Processing death through the pen

I had planned to post about pre-writing today, but due to the difficult passing of a friend last night, my thoughts are elsewhere. I got to thinking about how we as writers process our own lives and experiences and how that translates to paper. Specifically, how do we communicate those difficult emotions and halting feelings without falling into a trap of clichés?

We use writing as a method of meaning making. That’s why English teachers push so hard for students to develop writing skills. It’s essential to be able to communicate your ideas and articulate the events in the world around you in a manner that makes sense to others. When we write about something personal and narrate our own experiences (or let them inspire the experiences of our characters), we seek and explore how to make meaning of difficulty, of emotion, of ourselves, of the world we now find ourselves in.

How do you communicate the vast power of death and its sinister timing? The difficulty in writing is that we have limited time and space to get readers to care about a character (unless you’re JK Rowling and wait through multiple books before devastating everyone). To snuff out the existence of a character is one thing, but communicating that character’s impact and the impact of their absence is something where writers fall short. Killing off a character for the sake of shocking readers does little beyond that momentary emotion. I want my readers to mourn that character with me and feel their loss through the remaining pages.

How do you adequately create a description that does a pang of remembrance justice? When my father died, I remember how hard TV commercials for Father’s Day hit me the first time. Pang seems like such a mild word. In an instant, I was reminded of the painful loss I had endured several months earlier and that I would never celebrate Father’s Day again. I no longer had a father. The weight of that realization hit me several times in poignant ways that first year. Even though I already knew it. When I think of writing the aftermath, I have to step back into those uncomfortable moments (seconds, really) and remember what that weight and devastation felt like.

What about loose ends? The uncomfortable tension in the unresolved? Words that were left unsaid? That’s the funny thing about novels. We expect them to be tied up and for everything to come full circle. But life isn’t like that. And if life imitates art, then why are we so upset when novels leave loose ends? Death is scary. It’s uncomfortable. We don’t like thinking that we wouldn’t be prepared to say goodbye or make amends. If literature confronts us with that possibility, we shy away from it.

Death, like life, is all around us. We see it through the seasons when nature fades away and then is reborn again in spring. We see it through changes in people and our relationships. The light of friendships dim and some are never rekindled. The person I was at 20 and 25 is not the person I am at nearly 30. And I don’t plan on resurrecting her. It is that specific moment where death consumes every thought and the way we conceive life is rerouted, which becomes the monumental task of a writer to breathe life into such an experience.

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3 thoughts on “Processing death through the pen

  1. Sapience says:

    Really sorry for your loss! It’s the unpredictable loss of our beloved ones that causes pain! But you’re very strong that you don’t hesitate writing about death even if you have to relive the whole thing! Commendable writing!

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  2. WriteHandedWoman says:

    Thank you for your note! Writing is such a personal endeavor. I have found writing to be very soothing and it helps me sort through my feelings, as well as celebrate the life and memories of people I care about who have passed away.

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  3. S.E. Andres (@dandoruinn) says:

    Have you ever done a writing workshop? This year I attended a writing workshop in Cincinnati called Community of Stories. It’s one of the greatest experiences. Through this program, we give voices to those often unheard. It’s a grieving process. With your writing group, you grow incredibly close just in two full days from various writing prompts. You know everyone’s innermost thoughts and feelings, and just for that weekend, you feel emotionally relieved, healed, and connected in ways you’d never imagine to others from all different backgrounds. From those mentally handicapped to students to homeless to anyone in the community wanting to share their stories and let their voices be heard. Writing is such a healing activity, and this can help anyone bridge that wall that often separates us from understanding each other. I think you’d be a great leader in organizing something like that one day. https://acommunityofstories.wordpress.com/

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