Experiencing Loss Changed How I Write

March 10, 2022 § 3 Comments

By Shayna Goodman

Just before the pandemic I experienced two major, simultaneous life ruptures: my partner left me for a mutual friend and my father was diagnosed with Parkinson’s Lewy Body Dementia. I moved out of our apartment, dropped the classes I was supposed to teach that semester, and several weeks later, left New York when the city went into lockdown. I am permanently changed by these intersecting traumas. Included in these changes are the ways I create and consume art.

I was 28 years old and smug when I started my MFA in memoir. One of my professors said that older students were often better writers because they had more life experience to draw on. I rejected this idea. I thought writing about one’s trauma and grief was not as “serious” or “literary” as the essays I was trying to write. I wanted to incorporate research and cultural criticism. In the same way so many men would rather say they are writing anything—a prose poem, a work of autofiction, an “autobiography”—than a memoir, I tried to separate myself from classmates as an “essayist.”

I didn’t want the stigma of trauma. I fancied myself the only “normal person” in a room full of traumatized people. While my older classmates were doing the brutal work of reconstructing memories of life-altering tragedies, I was intellectualizing the pain of my breakup with a boyfriend of three months. I wasn’t a bad writer; my pain was legitimate. The point is my professor was right: the essay might have been stronger if I had more life experience. While I thought I had done a good job of highlighting the universal lessons of my particular experience by inserting a political analysis of white femininity, I wasn’t able to find the vulnerability necessary to admit what was really driving my desire to write about this heartbreak. In some ways it is easier to write about gender as a construct than to ask the reader a question so potentially pathetic as “why did he leave me?” But that question was the true driving force of the narrative; acknowledging that might have made for a stronger draft. Meanwhile, my classmates had the necessary life experience to get to what my friend calls “the real” or what Mary Karr calls “emotional truth”—it’s the thing you’re writing around, which is hardest to admit.

Once, in a mixed genre workshop with British and American students, I submitted a draft of a personal essay and a British man confused it for fiction. “This is hilarious,” he said, “it must be satirical. The narrator is constantly referring to her trauma like a stereotype of an American.”

I felt embarrassed. In The Art of the Memoir, Mary Karr quotes Cezar A. Cruz: “Poetry should comfort the disturbed and disturb the comfortable.” I saw, with proud resignation, that I had crossed the line from comfortable to disturbed. Instagram therapist accounts have made us cringe at the overuse of “trauma.” But trauma has entered the zeitgeist because it is—especially at this moment—ubiquitous.

I believe the collective trauma of the COVID-19 lockdown has changed what we want from art. Is it a coincidence that a show like HBO’s Euphoria, so engaged with the topics of grief and trauma, has such wide appeal in this cultural moment? I’ve re-read essays I once loved, which now seem emotionally distant and cavalier. One was about the gentrification of Williamsburg and the author’s proclivity for dating men with addiction issues. When I re-read the essay in 2021, I kept thinking the author was writing around the thing that could have truly exposed her and allowed me to relate to the piece.

At the same time, I’m finding a higher tolerance for consuming art I once found unbearably disturbing. Before the pandemic, I tried to read Wave by Sonali Deraniyagala, in which she writes about losing her entire family in a tsunami in Sri Lanka. I remember removing the book from my bedroom because I could not tolerate the symbolic presence of such tragedy so close to where I slept. I didn’t want to know. Ironically, I dismissed this work as low-brow or unserious, precisely because it was very serious. But in the aftermath of my own losses, reading this memoir was a profound experience. Deraniyalga expertly creates order and beauty out of pain and chaos. I envied her ability to do this—and saw for the first time how difficult her work had been.

Perhaps this sounds trite but it’s true: when I was young, I didn’t realize how truly universal suffering is. I didn’t know that as we age, we all experience losses that send us desperately searching for solace and meaning. During the lockdown, I created lists of essays that not only comforted me but gave me new ideas about how to successfully write about loss and grief. I saw how these writers managed to convey their experiences without ever sounding overwrought; how they wrangled the messy material of overlapping heartbreaks into compelling narratives. I needed their work more than ever in that moment.

In her upcoming 6-week workshop at The Loft, Writing Through Loss in Creative Nonfiction, Shayna Goodman shares her reading list of essays on loss and grief, and together with participants will explore how these authors crafted their work and what we can learn from them.

Shayna Goodman’s essays have appeared or are forthcoming in the Cut, Salon, Jewish Currents, the Takeout, and Grub Street Literary Magazine, among other places. Her work was nominated for a 2020 Pushcart Prize. She received her MFA in memoir from Hunter College, an MA in Judaic studies and MSW from the University of Michigan, and a BFA from Sarah Lawrence College. She teaches first-year writing at Hunter College.

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