How to Write About Grief: Revise the Story of Your Life
[Another entry in the monthly column, The Freelance Life, by Ethan Gilsdorf, about the trials, tribulations, triumphs --- and tips to share --- along the path to becoming a freelance writer.]
I used to say that loss made me a stronger person. Now I say, loss made me a weaker person.
Both are true. But each was true at a different time in my life. Because my idea of myself, and the losses that shaped me, and the story about this I tell about myself, has also changed over my life. And as a writer, I try to show these changes.
I was thrilled to be asked to contribute some ideas and tips to Jessica Handler’s new book, Braving the Fire: A Guide to Writing About Grief and Loss, recently released by St. Martin's Griffin.
The book is the first guidebook to writing about grief, illness, the death of a loved one, divorce, broken heart, exile. In other words, loss --- one of the great themes of literature, to be sure. As readers, we love to see writers and characters grapple with stunning, life-changing losses. Sad, but true.
Handler includes her own craft advice and exercises for the reader (or would-be writer) to try out, as well as thoughts from experts ranging from Nick Flynn and Darin Strauss to Kathryn Rhett, Natasha Trethewey, and Neil White. Handler also weaves in her own personal story about her own loss that was the story of her first book, Invisible Sisters; that memoir was about the being a girl growing up in the shadow of her two sisters’ illnesses.
What I found helpful in my contribution to Handler’s book was to think about the way my own travel memoir, Fantasy Freaks and Gaming Geeks, was ultimately informed by a key question: How had my idea of myself, my self-story, changed over my lifetime? To answer that, I wanted to figure out why I had felt out of place at various times in my life, both as a kid and teen, and an adult. Why was I prone to fantasy, feeling adrift in the “real world,” and otherwise out of sorts and depressed? How much of that stemmed from my own childhood? My own personal losses? The divorce of my parents? The illness of my mother?
And, could I recover, reboot, find peace with the past, and move forward into my Forties as a new man, more enlightened by the lessons of my past?
In short, could I revise the story of my own life? At the core of Fantasy Freaks and Gaming Geeks was the effort to answer this last question.
What did I discover? That arguing with my former self was necessary. As I say on page 131 of Handler’s book:
Disagreeing with your earlier self is the lifeblood of memoir. Writers shouldn’t keep those revelations and changing ideas of the self from the reader.
The idea: The same way you don’t stay the same person over your life, you also don’t say the same things about yourself. Your story changes. Your idea of who you are changes. And also, the conclusions you draw about yourself are also in flux.
This is especially true when it comes to writing about trauma, grief, and loss. Your idea of what you make of these tragic, emotionally-charged events from your life --- and we all have these stored away in our minds --- necessarily shifts over time.
That’s the essence of writing memoir, I think. To show these evolving ideas of yourself --- hero to zero, loser to luminary, dunderhead to darling, clueless to clued-in.
I wish you well on your journey through loss. And good luck with your own work.
You can read more about Jessica Handler’s Braving the Fire: A Guide to Writing About Grief and Loss, here.
A GrubStreet instructor since 2005, Ethan Gilsdorf is a journalist, memoirist, essayist, critic, poet, teacher, performer and nerd. He is the author of the travel memoir investigation Fantasy Freaks and Gaming Geeks: An Epic Quest for Reality Among Role Players, Online Gamers, and Other Dwellers of Imaginary Realms, named a Must-Read Book by the Massachusetts Book Awards. His essay "The Day My Mother Became a Stranger" was cited in the anthology Best American Essays 2016. His fiction, poetry and essays have appeared in Poetry, The Southern Review, The Quarterly, Exquisite Corpse, The North American Review, The Massachusetts Review, New York Quarterly and dozens of other literary magazines and in several anthologies, and he is the winner of the Hobblestock Peace Poetry Competition and the Esme Bradberry Contemporary Poets Prize. Gilsdorf got his start in journalism as a Paris-based travel writer and food and film critic for Time Out, Fodor's and the Washington Post. He has published hundreds of feature stories, essays, op-eds and reviews about the arts, pop, gaming and geek culture; and media and technology, and travel, in dozens of other publications worldwide including the New York Times, New York Times Book Review, Boston Globe, Boston Globe Magazine, Boston Magazine, Wired, Salon, WBUR's The Artery and Cognoscenti, Los Angeles Times, USA Today, and Art New England. A regular presenter, performer, and event moderator, he frequently appears on programs such as NPR, The Discovery Channel, PBS, CBC, BBC, and the Learning Channel, and also lectures at schools, universities, festivals, conventions, and conferences worldwide, including at this TEDx event, where he nerded out about D&D. Gilsdorf is co-founder of GrubStreet's Young Adult Writers Program (YAWP), and teaches creative writing at GrubStreet, where he served on the Board of Directors for 10 years. He teaches essay, memoir, journalism and other workshops, and is also the instructor of GrubStreet's 8-month Essay Incubator program and serves as coordinator of GrubStreet's Providence program. He’s also the lead instructor for the Westerly (RI) Memoir Project. He has led writing workshops for non-profit social justice organizations and also teaches writing and Dungeons & Dragons classes for younger students, in schools, libraries and community centers. He had also served on the Boston Book Festival Program Committee and as a member of the Boston Society of Film Critics. He received his BA from Hampshire College, and an MFA in Creative Writing from Louisiana State University. Follow Ethan’s adventures at ethangilsdorf.com or Twitter @ethanfreak, and read his posts on Grub's blog, GrubWrites.See other articles by Ethan Gilsdorf