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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