Write About Your Loss
July 20, 2022 § 9 Comments
By Ninette Hartley
“Well, he has a broken leg but that’s the least of his problems. He has suffered some trauma to his head. In this country we … how can I put it? …we would say he is brain dead.”
On the 13th of January 2011 my twenty-seven-year-old son Thomas, was rushed to intensive care in Porto, having fallen through a skylight whilst searching for somewhere to paint graffiti. I received a phone call from a doctor in the hospital, and when I asked her how bad it was she explained his injuries to me. Her English was good, but I couldn’t quite take it in.
His step-father and I had to get from Italy (where we lived at the time) to Portugal as quickly as we could. The hospital was waiting impatiently for me, his next of kin, to arrive so that I could give permission for his organs to be donated. His partner and my other four children came to Portugal, travelling from Australia, Singapore and England. Together we moved through the days after the accident supporting each other.
When I look back now, I remember those first few days as a sort of numbness. I floated around in a mist of confusion and disbelief, with grief knocking me sideways when it arrived without warning in erratic bursts. The paperwork and tasks that have to be attended to after a death do, to a certain extent, distract the newly bereaved for some of the time. Funeral arrangements, cremation, bringing the ashes home; there was a great deal to organise. Then when all that was over, my children returned to their own lives, my husband and I to Italy, it was then I realised I needed some other kind of support.
I found it in writing creative non-fiction.
I began to write a letter to Tosh (his nickname) just to tell him what was going on. I wrote eight thousand words that were meant to be just between us. I never intended to share those words but as the years went by my writing became more important to me. I enrolled for online courses, began creating poetry, wrote short stories and flash fiction. A play and even a novel. But I kept coming back to Dear Tosh. In September 2019, I was accepted onto the MA in Creative Writing Course at Exeter University and I completed that in 2020. For one module I pulled out my letter to Tosh and began to re-structure it into something that I felt I could share with others; at that time, it was just 5000 words.
For the tenth anniversary of his death, I completed Dear Tosh my first memoir, which was published in May 2021. It’s made up of twenty-seven letters, one for each year that he lived. It felt as though I spent time with him as I wrote, telling him all the events that had happened in the family and the world since he left us. I found it therapeutic to write, and even though it opened up the wounds of loss, it also helped me come to terms with so much that surrounds the loss of a child. One of those things for me, was the organ donation. I had no counselling for this, and the whole idea of it haunted me like a recurring dream for months and years after his death. Writing about it, sharing my feelings with Tosh, actually exorcised my fears and I was able, at last, to accept it.
Writing the book wasn’t all doom and gloom. Much of it made me smile and even laugh out loud — and readers often have the same reaction — so many memories brought back, of fun times with the family when the children were little. I have a strong sense of humour and realise that I have passed this on to my children and that it comes through in my writing.
Writing saved my mental health, I’m sure of it. I would urge anyone to write about their loss in any way they can. It doesn’t matter if it’s never shown to anyone. The act of writing your innermost feelings can act as therapy. Grief may be difficult to share verbally but writing it down is a release and you never know, it might turn into a beautiful work of creative non-fiction.
Ninette Hartley is a writer, mother, grandmother, wife and teacher. She has followed many paths – from acting and dancing to magazine publishing, and even driving a pony and trap – but she has always come back to storytelling.
Ninette has an MA in creative writing and has been published in three short story collections. Her first memoir Dear Tosh, published in May 2021 has been shortlisted in the Selfies Book Awards and long-listed in the Dorchester Literary Festival Writing Prize 2022 (shortlist and winner announced in August 2022). In 2015 she was shortlisted for the Fish Publishing Short Memoir Prize, and was longlisted for the Poetry Prize in 2020. She has won or been placed in several flash fiction competitions.
After eight years living in rural Italy she moved to the Dorset countryside with her husband, Geoff, and beloved rescue dog, Jpeg.
Find more from Ninette on her website www.ninettehartley.com
What We Abandon in Memoir
November 6, 2020 § 6 Comments
By Jody Gerbig
On a warm, pandemic day, my five-year-old triplets flee from the house in search of escape. “Let them run wild,” my mother tells me over the phone. I have been complaining to her that my life feels loud and uncontrolled, that I have no time to write the parenting memoir I’ve started as though chronicling past chaos will sort out the current one. “You kids ran around the neighborhood, and you’re fine.”
The triplets return. They demand snacks and run off again, leaving crumbs in their wake. I brush these up in a dustpan like a bird erasing their trail home.
Later, I hear them playing together, without fighting, yelling, or demanding, and I see an opportunity. Hurrah! It’s writing time. I retreat to my office. One daughter follows and begs for yet another snack. She is not only hungry for food, I remind myself, but also for mom time.
I, too, am hungry, to write, to ponder, to be myself. “Please, honey, give Mommy a few minutes,” I say with gritted teeth, and then wince at its irony. Go away, child, so Mommy can write about how much she loves you. I might as well have pushed her into the wilderness and locked the door after her.
In her absence, I struggle to produce anything. I worry about where my children are and what they are into. I recognize yet another conundrum: my subjects must be-and-not-be present to write about them. I must think-and-not-think about them to type words on the page. I struggle with the many contradictions of drafting a parenting memoir: how to unearth the past when I’m too exhausted to absorb the present; how to tap into all that archived data in the mere minutes before children interrupt again.
I make myself write, at first only images (the snow falling in sheets the day doctors pulled babies from my womb), then scenes (my children being wheeled away before I could touch them). Somehow, more memories break through, and I am writing thousands of words, some even relevant. I feel giddy. I am both mother and writer! I can do it all!
And then a child—the one begging earlier—vomits the sugary treat she snuck while I was absorbed in work, and the words fall away again.
Over the next six months, I draft in frantic spurts on my phone—while standing at the stove waiting for water to boil or in an empty field watching kids run circles. I jot down thoughts on the calendar as though needing to record their occurrence in time: I knew their differences before they were born, I write on April 11. Last Christmas, they wanted to know about death, I note on May 21. But even these minute-long diversions feel like betrayals, my children chanting Mom, Mom as I thumb the phone’s keypad. Later, as the kids watch cartoons or drift off to sleep, I open my laptop to flesh out the calendar notes, but I can only feel the bones of them.
I know I must cull and shape these thoughts into a coherent draft, the details of our lives whittled away like shavings on a wood cutter’s floor. But I don’t know what moments to ignore (the moment the first stood and walked?) and which details to add (the time a woman said she’d kill herself if she got pregnant with triplets?). I worry the story will seem too tidy when finished. Perhaps only a body as ravished as mine can be honest.
In this way, the process of revising—shaping the arc of my parenting story from beginning to end—feels reckless, as though finishing the manuscript will end some part of our lives together. If I write a memoir about raising three babies, does that mean those babies are grown? I worry I haven’t done enough in this process. I worry I’ve done too much. Perhaps, my children don’t need me anymore. Maybe I’ve shaped our story irresponsibly.
And yet perhaps another possibility exists, one both scarier and more freeing, the truth we must all face while committing our stories to ink: the only ones abandoned on this journey are our own egos—to the process and the letting go. Our role as memoirists and parents requires us to do what we can with our progenies while we have them, then urge them into the world, smile, and trust they will thrive because we once held them.
Jody Gerbig lives in Columbus, Ohio, where she is raising triplets and a writing career. Her essays have been published in Columbus Monthly, VIDA: Women in the Literary Arts, Mothers Always Write, and elsewhere. She is also writes fiction and serves as an editor at 101 Words.
Why My Memoir Hit a Wall
February 24, 2017 § 6 Comments
By Jennifer Lang
From January through July, my fingers flew. Word after word, page after page, chapter after chapter. Thanks to my final MFA mentor at graduate school, I saw the road clear ahead of me and raced. Pumped and proud and a new graduate, I hired an editor to take my first draft and fine tune it. Tell me what worked and what didn’t. What was over- and underwritten. Where I needed more or less scene, or not at all. Mostly, I hired a complete stranger unfamiliar with the content—Israel and Judaism—to tell me if the story of my marriage to my French husband Philippe held her interest.
Six weeks later, between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, she responded with nine pages of evaluation and my manuscript all marked up in brilliant red. She answered my questions and then some, telling me I had succeeded in creating a narrator who is utterly human and flawed (as all believable narrators should be, her words) and that the conflict is clear, perhaps too clear, on almost every page, in the reader’s face. I read, nodding my head even though she couldn’t see me. I sighed every so often because she was spot on.
Then, everything changed on page six. Under the headline “Related: develop Philippe’s character more,” she wrote: You’ll need to find other ways to make his feelings, thoughts, and unspoken wishes known more; sometimes through physical gestures and facial expressions, actions, etc. Bring Philippe alive more on the page in other ways too. Make him a full person. I gulped. I continued reading. Next heading: “Other Characters.” She wrote: Let the children develop into characters as well, not just names on the pages with attached ages and order of birth.
By then I was holding my breath. My shoulders clenched. A visceral reaction to her words on my page.
After I reached the end of the evaluation, I heeded her advice: read the comments several times over the next few days, let them sink in, sleep, read them again, refrain from opening the document and diving in head first.
I agreed with everything she suggested: consider changing the structure, show other aspects of our life and not just the core issue of religious diversity and place, and add backstory and more scenes. But I tripped over the same few lines on page six every time I read them. Sure, I’m writing a memoir about my complicated marriage, but what more can I reveal about my husband? Super sure, my kids figure into the story because they’re ours, a result of our union, but how much do I have to reveal about them?
I have been writing about Philippe for years. Further, I’ve been writing about my children since they were born. I have used their names without second guessing myself. I have written and published stories about my youngest daughter’s hording tendencies during her elementary school years, about my oldest son’s reaction to visiting an elderly, homebound woman in middle school, and about all of their negative reactions to relocating to Israel for a semi-sabbatical year ten years ago.
Aside from using their names, I’ve recreated dialogue and described their appearances. I’ve brought their characters to life in 500-, 1000-, 2000-, even 3000-word essays.
But now, in a book, what I call my book, I’m being asked to make them come alive, to let the reader hear and see and understand and align or disagree with them—my husband of twenty-six years; my children who are now twenty-three, soon twenty, and almost eighteen.
How can I write about my husband as a full-fledged character, sharing his strengths and exposing his weaknesses while I bare my soul about our marriage, questioning in the memoir if I will even stay, in Israel, the land he’ll likely never leave? How can I write about my kids as full-fledged characters, sharing their strengths and exposing their weaknesses just as they leave home to carve out separate identities as adults in the world without mortifying them? Without them pointing an accusatory finger at me? Without them asking what have I done? What kind of permission do I have to ask of them, and of myself, if any?
And so, while I grapple with the core issue of memoir—writing about my life and my family—I keep the hardcopy of my marked-up manuscript, to my left, on my desk, as a quiet reminder of what I have accomplished so far.
And, a believer in signs, I wait to see if any of my applications to writing residencies with the stated goal of finishing this book are accepted. If yes, then I’ll go, manuscript in hand, questions to ask, computer in bag, and I’ll proceed and propel myself forward. Because, as my mother said repeatedly throughout my childhood when reaching difficult crossroads, perhaps taking finals, trying out for cheerleading, or applying to college, if it is meant to be, it is meant to be.
Jennifer Lang‘s essays have been published in Under the Sun, Ascent, Citron Review, Hippocampus Magazine, and Dumped: Stories of Women Unfriending Women, among others. Currently, she serve as Editorial Fellow for Proximity magazine and occasionally contributes to the Wall Street Journal‘s Expat column. Since receiving a MFA from Vermont College of Fine Arts last summer, she’s been working on her first memoir. She resides in Raanana, Israel, where she writes, runs a writers salon and teaches yoga. Find her at http://israelwritersalon.com
Dream Catchers: On Writing the Brief Moment
February 4, 2010 § 2 Comments
April Monroe’s thoughtful reflection on the short essay form and her brief essay The Potato Harvest in Brevity 31:
One of the reasons I have been a longtime reader of Brevity is because size, at least in literary nonfiction, matters to me a great deal. Short-short nonfiction has always been a very natural genre for me both as a reader and a writer. In many ways this quickly leads to vast literary disappointment, as there are very few places to publish or read, and writers of brief nonfiction are rarely found on the best-seller list. But despite the pitfalls, it remains my favorite form. As a reader I find it to be more accessible than poetry, but it still has the arch that I crave in stories and essays. And, more than anything, I believe it is the most honest nonfiction around.
The discussion on what truth is and where creative license becomes deception has been had ad nauseum, and I cannot offer anything new to that dialogue. What I can say is that I believe telling the truth is the obsession, goal, and persistent quandary of all nonfiction writers, and that I found my best answers in short-short essays.
In one of the first writer’s workshops I ever participated in, the ongoing advice for every piece I turned in was to “make it longer.” Of course, most of the young and uncorrupted writers in the circle of desks under the always-throbbing fluorescent lights said it more eloquently: “let it bloom,” or “I feel like this story is trying to be a poem,” and sometimes more straightforwardly: “this is weird,” or “You could never publish this.” As a consequence, I spent a great deal of time figuring out how to elongate essays. Sometimes this was great – necessary, even. But other times, I was left with the feeling that every word I added was a movement away from what I was trying to write in the first place – the truth.
Sometimes the most moving, altering moments of life are in fact only moments. Sometimes they are not destined to be novels, essays, or memoirs. Sometimes, there is no bigger picture. There is only the truth, and all that I know of it barely reaches the two-hundred word mark. My essay “The Potato Harvest,” which appeared in issue 31 of Brevity, is a good example of such a time.
I would rather write about anything, anything at all, than write about my children. The enormity of the undertaking, the likelihood of blundering into cliché, and the added difficulty of writing with absolute honesty when my children are my subject matter scares me. Every word is a mountain. “The Potato Harvest” is, to date, the longest piece I have written about one of my children. It is quite brief, but to me was a large accomplishment in the art of telling the whole truth. The particular poignant morning that inspired the essay was the kind of moment that reaches us at our core, but when it has passed, seeps out of our mind like a complex dream. For me, short-short essays are the dream catcher that those moments get stuck in, and the only way I have found to capture them and put them into writing.