Carving Joy From Grief
September 13, 2022 § 34 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
The Dougherty quote is wonderful. Thank you for it — and for your own words. Writing is about perseverance, as is grief. One foot, one word, in front of the other.
Thank you, Amanda. That quote made such a difference to me – almost as if it gave me permission to move that first foot forward.
Wow. Thank you for writing this and sharing. Writing through pain is so important for the writer and the reader. And @CaseyMulliganWalsh is a gem. I look forward to reading your story.
Thank you, Morgan. Yes, she is – I was a mess when I sent that message to her.
I love that quote about writing about grief–sorry I don’t know who said it, but it is one of those truths that lives and deepens and grows. Thanks for reminding us and congratulations on the shortlist.
Thank you, Nancy. I’m learning that truth, but haven’t yet unraveled its full meaning. I wonder if I ever will.
Wow, this is wonderful
Thank you for reading it. This morning, it feels both wonderful and very-much-the-opposite-of-wonderful at the same time.
This is lovely; thank you, Sally. And Casey is right: two things can be true at one time.
Yes. I haven’t got my head (or my heart) around it yet, but yes. Thank you, Candace.
I have seen #Binder on Twitter numerous times and have been mystified as to what it means. I even googled it and came up with nothing. Thank you so much for explaining #binders. And yes, I’m sure you are correct. Carly would be happy for you.
Thank you, Polly. Not least for confirming I made the right decision to include footnotes! I almost deleted them before submitting.
Indeed! So helpful.
Thanks for sharing your story. I love how you focus on travel, and tie it into your grief. Best of luck.
Thank you Jennie – since that trip into Turkey and the emotional landscape of grief, it’s been difficult to untangle the two. My second (partially completed) manuscript is completely mired in the muddle of it. But sometimes, in a short piece, there is a synergy that works.
Thank you for writing this and for sharing Dougherty’s poem. Following my sister’s unexpected death a couple of months ago, I started writing about her and about my grief. I have been sharing my writing publicly, although to start doing that I had to fight back a lot of self-criticisms. I keep reminding myself of two things: (1) that by writing about her, I am sharing her with the world; and (2) that perhaps my words will resonate with someone who is also grieving.
Congratulations on making the shortlist. I’m sure Carly would be excited for you (and proud of you) and also happy that in your grief, you can find joy.
Marie, thank you for sharing about your sister. And for saying what you have about Carly. Every time someone says or types her name, it’s like a little gift. I love your idea that we are sharing Carly and your sister with the world. Hugs from Australia.
Thank you. Hugs back to you 🙂
Thank you for sharing your grief and also your joy. Two sides of the same coin – it just depend how it lands when you throw it up on the air.
Such an interesting way of thinking about it, thank you. Although, sometimes that coin spins when you’re not expecting it.
Thank you for this wonderful piece.
Thank you, Eileen! And for your very perceptive tweet.
Thank God for this wonderful world we found ourselves, glory be to him alone
Congratulations Sally Jane. I’m looking forward to reading your piece. I’d also like to thank you for encouraging me to join the Binders Building Platform FB group. They are a great bunch of women and very generous.
They are, aren’t they! Thank you for the support, Margaret.
[…] another bit of wisdom I recently ran across. Sally Jane Smith’s post “Carving Joy from Grief” on the Brevity Blog includes this […]
Thank you so much for sharing, Sarah.
When my husband died, I could not imagine that I’d ever find joy or even smile again. Grief and joy? What planet are you from?
Well, that was 12 years and 1 book ago. Baby steps and survival skills kicked in and writing. Absolutely had to write, to process and somehow keep a record of my grief journey, complete with hope – yes, hope and eventually joy.
You’ve written a beautiful article Sally and I’ll say it too, Carly would be happy for you. And proud.
Congrats on the short list. Quite an accomplishment. Oh and thanks for the footnotes. I didn’t know what Binder contact was either.
Looking forward to reading your book, as well as your second one once it’s complete.
Wendy, thank you for sharing about your husband. I am so sorry you lost him.
And yes, I don’t know where on my grief journey I’d have been if it weren’t for writing – who I am would be different if I weren’t a writer, and so would who I am having lost Carly.
Yesterday, HER niece was born. She’ll never know her Aunt Carly except for our stories – and for her own middle name, which is Carly (even if we don’t know for sure what her first name is).
Ah, it’s all so messed up.
Sending strength from Australia x
Congratulations on the birth of Carly‘s niece. It seems we are either celebrating joy or struggling through grief.
I’m glad it’s joy right now for you and your loved ones.
Big hugs from Oklahoma.
Sally, where can I read your piece on Carving Joy From Grief? I think I’ve been having not one but several senior moments because I keep hearing about it but cannot seem to find it. I know from experience your writing is both lyrical and incisive and I would so like to read it too. From your other work, I know Carly was a bright light in your life.
Lovely to see you here, Val! The piece titled “Carving Joy from Grief” is just this little guest blog post. But the story I’m writing about, called “Eleven-Thirty”, is published in a print-only anthology here in Australia (https://www.amazon.com.au/Newcastle-Short-Story-Award-2022/dp/0645375624/) – I’ll send you an email with more info shortly.