How Deep This Grief


Poets and Writers - - The Literary Life -

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.

IAN STANSEL is the au­thor of the novel The Last Cow­boys of San Geron­imo (Houghton Mif­flin Har­court, 2017) and the short story col­lec­tion Ev­ery­body’s Ir­ish (FiveChap­ters, 2013), a fi­nal­ist for the PEN/Robert W. Bing­ham Prize for De­but Fic­tion. He teache

The au­thor’s sis­ter, Kelly, with her daugh­ter, Brooke, at Fox Chase Farms in Maple Park, Illinois, in 2012.

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