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Revising grief

There’s no particular reason why you have to make anything out of grief that’s for anyone else’s consumption. A lot of people don’t; but then a lot of people do, Alfred Lord Tennyson and Roland Barthes and Donald Hall and Jane Yolen and, apparently, me. The stuff that you pour out into a journal or sketchbook or freeform on your instrument can just be you and your grief, you and a bunch of tears and snot and the knots in your chest. But the minute you say, hey, I think this might actually be good, this might be worth going on with, then there’s subjecting the art you made from grief to revision, and that is, frankly, very weird.

I think for me the thing that has been weirdest about this process is the bifurcated view that it requires. Because a lot of what I’ve been doing is looking at sentences and saying, yes, that is exactly right, that is exactly what my experience of grief and mourning was like–and, simultaneously, this sentence is not doing what it needs to do for this story as a story. And so it needs to change, it needs to communicate more with the outside world, or it needs to go away completely, having served its purpose of getting my emotions out and not having a purpose in the other thing I’m doing, which is telling this story.

Which is a story about grief. Yes. It totally is. But it’s a story, I am asking an editor to publish it as a story; I had the choice of just doing a blog post that was word soup, an outpouring on the page, and instead I shaped it into something else, something indirect; I wrote about my grief by writing about the grief of someone who lost their mother, a person who lived alone, a person who had an alien visitor. None of those details are true of me. I took it into the realm of fiction because that’s what I do–but then the other thing I do is actually, I revise, I consider, I add and prune and think about what’s there compared to what I meant to be there.

Even when it’s something incredibly personal.

Even when it’s one of the worst things.

It’s always okay to say no. It’s always okay, when someone says, hey, can you make this clearer, can you make this longer, can you make this shorter, I don’t understand what significance the bananas have here–it’s always okay to say, no, you know what, I don’t want to do it that way, this is how we’re doing it or not at all. And I think being a short story writer gives me a very particular outlook on that, because there is always another one.

But there isn’t another of this one, there isn’t another that does what this one does, that says what this one says, and at the end of the day when I weigh the variables I find that I actually do care enough to make it worthwhile, to look with double vision at my own suffering and say, okay, this part is just for me, this part is to try to talk to the world about what it is like to suffer in this particular way. This, and not that.

All of the things I have to say about Dad’s opinion of this are circular: Dad would want me to if I wanted to. Dad would want me to have something to say about this if I had something to say about it. Dad would think it was worth it if it was worth it to me.

Dad trusted my judgment.

Dad wanted me to trust my own judgment too.

It is a very different kind of exquisitely painful to mourn someone who wasn’t good to you, and I try to be careful how I talk to people when I know their parental relationship was more complicated than this, but for me, I have this, I have this support that has lasted, that will last, because one of the things about knowing him this well and honoring who he was is that when I take a deep breath and think about whether this line stays or goes in a story, I don’t have to second-guess whether he would be upset or not, because that is not how this worked, that is never how this worked with my work, he would never have second-guessed my work, not once, he would have been horrified. I can do this when I say I’m ready, and my dad was in the absolute front ranks of the people who would say that.

I was never going to be ready for the grief part. But the revision, well. Apparently that’s now. Bring it on.

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