The past year has been full of loss for so many. Several dear friends passed away, from covid or other illnesses, often quite suddenly. Like others, it became hard to process all the losses, happening one after another. I also noticed how it affected my writing, and maybe you have too.
Either I wanted to only write tragedy or I veered away from it like a near traffic accident.
Loss changes us–I don’t have to tell you that–and creative work is often deepened by that change. As creative artists, we naturally bring this depth into our work. My writing was and is the vehicle where I process and express what happens to me, personally and universally. What I think about life, values, people, the world. So I spent a lot of time this past year contemplating the process of processing–how can I bring the depth that loss offers into my work, without constantly reliving it?
I was in my forties when I experienced my first up-close-and-personal death. Elderly relatives passed away when I was younger, but I was young, and although I missed them, often terribly, the deaths didn’t have the same impact as when a close contemporary died.
Jan was not a close friend, but she was a person I admired. She was intensely creative, a quilter and artist, and I liked how her creativity seeped onto everything she touched. I felt privileged to know her.
She and I had lunch about six months before she died, quite suddenly, of cancer. She survived treatments for breast cancer, was dealing with bone cancer, and carried a cane. We met for lunch, and each of us ordered a big salad. I remember how Jan’s cane hung across the back of her chair; I remember how its silver tip caught the overhead lights.
It was the last time I saw her.
She moved from her apartment to live with her son in another state, and there she died, quietly, without many of us knowing until after it was over.
We were terribly sad because we hadn’t known, and we couldn’t help. But that was the way she wanted it–a solitary death, with only her son in attendance.
Being my first death, it haunted me for years. I tried to write about it but I mostly relived it. Relived that last meeting, all the things I should’ve said, the help I should’ve offered. I penned page after page of thoughts about death, loss, grieving, and especially regret.
Very true and profound thoughts, that were essentially me talking with myself, trying to make sense of what had happened. But I wanted more from this writing about Jan. I wanted to capture what it was like to lose someone, not in the suddenness of accident or cataclysm, but silently and far away. I wanted depth.
So I began reading poetry about loss, trying to find words. Poetry’s brevity and sparseness were unlike the books I was writing. I signed up for a poetry class themed on loss, and it drew a surprisingly cheerful group of writers of all backgrounds. Each of us dealing with bereavement, in different ways. Loss of child, loss of spouse, loss of friend or parent. Each class we took a single poem-in-process a step further into the depth we were all seeking.
Process and Its Product–Two Steps to Writing Emotion
In that poetry class, I learned about the two steps to writing emotion that’s almost too painful to look at. For many writers, the thoughts come first. They are the best we can do, because everything is so raw. I was putting on paper my attempt at clarifying what Jan meant to me and what it felt like for her to disappear.
Once these thoughts were explored, we began to look for images. Our instructor was wise in this, letting us take as much time as we needed. The images are acute. They are powerful. They can be too much at first. I brainstormed a list of images about Jan–her quilts, her slightly funky outfits, her hats, and the cane, which didn’t fit any of the above. My instructor suggested I focus on this out-of-place image, see if it would reveal more to me about my feelings for Jan and her passing.
I began to describe that last lunch. With my instructor’s prompting, I recalled the sensory details of that hour with Jan. Not what I felt but what I saw, heard, smelled; the atmosphere around us on that rainy afternoon. I described the light glinting off the top of the cane’s silver knob. The scarf covering Jan’s bald head, stripped of its luxurious dark hair because of her ongoing chemo treatments. Equally luxuriant salads in front of us, and how she hardly ate any of hers. What I remember her saying and what I didn’t hear her say (she knew about the cancer’s spread).
My poem was eventually published in a literary journal. I felt it captured–finally!–what I wanted to say about the complexity of our relationship and what I missed and can never fill.
What are you trying to say in your writing, in your book chapters? Are they capturing the emotion and meaning you really want to present on the page? If you’d like to take that one level deeper, try this exercise.
This Week’s Writing Exercise
1. Think about something that happened to you, a profound event in your life. A turning point.
2. Begin a brainstorming list of thoughts and feelings about it. List 10-20 items.
3. Now switch to images. What images come to mind when you think about this time? List as many as you can. Images, remember, are not thoughts or feelings. They are connected with one of the five senses: sight, sound, taste, touch, smell.
4. If you’d like, pick one and begin a poem. It can be short or long, but try to write the feelings and thoughts via the image you’ve chosen, rather than the other way around.