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Writing Through Grief

2008 Lori L. Lake


Lori L. Lake

As some of you may know, Nann Dunne's father died in January 2008 after a long and delightful life. He was 98, and he and Nann were always very close, so as you might imagine, the loss has been a difficult one for our esteemed editor. The news about Nann's dad comes on the heels of other friends reporting sad losses lately, and I can't help but think about the effect of grief on writing.

I won't pretend to know what grief feels like for everyone, but I do know that it can be debilitating, particularly for creative people. We writers seem often to be in precarious places with our work without any added stress or trauma. Anything that gets us off track can be very scary. Whenever I hear of a death in the circle of writing friends, I always pray that they will soon be able to return to the often-soothing and usually-encompassing world of the Word. It's not always that easy, though, as I know from experiencing my own losses recently.

Eighteen months ago my friend Steve died a shockingly quick death from AIDS, my mother died of respiratory failure three months after him, and my sixth grade teacher, who I have kept in touch with for 36 years, had a stroke and died two months later, just after Thanksgiving. The old saying that bad luck comes in threes surely seemed to apply in my life, and you probably won't be surprised to hear that my ability to write slowly but surely ground to a halt. 2007 was a year of grief, and it's only now that I can look back and perceive some things that I wish I had known before I embarked on that Journey of Grief.

No Comfort Zone Anywhere
Many losses - particularly the deaths of a parent, partner, or sibling - have a way of knocking a writer completely out of his or her comfort zone. I felt like I was in orbit for months on end, and during that time, I wrote very little. I not only didn't have the energy, but it seemed that my mind was focused almost exclusively on replaying old memories over and over. No matter how hard I redirected my thoughts to try to concentrate on daily life and not on the grief, I couldn't stop that.

I went through days of frustration where I couldn't focus, couldn't pick up the thread of a story, couldn't put any words on the page that seemed to matter. No fictional world was as powerful as my memories. After a while, I decided to focus on those memories since I couldn't focus on anything else.

But I wasn't sure exactly how to go about it. Every time I sat down to write in my journal, I wrote horrible, blithering, pain-soaked stuff:

"I miss him so much and I never got to say goodbye..."

"God, how could you let her die? Why..."

"I can't seem to get anything done...poor me, me, me..."

After a few months, I realized that no matter how good my intentions were, journaling about my pain in this manner wasn't helping at all. I needed to find a new way to make this journey.

A Light Shines Through The Dark Clouds
Then I went to a memoir festival at The Loft in Minneapolis and attended a presentation given by Patricia Weaver Francisco. She's the author of Telling: A Memoir of Rape and Recovery. In 1981, while her husband was away, an intruder broke into their Minneapolis home and raped her. Despite counseling, love and support from family and friends, and the eventual arrest and conviction of the rapist, Francisco found she was unable to recover completely from the trauma of the experience. A decade passed, and she was still haunted.

She began to write in a new way about what had happened to her, and eventually it changed her life.

A Different Focus on The Writing
Francisco was unsure about how to construct a memoir; in fact, she said at first she wasn't fully aware that she was writing a memoir. What she developed to help herself was a brainstorming exercise to seek images that represent memories and feeling states. The way that works is that the writer sits down and thinks about anything that comes to mind in order to dredge up concrete objects to focus upon and to write about. She encouraged spending a long, hellbent brainstorm session writing down whatever comes to mind - good, bad, or ugly - from the past and the present: a wedding ring, a smile, darkness, birds in flight, that first bike, a silver knife, a particular book, a specific room, a childhood rosary, etc., etc.

Then put all of that aside, and periodically, when feeling the need to write but when you're lacking the ability to launch into any big project, take out ONE of those images, and write about it. You may not be able to conceive of an entire book or a story, but you can write about one image.

In addition to a long brainstorming session, for weeks, whenever an image or snippet of words or some memory came to me, I'd write it down on a small sheet of paper and put it in a folder. After a while, I had quite a number of little pages. When I felt the need to write but lacked the energy, I'd sort through the folder, pull out one tiny slip of paper, and concentrate on just that one thing.

For instance, one time when I could shake feeling grief-struck about my mother, I remembered how she loved Karen Carpenter's voice and that I had written down "the old record player with its stack of 33 LPs cycling through." Just thinking of that record player evoked all sorts of memories, and I sat down to record them: the playroom in our house in Seattle when I was a kid, the sun coming in the side window, my mom and sisters laughing, the family dog jumping up and down as we all danced to "Top of the World."

Suddenly, through laughter and tears, I was free-writing all sorts of unexpected stuff about past happiness and sadness as well as the present situation.

With a shock, I realized that my writing actually had a focus!

My friend Steve was a gymnast, a sturdy little guy who could do a backflip on command, and that image of him landing on his feet, sporting a big grin, was almost overwhelming to me one day. But after I had a good cry, I found that thinking of him in that context reminded me of how we used to go out dancing at the Boom-Boom Room in the gay bar in downtown Portland. To the beat of Donna Summer's "Hot Stuff," he'd do backflips on the dance floor, and I'd laugh and laugh.

My mom and Steve never met, but I realized with amazement that they're actually tied in my memory by goofy dance tricks. And then I had another image to free-write with: Dancing. I remembered being eleven years old and in the activity room at my grade school. With Simon & Garfunkel's "Cecilia" blasting on the record player, I recalled viscerally how afraid I was to dance in front of the other kids for fear they'd laugh at me. The emotions of that long ago came rolling over me, and I felt like I was eleven again.

Wow! My writing was off to the races then! The details and memories gushed out.

This was just the first of seven or eight powerful memories that were evoked solely by the image of dancing. Next thing I knew, I found myself dancing right into a story idea I would never have considered or thought of, and I actually had energy for it.

Trying to be Fruitful
So my advice to other writers facing grief is that you consider writing about those loved ones whom you've lost, but use images from your shared past to think of them in a fruitful way. By fruitful, I mean that your writing will not only honor your loved one's memory and assuage your own unrelenting ache, but you'll also have some wonderfully strong and evocative material to pull from later when you can once again concentrate on your books and stories.

I was surprised at how my memories and the yearning I felt for all I had lost were transformed on the page into something completely unexpected and quite literally exciting. I had no idea where I was going with any of it, but suddenly I didn't feel blocked anymore. I also felt a huge surge of energy - and a compulsion to write, write, write. I was honoring my mother, my friend, and my teacher with what I remembered about them, and being able to write it down touched my heart at the deepest and most painful levels . . . but it felt good!

If you have felt severe losses in the recent past, I extend to you the hope that you will find a way to write your way out of your sorrow and into a stronger and less vulnerable place. Remember what C.S. Lewis once advised:

"Whenever you are fed up with life, start writing: ink is the great cure for all human ills."

I think he was right. Brainstorm to come up with a few memorable images, and put your pen to a page to see if it works for you.
2008 Lori L. Lake
From her untitled book about writing, a work in progress.
Not for distribution or copying without the express permission of the author.
Lori can be reached at and welcomes questions and comments.

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