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.