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Monday, January 14, 2013

Writing Your Tragedy

Over the years I've ended up mentoring in several capacities, and not just burgeoning writers. For years after my newborn daughter died, I moderated an infant loss support group -- and on that group, I met another writer who had lost a baby.

She was disturbed to find she couldn't write anything in the wake of her loss. I assured her it had taken four years after Emily's death to really feel like I could be a writer again. I was writing during that time, of course, but grieving robbed my brain of its inspiration.

Tragedy comes to all of us at some point in time, so be aware that it might impact your writing. There are two issues at play during and after a tragedy. The first is sheer overwhelmedness.

Let's play a game of pretend. Pretend Superman exists. He's out minding his own business when a school bus full of kids topples off a bridge, and he catches it. No problem. Then a Buick falls off the bridge, and he catches that too. He starts carrying them to safety when Spiderman swings by and says, "Hey, man, can you hold my sandwich?"

He can't do it. Not because he can't hold a sandwich (and not because one is Marvel and one is DC) but because he's run out of hands. This is what living every day is like when you're grieving. You've got both hands full of the weightiest object you've ever carried, and then you're supposed to write a novel on top of that? When you can barely write a grocery list?

The second is the issue of processing enough to write, and that's where this writer was stuck. I told her:
You can "scab over" the hurt, but it's still there, and the trauma hasn't been resolved enough that your inner self -- the introspective part that writes -- wants to handle it. You may at some level understand that it hasn't been resolved and that's what's keeping you from writing about it. Because it hasn't been resolved, you can't create a tidy little package about it.
Have you read The Forest for the Trees by Betsy Lerner? In it she states that writers tend to keep a distance between themselves and the rest of their lives, as if they're observing their own lives. It means there's always a shell between a writer and his own feelings so that he can analyze himself even as he's experiencing something. 
Rather than just feeling hurt, a writer notes that he's feeling hurt and also how that affects him and what his hurt does to the people around him, and so on and so forth. Sometimes I wonder if that's not how I survived losing Emily at all -- by simultaneously living it and keeping some distance on myself. Maybe you've got that wall there too, and your unconscious knows it would hurt to have it come down enough to write about it.
From the perspective of time, I can see where I've coped with other difficult situations by doing the same. In fact, sometimes I find myself in the middle of a mess nowadays thinking, "I should blog about that."

But is that healthy? It is, and it's not. It's an examined life, but is it a life examined at the expense of living it? Are writers here-but-not-here when we dwell in the twilight between feeling and introspection? Are we effectively saying to ourselves, "That's nice, dear, but what have you learned?"

After a tragedy, I would categorize four stages of writeability. The writer:
  1. is able to record the details of the event; emotion may or may not be present
  2. writes for catharsis; an emotion-dump, primarily for himself or herself, and the details may or may not be present
  3. writes evangelistically because there's a Message. eg, "These were the stupid things people said when Emily died, so you the reader should not say them" (note this is outwardly directed, but because it's angry writing, it's still primarily for oneself)
  4. writes and lets the story tell itself without pushing a message

By Stage 4, the tragedy stops being an Issue and the writer stops having a Message. In Stage 2, I don't believe the writer has a Message yet, but s/he's coming toward one. Stage 3 is often unreadable because the Message (and many times an angry Message) dominates the writing. The writer is into consciousness-raising and the story takes a back seat to the Message. Unfortunately this phase is where the writer feels fired up and finally ready to write again, and therefore you get most of the writing about Issues, and hence why most issue-exploring writing has a Message.

My daughter Emily died during July, 2000 and I had her website up by September, but writing something deeper and more reflective took time. I don't think I fully explored in fiction the emotions of losing a baby until I wrote Winter Branches (in 2006) and even there, the feelings were translated away from a mother-baby couple. (I had written about an infant's death six months earlier in Damage, but while Damage centered on the same situation, the main character did no grieving. It's the frame of the house without the furnishings, the carpet, or the drapes.)

My point here is this: writers process tragedy using many of the same parts of the brain that create fiction. Writing in an effort to process the emotions is journaling, and that's fine. But writing your tragedy in an attempt to leap right to the end product -- that only leads to stalled-out writing and a burnt-out writer, or else it leads to a fake-sounding resolution. 

 If you want the processed, final product, those precious resolved feelings, you need to resolve them  first.  We write after a tragedy for many reasons, but there's a difference between writing to help yourself and writing to help others. Writing to help others in the same situation requires your feelings to have matured, so take a deep breath. As they say on an airplane, put on your own oxygen mask first. 

If you've endured a tragedy, give it time before you try writing professionally about it on the level you know you can.

Jane Lebak is the author of The Wrong Enemy. She has four kids, three cats, two books in print, and one husband. She lives in the Swamp and spends her time either writing books or ejecting stink bugs from the house. At Seven Angels, Four Kids, One Family, she blogs about what happens when a distracted daydreamer and a gamer geek attempt to raise four kids. If you want to make her rich and famous, please contact the riveting Roseanne Wells of the Jennifer DeChiara Literary Agency. 


Zoe C. Courtman said...

Been a while since I posted on my own, long-dormant blog, or responded to another's post -- for many of the reasons you wrote about here. My own tragedy was not on the level of losing a child, but overwhelmed me for nearly two years just the same. And after a LOT of grieving, introspection, meditation, overwhelming emotions, etc. etc., I am only just coming to the same conclusion that you mention -- after two years of hammering myself about Why I Could Not Write or Why I Was Not Writing -- that if I want to write about those precious, resolved feelings, I have to resolve them first. Putting the pen DOWN is a big lesson, especially in the age of "Write Every Day No Matter What!!" and it's hard to learn. Thanks for sharing.

Patricia T. said...

Thank you for your post. I have had a lot of trauma in my life -- the last a serious injury that dramtically changed my life. You are right, you need space. It's been 8 yrs now, and I've begun to think about it. My doctors have urged me for years to share my story because it they thought I would be helpful to others. But, it never felt right -- even to disguise the injury in a PB for children. You need the distance and wisdom gained. I have never written a memoir and will need to study -- I write PB.

Be Living Rock said...

Jane, thank you. I have never read anything on this topic before. I lost my daughter almost 3 years ago, my fiancé 3 years before that. Indeed, lots of outpouring of sadness and grief came out on paper. For my eyes only :) When I decided to leave my old life behind, travel and house sit around the globe, I started a blog, a combo of my travels and my healing insights. Nothing angry, no preaching, just an expanding gratitude for life and love.
Now I want to learn more about how others have found joy after losing a loved one. I began a FB page Joyful Mourning, which is also the title of my upcoming book. Please take a look.