Ashes to Ashes, Pen to Paper: Embracing Grief for the Good of Your Writing

“You can’t go on feeling sad without first consenting to stand in the ashes of some past event and then rubbing the memory of it all over yourself.” – Guy Finley

Mr. Finley sounds like a nice man.  His website suggests he is very successful in his chosen field of helping people “self-realize” and “find the direct path to an enlightened life.”

I’m also pretty sure Shakespeare would not have given him the time of day.  And Finley might say that is fine.

Sometimes one has to defend a tradition of excellence in one field by pointing out the potential threats of another.  This post is a brief defense of literature against today’s obsession with feeling good, being positive, and not engaging “the past.”

This is one of the first images I found for “ashes” – it’s not literal here, but so beautiful it feels right for this post.

I want to be perfectly clear that I admire the decision to break free from the unhealthy habits and ways of thinking that keep people stuck in a negative place, particularly a place from their past that is fueled by some dysfunctional relationship or event.  There is not much worse than watching someone wallow around in bad Karma and toxic beliefs when you know they could find their way out with the guidance of someone like Mr. Finley.   But, but, but………..

………What jumped out at me when I read his quote on a friend’s Facebook wall was how beautiful the image is and how powerful from an artistic perspective — “Consenting to stand in the ashes of some past event and then rubbing the memory of it all over yourself.”

I write mostly reflective personal essays.  I’ve dabbled in humor and even a ghost story, but my launching place and motivation for writing is rooted in a desire to understand my personal narrative.  I think many people write for this reason, and even when the short story or novel or essay is not literally about the writer, some very good material is drawn from personal experience.  I’m a bit sad that we seem to be defining immersion in struggle and vulnerability to grief as a character flaw.

Consider The Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion.  Recounting the year after her husband’s death by cardiac arrest, the author is a portrait of standing in the ashes, covering herself in them in an attempt to understand the loss of her best friend and life partner:

Joan Didion and her husband, Gregory Dunne

The narrative structure of the book follows Didion’s re-living and re-analysis of her husband’s death throughout the year following it, in addition to caring for Quintana (her ill daughter). With each replay of the event, the focus on certain emotional and physical aspects of the experience shifts. Didion also incorporates medical and psychological research on grief and illness into the book.

I carry in my head some lines about grief from Didion’s book.  Grief comes in waves.  Sometimes the waves slow in their crashing on your shore, but they do return and can be as powerful years later as they were upon the mournful event that precipitated them.

Grief is a force, there is no getting around that.  Grief is present in physical death, but also in the deaths of relationships, of opportunities, of a whole host of “ends” that it seems we often want to deny.

The truth is, and I won’t make a penny by telling you this, sometimes things are over, done and gone.

To embrace that they are over may mean standing in the ashes.  Sometimes the standing is not enough — you have to really get down and dirty and cover yourself with the evidence of the end.  I’m not sure it means you want to be sad forever, or that you are at some kind of fault for needing to grieve and to feel.  I think Finley implies a weakness in covering oneself with grief.  He might grow a bit on his self-realized path if he had tea with Joan Didion, and let her do some realizing with him.  There is no absence of strength in this woman.

My posts are slowed this month as I work with other writers who are developing Essays on Childhood.  I am drawn to headlines and references that speak to the personal narrative, and to the process of standing in the ashes.  Just this past weekend in my local paper there was a profile of Jane Congdon whose book, It Started With Dracula: The Count, My Mother and Me explores the author’s decades-long fascination with vampires.

Only on a trip to Romania, where the landscape of rivers and mountains triggered her childhood memories in Glen Ferris, West Virginia, did she make a life-changing connection to her mother’s alcoholism.

“All I wanted to do was see the land of Dracula and write about it, like a travel essay. I wasn’t going to write about my mother. I had opened my mind, and when I did, all those memories came back.

“I made the connection that some people are monsters. I couldn’t have told you why I liked Dracula, but the resemblance started to come to me — the mother with an unending thirst and a vampire with an unending thirst, and mountains and rivers. It just started to jell. It’s interesting how it started out to be a simple travel issue and turned out to be a parallel of my life with something I never connected to it. I loved Dracula, and all this was going on with Mom.”

You can write as an observer without being willing to embrace the human experience.  I think you can write excellent technical manuals, website content, textbooks or even some pieces of journalism.  But literature requires a process with levels of vulnerability and complexity that is different and often scorned, and we should support those who are willing to engage that process if we don’t want to lose an entire generation of readers and writers to self-help books.

The phoenix is a sacred creature in multiple cultures, but not yet in North America.  Maybe one day, it will be sacred here.

I hope it’s holding a pen.

Phoenix depicted in the book of mythological creatures by F.J. Bertuch (1747-1822).

Most beings spring from other individuals; but there is a certain kind which reproduces itself. The Assyrians call it the Phoenix. It does not live on fruit or flowers, but on frankincense and odoriferous gums. When it has lived five hundred years, it builds itself a nest in the branches of an oak, or on the top of a palm tree. In this it collects cinnamon, and spikenard, and myrrh, and of these materials builds a pile on which it deposits itself, and dying, breathes out its last breath amidst odors. From the body of the parent bird, a young Phoenix issues forth, destined to live as long a life as its predecessor. When this has grown up and gained sufficient strength, it lifts its nest from the tree (its own cradle and its parent’s sepulchre), and carries it to the city of Heliopolis in Egypt, and deposits it in the temple of the Sun (from the Roman poet Ovid).

Image credit:  Ashes and Snow (elephant), Denis Piel (Didion and Dunne), F.J. Bertuch (Phoenix)

15 thoughts on “Ashes to Ashes, Pen to Paper: Embracing Grief for the Good of Your Writing

  1. Pingback: Ashes to Ashes, Pen to Paper | Essays on Childhood

  2. I go in and out of rubbing the ashes all over myself. Ashes of a rejection without warning–a sudden appearance of her picture and engagement announcement. For years she wasn’t powerful enough to override an active, happy life and then one day fifty years past she appeared in my mind again. My mind played a trick on me, it told me I would think of her everytime I had an irrational thought. The memories were mostly good ones but there was that question that kept asking, why did she disappear from my life without notice,why did she do that? And this honesty fellow who lives inside with all those other people reminded me that I did the same thing to Sally Gerhart in 1961.

    • Julian, I don’t know. A lot of people make fun of the movie Titanic, but I’ve always believed that is largely because it hits so close to the mark that it is unsettling. (That and James Cameron turned out to be such a weenie.)

      “A woman’s heart is deep ocean of secrets.” Men’s are too I think.

      I say write about her if you have not already. And thank you for your comment, it is one of the more vulnerable and honest comments this blog has ever seen.

  3. “I think many people write for this reason, and even when the short story or novel or essay is not literally about the writer, some very good material is drawn from personal experience.”

    True, even though I am reluctant to admit it. Not crazy about that vulnerability thing.

    • Joe, in my experience it is hard to get started writing that way, but once you do start it’s nearly impossible to write any other way (speaking of course of personal writing, not professional). The work is better and more rewarding when I allow myself to engage some of my most difficult experiences.

      But man, do I hear you. Often really not fun at all. Thanks for reading and commenting.

  4. Wonderful, Elizabeth! I really like that quote. I think it can also be worse to not stand in the ashes, to deny or push away the pain. The process is painful & healing…unless there is no forward motion – just ashes.

    • One of the key words for me was “consenting.” Again, I think the originator of the quote does not see this as a good thing, and I do understand where he is coming from on that. But that consent can be interpreted as a beautiful thing. I see so many people in such a hurry to dismiss pain so they can move on and be “successful” and a “winner in life.” Thank you for your comment! Nice to see you “on the inside.” 🙂

  5. The ashes can be suffocating. To breathe we have to lift our heads above them and that can be the hardest part of all.

    I describe grief as a river, running always beneath the surface of everyday. Sometimes the river is quiet and serene with good memories; other times sparkling in the sun with laughter at remembered funny things the person said or did. Often it rages out of its banks, turgid with anger, frustration, loss, pain, tears. I’ve been traveling this river for over a year, following the loss of a son in an automobile accident. It is never easy; I can never be confident that the river will remain within its banks.

    And yet. Everyday life goes on. There is work. There is family. There is often even happiness, surprising me with its simple joy. There is guilt that I am here and he is not.

    I have written some posts about his passing and about grief on my blog but it is the most difficult writing I have ever done. To wallow in those ashes brings me back to the darkest days and I cannot go there too often for fear of losing my way. While there are many self-help and simplistic approaches offered to dealing with grief, there is really only one way that seems to work: one day at a time, one foot in front of the other. Keep going, keep remembering, keep loving, keep laughing, and keep looking foward. It has been the most terrible journey I have undertaken in my life.

    • Thank you for your comment. It reminds me that metaphor is so tricky sometimes. I realized I never saw the person in this image covering his or her face, just the body. When I read your comment I visualized someone prone in the ashes, unable to breathe.

      We all grieve and process loss in unique ways. It is a terrible and beautiful part of being human.

      Thank you again, and I’m glad to find your blog through your comment. Keep on, as you say, one step at a time.

  6. I agree, Elizabeth. There are some things no amount of ‘self-help’ or counselling can help or cure. Matter of fact, if I found a cure for my own griefs, I would be, somehow, less human. Grief and sorrow are as much a part of what it is to be human as joy and contentment. And to try to cure them away or ‘heal’ is ridiculous. I think the trick is to learn to walk on with the wounds still healing, knowing you will carry the scars forever. Those scars become a part of you and, like loving someone for a really long time so that their little irritating habits become endearing, the scars will someday be beautiful and precious to you

  7. “I write mostly reflective personal essays. I’ve dabbled in humor and even a ghost story, but my launching place and motivation for writing is rooted in a desire to understand my personal narrative. I think many people write for this reason, and even when the short story or novel or essay is not literally about the writer, some very good material is drawn from personal experience. I’m a bit sad that we seem to be defining immersion in struggle and vulnerability to grief as a character flaw.”

    This whole piece struck me, but I wanted to highlight the above quote because I think it hits on a fundamental truth about why many of us write. I’ve always thought of my life as a story that is unraveling, and I’ve always felt like I had only partial access to the many threads that form it. I know that some of these threads are woven through it from beginning to end and that others dangle from the larger narrative and fray. Time will add new threads as I move through life, grow older, make new friends, suffer losses, and celebrate moments of joy. But most of these threads, those existing and those yet to become part of the larger fabric of my life, remain mysteries to me.

    I don’t know what I’ve chosen to include in my narrative and what has joined it by random chance. I don’t even know where my narrative ends and the narratives of other people begin. So writing is the best means I have of trying to understand the whole tapestry that includes me, others, and the world around us.

    From one of your comments: “‘A woman’s heart is deep ocean of secrets.’ Men’s are too I think.” True, and it saddens me that so many men are scared to share those secrets. Those who do are often ostracized in one way or another. It isn’t always obvious, but it happens even when nobody sees it. The quote with which you introduced this (beautiful) essay got me all teary-eyed. It struck me as so true, then it occurred to me that most of the men I know would flee from such a sentiment. But yeah, it’s hard rubbing the memory of the past all over yourself, so I get why many people would flee from the idea of doing so.

    Great piece.

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