Several years ago, whilst going through a particularly awful breakup, I decided to read Heartburn by Nora Ephron. At the time, I was working on my own book, called Out of Love, which just so happens to be about a couple who fall in love and then break up.
Don’t worry, that’s not a spoiler; they break up in the first chapter and meet one another in the end. It’s a love story in reverse, you see, but we’ll come back to that.
The point is that I was struggling to write about a relationship because I had just entered that phase of the breakup where the very concept of love feels at best absurd and, at worst, too excruciating to even think about. You know that phase? Where you subsist on a diet of cornflakes and cheap wine and your sole focus is to just drag your body through each day intact? Yeah. You know the one.
So I decided that until I was ready to write again, I would consume other people’s stories about relationships, grief and recovery from grief. I read books like Postcards From the Edge by Carrie Fisher and The Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion. I reread Bridget Jones’ Diary and One Day. And I rewatched films like Eternal Sunshine of The Spotless Mind and Lost in Translation and Blue Valentine (because apparently I like to torture myself).
All of these stories helped me feel seen and understood and part of something bigger than myself. Not because of the events they described, but because of the emotions they evoked. That’s the power of a good story; it can remind you that all the feelings you’re feeling have been felt before, that you’re not alone in feeling them and, most importantly, that other people have been through what you’re going through and made it out the other side. These storytellers not only survived their pain, but here they were pouring it onto the page or the screen for us all to see and benefit from.
This is something I have always loved about storytelling, the way in which we connect to characters. For a long time I aspired to be like my favourite actors from movies and TV shows. I wanted to embody characters myself, to make an audience feel something through my performance, and my first experience on stage aged seven only fortified this desire. So I dabbled in acting all through school and university, my most prominent role being Whore #5 in The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas. My mother was very proud.
There was a love for writing, too, skulking about in the background. That’s what led me to do a degree in journalism and take evening classes at the Irish Writers’ Centre once I’d graduated and was working full time for YouTube. But all along I was sure I wanted to act.
From there, fate took me on a very strange course, because it was through my job at YouTube that I discovered a community of online vloggers, filmmakers and animators who at first cast me in various roles in their own productions, and then helped me segue into making my own short films and sketches.
My thinking at the time was that since there were hardly any decent roles for women, I would just write them myself. I would write and direct and star in my own productions and I would create the kind of characters I was interested in playing. Soon enough, I thought, I could ditch the directing and be a full-fledged actress!
Only it turned out I liked being behind the camera more than being in front of it. I began focusing more and more on writing and directing and eventually, without really meaning to, I stopped acting altogether. Don’t get me wrong, I still love to act, but there’s a certain buzz I get from telling my own stories that I can’t get elsewhere. Not even drugs. I’ve tried.
And so I’ve spent the past few years making all manner of things from comedy sketches, to a whole horror series, to grounded love stories (although if you ask me, romance and horror aren’t all that dissimilar). I’ve written feature scripts and pilot scripts, series bibles and outlines, poetry and prose and, most recently, I wrote my first novel, the aforementioned love story in reverse, Out of Love. Which brings me back to that time I couldn’t write it because I was, ironically, too heartbroken.
I soaked up so many stories during my little hiatus, but it was Heartburn in particular that helped turn things around for me. This was in part, of course, thanks to Nora Ephron’s unique blend of dry wit, brutal honesty and hopeful pessimism, but it was mostly thanks to a passage in the book where our heroine, Rachel, has hit rock bottom.
Her husband has lied and cheated and lied some more and she is in a hospital bed telling the story to her sister, Vera, who asks why she “has to turn everything into a story?”. “Because if I tell the story,” replies Rachel, “I control the version. Because if I tell the story, I can make you laugh, and I would rather have you laugh at me than feel sorry for me. Because if I tell the story, it doesn’t hurt as much. Because if I tell the story, I can get on with it.”
It was after reading this that I started to write again. I was reminded why I tell stories and why I was telling this story in particular, which pulled on so many of my own experiences of the highs and lows of love. I figured if I just told this story, then I could get on with it. And that’s exactly what I did.
My hope is that my words might help someone else who’s going through a tough time, and maybe even inspire them to tell their own stories someday. Which brings me onto my final favourite thing about stories actually; there is no beginning, middle or end, because they’re all connected. Because we’re all connected.
Hazel Hayes’ debut novel Out of Love is available now (Unbound, £8.99)