Braving the Fire

I just finished Braving the Fire: A Guide to Writing About Grief and Loss by Jessica Handler. I wasn’t sure whether I’d like it or not. In general I shy away from books about grieving, and although I have read a shit-ton of books about writing, I do that less the longer I write.

The first thing the book made me want to do was read Invisible Sisters, which is the author’s own grief memoir. She quotes a number of memoirs I know and love, and so when she referred to a memoir I haven’t read, I wrote it down.

I knew a lot of what she wrote about already. I learned it mostly from having wrestled with the fucker for the past four years. Some of it I learned in grad school and immediately after while struggling to figure out how to write anything. Write about the hard stuff, you don’t have to show it to anyone. Don’t shy away from the bad, the difficult, the taboo, the shit that makes you look like a total ass. Don’t be afraid to be funny. (Don’t worry, I never have the last problem.)

But then there were the things she reminded me. There is no resolution in life. But there does have to be an end to your book. What is the big picture? I’ve been struggling with the arc, but I think I’ve found it. I’m not writing a grief memoir, exactly, but a grief memoir that leads to another, bigger question. I like that. I feel like it is something people will read. At least that’s what I feel on good days.

She also addresses the whole take care of yourself as you write, and it’s okay to cry and be sad. She also said that, according to some memoirists, writing becomes a way to externalize the grief. You still feel it, but it gets put somewhere else. And I think about a conversation I had with a poet-acquaintance.

“You should come talk to my class!” she said after I told her about the Fucker.

“Sure,” I said.

“Oh, but would you be okay? I mean, what with your mom and all.” It wasn’t a problem, I told her. I can’t make it through mother’s day intact or listen to a Mozart piano concerto without crying, but I can talk about the process of grieving and writing about grief until the end of days. Dry eyes.

“The students could ask me anything,” I said. “It would be OK.”

When my father was dying, two of my sisters wrote poems to each other every day. Neither of them were poets. I was. They wanted me to participate. No way. I wasn’t writing out grief exactly how I was feeling it, I was shaping the grief into something else. A poem has to be a complete little world. There was nothing wrong with the poems they were writing, they just weren’t crafted poems. They were occasional. I wanted my poems to be like my friend’s vase: thick slabbed pottery, standing on its own on my mantle, slanting slightly, but on purpose; it does not fall over.

That is the process that inures you to talking about grief.

Do you read books about writing?

And here is one of my favorite songs about grief (or anything) by one of my very favorite singers. “And the hardest part is knowing you’ll survive.” We’re glad you did. Happy Birthday, Emmylou! xo


9 responses to “Braving the Fire

  1. I do read books about writing. I have to make up for my lack of education somehow, so I’ve amassed quite a collection and refer to them all the time. I haven’t read this one, however.

  2. I, too, have an entire shelf loaded with how-to-write books, but I never really look at them anymore. Though I do still enjoy books by writers about their process, the most recent being Dani Shapiro’s STILL WRITING.

    Right now I’m reading BLACK, WHITE & JEWISH by Rebecca Walker (Alice Walker’s daughter), and her interview at The Rumpus — on what happens when you write about family — was interesting.

  3. I have Lawrence Block’s writing books (Telling Lies for Fun and Profit), Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird, Stephen King’s On Writing, and (of course) The Forest for the Trees.

    I had others (So. Many. Others), but I gave them to the library. It wasn’t that I didn’t need them anymore (necessarily), but that I wasn’t listening to them.

  4. 18 inches away from my screen, at the other end of my desk I have Reading Like A Writer (Prose) Write Away (George), FFTT (signed copy!), Writing Down the Bones, On Writing, The Situation & The Story and an omnibus containing Becoming A Writer (Brande) On Becoming A Novelist (Gardner) and One Writer’s Beginnings (Welty).

    Am sure there are others scattered around as well.

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