Mary Akers: Hi, Jessica. Thanks for agreeing to talk with me today. In your introduction to Braving the Fire: Writing About Grief and Loss, you write: “After you’ve survived the death of a loved one, an illness, a broken romance, the loss of a home, country, or even a social structure, the story of who you are changes.” Wow. I really like that. It’s one of those truths that seems simultaneously deep and yet also obvious. I read your first book, Invisible Sisters: A Memoir (and loved it), so I suspect you’ve long had a sense of wanting to explore and write about loss. But I’m curious: When did you realize that you wanted to help others learn to write about their losses? The two seem like very different animals.
Jessica Handler: When I was doing author events with Invisible Sisters: A Memoir, time after time members of the audience approached me privately to tell me that they, like me, were “an only one left,” and to ask not only about my process in writing the book, but what it was really like, emotionally and intellectually. I teach writing workshops, and I know that people struggle with the particular responsibility of telling their own stories of loss or trauma. I’ve been there, and I love to teach, so the two ideas came together naturally.
MA: Ah, of course. That makes perfect sense.
You talk about Kubler-Ross’s five stages of grief in your book, and then you go on to add “renewal” as a sixth stage. Renewal seems like an important step in the process of healing. As you aptly put it, it’s a process of “building a bridge between who you were and who you have become.” Can you talk a little bit about what that bridge looks like for you? And, a related question, do you have multiple bridges?
JH: My bridge is paved with artifacts and actions that keep my sisters, my mother, and my father in my life. A bad day and I hear my mother encouraging me to enjoy life, to work in the garden, to pet the cat. I hear a song on the radio that reminds me of my sister Sarah and I sing along. A child’s picture book and I think of Susie. Social justice, and I act on my father’s behalf. All these people and interactions made me who I am now, and I try to keep that in perspective. And then there’s my husband, who loves me and keeps me grounded in the present and the future and our own past. He’s a bridge.
MA: I really like that you include analysis of and insights from the work of other authors in your book. How instructive/enlightening was it for you to contact these authors whose work you’ve admired and pick their brains?
JH: Wonderfully so! Some of the authors are writers who have been mentors to me and I know personally, and others I took a deep breath and reached out to, and every single person was generous and kind and insightful. Their insights helped verify my own thoughts and approaches. Despite our different personal experiences, writing styles, and levels of recognition, we had similar instincts and concepts about writing about grief and loss. And I learned a great deal from each of them. Those interviews were kind of a personalized master class, and I’m so grateful.
MA: Another thing I liked was the extended metaphor about the flame. The flame of grief and loss that burns through us, the way we have to be brave enough to put the hand back over the fire that has already burned us if we want to write about grief, but also the idea of afterward being “the keeper of the flame.” You are the keeper of the flame as the last surviving sister, and most of us who write are also keeping the flame in some form, or will be soon enough. No question, I guess, but would you care to comment?
JH: We’re the keepers of the flames of whatever’s gone behind us but has made us who we are, whether it’s the death of loved ones, the loss of a way of life, a home, a romance, or a way of being. That flame doesn’t always have to rage, but it’s like a spark, or a pilot light.
MA: In the first chapter, you discuss The Right to Write, which is an excellent guide to starting the process. As you know, I helped an older gentleman write about the time when he was five years old and watched his grandfather starve to death on purpose (in Siberia) so the children (my co-author and his younger brother) could have enough food. That was a very moving project for me, but I worried a lot about “getting it right,” especially since I wasn’t writing about my own experience. But I expect it’s just as easy to worry about “getting it right” when it is your own experience. Perhaps even more so. How do you satisfy your inner critic that you’ve gotten it right (or right enough)?
JH: I loved Radical Gratitude! My maternal grandfather was born in Siberia, so the book gave me some insight into his internal landscape. In a memoir, you’re getting your own story right, so some of what you have to honor – or learn to honor – is your recollection of an event, or your emotions or reactions to an event. These might not be another person’s feelings, but they’re your emotional or subjective truth. That’s the hardest to ‘get right’ because we naturally question ourselves as time passes, and that passage of time is part of memoir, too. That “right to write” means accepting that you want to write what you know to be true. This doesn’t mean that a memoir is entirely subjective. Our lives take place in the larger world, which means that facts are necessary. Those are objective truths, which are much easier to pin down; dates, weather, news events, and so forth, which can be corroborated with research. I love research, and devote a part of “Braving the Fire” to innovative ways to conduct research. That can also mean accepting that there will be things a writer will never know. How do you write about those things?
MA: Exactly! After we published Radical Gratitude, my co-author (a psychotherapist by trade) came up with this maxim: “What you choose to remember…and how you choose to interpret it…determines who you are.” I would say that also applies to the writing of memoir. Since we can’t write about everything, the selectivity serves to shape the book. Would you agree?
JH: I agree. I’m not a psychologist at all, but I know from personal experience that people remember things differently, or not at all. A memoir isn’t a tell-all that covers every moment of the author’s life, it’s merely a lyrical examination of an event that changed the author. Merely. 🙂
MA: And finally, if it isn’t too bold of me to ask a question that you have spent a whole book answering, what does “recovery” mean to you?
JH: Moving ahead, changed and aware and happy.