Writing Hard Stories

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“All sorrows can be borne if you put them in a story…” 

~Isak Dinesen

 

I read a lot of memoirs. I enjoy getting lost in someone else’s emotional journey. A great memoir goes beyond the personal to the universal and offers the reader more than the events themselves but the meaning, as well. Great memoirs enlarge our view of the world and ourselves.

Some stories, though, seem too big to tell, even if they are begging to be told. Life complexities overwhelm.

The desire to translate explosive emotions into words, to order fragmented images, cannot be about making art or perfection or publication, at least in the beginning. First, the goal must be to know what one feels, then to figure out what happened—to claim your story.  As philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein wrote, “All I know is what I have words for.”  Then you tell it again and again in different voices, and then, perhaps, find a way to release it.

So how do we begin to shape an unruly story?  There are so many decisions to make. Where to begin may be the biggest. In her memoir, Abandon Me, Melissa Febos says, “Every story begins with an unraveling.”  I like that idea. 

The act of telling a big story is a process of spinning chaos into order as Dani Shapiro discovers in her new memoir, Hourglass. “The narrative thread doesn’t stretch in a line from end to end, but rather, spools and unspools, loops around and returns again and again to the same spot…”

In trying to weave a big story, the writer must ask: what parts should I hold up for inspection and which ones do I leave out? These white spaces, though, are necessary; choosing them is the hard part.

How deep does one dig among the layers?   

These questions are ones I have grappled with as I tried writing about the tragic accident that took my father’s life. The story is so much more than the facts. And this story is not just my own.  It is my mother’s story of survivor guilt, and my sister’s story of arriving too late, and my brother’s story of choosing to see my father’s burned body, and another brother’s story of deciding to stay home, and another brother’s story of overseeing the far away burial. It is my daughter’s story of watching me answer the phone that fateful evening and then slip away. 

Finding my voice in this sad chorus is messy, uncomfortable work.

* * *

One day, as I was working with a student on her college application essay, I heard myself say, “You’re trying to cram a big, complicated story into one frame. It’s not working. Try zooming in closer. What do you see? What is your story really about?” 

Well.

It wasn’t the first time I’d given this advice, but at that moment, I heard it anew.

What is my story really about? 

The answer was “many things”.  The origin of fear.  The love of a daughter for her father. Family dysfunction. Religion. A freak accident. Grief. How trauma affects the brain. Healing through words. And this overwhelming realization contributed to my writer’s block. 

The breakthrough finally came when I stopped trying to create a unified big picture and took a snapshot instead. 

You don’t have to tell the whole story at once.

The resulting essay took on multiple forms and drafts.  I decided to submit it to The Sunlight Press whose missions seemed fitting: “We want to hear the ways people turn toward light and hope… and also how they respond to the darkness and navigate unknown spaces. Epiphanies are born from the ordinary and the extraordinary…we want to know about these moments.”  

To meet the word requirement of this online journal, I needed to shorten the story, thereby, getting closer to its essence. When the editor asked me to slightly revise its original ending (without saying how), I was, at first, taken aback. Then, the more I read my last lines, the more I realized I’d been too cryptic, perhaps too poetic. So I made it more truthful and simple. A tremendous sense of relief and satisfaction followed. It was published on July 9, 2017.

And that, I think, is the power of writing our stories. Unlike in real life, we can assemble the pieces with our own hands and, sometimes, even make the ending a little brighter.

 

Strangers on a Plane

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I consider myself a friendly person. I enjoy interesting conversation and connecting with people. I don’t care much for small talk, though. I much prefer to gain something from a conversation. At a party, I can easily meet a stranger and know her life story by the end of the evening. I think I’m pretty easy to talk to—except maybe on an airplane.

If you’re looking for conversation 30,000 feet in the air, you probably don’t want to sit next to me.    

My fear of flying developed in my early twenties. I’d get anticipatory anxiety a week before my flight. I often had panic attacks on the airplane. Once, my body jolted during sudden turbulence and I accidentally hit the woman seated next to me.  I could never sit by the emergency exit because I knew I was incapable of assisting my fellow passengers “in the unlikely event of a water landing.”

Fortunately,  over the past several years, my fear of flying has diminished somewhat.  I can even get some work done during a flight.  Can’t say exactly what brought about this change. Maybe I’ve finally become desensitized. Or maybe becoming a parent forced me to put on a brave face for the kiddos. Perhaps the relaxation techniques I learned finally paid off.

Or, maybe it was just those yellow pills. 

Whatever the reason, it’s likely that the unpleasantness of air travel will get to me now more than the idea of donning a life vest. Given the current state of air travel, I bet most of us feel this way.

Still, I can never predict my mental state once on board, so I keep my guard. I have certain rituals I need to do during takeoff and landing.  I’m very picky about my seat choice. And, I don’t want to talk to any strangers. Fortunately, most people are plugged into their devices or watching in-flight “entertainment”. 

So, there I was a few months ago, about to board a 7:00 am flight to Toronto.  (Let me just say, I’m not a morning person. )  A well-dressed, older man smiled at me.  I smiled, faintly, then looked the other way.  He moved closer. “Traveling for business or pleasure?” 

I did an inner eye-roll at that original line. “Pleasure,” I answered, hoping my one-word reply would signal that I did not wish to make small talk.  But he continued in a chipper, wide-awake fashion.  I nodded politely as he gave me the weather report for Toronto.  As we began to board the plane, I felt relieved to escape. “Well, have a good trip,” I said.

What were the odds he’d be seated next to me, anyway?

As I walked down the too-narrow aisle, I got an immediate claustrophobic reaction. The plane was smaller than I expected. And, there were only two seats on each side of the cabin. So sooner had I settled into my window seat than Mr. Friendly appeared.

“Well, look at that,” he said, sitting down in the too-close seat beside me.

I ignored him.

I took out my phone and headphones, then put on sunglasses. (Don’t ask. Just part of the ritual.) I plugged into my favorite tunes. After the safety instructions were given, my seatmate asked me a question. I don’t remember what it was.  Then he made a joke about the TSA.  

I removed my earplugs.  “Sorry, um, just to let you know, I’m not a comfortable flyer,” I said. “Especially during takeoff and landing. So, please excuse me.”

He waved a hand. “Don’t worry about it. Do whatever you need to do.”

I smiled, then put back on my headphones.   

“Everything’s going to be just fine,” he announced over my happy music.

Ten minutes later, after we reached cruising altitude, my body relaxed a bit. Immediately, my friendly seatmate continued to engage me. “Feeling better?”

 Gee, didn’t he have something to read?   

 I  tried summoning my friendly self.  “Yes, I am, thank you.” 

He asked if I was from Boston and what I planned on doing in Toronto.

“I’m on my way to a family wedding,” I offered. 

“That’s wonderful,” he said, then sighed. “Unfortunately, I’m on my way to a family funeral.”

The juxtaposition of our travel purposes touched something within me. I removed my sunglasses. I listened as he described the loss of a dear cousin. 

Before long, I found myself in a thoughtful conversation with this stranger.

He was a hospital physician who loved his work. He and his wife of twenty years had both found each other after leaving long terrible marriages.  (His honesty and happy marital status removed any imagined pretense. ) I asked him what he thought the secret to a happy marriage was and he told me. Then he showed me pictures of his family and grandchildren.  He laughed that I was surprised by his age–73. I told him that people often think I’m much younger, too.

“Happiness is the fountain of youth,” he said. 

Then I heard myself ask:  “So, what’s it like to be seventy-three?” 

And he told me.

So there I was, in one of my least favorite places, talking about love and loss with a stranger. We exchanged stories about our professions. He asked me what I most liked to write about. I asked him what he’d advise a medical student.

We laughed about the White House circus and made predictions of our new president’s future. He made a joke about Trump on an airplane.

The flight passed by quickly—something that never happens to me. I realized that this man’s company distracted me from the usual worrisome engine noises and air bumps. Still, when the flight attendant announced that it was time  “to start our descent” my anxiety crept up.

My new friend sensed this.  “Just take a few deep breaths. Go back to your happy place.” 

And I did.

Once on the ground, the man gave me a few tips for navigating Customs. He needed to rush out to catch a connecting flight.  He wished me well and was on his way. 

In that moment, I was sorry to see him go.

During the past weeks, with all the terrible news stories about air travel, I thought about my random encounter with a friendly stranger in the unfriendly skies. 

Maybe he thought about me, too.

Does Time Heal All Wounds?

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“Time flies over us but leaves its shadow behind.”  ~  Nathaniel Hawthorne

If you have suffered great pain and loss, there is a good chance a well-meaning person offered this familiar consolation: “Time heals all wounds.”   

Why do we insist on repeating this phrase? Because we don’t know what else to say. Because there isn’t really anything to say. We want to make the person feel better—somehow. We, standing on the far shore of grief, are certain this saying is true.

Even with some inherent truth in this adage, I believe it is unhelpful to those in the midst of fresh grief. Such a person care barely move through the minutes of each day. 

When my father died suddenly and tragically, I could only see Before and Now.  I did not care about how I would feel six months into the future because I couldn’t imagine that future.  As an ambitious person who can get consumed with productivity and efficiency, I had to surrender to grief. I had to learn that recovery cannot be rushed along.

Even today, exactly one year later, I do not feel the passage of 12 months. The chronological movement of time did not heal. It is what happened to me during that time. I got therapy. I had supportive friends. I practiced self-care. I mourned, grieved, reminisced, and reflected.  All this contributed toward healing. The wound is still there, perhaps covered by a scar, but the unbearable pain has lessened.

Each grief is unique to the person who is grieving. Circumstances of the loss matter, too. The loss of a child, for example, may never be “gotten over”. The worst thing you can say to a grieving person is, “Gee, it’s been X months. You have to get on with your life.”  Wouldn’t the grieving person “get on with her life” if she knew how?

Instead, it is far better to say: “I know you are suffering terribly and can’t see any way out. But I know you will get through this if you give yourself time to heal.”

Then offer your steady presence. Listen more. Say less.

Time itself does not heal wounds. If anything, time may soften the sharp edges of pain. The grief process, unlike time itself, is not linear. Grief has the power to make you feel stuck in time. It has the power to narrow your vision so you can’t see a future.

Time can heal if you use it well. You have to take time to do the necessary inner work. The only way to get over grief is to go through it. There is no detour.

Losing My Words

Albert Camus Quote

 

This past November, I lost my father in a horrific accident. The days and weeks following were filled with disbelief, turmoil, and trauma.  I couldn’t eat, couldn’t think, couldn’t write. The crushing grief took away my words—and that was devastating. Writing is how I make sense of the world.  I imagined that writing would be part of my healing, but I could not find any words to tame my anger and sadness.

I wasn’t even sure what day it was. 

The recovering perfectionist, take-charge, get-it-done, type of person found herself in a state of confusion and paralysis. I had no choice but to surrender to grief and give myself a big timeout. This meant putting aside writing projects and taking a break from consulting work.

But there was one job I couldn’t take a break from—homeschooling coach to my youngest daughter. Audrey was in the midst of her college application essays and creating her art portfolio.  She had 10 colleges on her list. As her homeschool supervisor/guidance counselor, I was responsible for all documentation, the transcript, curriculum description, as well as reviewing her essays. Now, my brain was muddled, my attention and energy compromised. I felt panicked by my inability to fully resume this responsibility.

My daughter knew how much I was suffering. Yet in the midst of our family crisis, she became a pillar of strength.  The years of homeschooling had prepared her for independence. Audrey continued her studies and kept all commitments. She reached out to a mentor for help with writing the essays. She enlisted a team to assist her in finishing her portfolio film—all while I was curled up on the living room couch.

Gradually my brain fog lifted.  I was able to check over Audrey’s final applications and help her prepare scholarship essays. Miraculously, I watched the tasks on her College Countdown list disappeared one by one. Jan 15th arrived and the final application was submitted. We were done. 

Winter. Spring. Summer.  

Now I have a homeschool graduate, on her way to college, who knows how to advocate for herself and problem solve. She faces obstacles and challenges with grit and grace. These essential qualities aren’t reflected in grades or test scores, but they will carry her far.

My words are returning.

The healing continues.

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What I learned in 2014

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I’ve already admitted that I’m not one for New Year’s Resolutions. 

That doesn’t mean I don’t reflect, though, on the past year. A day older, a day wiser–hopefully.  When you start thinking about all that happened to you in the past year–the good, the bad, and the ugly–you may come to see that you are indeed a bit wiser.  

So this New Year’s day, I asked myself: what have I learned in 2014?  

Without going into the details of how and when I learned these things, I’m simply sharing the list.  Maybe one of them will resonate with you.

  1. Family really matters. Make the time.
  2. Say the things you need/want to say to the people you care about. Now.
  3. If you’re not sure what to do or say to someone in pain, just listen to your heart and take a chance.
  4. Coffee dates are better than Facebook chatting.
  5. Learn to identify what is trivial before the trivial takes over your life.
  6. You cannot write the script for the universe.
  7. The only one who can make time for pursuing your dream is YOU.

I guess most of us already know these things deep down. It’s just that our daily clutter has a way of obscuring their truth.  Then we forget.  

 When you think about what you’ve learned (instead of where you have failed), the needed changes are more likely to fall into place. And to stick.  

So my only “resolution” for 2015 is to carry-over what I’ve learned last year.  That’ll be enough work.

What about you?  What have you learned last year?