I was in Istanbul the day my grandfather died—two thousand miles from the place where all my thoughts of him were rooted. When I heard the news, I put my coat on and walked straight out of the apartment. My feet carried me down rain-struck alleys to the Galata Bridge. It was an icy afternoon in January, gray skies and hail, but a determined horde of Istanbullus was still out fishing, casting lines over the handrails to the sea below. I went and stood with them, staring at the gloomy Golden Horn, letting my thoughts bleed into the distance. Men came up to me with flasks, offering to sell me çay and cups of bait, asking if I’d light their cigarettes. I told them, “Anlamiyorum” (“I don’t understand”), which was less an explanation than a vague expression of my state of mind. I don’t know how many hours I stood there on the bridge, remembering my grandfather, but it was long enough that darkness fell around me.
I had been in the city for just over three weeks, as part of a writing residency with the British Council. I was aware how fortunate I was to get this opportunity, to live and work in Istanbul for two whole months without distractions or disturbance, so I’d been working pretty hard since I arrived. Every day, I added words to the manuscript that I’d brought with me. In fact, I became so proficient at ignoring the lifelessness of the work itself that I accrued an extra 30,000 words of the most polished dreck inside the first few weeks of residency. I was building a contemporary British novel with ironic characters who talked and acted in accordance with a fairly lucid plot. I was struggling to locate myself in it. The book had no driving purpose apart from my publisher’s deadline. It was devoid of honesty.
The news about my grandfather changed that. Standing on the Galata Bridge, my novel and its problems felt inconsequential.
I trudged back to my temporary apartment. While the feral cats of Istanbul mewled on my windowsill, I sat down to compose a eulogy for my grandfather: a page to embody a lifetime, if such a thing is ever possible. Something about this process—mourning him, reflecting on what he meant to me in specific terms—must have catalyzed what followed. It was later that night, when the eulogy was finished and I was feeling at my most despondent, that a sentence surfaced in my mind. I ran to turn on my computer and quickly typed it up:
He was just seventeen when he came to Oleanders, a runaway like the rest of us, except there was a harrowed quality about this boy that we had not seen before in any of the newcomers.
There it was, from nowhere: the voice, the purpose, that had been eluding me. This sentence became the first line of my novel, The Ecliptic. Only one word—“Oleanders”—changed in later drafts. It became “Portmantle,” the name of the artists’ sanctuary off the coast of Istanbul where most of the novel is set.
Perhaps there is not much you can learn from this experience. I don’t recommend bereavement as a lightning rod for your creative epiphanies. But what happened that night demonstrates the aspect of the writing process that I’ll always find the most confounding and intangible: How not thinking about my work was the most productive thing I could have done for it. In ordinary circumstances, I would never have allowed myself a sustained period of not thinking . Or maybe, in this time of grieving, I was thinking only with my heart until my head began to listen. Today, it seems as though the entirety of The Ecliptic was held within my consciousness before I ever glimpsed a piece of it, and grief was what enabled me to notice.
What’s clear is that my grandfather’s passing allowed me to detach myself from what was unimportant and devoid of honesty. He afforded me a new perspective, turned my thoughts to what was truly meaningful. If I could write a eulogy for him, convey his value in a single page of prose, then how could I justify wasting 80,000 words on invented characters whom I felt nothing for? There was no longer an excuse to be afraid to start again.