Sunday, June 6, 2010

When Bad Things Happen to Us or to Others--Dealing with Deep Emotion in Your Writing

I was in my forties when I experienced my first up-close-and-personal death.  Elderly relatives passed away when I was younger, but I was young, and although I missed them, often terribly, the deaths didn't have the same impact as when a close contemporary died.

Jan was not a close friend, but she was a person I admired.  She was intensely creative, a quilter and artist, and I liked how her creativity seeped onto everything she touched.  I felt privileged to know her.

She and I had lunch about six months before she died, quite suddenly, of cancer.  She survived treatments for breast cancer, was dealing with bone cancer, and carried a cane.  We met for lunch in a restaurant called the Good Earth, and each of us ordered a big salad.  I remember how Jan's cane hung across the back of her chair; I remember how its silver tip caught the overhead lights.

It was the last time I saw her.  She moved from her apartment to live with her son in another state, and there she died, quietly, without many of us knowing until after it was over.  We were terribly sad because we hadn't known, and we couldn't help.  But that was the way she wanted it--a solitary death, with only her son in attendance.

Being my first death, it haunted me for years.  I tried to write about it.  Penned page after page of thoughts about death, loss, grieving.  Very true and profound thoughts, that were essentially me talking with myself, trying to make sense of what had happened.  But I wanted more from this writing about Jan.  I wanted to capture what it was like to lose someone, not in the suddenness of accident or cataclysm, but silently and far away.

I began reading poetry about loss, trying to find words.  Poetry spoke to me.  Its brevity and sparseness were unlike the books I was writing.  So I signed up for a poetry class at the writing school where I taught.  It was a class themed on loss and it drew a surprisingly cheerful group of writers of all backgrounds.  Each of us dealing with bereavement, in different ways.  Loss of child, loss of spouse, loss of friend or parent.  Each class we took a single poem-in-process a step further.

Process and Its Product--Two Steps to Writing Emotion
In that poetry class, I learned about the two steps to writing emotion that's almost too painful to look at.  For many writers, the thoughts come first.  They are the best we can do, because everything is so raw.  I was putting on paper my attempt at clarifying what Jan meant to me and what it felt like for her to disappear.

Once these thoughts were explored, we began to look for images.  Our instructor was wise in this, letting us take as much time as we needed.  The images are acute.  They are powerful.  They can be too much at first.  I brainstormed a list of images about Jan--her quilts, her slightly funky outfits, her hats, and the cane, which didn't fit any of the above.  My instructor suggested I focus on this out-of-place image, see if it would reveal more to me about my feelings for Jan and her passing.

I began to describe that last lunch at the Good Earth.  With my instructor's prompting, I recalled the sensory details of that hour with Jan.  Not what I felt but what I saw, heard, smelled; the atmosphere around us on that rainy afternoon.  I described the light glinting off the top of the cane's silver knob.  The scarf covering Jan's bald head, stripped of its luxurious dark hair because of her ongoing chemo treatments.  Equally luxuriant salads in front of us, and how she hardly ate any of hers.  What I remember her saying and what I didn't hear her say (she knew about the cancer's spread).

My poem was eventually published in a literary journal.  You can read it here, if you want:  Elegy to Opposites.  I was really happy to publish it, because I felt it captured--finally!--what I wanted to say about the complex relationship.

What are you trying to say in your writing, in your book chapters?  Are they capturing the emotion and meaning you really want to present on the page?  If you'd like to take that one level deeper, try this exercise.

This Week's Writing Exercise
1.  Think about something that happened to you, a profound event in your life.  A turning point.   
2.  Begin a brainstorming list of thoughts and feelings about it.  List 10-20 items.
3.  Now switch to images.  What images come to mind when you think about this time?  List as many as you can.  Images, remember, are not thoughts or feelings.  They are connected with one of the five senses:  sight, sound, taste, touch, smell.
4.  If you'd like, pick one and begin a poem.  It can be short or long, but try to write the feelings and thoughts via the image you've chosen, rather than the other way around.


  1. I was in a pretty big fire when I was fifteen and I'm one of those people who tend to instinctively block things out. So I wrote it down. Stunned my English teacher and still moves me when I read it now.

  2. Seems like you always post something that I need. Thank you. And your poem is quite beautiful. I'm sorry about your loss.

  3. Wow, Nicole, I bet that was a HUGE event in your life, with years of ripples.

  4. I remember Jan, too. I remember speaking with her on the phone when she was semi-conscious. I could tell she was already in the other worlds. It's a strange void (for the living) that occurs, even though you know that "death" is an illusion. What's so rare is what you did - being able to bring language to bear on your emotions to heal and understand the process of loss, death and dying better.

  5. Thank you, Barbara. It helped me a lot to do this, and I'm glad it's touching others too.