April 14, 2022 § 5 Comments
By Lynn Haraldson
A few months ago, my partner and I were sitting at the workbench in his garage, sharing a beer and talking about nothing in particular, when a 1970s Cheap Trick song, “Voices,” came on the radio. I was humming along until, halfway through, a lyric stopped me cold. I looked over at the man I’ve been with for nine years—now paging through a Polaris catalog—and thought, Oh no! I’m in love with someone else!
In the many years since my husband died, I’ve earned a Ph.D. in grief. When I started writing a memoir a few years ago about my experiences in the aftermath of his death, I knew I couldn’t write from a detached place. I planned ahead and established supports—my therapist on speed dial, Ted Lasso on the DVR— for those times when grief got overwhelming.
But it wasn’t grief that prompted a writing timeout. “Voices” made me realize that—while I’d never stopped loving my husband—I’d fallen in love with him again, on the page. And that, I decided, was a problem.
Sometime during the third or fourth round of edits, when I went deeper into my past in search of the tiniest details, the ones that prick the heart and make a scene more intimate, I’d added more physical details about my husband’s body, and the ways and times we danced, laughed, slept, showered, and made love. It was often emotionally difficult to write, as I expected it would be. It also reignited feelings I haven’t felt for him in a very long time.
I thought if I listened to “Voices” few more times, the feeling would go away, like when you rub a sore muscle and it relaxes. I found the video on YouTube, but as I sang along, the harder seventeen-year-old Me fell for the farmer boy who would become my husband.
I shouldn’t feel this way! I told myself, even though it was the same phrase that—for decades after his death—kept me from grieving at all, or at least grieving productively, openly, and honestly.
Guilt tagged along, and I felt like I was cheating on both my partner and my memoir. How could I stay true to my partner and to my central theme of normalizing grief, without saccharine, starry-eyed in-loveness screwing everything up?
I needed supports beyond Ted and my therapist. First, I opened my dog-eared copy of Hope Edelman’s The AfterGrief: Finding Your Way Along the Long Arc of Grief:
This is how the AfterGrief tends to show up…A random site or sound or smell pushes a memory up to the surface, and time does it’s funky little twitch. The future pulls back and the distant past rushes up close, both compressing into the present. Then is now and now is then, and later ceases to exist. The images are dazzling in their clarity. If I’d known they were coming today, I might have planned better.
Ah…so instead of identifying the song as a sensory trigger and letting it be what it was, I immediately jumped to, “This is bad!” OK, got it!
I went to Megan Devine’s website, Refuge in Grief: “Beauty doesn’t so much fix anything as it creates more space in your heart.”
Had I learned so much about grief that I forgot how it intersects with love? Love is beauty! I took a deep breath and indulged the in love, and let it sit in my heart in all its bubblegum gooiness. It was…lovely. Love and grief intertwined like helixes, rotating in unison, one strand no less than the other.
After addressing the what and why of this love feeling, I addressed my memoir as a writer. I opened Allison K Williams’ Seven Drafts: Self-Edit Like a Pro from Blank Page to Book and reread “Memoir: Character” to remind myself not to turn my late husband into a “Mary Sue”—a too-amazing, too-special character, too good to be true. To make my late husband—and our relationship—real for readers, I must include—along with love—moments of vulnerability and conflict, to show, rather than tell, the story of our life together in all its messy stickiness.
I could do that.
Just when I thought I’d earned that Ph.D in grief, I had to relearn that feelings aren’t bad guys. If I feel guilty or tell myself to “get over” a feeling, then it’s me, not my feelings, creating the problem. Feelings—the good and the ugly—give authenticity to writing. Blame, guilt, and “shouldn’ts” contribute nothing. In the next draft, I faced my feelings, and—after a generous break and offering kindness to my experience—let my words do the rest.
P.S. When I told my partner I was in love with my late husband, he hugged me and said, “Yeah, I’ve known that since I met you.” Hunh…
Lynn Haraldson is a writer from rural western Pennsylvania. Her memoir, An Obesity of Grief, is currently in the hands of the query gods. She is a writing mentor at State Correction Institution – Pine Grove and is the editor of the inmate-written newsletter The Grove. She writes at LynnHaraldson.com and can be found on Twitter and Instagram at @ZenBagLady.
February 11, 2022 § 16 Comments
By Catherine Lanser
I consider myself a creative nonfiction writer. I’ve been reading and studying the form for more than 10 years, but until recently, I was hiding a secret. I had never read much Joan Didion.
My Good Reads list says I started reading The Year of Magical Thinking in 2009 but quit after a few pages. It didn’t seem to have anything to do with me. Her dense writing made me feel self-conscious, as if I wasn’t good enough, the same way a woman I used to volunteer for did.
“Evelyn” was the head of an educational nonprofit, and I was helping her lay out her quarterly magazine. She dropped names of people in her movement and at the local university in the same way I thought Didion would. Evelyn’s large sunglasses and smart matching suits with twin sets looked very 1960s to my 1990s eyes and similar to Didion’s favored clothing on publicity photos.
It had been years since I snuck over to Evelyn’s house to drop off the last proofs at her doorstep. I thought of her when I saw her obituary in 2021 and again this fall, a few months before Didion’s death, when I finally read the book.
This time, after struggling through the opening pages, which describe how the first lines were drafted, I continued on. Now older and married, I did have something in common with the author.
I had almost lost my spouse to a heart attack only three years after we were married in 2014. At 47, he was three years older than his father had been when he had his first heart attack. Her text still felt heavy but I continued reading.
Since 2009 I’ve read nearly every memoir about death, illness and grieving as I wrote my manuscript about my father’s stroke and my brain tumor. Though Didion was bereft at the loss of her husband John, I could think of a stack of books that felt more heartbreaking.
The lines I highlighted are clinical and focused. Didion tells us she wrote the book not to explain her feelings, but to understand her husband’s death. She explains how words, which she has used her whole life to find meaning, failed her following John’s death. As the title suggests she begins to think like a child does, as if she can change the course of time and bring him back with her actions.
I think about Evelyn. During the time we worked together her husband faced and lost a battle with cancer. When I saw Evelyn months after the funeral in her home, his sweater remained draped over the back of the desk chair where it had always been. Over the remaining time I worked with Evelyn, the sweater never moved as if he might put it on at any minute. I compared it to my mother who cleaned out my dad’s closet, removing nearly everything in the five days between his death and the funeral. Didion talks about giving away her husband’s clothes but keeping his shoes because he would need them should he return.
I had practiced this sort of magical thinking in my life during my illness. First as a teen, when I told myself that if I didn’t tell anyone about the “spells” I had I could make them go away. Hiding them for eight years I imagined the other diseases they might be, such as dissociative identity disorder or schizophrenia, but still told no one.
I also practiced this outcome-based imagination after I learned the spells were seizures caused by a brain tumor. When my dad suffered a stroke only a few years after my brain surgery to remove a tumor from my temporal lobe I wondered if it was my fault for not being thankful enough for surviving.
While Didion’s prose didn’t necessarily feel sad, she made me feel emotions I hadn’t in reading other memoirs. Near the end of the book I’ve circled large paragraphs of text and scribbled notes between the line breaks. As I read it now, my heart catches.
She quotes the Episcopal litany: “as it was in the beginning, is now and ever shall be, world without end.” About a half page down she repeats the line and I have underlined the last three words, “world without end.”
Didion describes how she found this line as an antidote to meaninglessness as a child by interpreting it as a description of how the world’s geographic structures were always changing.
I remember this childhood prayer as a Catholic prayer I would say before I went to sleep. I began to recite it one night when I was about seven. I thought the lines would bring me comfort when I could not sleep. Instead, they left me in a state of terror.
As I said the words, I felt myself flying out from my body until I could see the endless universe of blackness surrounding me. It was the first time I understood death and eternity. Only later, did I learn that the out-of-body experience I felt could have been related to the temporal lobe seizures and migraines I soon began to have.
Didion thinks about this line as she contemplates the “unending absence” of grief. Again, she finds some comfort, finding that they mean we must let the dead go. As nature keeps on changing so do we.
I have thought about the place where my tumor was in my brain as the absence. It has remained a solid grey spot of unchanging size among the folds of my brain for almost 30 years. My cells die and are reborn. My brain reroutes and learns but this spot cannot grow.
Still, somehow, I do. I am not the same person I was when I hid my seizures. Or that didn’t know how to act around Evelyn. I am not the person who tried to read this book in 2009. I can admit that now.