I heard someone the other day criticize people for writing about grief. His reasoning was that everyone has lost someone, so why do people keep writing about it if it’s such a common story?
This is an old argument and one I’ve heard before. I was in a writing workshop once, sharing a story about my dad’s death, and someone voiced similar criticism. “We’ve all had parents die,” the man said. To the leader of the workshop he said, “What makes Rachael’s story any different?”
Looking back, I think it was a rhetorical question and not one designed to personally criticize me. But at the time I was slightly offended. The workshop leader, an established nonfiction writer and teacher, noticed and slipped me an encouraging, supportive note as I left.
Here’s how I would answer those criticisms:
It’s true that most of us have been through some type of loss. But everyone’s experiences with loss are very different. We are humans and we experience events in very individual ways. How we experience events is worth exploring and writing about.
I’m not going to say that every piece about loss and death that has ever been published is brilliant. I’m sure there are many that weren’t quite ready for publication. If someone is going to write about death, they have to spend some time discovering how their story is unique. If they are going to write only a surface story, it will sound too common and familiar. Because most everyone has suffered loss, the first thing they will ask when reading a loss story is, “How is this different from my story? Why should I care?” As a writer, you need to make them care and help them see loss in a different way.
Yes, my dad died, but I don’t consider that the focus of my memoir. His death and aftermath constitute maybe the last one-third or last one-fourth of the book. I grew up in a cemetery, which I think was an unusual environment to grow up in and an environment that taught me how to see the world. That is my focus. I feel like I was able to find that unique angle in writing about death.
A good friend of mine (who can name herself in the comments section if she wants to!) has also written a memoir about her dad’s death. Her dad died tragically when she was three years old. I’m interested in that story because I want to know how one copes with losing a dad so young and the fallout that stems from that death. I lost a dad, she lost a dad, but we have very different stories and perspectives.
It may take some digging to find that unique angle, but I believe that everyone can find it if they are willing to invest the time and energy in doing so.
How do you feel about the death memoir and/or essay? Do you consider them trite? Overused? Or do you feel you can learn something from them? Do you have a favorite death/loss/grief memoir?
Amy Kortuem said:
People could argue that every story has been told over and over. But it’s the arc, the character change, the “point” or the message in the story that makes each one unique and, if written beautifully (as yours is!), worth reading. Don’t you think?
Really – people don’t argue about stories people write about falling in love or going to war, do they?
People say there are really only three or five classic story patterns. When you boil down all these stories in broad terms, they share characteristics. It’s definitely all in how the story is told and what can be done to make the story unique.
Richard Gilbert said:
Good post with interesting timing for me, Rachael. I am getting ready to polish a chapter of my memoir that deals with my dad’s death, and I just finished Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home about her dad and his death. I agree with your statement that the worth of such stories lies in their details, in their particulars that make them unique. The end result of life, death, is always the same finality, but the infinite variations on getting there are what interest us. And perhaps with that, the writer struggling to wring for herself and for others a meaning.
When people complain that too many people are writing about grief and death, I think really their complaint is that the writing is too general and vague. I can’t imagine getting bored of well-written stories about loss. Like someone would tell Alison Bechdel she shouldn’t have written about her dad’s death? Yeah, right!