Write for the Dead Whom Thou Didst Love

 A voice calls, “Write, write!”
I say, “For whom shall I write.”
And the voice replies,
“For the dead whom thou didst love.”

—John Berryman

I read a novel the other day where the main character was a grieving widow with a young daughter, but neither character showed any symptoms of grief — at least not what I have come to know as grief. The only indication of their grief was a conversation about how the two needed to be strong and not cry.

If this is the way the non-grieving public learns about grief, no wonder so few of us understand what grieving means until we find ourselves immersed in this strange new world. Because of the lack of characters who grieve properly, I’ve been toying with writing a book about a grieving woman, even going so far as to write a few scenes while the emotion is still fresh in my mind (though I can’t imagine ever forgetting what it feels like to grieve for a soul mate — every single day in a thousand ways, I am reminded once again that he is gone).

After having written those few scenes, I now understand why it’s almost impossible to write a grief-stricken character. All the tears, the pain, the nausea, the inability to focus, the not sleeping or sleeping too much, the not eating or eating too much add up to a character who appears as a wimp and a whiner. We are so used to invincible characters who manage to fight despite grievous wounds or agonizing pain, that a normal character living a normal — though grief-filled life — comes across as a weakling. Another problem is that a character who cries at her own pain, who feels everything herself, eliminates the need for readers to feel that pain, and so they dissociate from the character. But the very nature of grief is feeling pain. It’s by embracing the pain, by letting the tears spill over, by giving in to the grief that we come to terms with it.

Perhaps that’s the way I should write the character — have her actively participate in her grief. Instead of being brave and not crying, she should embrace the pain, make grief a part of her life. And in doing so, she will show her strength.

11 Responses to “Write for the Dead Whom Thou Didst Love”

  1. spirit2go Says:

    This is the Key:
    Perhaps that’s the way I should write the character — have her actively participate in her grief. Instead of being brave and not crying, she should embrace the pain, make grief a part of her life. And in doing so, she will show her strength.

    Written any other way, I would toss the book in the garbage, out of hand because quite honestly, to have lost half your heart and all of your soul, how could you not react as we have – ?? If folks can face a visit from death like our visit from death, by being brave and not crying, then I say they are seriously deluded that their love was true, or …well..I don’t even know..

    • Pat Bertram Says:

      That’s exactly the way it is, isn’t it: losing half your heart and all of your soul. I have learned that crying or not crying has nothing to do with bravery. Bravery is getting up every morning, finding a way to live every day after such an amputation.

  2. L.V. Gaudet Says:

    This may be the best time to write that first draft, when all the emotion is built up to the boiling point and can’t be held back.

    I know my best writing is when I really get into feeling (and feeling like I’m living) the moment I’m writing. Writing with my heart, not my mind.

    Edit it later when you’ve come to terms with the emotions.

    Both the writing and later editing will be theraputic and you may be surpried at what comes out.

    I think the real problem with the lack of depth shown in characters grieving is twofold. First, people are generally terrified of true feelings and the physical affects they have on the body, especially when it involves grief. The second problem is lack of time and space when so many stories are expected to be all about fast pacing and action with the real story left in the dust.

    • Pat Bertram Says:

      These are both good points — people are afraid of true feelings, especially in our society where they believe in the power of positive thinking. In such a world, a person who dies brought it on themselves, and a person who grieves is to avoided at all costs so that the rest of society doesn’t become contaminated.

      And novels today are supposed to be fast paced with no real depth. Good thing I have a publisher who loves whatever I write.

  3. joylene Says:

    It wasn’t until my fourth book that I realized I’d done exactly what you mention above, I’d used my grief as a catalyst to drive me to write a particularly disturbing story. Six stories later I can see now how I used each story theme to express my rage and anguish. I was unable to scream at God in public so I did it on the page instead. I wonder now how many writers I thought were brilliant storytellers but were actually using their stories for the sole purpose of healing. I know I’ve read stories that made me feel as if the words had ripped a hole in my heart. I can even remember blubbering like a fool and thinking how crazy it was for me to react so strongly over characters that didn’t exist. But maybe somewhere in that secret life, the author has based his characters on real people. Maybe even closer to home than that.

    • Pat Bertram Says:

      I was afraid that by writing my grief story I would be diluting my own grief, perhaps even “getting over it” too quickly. I now know there is no “getting over it” and there is a chance writing of it will bring me even deeper into grief. Which is okay. In a bizarre sort of way, grief will take me where I need to go so I can deal with the rest of my life.

  4. Shirley Howard Says:

    Write what you want and need to, Pat. Write for yourself, assuming nobody will ever see it. You don’t have to worry about a wimpy main character, pacing, or clever dialogue. Write your feelings, all of them, in no particular order. No need to think too hard. And you don’t even have to read it if you don’t want to.

  5. mlkabik Says:

    I’m very happy I came across your site, you are very eloquent in your thoughts, which helps me as a young writer understand what’s going on inside.

    I agree with previous commenters in that if you have your character embrace grief (something our society fears), it will carry your story quite well. Unlike the stoic heroes of the past, the new myth would do well to understand and celebrate the complexities of emotion, even if that celebration is one of recognizing absolute pain.

    I’ve also found in my brief time as a writer that any expression of emotions that I am experiencing at the time of my writing finds a good home in the craft. It doesn’t diminish the grief or anger or triumph, but I find myself sitting as judge of the characters I create. More often than not they lash out in ways I would never consider, or are strangely quiet when I would be throwing myself into glass. If nothing else I believe your exploration of grief through the character will bring about thoughts and understandings which may not occur otherwise.

    Thank you again for posting, I look forward to visiting often.
    -m

    • Pat Bertram Says:

      M, good point about the celebration of the complexities of emotion. The old stoic hero seemed like an automaton, the sensitive hero that replaced the stoic seems a caricature. There really needs to be a new hero who is emotionally strong, who accepts his or her human side without wallowing, who allows us to celebrate the complexities. You have given me much to think about.

  6. Finding My Place in the Publishing World | Bertram's Blog Says:

    […] someday writing for the dead whom I didst love will be reason enough to write, but for now, I’m still searching for my place in the world and […]


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