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The prolific author Joyce Carol Oates has written a book about losing her husband, following in the heart-broken footsteps of many other such memoirs, such as The Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion. Oates’ book, A Widow’s Story, has been generally, although carefully, praised save for one review by New York Times critic Janet Maslin, who (bravely or foolishly; take your pick) questions author’s sincerity of purpose.

Maslin is careful not to criticize Oates’ grief process but rather takes aim at the lack of emotional meaning or depth in A Widow’s Story. Oates’ book is “far less fastidious… flabbier and flightier” than Didion’s work, Maslin asserts, and includes threadbare metaphysics…much minutiae…and worrisome signs of haste.” She also finds Oates’ selective retelling to be deceptive. For example, the author includes poignant and poignantly funny stories about grieving but fails to go deeply into her forty-seven year marriage. A far more grievous omission, in Maslin’s view, is the fact that Oates became engaged eleven months after her husband died and is now happily (one hopes) married. “How delicately must we tread around this situation,” Maslin asks? All of this leads Maslin to conclude that Oates may have been seeking to “willfully [tap] into the increasingly lucrative loss-of-spouse market.”

Full stop.

It’s difficult for me to distance myself from these kinds of memoirs—as a writer or as a widow. My first reaction is almost always a distressing cocktail of anger, despair, envy, and confusion.

The writer in me asks: How did there come to be a subset of memoir about spousal loss? How do we rate and rank these books? How do we rate or rank the loss? Are those with greater command of the language or the market share the ones who are most “qualified” to write about this subject? Does it depend on circumstance, or on context? Was my experience with grief and mourning worthy of a  share of that “lucrative loss-of spouse market,” even though I was told way back in 2001 that the story of a middle-aged childless widow was far less compelling than that of a young mother of three whose husband had (also) died in the 9/11 attacks?

The widow in me wonders: How long?

The Oates book and Maslin’s review have generated a fair amount of blogosphere discussion about the grieving process. Author Ruth Conigsberg insisted that “…these memoirs are…highly subjective snapshots that don’t teach us much about how we typically grieve, nor more importantly, for how long.” Conigsberg, it should be noted, has her own book concerning the myth of the stages of grief.

She notes optimistically that many older people do recover from losing a spouse to natural causes fairly quickly and even remarry, as did Oates. Her findings are not to be confused with studies that show younger people who lose their spouses in traumatic situations and remain widows or widowers are six times more likely to experience dementia.

Uh-oh.

Nine and a half years after my traumatic loss, I float in a sea of doubt. I don’t even know if I’m still grieving or if something else is at play. Was my marriage at forty an anomaly, a one-time event? The more time that passes, the more I circle back to “before”—before I met the man I would marry; the years spent in the company of inappropriate, uninterested, non-committal men while yearning for the comfort of a stable relationship. I spent, will have spent, will spend, more years alone than in a romantic partnership. The marriage, as joyful, as sustained, as relieved and as (foolish me) safe as it made me feel, was a blip on the radar screen of my life, an accident of fate. I float, I coast and I wonder how I can draw any kind of illustrative, instructive or illuminating lessons from the before, the “during”, or the after.

The writer in me thinks: Oates is a well-known, well-respected writer and professor at Princeton University. She’s out there. It might have been more, what, helpful, to let us know her process included finding happiness again so quickly. Then again, she wasn’t necessarily writing a self-help book, just an accounting.

The widow in me understands: Any memoir I write would be so unresolved as to be thoroughly unsatisfactory, even to me.

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There are any number of ways to teach writing or purport to teach pencilwriting, just as there are many ways to write. And there’s something to be said for perfecting the craft, learning what makes a meaningful narrative arc or what constitutes a gripping opening or a powerful closing.

But there’s also something to be said–perhaps everything–for writing without hesitation, without fear, and without filter. In the doing we can often be better; and in the doing without inhibition, we can always be the most honest.

I had the great privilege this weekend of hearing disparate voices expressed through the written word, unfiltered, thanks to a workshop that is focused on self-expression. This sort of workshop (and my experience is limited to two: this and a well-known alternative in New York with an approach that emphasizes critique and craft and imitation of established writing voices) is all about writing without thinking. It’s like being thrown into the deep end of the pool and instructed to swim, with this important caveat: someone is there to hold you, guide you, encourage you, and, if necessary, pull you over to the side and out onto dry land.

In this workshop, there is no lecturing, only guidelines: no criticism, no personalization (we refer to the work and “the writer”), no self-reference (“what I always do…”), no criticism; no MonhonkWorkshop1suggestions for doing something differently. We learn to listen carefully with an ear to experiencing the writing; and then urged to discuss what stays with us about each other’s work.

Writing in this environment is relatively filter-free. We are given prompts–loose suggestions derived from looking at pictures or answering a simple question or listening to a poem. We have a limited amount of time–five to twenty-five minutes–to write whatever comes to mind. Editing ones’ own thoughts is impossible, which for me turns out to be a godsend. Get it on paper, Nikki: never mind what anyone thinks. The only way to get better at writing, after all, is to write.

Writing within an allotted time frame is at once disciplining and liberating, as is listening and commenting within the established guidelines. I find myself immersed into the participants’ stories; hearing their words as perhaps they intended to have them heard, although, given that they are under the same time constraints, they must be writing without intentions.

Writing without intention or expectation: that’s the truly liberating part.  What occurs to me? What do I want to say? What would happen if I simply tried to say it, if I wrote it down, all jumbled, a mix of inelegant phrasing and unwittingly artful phrases, infused with the colors, the memories, the experiences that shape me, whether I use the first person or the third person, as does Colleen, one of the most fully formed, uniquely realized voices I’ve ever read (think Flannery O’Connor or Eudora Welty or Annie Proulx or Willa Cather or, I don’t know: she’s her own person). I can do that, I think: I can drop the of-the-moment yet safely removed observer of the contemporary contretemps that pass for communication in American society and write about what’s going on.

In one exercise, we pick up photographs; many are of fathers and sons or fathers and daughters and I am depleted by my recent Father’s Day post and pull away. But then, flipping over a photo, I see what is obviously arma piece of another photo on the reverse side which might have been yet another picture of father and daughter but the only thing showing is the arm–a single arm which somehow triggers something in me and I grab my laptop and glance at the clock and I write. And what I come up with is a metaphor for everything I am trying to accomplish as a writer and as a being and everything against which I struggle and yet in the act of writing in the twenty-five allotted minutes, I both come up against and also perhaps surmount the obstacle that stands in the way of the flow and freethe connection and the interaction and the happiness I want in my writing and, damn it, in my life. And in overcoming, although not yet eliminating the obstacle, I experience a pang of pure joy so fierce I wonder if I can withstand it.

pen image: university writing center

arm: www.inmagine.com

starlings in flight: James Potorti (my late husband)

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Back Soon

Dear readers: I’m taking a break from posting until after Labor Day in order to work on final edits for my new book and plan for upcoming projects. This blog may have a home at another address; I will also be blogging in other locations. I promise to let you know if you’ll let me know the best way to keep you up to date (if you’re on Facebook or you have Google Reader or use RSS, it’s easy. If what I just wrote has you puzzled or terrified, we’ll need to talk).

Beginning about this time of year, I find I’m on a roller-coaster ride of emotions. Some of that is fairly recent, the result of the forever after anniversary that can’t help but bring back, if not the pain itself, then the memories of that pain. Much of it these days relates to my awareness that much more of my own time is behind me than ahead of me; just the thought of being in “the autumn of my years” could bring me unaccountably low.

beach1But ingrained in me is the sense that autumn is a time of transition; not the beginning of the end, but the beginning of something else. Autumn is part of a cycle, one we all experience differently, depending on where we are, who we are, and how we look at what we’re doing. It’s as possible to transition to something more meaningful, more remarkable, or more significant than it is to do anything else.

The secret to my autumn, I’m beginning to understand, is to focus on what can be done. Gone is gone, past is past, and the future is unpredictable. So I go into September as always, with a flexible game plan and a set of goals,  which include staying aware, alert and curious about what is to come. Hey, you never know.

See you in September.  sunsetbeach

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One of the more interesting articles I ran across in yesterday’s paper concerned blogging(although I’m trying to get my news the new-fashioned way, via the Internet, the better to connect with my young friends and colleagues, I still like to peruse the paper with a cup of coffee in hand; call me old-fashioned). Anyway, the gist of the story was that blogging, which pays little and requires long hours in front of a computer, is so stressful you could die – literally. As was noted, two well-known bloggers, one sixty and the other fifty, had recently dropped dead and another had suffered a massive heart attack. Apparently, even those who manage to make a decent living feel chained to their stations, much like the assembly lines of ancient times.

 

Clearly there are certain factors at work: too little exercise, too little sleep, and probably a diet of whatever-you-can-grab, which is to say junk food. We all know that sitting or standing in one place for any length of time is bad for you but we all forget when parked in front of our computers to stand up or look up or stretch or even blink. Throw in the pressure of delivering content on a twenty-seven basis and it’s a wonder more people don’t drop on the spot.

 

I write, sometimes for pay and sometimes not. Like everyone else, I’m confronted with deadlines. But I’m at the point where, no matter how much I enjoy doing what I’m doing, I’m still aware that life is about – well, living. That means friendship and fun and exercise and sun and time with my dog as well as my beloved blog. So if on occasion I miss a few days posting, never fear. I’ve just pried my hands off the keyboard, closed up the basement office and headed upstairs for a cup of coffee and some time with the newspaper.

 

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