Using memoir writing to deal with grief

On Sunday I’ll co-lead a workshop called Telling Healing Stories at the Story Circle Network’s writers conference in Austin scnlogo1997_150x150TX. One of our goals for this workshop is provide the tools for our participants to address ways to transform a loss or crisis into readable and inspiring prose.

It has been proven that writing is healing, and I happen to think that any creative outlet is beneficial to recovering from a traumatic event in our lives. My son Paul killed himself in September 1999 after a seven-year struggle with bipolar disorder, and I signed up for a writing class three months after his death.

We sat in the instructor’s living room on couches and big easy chairs in a comfortable and forgiving atmosphere. Each week the instructor told us to write a journal entry. He didn’t specify a subject. This was a beginner’s class. All he wanted us to do was learn to “write like you talk,” and to write in a voice that came from deep within our bellies. And then we’d come back the next week and read to the group what we had written.

At first I was afraid to put my grief out there in my writing. When I apologized for writing about the same subject matter in my assigned journal entries over and over, my instructor, Jack Grapes, said, “It took Dostoyevsky five hundred pages to write Crime and Punishment, you have a long way to go.”

With that I felt empowered to write about Paul and how I felt about his death and the pain of losing him. And I still feel empowered to do it.

After several years of patiently listening to my material, Jack and the rest of the class encouraged me to put my story into a book. They felt certain there were people who needed to know it.

And then a goal to put my material into a memoir started to formulate: I thought if I could tell my story in the most truthful and realistic terms possible, I could help other parents with children with bipolar disorder that in many cases results in their suicide. Otherwise I felt it wouldn’t be useful to anyone – including me.

And so I kept writing my journal entries – not only for class, not only to comfort myself, but also to emerge into a memoir. I also wrote poems. Poetry just seemed to come spontaneously. Poetry seemed to be the only way I could really express my emotions. And when the time came for me to put my material into a book I organized it in the order of the poems in my poetry manuscript.

Writing was my therapy. I was turned off by traditional therapy after my first meeting with someone who hadn’t experienced the death of a child. I couldn’t imagine how that person could help me. And I didn’t turn to self-help books either. Along with working and working out, I found my way by writing every day. It became a habit and a huge help in getting myself out of the mire after my son’s death and the tragedy that had hit my family. I still write everyday.

Another proponent of the benefits of writing to heal is Denis Ledoux, author and founder of The Memoir Network. He will be my guest here on Choices in the next few days. Please come by and hear what he has to say.

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