In many ways, memoir grieves a life that no longer exists. Writing from the vantage point of the present means that much of what we include on the page has already passed. The stories and selves we share have already ceased to exist. The moments we include are memorials.
We are living in a time of great loss. We’ve witnessed the loss of human life on a global scale, along with our social and political landscapes, our natural worlds, and our basic human rights. It can be difficult to find the solace needed to create. It can seem impossible to build when the world seems broken. But it is possible to write with and through and perhaps even because of grief.
A few weeks before his death, I called my father in the hospital to tell him I’d sold the book, Halfway from Home, which I’d been working on since the world shut down and he was diagnosed with cancer. It’s a book about grief, about nostalgia, about trying to find your way home when emotional and environmental worlds are collapsing.
Remember that grief, like writing memoir, makes us time travelers. This is an empowering position. We often think of grief as the end of something. As loss. As absence. But grief, like memoir, allows us to live in the past and the present. Both grieving and the act of writing memoir create new realities—selves and stories that exist because we have undertaken these difficult processes. Accepting the power of grief and memoir is an act of agency, for with this positioning we can go back in time through remembrance and reflection. Through this time travel, we are granted escape from the pain of the present by lingering in the sweet nostalgia of the past. When my father was ill, I recalled and wrote about the times before, drifting back to when we searched through tide pools or gathered stones for skipping. I recalled the natural worlds of my youth when birdsong was symphonious, when the land was safe from drought and wildfire, when monarch butterflies were not on the verge of extinction and instead clustered in eucalyptus trees each winter for warmth and to ensure their survival.
Similarly, grief and memoir are a way to bring what is lost back to life. We can write about loved ones who have passed, but also past versions of ourselves and our homes before the world seemed hopeless. We can resurrect the places from our childhoods that have long been paved over, and recreate the feelings that vanished with the harsh realities of contemporary living. Through grief and memoir, you can revive a parent, a neighborhood, or a nation. We reawaken what we believed was lost, put it on the page, and make it real for others. This does not mean it is easy—resurrection is always an act of sacrifice—but the hardship we feel when remembering or writing is nothing compared to the difficulty of enduring life with loss. Grief and writing allow us to reclaim what has been taken. We give this to ourselves and others.
Grief and memoir both require attention to detail. Emotions alone—in grief and in memoir—are vague and abstract. But an image—the gaunt polar bear struggling on the vanishing ice, a child and father leaving their handprints in cement as if to make themselves last forever—illustrates emotions and makes them knowable. Image also allows you to share with others, for while grief and memoir are deeply personal, they also function within communities. Though it is difficult, sharing grief and memoir are collective opportunities for the kind of collaboration that leads to hope, to healing. When grieving and writing, search for the details, dig them up as though stones or buried shells, as though treasures buried for a child by a father intent on creating wonder for the natural world. Hold them up to the light to let them shine.
Grief has the power to isolate, and the act of writing requires it. Contemporary living can make us feel as though we are the only ones who have lost a loved one, who raise children in a timeline that does little to protect them, and who are watching the natural world collapse with little individual power to stop it. We feel unseen, unheard, and unacknowledged as we trudge on, searching for ways to live meaningfully when the resources we require are vanishing. And while we are aware that others are hurting, the proliferation of painful stories serves to numb, to make us feel as though our stories cannot be heard over the others, that we are silenced in the storm. Perhaps what unifies us most in our contemporary living is our utter isolation. We are united in our collective grief. In recent years I’ve felt despondent and abandoned, angry and resentful. I’ve felt a sorrow I can only describe as a marrow kind of knowing. And as a writer, I’ve felt sometimes, most frighteningly, like I have no words.
To combat this fear, I’ve turned to the words of others. The words of writers like Terese Marie Mailhot, Aimee Nezhukumatathil, Jesmyn Ward, and Kathryn Schulz were a reassurance that the tides of grief would shift and change, that I would not drown, that I could swim to the other side. They provide maps for all the possibilities my grief would afford, the many routes I can could use to find my way out of the darkness.
My father died. I knew this was imminent when I told him I’d sold a book about our many childhood adventures outdoors and the ways the world had changed and how I longed to go back in time so we could be happy and healthy and home again. And I suspect he knew as well, which is why I needed to call and tell him that if the grief we felt over saying goodbye would last forever, so too would our stories.
Sarah Fawn Montgomery’s latest book is the lyric essay collection Halfway from Home (Split/Lip Press). She is also the author of Quite Mad: An American Pharma Memoir (The Ohio State University Press) and three poetry chapbooks. She is an Assistant Professor at Bridgewater State University. You can follow her on Twitter at @SF_Montgomery