What we write about when we write about grief

It’s been a rough week.

As per the last post, our cat Graeme – the subject of a number of posts here over the last couple of years – died on Thursday. He gave a posthumous goodbye to his many fans over on his Facebook page (yes, really), and I made a follow-up post to talk about what he meant to us.

Some people might feel that it’s perhaps a bit mawkish to mourn a dead pet so strongly; it’s not as if I’ve lost a friend or a parent. But I’ve lost both those things as well, and I can tell you that grief is grief is grief. It may come in different serving sizes, but it’s all the same meal of sadness and ashes. And it always tastes the same.

I’ve said my piece about Graeme already, and I don’t really feel like using this space to display my feelings any more than I already have. This is a writing blog, so let’s talk about writing. Let’s talk about that old adage of ‘write what you know’.

As I’ve said a few times before, too many writers misinterpret this to be a statement about real-world expertise; computer programmers should write stories focusing on computer programming, farmhands should write novels set on farms with stump-jump plough racing and so on. But how boring a world would it be if we could only write stories that mimicked our own quotidian experiences and nothing else? It’d be like every novel was just your LinkedIn profile with added dialogue.

Instead, I think ‘write what you know’ is about drawing on your experience as a human being, not just a tinker/tailor/soldier/celebrity bounty hunter. Our emotional experience of life is unique, but at the same time it’s bound to overlap with almost everyone else’s, and by grounding your writing in your overlap your work is more likely to resonate with the reader.¬†We might not know what it’s like to endure vampire poison or cybernetic surgery, but we know what it’s like to get sick or injured and how we feel as we recover. We probably haven’t encountered a ghost, but we know what it’s like to be frightened; we haven’t been in a firefight with terrorist cybergorillas, but we know what it’s like to be panicked, full of adrenaline and making snap decisions.

And unless we’re very young or very lucky, we all know what it’s like to lose someone we love.

Adventure genre fiction is, on the whole, not very interested in writing about grief, or shame, sadness, regret and similar feelings. Genre stories tend to be external, plot-driven narratives, and calling a halt to the action to spend a chapter privately mourning the minor character who got shot on page 200 is unlikely to provide a satisfying experience for 99% of readers. But that doesn’t mean that we can’t find the space within a story to explore some of those emotional underpinnings, some of the small moments that come when the pace slows down and the adrenaline wears off. Because those emotions ground the moment and remind the reader that this is a story about people, and that we all share in the human condition in some way – yes, even if your story isn’t actually about humans.

I won’t be writing novels about my cat, my father or the other people I’ve lost; those are my stories, no-one else’s. But I’m taking what I’ve learned from those stories and making use of them in Raven’s Blood, using them to make Kember’s story of losing her mother (and more) feel genuine and emotionally real. Just as I’ll use my other experiences of anger, fear and desperation – as well as some positive experiences too, sure – to try to help readers connect to the dangers and adventures in the book, and in everything else I write.

No matter your story, this is one of the best ways to make it come alive. Dip into your own life, your own feelings, and put that experience on the page. If it feels real to you – if it hurts you to write it, even just for a moment – then odds are it’ll feel real to the reader too.

And yes, all of this hurt to write too. Just a little.

But I’d rather hurt than forget.

Now to move on.

2 thoughts on “What we write about when we write about grief

  1. Sonya Hartnett wrote Of a Boy after the death of her beloved dog Zak. The agony of that loss fuelled much of the emotion that drives the protagonist in that novel.

    1. Everything is fuel if you have your eyes open. And I think one of the better responses to things like this is to use it as fuel. It honours what you’ve lost, it saves you from being devoured by it, and alchemises both those things into making you a better person going forward.

      In that sense it’s a gift from what you lost, to keep with you til it’s your turn.

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