Literary Hub

Writing Through Extreme Grief Helped Me Become Myself Again

Pre-Raphaelite paintings

The cover of my first book, Late Migrations, features a leaf-filled silhouette of a little girl’s face. My face. The original silhouette was made by an Alabama street artist in 1970. I was eight years old, and already I knew I wanted to be a writer. A nature writer. In an apparently preternatural understanding of the economy of nature writing, I also planned to be a large-animal veterinarian; I would deliver calves by day and write books by night.

In 7th grade, I revised the plan. Dissection days in science class ended my veterinary ambitions, and puberty shifted my subject matter. All I wrote about was love. The first love poem I ever wrote was for a mystified boy who, bless him, grew up to write 11 books of his own. If he remembered that awful poem, he never let on during all the years we were friends.

In October I will be 58, half a century older than the child whose silhouette is on the cover of my first book, the one who wanted to be a nature writer. I wish I could tell you a classic story of perseverance over all those years. I wish I could say I was always doggedly determined to live like Thoreau, to write about the natural world by living deeply in its midst. In truth, I wasn’t dogged at all. I was the very opposite of dogged. For a long time I kept writing, shifting focus according to the shifting circumstances of my life, but one day I took an editing job and stopped writing altogether.

Very few people actually pursue their childhood dreams; if they did, the world would be filled with astronauts and firefighters and ballet dancers and veterinarians. Sometimes we run up against our own limits. Sometimes we fall in love with another future altogether. But I didn’t have a new dream. I was simply veering in a new direction with every pebble in the road.

All the while, my parents were growing sick and old. My in-laws were growing sick and old. My father died after a long illness. My mother died after no illness at all. My mother-in-law was in and out of the hospital, in and out, again and again and again. One day my old friend, the one who’d written 11 books, went to the gym and fell dead to the ground. Six months later, another old friend collapsed at his desk and never woke up.

Mortality was all around me, and I didn’t know what to do with my worries and my exhaustion and my overwhelming grief. I did my job and took care of my family, and I lay awake at night and wondered what I could have done differently, what I could’ve done better, what I might yet do to make peace with this death-haunted life.

One day I told the whole sorry story to another writer friend, detailing the latest disasters. “Would you ever want to write about that?” he asked.

I barely had time to go to the grocery store or pay the bills… Assuming the whole idea wasn’t completely preposterous, when was I supposed to do all this writing?

His words stopped me cold. Would I ever want to write about it? The thought had not even crossed my mind, but instantly I could see his point. Writing about it would help. Writing about it could conceivably be the very thing that saved me. But I barely had time to go to the grocery store or pay the bills, and my laundry room was a never-ending volcanic eruption of dirty clothes. Assuming the whole idea wasn’t completely preposterous—what kind of writer takes on life-and-death matters right out of the gate?—when was I supposed to do all this writing?

I tried staying up later than usual, but it was too tempting to keep answering work emails instead. I tried getting up to write in the middle of the night when I couldn’t sleep anyway, but trying to write and then failing to write only made the insomnia worse. I tried closing the laptop and writing in a notebook, which wouldn’t ping me with interruptions, but I found an entirely blank notebook even harder to face than a blank screen.

Insomnia invented new torments. Instead of lying in bed unable to fall asleep, or lying in bed unable to go back to sleep, I started waking up so early that the night sky had just barely begun fading to gray. I stayed in bed anyway, eyes closed, drifting close to sleep at times but never crossing the threshold from one state to the next. In those moments, in that quiet, blurry margin between dreaming and waking, I felt the words begin to come—single words, mostly; every now and then a phrase. One morning I tiptoed out of the bedroom and sat down at the kitchen table in the center of our still and silent house. I opened my notebook one more time.

I found myself in a state of unexpected receptiveness, less like a portal than an antechamber, a small space where the busy, arguing, list-making mind was still dozing, not yet wholly in charge, and the dreaming, remembering, wondering mind could finally have a few words.

That first morning it was a very few words. I wrote perhaps a sentence before I was fully awake and back to my usual fretting. It wasn’t even a good sentence. But there was a sentence in my notebook that hadn’t existed before, and the relief I felt was physical.

For me, writing begets writing. One sentence leads to another. One paragraph shows the way to the next. I love tinkering with words and fiddling with structure. My pleasure in revision is probably the reason I found working as an editor so satisfying. Writing that first sentence is the real hurdle. I’ll seek out every possible form of procrastination before I’ll open my notebook to a blank page. But the interstitial state of early morning, of feeling neither wholly asleep nor wholly awake, somehow got me over the first-page hurdle when I hadn’t written a word in more than five years.

The next morning I tried again and found the second sentence far easier to come by. Then came the third sentence, and the fourth. Morning after morning found me at the kitchen table, spooling out one sentence after another. One halting, possibly incoherent sentence at a time. Sometimes I went back to bed and slept for another hour. Sometimes I crawled under the covers, thought of another sentence, and got up to write again.

Sometimes I didn’t wake up in time to write at all. But slowly, slowly, I came to look forward to the sleepless mornings. I always found myself feeling calmer, less apt to panic in response to each new crisis, less inclined to catastrophize what wasn’t, or wasn’t yet, a catastrophe. In finding the words for my feelings, I was learning to separate grief from guilt. I was learning to separate grief from fear. I was learning to accept grief. I stopped fighting so hard to make it go away and give me back my life.

It was a long time before I could see that grief wasn’t taking away my life at all. It was taking away far too much, but it wasn’t only taking away. It was also giving me back my true self. I am a grieving daughter and a grieving daughter-in-law. I am a wife and a mother and a sister and a friend. I am all these things. But I am also a writer.

It was a long time before I could see that grief wasn’t taking away my life at all. It was taking away far too much, but it wasn’t only taking away. It was also giving me back my true self.

As easy as it has always been for me to forget that truth, no matter how fundamental it might be to my own identity, I knew I would need to find a way to protect it this time. I would need to make writing a priority—not when it was convenient, not when there were no more emergencies to address, but always. Every day. Writing in the morning, before I was fully awake, was how I learned to do that. First things first.

In time, the worst of the crises passed. The worst part of the grief eased. But new griefs were already arising—a planet on fire, a culture in the midst of a political cataclysm.

I kept writing, not always at dawn but almost always first thing in the morning. The sentences turned into paragraphs, and the paragraphs turned into essays. The essays piled up. Some of them became a book. This book.

On its cover is a picture of me at 8 years old, made entirely of leaves and flowers—the way I thought of myself at 8, the way I still think of myself today. It just took me nearly 50 years to remember.


Late Migrations by Margaret Renkl

Margaret Renkl’s Late Migrations is out now from Milkweed.

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