonts.

But there comes a point when in order to use these ideas I need to face what most writers agree induces more panic attacks than an editor insisting that there is no flexibility to your contracted deadline, even if you are wincing in pain with every typed comma because of carpal tunnel syndrome: The Terror of the Blank Page. It’s the moment when you have to stop fiddling around with neon Post-It Notes and creating pretty Mind Maps with glitter gel pens and Do The Work, ie write the first sentence, and however much preparation you have done, however many notes you have written and dialogues you have constructed in your head whilst walking The Hound, for me, at least, this first step is always, always, a leap of faith.

I have read interviews with writers who say that their book is plotted out in great detail before they tap out the first word and that they are totally in control of their characters. I am in awe of these people; I can’t even control my own hair, let alone my characters. When I write fiction I always know how my story will end, but between the pages I haven’t a clue what my characters will get up to. Sometimes I write at warp-speed because I want to know what will happen next; sometimes I can’t bear reading the words that spill on to the screen. I remember being horrified that the mother of one of ‘my’ characters was killed in an accident involving a shopping trolley in the car park at Asda. This wasn’t meant to happen! I wanted to turn the clock back, to tell Yolanda (the mother) that she should go to the hospital for a check-up rather than go home, but I couldn’t; the story had taken on its own momentum.

For me, there is always a mid-point in any new project where I am convinced that the book will never come together, when I am thrown into despair and seriously consider returning my contract and hiding from my publisher. Experience has taught me this always happens, so now, when it does, I let myself panic for a bit, sink into a fug of self-doubt and loathing, have a few glasses of sherry and then get back to my desk, buckle down and get on with it. Gradually, sometimes painfully, the chaos is honed and crafted into a manuscript and with the support of my editor, a copy-editor and a proofreader, polished to become a published book. I look at the finished book with pride and reflecting on the chaos of its creation think: Despite everything, it all came together in the end.

When I started writing this piece it was going to be about the madness of the first year of widowhood – something I can clearly see reading back over the old blogs – but in sharing with you my thoughts, this post has taken an entirely different turn. So the things I was going to tell you, about how mad I was in the first year, about how over a pizza in Zizzi I argued with a vicar about whether JS was a better person than Hitler, about how I was furious with JS’s first wife for dying before him and therefore being at the Pearly Gates to greet him and how I didn’t care a jot about 16,000 people drowning just after JS did because I was mad they were going to fill up Heaven, taking up all the ‘Death By Drowning’ parking spots, all these will wait for next time. Because in writing this post I have realised that crafting a book out of the chaos of my desk is, for me, akin to crafting a new life out of the chaos of JS’s death. At first I couldn’t make sense of anything; I wanted to end my contract with life, rip it up and hand it back, but at some point I realised that I had no choice but to start building a new life. I just couldn’t think how to do it. I looked at the chaos around me – the rubble of my life – and felt daunted at the prospect of starting again. Wise widows told me to have faith, to take my time, not to worry about what my life would be like in a year, or five years or ten years, but to tackle life bit-by-bit and let it all unfold, and gradually the way forward would be become clearer. I couldn’t do it all on my own, I had help and support, but ultimately I was responsible for building this new life.

And what of those times when I despaired, when I thought my life was never going to come together, when I thought I couldn’t go on? In editing the blog I came across this comment from ‘Bonnie’, a widow with three young children who wrote:

Grief is like a flat tyre. If you get out of the car and sit on the wall just looking at the flat tyre waiting for it to mend itself, it is never going to happen; you won’t get anywhere with that method. When the wheel nuts are a bit tight you need to sit down on the kerb and rest a while. You will come back to the wheel soon. 

If you are reading this with your life, your mind or your desk in chaos, make that leap of faith, take that first step; it will all come together one day in ways you could have never imagined at the beginning. I promise you.

I’ve just started a Facebook page for my blogs.Please come over and ‘Like’ the page! Thank you. https://www.facebook.com/theplanetgrief/timeline


Reply April 1, 2015

'The rubble of my life' - that takes me back. There was a picture in The Times of a village In Japan after the terrible tsunami. I felt I was picking my through this devastation, coming across treasured memories or possessions amongst the complete chaos. I just didn't know where to begin - did I try and start at one edge and salvage what I could, making neat piles of twisted wood, metal, rubble? Cleaning off the dirt from a favourite book, Item of clothing or memory, but the scale of devastation was overwhelming. Or did I just get a bulldozer?
I tore out the photo and kept it in my journal for nearly 3 years. I have now thrown it away. I think I did a bit of both; neat piles and bulldozer, but I think what actually happened was that the perspective changed, the huge piles of chaos just seemed to shrink to something more manageable in time.
I kept a journal of my first two years, writing daily for 18 months, then the need to express how I was feeling became less and less. Initially, I was trying to make it to the next hour, to get through the day, to survive. But with time, again, the perspective changed, days whisk by, months become years (5 in October).
A line from 'Call the midwife' resonated, after the lead character lost her beau. The wise old nun said "carry on living until you start to feel alive".
Anyway, a bit of a rambling response, but I'm delighted to be getting more regular fixes of your writing again - I missed it. Xx

Planet Grief
Reply April 2, 2015

Thanks Lizzie. I love to get your comments. Now, with the post being on various Facebook sites it's very easy for people to comment on Facebook (and they do), but of course any non-members of those closed sites don't get the benefit of other's experience. I can see the page views, so people are still reading.

I think you are right - as well as doing things bit-by-bit our perspective does change. I mocked my first counsellor - Docktor R - and she wasn't right for me, but I have never forgotten one of the things she said: "Never underestimate the healing power of doing mundane things." So just by doing the things that had to be done: the bins; wiping down the sink etc, gradually I got through the day, and then another one and so on.


Noreen Lem
Reply July 28, 2015

hi Helen. Have just been reading some of your feelings on the grief experienced by the loss of a partner and whilst I have experienced and come through that loss I can never come to get over the loss of my daughter only seven months after my husband. One should never loose a child before oneself.

Planet Grief
Reply August 16, 2015

Noreen, thank you for your input. Obviously this blog is only written from the perspective of someone who has lost a partner, although over the years, many others with different experiences of bereavement or other loss have contributed. I think that most of these contributors would agree that the death of a child is particularly cruel, and that however great our loss feels, it is not comparable to losing your child. x

Reply March 29, 2016

Thanks for creating Widow and Writer: Creating From Chaos |
PLANET GRIEF, actually love it.