Braving the Fire

A Guide to Writing About Grief and Loss

Jessica Handler

St. Martin's Griffin

One
DENIAL
 
THE RIGHT TO WRITE
 
 
When you write a memoir about a loss that has affected you, you’re telling your story the way you see it. You’re the main character, but the story isn’t solely about you. Even though grief and loss are uniquely personal, others are involved in the story, perhaps affected by the same loss. Certainly other people have lost a loved one to cancer, been the victim of a crime, lost their job or their home, but your story, even if there are similarities with others, is yours alone. You perceive your loss as world changing, and for you, it is. However, as a writer facing your story of grief for the first time, you may doubt that you have the right to tell that story, especially if you feel it’s like one that others have experienced. You might feel that since everyone will have significant loss in their life, what new or different perspective can you bring in your writing? Or you may be ready and eager to write, and even have the story planned thoroughly in your mind, but you worry that your story may hurt a loved one, cause people to think poorly about you, or even offend an authority figure in your life.
Your loss may not have made headlines the way a natural disaster, a war, or even a local crime might have. Your story may have only shaken you, or your family, or your neighborhood. If it did make headlines, you might feel that your perspective is less valuable. The newspapers wrote plenty, you say. What could I contribute? The story of a war, a disaster, or something as tragically common as cancer is so large that perhaps you think that your role in it doesn’t matter.
But it does. You experienced a loss, and you want to write about it. At writing conferences and workshops, students have different goals in mind: some want to see their work published, but others would like to share their story only with their families and closest friends. No matter how they envision the outcome, they, like you, sometimes question their right to write. Even if these writers don’t acknowledge it yet, they’ve found the time to attend a conference or workshop because somewhere inside of them pulses the sense that it’s time to be among other writers. They’re looking for a signal that will indicate for them how to start writing the stories that won’t leave them alone. Sharing craft notes at the coffee station, they thumb through the program wishing they could sit in two lectures at once. There’s so much to learn, and for many writers beginning memoirs of loss, being in the company of other writers is the first time they truly feel that they’re not alone in their desire to write about the grief that has shaped them. Some may worry that writing about their grief could erase the grief itself as well as what they’ve lost entirely from their lives. For example, author Karen Salyer McElmurray writes in her memoir, Surrendered Child: A Birth Mother’s Journey, that even though she is a writer, she at first turned away from writing about the loss of her son. In her memoir, she wonders, “If I … truly write, will I come to the end of remembering, of grieving, and will there be nothing left?”
Picking up that pen or opening the document on your computer called “memoir” is the first step in no longer denying your right to write.
When Denial Becomes Permission to Write
Elisabeth Kübler-Ross’s first stage of grief, “Denial,” is the time when the dying, for that is who the book was originally written about, don’t yet believe that they are facing death. They may deny that a diagnosis is accurate, or that their lives are coming to an end. They’re beginning the process of understanding what is happening to them. If you are writing about losing a loved one, or a beloved time, place, or way of life, you may find that you’re in a kind of denial, too, rejecting the notion that you have the ability—or the right—to write about your loss. Denial holds you back from taking that first vital step toward shaping your story into one that you can really understand, that allows to you see not only what happened, but understand how your grief has forged the years that followed.
C. S. Lewis, author of the beloved fantasy series The Chronicles of Narnia, as well as the classic grief memoir written after the death of his wife, A Grief Observed, compared the feeling of grief to feeling afraid. Trepidation, or fear, can be useful in beginning to write about grief, because that fear of going backward means that you recognize your desire to be honest.
This chapter will focus on ways that you can encourage yourself to take that first step and give yourself permission to put aside any denial that’s holding you back from writing about your grief. You will learn ways to start putting those shattered pieces of memory and fact together to build your memoir’s foundation. We will discuss how keeping a journal and writing loose thoughts and images as hot and bright as sparks can illuminate your story. We’ll also examine how distance from your sorrow adds perspective to your writing and helps you to look directly and inquisitively at the difficult events that caused your grief.
Writing When You’re Ready
Darin Strauss, author of three novels, wrote his memoir, Half a Life, more than twenty years after the car accident that is the central story in the memoir. Shortly before his high school graduation, Strauss was driving his father’s car when he collided with a classmate on a bicycle. She died as a result of the accident. In his memoir, he tells the story of the accident and his life afterward, as well as his coming to terms with his guilt, sorrow, and growing up. Now that he’s an adult, Strauss says that at eighteen, he couldn’t have written the book; time had to pass before he was ready. Distance from the event that caused your grief can shed light that’s necessary when you’re writing about the tough stuff. What caused your grief is in the past, and your perspective has changed naturally as you’ve continued to survive.
Writing about grief forces you to face yourself. You may have positive and negative feelings about what happened or your role in it, you may feel shame or pride or both. You might literally want to go back to places that at one time you weren’t ready to see again. You’re doing these things that are both painful and rewarding as you bring back those parts of yourself that you may have thought had been eradicated by loss. Write when you’re ready to, Strauss says.
Author Kathryn Rhett, editor of the anthology Survival Stories: Memoirs of Crisis, who also wrote about her daughter’s birth in the memoir Near Breathing: A Memoir of a Difficult Birth, calls the act of writing through grief participation in a fellowship. I call it community. My mother calls it “the club”; one you may not want to belong to, but life experience has awarded you that merit badge.
In her memoir, Rhett writes of her unwilling entry into that fellowship, capturing on paper the moments after she has given birth and learned from her husband that their child is in the ICU. Her own ability to face what will be a touch and go situation (their daughter survives) begins here, with a moment of denial.
I was bleeding and bleeding, and kept changing the pad, hooking a new one onto the barbaric belt. Women used to have to wear these all the time, I thought, and what did they use before the belt was invented? Rags, I thought, rags, thinking of anything to keep from thinking.
In this excerpt from her memoir, Rhett writes of denial itself, “thinking of anything to keep from thinking” and of focusing on the fragmented and small personal details that are true for her in that moment, and of women throughout time.
Traveling along the road to writing honestly about what happened, you’ll feel that you’re both moving forward in your life and moving back in time as you look at your loss with a writer’s purpose. You’re not denying that the fire exists. Instead, you’ve taken hold of a pen, and with it, extend your hand toward what has already burned you once.
The Writers’ Journal
One way to ease into memoir is to develop the journal-keeper’s habit of capturing all kinds of raw materials like images, sounds, the sensation of textures, and ideas even when you’re not at the keyboard or with pen in hand. Keep yourself in the world of your memoir by daydreaming when you can, and letting your creative mind wander. These raw materials are shards, too, and when you examine them, they add depth and breadth to what you might feel is a story too sad, big, or alternately too limited to write.
“Writing nonfiction,” says Pulitzer Prize–nominated author Lee Martin, author of eight books including the memoirs Such a Life, Turning Bones, and From Our House, “begins with curiosity, contradiction, confusion. Then it has somewhere to go.”
Whether or not you’re someone who has kept journals before, go ahead and start one to accompany this book. No one but you will see it. This journal is where you will sift through the raw material and shattered glass that you will develop into your memoir. Beginning your memoir from a place of change or uncertainty gives you somewhere to start on the page, and lets you pose questions to yourself that your writing can try to answer.
Keeping a journal is where you can begin to explore those questions, including the ways that you’ve experienced denial, how you will grant yourself permission to revisit your grief and write about it, and what it feels like when your hand is over that personal fire. A journal is a safe place to argue with yourself, explore, question, grieve, and celebrate.
I’ve kept journals for almost as long as I could write. My very first journal was an inch-thick diary with a flimsy metal lock and key. The green vinyl cover has ONE YEAR DIARY stamped across the face in official-looking gold, a grown-up style that promised a place for serious record-keeping. On the first page, I wrote, “Wednesday, 1969,” commemorating the unofficial launch of a writerly frame of mind.
I was a few months into being nine years old. That diary’s short entries dip in and out of the minutiae of elementary school: being elected dues treasurer for my Scout troop, seeing The Beatles’ movie Yellow Submarine (which I deemed “very funny”), and the dullness of a substitute teacher who never seemed to leave. On the surface, these don’t seem to be notes for a future memoir, but they are short glimpses into my life as a child innately staking a claim to the everyday moments that helped my life move forward, even as deep grief gripped my home. The journal entries and the need to discover my role in my life are evidence of giving myself permission to write.
My journals mirror my life back to me, so that when I choose to, I can look closely at moments that have passed and start to understand what they mean. Even now, my journals function as a repository for loose ideas. (Of course, sometimes they’re merely the closest blank sheet of paper to jot down a grocery list or sketch a quick picture, but these can be material for reflection, too.)
Your journals in their most raw state are for no one’s eyes but your own, and they’re merely one tool of many in writing your memoir. The journals can be cathartic, but don’t mistake them for finished work. They’re not intended to be the kind of writing that would engage another reader or do justice to your story. In your journal, catch the moments in life that won’t leave you alone but you’re not sure why. As you write your memoir, you’ll find that it’s important to come back often to those moments and examine how they figure into the puzzle that is your ongoing story.
MY STORY:
Since I’m such a devoted keeper of journals, I was stunned to discover a big gap in a journal from the summer of 1992. I was thirty-two. The entry from that Fourth of July is about sitting with friends at a fireworks show and making whistles out of blades of grass. The next entry consists of two undated pages that start with, “Sarah died. This is the first time I have written that down.”
The entry after that is dated November 13th—four months later. That entry reads, “I am just waiting for winter to be over.” The obituary page from the August 15, 1992, Boston Globe and the stub of an airline ticket from Atlanta to Boston are folded into the journal’s pages: the only physical remnants of a time of denial, a time before I was ready to write about my searing grief.
On August 13, 1992, my mother called to tell me that Sarah had died. My sister Sarah had been at home, recovering from yet another hospital stay to treat an infection. Her boyfriend found her when he came home from work; she had died during the day, in their bed. He called our mother. When she arrived at Sarah’s apartment, just a few miles from her own, the ambulance had already arrived. I remember Mom’s phone call, I remember calling the airline, then calling my boss late at night to take an emergency leave from work. I remember one of my closest friends coming over to sit with me until it was time to leave for the airport. And I wrote nothing.
A doctor might say I was experiencing a kind of shock, or that my journal pages from this life-changing time were so stunningly blank because I was in denial. I had known since childhood that Sarah, six years younger than me, lived with an illness that would someday take her life. Her illness was diagnosed when she was a year old, and at the time, she hadn’t been expected to live past the age of three. As she grew up, Sarah knew this, too. And yet, when that day came, I couldn’t tell the story of the moment that had leapt from the shadows. I couldn’t put my grief into words, and didn’t go back to my journals for months.
A dozen years later, as I began to write my memoir, those blank pages were stark evidence of how my sister’s death disoriented me, first when it happened and then again when I tried to write about it later. I felt lost without the help of my earlier self reporting back from the front lines of the tragedy.
So, when I first tried to write a coherent retelling about my sisters’ deaths and how my family changed, I wrote the story as fiction. I conflated two sisters into one, believing that the actual events as I had experienced them would overwhelm my readers and me. But when I started the story that way, it didn’t sit right, so I turned them back into two people.
One day I argued with a friend who was critiquing my fiction. “The sisters’ names are too similar,” she told me. “You’ll have to change the names if you want people to follow this story.”
I knew when she said that what the real problem was. This wasn’t going to work as fiction. It was a memoir: a true story.
“These were real people,” I told my friend. “I want their story to be as accurate as possible, and I want to tell the truth about their real lives.”
Telling their true story and mine meant that I would have to become brave enough to poke my hand back into an emotional fire that had already burned me badly. I would have to read my journals from that time, even those with gaps, and reexperience that sorrow up close. But in doing so, I knew that I would remember my sisters on the page the most honest and genuine way that I knew how. I gave myself permission to grieve all over again.
Opening Your Eyes and Ears When Your Journal’s Not at Hand
When I asked author Abigail Thomas about writing through grief, she told me, “you have to be as honest as you can.” Thomas, author of six books, including the highly regarded memoirs A Three Dog Life: A Memoir and Safekeeping: Some True Stories from a Life, says that a writer has to figure out what’s prodding them about what they want to write. “If you’re writing about loss, you’ve already got the subject,” she says, but there are so many ways to approach the very large thing you want to say.
So where do you find your story in the overwhelming topic of loss? “You can’t just attack the whole thing,” she says. “You have to start with a small memory.”
In her memoir, A Three Dog Life, which chronicles Thomas’s life and marriage after her husband’s traumatic brain injury, she writes a short scene about visiting the wool store where she buys her knitting yarn. She arrives there with a pen and paper. In a scene that takes up only about half a page, she establishes the central question of the memoir.
“I’m taking a poll,” I say. “What is the one thing that stays stable in your life?”
Thomas asks this question of three people she already knows and a fourth she does not know.
At first glance, the scene is lighthearted and doesn’t appear to directly address her loss. The action occurs in a place that’s not by definition dramatic: no funeral, no hospital, no accident scene. A woman enters a store where she’s a regular customer, carrying a notebook and a deceptively simple question. Instead of tackling her memoir’s large subject in one gesture, Thomas writes a scene about a brief interaction that introduces the memoir’s theme and brings readers comfortably into her story. Each of the four characters in the store has a different answer to her question. And the author? She doesn’t have an answer. She has merely introduced a theme of the book—instability and change.
Focusing on a life-changing injury and the changes it brings necessarily turns you away from the normal, comfortable parts of your life. A visit to a store where you shop regularly? Less so. Life, even in grief, is not “all huge thoughts and ghastly moments,” Thomas says. “It’s hilarious and beautiful, and for me, that’s my material.”
When I was writing early drafts of my memoir, I was driving to work, bored with the programming on my usual radio station. I scanned the stations to find something else to listen to in morning traffic. My dial jumped past a classic rock station and stayed there just long enough for me to hear the opening notes of a twenty-year-old hit that Sarah and I had sung together, making up new words and screaming into our fists like pretend microphones. I stopped on that station and sang along. Our parody lyrics came to me in an instant, and I laughed and cried, delighted to be hollering “two tickets for rats and mice” again in our old imitation of a nineteen-seventies Eddie Money song, and mournful and angry that I was singing it alone.
I didn’t realize until later that day that I had begun writing a scene that would appear in the final version of the book. I hadn’t been writing, I had been driving to work.
Why a Brain-Spark Is like Turning on a Light
You might not yet know where your memoir starts and ends, who’s really the good guy or the bad guy, or even what the heart of the story truly is until you’ve written enough down to start figuring that out. These are elements of plot and character, and they are the heart and soul of your story.
But before there’s plot or character, there’s the brain-spark. In a brain-spark, put on the page whatever images and words are on your mind. Once you do that, you can shine a light on those details and memories. Not all the raw stuff will end up in your memoir, and probably none of it in its raw state. I can’t give you a timeline for how long this will take. It might happen as you construct your plot. The more you write, the more you start to remember, which leads to seeing new ways that pieces of your story can fit together.
“Where do I start?” a woman asked me when she learned that I taught writing. She had a memoir in her that she “just had to write,” but she was anxious about how to take the first step.
Just start writing, I told her. Don’t worry about how the material will come together, or if what you write is any good. Just get it out of your brain and onto the page. Organization—the plot—will come later. That organization will be the memoir’s narrative arc: the beginning, middle, and end that describe your story back to you.
Katharine Weber, author of six books, including the memoir The Memory of All That: George Gershwin, Kay Swift, and My Family’s Legacy of Infidelities, about growing up with her distant mother, unreliable father, and the impact of dishonesty, suggests that one way to start is to imagine how you would tell your story to a good friend. Weber calls the brain-spark a rough first draft, which she compares to a film’s unedited footage, or the dailies. These are the raw materials from which you’ll make plot and character choices.
That getting-it-onto-the-next-page phase is the first step, agrees Ethan Gilsdorf, whose memoir Fantasy Freaks and Gaming Geeks examines his lifelong fascination with gaming and fantasy. While his original intent was to write a memoir about his relationship with his mother after she suffered a disabling brain aneurysm when he was just twelve, he found that he wasn’t sure how to write that book, or if he could. As a journalist, he sought assignments about The Lord of the Rings, J. R. R. Tolkien, and “that kind of thing,” he says. As he wrote those articles and more, he started to see how his fascination with games like Dungeons & Dragons intersected with the escapism he sought as a teenage boy whose mother had become a creature he called “The Momster.”
Getting it onto the page helps figure out the ultimate heart of the story. “With trauma and grief,” Gilsdorf explains, “you might have a vague sense that you weren’t given the chance to succeed,” or in his case, that “my mother died when I was young but I’m not sure what the effect was. The real understanding happens on the page.” In writing, even in that get-it-on-the-page stage, you learn to see your life differently. As a young man, Gilsdorf told himself that his mother’s illness had made him strong and independent. In writing the memoir, he came to realize that he had never properly mourned the loss of his mother.
Writing to Find Out
“I don’t know yet” was my sister Sarah’s de facto motto. She didn’t know when a set of lab tests would come back or what new information they might show. The unpredictable nature of her illness kept her from ever being sure she could attend a class, go to a movie with friends, or if a minor discomfort meant something greater. In a larger sense, our whole family didn’t know yet what would happen to any of us. Write whatever you like in those early brain-spark sessions, and as you do, remind yourself that you don’t know yet what shape your story will take.
TIP: Perhaps no one asked you or encouraged you to tell your story. Go ahead now and give yourself permission: invite yourself to tell your story. Just as there is no “right” way to grieve, there is no “right” way to remember. Your memories are your own. Writing your story is just that—your story.
If your story matters to you, then that’s more than enough reason to write. Writing from your perspective is your privilege. Writing through your grief and loss allows you to claim the way the things happened for you. If you write with honesty and attention to character, imagery, plot, and theme, your memoir will resonate with your family, your friends, and if you choose to write for a wider readership, your story will matter to people you don’t yet know.
Claiming What’s True for You
Early in the process of writing my memoir about my sisters, our mother gave me a box of Sarah’s journals, calendars, and school notebooks. Mom wanted me to have all the material I might need to tell our family’s story. I had lost my two sisters, and she had lost her two youngest daughters. Our stories were similar, but they were profoundly different.
“I have Sarah’s writing,” Mom told me. My husband helped her carry in a battered cardboard crate. The box was piled high with folders and notebooks. Although my mother is traditionally organized down to the last file folder and rubber band, this box wasn’t labeled with her usual black marker pen and taped-on index cards. The box wasn’t labeled at all.
The crate lurked on the floor of my writing room for more than a month while I debated with myself. I wasn’t sure that I had the right to read the contents or if I even wanted to. Sarah’s diaries, yearbooks, creative writing assignments from high school, her entrance essay for college, and submissions for a writing workshop she was ultimately too sick to attend would have put me in close touch with her most intimate thoughts. Her words would tell me in her voice exactly what had been on her mind and in her heart.
I couldn’t deny that I had the rare opportunity to see into my beloved sister’s heart and mind. She was no longer here to answer my questions in person, and I missed her terribly. Maybe the answers would be on those pages, in her deliberate, rounded, cursive handwriting, but I couldn’t shake the mental image of my little sister not-so-playfully slapping my hand and laughing, telling me, “that’s private!” She wouldn’t have let me read her diaries if she were alive.
Ultimately, I read her death certificate and a few writing-class essays, knowing that those items had already been seen by others: the death certificate by the Suffolk County, Massachusetts, medical examiner, the essays by writing teachers and classmates. But I chose to respect Sarah’s personal diaries by not reading them. I put the box in my attic, because the story I wanted to write was the story of the sister who survived. That is my story. My sisters’ lives and deaths are central to who I am. Their illnesses and deaths shaped our family, and that was what shaped my memoir’s plot.
Permission to write meant not reading Sarah’s diaries, and not pretending to see the world through Susie’s eyes. Permission meant agreeing with myself that this would be my story, told the way I saw it.
How Stories Cast a Spell
Stories existed before writing. For example, the famous cave paintings in Lascaux, France, are more than seventeen thousand years old. More than one hundred paintings in browns, blacks, and greens made from minerals depict massive horses, bison, lions, and other animals. Experts believe that these illustrations show hunting successes or celebrate ritual. They are stories without words.
Fairy tales, which tend to be pretty gruesome, usually begin with the phrase “once upon a time.” This simple introductory clause has become a spell, an incantation to the modern child falling asleep to the sound of a loved one reading his favorite tale. A story is about to start, an account of vanquished troubles.
Writing through grief invites you to write evocatively and honestly about an emotional, physical, or cultural blow that has irrevocably changed your life. As you write, you create a story that examines that grief and what surrounds it. As you write, you forge a coherent account of your loss that connects even the smallest, broken details with the blunt force of emotion and the recognition that you have survived to do many things, including write your true story.
Instead of denying yourself the right to write, grant yourself permission to pick up the pen, open the notebook, or create a new file on your computer. Stories are the oldest method of recording ourselves as we change. Humans have always done this. Let’s begin again, with your story.
THE NEXT STEP
1. Dedicate a journal to the exercises in this book. Your journal can be any collection of blank pages you like, including digital ones. Be prepared to use this journal and subsequent ones to expand the exercises as you choose. You can also draw in a journal, doodle, weep, laugh, spill your coffee, or even figuratively gnash your teeth. Writing about grief requires honesty, guts, and creativity. No one will see these pages but you.
2. Give yourself formal permission to write about your grief by making a pledge to the person, people, relationship, or place missing from your life. You might want to decorate a sheet of paper, draft a contract, or simply print this out and keep it handy.
I pledge to you, (X) that my intentions in writing about my grief are good. I want to write honestly about losing (X) so that I will feel (X) and be able to (X) in the future.
Signed ___________.
3. Write about a time when you did not tell the truth about your experience with grief. Where were you? How old were you? How recent was the loss? Who or what were you grieving? Who asked you about it, and why? What did you say to them?
a. Write this exercise in the first-person point of view, beginning with this phrase: “I didn’t tell (name of other person) about my grief because.…”
b. Be as specific in detail as you can, but don’t stop to wrack your memory, just go with what you know for right now. The loss you write about in this exercise can be anything that was or continues to be significant to you.
4. Write about a time when you and another person involved in the same grief-causing event realized that you had different impressions or beliefs about what happened or why. Make a list of the facts that you know about that event. Make a second list of your memories about that event. If you are comfortable doing so, share your list with that other person. (They don’t need to make their own list unless they want to try this exercise themselves.) How do your memories differ or how do you think they might differ? How are they similar?
5. Complete these six statements directed toward the person, place, or thing that you have lost. If these trigger more ideas, keep going. What points of entry into your story do they inspire?
6. Why does writing about grief matter to you? Check the boxes and add a sentence or two that will help you focus your goals.
7. Denying yourself the right to examine your whole story leaves you with only the partial story. Try writing a passage or two about a character or an event in your story that you’ve hesitated to put on paper because you worry that what you write will offend or hurt someone. When you’re satisfied with what you’ve written, ask yourself if it’s as damaging as you had feared. If it is, what would make you comfortable with the material so that you can use it in your memoir? You may also choose never to use it, and find that simply writing it down has cleared the air.


 
Copyright © 2013 by Jessica Handler