Give Sorrow Words

April 27, 2021 § 26 Comments

By Eileen Vorbach Collins

I have an essay that went live this week. I wrote it months ago and I’m happy that it’s found a good home. It’s a very personal piece that was a sucker-punch to write and, if not for my critique group, would have ended up yet another discarded half-finished thought in a drawer.

I read that piece last night and cried. Not just a little whimper but a good long lament with lots of tears and noise. Then I thought, What have I done? I already know this story. If it makes me weep, why the hell would anyone else want to read it? Who’d want to subject themselves to my pain?

These thoughts were fueled in part by my recent experience in two book clubs. In one, when it was my turn to choose the book, I picked a memoir. I’d wept when I heard the author read an excerpt at a conference. The book was not well received by this group. They found the writing whiney and self-aggrandizing. Not entertaining. They wanted a happy ending.

Then, in another group, we were reading a lot of historical fiction from the WWII era.  Sad things. Horrible events. A friend left the group because she didn’t understand why we kept reading miserable stuff. Such downers. Don’t we have enough sadness in our lives? She too, wanted to be entertained.

When I was almost finished crying over my own writing, and wondering if that’s like laughing at your own jokes, I posted this to the Twitterverse:

“A question for CNF and memoir writers. Have you ever cried reading your own work?”  

My Tweets seldom get much attention. I’m thrilled with the occasional likes and comments. But by the next day there were 175 likes, 77 engaging comments, and 16 retweets. It seems that many of us cry when we read our own work. This crying over one’s own work appears to be a common enough phenomenon that there should be a word for it. Maybe a catchy acronym. #SHTP Stress Hormone Tear-Purge, or #WAMS, Wailing at My Stuff.  

According to the Harvard Health Blog, crying has certain health benefits. Researchers have established that shedding tears releases oxytocin and endogenous opioids, also known as endorphins. These feel-good chemicals help ease both physical and emotional pain. And the tears we shed due to emotion contain stress hormones and other toxins that are flushed out of the body through a good purging via the lacrimal ducts. 

I get it, though, those book-group friends who prefer not to delve into the depths of despair. Who want to be entertained. Laughing is good medicine, too. If I read anything by Carl Hiaasen, I’ll laugh out loud and wake the husband and the dogs. I’m reading a book right now that is that kind of book. Entertaining. I could read it in a chair, I could read it anywhere. I can read it without a care. I love it. We need those kinds of books.

But the response from Twitter makes it clear that I’m not alone in crying. Of the roughly 70 comments, almost all said that they, too, wept over their words. Some said that if they didn’t cry, they knew the work wasn’t good.

So are we memoirists and writers of creative nonfiction a merry band of masochists, or are we writing our way to a place of healing? Are we engaged in navel-gazing just to pick at the scabs of our wounds, never allowing them to heal; or are we processing and making sense of our grief? As we read and weep over our own misfortune, does that help us learn to be good listeners to another person’s sorrow? To meet them on the path to empathy?

I don’t know the answer, but I know that I must write my grief. It’s in my gut, on the surface of my skin, and in every beating cell of my heart. Sometimes it pours out through my fingers as I tap-tap-tap it onto my keyboard with that satisfying, repetitive tactile promise of relief.  What else could I possibly do with it? 

I’ve read about a practice called the emotional freedom technique (EFT), also known as psychological acupressure or “tapping,” and wonder if it’s similar. I wonder if writing is yet another way we humans have evolved to be able to find a bearable sorrow. To read of our own loss as though it were someone else’s. To weep for our collective selves and still find the strength to lift our heads from the pillow. And, in between, to seek the books we need to make us laugh out loud. The writing to make us wake our bed partner and our dogs. To forget, for just that moment, all that we have lost. To laugh so hard we can barely breathe. 

Eileen Vorbach Collins is a Baltimore native. Her work has been published in SFWP Quarterly, Lunch Ticket, The Columbia Journal, Reed Magazine, the Brevity Blog, and elsewhere. Her essays, have received the Diana Woods Memorial Award for Creative Nonfiction.  the Gabriele Rico Challenge Award, and two Pushcart Prize Nominations. Eileen is working on a memoir about bereavement by suicide. Follow her on Twitter here.

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§ 26 Responses to Give Sorrow Words

  • Reblogged this on Just waving and commented:

    I expect there should be content warnings, but recommend reading the essay Eileen wrote. Yes, of course I cried too.

    • Thank you, Jackie, for reading and for sharing my essay. And for crying.

      • Ah, Eileen, how could I not? I was moved by your specific circumstances and by your evocation of the mother/daughter relationship in all its complicated, fragile nuances. I don’t share your life events, but I recognise all the feelings as a daughter and a mother. Powerful stuff.

  • What my mother called a “good cry.”

  • Oh so lovely. Just having finished a piece about losing my beloved ex-mother-in-law, twice, your words are such a YES. And to this: “I’ve read about a practice called the emotional freedom technique (EFT), also known as psychological acupressure or “tapping,” and wonder if it’s similar.” Of course the tap-tap-tap in the line above is exactly that! I swear my fingers tapping on the keyboard gives my body and parasympathetic nervous system that very same sensation as EFT: relief. Thank you, Eileen, for this thoughtful piece.

  • Wanda says:

    Thank you so much….and my book club is also like yours and frankly, it makes me weary. Stay? Go? I just finished Anne Lamott Dusk Dark Dawn. I need to laugh and cry sometimes in the same moment. I need and want to dive deeper….thank you for your wisdom

  • I find most memoirs that make me cry (not a hard task, since I’ve been known to cry at comic strips), also leave me feeling inspired. I think that’s the hallmark of a good memoir–not to show how the narrator suffered, but to show how she survived and what she learned. A wonderful post, as always, Eileen.

  • Prerna Shah says:

    Hi Eileen – I read this piece and the essay you published. It is beautiful, poignant writing. It reminds me, in a way, of this interview that I did with author Amandeep Sandhu for our series on mental health and illness. It might resonate with you, given the similar themes. http://thegoodstoryproject.com/2020/11/01/as-a-child-i-longed-for-a-normal-mother-i-did-not-know-what-a-normal-mother-was/

  • Your experiences track with mine. I just and delivered a sermon on grief and cried as I wrote it. The weight of our collective grief is almost too much to bear right now. I find writing poetry is also a good outlet for my grief. I took a poetry class once in which 10 out of 12 of us were recently bereaved. Good luck on your memoir – I’m stalled with mine so am returning to essays for now.

  • scottyjo2015 says:

    Eileen, thank you for your words. Yes. Yes, I cry when I read some of my essays, especially as I continue working on my memoir. Your story about your mother and daughter is beautiful and so honest. I know it must have been excruciating to post it, but you are a brave soul who helped more people than you know. I write a lot about being motherless. My mother died when I was four and I’m turning 68 next week. But, I saw myself in your story of your mother and daughter. I felt embarrassed at being motherless and looking motherless among the girls with newer clothes and moms that picked them up from school. Anyway, more than anything I want to thank you for your courage to share your truth. I do not pretend to know your pain at losing your daughter. I just want to send you love and compassion and continued strength to share your gifted writing. You inspire me. Thank you,

  • Nancy Julieln Kopp says:

    Well said! Writing about the things that brought sorrow and grief is one step in the healing process. As are the tears shed. Our words and our tears are better out than ending up in a big lump within us. Thanks for sharing your thoughts with readers.

  • gingeradk says:

    Eileen, some of your pieces make me cry, and some make me laugh. Some do both, and sometimes even within the same sentence. You have a powerful gift of laying bear your feelings in a way that help me bring similar feelings to the surface of my own consciousness. I, probably like many or most people, tend to keep painful feelings buried deep inside. But when I read something that makes these dark truths bubble up, I (usually) have no regrets. There’s nothing quite so cleansing as a good, painful cry. Thank you.

  • sharono360 says:

    I can relate. The power of story heals and our personal stories ARE important. Thank you!

  • kperrymn says:

    Just want to add my appreciation, Eileen. I saw your tweet with the question about crying at your own writing fly by the other day. I smiled and kept flipping, knowing that if I stopped to read the thread, I would be there a long time. Today, though, I took the time to read your essay as well as this post, and I am blown away by your writing skill, your honesty, and your generosity. Thank you!

  • judyreeveswriter says:

    Thank you Eileen, for this post. Yes, I cry when I read my own writing–sometimes first time I write a particular scene or memory, then again in the revision, and heaven help me if I have to read it aloud to my writing group or at a reading. I remember Robert Frost: “No tears in the writer; no tears in the reader.”

  • Carolyn says:

    Eileen,
    Seems everything said, written or thought of in jest has a certain amount of truth. Pain is as much a reality as any emotion and can be expressed in any number of ways. You happen to express yours in the written word. Therapy comes to mind. 💕

  • juliemcgue says:

    I too cry when I read some of my work! Appreciate your brave words.

  • Joanne says:

    I read this, then read the essay you referred to. Oh my gosh, yes, teary eyed. Thank you for sharing your pain …I do think sharing gives a sort of absolution to those of us in similar straits, as I hope it did for you.

  • When what I write evokes my tears, I know it is an effective (and affective) piece of work. However, in my experience crying does not equate feelings of sorrow. Crying is my response when I have momentarily been in touch with “ the ineffable” and I have briefly experienced that which is greater than I.
    By the way, seems there are many readers highly entertained by the grim, the gory, the sorrowful. Books that dwell on the sorrowful are not necessarily more meaningful than those that focus on happiness.

  • deemallon says:

    Just read your essay. Powerful and brave and well written. It put me back into some very difficult years with teenagers in my house. There were times I wasn’t sure one of my boys would survive. I am sorry for your loss.

  • DoingDewey says:

    Lovely! As a reader who’s not a writer, I was part of a book club for years where we mostly read heavier, darker nonfiction and fiction and we all really loved it. It was enjoyable to read books that handled important topics and that made us feel empathy for the authors. Personally, I find that some of the best books are the ones that make me care enough that they can make me cry.

  • Carol killeen says:

    Eileen has given me a voice and the courage to display my work . Her writing is a masterpiece , of life . I enjoy and look forward to every blog .
    Her work is revealing, honest and raw. Something I can relate to, I look forward to hearing more from her.

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