Grief, part 2: Stories

Fictional storytelling has been a part of my life for as long as I can remember. I wrote my first fan fiction in the 5th grade. I crave story, I think about it almost constantly. I surround myself with other writers and creatives to whom stories are more than a passing interest or hobby. But lately, personal narrative is of increasing importance to me, too. Collectively, I think we need stories for these tough times, and we need them to help us imagine a better future. Personally, I need them for recovery from grief.

I’ve carried this scrawled message to myself for the past seven years.

I wasn’t surprised to find evidence from the fields of mental health, educational psychology and even cardiac treatment that all suggest telling stories AND being heard is integral to healing. Mental health treatment points to a specific reason. Once experienced, trauma lives on in not just the mind but also the body, and the resulting anxiety, dissociation, and other stress reactions have lasting consequences for well-being. The brain struggles to make sense of events or block them out, but the trauma doesn’t really leave us until we’re able to reconstruct and reframe dissonance to reach understanding. We can reclaim our sense of self and safety through speaking. This is especially true when the dominant narrative is in conflict with our lived experience, as this study seems to indicate (at least, to me, without the authors actually positing). Listening to and telling stories that resonate with our own lives is healing.

So, I’d like to tell a story about grief. I’m going to do so without thinking too hard about word craft, as though I’m speaking to you over a cup of tea.

This is my maternal grandmother, Inez. When she died, I was twenty. She wasn’t a conventionally beautiful woman. She was overweight and uncouth and messy. She laughed loudly and often.

Inez with my mother and uncle, 1968. I was born just five years later.

All  memory is flawed but this is what I remember. She died when I was two months into my junior year in college. I’d just transferred from a community college to a university and settled into a dorm room full of misfits two hours away from home. The distance seemed a world away, my first experience on my own and without a car. I was the first person in my immediate family to go away to college like this, so I had no generational wisdom to draw from.

I learned the news of my grandmother’s death when Jeff, my then-boyfriend-from-back-home, showed up unexpectedly at my door. Jeff took hold of my shoulders with both hands, and looking me in the eye, gently said, “Your grandma died.”

Here, dear reader, is when something somewhat unusual occurred. This occurrence made the normal process of grief quite difficult.

My breath caught, and I asked him as calmly as I could which grandmother he was referring to. I had the good fortune to have three living grandmothers, my maternal grandmother, my paternal grandmother, and my paternal great-grandmother. Grandma Inez was the cheerfully stubborn Southern matriarch who gathered the extended families of her two sisters together on holidays and cooked huge pots of comfort food. She was warm, silly and affectionate. She was relatively young, as my mother had been a teen mom. She was the one who squeezed me in her sweaty arms and told me she was proud of me. My other grandmothers were more reserved and less affectionate, more silently judgmental, or so it seemed. To further complicate matters, there was also a fourth woman I called Grandma, a step-grandmother, if you will, who had married into our family.

Incredibly, Jeff didn’t know which grandmother had died. My parents had asked him to convey the news to me, hoping his presence would soften the blow. He was also there to drive me back for the funeral. Sweet and helpful, but short on information. I can’t quite describe the feeling of grappling with this incomplete message. I couldn’t even cry, not knowing for whom I grieved.

I felt almost as though I could keep the fact of death from being true by holding this incompleteness in my mind. Like the unthinkable hadn’t really happened. I might be attending the funeral of one grandmother in a few days, or it could be totally different person’s, with another kind of sorrow to feel. Who knew? In this time just before the popularization of cell phones, my parents could not be reached. I felt bewildered, with the grief that should have been flowing through me arrested in my chest, like a physical sensation of choking.

In the blur of days that followed, I can’t remember when or how I learned the rest of the story. Of course, it was Grandma Inez. She’d suffered sudden heart failure while watching television in my parents’ living room. She fell from the recliner she’d been sitting in, and as she fell, pulled the chair sharply across the hardwood floor, leaving a gouge in the polished wood that continues to serve as reminder of those moments when my father frantically performed CPR.

At the funeral and family gatherings, I found myself in the role of the Good Daughter, the College Girl, which was completely foreign to me. I was also something of an oddity as the family weirdo who wanted to be a writer. I dressed for the funeral in an old skirt-suit of my mother’s, probably handed down to her by her cousin who works in real estate. No one else in our lower-income family owned much in the way of funeral-appropriate clothing. My own cousin David, a lanky young man only a few years older than myself, came late to the funeral directly from his manual-labor job, wearing a dirtied uniform. I remember being angry on his behalf when more distant relatives whispered remarks about his lack of respect, and I hugged him fiercely.

I positioned myself as the buffer between my introverted mother and the rest of the mourners. I could see the tremendous toll the rituals of death were taking on her; she was responsible for holding the space for the family. So, instead of grieving, I worked to protect her. I tried to hold the space for her. My own grief was still tightly coiled inside, unreleased. I have a murky, half-submerged memory of the graveside service, and of clinging to the casket handles, refusing to let go, until my father took my hands and led me away.

When I returned to school, the numbness of those few days at home seemed to harden, compress and solidify. I felt cold and hard. My boyfriend Jeff ended our two-and-a-half year relationship for someone he’d met in our hometown. I then suffered a health crisis and then fell into a deep depression. I earned a D in a course I loved, a class on creative nonfiction. I couldn’t write, much less write about my own life. I was numb.

Later, I returned home to help my mother clear the belongings from my grandmother’s home. The process of packing and sorting the dishes and linens, which I think my mother found hard but healing, seemed surreal, as though my grandmother would return any moment, and the silence was too bright and loud. Time crept, its passage taking on a thicker quality. An image I’ll never forget: I opened a drawer in the sewing room only to encounter the slow sleepy eyes of a baby possum, whose slumber I’d disturbed in the long-empty house. Nature has a way of reclaiming and moving on, even when we cannot.

The circumstances of not-knowing and serving as protector meant the grieving of my grandmother’s death was deferred for me, but the cognitive need remained. Windows into grief flickered open unexpectedly. I’d be reminded of her by a word or phrase, by something as simple as the sight of a breakfast cereal in a grocery store (she’d treated me and my sister with sweet cereals my mother could not afford to buy), and I’d feel a sudden sharp, bewildering sensation of her absence. I wondered if there was something wrong with me, if I couldn’t properly accept the loss, coupled loosely as it was with the betrayal and abandonment I felt when my relationship with Jeff crumbled.

A few years later, something changed. I attended my first yoga class, and at the end of the session, I found myself drifting into a dreamlike state when the instructor took the group into Savasana, the Corpse Pose. In this resting state, I saw behind my closed eyes my grandmother’s face turning toward mine. I was badly shaken, and I certainly didn’t want to return to yoga the following week. But I did, and the same thing happened. I couldn’t avoid her face by keeping my eyes open, even though I tried. I told the kindly instructor, Jen, what had happened. She advised me to see the unwanted “visitation” as a gift. For weeks afterward, I opened myself to that interpretation, and to my surprise, I wept each time we entered Savasana. Not sobbing, just quiet streaming of tears and a silent vision of my grandmother’s face. The relief this gradually brought on is difficult to describe. I was able to both release the knot in my chest and obtain a sense of conclusion. Her face seemed to say that it was alright to let go of her. After this release, I found I could write again.

I’m grateful for the healthy capacity of the mind to heal itself. Recounting this story here reminds me of my own potential for resilience. Relationships end. The world seems terribly unjust and even absurd. Denial of closure or justice welds pain in place, makes healing even harder. But I’m still here, and I have stories to tell, some painful truths and perfect moments of joy. Each of us have such stories, and many others besides. I could make a plug here for self-care, but I’m not saying yoga changed my life. I saying that telling our stories is truly essential to healing.

I’m also grateful to have recently discovered podcasts like The Moth Radio Hour where people share their lives. I highly recommend it. If you have a story about grief you’d like to share, I invite you to do so in the comments.

Travels and Triumphs

My travels so far this year have been mostly writing-related. I’m incredibly grateful to have a community of support around me, encouraging me to create.

I attended Rainforest Writers’ Village for the seventh(!) year in a row this February. I managed to finish a bothersome short story draft, revise two stories, AND I made a brainy breakthrough on a third story with which I’ve been struggling. Nancy Kress presented a great talk on endings, which gave me food for writerly thought. A lovely snowfall graced the second day of the retreat. But for me, the feature was the chance to spend time with wonderful people, like these folks.

For the month of March, I’m pleased to report my first-ever visit to FogCon (Friends of Genre), and what a welcoming, inclusive experience it was. FogCon is by far the most intentionally accessible writers’ convention I’ve attended. Kudos to the organizers! The theme of this year’s gathering was “Interstitial Spaces.” I stretched myself professionally and volunteered to moderate a panel (“The Gaze”), an opportunity that provided space for an excellent conversation about what all of us could be doing better as writers in genre. I owe a huge thank you to panelists Emily Jiang, Ian K. Hagemann, Guy W. Thomas and Montse Cordero for sharing their insights. I also attended a few thought-provoking panels (“Writing Between Genres,” “Looking Forward/Looking in the Mirror,” “The Writer as Resistor”) and took copious notes that I hope to share in later posts.

The best part of FogCon for me was being comfortable in my own skin as a writer, stepping out in a way that maximized my “extroverted-introvert” personality and energy. In case you’re wondering, moderating a panel (and all the social interaction of con-going generally) can be exhausting. Modulating between high levels of interaction and napping worked well for me, and the relative intimacy of the convention and its cozy hotel made that possible.

A lovely con overall. Also, karaoke.

In short, if you haven’t considered Rainforest Writers’ Village or FogCon, I can’t recommend them enough. Both offer small group opportunities and great community.

Where should stories begin?

Short screenplay provides examples of some of the tightest writing! As an exercise, take a few moments to watch just the opening of this Twilight Zone episode, “Mr. Denton on Doomsday” (written by Rod Serling).

The scene begins with close focus on a man, and then the world expands, one detail at a time. A bottle, a carriage, a pistol. The face of a man silently watching.

Ask yourself, where should your story begin?

Write-a-thon Update

keep calmIt’s week 3 of the Write-a-thon, and I’m making slow but steady progress.

I’ve met my first goal, which was to revise and resubmit a story my writing group loved (two prior rejections), even though the story scares the hell out of me. I’m waiting to hear back about that. I also felt motivated to put some other, older work out there, and I’m pleased to say that Lakeside Circus has accepted “Jaguar Woman,” a free-verse speculative poem that I wrote at Clarion West during week 1! (see EDIT note below).

I met my second goal this past weekend (while hanging out with members of my amazing writing group at our retreat), which was to complete a particular story I started a few months ago at my son’s request. He routinely gives me “writing challenges, ” including the idea behind my recent publication in Interzone. If you’ve read “A Doll is Not a Dumpling,” it may amuse you to know that the challenge for that story was ” a robot that makes dumplings, featuring a talking dog, an owl and a ninja who steals the dumplings.” The new challenge: “a story about an alien that has to eat and drink at the same time.” I’m not sure what he’ll think about where the draft ended up, but I completed the rough draft on Saturday at the retreat.

Now, I’ve got three weeks left to meet my last Write-a-thon goal, to write one complete story from start-to-finish set in the world of my current novel-in-progress, in time for my writing group meeting at the end of July. I’ve promised to tuckerize my first sponsor, and so I’m happy to say that I’ve begun work on an outline and don’t even have think too hard about what to name the protagonist.

I’m feeling a bit more like a working writer lately, a change for me from the spare-time-eke-out approach I’d taken in the past. I think these goals have helped with that, along with the encouragement and professionalism of my writing peers.

So, if you’ve thought about donating to the Write-a-thon, there’s still time! Plus, I still have a prize for my next sponsor.

EDIT: As a result of some creative differences, that work will not be appearing in LC.

Write-a-thon Time!

It’s that time of year again! I’m hoping folks will consider supporting the Clarion West Writers Workshop on my behalf.

You can sponsor me here. Every bit helps!

My goals for this write-a-thon are:

1) to revise and resubmit a story my writing group loved, even though the story scares me
2) to complete a story I started at my son’s request (he gives me the best ideas!)
3) to write one complete story from start-to-finish set in the world of my current novel-in-progress, in time for my writing group meeting in July

The first person to sponsor me will be Tuckerized in my new story (see #3 goal) and receive a digital copy of the story itself. The second person will receive a free copy of The Time Traveler’s Guide to Medieval England by Ian Mortimer. Any sponsors after that, well, I will think of something! But you’ll certainly have my gratitude.

What I’m thinking now

The Thinker and Death, by Bel17b (Deviant Artist). Image used under Creative Commons.
The Thinker and Death by Bel17b (Deviant Artist). Image used under Creative Commons.

Drawing, which I’m not doing.

Writing, which I AM doing, no matter how gross or stolen (or sometimes perfect) those moments feel.

Heteropatriarchy and the damage it does every day.

Women Destroy Science -Fiction, which is practically the best thing ever.

My third, most recent Interzone sale, which I will say more about later.

 

Cognitive Behavioral Therapy.

Ursula K. Le Guin and the hermeneutics of love.

Clarion West, which is four years ago for me and right around the corner for others.

The desert, Trickster mythology and motorcycles.

Changing my name.

Clarion West Write-a-thon Wrap-up, 2013

This year marks my second year of participation in the Clarion West Write-a-thon! The fundraiser means a great deal to me, as the anniversary of my own CW experience in 2010, and as a way to pay it forward in gratitude for this life-changing experience.

My report
I’m excited to say that while I did not meet my wordcount goal for the 6-week period, I made significant progress on my novel! This madcap narrative began as a story seed last summer and then grew into a novella project for the 2012 fundraiser. Now it wants to be a book. I also finally completed an emotionally challenging short story during a dry spot in the novelizing.

The sponsors who generously donated to CW gave me a boost of confidence. The money is for the workshop, but gratifying FEELS occur when other writers give in your name. So, thank you. If you’d like to hear about the project itself, read further. If not, please accept my heartfelt gratitude for your support of Clarion West.

About the book
Since Clarion West 2013, I’ve sold a number of short stories, and I’ve been ducking the long form. But this one kept bugging me until I let it in. I’ve kept fairly quiet about it so far, because it’s my first long form attempt (other than a manic dalliance with NaNoWriMo). However, it’s picking up steam and overcoming some of its shyness. A measure of that steam comes from the extraordinary generosity of Mark Teppo, who offered to listen to my pitch back in March at the Rainforest Writers Retreat 2013 and gave me useful, hard-hitting feedback about structure and believability.

He also gave a cool talk called “Nuns With Guns,” in which he asked, “Are characters fighting you because they know the scene they’re in rings false? Ask yourself if there’s a simpler way. What if they fail? How badly could it go? Are you having fun?”

Well, yes, I’m having fun.

The Pitch
Myths to Live By is a post-Event novel that follows the travels of Bailey, a dedicated scientist and Asema, an increasingly dangerous woman she’s sworn to protect, through an apocalyptic landscape populated by motorcycle stuntwomen, talking animals, hippies, wasteland demagogues and tree-dwelling Amazons. Between the two of them, Bailey and Asema hold the power to save the world or utterly destroy it.

Would you read that? I kinda think I would.

Where did THAT come from?
At Clarion West, one of my instructors was the formidable Maureen McHugh, who advised us to write our obsessions. I think it’s a fair representation to say that she credits the success of her award-winning novel China Mountain Zhang to this principle. Rather than trying to guess what publishing markets want, go with the story that only you can tell, the one that’s eating at you and incorporates subjects about which you care the most. A combination of two of McHugh’s obsessions formed the basis of her novel and created space for risk-taking and invention, producing a unique and exciting narrative.

My obsessions, apparently, are tricksters, nanotech, intentional community, sex, and motorcycles. But it started with “trickster plus nanotech.” It grew and shifted as influences other than these folded into the early novella and gradually the novel outline.

When I’m in the thick of creative process, my writer-brain does a katamari thing, and everything I roll past sticks to the story I working on. Sometimes I fight the katamari impulse, and other times it’s serendipitous. I was reading Joseph Campbell’s Myths to Live By when I started the project. The book is classic but problematic; I purposefully distanced myself from it by giving my ragged paperback (purchased at a used bookstore in Seattle during my stint at Clarion West) to a high school student who expressed growing interest in Campbell’s work. I read Fight Club for the first time, and found Palahniuk’s eye for violence and its motives, satisfactions and consequences intriguing. I fell headfirst into Lewis Hyde’s Trickster Makes This World, and began to see connections between aspects of characterization I’d been struggling with in the novella. The main characters, who had felt flat and resistant, like they do when they’re bored with shouldering the weight of the author’s obsessions, sprang upright. They pushed off the packs they’d been carrying for me and began intruding into my thoughts when I wasn’t writing. They started arguing with each other. It was exhilarating.

The Outcome
Now, I’d be lying if I tried to claim this all happened during the Write-a-thon; it didn’t. I’ve been wrestling with this story all year. Writers I trust told me to keep going when I fretted about my novel “jumping the shark” right in front of my eyes. A few folks even said, ah, yes, that’s it.

So, here I go, off into the wasteland. Thank you for all your support, and wish me luck!

 

 

 

Creative Lunges, Or Why Writers Should Create More Than Words

Click me! with apologies to Sean Durkin (still from Martha Marcy May Marlene)

Today, I have been painting. I feel as though I should shout it.

I HAVE BEEN PAINTING.

And I’m not talking about house-painting. My skills may be mediocre but I’m thrilled to be creating, and in a medium other than words.

Ah, you’ve noticed that this is not a painting.  —->

As a writer, I crave creative outlet. I give myself permission to get lost in ecstatic moments: when the flow of words takes over, when characters seem to act on their own, when I slump back in my chair afterward and exclaim in amazement . This magic of creativity is addictive, and sometimes it’s scary, emotional and raw.

But lately, the craft aspect of writing feels like it’s come in between me and the joy of creative play. confession: I dislike revising (even though it’s an absolutely necessary step).

Henry Miller, that scamp, said the initial act of writing was like taking dictation from some voice outside of himself: “Someone takes over and you just copy out what is being said.”

But revision, the hard work that comes later, was also a delight to him.

“I don’t want to look at it for a month or two, the longer the better. Then I experience another pleasure. It’s just as great as the pleasure of writing. This is what I call ‘taking the ax to your work.’ I mean chopping it to pieces. You see it now from a wholly new vantage point. You have a new perspective on it. And you take a delight in killing even some of the most exciting passages, because they don’t fit, they don’t sound right to your critical ear. I truly enjoy this slaughter-house aspect of the game. You may not believe it, but it’s true.”

The act of revision, for me, has the opposite effect. It interrupts the play of words on the page. I feel blocked by the wrestling with words, and to be honest, I’ve been avoiding some of the vital work that must be done before my stories can go out into the world.

I want to play. Creative experience in other mediums seems like cross-training to me, to allow ourselves that flow and that PLAY. There’s probably some neurological reason for that intense feeling of satisfaction, but I’m not deeply analyzing it, I’m just pursuing it. I’m lunging for it.

Today I indulged that playful side with a fanciful palette spread before me like an artist’s buffet: watercolors, pencils, charcoal, scissors and glue (as well as a copy of the Los Angeles Times which resulted in the image above).

Drawing and painting (as well as drumming) feel similar to the free-flow of unfiltered words onto the page, and I’m consciously choosing to break from writing for a bit to open my creative channels back up.

Today, I’m doing this is through a collaborative art project inspired by 24-hour comic day, which is Saturday, October 1st. I want to create a comic in multiple mediums but without the time crunch. I know the compressed timeframe motivates participants (like the amazing team that is Galen Dara and Jaym Gates, who are live-tweeting their experience, and my talented partner, John Remy), and I respect and support that drive.

But I want the luxury of playing in the medium, experimenting. My first thought was, “Wait, I can’t draw.” But I’ve decided that for this project, at least, I will put those thoughts aside and follow the Zimbabwean maxim, “If you can talk, you can sing, if you can walk, you can dance.” If I can make marks, I can draw. Or something. And I can collaborate (with my dear friend Andrew Penn Romine) to deepen our friendship as we dive into this effort together.

(post includes quotes from David Stephen Calonne’s “Creative Writers and Revision,” chapter 9 of Horning and Becker’s Revision: History, Theory and Practice, the full text of which can be found here) 

What Do Owls Have to Do With It?

Today is an exciting day! Big news on the publication front. More things on the way, too. But I’ll tell you more about that in a minute.

First, About Owls, in brief:

They can look adorable.

They’re iconic.

They’re also fairly bad-assed predators, a fact overshadowed by the cuteness/helpfulness of typical renderings.

Like this one, for starters.

But my favorite owl has got to be this little guy, rendered so magnificently by Imaginary People:

I am not really obsessed with owls or anything. I don’t even have an owl tattoo (yet). But when I heard the word last year that Jeff Vandermeer was calling for micro-fiction for The Thackery T. Lambshead Cabinet of Curiosities concerning strange artifacts, it had to be an owl.

Well, it’s an owl skull. With some moldy feathers clingy to it. Possessing mysterious properties. You’ll just have to read it.

And you can, because the newly minted book, sequel to The Thackery T. Lambshead Pocket Guide to Eccentric & Discredited Diseases (a Hugo Award and World Fantasy Award finalist) appears today!

My contribution is tiny, actually, but there are loads of amazing contributors, such as Holly Black, Ted Chiang, John Coulthart, Minister Faust, N.K. Jemisin, China Mieville, Mike Mignola, Alan Moore, Garth Nix, Ekaterina Sedia, and Rachel Swirsky, to name a few.

Order it here or here. Read more about it here.

My copy is on its way to me now, so I can sleep with it under my pillow and dream about owls.

 

 


Breathing the Air, Clearing My Head

I’m spending the week at The Rainforest Village Resort in the Olympic National Forest. It may just be the most beautiful place on earth, and it’s a fantastic location for a writing retreat.

The Village is remote and quiet, and surrounded by glorious natural beauty. At any moment, I can turn from my work and look out over lovely Lake Quinault, ringed by spruce-covered hills and wreathed in swirling mist. When writer’s block strikes, I can step outside and enter a trail just feet away that takes me under mossy trees dripping with rain. Sigh. Dirt-loving pagan paradise.

Another particularly enjoyable aspect of the retreat is the company of other writers, several of whom I’ve only met previously on Twitter. I feel like I know them well, and meeting them in person for the first time was like greeting old friends. Opportunities to meet new friends, too. These are my people.

Where is your happy place as a writer?