Tag Archives: grief

I Stood before the Mirror

I stood before the mirror this morning
studying my chin’s newest collapse.
Two more grooves
inside the old familiars,
parentheses doubled for emphasis.
A sunburst of creases radiate from my lower lip,
as though drawn into being by an invisible purse string.

I tug my cheeks smooth.
Ah, yes . . . that’s the way I looked yesterday.
Or perhaps it was the day before.
Does it matter?
These new grooves are only a surprise
because inside my face,
inside me,
they don’t exist.

Standing here, though, before the truth-telling mirror,
I am reminded of another time,
another mirror,
another face—
also mine.
Many miles away my son lay dying.
We all knew except,
Control of his body slipping away,
comprehension, too.
Visions we could not share galloping through his brain.
We watched him, son, husband, father leaving,
all of us watching.
We had been so certain he had come to stay.
And during those watching days,
during those months that stretched into years,
I rose each morning,
stood before the mirror
and saw that in the blessed dark
my face had

It didn’t matter particularly,
that fallen face.
More a curiosity than a concern.
Watching your son die,
even from a great distance,
teaches you to care little about such things.
When you go out into the world there is so much you cannot say.
Your face is only doing its best to speak for you.

But still I stood then,
toothbrush in hand,
studying the grieving mother who studied me,
the collapse of flesh almost a comfort.
A substitute for the tears,
so nearly vanquished by

when even grief lives far away,
as though all this happened in another lifetime,
to another mother,
I find strange comfort in this meticulously outlined chin.
The comfort
that comes with knowing
that death
will rescue us all.

This will probably be the opening piece for the memoir I’ve been talking about, a memoir that will now be primarily in prose. The title for the whole is one I’m returning to: When Even Grief Lives Far Away.

To Save Yourself

The object of art is not to make salable pictures. It is to save yourself.
     —Sherwood Anderson to his son

writingLast week I talked about some of the financial realities of being a writer, and this week I’m turning the coin to its other side. I want to talk about why we write, why any of us comes to art of any kind.

When I was teaching in the MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults program at Vermont College of Fine Arts, we would, from time to time, have students show up who were desperate to publish. I don’t mean just that they hoped to publish. Everyone came in hoping, of course. But I mean they had set a goal for themselves and it was the only thing they could see. By the end of their two-year program they had to have a contract in hand.

Thus they didn’t approach their work by examining their hearts, asking what they wanted, needed to write. They asked instead what was selling out there, what the market wanted, and they were convinced if they could only find the secret answer, they would succeed.

Their passionate search reminded me of the times I’ve had an aspiring writer come up to me and say something like, “Well, you wrote about [fill in the blank]. That must be what editors are wanting now. I’m going to write about that.”

No point in explaining that even if my book was published because of its topic (which was probably not the case) and even if the topic did happen to be in just then (which probably wasn’t the case, either), by the time they could get their book written and delivered to a publisher any currently in topic would surely be on its way out. I never say it because it would sound like “This is my turf, stay off it.” But it is the truth.

And there is a deeper truth. Choosing to write a story—or paint a picture—because that’s what we think someone will want to buy, can be the most direct route to failure.

I used to say to my students whose desperation was showing, “I know it’s hard, but put aside all thought of publication. Your job while you are here is to find out who you are, what stories are yours to write. It’s only in that search that you can have any hope of success.”

Good advice, if I do say so myself, but what does it mean and how can any of us do that?

Sherwood Anderson didn’t say to his son, “The object of art is to make a living.” He said, “The object of art … is to save yourself.”

But save ourselves how?

We begin, in my experience, by mining our own energy. We latch onto story ideas because there is something about an idea that draws more ideas the way a magnet pulls in iron filings. I never ask myself why a particular idea appeals to me. I simply take note of the buzz that it generates in my brain once it lodges there.

Looking at the reason behind that excitement would be a buzz killer. If I did that, my story would get too small. I’d end up looking only at myself, and my energy would dribble away.

When my son died, about eight years ago, I was writing early readers for Random House Stepping Stone. And so, despite what was happening in my life, I rummaged around for an idea for my next book. I found one in my own childhood fantasies about my dolls. I decided to write about a china doll that comes to life. The animated doll looks into her dollhouse mirror and finds herself so perfect that she must surely be a princess. She also decides that the flesh-and-blood, far-from-perfect human girl hovering over her must be meant to be her servant. Why not? And my story took off from there.

Very Little PrincessThat’s where it started, but not where it went. A new element showed up between my childhood fantasies of animate dolls and the writing of my story. I discovered that the girl’s tear brought the doll to life. And ultimately that tear turned The Very Little Princess into a story about mortality. What else could I write about at such a time?

I didn’t stop to notice until the story lay before me, completed, that I was writing about my son’s death. But I let my grief into the story because my grief was the substance I had to work out of just then. And that’s what made The Very Little Princess mine, a story only I could write.

I never asked what the market might want. I didn’t even ask what the editor I was working with wanted. I simply wrote to save myself without knowing that was what I was doing. (And then, incidentally, I rewrote to satisfy the editor, who found herself surprised by what she received. But I rewrote keeping the heart of my grief as the energetic core of the story.)

The story that matters, always, is the one that saves us, the one only I—only you—can write. And curiously enough, that also usually turns out to be the story we have the best chance of selling.

The Sadness of Maturity

bk_rose160 It was a lyrical picture-book text.  The subject was spring.  And it bounced back because the editor found the tone, somehow, too sad. 

My agent was bemused, but when he passed the comment on to me, I understood.

An undercurrent of sadness often shows through in my writing.  There is, truth be told, an undercurrent of sadness in me.

I have never been a jolly type, even when I was a child.  I have always been thoughtful, even pensive.  I love to laugh–don’t we all?–but making others laugh is rarely my goal.  And I simply can’t write comedy.  When I try, the words on the page feel instantly false.  Or at least they feel inconsequential.  The writers I admire most deeply are the ones like Katherine Paterson who can make you laugh and then, in the next breath, make you cry. 

The laughter makes the tears more heartfelt.  The tears make the laughter more sweet.  How I would love to be able to do both!

I once heard someone refer to “the sadness of maturity,” and when I heard the phrase, I knew it was right.  Part of maturity is simply accepting the sadness we have all gathered throughout our lives. 

This time of year is always a challenging one for me.  My son died on February 9th, six years ago.  I’ve never been a believer in anniversaries, except as something to choose to celebrate.  And after Peter died, I saw no reason to renew my grief each year and didn’t expect to have it happen.

Oddly, I’ve discovered that the memory of the time of my son’s death seems to live in the cells of my body.  My body remembers even when I tell myself that this month, this day is no different than any other.  My very cells seem to grieve.

And my stories grieve, too.  Every time of year.  Peter’s death changed who I am.  How could it not change my stories? 

The first novel I wrote after my son’s death was The Very Little Princess.  I had presold the story to Stepping Stones, Random House, based on a brief description.  A tiny china doll comes to life and, upon seeing her own perfection in the dollhouse mirror, decides that, obviously, she is a princess.  The doll is equally certain that the not-nearly-so-perfect giantess looming over her is her servant.

A fun premise.  Right?  Except that in my hands it became a story of loss, a story of mortality.  By the end, the doll comes truly to life–becomes not just animated but flesh and blood, mortal–by learning to cry.  “I know this isn’t what you’re expecting,” I told the editor when I turned in the manuscript, “but in this season of loss, this is what I can do.”  She was brave to accept it.

Are tears a problem in stories for young people?  It depends, of course, on the age of the intended readers.  I have received a couple of furious letters from adults who thought this novella hurtful to their young readers.  And I understand.  The younger children are, the more protective we are . . . and need to be.  But on the other hand, we are not a culture that deals well with sad endings, whoever the audience may be.  And we can’t pretty up our children’s lives as if they lived in a Disney story.

Still . . . if I am ever jealous of another writer, it is of those who can write funny, especially those who can write funny and still say something important, still touch deep places in our hearts.

But I am who I am.  My life has been what it has been.  And there is no question, the sadness of maturity informs my work.  Even, apparently, when I’m exalting spring.