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Behind the story

Meanjin has just published a memoir piece that I wrote about my son, and it is the rawest and most personal piece of writing that I have ever published. ‘Untethered’ tells the story of how my 10 year old was discovered, by accident, to have an extremely rare and fatal asymptomatic congenital heart condition. So far as we know, he is the first person in Australia to be found alive with this condition. Usually children die, from the age of 10 onwards, while playing sport, having never known anything was wrong with their heart.

I’m not going to retell the story here; the Meanjin piece does that. Instead I want to talk about the writing process. As with all memoir, this is only one slice of the story. One year captured in 6000 words. My first draft was 10,000 words but I knew no one would publish it. So I pared it right back, and the piece is better for it.

I took it to my writers group. One writer said it was the best thing I’d ever written. Another made the astute observation that this was really the story of my heart, as I faced my son’s mortality and dealt with the grief of potentially losing him. He was right, though I hadn’t realised it. If my son were to write his own story — and perhaps one day he will — it would be different.

Readers often assume that writing about traumatic experiences is cathartic. This wasn’t. I wrote much of it while we were actually going through it. Reliving each scene on the page was painful. As I wrote, shaping every sentence, I often cried.

I am what is known in writing circles as a ‘pantser’. This means that I usually write without knowing exactly where I am heading, without knowing the ending, and I allow my characters to lead me there. But not knowing how this ‘story’ would end was a constant grief. I desperately wanted a happy ending; I didn’t know if we would get it.

Our cat was the best post-surgery companion

In the end, we did. And you would think that would make the perfect ending on the page. But I wrote and rewrote the ending, never quite striking the right note. Did I leave the reader with the surgery’s success? Or did I take them into the aftermath, when my son had frightening reactions to the anaesthetic and all the opioids, finally ending up on only Panadol for heart surgery. ‘It sounds like the title of an indie song,’ my friend Francis Jaye said. It had more than enough angst for one too.

But neither of those endings was right. I waited, hoping something would click. Months passed. And then life delivered the perfect ending. An event that brought the story full circle. But I’m not going to give it away here; that would only spoil things.

It was my friend Donna Ward who first suggested that I tell this story. It hadn’t occurred to me; fiction is what I write. And although it wasn’t cathartic, it did help in a strange kind of way. It was about bearing witness.

You can read ‘Untethered’ in the summer issue of Meanjin, which can be purchased online or in good bookstores. If you already have a Meanjin subscription you can read my piece online. The issue is only freshly out and mine has yet to hit my mailbox, so it was lovely to receive this feedback on Twitter from one of the earliest readers. I hope you enjoy it too.

And to celebrate publication I have TWO book packs to give away, each containing the sping and summer issues of Meanjin. Meanjin is one of Australia’s most prestigious literary journals and every issue is packed full of incredible fiction, poetry, essays and memoir. To go in the draw simply sign up to my monthly newsletter full of bookish goodness before 19 December. You’ll find the sign-up block on this page. Winners should receive their parcel just before Christmas. Perfect for curling up with on Christmas day, beverage of choice in hand.

9 thoughts on “Behind the story”

  1. One should never be jealous of others, as we all have serious struggles. You are a beautiful writer, successful author, editor and mentor. However you faced losing a child. It is heart wrenching and you were so close. It is important to write the story for yourself but all of us.

    1. It’s so true, we all have struggles to face and I am certainly glad this one is behind us. Thank you for your beautiful, generous words, Susie.

  2. Oh good for you Irma for writing the story – and for having it published. Unfortunately, I don’t subscribe to Meanjin – though I am regularly tempted – because I just know I won’t find time to read it. I will have to try to find this edition some other way. I enjoyed your discussion above of your writing process, and that you are a “pantser”! And of course, it is so wonderful that your son came through this so well in the end! I remember your social media posts at the time, and how worrying it all was.

    1. Thank you, Sue. It is a great relief to have that happy ending.

      The NLA bookshop stocks Meanjin if you just want to buy an occasional issue. I think Paperchain might too. I know what you mean — there are never enough hours to read all the things!

    1. I’m so glad! There’s so much great stuff in this issue — I’ve had a lazy Saturday afternoon reading it. Well deserved, I think, after three hours Christmas shopping!

  3. I love the idea of hearing witness, and I am off to read your story, keen to learn the ending, I’m currently waiting on the perfect ending for my story!

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