BWF: Eulogy: Writing Grief

This was the third and final panel discussion that I attended at this year’s Brisbane Writers Festival. (Yes, I’m writing about them out of order.) When I went through the program, trying to decide which talks to go to, this was one that actually stood out for me. 

It’s a rather peculiar thing, I find, that my short stories tend to be quite sad or melancholic. I suppose even my longer stories tend to veer toward gloom and darkness too. Maybe there’s some part of me that believes sadness makes for compelling stories, or maybe there’s some great sadness deep within me that’s constantly trying to find an outlet. Whatever the reason, I don’t tend to write happy stories, so I figured I may as well learn how to write sad stories well.

The panel was chaired by Susan Johnson, and the guest authors were Jesse Ball, Nikki Gemmell, Ben Hobson and Nike Sulway. Each of these authors had written books about someone’s death, or about people who had lost a loved one. Most of the authors had also lived through the death of a close family member, so their novels were quite personal.

Only Ben Hobson said he’d never experienced the loss of someone close to him, yet he wrote a novel about a boy whose mother dies while he’s quite young, leaving him in the care of his emotionally distant father. If I remember correctly, Hobson said he’d set out to write To Become a Whale because he had wanted to challenge himself by trying to imagine and express experiences and feelings that were unfamiliar to him.

The first time I attempted to write a novel, I read a lot of writing advice, and something that popped up now and then was “write what you know”. This, of course, makes perfect sense. If you want to write something convincingly, you should write about something you’ve experienced first-hand. As logical as it was, I didn’t particularly like this bit of advice because I don’t really have that much life experience (or maybe I do, and it’s all perception relative to what I know of other people’s experiences…?)

Anyway, Hobson’s reasoning also made sense, and I appreciate that he was totally honest about it. No need to gloss it over with some elaborate backstory about why he wanted to write about what he wrote. Another bit of advice that’s often thrown around is to research your topic/subject as much as possible, so why not write about something you’re unfamiliar with, and just find out about it?

Of course, there’s nothing wrong about writing about personal experiences. I find writing therapeutic, and it’s the same for Gemmell, who wrote her book After to deal with her mother’s decision to euthanise herself. I did think it was funny, though, when the question of “writing as therapy” was handed to Sulway, and she outright said, “No. I find therapy therapeutic.”

Later, when talk turned to whether or not it was painful to revisit past events and to have to then write about them in some detail, Sulway did say it was torturous to some degree. And while some might ask why she or any other author would put themselves through that, I’m more fascinated than anything at this compulsion to write despite the pain it brings.

I think the gamut of human emotion is fascinating, and grief and sadness are no less fascinating because they are harder to talk about or not talked about as openly.

Jesse Ball offered many nuggets of writerly wisdom and insight throughout the discussion too. He had a way of speaking that not only made you stop and take note, but that made you lean in closer and almost hold your breath before he spoke. If you ever get a chance to attend any kind of talk by Ball, I’d definitely recommend it.

One of the things I remember most from what he said that day was to not use semi-colons. I don’t think I’ll necessarily stop using semi-colons (or trying to), but I think his advice was more about what the semi-colon represents. I dunno, it seems that language and grammar have evolved so much that no one really knows how to use semi-colons properly anymore, and people who do use semi-colons are seen as kind of pompous know-it-alls.

But I think all he was trying to tell us aspiring writers was that we shouldn’t be afraid of being judged, and we shouldn’t get hung up on trying to write how we think good writers write. He said something along the lines of “Don’t be afraid that your intelligence is being estimated from your writing.”

I think that’s the sort of advice that writers need. Isn’t it bizarre that we are so ready to deflect and shrug off praise and encouragement, but a minor criticism can knock us off our feet?

The discussion also got rather deep and philosophical (quite early on, actually) when Ball mentioned a Chinese poem he once read/heard that basically said “the apple in this poem is not an apple”. All the words of the poem describe an apple, but they’re still just words, and they are not an apple, themselves. Of course, the immediate meaning of it is obvious and logical, but I’m still wrapping my head around the deeper implication of it.

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