First in a series of posts looking closely at the craft of writing about grief
Last month I facilitated a writing workshop about narrative point of view (NPOV), and afterwards it occurred to me that I have looked closely at the craft of many texts specifically about grief. I’ll even be so bold as to say I’ve read more grief than most writers. And perhaps because grief is such a universal experience—yet a topic many want to avoid—writers who tackle it have to really up their game to get their stories in print, in my humble opinion. Hence, a new regular feature for my blog was born. Let’s read like writers together, looking specifically at grief-themed texts to see how they’ve been assembled.
For this post, I’ve chosen “How to Grieve Your Father” by Elizabeth Felicetti. I found it in the March 15, 2018, issue of The Grief Diaries, an online literary journal devoted to the theme. Click here to read Felicetti’s essay before we dig in.
When I brought this essay to last month’s NPOV workshop, several readers balked at it after reading the first few paragraphs. (Note: we only read an excerpt before pausing to talk about it, which may have produced a different conversation than if we’d read the entire text before discussing it.)
“I didn’t like it being addressed to me, because I don’t think I would have done those things. It was harder for me to connect with the character,” said one reader.
“Yeah, it felt like I was wearing someone else’s clothes.”
“So why would the author do that?” I asked. “Why would she risk turning you off right from the start?”
After a long pause:
“Maybe that’s what grief is like, a new identity thrust upon you.”
“You don’t want to be grieving. Maybe you do things you usually wouldn’t.”
With these two ideas on the table, the readers/writers returned their attention to the text, quickly rescanning it, perhaps now in a different light. Some read further in the text this time than assigned.
“That’s why it’s so prescriptive, too, because you’re just going through the motions at first.”
“The simple sentences. Because you don’t have capacity to process much when you’ve just lost someone.”
“It’s a how-to, but a realistic one, where the grieving person does stupid stuff they regret. That’s different than the grief literature the funeral home gives the family. That stuff is clinical, a little abstract maybe. This seems more relatable.”
The conversation continued to snowball, each of us coming to new conclusions as to why the second person voice was the perfect choice for this particular essay. That choice is integral to experiencing grief the way the author did. It’s a way she shows instead of tells, and that’s what makes the story most interesting. We experience it too.
Of course, NPOV is an intentional craft choice all fiction and creative nonfiction authors make, regardless of topic or theme. It isn’t unique to the subject matter of grief. Felicetti’s story proves that an author’s craft choices can help us know more about a universal experience by reading someone’s personal journey through it.
Experiment with NPOV in something you’re writing. Don’t worry (at first) about why you’re doing it, just try writing your own true story in third person, your fiction story in first, or try writing as if directly to yourself or someone else in second person. Try the same piece of text in all three voices…what does each choice allow you to discover or reveal? With multiple options in front of you, perhaps you’ll be in better position to see which works best for the story you wish to tell. Perhaps the right choice will surprise you.