What we write about when we write

A sheet of A4 is pinned beside the bar. It hangs loose against the stone wall. There’s an image of a four or five year old in an orange sundress. I notice a plaster at the top of her arm.

Missing Girl.

My eyes flit between the picture and the text – letters done in bold, centred on the page.

Last seen getting into a light coloured van.

I have to back away, shake myself. It’s taken me over three hours to cycle here. I’ve covered two valleys. The wind was so strong that by the end I was hardly moving – peddling hard just to maintain my ground. This poster was the last thing I expected.  

I order food, but can’t stop thinking about that little girl. I keep exploring the sickly feeling inside me. Without the van there might be a chance, but its presence is too ominous. There’s also something about the photo. Even when I try to look away, I’m drawn back.


A few years ago I wrote a story that went through various titles. It began as An anniversary of sorts, which sounds like something in a women’s weekly where a neglected wife thinks her husband is only pretending he’s forgotten their anniversary. This is the worst title I could have chosen because it’s actually about a married couple, coping with the disappearance of their son.

The story starts with the mother in her son’s room, twenty years on.

She steps towards the bookcase and runs her finger across Sam’s notepads, which she has read again and again. It’s the doodles in the margins she likes the most – wondrous confessions of boredom, caricatures of teachers whose real faces she has forgotten now. That’s where she finds him, for brief moments each day.

She turns at the sound of footsteps. Malcolm’s head appears, his hand on the banister, drawing him up – that bad leg of his. But, life is not as clear-cut as growing old. As well the things one anticipates, there are the things one doesn’t. She sees girls as young as fourteen on the streets – drunk, or worse – and she wants to grip hold of them, ask them do their mothers know, tell them children can be here one moment and gone the next.

I can’t, she says as Malcolm comes into the room. He’s still holding those paint samples. She gestures to the largest patch of wallpaper where a red train speeds towards her.


I had trouble with this story. My writing group thought the language was decent, but disliked it for treating a subject in a way they didn’t believe.

The idea began, driving through the town where my parents live, seeing the bare interior of a fish and chip shop. I’d imagined a couple bound to this place.


They stare into the dazzling interior of the take-away from the car.

Sam had fish and chips and a coke. That’s what Ray said. Though he wasn’t Ray then, he was just the owner. She has an unusual love for this man who was able to tell the police that Sam turned left out of the door – which is the way to the bus – so that when she lies in bed, listening to the darkness, she can comfort herself that Sam did his best to come home to her that night.

Blue, plastic chairs are scattered around haphazardly. Ketchup bottles are glossy under the striplights, labels stained and peeling. Posters hang limp on the walls, their colours dulling in the greasy air.

It’s odd to be here, isn’t it? she says, and then quickly, wafting her hand: I don’t mean here…or maybe I do. Maybe it’s all odd. Even that word. Odd.

Malcolm kisses her. Are you ready? he asks.

She nods and climbs out of the car. Her breath holds itself briefly about her face, before being pierced and scattered by the rain. They navigate the road together, around puddles that grip the city beneath their slick surfaces, a city that looks up at them, intensely coloured yet distorted.

I wanted to draw that fine line between absolute, raw tragedy, and having to move on, having no choice – simply moving on from the very fact that time cannot be stopped and the days continue, and therefore, somehow, so do you.

But I knew that the story needed something – or lacked something – but it wasn’t possible to know what I was trying to put into words.

Why do you want to write this story? my writing group asked as we went round and round discussing the piece, trying to get at the heart of it.

The urge for a story can come thick and strong even before you know what it’s about. Often, a first draft is a search for what’s there. It can be excruciating, going about in the dark, with only your hands stretched in front, feeling, hoping.

I was experiencing something similar in the pub. There was something of the face of that girl – the painful normality of her round cheeks and tiny chin, the plaster on her arm – which drew me in, yet wouldn’t explain itself.

I thought of her stepping up into the shadows of a van and my body felt grey with dread. The feeling was so deep there were parts I couldn’t reach and name. I couldn’t stop glancing at the poster, overwhelmed by sensations that kept eluding me, yet which I was compelled to interpret. It was exactly the writing process: how we write to fight our way through from confusion into understanding; how consuming that exploration is.

I didn’t know why I wanted to write that story about the grieving couple. It was something of the fact that even though the tragedy of something as powerful as a missing child can fade from the public eye, it will always be vivid for the parents; the agonising jumble of emotions, which change so often yet will always be there, forever changing. Strange, how something in perpetual motion can feel like limbo.

Ray stands by the counter in his apron and cap. She wonders if he dreads their coming as, in a slightly nervous flurry, he asks about the dogs, their golf.

They fill him in.

Retired? he says, glancing at Malcolm.

She is reminded of how, to Ray, they are frozen in time until each visit. Something hovers nearby, something in the corner of her eye.

Are you all right, love? Malcolm asks as she moves to the window.

I’m fine, go on and order.

The road is silent, shop fronts dark, rain splattering. She stares down at the cracks around her knuckles, the loose skin on her wrists, and thinks of her youth, buried beneath posters and newspapers and the sound of children who aren’t hers.

When did we get old? she asks as Malcolm moves towards her.

We’re not old.

We’re not young! she says, adding: I think I thought we could all go back to how it was. One day the phone would ring and we’d all be as we were.

She looks at Malcolm, but he’s staring at the floor.

My writing group said she would never go back there, year in year out, but it was impossible to imagine rewriting the story without that. It was the place I’d marked out for my ‘search’, where I made my discoveries, like the moment the wife suddenly confesses: sometimes I wish Ray would tell us to stop coming here.

Ray is at the table laying down their cartons of fish and chips. She doesn’t remember when he stopped asking whether there’d been any news.

What are you thinking about? Malcolm asks.

That sweet girl. What was her name?


She smiles. That’s right.

Do you remember…Malcolm says, but doesn’t continue and they eat in silence for a while.

Not as good as last year, Malcolm whispers and she grins, touching the corners of her mouth.

Ray! Malcolm says you’re losing your touch.

Ray laughs. Perhaps I should sell up! He stops and gawps at her.

For a moment nobody says anything.

It’s OK, she says finally. You probably don’t remember him.

I remember, Ray says. He was a nice boy.

And words like that will always bring her down. She sees him running across the lawn to her: Mummy, I can go fast! he calls. Mummy, Mummy, look at me!

In the end, they do repaint Sam’s bedroom.

Borrowed Light is the colour they use, and eventually became the title for the story. I think the reason I’d struggled with the title for over a year is because I couldn’t pinpoint what I was writing about. Sometimes those discoveries can come in the most unexpected way. For me, it was looking through a paint sample booklet.

Borrowed Light speaks of how people live after the tragedy of a vanishing. Everything – happiness, the will to live – is on loan because heartbreak has hollowed them out, leaving nothing. A flash of lightness comes, like a gift, but unfortunately pain remains, and will rise up again.


They dress in old clothes and open a tin of Borrowed Light, a bright white with hints of blue and green: the type of colour she imagines Sam imagining himself coming home to. They paint straight onto the wallpaper. After one layer, they stand back and stare at the trains.

It will take three coats, Malcolm says. Maybe four.

Her chest burns at this reluctant yielding. Do you mind? she asks. I’m sorry.

Don’t be silly. It would have been wrong to steam the paper off. Aside from all that scraping and pureed rubbish, it would have been wrong.

He picks up his roller and she gazes around the room, panicked.

How can we do this? If we wait for him every day, every day hope for him to be found – alive – how can we do this? she says. I couldn’t have done this last year, or the year before, or the year before that. Don’t you see? Yesterday this would have been unthinkable!

You mustn’t! Malcolm says, giving her a shake. He’s grown out of this. He wouldn’t want it. That’s all this is about. Nobody’s giving up!

She moves over to the window and looks outside. The sky is an immaculate blue. It’s beautiful. The world is beautiful, and yet she’s sure it shouldn’t be.            

There’s a short story by Raymond Carver called What we talk about when we talk about love. In it, two couples discuss what they believe to be love. Terri tells about her ex, dragging her around the living room by her ankles so that her head keeps knocking on things.

I love you, I love you, you bitch, he keeps saying.

What do you do with love like that? she asks the others.

Mel her husband says, that’s not love and you know it.

Then he adds: I don’t know what you’d call it, but I sure know you wouldn’t call it love.

Later, the wife of the other couple says that she and her husband know what love is. But neither of them seems to be able to put it into words.

The story, for me, ends with a powerful sense of how it is to feel deeply, to reach a point in that intensity where we are outside of words, nevertheless drenched in some powerful form of insight.

I could hear my heart beating. I could hear everyone’s heart. I could hear the human noise we sat there making, not one of us moving, not even when the room went dark.

It is the experience of this insight that I believe we write about, each draft going deeper, searching more and more thoroughly, until we find the centre, and the words, and our search is over.

About gabrielablandy

Some history, a bit of fiction, with me in there somewhere.
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31 Responses to What we write about when we write

  1. My thoughts are with the parents of April Jones in this difficult time. It is truly moving to see the amount of support they have been given, and to know that the police are committed to their search.

  2. annewoodman says:

    This story of the parents, Borrowed Light, gave me chills. I love the name and the chip shop and their day-in, day-out battle. So tragic that they must go on for years, getting old and ordering chips without their son. I think you did a wonderful job with it.

    • Thanks for your thoughtful comment. I suppose the one positive thing of the sadness of seeing that poster was finding a use for Borrowed Light, which often placed in competitions, but was never published. I have to say, this is probably the best form of the piece, with all the good bits used. I’d hate for people to think my writing group are harsh – there were plenty of paragraphs that were useless!

  3. Beautiful writing, as always, Gabriela. I loved the symbolism of Borrowed Light and how you came upon it. Finding the missing pieces of a story feels like something of a treasure hunt. That’s the fun and beauty of it, isn’t it? Discovering that perfect something that you were missing.

  4. Treasure hunt – I like that, because, like writing, it’s the great hope of the prize at the end, which keeps you going. By that I don’t mean getting published, but rather the joy of finally finishing something – or at least thinking you’ve got it as good as it’s going to get. Lovely of you to stop by and read 😉

  5. It’s fascinating to hear about your thought process and what inspires you in your writing!

    • To think my thought processes might be fascinating is a real boost! At least that means I managed to make these ones coherent. That, for me, is always the main challenge. Thanks so much for the comment and popping by.

  6. Judith Marriott says:

    Borrowed Light was the first of your stories that I read and was so taken with how you create atmosphere through your writing and bring the reader into the emotions of what is going on – with, as usual in your writing, lots being left to the reader’s imagination . A missing child must be the ultimate agony with the feeling of being suspended – half grieving, but not wholely because there is always hope. Terrible. Do hope the cottage is being/has been good. Ju xxx

    • I forgot that you had read that one. It’s funny because I had really lost hope with it, but resuscitating it like this was actually like coming across some old friends, and I suddenly couldn’t understand why I had lost touch with them. Yes, that painful situation of being suspended – so tragic. On another note – North Wales is a place that I will never lose touch with. It is truly amazing and inspiring. Thanks for stopping by, Ju – I always love seeing you here and reading your insightful comments.

  7. Melancholy…thought provoking and excellently written as usual…not knowing what happens to your child…I couldn’t even begin to comprehend… your last two lines…amazing – thank you. 🙂

    • I definitely thought I was opening myself up this week, not being a mum, wondering what mums would think of how I handled this – so I’m grateful for your comment. And I’m glad you like those last two lines – they felt really good to write!!

  8. You really are an incredible writer, so engaging. I’ve commented before (I think!) about how wonderfully you can paint a picture. When people talk of ‘show don’t tell’, they only need look at your writing for the perfect examples!

    • Oh, wow, Vanessa! I feel a bit lightheaded now. It’s so wonderful to be appreciated – I’ve really enjoyed having you follow me these past few weeks. And the ‘show don’t tell’ comment is very apt, because, when I first started out with my writing, I had the balance the wrong way. Glad to know I’ve tipped the scales in the other direction!

  9. This is lovely. It is interesting to see how people find inspiration. I think it is a bit funny how many people ask writers where we get our ideas. The answer is the ideas are all around us; we just have to pay attention. 🙂 Thanks for sharing your inspiration and story.

    • Thanks for your thoughtful comment. I really like the way you put that about the ideas being there if we only care to pay attention. I definitely watch things in a way I didn’t used to do before I started taking my writing seriously.

      • The world we live in has a fast pace and if we’re not careful, life goes by unnoticed. I think part of writing and inspiration is slowing down to take it all in. I think it is interesting how writing changed the way you watch the world. 🙂 Writing and stories are definitely more powerful than most people give them credit.

  10. You are one brave writer. Theoretically, of course, there’s no point in writing unless you are fearless, or prepared to face your fears. And yet… Ever since I read the first chapter of Ian McEwan’s A Child In Time where a child disappears in a supermarket (long before I had children of my own) I have felt a kind of dark horror around the subject of child abduction. It’s to do with loss, and lack, and absence, which are universal subjects, like death. But I think perhaps the difference is that when we read about death, primally terrifying though that can be, we have not experienced it. When we read about a child that has been taken, we are both the adults left behind and the child itself. Pure horror. And that requires the writer to listen closely to the ‘human noise’ because, actually, the feeling is beyond words. It’s the world being beautiful when it shouldn’t be. Well done. x

    • Bravery, gosh, I don’t know. When I first gave the story to my writing group it felt more like stupidity. But then I couldn’t give it up – so I suppose it then became pig-headedness! I think what I do in my yoga practice – which is to go into those areas that instinctively I want to ignore – means that I’m increasingly okay with exploring the ‘human noises’ (that was a great sentence of yours btw) that aren’t necessarily pleasant. I love that idea of us being the adults left behind as well as the child. Not something I had thought about, but now that you mention it, it seems to hit on something, quite powerfully. Thanks, Alison.

  11. Christine says:

    Oh, my heart! It breaks for this family and for the beauty with which you tell your story.

    • Christine, thank you! I know from your blog that you are a mama – a wonderfully proud one – so to have hit the right notes for you is a real compliment. Lovely of you to stop by.

  12. I had a hard time not crying when I read this. I think it is perfectly written. I know it is part of the process, but sometimes I think work shouldn’t be dissected so much, why you wrote it, how, what is between the lines and all that. Somethings should just be written and when I read this, I got it. It was beautiful.

    • I’m so glad that you got this, and yes, sometimes it is good to just write and not think beyond what’s on the page. I might take a little of that to a new short story I am working one, which just wants to run, if only I’ll let it. Thanks for stopping by and commenting.

  13. It was so good to read this story along with your notes on the writing of it. I have so many things I need to be doing now, yet I had to take the time to finish reading this once I’d begun. The way the story begins drew me in completely.

    I can’t find a writer’s group I can get to that wants to explore the way I want to, so I’ve spent a lot of time trying to find a group of sorts online here at WordPress — with little success — folks are much too busy these days. I have learned a lot about writing and editing through my tiny stories at Words One Hundred and longer ones at Sparks In Shadow, but what you discuss here is so important. I hope you realize that it’s part of my writing education now. Thanks for sharing it. I’m so glad you found me and said hello!

    • I’m glad I drew you in so that you stayed long enough to read, and then write your lovely comment. It’s hard to find a really good writers’ group. I’ve tried a few online ones myself, but I prefer when it all happens in the flesh. Thanks for visiting – look forward to seeing you around.

  14. Fay Moore says:

    This piece is amazingly on target. You capture the essence of the search for plot, story, word, character. I feel revived after reading it, knowing the wall I am hitting is not an end, but simply a part of the process. I want to share this piece with my readers. They will enjoy the insights you share.

    • Fay – your response made me very happy, especially your realisation that it’s not a wall, just simply a stage of the process. It’s exactly what I hoped would happen for someone when they read this. Thanks for taking the time to let me know your thoughts.

  15. Benedicte says:

    Strange question, why do you want to write this story? I don’t belong to a writing group, and I’m a fierce advocate of “write from the heart”… I’m not good at editing because most of what I write is so raw that it loses a lot of its soul if I try to improve it. It’s a wonderful story, and that’s just based on the little that you share here. Grief, especially living grief that cannot be put to rest, is a mysterious thing and it affects each person very differently. While I see that many people would not revisit somewhere destined to sharpen the pain, I know that many others would need to do just that. In this case it’s not just “picking at a scab”, there are happy memories associated with the place too. And in writing this story, you’ve allowed yourself to explore a tragedy that most of us hide from… and in some small way to share in the loss of parents who have truly experienced this kind of grief.

    • I love the part about your writing losing a lot of its soul in the editing. That’s what makes editing so hard in some ways – especially when it’s someone else telling you what to do with your heart.
      Your take on the emotions of grief is fabulous – wonderfully insightful. Really pleased that you stopped by.

      • Benedicte says:

        I have a funny experience with grief… all three of my children have special needs, and with that comes a roundabout of grief.. I so wish my heart would head to acceptance. My brain and mind are there. I love them just as they are, even when things are hard. But my emotions? Regularly, something (often trivial) sends me hurtling back to that point of devastation of what might have been. Mostly of grief that these little people who are so young have already experienced such deep emotional trauma. But it’s a living grief, so it’s also the kind of thing that you have to learn to live with. 🙂

      • Benedicte, what a powerful insight into your life, and well written: your thoughts and emotions are clear, and moving. I can feel the complexity of your love and grief. 🙂

  16. Pingback: What We Write About When We Write « Fay Moore: I Want To Be a Writer

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