My drug of choice is writing––writing, art, reading, inspiration, books, creativity, process, craft, blogging, grammar, linguistics, and did I mention writing?

Monday, September 16, 2019

Writing in Grief (Personal/Meta)

That should be a bigger number than it is, and now that I can, I'm going to tell you why it isn't and why I'm having more trouble these past couple of weeks bringing funny to the page. Why I've phoned in a couple of posts and why I'm probably not done.

In addition to all the things Writing About Writing does, it is a real time exploration into how messy it is to try to be a writer. You get to see me hit the highs, the lows, and the everydays in between. The conventional wisdom that writers go out and live lives of glamour and ease until they are hit by a lightning bolt of inspiration, whereupon they sit down for perhaps a month or six weeks and slam out a novel that they then pop off to an agent with no further thought other than to nip down to the mail to collect royalty checks is surprisingly pernicious. But similarly (though with less intensity) I also want to combat the equally ridiculous idea that we writers are wordsmithing machines, paragons of discipline, have ice in our veins, and never have a bad day or ever experience a moment where they have trouble coming to the page.

Some of you have been with me for almost eight years. Through a loved one's lymphoma. Through a terrible break up. Through substantively losing a child for whom I wanted to be a coparent. Through a dear pet's death. Through the loss of friends. Through major health problems that required life alterations. Through it all, I've tried to not just tell you but SHOW you that writers write. Lord knows I've missed a post from time to time, and I'm all kinds of behind on every "behind the scenes" project I ever undertook. (My friends know they can annoy me by asking how my Skyrim article is going.) But this blog is a monument to the plodding, dogged effort that turns a session each day into a career.

But writers also fall on their faces. I have written a quick note to the patrons and blown off a day (or even two) here and there. I have dragged my ass to the computer at the end of my day and done some desperately uninspired fluff post. I have spent entire weeks barely dealing with the blog. And while I often do some of my own writing on such days (maybe noodle fiction casually or post something on my personal FB wall), it's more of a glutsplat of wordfeels than the crafted effort that makes for decent writing.

Grief can inform creativity, intensify it, bring it into focus. But in those first, intense moments of acute grief, writing anything of substance is almost impossible.

I can talk about what happened now. I couldn't for a few weeks because what happened was national news and reporters were trolling social media to try to mine information. The family didn't want that.

As you know, I quit pet sitting. I have a steady side gig in child care that covers the bills writing doesn't, and I have been trying to take it easier for health reasons. Well, I have about four clients I told that I would still be happy to watch their pets because it was always a pleasure (they always tip quite well or the job is super easy). A set of my clients (a couple in Berkeley) contacted me about watching their kitties over the Labor Day weekend. Happy to get a few extra dollars for some very low-key supervision, I took the job.

These clients were going to Santa Cruz to scuba dive, and the boat they were on had a horrible fire. Thirty-four people in the sleeping quarters below deck were killed, including my clients. Only four crew members who were above deck survived.

They were friends too, though I wish I'd known them better. Like many of my clients, they started as friends of friends, and I got to know them mostly through pet sitting, jokes over emails, or meeting a couple times. We talked often and in an act of generosity I have since come to learn was perfectly in keeping with his character, Dan took a couple of hours out of his schedule to help me change out my laptop's battery so I would save hundreds of dollars. And I guess I thought my getting to know them would just be something that happened organically...in its own time.

That alone was a terrible moment. However, as the family from disparate parts of the country coordinated to get to Berkeley and coordinated with me about a couple of things (because I was in the house), I told them that if it helped them, even a little, I would stay as long as they needed and keep taking care of the cats.

I don’t regret that offer, even a little (truly— it was nice to be in a position to be able to help) but it became more surreal than I could have anticipated. When people die that I'm not super close to, it's very sad, and I feel it deeply, but I can also kind of set the thoughts aside for a while to function. I have a cry and I'm okay for a while. And I know the thoughts will come back around but I can kind of push them down until I'm in a good place to have feels. But with this situation, I was in their house, and they were never coming home. I was looking at their couch and they were never coming home. I was petting their cats and they were never coming home. In one second nothing changed but everything was totally different. Every bag of snack food, every undone load of laundry, every casually strewn bit of personal effects, a hairbrush, a shampoo bottle the LED displays....is a landmine of implication.

It was so hard being THERE. I couldn't get away from it. I slept about 6 hours total in the three nights I stayed there after hearing the news. I couldn't stop my brain from rolling it over and over and over. I couldn't pause the playback loop. Not long enough to write. Not long enough to think. I managed to cook a meal kit on the last day I was there that was supposed to take 30 minutes of prep. It took me over two hours.

The house had ghosts in it. (Not the real kind, of course, but the metaphors that are just as unsettling.)

While I was there, I couldn't even sit down long enough to write. I couldn't structure and order the pattern of my thoughts. I wrote a few things for Facebook, but they took ten times longer than it should have to clean up my meandering thoughts. Things got better when I got out of the house, but I think I expected everything would go back to normal and it didn't. I was an emotional wreck from the time I spent in the house. Minds, like bodies, can be devastated and need recovery time. I managed to remind people to vote on a poll and later posted the results. That was about all I had in me other than Facebook posts and rambling.

I will say one thing. There is a trope in haunted house stories. One member of the family immediately begins to degrade. No matter what else is going on and how overt or subtle the "ghost" is, there is a family member (usually the dad) who is unable to sleep and begins to kind of break down mentally. I get this now. I get it all too well. If I had had to stay there any longer looking at toothbrushes that would never be used again I would have been ten kinds of a wreck by the time I left. As it was, I lost enough sleep to take me months to catch back up and I was pretty incoherent for at least a week.

My natural state is Being too Hard on Myself™, and I expected to walk out the door and be okay. Not that I didn't feel anything, but I thought I'd be able to hit the pause button to work. But grief is not a predictable creature, and I had lost about 20 hours of sleep (which if you've been with me a while, you'll recall is something I really, really have to be careful about).

It is sometimes hard for me to tell the difference between "This is why I get paid to be a writer" hard on myself and "Hey, Chris, this is some dysfunctional shit" hard on myself, and I was doing the latter. I just wasn't going to get back to my feet so quickly.

I'm not going to spin this up with a little bow and deliver a bite-sized lesson on how to be a writer. Just remember that it's okay to breathe. It's okay to cry. It's okay to be a wreck and miss a few days. It's okay to be so shredded to flinders that you can't think, and when you can't thought pattern coherently, it's okay to give that space. Even if your job kind of exists because you're harder  on yourself than the rest of the world, because you put in 60-70 hour weeks, and because you don't give yourself a break when others would, some days it's not only okay to be gentle with yourself, but pretty fucking important. I can't tell you where that balance is. (No I literally can't––I consistently get it wrong.) Just remember that you're in this for the long haul, not for any one specific week. You can be hard on yourself next Monday.

Writing will still be there just where you left it.

Just make sure you come back.


  1. That is very very tough to read and tougher to write. I've been in the house of a friend, house-sitting during the funeral (there are those that prey on those that are in grief and I volunteered to take the watch). Your words captured the sentiments exactly. Good luck to you

  2. As someone who’s still shocked and grieving after her cancer counsellor was killed by a drunk driver three years ago - I hear you. There are some things that you can’t write away. You just have to endure and try to remember to breathe. It gets better, and then something jumps out at you and reminds you. Be ready for the roller coaster. Hugs.

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  4. I only know you, Chris, through your writing, which means, in a weird way, that I know you very well indeed. I don't answer many of your posts, I don't comment on the blogs, I rarely poke my head up other than to "like" a post. But I read most of them. When I first read your note a while back about where you were and why, I knew this experience would hit you very, very hard. And there was really no way for me to say how sorry I was (and am). How sorry for you, for the families, for the cats. Sure I could write it, but I couldn't really make you KNOW it. So I am at least relieved that you understand that right now, you have to be kind to yourself in ways that we can only wish for you. You experienced a shock that takes time to process. So keep doing what you must do, and go softly about your days. We are with you.