IS WRITING A WAY TO KEEP YOUR HEART AND LIFE WIDE OPEN, ESPECIALLY WHEN YOU DON’T WANT TO, BECAUSE YOU’RE DEEP IN THE MONOTONOUS PAIN OF GRIEVING?
SHOULD YOU? HOW CAN YOU, WHEN THERE IS SO MUCH HURT, AND SOMETIMES, SO MUCH UGLINESS?
YET, ALTHOUGH WHEN DEEP IN GRIEF WE DO NOT EXPERIENCE OR BELIEVE IT, THE OPPOSITE IS ALSO TRUE. THERE REMAINS MUCH THAT IS, OR SOMEDAY WILL BE, GORGEOUS, VALIANT, DELIGHT-GIVING…
ALWAYS, BUT ESPECIALLY AFTER PROFOUND LOSS, WE NEED TO PICTURE OUR LIVES IN A MANNER TRUE TO EXISTENCE AS IT IS (AS OPPOSED TO HOW WE MIGHT WISH IT TO BE). IT TAKES EVERY COLOR IN THE PALETTE TO PAINT SUCH PICTURES, AND WORKING ON THEM IS HOW WE MAY, POSSIBLY, FIND MEANING IN CHAOTIC, LOVELY, DREADFUL, MYSTERIOUS LIFE.
WRITING IS SOMETIMES ONE WAY WE DISCOVER OUR PICTURE.
CAN AND SHOULD WRITING BE THERAPEUTIC?
The heart of this post is three poems I wrote recently, in which grief did indeed sneak up on me, making me consider, again, the relationship between writing and grief.
So, though I generally believe any poem worth its sea salt and and fresh-cracked pepper needs no explanation, I’ve added this introduction for four reasons:
1. for those new to this site, who want to orient what we do here;
2. for those who are writers, and want to learn a new form;
3. for widows and other who are grieving, who may be looking for something that helps and wondering if writing might be useful, and if so, who explore how they might do it;
4. for readers who prefer a little context.
If this doesn’t interest you, skip straight down to the poems.
CAN YOU WRITE “THROUGH” GRIEF?
There is evidence, both scientific and anecdotal, that writing is good for our “mental health” (not that I think grief is a sign of unhealth — on the contrary, I think grief is very healthy, just excruciatingly difficult).
However, because I am a professional writer who mostly approaches writing as an apprentice does her craft, I rarely set out to use writing this way. In my view, while writing done with the conscious intent of self-healing can succeed beautifully in that regard, it is rarely “good writing” as such. And writing well (outside of writing practice) is something I have long schooled myself to attempt.
However, sometimes it happens that work I do turns out to be accidentally therapeutic. That is, it turns out revelatory, showing me truths of which I may have been only partially aware. This happened to me recently, when I used the particular form I am about to show you.
But I must add one thing.
I often hear the phrase “writing through grief.” It rubs me the wrong way, because it both is and isn’t possible.
One can write “through” grief, in the sense that one can tunnel through a mountain — right through the middle of it. One cannot get around grief’s mountain, one can only go through it. But the mountain is still there, even after you’ve made the tunnel.
However in this tunneling sense, a person can “write through grief.”
But “through” also means “finish.” As in, “I’m through with that.”
In that sense, I believe we are never “through” with grief, any more than we “heal” it. This why the phrase gives me pause, and why I put quote marks around it.
Sometimes, when I teach writing practice, as in my Tuesdays with Crescent groups, I’ll use a structure I call a “fill-in-the-blanks” poem. This is a playful form which offers enough distraction to sneak around many of the anxieties writers face. Most of my students find this form satisfying and interesting, in fact downright fun. And so do I.
Here’s how I come up with the blanks to be filled in most of the time: I take a not-too-well-known poem I admire, strip it of most of its specifics and identifiers, and just leave its basic structure, maybe adding a line or two.
This was the case with the following blank, based on a poem I love, by Jane Kenyon. (I suggest you read hers only after reading the post. But do read it!).
Here is what I developed:
WHERE WE WERE, AT __________ IN _________________
We turned into ____________
and ______________ flew up from ______________
like _________ from ____________. So much
to be done—the _____________, the ________
and __________…_____________ needed _____________….
We climbed __________________.
The shut-off _______________ as it _________________.
And then we noticed ___________________,
the limbs ___________________________
_____________ nearly touched ___________________.
We went out to ______________; our steps
and we each ____________________,
and ________, and were ______________.
You said, “_____________________________________.”
What I didn’t say, but should have, is, “_____________________
INTRODUCTION, HOW TO USE THIS FORM (AND MAYBE SURPRISE YOURSELF):
Because fill-in-the-blanks is such a loose form, each student creates a poem that is very different from the poems of everyone else in the class. For this same reason, each time I develop a new blank, I print out many copies of it for myself, and work with it day after day when doing writing practice, seeing what emerges. For what does emerge, from this same form, even as one person working with it, is always very different from day to day.
If this idea appeals to you, either because you write or because you are grieving, feel free to copy and paste this blank, print out several copies, and work with it yourself repeatedly.
See what happens. There is a chance that this or another writing form, might be a way for you to make some discoveries, surprise yourself, and perhaps find a tool in working with the overwhelming experience of grief.
And if you like it, you can even develop your own blanks, in this same way, from poems you love.
As with all writing practice (as opposed to writing with an intent, such as a desire for publication), there is no wrong way to do it.
So if you think you might like to try this – do.
Now. To my own surprise, especially with the first one of the three poems I wound up writing (on three consecutive days), when I did this particular fill-in-the-blanks, they turned out to be about the three beloved partners of my adult life.
The deaths of two of them, as you’ll know if you read this column regularly, left me widowed.
I didn’t set out to write about these very different men and the relationships we had/have.
But, as a writer who has walked through sudden widowhood twice, love and life and loss are for me, alas, primary, pure, ever-available materials (though I wish they weren’t).
Grief and writing are both mysterious in their power and unpredictability.
INTRODUCTION, WIDOWHOOD, AND SITUATION-WISE:
Of these three important love-partnership relationships in my adult life, two ended with the sudden deaths of my partners.
Ned Shank, the man to whom I had been married for 23 years, went out on his typical three-times-a-week bicycle ride, was hit by a vehicle, and died that same night, in 2000.
Fourteen years later, David Koff, with whom I had lived for just under ten years, and who had, for the last three or four years we were together, increasingly battled depression, hung himself.
But the last of these three relationships has not ended, in death or otherwise. It is ongoing and endures, vibrant, green as the spring rapidly enlivening the Ozark Mountains as I write these words.
My so-far-five-years-long relationship with Mark Graff is passionate and surprising. How did we find ourselves here, in this, with each other, in our sixties, battered by life as we have each been? Despite our age and previous experiences (like me, he also had two prior important love-partnerships that ended), our connection is as full of the difficulty, bliss, dailiness, and discovery as being in what I call Relationship School always, evidently, is. As we had both experienced previously, when younger.
(By the way, I think grief, too, is part of this school. Because love of another person always ends: by death, or otherwise. Period. As widows well know. So, therefore, loss and how we cope with turns out to be part of every love story. That this is insanely uncomfortable to accept does not make it less true.)
People sometimes call my continuing to engage deeply, in this case with Mark Graff, “brave.” I cringe when I hear that. It doesn’t seem that way to me.
Relationship School, to me, continues to be one of the informing petri dishes for emotional, psychological and spiritual growth, all of which are irresistible to me. I so loved being married to Ned and was so bereft at his death; it seems to me a testament to this that some part of me wanted to try it again. I am grateful I get to continue for another semester, or two, or three, or a hundred, or however many turn out to be given to me and Mark.
Of course, “good for emotional growth” makes loving sound like taking your vitamins.
The fact is, I loved/love these three individuals deeply, in very different ways: imperfectly but truly. That is why I did and do it.
I continue to stay enrolled in Relationship School even when it is difficult (and Relationship School always is, at times) not out of bravery, or because I believe it’s good for me, but because I loved Ned, and then David.
And now, I love Mark.
So. Tuesday before last, I handed out the Jane Kenyon-based blank, and, as my students waited and then began, I too waited and then began. Waited to see what topic would in a sense arrive; that is, suggest itself to me on the spot.
Because I am probably least “resolved” with the terrible ending David Koff selected for himself, and because it was not long after the anniversary of his self-chosen death, perhaps unsurprisingly I found myself writing about it, and him, in class. And yet I was surprised. This? Again?
The next morning, privately, again using the fill-in-the-blanks form, I thought, hmm… I think I’ll write about Ned, too.
And the following day, considering these two, I made the more conscious choice to write about Mark.
Who, by the way, encouraged me to share these three poems here (I put them in non-chronological order, in the order I wrote them).
Here they are.
WHERE WE WERE, AT ELM PLACE, IN WINTER, 2014
We turned into unrecognizables
and patience flew up from the chimney (brick, painted-over white)
like static electricity from walking the green carpet and touching the brass doorknob.
So much to be done—the house of my late mother deep-cleaned for sale, the archives for the university, and repairing our own house, which needed mold abatement….
We climbed out of the flood, the white walls were fungal black.
The shut-off for the hot water, located as it was, left the frigid house still warm in three sodden rooms.
And then we noticed your lessening, your diminishment,
the limbs that once puffed proud with blood-rich muscle declined even to walk to the mailbox.
I was nearly touched by your insufferable incomprehensible endless pain.
We went out to meet each other halfway, then a quarter
until you were immobile; our steps
made for exhaustion of my part, despair on yours,
and we each tried, I will insist, within our limits.
And of those there were a countless many, they were countless. Your obsession
with the house you thought you shouldn’t have sold, in California.
You said, “If we met now, we wouldn’t be together.”
What I didn’t say, but should have, is, “Let me sing to you, let me sing you home.”
WHERE WE WERE, AT 8:11 pm IN NOVEMBER 2000, ON THE NIGHT OF THE 30TH
We turned onto a path that forked past return
and you flew up from the gurney to the ceiling,
likely you looked down from there at me. So much
to be done—blood to be mopped, organs given away, the crematory,
and the calls…so many to notify of your impossible departure.
We climbed the terrain of twenty-three years, rough and lovely, committed in our respective fashions.
The shut-off unpredictable, as it so often is.
And then we noticed how disoriented we were:
the limbs on which you’d pumped up hills and powered pedals now empty, and
mine boneless, seeing your vacant envelope
How many times I’ve nearly touched this scene in memory, though its outcome is the same.
We went out to greet our new domains; our steps
made off in different directions, permanently;
and we each repeated the other’s name,
you to the EMT’s as they lifted you to the MediVac
and I, weeping, to the condolers. And we were, each of us, responded to,
soothingly but ineffectively.
You, after telling me the sin you thought I’d leave you for, said that if I stayed,
you were in, forever, you said “And hey, we’ll be our 80’s, in Italy, drinking Pellegrino in a cafe.”
What I didn’t say, but should have, is, “Darling, it might not work out that way, but even so, I won’t
WHERE WE WERE, AT 9:00 PM, IN THE COLORADO MOUNTAINS, LATE WINTER 2019
We turned back into lovers
and suspicions flew up and away from us
like startled grackles from a ginkgo tree. So much
to be done, undone —the mothers
who cut rage and sorrow into love like shortening into flour, the fathers
who wore charm brightly and used it to knock over small things…
Needed: maturation, clear as the set of lenses
of which you say, to the optometrist, “Oh yes, best” ….
We climbed back one more time, into our families.
The shut-off of old pictures, as it wasn’t, but with which we lived, until we couldn’t.
And then we noticed it was dark, and we were hungry. Leaving the therapist’s office,
the limbs of the conifers, snow-weighted, nearly touched the sodden ground.
We went out to dinner then, though we had planned to cook in;
our steps made small triumphs;
and we each ordered dishes with mushrooms,
and passed on dessert, and were full of gnocchi and amazement.
You said, “I believe he is one of the best therapists in the world.”
What I didn’t say, but should have, is, “I believe you, courageous partner, to be
the only one in the world for me now, which is, at our age, not unlike forever.”
About the illustrations here:
The photograph at the top of this story is of Mark and me. It was taken at the Lord Jeffrey Inn in Amherst, Massachusetts, in 2014, when we were first falling in love. It was taken by a waitress at the inn’s restaurant.
The three exquisite hearts are part of of Jim Dine’s remarkable paintings of this fickle, confusing organ.
The picture of me and David Koff was taken around 2011 by his longtime friend Arthur Dobrin, in front of my home in Vermont. This was at the border: his depression was just starting to return in earnest, though he could still hide it.
The picture of me and Ned was taken by Annie Leibowitz for a Vanity Fair pictorial in 1992, about “the real friends of Bill Clinton.” They magazine choose a different shot than this one, though, one of me and designer Connie Fails. (You can see the article here). But Annie L was kind enough to send me prints of several of the photographs from the shoot, including this one.
The second picture of Mark and me was taken in 2019, outside a cabin in Colorado.