Wednesday 6 July 2011

Writing's a struggle. And then Life gets in the way.

By Maxine Linnell
Guest Blogger

What happens when life crashes in the path of what we think we know about ourselves – and about life itself? What happens to the writing - can it go on, and how will it change?

That’s what has happened to me – and what I’m waiting to find out.

I was a late developer as a writer, finding so many things got in the way. I started to write seriously five years ago, and my first book, Vintage, was published last year by Five Leaves, an independent publisher in Nottingham.

Vintage is a time-swap story about Holly from 2010 and Marilyn from 1962. They swap bodies and lives and find out what it’s like to live in completely different eras. It’s going down well with reviewers, ‘a very compelling and thought-provoking read’.

I say Vintage was my first book, because it’s the first one that was published, but it was the second book I completed. The first got me my agent – that was the passionate book, the one I really felt I wanted to be available. It’s hard to feel that when the world is so full of books.

Closer is about love, and when love goes wrong.

Mel is an outrageous girl who doesn’t care about anything – until something happens that she has to care about. It’s about a dad who gets too close. But it’s more about how Mel gets closer to everyone she knows, by having to deal with what happens to her and her family.

When Five Leaves liked Closer, in spite of its edginess, the discomfort of its subject and its approach, I was delighted that it would happen. The book only needed minor editing before it could go ahead.

Then last November, life jumped in. My lovely son Benn died, at 37, from the epilepsy which he’d had since he was seventeen – caused during his birth.

His death was sudden, catastrophic and brutal, in the middle of one of the happiest, most creative times of his life. He was an artist, and supported others to make and sell their work. He was in a new, loving relationship, hoping to have children and marry.

Everything crumbled. His partner, his sister, his dad, his many friends, all suffered and are suffering. The lives I was living, as a writer, a therapist and the many other labels I might choose, lost all their meaning.

I was in the middle of completing a commissioned book for A&C Black, for their new Wired Up series for reluctant readers.

The jokey, feisty heroine’s voice became inaccessible for months. Nothing was in my mind and body except the shock and the devastation. But somewhere the hard-won life as a writer wouldn’t go away, and I knew I couldn’t give up on my first opportunity to write for a big publisher.

I had to search for the voice somewhere behind the grief that had taken over. After several delays I managed to complete it, I’m not sure how.

I had to treat it as a job that needed to be done, however I felt. Breaking the Rules will come out in February next year. It’s about a girl whose family move to a new area. She struggles to find a way into a new school, and begins to rely on a Facebook ‘friend’ she’s never met.

The voices I’ve used, the people I’ve chosen to carry the stories I’ve wanted to tell in my books, know nothing of the experience of a mother losing her son.

Maxine Linnell
Closer launches today, the 6th of July. I’m attaching the threads of my young adult novelist shadow to myself as best I can, to give it the best start in life it can hope for.

But I have no idea what will follow – if I can write for young people again, how my writing will change, who I am now as I go through this unexpected, uncontrolled and completely unwelcome transition into a new life. I know I will write – I’m beginning on poems about Benn and grief which may become a book – and I know everything I write will be coloured by this experience.

How could it not be?

Maxine's website:


  1. I don't know what to say except that I am amazed you could finish your work in such circumstances, Maxine. This is a very moving piece, that certainly puts my moaning about lack of writing time in perspective!

    I'm so, so sorry to hear about your son. Best wishes for your writing -- I hope you can find words that may help.

  2. Maxine, I am so very sorry for your loss - but thank you for writing so eloquently and poignantly about this part of your writing journey. Your strength and courage are remarkable and are a testament to you.
    I suppose one comfort is that writing must be one of the most cathartic experiences we can have. I do believe your writing will be richer and even more empowered.
    I salute you and wish you all the very, very best for your life, your books and for your writing going forward.

  3. I had tears in my eyes as I read this, Maxine. I'm so desperately sorry about the loss of your son. Do you think writing could provide solace during this painful time? I am a huge fan of having some sort of 'morning pages' or diary. It can be hugely therapeutic to just write down exactly how you are feeling. You can rant and rave and give voice to all those painful emotions. Thank you for writing this piece xx

  4. Maxine, I am so sorry for your loss - there is nothing we fear more as parents than the loss of a child, and yet there you despite everything you have been through, managing to keep some focus and write. I hope your writing has been therapeutic and has helped you through dark days. I admire you for sharing your experience on this blog and reminding the rest of us that there is a way forward. I wish you success and peace of mind.

  5. Maxine I can somewhat relate to the pain you must be going through and the affect it had on your work, I lost my wife to suicide a few years ago and was obliged to return to this country when her family attempted to abduct my daughter. Not quite the same as losing a child perhaps, but in a similar world. I found it very tough indeed to complete outstanding deadlines, the book I was working on at the time ended up a pale shadow of the work as intended, however once back in the UK I was able to throw myself into the next book, which, though still not illustrations I'm particularly proud of, was nevertheless very therapeutic, becoming an oasis of escape from the trauma. It was a long time before I was able to get back on track, things do improve however with time. I find the grief is not something you get over, but gradually you learn to steer around the crater left in your life, you become adroit at putting it in an (unlocked) draw.

    Thank you for writing this, it reminded me of how resilient our creativity can be.

  6. I can only claim to understand a tiny bit of your loss, but I do understand the problem of trying to write while, inside, you are slowly falling apart. You're so brave to work through this and I hope your experience can eventually enrich your writing rather than impeding it.


  7. Maxine, I am so sorry - somewhere in all the grief will be a little seed of Benn - it will grow and settle and give you strength because you love him, and somehow, miraculously, love enables us to see and be and keep those we love alive in us. I know this, I'm a long way down the path but I know this to be true.
    Beautifully written piece, good luck with the new book and all the ones still to come xxxx

  8. Thanks for your honesty and courage, Maxine - it certainly puts all our day to day bleating into perspective! It seems as though, if creativity is in you, it stays in you whatever life throws at you. And thanks to you too - John - you are obviously another good example of this creative resilience!

    All strength to your future work.

  9. Thank you so much for sharing this with us Maxine. Events like this mark you forever - I hope writing will become a solace eventually, and your son will live forever in the words you are writing now.

  10. Maxine, my heart goes out to you. What a shattering loss, and how brave of you to continue with the contracted book in the face of it.
    I wish you comfort and strength and a safe, quiet space where you *don't* have to soldier on, but can just let yourself and your writing take whatever shape they need to. I'll be keeping you in my thoughts and wishing you well.

  11. Dear Maxine,
    I'm not a parent - so I can only imagine what you've gone through.
    Yet I lost three family members in quick succession from cancer, the last, my father, a few years ago. While I can say I had those can't do anything moments, strangely with me it was a focusing experience. I stopped trying to write stuff I thought I should so much, and did what I wanted. It got bleaker, and stronger.
    I think in these situations it is best to do what you need to do, whether it is writing, or not writing for a while. Either is okay.

  12. thanks so much for letting us in, Maxine.

  13. Oh Maxine, I'm so sorry to hear about your son, no one should have to go through that. I met a lady a while ago who lost her son suddenly when he was in his twenties. She wrote a book of poems for him and had them published. They were really beautiful and I'm sure they helped others as well as her.

    So, I do hope you find some solace in your writing, wherever it may lead you.

  14. Thank you so much for sharing such a moving piece, Maxine. I am very sorry for your loss, and hope you and your family can find comfort in each other.

  15. How very sad, and thanks for sharing your grief and your story. I hope things get a bit easier as time goes on, but can't imagine facing something as horrible as what you've gone through. My heart goes out to you and your family.

  16. I'm a bit overcome by all the comments - thank you so much, I've been so touched by them. And John and Teri for sharing their experiences - I often think people (other people) look so 'okay', but there's a lot underneath that.
    Writing gives us a chance to communicate what happens - I hope I'll be able to do some of that. I've been writing poems, about Benn, grief and life, which might see daylight one day.

  17. (((hugs)))

    You know, I'm no poet! to put it mildly. But I do write poetry at those intense moments when nothing else will do.

  18. Maxine said - I often think people (other people) look so 'okay', but there's a lot underneath that.

    This is the beauty of being an author. When people read something that makes them go - ah It's not just me then, I'm not alone in this strange thing that is my life - I think we've succeeded in our job.
    Hugs, Maureen

  19. So sorry for your loss. Thank you for this moving post and thinking of you.


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