How Do You Write About Grief?

“Where you used to be, there is a hole in the world, which I find myself constantly walking around in the daytime, and falling in at night. I miss you like hell.”

~Edna St. Vincent Millay

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We all experience grief and loss. Some of us more than others. There is no escaping its grip.

The longer we live, the more we lose.

The grief of losing a thing, and the fear of losing it,
are equal.”     
        ~Seneca

In trying to comfort others, or share our grief experience, we get stuck in the sphere of emotion and physical sensation. How do we speak about grief?

We turn to metaphor and imagery.

A black hole.  A sinking ship. A shredded heart. Time stands still. Grief eats like acid.

Sometimes, grief can be described in the same way as love.

“Grief is like the ocean; it comes on waves ebbing and flowing. Sometimes the water is calm, and sometimes it is overwhelming.”      

For is there grief without love?

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“All you can do is learn to swim.”

Author Anne Lamott writes, “You will lose someone you can’t live without, and your heart will be badly broken, and the bad news is that you never completely get over the loss of your beloved. But this is also good news. They live forever in your broken heart that doesn’t seal back up. And you come through. It’s like having a broken leg that never heals perfectly—that still hurts when the weather gets cold, but you learn to dance with the limp.”

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Siesta Keyes Beach, Sarasota, FL. March 2019

How to Write a Great Ending: (Why Endings Matter in Fiction and Life)

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Why is it we can forgive a book’s slow start, a meandering middle, but not a bad ending?

Some endings leave you feeling cheated. Or disappointed. Or plain confused.

You’ve invested your time, money, and heart and you want a payoff at the end.  Endings matter to readers and movie-goers. A lot.  The highly ambiguous ending to the 2014 movie Birdman ignited an intense online debate about what actually happened. Some loved the ending, others hated it.

For years after publishing Gone with the Wind, author Margaret Mitchell was deluged with reader requests for a sequel. Mitchell adamantly refused, saying she purposely left the ending ambiguous because she had no idea whether or not Scarlet and Rhett would be reunited.

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So what makes a bad ending? 

I asked my friends and family. Their answers aligned with the advice you’d get in a basic writing workshop.

-Confusing

-Based on coincidence

-It was all a dream

-Contrived

-Too many loose ends

-The hero dies without achieving or seeing his goal/dream

-Manipulative

-Unrealistic

-Too Sad

There’s a great scene in the movie The Silver Lining Playbook when the main character Pat, upon finishing Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms, throws the book out the window. Pat then wakes his sleeping parents and launches into a rant over the love story’s bleak ending.

“…She dies, Dad! I mean, the world’s hard enough as it is, guys…Can’t somebody say, “Hey, let’s be positive? Let’s have a good ending to the story?”

Turns out, Hemingway considered at least 40 possible endings to the classic 1928 novel. If your curious, a 2012 Library Edition exists containing these alternative endings. 

This brings to mind the wacky physics theory of “parallel universes.   I won’t get into the scientific details behind the controversial concept, but basically, it explores the possibility that other versions of ourselves, our histories, and our outcomes exist simultaneously in multiple universes. (A premise portrayed many a time in science fiction tales.) 

So, let’s say you’re feeling sad and regretful about letting a lover go. Perhaps you can take comfort in the idea that somewhere out there your replica is enjoying life with this missed love.

In the 1980s and 90s, the widely popular children series, Choose Your Own Adventure, allowed readers to assume the role of the protagonist.  Every few pages,  the reader gets to make choices that determine the outcome. The fun part is getting the chance to explore several possible endings.

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                            Choose_Your_Own_Treasur_Diver

 

Each book’s introduction affirms the power the reader holds. 

“There are dangers, choices, adventures, and consequences…but don’t despair at anytime YOU can go back and alter the path of your story, and change its results. 

If only real life were like that.

 

How do writers craft the perfect ending to their story?

Some decide on the ending at the very beginning and fill in the rest. Others follow a detailed outline which builds to a specified ending. Others writers like to journey with their characters and allow the ending to unfold. The process becomes an exciting discovery.

Best-selling thriller writers Lee Child and Lisa Scottoline described this process in a recent NYT podcast. After getting a feel for the tone of the book, Lee Child just sits down to write and sees what happens.  Lisa Scottoline knows only the beginning when she starts writing a novel. As she reaches each new point, Lisa asks herself, “Okay, now what?”  The prolific author says this process mirrors life.

I rarely know the ending of a story before I write. Even if I have a sense of the story’s conclusion, I often change my mind or consider alternatives. In my novel, One Is Not A Lonely Number, one of the characters reveals a secret toward the end.  I didn’t even know what it was until I got there. 

In my new short story, “When We Were Bad”, I knew one of the characters would end up in the wrong place at the right time but wasn’t sure if she’d get out alive. Making that decision ultimately changed the final paragraph which I rewrote several times.

But even when you decide on the ending of your story, how do you know it works?

What makes a good ending?

This is a trickier question than what makes a bad ending. According to the character Holden Caufield in Catcher in the Rye,

“What really knocks me out is a book that, when you’re all done reading it, you wish the author that wrote it was a terrific friend of yours and you could call him up on the phone whenever you felt like it.”

I love this quote and have experienced the feeling myself.

The answers my friends gave me regarding a good ending were more about emotion–how a story ending left them feeling.

-Happy(ish)

-Enlightened

-Moved

-Astonished

-Transformed

-Curious

-Wishing it never ended

The most common answer was satisfied.  Hmm. Makes me think of a good meal. What is satisfying to one reader may cause another to toss the book out the window.

. If-you-want-a-happy-ending-that-depends-of-course-on-where-you-stop-your-story.-Orson-Welles

So how does a writer choose?

A while back, I came across an answer. 

A good ending to a plot must be both inevitable yet surprising. 

I’ve been pondering this paradoxical advice since ever since.

Thriller writer, Meg Gardiner, (also interviewed in the NYT Podcast) summed up the above axiom in her 2015 blog post as: 

Amazing! Not what I expected, but exactly what I expected.

Try putting your favorite books and movies to this test.

For me, this played out in the novel Me Before You by Jojo Moyes(Don’t bother with the movie version.) It’s a contemporary romance between an unlikely pair who seem to hate each other at first then fall deeply in love. At the end of the book, one of the characters makes a choice that made me cry.  I thought about it for days. At first, I was sure it was the wrong ending. But as I reflected  (and debated with a friend), I could see the author had planted the seeds for what was to come. The reader doesn’t want this ending, is hoping until the last page that it won’t happen, but it does.  The conclusion is unsettling, thought-provoking and, indeed, “inevitable, yet unexpected.”

Few endings, in fiction or life, are perfect.

Story endings can leave us sad and still be a good ending. Or, perhaps, the right ending.

What are your favorite or worst book/movie endings? 

If you’re a writer, do you plan the ending ahead of time?

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Finding Inspiration in 2018

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“There were so many frightful times when I was totally “unilluminated” and feared that I could never write again.”   

                     ~Carson McCullers, Illumination and Night Glare

 

Where do you find inspiration when the well is dry, the light dim?  How do you engage in creative work amidst the onslaught of headlines of terror attacks, mass shootings, natural disasters, and White House insanity?  As you attend to the relentless demands of everyday life, how do you carve space for illumination?

Here are some of my ideas and those gleaned from other writers and artists.

l.  Start the day with beauty.

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Do you start the day with the news report? Is your phone screen the first image your eyes take in?  This is a hard habit to break but doing so can do wonders for your mood and muse. I know it’s hard to think about beauty when you’re getting ready for work or trying to get the kids off to school. But taking a moment to notice beauty, rather than the news headlines, can lift your spirit.

Instead of checking your Twitter feed, try feeding your soul.  Take in scenes of nature.  Research studies have demonstrated that just looking at nature scenes can reduce stress and increase pleasant feelings. This alone may open the door to inspiration. 

The beauty of language soothes and inspires me. Every morning at breakfast, I try to read a poem. This warms up my brain for creative work which, for me, is usually done early in the day. 

2.  Take A Walk

Walking has long been considered a way to open the mind. Naturalist, writer, and avid walker Henry David Thoreau wrote in his journal,  “Methinks that the moment my legs begin to move, my thoughts begin to flow.”  Walking is especially helpful for me when I’m about to begin a new writing project. Walking engages our senses, clears our mind of clutter, and gets the blood flowing—all helpful for finding that creative spark. (If you’re interested in learning more about the cognitive benefits of walking, check out Why Walking Helps Us Think, New Yorker, 9/3/14.) 

3.  Create a Playlist

It goes without saying that music can inspire.  Music can also serve as an anchor to a specific time in your life and take you right back to the associated emotions and memories. I’ve created mood playlists—melancholy, tense, romantic, happy—to help me get into a specific scene. Some writers use a specific playlist while working on a novel. Young adult author Rainbow Rowell’s main characters bond over 1980’s music. The author listened to these songs while drafting her novel, Eleanor & Park. (Rainbow shared the playlist with her fans on Spotify and YouTube.) 

4.  Learn from the Masters

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All art is about craft, so learn your craft. Read wisdom from the masters–Virginia Wolfe, Anne Lamott, Stephen King, Chekov, Ursula Le Guin, John Gardner. Take solace that even the greats lose their muse (and sometimes their minds).  The successful artists you admire all doubt themselves, muddle through the middle, give up on manuscripts, have dry spells, and get rejected—just like you!   I keep several craft books near my desk. One of my favorites is Stein on Writing by Sol Stein.  When I sit down to write, I open one book to a random page and absorb the lesson at hand.  I also turn to my collection of inspiring quotes from writers and other creative thinkers.

And as imagination bodies forth

The forms of things unknown, the poet’s pen

Turns them to shapes and give to airy nothing

A local habitation and a name.

  ~William Shakespeare (A Midsummer Night’s Dream)

5.  Try Pen and Paper

If you always plan, outline, and compose on a computer, try paper and pen for a change. This not only removes the distraction of the internet, but also the delete button. (How many times have you deleted a sentence or idea 5 seconds after typing it?) Writing by hand forces you to slow down, to more closely consider your thoughts and feelings. And just by engaging a different process for creative inspiration, your brain is primed for novelty. You’re ready to brainstorm. Jot down every idea, question, and connection that pops into your head. Don’t censor. Explore all possibilities.

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7.  Stay Curious

 Keep asking questions. Ask: What If? Read widely. Wonder. Talk to people who are very different from you. Jot down snippets of interesting conversation. Visit new places. Collect things. I like buying old postcards and photographs in antique shops and then imagining the stories behind them. 

7.  Show Up

Sometimes its best to just get started. Make art a daily companion, not an occasional visitor. Instead of saying “someday”, choose someday—like today.  Or as Stephen King bluntly states: “Amateurs sit and wait for inspiration, the rest of us just get up and go to work.” 

Exercise the writing muscle every day, even if it is only a letter, notes, a title list, a character sketch, a journal entry. Writers are like dancers, like athletes. Without that exercise, the muscles seize up.      ~Jane Yolen

8.  Trust the process.

If you’ve ever suffered from insomnia, you know how the anxiety of waiting for sleep and worrying that it won’t come actually delays its arrival. I think the same can be true for inspiration.  Instead of fretting that you don’t have the idea, the words, the vision, the melody—you may just need to surrender. Be patient. Wait a while. Some ideas arrive banging on your door, others gestate for years. Keep listening.

 “The statue in the stone. How does the artist find that, see it, before it’s visible?”

                     ~Ursula K. Le Guin

And sometimes in order to go forward, you have to first meet the place where you are stuck and grapple with it on the blank page.

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 When my father was killed, I felt a part of me die with him. Afterward, I could barely speak, let alone write. Inspiration eluded me. Only after braving the demon, could I begin to create again. I didn’t want to write about the experience; I needed to.  Inspiration isn’t always rosy and warm. Inspiration can come from a place of darkness. And by entering this place with courage and vulnerability, you can create something that illuminates.

My latest writing is published in the December issue of Hippocampus Magazine.  It’s the hardest essay I’ve ever written.

How do you capture inspiration?

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.

 

Where Do You Get Your Ideas?

ideas2One of the most common questions I’m asked when people hear I write fiction is: Where do you get your ideas?  The answer is simple: ideas are never the problem. I have too many ideas.

While smack in the midst of  the draft of my second novel, I got an idea of another book. I was really excited about the idea, but I forced myself to put it on hold.

Where do I get my ideas?  In snippets of conversation overheard in a coffee shop. Newspapers stories. Obituaries. Historical events. Dreams. Childhood experiences. Traveling. Imagination. Art. Issues I care about.

When my writing workshop students get stuck, here are some ways I help them generate  ideas.

l.  Ask What if?  What if you find out your best friend was living a double life? What if you discovered you suddenly could speak a language you were never taught? 

2. Collect interesting images of people whom you do not know. Decide to bring one to life. What is her name?  What does she want most in the world? What is her story? 

3.  Collect images of awesome, weird, and intriguing places. Use the image as a jumping off point for a setting. What is magical about this place? What happened there?

4.  Think of a funny incident that happened to you. Now retell the story with a different character and ending.

5.  A character receives a map in the mail. Describe the map. Who sent it? Why?

6.  Look for story starters.  Here is one I gave my students for a flash fiction lesson. She gave me the black box for my birthday.  This opening generated many creative short pieces!

7.  People watch. (My students are always surprised when I admit to eavesdropping in public places.) Imagine a secret someone may be keeping? 

Most likely, you’ll have more story ideas than you’ll ever have time to write. (I certainly do.)

I think most writers would agree that ideas are all around us if we take the time to look. The real challenge is not in finding the idea but in shaping it into a compelling story.

Beginning writers put too much emphasis on finding the idea. The story idea is only the first step of your journey. The real story unfolds during the long trek to The End. One of the fun things about writing fiction is the process of discovery. You may think you know where your character is going until she grabs the reins and changes direction.

When I was working on my novel One Is Not A Lonely Number, I knew the character Gabrielle has a secret. I just wasn’t sure what it was. I kept on writing the story, thinking about Gabrielle, listening to her, until one day I just knew. It felt magical.

Stephen King writes about this process of discovery in his memoir On Writing :“…my basic belief about making stories is that they pretty much make themselves.” He starts with the situation first and then develops the characters. And he never knows the ending ahead of time.

So don’t sit and stare at the blank page. Start writing something. Anything. Don’t over think the process. Just keep writing. Ask yourself questions along the way. Let your idea morph into other ideas. See where your characters lead you.

Enjoy the journey!

 

Supporting Young Writers

The NY Times featured an article today about children and teen writers whose parents have helped them self-publish their writing. One boy sold 700 copies of his book so far. These are ambitious kids who love to write and are taking advantage of today’s easy publishing technology like Iuniverse and Lulu. It’s hard to imagine anyone getting too bent out of shape about this kind of creative endeavor. Still, the adult naysayers couldn’t keep quiet.

“What’s next?” asked the novelist Tom Robbins. “Kiddie architects, juvenile dentists, 11-year-old rocket scientists? Any parent who thinks that the crafting of engrossing, meaningful, publishable fiction requires less talent and experience than designing a house, extracting a wisdom tooth, or supervising a lunar probe is, frankly, delusional.”

“There are no prodigies in literature,” Mr. Robbins said. “Literature requires experience, in a way that mathematics and music do not.”

Perhaps it is true that there are “no prodigies in literature”, as Mr. Robbins asserts, but does that mean young writers have nothing meaningful to say or imagine? Is it not possible for a teen to craft an engaging fantasy novel?

Yes, young writers should study craft, revise, and work with an editor before presenting their work to the world, but need we put an age limit on publishing opportunities?   With educators today lamenting that kids can’t write and don’t read, shouldn’t we celebrate those who can and do by encouraging them to reach for their dreams?

Last week, I addressed a room full of award-winning authors–all under the age of eighteen.  These kids were top winners in the Young Authors of Maryland Annual Writing Contest.  The award reception was held during the State of Maryland International Reading Conference.  I told the students that when I was a seventh-grader I won my first short story contest in the Detroit News Scholastic Writing Competition.

“That little taste of recognition sparked the fire of possibility in a shy and insecure adolescent. I had a story to tell, and someone thought it was good!”

Kudos to those young Maryland authors, their proud parents and teachers. You don’t need to be a literary prodigy to publish your writing. Keep reading, writing, revising, living, loving, and learning. The words will follow.