It’s a good question, a serious question, a wise question, and one I was asked this week by a lovely, sweet, and talented person I met at the Southern Festival of Books, one who happened to attend the same college as I and one who, like me, lost her husband. In the struggle, those of us who are bent to writing, have a need to get our hands on the keyboard or our feelings out on a sheet of paper…for many reasons. But there is that one thing that gnaws: how do you write about loss and grief and not get caught up in it and spend all your moments there, bottoming out into sadness and loneliness and depression? How do you do the writing and prevent a downward spiral of grief?
I dealt with this while writing my book. I had to re-live each day, starting with the death experience. Then I had to re-live it all again through critiques and edits. I thought about it all and tried to come up with an honest answer.
1. There is pain. There’s going to be pain whether you write about it or not. “My bones are in agony.” To get through the pain, we have to go straight through it, feel it, deal with it. Nobody can take that pain away. It is ours to shoulder into and to handle.
2. Writing is a way to get the pain out. When I was a little girl, playing the piano was my way of getting hurts out, and my mother told me she could always tell when I was banging my problems away. As an adult, writing became that. It became a way to get strong emotions out, released from within, from leaving a harmful imprint on my body. And any grief counselor will advise writing. Keep a journal, write a letter to your loved one telling him anything you need to… However, a letter and journal entries or blog posts are short, quick writings. A book-length project requires you to be immersed in the loss and grief for longer periods of time during each writing session and for the duration of the project. This makes the question at point a valid one and means you need to consider it carefully and lay out a plan to protect yourself.
3. In writing about it, I re-lived it. It was hard. Many times I wrote through tears and agony. After writing, I’d go for a walk, exercise, and sling my hands, slinging the pain out anew. That was another way to get the pain out — not only the pain of loss, but the pain of writing about the loss.
4. As I writer, I had learned to separate. On the one side, this is the technical part of the story, this is how I need to structure it, this is how the story needs to go. On the other side, I pulled up my soul and dealt with the emotions and let the tears fall over my hands onto the keyboard. It’s called compartmentalizing. It helps you to write something extremely personal and sensitive and also be able to treat it like any other piece of writing once it’s on the page, even in a critique group with people talking about it and telling you how to do it differently or better.
5. In writing creative nonfiction, you tell the real and true story, but there’s more. You reflect. You think about it. You put it into perspective. This may happen some on the first draft, but more likely on the second. Yes, there’s a second write that you approach with the wisdom that time offers. This is where healing comes. You look at your words and put them into the perspective of life.
You enter it wisely. You plan ahead. Know that during your writing session, you will deal with the pain of loss. You will re-live it all. You will cry. So perhaps plan your writing time during the day when there is sunshine and noise and stuff is going on all around you and it is not dark and quiet and still. Plan to go out and do something after you write. Go for a walk, talk to people, go to the gym, go shopping, watch a movie and laugh, treat yourself with something! But get physically away from the writing for a time and recover. Do what you need to do for yourself to balance the intense time with some “fun” time or time of vigorous activity. At some point on your grief journey, emotional remembering turns to historical remembering, and that is a good thing; you can remember with a smile and share stories more easily and write the good memories as well as the quirky traits. Above all, go into it with the attitude that you are going to work through it and find some healing. And very important — most classical stories begin with the way life was before the “change” or inciting event. Start off writing some of those wonderful, significant memories of the relationship. The good stuff. Sweet stuff. Funny stuff. Get into it and it will lead you on. As you go, you will get stronger with it.
For me, the writing was a way to express those raw, hard feelings. The re-writing was healing. A spiritual read was healing. A kindness read was healing. It was a help to deal with my grief in an orderly way. And in all that, I tried to present it in a way that others feeling the same could identify with.