Cathy Rentzenbrink: How I Wrote the Last Act of Love

Cathy Rentzenbrink: How I Wrote the Last Act of Love

Gradually my words drifted back and, four years later, when I lived in France and was very lonely, I made my first attempt at writing a novel that was partly based on what happened.

I suspect it wasn’t very good, but I can’t revisit it as I don’t have those notebooks either – a few years after that I had another moment of self-disgust and threw away everything away again. I wanted to feel free.

I tried to write other books about different things, but sooner or later my brother would appear unbidden in the pages and take over and I’d see that what I’d been trying to write before was lifeless, feeble or brittle. Also, I really liked reading other people’s books and thought maybe that was where I should put my energy. I got a job as a bookseller and sometimes wrote into my notebook on my breaks, but more often read instead.

When I was 34 I became obsessed with the fact that the accident was half my life away and I wrote a bit about the night of the accident and a long piece about our parents and how they met. I couldn’t get any further, though, and was very unhappy at the thought of attempting to track the journey from hope to despair in the eight years between my brother’s accident and his death.

A few years later I was on maternity leave and wanted something to do when my son was asleep so I signed up for a Creative Writing module with the Open University. There was a life writing section and I decided it was a bit fraudulent and cowardly to ignore the most significant event of my life, so I wrote about the night of the accident and my feeling that I was still stuck in the road. People on my course liked it and I got good marks, but I didn’t think of myself as a non-fiction writer and I still didn’t want to write about those eight years.

So I carried on writing or not writing the first few chapters of novels. I got a new job running a literacy charity and some freelance work writing about books. I loved that I was involved in the world of books and thought that was enough for me.

A couple of months after my 40th birthday, I went on a trip to Korea to talk about books and reading. I was doing presentations to teachers, librarians and arts workers alongside an author called Tom Palmer. One evening, sitting in the bar, he asked whether I was writing anything. Gradually, over two nights and lots of wine, he pulled the story of what had happened to my brother out of me, and told me to write it down.

‘Don’t worry about structure, or anyone reading it,’ he said. ‘Just make some time, write it out of yourself and then you can put it in a drawer and get on with something else.’

The next day Tom gave me a blue notebook he’d bought in a museum shop and I wrote into it on the plane home.

That was the start of months and months of getting up early, staying up late, working all weekend and using up my holidays to write. At some point I realised my pages weren’t going to end up in a drawer and then I had more people to help me. I got an agent and then an editor and the writing process became less lonely and more collaborative. I also had lots of new things to worry about, like the ethics of writing about real people and the consequences of self-exposure, and my agent and editor helped me work all of that out. I’m glad I didn’t think about those things at the start, or I wouldn’t have been able to do it at all.

When I look back at the amount of times I tried but gave up, I really do think this is a hopeful story for anyone who has had a few attempts to get their words on to paper. All those other times were important: they all taught me things, they weren’t wasted. I now think that it needed to take all that time and that every false start was an essential bit of the process. I am extremely glad and grateful that I managed to put one word in front of another for long enough to wrestle this story on the page and to create a book that means something to other people. If you read it, I hope it means something to you.

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