psychology

Grief and Story

sunset love lake resort

Photo by jim jackson on Pexels.com

I want to talk for a moment about something not writing related. Or maybe it’s tangentially related. I want to talk about grief.

One of my friends lost her brother-in-law (BIL) last week. She and her husband rushed to be by her sister-in-law’s (SIL), to help with the details while her SIL could just exist. And that’s all she was able to do in those moments. Exist. Now my friend is home and she’s experiencing the grief she held at bay last week while she was doing for her SIL.

Death is a bastard who steals from us. Rips apart pieces of our soul that it will never give back. Death’s sister, Loss, is a right bitch who mocks the pain of damaged expectations, hopes, and dreams. Together, Death and Loss try strip us of our dignity and send us into a dispair so deep we may never climb out. Death and Loss taunt us and tell us nothing will ever make us feel whole or hope again. Nothing will ease the pain of grief.

And yet grief is not our enemy.  Grief is a necessary process when we face Death and Loss. It is the probably the only thing that preserves our dignity and keeps us from languishing in that deep pit. Death and Loss aren’t lying, not completely. Our lives will never be the same when we experience death and loss, be it the loss of a person or a dream or anything in between. The trajectory of our lives change with each and every loss, and nothing will make our lives the same.

But grief does something that helps us move through these changes. It allows us to process the pain loss brings. It helps us to eventually make if not peace, an uneasy alliance with the absence death has created in our lives. It gives us purpose. It helps us walk forward step by shaky step.

We don’t talk a lot about grief in our very white and very western society. We don’t discuss the loss of dreams or the pain of lost opportunities. We barely talk about losing family and friends and what that pain does to us, how it rips out pieces of our souls that we can never get back. As a culture, we don’t like talking much about existential pain at all. And yet we all experience it. And sometimes we live inside that pain for the rest of our lives.

My friend may experience grief for years. Her BIL’s death was sudden and unexpected. There was no time to psychically or spiritually prepare. Her grief is a profound thing that needs to follow it’s own path. And we need to let it. Forcing her to follow Kubler-Ross’s five stages of grief would be a disservice to her process. Telling her that time will heal what is broken inside her would be a potential lie meant to make us feel better, not her.

Here is where I circle back to writing. Where there is Death and Loss, there is also Story. Story is how we process grief. Story is how we keep our loved ones alive. Story is how we work our way through those lost dreams and dead opportunities. Story can be private, something we share only with our journal as we scribble longhand with pen and paper, or something we share with the world in the form of blogs, novels, poetry. Story is what we share with our therapists, or what we discuss with our friends over coffee.

Story is the universal language of grief, and when we pick up a novel or a biography where a character experiences the same loss we have, suddenly we are not alone with our grief. The world has become smaller and our experiences no longer take place in a vacuum. We need these stories, not because they are heavy and laden with dispair, but because they are heavy, laden with dispair, and open a doorway to hope, because they hold a shared experience. And it’s that hope that helps us move forward.

 

Revisions, Neuroplasticity, And Me

The End

I did it! I wrote “the end” on my novella last month. For the third time. And there will likely be a fourth time. At minimum.

Writing is a process of incremental revisions. At least it is for me. I dream an idea, spew out the words while learning my characters and the plot, then revise, rinse, and repeat. My first draft is usually sparse on description and a sense of place, overflowing with dialogue. I learn my characters through what they think and what they say, then I learn how they react. The physical always follows the cerebral. I think it’s because I used to be a therapist. Or maybe I’m just wired that way.

Each revision adds layers. Physical behaviors. Grounding in time and space. Nuances that add depth. And with each and every revision I learn something about the story that surprises me. In my novella, tentatively titled I Thee Wed, in revision three there was a bit of magical realism at play in the final couple of scenes. Which makes me wonder just how much about the heroine’s deceased mother should make it’s way into the story. Do I need to add a plot element to encompass this? Or do I take out the soft breath of magical realism that currently resides in this story.

I used to hate revision work. It felt like drudgery to pull the story apart and put it back together again and again and again. I still don’t love digging in to see whether I have knocked the GMC (Goal, Motivation, Conflict) out of the park. Or if I have balance within and between the various plot and character arcs. My brain hurts when I try to analyze my stories that way. For years I felt like it was a sign I shouldn’t be a writer. All because my brain processes story differently.

This isn’t to say I don’t try to use many of the tools of craft and plotting. They are tools, and sometimes while the brain is forging new neural pathway those tools feel foreign and wrong. With continued exposure these neural pathways are reinforced and the brain “learns” these new concepts. This is an oversimplification of what happens as the brain is a highly complex organism, but you get the idea.

Building new skills require repetition. And sometimes looking at the skill in new ways. It’s also important to know that we aren’t going to be come competent with every skill we try to develop. And that’s okay. If it’s a skill necessary to move my story forward, I will find someone who has the skill to review the story and offer suggestions. Freelance editors are terrific for this purpose. So are beta readers who can give detailed feedback. Just know that if the person you talk to is usually paid for this service, be prepared to pay them. No one needs to work for free.

I’ve finished my third round of revisions and am feeling rather happy with the shape of this novella. Perhaps I will have something to self-publish this fall after all!

 

Photo by Herbalizer via Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Anxiety, Writing, And Me

My last post was about my inner demon bitch and how she tries, and often succeeds, to derail my writing progress. And life progress, if I’m honest. Today’s post is a follow up to that. I apologize for the length of this post. It started longer. See, I’m attempting to learn brevity. 😄

I know I’m not alone in feeling almost paralyzed by doubt. The therapist in me wants to send myself to therapy for some DBT or for some talk therapy. I have done both in the past and found the DBT route to be more helpful. Why? Because life is full of dialectics and because I believe the key to overcoming almost anything is rooted in mindfulness.

I love this definition of dialectics:

Dialectics, in Dialectical Behavior Therapy, refers to the process of investigating and synthesizing apparently opposing or contradictory ideas. (online source)

Opposing or contradictory ideas. How novel.  How true. A current dialectic that I’m processing is this: Writing makes me anxious, and I love to write.

I had to put this into words to really understand what has been blocking me. To understand this dialectic between anxiety and a propelling need to move forward with writing, I need to understand where the anxiety is coming from. Which means I need to make friends with this anxious energy. Friends, you say? Are you mad?

Don’t drag out the straight jacket just yet. Let me explain. Anxiety has a purpose.

However, even though anxiety and fear may feel unpleasant or uncomfortable, they are in no way negative. They actually serve a very important purpose, and it would be very hard to get by in life without these emotions.

Anxiety and fear are natural human emotions. They are our body’s alarm system. They occur in response to situations where we may be in danger or at-risk for some kind of harm. Fear is an emotion that is experienced when we are actually in a dangerous situation, whereas anxiety is an emotion that occurs when we expect or anticipate that something unpleasant may happen. (online source/ emphasis mine)

Did you read that? Anxiety is an emotion. Anxiety occurs when there is an expectation or anticipation of something unpleasant. I used to get anxious before oral presentations in college. I had to stand at a podium in front of 100 of my closest friends and string words together in a coherent manner. My hands would shake, my neck would become drenched with sweat. My voice would wobble. It was torture. Until I looked up from my notes one day and realized no one was laughing at me. No one was having side conversations and ignoring me. They laughed at my attempts at jokes, and looked almost captive when I provided a story to drive a point home.

Slowly, I stopped being anxious when in front of a crowd. I could verbally communicate and communicate well. I started to enjoy these presentations, which eventually gave me the motivation and courage to try my hand at training. To this day I get a rush with public speaking of any kind. And the impact of the stories I would weave into my presentations to make information more accessible ignited a passion for storytelling.  But, not only did I have to have enough successes, I also had to understand what was feeding the anxiety.

For public speaking, it was a fear of being judged unworthy or not good enough, which was a judgement I lived under throughout my childhood. I was not a popular child in K-12. I was shy and awkward. I was the poor white girl going to school in a district of higher middle class white kids. And kids can be cruel to anyone who is different. I was very different. I lived in my head. I kept to the outside. I didn’t have the right clothes or the right anything to be considered worthy. And when I did make friends, I lived in fear that someone would tell them about my unworthiness and I would be left alone.

That same childhood gave me a love for stories. I read to escape. I read to experience. I read because I could relate to the characters. And when I immersed myself in these worlds, I wasn’t awkward or weird or unworthy.

I also learned the gift of inner strength. And self-advocation. If no one else was going to be there for me, I was damn well going to learn how to be there for myself. I also learned empathy. There are many gifts I was able to carve out of those experiences.

When I realized that my fear of public speaking was rooted in the same fear I had of humiliation and failure to fit in, I was able to do something with that anxiety. I was able to determine if there really was a threat that was amping up the anxiety, or if it was old fear responses that were no longer adaptive. It took time and some therapy, but I was able to make friends with my anxiety, and when it was a response to a non-threat, I was able to thank the anxiety for looking out for me and reassure it that I was okay. I was really, truly okay.

This is what I’m currently doing with my inner demon bitch. She’s there, amping up the anxiety around my writing skills. I’ve taken courses. I’ve read books. I’ve listened to advice. I’ve some written book length stories. I’ve started and stopped even more. Everytime I try to incorporate advice, I end up treating my writing like my master’s thesis and I freeze. What if I can’t write a compelling character arc? What if my issues with the sagging middle are because I don’t have enough plot? Why can’t I seem to plot out a book anyway? Is something wrong with me? Do I have a passion but no talent? Am I wasting my time? Dear fluffy lord, is my desire for something I cannot have?

What do my fears have in common? They all seem derived from the question, am I good enough. I wasn’t a natural public speaker. This took time and practice and learning from others. I may be a natural storyteller but crafting an actual publishable story, for me that may take a learning curve over time. And I won’t know until I get the words on the page and get the feedback from trusted people who know their shit. And can communicate their critiques in a compassionate and affirming way.

I know I can learn. I know I can work hard to master something when I’m invested in the process. I know these truths about myself. I also know that to become proficient, even excellent at something, I have to practice. And analyze. And fail. And figure out where I went wrong. And get up and start again with that new knowledge.

This is what I mean by making friends with my anxiety. It has a purpose. It wants to protect me. In the case of writing, it can’t protect me, because to protect me means never actually writing. Never putting my work out there. Never striving toward my passion and my dream. At the same time, that anxiety about not being good enough, it can also be reframed to push me to do my best and to continue to learn and hone my skills. It doesn’t need to be debilitating.

Mindfulness comes in when i allow myself to feel anxious, allow my body to have it’s response, and I don’t judge it or push it away. This allows me to feel my Feels and to begin to understand my thoughts. And to let these thoughts go. More on mindfulness in my next post.

I can be anxious about my writing and I can have a deep passion for writing. These two things can exist at the same time. They can even work together, if I can give them the time and space to learn to play nice together.