How Deep This Grief
WRESTLING WITH WRITING AS THERAPY
IHAVE always found the idea of “self-expression” to be rather solipsistic, embarrassing even. It smacks of arrogance, this idea that I would have to express all the special wonder that exists inside me, and that people might want to listen. Maybe this comes from spending the majority of my life in the Midwest, the land of self-effacement. Maybe it comes from being raised, for the most part, by a single mother who, through my formative adolescent years, took care of three children and her aging father. When food or shelter isn’t a given, you tend to develop a quick eye-roll reflex when notions of individual creativity come up.
And yet from an early age I also felt the desire to write, to tell stories. It wasn’t until college that I began to figure out how to reconcile this seeming contradiction, when a writing teacher, the essayist Joe Bonomo, scrawled a quote from V. S. Naipaul on the board: “No one cares for your tragedy until you can sing about it.” This was a moment of revelation as huge as any I’d experienced in my then nascent writing life. The words on the blackboard transformed the idea of writing from self-expression into something I was much more comfortable with: a job.
A few years later, in graduate school, I had the pleasure and sometimes terror of studying for a semester with Frank Conroy, famed writer and infamous writing teacher. Frank’s instructional antics were legendary: tearing up student manuscripts in workshop, making people cry. By the time I took his class, he was nearing the end of his life, and it might have been that he’d lost some of the fire he’d had in his prime. He was still Frank, though, and he’d still go after a piece, sometimes directly and sometimes more slyly, lulling the nerve-racked writer into a false sense of literary success before going in for the kill.
But what often, in the heat of the moment, seemed like random attacks from our instructor now, in retrospect, make perfect sense. I see now that the thing that consistently raised Frank’s ire, regardless of style or subject matter, was writing that struck him as lazy or self-indulgent. Frank was, I believe, a reader, first and foremost. Even more than a writer, he was a reader. And I believe he felt personally insulted by lazy, self-indulgent work.
And this is why if you’d asked me even five years ago whether or not one should use writing as a form of therapy, I’d have replied with a quick and certain No. Or, more specifically, I’d have said one could use writing as therapy, but it wouldn’t be real writing. It would be journaling, an unedited and unmediated pouring-out of feelings and memories. It wouldn’t be anything anyone else should want to read.
What I learned from my teachers and from my own innate sense of the world is that storytelling is more about the reader than the writer. If the writer is too focused on self-pleasure, self-improvement, or self-anything, then the reader gets left behind. I was certain that writing should be more about breaking or lifting the reader’s heart than, say, mending my own heart.
And then I lost somebody.
WHAT writing had become for me, horses had always been for my sister, Kelly. She rode from an early age and grew to become a trainer, teaching kids and adults, even taking an opportunity to become certified in therapeutic riding in order to work with autistic children. Horses were her life, her passion. Her car was forever festooned with errant lengths of hay and alfalfa. Her jeans and boots were caked in mud from the pasture. Her whole life, it seemed, carried the odor of leather and saddle soap and just a sweet hint of manure. The way I’d entertained fantasies about winning the Pulitzer Prize, she imagined herself taking gold in the equestrian events at the Olympics.
One afternoon in May 2014 my wife was at the ob-gyn, pregnant with our second child. I was at home with our first kid, who was napping. My phone rang and my stepfather’s number registered on the screen. He didn’t call me often, but it wasn’t unheard-of, and I didn’t think much of it. I said hello, asked him how he was. He hesitated.
Kelly, he told me, had suffered a brain aneurysm and was being helicoptered to a hospital outside of Chicago. We hung up and I called my wife, who was still in the middle of her exam. The doctor had left the room and so she answered the phone. I told her what happened. She got dressed and left immediately.
We lived in Cincinnati at the time, and while my wife was on her way home I packed a bag, getting ready for a seven-hour drive back to Illinois and an indefinite stay. After that I Googled “brain aneurysm.” I knew generally what it was, of course, but I was looking for something else, something beyond the mechanics of it. I was looking for something that said, essentially, “She’s going to be fine.” I found no such reassurance.
I stopped for gas somewhere in Indiana and called my mother to get an update. There was a long, terrible pause. It isn’t good, she finally told me. “Just get here.” I hung up and cried and watched all the people entering and exiting the gas station fifteen feet from my windshield.
I arrived sometime around 9 PM. The hospital lobby—a towering steel-and-glass space—was abandoned save for a person stationed at the information desk. I don’t recall a thing about this person, not even if it was a man or woman, but I do remember appreciating the matter-of-fact way I was directed to the ICU. No chitchat. No sympathetic smiles. Just the directions I needed. I ran up a long ramp to a bank of elevators.
Three years later, hardly a day goes by when I don’t picture Kelly in that ICU bed, though the image itself is like a jigsaw puzzle with pieces missing. The tubes, yes, they are there. There was a covering on her head, though I can’t remember what exactly it looked like. And there was some kind of inflatable plastic thing over most of her body, but its actual form I can’t quite recall. I both fear and long for the details I am missing.
I do know my brother-in-law was there. We hugged and cried into each other’s shoulders. I probably asked for
the latest from the doctors, but damn if I can recollect what he told me. At some point in the night I went to the ICU waiting room and lay down. There were others there, most of them friends of a man who’d been brought in after a motorcycle accident. More of his friends came in. One woman kept repeating the story, what she knew and how she’d heard. But, they all said with relief, he was going to be all right. Thank God.
I hated them. I hated their stupid voices and I hated their stupid friend who was stupid enough to ride a motorcycle without a helmet on. He’s going to be all right. Dandy. But, I wanted to say to them, my sister is not going to be all right, so would you kindly shut the hell up and let me live out this horror in silence?
I remember my anger at those people, I suppose, because it was the one thing that managed to reveal itself, ever so briefly, from behind the all-encompassing fog of my sorrow. Grief, after all, happens to us without our having any say about when or how it might manifest. Anger, though: Anger is a choice. Anger is pointed and focused. Anger gives us the semblance of control when it seems as if the world has been stripped of all meaning.
My sister died the next day. After a couple of hours filled with tears and paperwork and desperate embraces, my mother and I drove from the hospital to her house. In that hour we said little. What was there to say? What could I say to a woman who just lost her child? Nothing. I remember recognizing, though, in a moment of strange, detached clarity, that I was right then in the midst of the worst day of my life. I have no doubt some similar thought wound its way through my mother’s mind, too.
IN THE next few weeks and months, people suggested to me, usually subtly and indirectly, that I might write about Kelly. But to me the idea was beyond ludicrous: It was unthinkable. I had a book out, a story collection, but no tenure-track job, and so I was still in the manic CV-building phase, wherein I regarded nearly everything I wrote as a new line for prospective jobs. Publishing an essay about her would feel like cashing in on the loss of her. I refused to use the experience of her death as material.
At the time, I was working on a novel set during World War II. It was a large story, told in four parts. I had finished a draft of the first two parts, and the book was already more than three hundred pages long. This would be my first novel, and like many first-time novelists, I wanted to go big. I wanted to be that where-did-he-come-from writer, that writer who emerges from nowhere with a doorstop of a book, which of course also happens to be brilliant.
But when, a few months after my sister’s death, I opened my laptop and clicked on the last draft of the book, I had no interest in continuing it. The sentences were either overwrought or flat and lifeless. The characters seemed like random collections of actions and thoughts. The story meandered. And worst, I couldn’t quite remember just what made me want to write it in the first place.
So I didn’t write anything for a while. I’m not sure how long. I taught classes. I probably read here and there. I know I cried a lot, and at seemingly random intervals, hiding around corners from my child and pregnant wife.
A couple of months after Kelly’s death I had a chance to go to New York for a few days for a literary function and asked my brother to join me. We spent two days wandering around a city he knew far better than I did, and I was happy to play the tourist with him as my guide. We stayed with friends in Brooklyn and took the train into Manhattan each day, coming up with
destinations as a formality, excuses to walk and walk and walk. The time together, so soon after we’d lost our other sibling, the third in our lifelong three, was surreal and terrible and beautiful.
For those writers out there enduring the deepest of grief right now, I recommend going somewhere teeming with millions of people coming and going with absolutely no concern for the volcanoes of sadness erupting within you and laying waste to everything you thought was important.
Those people are your readers.
No one cares for your tragedy until you can sing about it.
OVER the years my sister would give me story ideas—the way people often do—most of which I can’t remember. I don’t fault myself for this. Ideas latch themselves to a writer with a mysterious magnetism. You don’t know why you write the stories you do.
One of the stories my sister proposed stuck with me, though. It had to do with two brothers, both of them horse trainers, caught in a feud. That was it, as I recall. It wasn’t a bad idea, but at the time it was easy to relegate it to the back of my mind. I didn’t have much interest in writing about horses or the horse world back then. And anyway, I had my Big World War II Novel to write.
Now, though, that novel seemed flabby and insignificant, polluted by my narcissistic dream of being the next big big-book writer. It had, in other words, become about me. Somewhere along the line, I’d left the reader behind.
Consumed with thoughts of Kelly, with the entirety of the rest of the world seeming utterly inconsequential, I found myself without a project. What can a writer do when the one thing your brain clings to is also the one thing you can’t write about?
Then one day I came back to the idea of the feuding brothers and it occurred to me that if I could not write about Kelly, I might be able to write for her.
For a long time I’ve used people I know as avatars for my “ideal reader.” For one project it might be my mother. For another it is one of my aunts. (Always, it seems, my ideal reader is a woman and never another writer.) Now it would be my sister. I had the premise of the two horse trainers in a feud and started from there. My goal was simple: to write a book Kelly would love. It would be set in an area of Northern California where we’d spent part of our childhood. It would be a sort of Western, but within the English riding world. It would be free of literary allusions and other pompous posturing. It would develop those brothers she gave me but also be about women—mothers and daughters and girlfriends—who share unyielding bonds. And, most of all, it would be about horses, to whom Kelly dedicated so much of her life.
IF I may be so reductive, there are two types of people in the world: those who get older and let go of the steel-hard rules they nurtured through their youth and those who build buttresses and reinforcements to support those rules. I find myself in the former camp. As a younger person you define yourself, in part, by all of your strongly held beliefs. I just can’t muster the energy anymore to argue for one way of living or working and against another. More important, I can’t muster the certainty. So I’ve been relaxing my rules lately. I never thought of the process of writing my novel as therapy, per se. But it gave me something to do with my grief. It helped me get outside of my own sadness and rediscover a sense of purpose in my days.
I still stand by my belief that writing should be more about the reader than the writer. But if there is some way for people to use writing—or painting or cooking or woodworking or anything— to help heal their own wounds, then so be it. Have at it. God bless. Do what you need to do. I’ll be right over here, hoping like hell it works.
The author’s sister, Kelly, with her daughter, Brooke, at Fox Chase Farms in Maple Park, Illinois, in 2012.