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  • Mandy Whyman

Why write?


My father sent me copies of eight A4 pages written by my grandmother. She wrote them towards the end of her life and the handwriting is difficult to read in places. A record of her family, they are a treasure trove of information and, more importantly for me, they bring back her voice: the impeccable grammar and quiet understatement.( My father also sent me this picture of my granny, young and smiling, her little baby (my dad) on her hip.)

Reading those eight pages sent me straight back to my letter box, where I keep many of the letters I received when I was at boarding school. Re-reading the letters from my grandparents was like hearing echoes of their voices (my Grandpa's constant dismay at the lack of rain and my grandmother's social circle, bridge and baking) and a reminder of the bond between us, even after the many years that they have been absent. It makes me wonder why we ever stopped writing letters. E-mails and texts are a poor substitution to the thought that goes into pen and paper. I am so grateful that I have those letters. They are invaluable records of place, time and person. Voices beyond dates and details.

Not so long ago, while observing me sweating over some scribble of a poem, a family member remarked disparagingly that: ` it'll never make you any money, so why bother?' I suppose my response should be: if you have to ask the question, no answer will do. The poems are like the letters: my recording of a world that will change and one day, roll on without me. It doesn't matter if they are read (or "gasp!" sell), it matters that they are written - these little pieces of me. And once written, like anything birthed, they become separate and have to take their chances against the world. All that matters is that they are written in the first place.

And all those scribbled words are not just about recording experiences and making sense of the world, they are a powerful tool in understanding ourselves: therapy.

My brother hanged himself when he was just 14 and I was 16. His loss was a weight that I carried around for most of my adult life, despite to all intents and purposes being "over it". I wrote about it privately in diaries, but in 2019 I finally put the experience into poetry. It was cathartic. The process of taking the emotion and moulding it into a message transformed all that hurt into something independent of me.


The Test

Occipital condyls –

One or two?

Occipital condyls

In a frog?


The question paused

For over thirty years.

Paused. Paused.

Paused.


Stuttering at the moment

Of the telephone call

That told that you

Were gone.

Gone.

Gone.


Repeating through

The long drive home

And the stars wheeling

Overhead.

Eternally stuck:


How many occipital condyls

In a frog?

The tender hinges

Of skull and neck –

How many?


The abandoned dinner

On the oven top.

Details of the pyrex dish

And whispered voices

And a shrouded living room.


And all the time

the stutter…


How many occipital condyls

In a frog?


Now that you were gone.

Gone.

Gone.

And still the question

Stays stuck

To the test studied

But never taken –

Because you were gone.


How many occipital condyls

In a frog?


It is an uncomfortable poem. I was studying for a Biology test when my housemistress, Miss Baker called me to the telephone. On the other end was my father telling me what had happened. The headmistress and deputy headmaster drove me home and I lay on Miss Baker's lap watching the stars, my brain stuck on the last bit of Biology before the news. It is a memory that has stayed glued. But writing it into poetry helped me to let it go.

I published this poem and others that echo other losses in a small bitter and bruised little collection called Evidence (Evidence: A Poetry Collection: Amazon.co.uk: Whyman, Mandy: 9781708060503: Books). I never publicised it and didn't try to sell it (other than it appearing on Amazon) but the writing of the poems and putting them out into the world cleared them from me, made them separate from me. It was definite therapy. Only after I had written the words and, I think importantly, thrown them to the world, could I move on in my writing and get over the lump of hurt that seemed to inform everything I produced. After Evidence, I was able to write Fieldsong and finish my novel Like Water.

Does it matter if no-one reads it and it never makes me any money? No.

There is a saying that is repeated on twee little designs everywhere. It goes along the lines of "sing like nobody is listening; dance like nobody is watching". I should add: "write like nobody is reading". It will do you good.

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