Welcome to The Converse-Station: A dialogue between writers. With the site getting so much traffic (my Facebook page is reaching over 18 million people) I can think of no better way to utilize that traffic than to introduce the readers to writers I love. The dialogues created within this series have stayed with me long after I’ve read them on the page. Enjoy. xo Jen Pastiloff
By Megan Devine
Jessica Handler and I have been following each other around. We belong to secret societies of writers together, and we quote each other to our respective students, me in my Writing Your Grief courses, and Jessica in her Writing the Tough Stuff workshops. Her book, Braving the Fire: A Guide to Writing About Grief and Loss, helps writers make the often-arduous shift from writing personal things to writing personal things that resonate with the larger world story. So it only made sense when the editors of The Manifest-Station asked whom I might interview for the Converse-Station: Jessica was my first and only choice. We share a fierce love not only for well-told stories of love and loss, but for the evolution of craft we see in our students. What follows is an excerpt of a much longer – and more heavily laden with expletives – video discussion we had earlier this year on what it takes to teach, and to write, with both skill and sensitivity.
Jessica Handler: So you and I have been online friends now for a year probably.
Megan Devine: I think so.
JH: Yeah. This is cool. Well, you are who I thought you would be. You look like who I thought you would be. You sound like the person I imagined.
MD: I think that’s good.
JH: Yeah, it is good. It’s nice when someone you’ve been reading turns out to be exactly who you think they are. So what are we doing together today?
MD: We’re talking about writing. Specifically, we’re talking about the practice and process of writing about grief and loss.
JH: Well cool, I’m a big fan of The Manifest-Station. I know about it because I’m a fan of Emily Rapp, and I think Emily has been involved a fair amount. That’s how I got introduced to TMS, and I follow it, so this is fabulous.
MD: Yeah, it’s pretty fantastic.
JH: And this interview is giving me a break from grading papers, so God bless you for calling.
MD: This is my break from reading, too. I just opened a new writing session, and it’s only day two, so this is my break from reading all of the new students. I take the first several days just to hear their voices, get to know their stories.
JH: You’re talking about your Writing Your Grief course, right? Man, I remember being part of that. It was amazing to watch, during the session I was in, to read all of their words. And you, you just hold this space for all of them. And that’s something that we should talk about in terms of teaching the material we teach. People have asked me about how we handle all that pain, when one teaches writing about grief or trauma, which we both do. I mean, we’re not doing counseling sessions here. How do you take care of yourself in the face of all that pain? We ask our students to write about places that hurt. How do we make that separation from drowning in other people’s very legitimate issues when we can’t live this way all the time – we can’t just keep our eyes on that pain constantly.
MD: Yeah. It’s a really tricky balance. I can’t spend 5 and 6 hours inside my students’ words the way I used to. I have to do it in smaller chunks.
JH: As teachers, and also as witness to other peoples’ pain through their writing, how do we parcel this out, break things into chunks? I work really hard to do that. I also make sure that students know that I’m not a therapist. It’s like – I understand how you feel, believe me, but I’m not here to be your therapist and to have you rant and rave about that time that you or so and so did that thing. We’re in an interesting quandary with this, I think. We want to allow students their own truth, and give them space for their voice, but I can’t let a writing course become group therapy. It can’t be a place where they just vent and process. I don’t know about you. I just make that distinction very, very clear in every class. How do you do this?
MD: It’s a little bit different for me, because I am a therapist. But when I’m teaching writing, I’m not primarily in there as a therapist, and the writing courses aren’t therapy. One of the things you and I do, in our respective courses and workshops, is make these really safe spaces. We make these containers to hold so much pain, so much grief, so much story. Even without it becoming group therapy, how do you care for yourself in that? How do you care for yourself, being the one who maintains the container for others?
I moved to a new state last year, and I’m meeting all these new people. These new people ask me what I do, and I tell them I write, teach, and counsel on out of order death – accidents and illnesses that shouldn’t happen. Their faces fall. They stammer for a moment, and then invariably say things like, “I couldn’t do that. How do you listen to that all day long?” That’s a legitimate question. What do you do as a holder of space?
JH: I’ve asked my therapist this too, about her job, and her life, when you listen to people all day long, some of whom make you crazy and some of whom really resonate with you – how do you go home and not take it out on your partner, your dog, your cat, yourself? Honestly, I forgot what she told me. I don’t know. How do I do it? I make very sure in workshop that people understand that we’re here to talk about the craft of writing: to work with the sentences, the metaphors. I have to repeat that a lot, depending on the people in the workshop. Sometimes I find that the thing that really hits the hardest is when we do a free write, or we do something where they dig really deep. They come up from that writing and they’re a little shaken. That’s fine. That’s what I want. If people cry or if they go oh my God I didn’t realize that this was about that, that’s good. I use time for people to step out, to take breaks once they’ve found something deep. I’ve found that everybody who’s in these writing workshops is very helpful and comforting to each other, but they respect the limits of the space.
In most cases people come to me wanting to write, but I have had some people who seem to come to me needing an ear. And you and I have some different roles, but that’s not what I’m really there for. It’s not a place for processing grief itself. I’ve been in one situation where I’ve asked someone to leave. In a polite way I had to say, “I don’t think you’re ready for this right now.” Just because we’re writing about grief doesn’t mean this is the place for all of your grief. We’re talking about writing. I teach writing.
I think if I keep pushing that, and making those parameters really clear, that helps me and it helps them. Particularly if I’ve got ten people and nine of them want to write, but one just needs to cry or process. They are very appreciative of my holding that space, keeping it well-boundaried and focused on the craft. It helps me too because… well, just recently I was reading again from Invisible Sisters. I’ve gotten used to reading from it, but because my mom just died a year and a half ago, the section where I talk about what would happen when my parents age suddenly became newly difficult. Here my mother is gone, she’s already aged, and died. That passage in Invisible Sisters became hard to read. My work still affects me. So to do it, to read it without falling into my own actual sadness, I create a hologram of myself in my head. Does that make sense?
JH: It’s the person, it’s a performative me as opposed to the me, me.
MD: Yeah, there’s a hybrid there where what you’re speaking is true and it’s your truth. You view it from a practiced distance so you can use your voice. In a sense, you have to step out of the story so you can tell the story.
JH: And tell the story in a greater way, a bigger way. I don’t mean great as in wonderful, I mean great as in big. In a greater way than oh my God, I miss my family. This is about my family, but it’s about your family, and it’s about her family, his family. That is the role that my own writing serves when I’m speaking. I have to occupy that performer/writer space as opposed to a more internal space.
MD: I think that’s a really good distinction. There’s a real difference between the process of writing and the craft of writing. When we write for ourselves, we write for ourselves – it’s raw, it’s true, it’s emotional, and it’s incoherent, and it’s beautifully coherent; it’s all over the place. When we try to shape that into a narrative to present it to somebody else, it needs containment. It can’t be simply the freely written, inner process dialogue. It needs to become, as you say, a greater story. As we sift through our writing and hone it, we’re making it into a container to give to others. We’re making what is deeply personal into a form that others can access. We need that distance from it. And that distance doesn’t make the story less true, but in a way, it can make it less intimate.
JH: Yeah, it does. It’s a weird transition. We tell intimate stories, but we do so from within the realm of craft. That’s what makes our intimate stories accessible and readable. If it’s just straight process writing, it’s hard for your reader to relate or connect. There has to be a practiced distance. So that’s true when I’m personally giving a reading from my work, and when I’m teaching my students. They need to understand containment. They need to use the craft of writing to tell intimate stories that reach people without basically just vomiting pain on the page.
MD: And the great writers can really do that – they create evocative, visceral descriptions of grief or love or whatever without jumping over the edge. One of my questions for you, since we’re talking about the craft of writing and who does this well, is who do you read?
JH: Who do I read?
MD: Yeah. Do you read writers on grief and if you do, who are you reading? Or do you stay away from grief since you spend so much time teaching inside it?
JH: Of course I read other grief writers. It’s important, and there are so many good ones out there. Right now, who am I reading? I guess Claudia Rankine’s book, Citizen, the new poetry book. That is certainly about cultural grief. I read a lot of narrative non-fiction. One of the things that I always, always, always teach is certainly Joan Didion. Not only Magical Thinking, but go to earlier stuff, like The White Album. What is The White Album about but cultural grief and being gobsmacked, if you will, by the cultural upheavals of the sixties. I always teach Joann Beard’s Fourth State of Matter because of the way it’s written. She and Didion and so many others, there’s this almost astringent quality to their writing. To me, bad writing about grief – and this goes back to what we we’re talking about – there’s a difference between writing in your journal and writing for public consumption. The good writing is not overly emotive. It’s not leaping, and gnashing of teeth, and rending of garments in the prose.
MD: If you think in the aggregate about the writers on grief that you’re drawn to, do they share anything in common?
JH: They share a loyalty to clarity of language, an honesty in what serves the story. Don’t tell me everything: tell me what matters. That’s something I do in workshops as well. Don’t tell me everything, tell me what matters to the story. They share a clarity of language, a certain astringency of emotion, which doesn’t mean they are not emotional, it means that they… it’s almost like it’s too hot to touch. They come in and out delicately. They share a fealty to honesty in what serves the story. A clear eye to understanding, to watching the process of how they are becoming who they are. If that makes sense.
MD: Yeah. What I hear you saying about the commonalities between these writers, well – is scarcity a word? Not scarcity, maybe. There’s a sparseness of language that leaves blanks for the readers to fill in in a visceral way. Every inner nuance is not revealed. Every detail that happened in real life does not find it’s way to the page.
MD: Right. There’s a book I just started reading that kicked my ass, written by Genevieve Jorgensen, The Disappearance: A Memoir of Loss.
JH: Ohhh, I don’t know it.
MD: Her four year old and seven year old daughters were killed by a drunk driver. I think she wrote it in ‘92.
MD: It’s not a new book. It’s a translation from her original French. It’s a series of letters that she wrote to a friend who hadn’t meet her daughters.
JH: Oh my God.
MD: It’s brutal because it’s not sentimental.
JH: Exactly. That’s what I’m after. Sentiment is cheap. Bad writing or poorly executed writing about grief, loss, and trauma goes for the sentiment. One wants to be able to write in such a way that what you are missing, what you are thinking about, what matters to you comes to the reader through clarity of language rather than effusiveness. Part of this is also abstract versus concrete. This goes back to that incessant personal processing and journaling; that kind of writing is abstract. It’s very clear what the emotions are, the person is wigging out. There’s nothing translatable there. There’s nothing concrete. If in abstract language I say to you “I’m very sad,” or even, let’s use modifiers, “I am very, very, very, very, very, very sad.” Well, yeah. I’m sure you are. I don’t feel anything. But if you say to me, “I’m thinking of the way her cologne filled my throat,” that’s more scenic, it involves more senses, and it hits me as a reader on a very, very deep level. Yet there is no sentiment in that statement itself. Personal processing is loaded with sentiment. It’s not bad, it’s just not craft.
MD: That’s right. If you put your words in the body, then the body is what resonates. It’s how we connect with the story. It means something to us, viscerally. As you’re describing this, a random science fact comes to my mind. I know you and I both tend to bring science into things when neither of us are scientists, but hey, a metaphor is a metaphor. So, astronomers know that certain huge planets exist, even though they’re so far away, no instruments can actually see them. But they know these planets intimately: they can gauge the size of the planet, understand its make up and its density, simply by watching the smaller bodies nearby that they can see. The gravitational force of the invisible planet determines how the other bodies move. It’s inference, not direct knowledge. But even so, the information is quite clear.
JH: Oh, how beautiful.
MD: Isn’t that the coolest thing.
JH: What a metaphor you’ve just created.
MD: Yeah. That’s what I think of as you’re talking about that astringency in good writing. When you’re writing well, people don’t see the planet, they feel it. Your writing is clear, and without sentiment, and without describing the planet, you’re making people feel the gravitational effect of it.
JH: You’re trusting your reader to engage with you and your story which then gives you more confidence in telling your story. Every detail does not have to be there. You need to leave space for your reader to join you, to close the gap, inside their own minds.
MD: Can we talk a little about how hard it is to actually write grief? I mean, it’s important to find that distance, to be able to write with actual skill, but we’re still writing because someone died. That reality never goes away. How do you navigate that, in yourself and for your students?
JH: One of the things that I talk to people about is when you’re writing about grief and loss, there are things that you can’t write about and you don’t want to write about. Don’t re-injure yourself, don’t hurt yourself, in the service of the writing. There’s an element of well, certainly you’re going to cry, certainly you’re going to feel nauseous, or agitated. That means you’re engaging with the material, but there is some level, and we all have different ones, there is a difference between engaging with it and endangering yourself. Learn where that is.
MD: That’s true from our position as teachers, as well – we have to not injure ourselves in the service of teaching, or in providing the container for others. I’m accustomed to a lot of this stuff – I talk about things many others won’t, so that means I attract people with really traumatic death stories. I hear incredible horror stories on a regular basis. My tolerance for witnessing pain is higher than most, just by sheer exposure. I forget that sometimes. So as people are introducing themselves (and the deaths that brought them to the course) at the beginning of a writing session, very often people will chime in like, “I can’t do this. I can’t handle how much pain is on this page.” You have to step away for a bit. It really is a fire-hose of pain sometimes. You need to pace yourself and listen to yourself. Sometimes it’s good to see the real grief – whether in yourself or in others – and other times you need to step back. It does no one a service to just burn yourself out by refusing to look away when something is too much.
JH: Exactly. And this is something you can only decide for yourself. For example, up on a high shelf in my office, there is a green hat box. In the green hat box are family pictures, but also in there is a reel-to-reel tape of Jessica, Susie, and Sarah playing together. It’s the only sound captured of the three of us, which means if it were the three of us, we’re talking five years old, four years old, and just born. Somebody must have, some uncle or cousin, must have done this. I can’t listen to it. I have the technology to take a quarter inch reel and convert it to MP3. I can do it. But I know that I cannot listen to that. If I listen to that I will not recover.
So what you write about is the inability to listen to the reel. Don’t listen to it and write about it. Don’t harm yourself. Write about what it feels like in your body to know that it’s up there. Write about not being able to listen.
MD: Exactly. You put your resistance on the page. Write about what it feels like to not be able to touch that place.
JH: Yeah. I’ve got a piece in an issue of Creative Nonfiction magazine about how to write about the things you don’t know, or the things you can’t write about. Not just things like my hatbox, but if there’s this piece of family history that you can’t access because the paperwork doesn’t exist, or because old uncle Bob refuses to talk about it, what do you do? My grandfather was born in prison in Siberia. This is true. He wouldn’t talk about it. He wouldn’t speak any Russian. What do you write about if you want to know this story and you can’t get the information? That’s what I’m talking about when I say write how you can’t write it. Write what that feels like. I think that’s very much a part of the story. To write what we can’t know, including the stuff that we can’t access simply for our own well-being. I’m sure there are things that you have that you can’t deal with right now.
MD: I have Matt on video and I have all of his… Matt on video. I can’t.
JH: But you don’t want to get rid of that material either, you just don’t want to look at it.
MD: Right. I have a box in the closet marked “keep this close.” I also have a recording – he was very old school, so he had one of those hand held mini tape recorders. When he drove across country the year before he and I met, he kept an audio journal. Conversations between he and God.
JH: Oh my gosh.
MD: Yeah. I have that. I told a friend that I had these little mini cassettes of Matt’s audio journals. He’s said, “mail them to me and I’ll digitize them.” I was terrified that I was going to lose them, break the little tapes, or just never be able to play them.
JH: Sure, because technology is going to outpace the playback, yeah.
MD: Yeah, exactly. I mailed them to him like, oh shit, if we lose these, if they get lost in the mail, then I have nothing. Before I sent them off to him, I played them from the mini-cassette into my computer microphone to record them. I recorded them on the computer just in case they got lost in the mail.
MD: Yeah. So in recording them, I heard them. I heard his voice. It was hard. It was also awesome.
JH: You’re braver than I am. I’ve got Sarah’s voice on an answering machine tape. She died when there were still answering machines. I have that last answering machine tape.
MD: I have one of Matt’s last voice-mails to me on the cell phone and I can’t listen to it. I can’t. There was a long period there where I couldn’t look at his picture. Which is also horrifying. To think, how can it be that I can’t even stand to look at his face. What kind of person does that make me? We talk about that in the writing course in different ways. There is a truth there that I can’t do this, I can’t write this story, I can’t look at that photo, or I can’t hear that voice. If you can’t do that or you won’t do that, then you write about that. Write about the not writing about it. Your resistance is a story. Write that.
MD: The stuff that we can’t know is a story. Basically, in a way, moving back to that image that we talked about before with deep space astronomers and invisible planets, there is this dark planet in our hearts that we can’t touch. But we’ve got the evidence of how that dark planet affects us, and we can write that. That’s what you put on the page.
JH: That’s your voice. That part of non-fiction is the process. There is something meta about the fact that non-fiction writing, the craft of it, also includes the process of writing.
JH: I recently read Allison Bechdel’s book, Are You My Mother. It’s a graphic novel about grief, and about writing about grief, and about getting blocked about writing about grief.
MD: I don’t know that one. I’m going to put that on my list.
JH: Yeah. She is the woman who wrote Fun Home. I’ve got some of her original art out in the hallway. Allison Bechdel. For many, many years she wrote a syndicated strip called Dykes to Watch Out For. Then she wrote, probably five years ago, a graphic memoir called Fun Home, which is an abbreviation of “funeral home.” I had a student once say, “Well, why isn’t it called Fun House.” Because it’s not called a funeral house, it’s called a funeral home. It’s a story in which her father may or may not have committed suicide. It’s about her growing up with the death of her father, and about her sexual identity. Then she wrote another called Are You My Mother, about writing a book about her mother, and wrangling with her mother about writing the book, and about her own writer’s block, if you will, about writing the book. It’s intense and it’s great.
But doing that takes great skill. Part of writing non-fiction is writing the process of writing, including your process in the story itself. But it’s a delicate balance. That’s what I’m going for with my students. To help them figure out where their story becomes the larger story.
Jessica Handler is the author of Invisible Sisters: A Memoir (The University of Georgia Press, 2015, Public Affairs Books, 2009) named by the Georgia Center for the Book one of the “Twenty Five Books All Georgians Should Read.” Atlanta Magazine called it the “Best Memoir of 2009.” Her second book, Braving the Fire: A Guide to Writing About Grief and Loss (St. Martins Press, December 2013) was praised by Vanity Fair magazine as “a wise and encouraging guide.” Her nonfiction has appeared on NPR, in Tin House, Drunken Boat, Creative Nonfiction, Brevity, Newsweek, The Washington Post, and More Magazine. Honors include residencies at the Josef and Anni Albers Foundation, a 2010 Emerging Writer Fellowship from The Writers Center, the 2009 Peter Taylor Nonfiction Fellowship to the Kenyon Review Summer Writers Workshop, and special mention for a 2008 Pushcart Prize. Featured as one of nine contemporary Southern women writers in Vanity Fair magazine, she learned to never again wear couture. www.jessicahandler.com