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In the Present Moment

Posted on 21st September 2016 by Sally Campbell
Jenny Downham is the award-winning author of Before I Die and You Against Me, two hugely powerful and moving young adult titles. Her latest YA novel, Unbecoming, explores the themes of memory, identity, and the revelation of secrets through three generations of women in one family. The novel draws on her own family’s first-hand experience of a loved-one’s Alzheimer’s.  Here, to mark National Alzheimer’s Day, we are honoured to publish such an open and heart-felt article.

I never plot a book in advance.  I use free-writing techniques - generating words day after day with no idea where they’ll take me.  The aim is to be alive in the present moment, to write with energy and get rid of the critic.  Once characters start to emerge, I simply follow them about to see what they do. 

When I began Unbecoming, an elderly woman called Mary appeared very quickly and I liked her a lot - she had such zest for life and kept making me laugh.  She was in hospital at first, but kept trying to escape.  One day she’d make it down the front steps, only to be brought back by a nurse. The next day she managed to get on a bus before the police were alerted.  Eventually she got all the way to her estranged daughter’s house and knocked on the door.  Her daughter was not at all pleased to see her, although a couple of teenage grandchildren were very intrigued.  A long lost grandmother?  Why had Mum never mentioned her before?

I wrote about this little triangle of a family next - 17-year-old Katie and her younger brother, Chris, and their very controlling mother, Caroline. They lived in a new town where they knew no one and each had problems to deal with.  By giving them Mary as a temporary guest, the story began to buzz.

It became clear that Mary had Alzheimer’s.  Every morning she ran away, but when questioned, couldn’t say why.  Katie wanted to know what she was looking for (so did I at this stage!). She also wanted to know why her mum resented Mary so much. What was the nature of their estrangement? It made Katie question everything she thought was true about her family.

Great, I thought – I have my project.  It was going to be about identity and memory and family. Who are we if we no longer have access to the past?  Or if we’ve re-invented it?  Or if we don’t dare to be ourselves?  Or if we no longer recognise those we love?

It was at this time, about a year into the writing, that my sister asked what my new book was about.

When I told her, she said, ‘So, you’re writing about Mum, then?’

‘What?  No!’

Whilst it was true our mother had recently been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, I wasn’t interested in putting my family on the page.  My mum was an intensely private woman with a vicious disease and I had no wish to expose her. 

I claimed coincidence. 

My sister rolled her eyes, ‘Whatever.’

I felt deeply uncomfortable. 

Schiller wrote of a ‘watcher at the gates of the mind’ who examines our imagination closely.  He suggested that creativity comes when we’re able to withdraw the watcher from the gate and allow imaginative ideas to rush in.  Even then, we can censor - sending the watcher hurrying back to tell us our ideas are shameful or insignificant or wrong.

After my sister had pointed out the (increasingly) obvious fact that free-writing had allowed my own life to sneak into my work, I felt the watcher’s disapproval so strongly that my words dried to nothing.

I confessed to my dad that I was accidently writing about a family struggling with Alzheimer’s.

‘Us?’ he said.

‘People like us.’

He thought about it for a moment.  ‘Mum won’t like it.’

I knew this.  Well, I knew that the ‘old’ her wouldn’t like it.  But what about the ‘new’ her – the one who cared less about what people thought?  The one who flirted and refused to eat vegetables and kept leaving the house for wild adventures while her husband tore up the neighbourhood looking for her? 

Next time I visited, I showed Mum my notebook and asked if she’d mind if I wrote about her.  She clapped her hands with delight. 

It felt like consent.  Although, as Katie says in Unbecoming when she starts transcribing: ‘…was this an invasion of privacy? Was Mary technically able to give permission?’

I still felt uneasy, but something definitely shifted.

I wrote pages during and after every visit.  Mum often asked what I was doing ‘scribbling away,’ and I reminded her she was in my story and she looked flattered all over again.  I took notes when I accompanied her to medical appointments and when social services visited.  I interviewed my dad about being a carer. Slowly, we all acknowledged that I was writing about us.  People like us. 

Not only did this acknowledgement change the book, but writing the book changed the way I handled the last months before my mum died.  I was grieving.  I cared deeply about losing her.  It hurt that she no longer knew who I was.  She could be challenging.  She was getting worse.  My dad was struggling and it was heart breaking.  But writing was cathartic. 

I had what felt like a new awareness.  I let her lead what we did and what we spoke about.  I avoided questions.  I listened to her circular stories with a patience I doubt I’d have possessed if she wasn’t my ‘protagonist.’  I tried very hard to share real moments of human connection with her and then I’d go home and spend hours trying to imagine what it might be like to ‘be’ her. 

I also began to understand that this story had been brewing for years.  Hadn’t my own grandmother come to stay with us for months following her stroke?  Hadn’t I been charged with keeping her ‘entertained?’  Hadn’t she told me family stories?  How could I have forgotten that? 

I became conscious that one of the major threads in the novel was storytelling itself - the ones that pass down generations as well as the ordinary ones we tell every day.  We unveil ourselves with them, we make choices about how we represent ourselves, what we choose to divulge and what we keep hidden.  I went back to the beginning of the novel and polished those threads brighter.

Unbecoming is undoubtedly my most personal book.  I’m a daughter, a mother and a carer.  I hope I was better at all three while I was writing.  Now it is done, if anyone asks about methodology, I smile and say, ‘I never plot.  I use free-writing techniques.  But… there’s a lot of my mum in Mary.’




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