Writing Toward Fiction

After my husband died, everything was difficult. Most upsetting, I couldn’t escape into a fictional world, into the head of a narrator. I couldn’t read. That is until I started Patti Smith’s M Train. Only then could I return to words on the page. It wasn’t until months later that I understood why. The reason I finally was able to read again was because Smith wrote about her life, the life she had survived in order to write about it. She was a widow and she’d created something truly beautiful in her book.

Smith also brought me back to writing. Still Talking was the first thing I wrote after my husband’s death, and since then writing personal essays is where I seem to be. Try as I might, I have not been able to return to two different novels I have in progress. But these essays keep coming and so I sit with them. Perhaps, I think, I need to write a memoir. Get it out of my system and clear the way to return to fiction. Other novelists have done this—Ann Hood wrote about her five year old daughter’s sudden death in Comfort: A Journey Through Grief, Elizabeth McCracken wrote about the loss of her son in her ninth month of pregnancy in An Exact Replica of a Figment of My Imagination: A Memoir, and, of course, Elizabeth Gilbert famously wrote about life after divorce and financial ruin in Eat Pray Love. All of them returned to fiction.

I picked up a copy of Mary Karr’s book The Art of Memoir to get a sense of what this memoir form was all about. She’s a poet, but began writing memoir – a genre she was drawn to from a very young age. In the preface, she talks about fiction versus memoir for her:

As I turn a novel’s pages, a first person narrator may seduce me, but the fact that it’s all made up and not actually outlived oddly keeps me from drawing courage outside the book’s dream.

For decades, I became lost in the stories of novels, experiencing what it was like to be a different sex, race, from a different country or time. I lived through slavery, war, love affairs and losses that were fictional, and yet I learned a lot. But after the experience of losing my in-laws and my husband, I needed to align myself with a real life survivor. I needed not to be in a novel’s “dream,” but present in the after life of a survivor. That was Patti Smith’s appeal, why she was able to open the doors to reading and writing for me. She had survived the deaths of her mother, her husband and her brother and had gone on to write about it. I took from her example that I too could survive by the very act of writing about it.

In the future I hope to return to fiction and, if I do,  I am certain it will be another writer’s work that leads me there.

The Real Work

I admit I wasn’t of much use last Wednesday, the day after the election. I took the day to sit with my anger, my disappointment, and really my grief. In practicing mindfulness, you bring your awareness in the present moment. I tried to do that by not creating lists of the things that could have been done differently, not wishing that Trump supporters voted differently, not fantasizing about what could have been or projecting the worst that could be. Instead, I tried just sitting with the fact that Trump was the President Elect. It was difficult, but I sat with my emotions, giving them space, feeling them in my body and releasing them.

My friend author JoeAnn Hart, who writes with intelligence and wit about climate change in her fiction, posted on her Facebook page this poem by Wendell Berry:

The Real Work

It may be that when we no longer know what to do
we have come our real work,

and that when we no longer know which way to go
we have come to our real journey.

The mind that is not baffled is not employed.

The impeded stream is the one that sings.

It was the next morning; I had decided to get back to work. My thinking was that what I needed and what the country needed was the same. Compassion and understanding. I write about love and loss and mindfulness. When I no longer knew what to do, that became my journey. And that is what I needed to do to move forward.

I am not alone in my feelings of bewilderment, in my difficulty in getting back to the page. A lot of writers have expressed their inability to write in the aftermath of the election. They are overwhelmed with fear and grief and surprise that so many in our nation would vote for a man who spouted racist, sexist, hurtful and hateful things during his campaign. There are others who feel they are being unfairly labeled as racists and sexist, etc., because they voted for Trump believing that he could affect change for them.

But Berry speaks to us of our real work coming to us at times like this. As a result of this election, many of us will write about our experiences now and during the next four years, others will be called to action and become activists for those causes we believe in, and others still will run for public office in the hope of affecting change. I recommend that we first breathe, sit with our anger, feel it, and release it. We can write through our anger, until we find a place of kindness, compassion and purpose. As writers, our job is to tell our stories with truth, so that readers gain insight as to what it is like to be us, to be our subjects, our characters. A communication of our shared humanity. Words—fiction, non-fiction, poetry and songs—can change hearts. This election should not shut us down, but raise us up. Give us motivation to take action by picking up the pen, sitting at the laptop, or strumming the guitar until the words come and the real work begins.

Discovering Mindfulness

Several years ago, I read a blog by a writer I was unfamiliar with at the time and it changed my life. The writer was Dani Shapiro, her blog is called On Being. In her post “On Beginning Again,” she writes about how writing and meditation are similar in that with each we must continually begin again. Each time we face the page or come to our mat is a new beginning, which can be daunting, but “We remain willing to feel our way through the darkness, to stop, take stock, breathe in, breathe out, begin again.  And again, and again.”

I wasn’t writing much at the time. My husband had been diagnosed with terminal cancer. I had put aside writing and teaching to take care of him and my children. What appealed to me was this idea of beginning again. Being able to reboot throughout the day. I bought her memoir, Devotion, and read books by her teachers, Jack Kornfield in particular. When I took up meditating, it was frustrating. I became aware of how much my mind wandered into the past and into fantasy. I watched my thoughts try to take over again and again. Each time I would say to myself, “It’s okay, begin again,” giving myself little moments of forgiveness repeatedly for fifteen minutes a day.

I was certain that I wasn’t making any progress. Of course, that isn’t the purpose of mediation. That is why they call it a practice and not a mastering. But I showed up every day. And by showing up and being with whatever my mind presented, I was changing outside my practice. I forgave myself in small ways throughout the day. I found I had patience where I hadn’t before. Most importantly, I found acceptance of what was happening.

Meditating was instrumental in helping me live with the dying, knowing that this could be the last movie we watch, the last time we see these friends, the last time we have a romantic dinner, last birthday, holiday, kid’s soccer game or ski trip. It taught me how to stay present in the very last days, when the past didn’t matter and there was no future.

Almost two years after I started, meditation is still frustrating. I rarely find that I’ve calmed my mind or cleared my thoughts. My mind is still overactive; I have to bring it back to my breath hundreds of times, but I show up. And I have found that makes all the difference. Show up and be with what my practice is for the day.

Now as I come back to my writing after my husband’s death, I am learning the same about my writing. Just begin again, breathe. And most importantly, show up each and every day and be with what my writing practice has in store for me. Even if I write for fifteen minutes and it’s utter crap, I showed up. And whatever I discover in that time, follows me throughout the day.