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National Book Award winners Nikki Finney (left) and Jesmyn Ward visited Mankato on April 10 as part of the Good Thunder Reading Series.

National Book Award winners Nikki Finney (left) and Jesmyn Ward visited Mankato on April 10 as part of the Good Thunder Reading Series.

I cleared my schedule to make sure I could attend the craft talk and reading by Nikki Finney and Jesmyn Ward. Ward’s biography, MEN WE REAPED, has been on my reading list ever since it came out last year.

The title comes from this excerpt, which serves as an epigraph:

Ward book

In the span of four years, Ward lost five young men close to her from drugs, accidents, suicide. One was her brother, Joshua. I will read almost any memoir that explores death, grief, and loss.

Men we Reaped

Ward’s reading blew me away. Her description of grief was spot-on: “After I left New York, I found the adage about time healing all wounds to be false: grief doesn’t fade. Grief scabs over like my scars and pulls in new, painful configurations as it knits. It hurts in new ways. We are never free from grief.” (p. 239).

I think we do our society a great disservice by having silly adages and formulas for grief. The idea that we should be at certain markers at six months, one year, five years, is ludicrous. Grief changes but doesn’t go away, much as Ward describes.

Ward’s reading reminded me of another Good Thunder visit by Edwidge Danticat. Almost all of Danticat’s writing revolves around loss. Some may find it dark, but I find it honest. Both Danticat and Ward come from communities where, unfortunately, loss is ever-present: Danticat from poverty-riddled Haiti with its low life expectancies, and Ward from the U.S., where the leading cause of death of African American men ages 15-34 is homicide.

During the craft talk, Finney had asked Ward how long it takes her to write a book. From what I remember, MEN WE REAPED took longer to write than the novels because it was so emotional, she said. I spoke to Ward briefly after the craft talk and wanted to know if she only discovered the depths of her emotions and what her story was about as she was writing. She said she started MEN WE REAPED from an outline, but it was only an outline of events. The true discovery of what the story was about happened on the page (as was my experience with my memoir).

Finney overheard us and talked about the “magic” that happens as we write. We can plan and outline, but there’s a certain amount of magic that has to happen, too. “Just write,” was Finney’s simple, yet brilliant, advice.

 

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