If I had to name my favorite memoir about loss, it would be Blue Jelly: Love Lost and the Lessons of Canning, by Debby Bull. It’s not sad, and no one dies. But it has some of the best lessons about how to work through despair of any book I’ve ever read on the subject.
In it, the author mourns the end of a relationship—“I was driven to canning by the wreck of my heart”—and copes with her heartache by learning how to can jellies, jams, preserves, and chutneys.
Sound lightweight? Maybe not, if you’ve just broken up with the love of your life. Besides, despite its charming and hilarious premise, Blue Jelly offers an instructive way to overcome depression.
Through canning, Bull says, “You create an orderly little world. Unlike what has happened to you, these steps take you to what you planned on. You become a person in a world in which things turn out the way you thought they would.”
And that, on so many levels, is the answer to dealing with grief and loss: the remaking of your broken world.
If you’re like me, you’d rather write about it than can your troubles away. As a former contributing editor and writer for Rolling Stone, Bull had an advantage when it came to telling her story. But what if you’re new to the craft and not sure where to start? What if your grief runs deeper than the end of a romantic relationship? What if you’re afraid of alienating family and friends by writing about it?
That’s where Braving the Fire: A Guide to Writing About Grief and Loss comes in, a comprehensive new handbook that answers all these questions and more. Author Jessica Handler has walked the walk. When she was ten years old, her eight-year-old sister Susie died of leukemia. Their sister Sarah, then only four, was diagnosed with a rare and fatal blood disorder and died when Handler was 32. In 2010, the memoir Handler wrote about them, Invisible Sisters, became her means of remembering those lost girls, of “capturing our lives and holding them for myself, our friends, family and perhaps people who never knew us …”
It also became Handler’s way of remembering herself, of understanding who she was then and how the events shaped her as a person—“who I became after grief changed me.” A good memoir, she explains, tries to share that journey. One of the first questions she suggests we ask is Why do I want to tell my story? and quotes memoirist Robin Hemley, who agrees: “The first detective act is to try to peer through the keyhole into who you really are. Figure out why you’re telling the story in the first place, and who is this person telling the story.”
“Things don’t go away. They become you,” Darin Strauss tells us. Strauss—whose book Half A Life chronicles the effects of a tragic accident—and Hemley are two of the dozens of memoirists Handler spoke with, and whose expert advice she shares in her book. Others include Natasha Trethewey, Nick Flynn, Mary Karr, Neil White, Abigail Thomas, and Janisse Ray. She also uses examples from classic memoirs such as Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking, James Agee’s Pulitzer Prize-winning A Death in the Family, John Gunther’s Death Be Not Proud, Nabokov’s Speak, Memory, and C.S. Lewis’ A Grief Observed.
Through a close examination of these authors and their craft, Braving the Fire clarifies the tasks facing any writer—of discovering meaning in details, searching for metaphors, and developing voice and point of view, which in turn provide portals into your own story. The six sections are based on the Five Stages of Grief—Denial, Anger, Bargaining, Depression, Acceptance—proposed by Elizabeth Kübler-Ross. Handler adds to these a sixth stage: Renewal.
Like a series of casual but intensive workshops, each chapter offers examples, tips, exercises, and steps to follow, as well as sections labeled “My Story,” in which Handler explains in depth the stages she went through to write Invisible Sisters. Here, for instance, she describes a trip she dreaded making in her hometown, Atlanta.
For me, time-travel research meant visiting the children’s hospital where Susie and Sarah often stayed for weeks at a time… It took a few weeks of thinking about it for me to summon the nerve… I didn’t want to go back. I remembered my young self there as scared, guilty, and sorrowful, but I’d already started writing about the whispering ease of the automatic doors into the lobby, the steam smell of the cafeteria… I knew that in order for my book to be accurate and for me to feel confident that I had written tough material in the best way I knew how, I had to go. One day I just did it: I stuck my hand into the fire.
Handler, who has taught screenwriting and now leads workshops in creative writing, memoir, and feature journalism, covers every possible aspect of getting your story down on paper. She guides the reader through the process of evaluating the raw material of memoir as well as shaping it, of finding the right form through experimenting with arrangement, chronology, styles, the inclusion of different materials like photography, lyrics, letters, etc.
Some of the techniques mentioned were new to me, such as the double-entry notebook—a way to detail your research alongside your thoughts and reactions to it—or the screenwriter’s “beat sheets,” using index cards that indicate the action and characters in each scene. And although it never would have occurred to me that writing about grief might take an emotional toll, Handler devotes an entire chapter to the importance of taking care of yourself while you revisit painful material.
I would add another tip: Keep pen and paper handy as you’re reading her book because you’ll want to make notes and copy down quotes like this one: “Disagreeing with yourself is the life-blood of memoir,” says Ethan Gilsdorf. “One of the reasons that readers turn to memoir is to watch the writer reevaluate his past and engage in a kind of conversation between his past and present selves.”
As for the ending of your story? “A well made ending is a new beginning,” Handler says, quoting writer Rebecca McClanahan, who calls endings “openings,” places where you decide who you have become, and what your next chapter might be.
Debby Bull says that her canning experience may have been “a strange path out of the woods of despair,” but that “when it was over, the jars covered all the counter tops, and I knew I could live through this.” At the heart of Braving the Fire lies a similar assurance: “The panic and sorrow that swirled in me,” Handler writes, “belonged on the page now, no longer in my throat.” To the reader just starting the journey, she passes the baton by way of a virtual notebook inscribed with these words of hope: Not lost, but found.
Handler will teach a free workshop on writing about loss at 11 a.m., Saturday, March 15, at the Decatur Library Auditorium, located at 215 Sycamore St., in Decatur, GA. Call (404) 370-8450, Ext. 2225, or go here for more info.
She’ll also conduct a workshop, “Writing the Tough Stuff,” from 5–7 p.m. on Saturday, March 29 at the Book Exchange, 2932 Canton Rd, Marietta, GA, (770) 427-4848. Get more info here.
Read an excerpt from Braving the Fire.