Carving Joy From Grief
September 13, 2022 § 32 Comments
By Sally Jane Smith
My life has been blessed with pleasure and privilege. Like everyone, I’ve also had my share of troubles: there was a rape attempt that left me damaged for decades, the deaths of both parents in my twenties, the break-up that uprooted me from my home and shattered my illusions of romantic love, upheavals at workplaces I valued, a Sri Lankan collision that broke my body and robbed me of my wanderlust for ten years.
Not one of these came close to the agony of losing my niece, Carly, to a road accident in Hanoi.
There’s a quote I’ve been unable to source: “The only thing harder than writing about grief, is not writing about it.” (1) Carly, a fellow nomad, crept into the periphery of my travel tales again and again. But I shrank from the rawest story of all. Of how she died. How I chose not to go to her funeral. How I fled to Turkey instead.
Then an online Binder (2) community introduced me to a poem:
Because right now, there is someone
out there with
a wound in the exact shape
of your words.
(Sean Thomas Dougherty, The Second O of Sorrow, 2018)
The shape of Dougherty’s words gave me permission to carve into my own devastation, then whittle at its most intimate moments until my voice splintered. The fractured story that survived was either the best thing I’d ever written, or complete gibberish.
Last month, I set out to draft a newsletter titled The Best Rejection. I was mulling over the topic when I came across distracting news: the announcement of finalists for a prominent Australian writing award.
After a recent slew of rejection, I’d resigned myself to yet another failure. “Eleven-Thirty”—an experimental exploration of travel and grief—was only one of my pieces out on submission, and it had already been rejected (or ignored) eleven times. The only reason I bothered to run my finger down the page was to see if I knew any of the shortlistees.
The thrill, when I touched my own name, teetered on the edge of darkness: a rush from jubilation, through Maybe my work isn’t total garbage, to the punch in the guts when I realized my celebration owed its existence to Carly’s death.
It doesn’t take much to plummet into a rabbit hole of brutal heartache.
Not knowing how to reconcile such powerful conflicting emotions, I reached out to a Binder contact, memoirist Casey Mulligan Walsh. Casey, who asserts that grief and joy can and do coexist, was generous in her support. She urged me to recognize that grief writing is a tool to find meaning and embrace empathy, not only for those working to mold prose around their pain, but also for their readers.
I’m still struggling with this.
But Carly? I believe she’d be excited for me.
I’m choosing joy because that’s what she’d tell me to do.
(1) If anyone knows the author, please @ me and comment below.
(2) If you identify as a female or gender-nonconforming writer, there’s a Binder for you. They tend to attract like-minded women: politically left-of-center (the name is a tongue-in-cheek reference to that unfortunate phrase from the 2012 US presidential debate) and committed to supporting both each other and, outside the safe spaces of the Binder communities, creatives of all genders. My entry point was through two of their many Facebook groups focused on different genres, interests, and stages of the publication journey: Binder Full of Memoirists and Binders Building Platforms. Search Facebook for “Binder” and click on “Groups” to see the full array.
Sally Jane Smith is an immigrant Australian who has lived on five continents and journeyed through thirty-three countries. Bylines include Gulf News, TripFiction and Women’s Ink! magazine. An excerpt from Sally’s memoir manuscript Unpacking for Greece achieved First Place Nonfiction in the 2021 Port Writers Open Literary Competition, and “Some Leafs”—the story of her great-great-grandmother’s extraordinary life on four continents—appears in the anthology Itchy Feet: Tales of Travel and Adventure. As a finalist in the 2022 Newcastle Short Story Award, “Eleven-Thirty” is included in the Hunter Writers Centre award anthology. Connect through www.linktr.ee/SallyJaneSmith