Write Your Way Back – Writing Through Grief

writing through grief

This essay was written by Judy Haughton-James.

“When life stops you in your tracks, write your way back!”

That has been my mantra since facing loss and grief over a period of 3 years, loss that included the death of an identical twin sister and a brother.

Writer’s block is an experience that many writers encounter, but you have to be determined to overcome it. Yes, you have been accustomed to seeing the words flow and long articles being written. That does not mean that writing has to stop.

Get any book that you can write in and consider it your journal and start writing. What you write will not be under the scrutiny of an editor, so your entries can take any shape or form – long, short, poems, essays, letters, you name it. In other words, there is no right or wrong way to journal. Furthermore you can write any time you wish to.

As a matter of fact, you could be in for a surprise when you find yourself accomplishing writing tasks you never dreamt of. I found myself in that situation as I started writing poetry.

A particular poem titled “You My twin, lives on through me” proved to be such a lift of my spirit. I was pleased that in turn some twinless twins told me how much it helped them in their grief. So you are going through a therapeutic process while keeping the writing juices flowing.

The confidence will come back and then all the material you have gathered will help you to write articles and blog posts. As a blogger, it is important to write posts regularly, and it is the material from this journal that will keep your blog up-to-date.

On this journey, you will not only focus on your negative experiences but explore the good times, hobbies and interests you shared with your departed loved ones. This will now widen your audience to people who have never walked your path. Right there, you are catering to a special niche yet gaining traffic from unexpected sources.

An additional bonus is that all the material in your journal and blog posts can come in handy in making you an author someday. Do you have any doubt about that?

Well, research will show many journals have become bestsellers. “The Diary of a Young Girl (Anne Frank)” is one such example. For a period of 2 years, she recorded in a diary her experiences while hiding from Nazis during World War II. This was not only a bestseller, her story made its way into films, movies, theatrical productions and an opera.

So come out of your shell and fight back! Once a writer, always a writer. Use this special talent to overcome life’s hard knocks.

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Judy Haughton-James is a Jamaican freelance writer who holds an Honours Diploma from the London School of Journalism.  She has had articles published in local publications including The Daily Gleaner and international publications including Twins Magazine and Grief Digest. You can find her blog here.

Photo: Some rights reserved by Joel Montes.

On Going Dark: Why We Read Scary Things

scary stories halloween reading

This essay was written by Chris Ciolli.

Before I even begin, I have a little confession to make. Since the age of five or six or so, I’ve been as afraid of the dark, as I am enchanted by it. When the sun goes down, it seems anything can happen, but most often what happens is bad news.

After reading Roald Dahl’s Witches and seeing the movie for reading class in elementary school, I had nightmares for months. The settling noises my parents’ log cabin made come evening had me skittish; jumping any time the floor creaked (which was often).

In my 20s, I read Bram Stoker’s Dracula for the first time, and promptly traveled to Transylvania for spring break where I amused my-then-boyfriend, now husband, to no end, carrying garlic in my purse and sporting cross-shaped earrings day and night.

It’s safe to say that I didn’t grow out of my overactive imagination.

As a fully-grown, mature adult living in a drafty, early-20th century apartment building in Barcelona, with my half-Siamese, Lulu, and a full-blooded Spaniard, I still have to be very careful to read scary books during daylight hours, or suffer the restless nights, waking up in a cold sweat.

Note that scary doesn’t necessarily translate to horror. Science-fiction, dystopian classics, and even true crime can be just as disturbing. Of course when I get far enough into a story, it’s nearly impossible to resist racing through a book to reach a resolution…even if I don’t get there until 3 a.m., and at that point I’m afraid to close my eyes, because I know my mind will continue playing out unsavory scenes in my dreams. So why do I keep picking up these books up?

Because despite it all, there’s something in my mind that’s drawn to the darkness, even as it’s deathly afraid. Some part of me wants to know how the action unfolds in these stories, even as the rest rejects them in favor of lighter reading. It could be that I know I owe it to myself to embrace the existence of all sides of human nature.

Like it or not, we don’t live in a Disney vacuum where singing princesses, forest creatures and townspeople are either inherently good or evil. To overcome the cowardice and evil that are part and parcel of the human condition, we must first recognize and accept that they exist. In the end, reading about them is much easier (and more socially acceptable) than cozying up to serial killers during visiting hours at the big house, or scarier still, exploring our own dark sides first-hand and risking becoming a living nightmare like Alyssa Bustamante, the teenager who reportedly killed her young neighbor to see what it “felt” like or Armin Meiwes, who killed and ate a volunteer he found on the internet.

Scary comes in rainbow-colored hues, vivid shades of terror, evil, and doubt. It’s all around. Ignoring it won’t make it disappear. Facing it full on in written form is terrifying, but in the end, very good practice for standing up to our inner cowards in the sometimes terrifying situations real life presents.  As a writer and a reader, I know that staring down these scary books has made me stronger in a multitude of ways.

But instead of taking my word for it, why not test-drive the concept with the list of five books below? You’ll likely find that a healthy dose of fear and the serious reflection that comes after terror makes for a more well-rounded reader, writer and human being, even if it loses you some sleep.

  • Coraline by Neil Gaiman – Short but terrifying, Coraline is a cautionary tale about parallel realities and how what seems to good to be true almost always is.
  • The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood – A totalitarian Christian theocracy has taken over the United States. Women are forbidden to read. ‘Nough said.
  • The Lord of the Flies, by William Golding – It doesn’t get much scarier than a bunch of children left to their own devices with no adult supervision.
  • The House of Leaves by Mark Z. Danielewski – Footnotes, fonts and unreliable narrators can overwhelm in this strange book, but more overwhelming is the sense of panic at the possibility of being consumed by the bleak maze that grows in the house on Ash Tree Lane.
  • In Cold Blood by Truman Capote – The true story of the chilling murder of a Kansas farmer and his family by complete strangers.

For additional Halloween reading, check out Amarie Fox’s recent post.

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Chris Ciolli is a Barcelona-based writer and a translator. She’s an unashamed book and coffee addict that travels every chance she gets. She also spends a lot of time playing with kitchen tools and art supplies. Read about her travels at MidwesternerAbroad.com, and check out her art at TriflesandQuirks.com.

Photo: Some rights reserved by Sean Winters.

The Caveats of Writing What You Know

write what you know

This essay written by Wayman Stewart.

Fiction writers are constantly searching for inspiration. There are times when, as a writer, your creative energy might feel dried up, elusive, inaccessible. In these times, many writers turn to a familiar old mantra for comfort: write what you know.

It basically means that your personal experiences are the richest sources of your creativity as a writer and that you should channel them into your stories.

Many writers follow this mantra with an almost religious fervor, while some writers might harbor a certain disdainful, detached attitude toward “autobiographical fiction”. The phrase sounds like an oxymoron. How can you experience the full breadth of your imagination if you remain focused on your own life and experiences?

To these writers, roman a clef writing (which is when a writer creates a fictional story that is based on their own life, with changed character names and some embellishments here and there) is self-absorbed and self-dramatizing.

Those on this side of the fence do have a point. Relying too much on your own personal experiences can limit, block, or even deaden the imagination. After all, everyone’s only lived so much, no matter how old they are or how dramatic their life may have been. Because of this, using yourself has the main focus of your creative process can also become extremely repetitive and downright dull, if taken too far.

Writers, like all other artists, should feed off of the human condition. Human nature should be your primary inspiration, which is something that you, as the writer, are a part of.

This means you can use yourself in the work. But no writer should use themselves as the absolute center of their creative process. This total self-involvement will stand in the way of the empathy and observation of other individuals that all great writers must possess.

When a writer’s ego (i.e., their self) is too involved in the work, it can also make it difficult to achieve the objectivity that a writer needs in order to mold their story to greatness.

When you are dissecting a character that you identify with too much, then you will feel as if you are dissecting and judging yourself. This clouds your judgment, making you see this character and his or her experiences in whatever light in which you see yourself (and none of us can ever see ourselves with true objectivity).

However, a writer should not avoid putting their life into their work, either. In many ways, they can’t. It happens on an unconscious level. While you might not have intentionally set out to write a story about yourself, if you really look closely, you can observe bits and pieces of your own self and experiences in the characters you create and the stories you tell.

As a fiction writer myself, this has happened to me on a regular basis. What I write is usually a reflection of something occurring in my life at the time and I often don’t even realize this.

Creativity does come from the unconscious and our imagination is anything but objective. It is completely subjective, containing all of our fears, insecurities, and traumas, as well as our greatest hopes, aspirations, and dreams.

Without meaning to, we infuse our characters with our own strengths and weaknesses.

We place them in situations that reflect our deepest fantasies as well as our worst nightmares. It is by doing this that we develop our empathy as writers. We then realize how universal these qualities are. These people we give life to on paper are us. Their pain is our pain and their joy is our joy.

I think this is probably the true meaning of “write what you know.” Not limiting ourselves by creating from our own selves or life experiences. We use these things to expand ourselves, creating characters and stories that may appear different from us and things we’ve been through but are anything but.

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Wayman Stewart is a freelance writer. He is a former contributor to the men’s lifestyle website The Global Playbook. Wayman is also a creative writer and actor. He writes screenplays and stage plays in his spare time and has plans to self-produce his latest one.

Photo: Some rights reserved by Karen – Vidalia_11

Why Reading Should Be a Shared Activity

why you should read together

This essay was written by Julie Bates.

Why Share Reading?

Reading is a one person activity – right? Well, that depends.

Sometimes reading can be a wonderful escape from the real world and the tensions that send you seeking a universe far, far away. Other times nothing enriches the experience of a good read than sharing it with another.  Good shared reads allow you to share the wonder of exploring alien worlds, compare notes on exotic recipes or decide if the book the media suddenly adores is worth picking up or is exponentially overrated.

It Builds Intimacy

My husband and I read each other’s books. He’s learned to appreciate my eclectic taste in fiction and I appreciate his more scholarly interests.  We’ve had some wonderful discussions surrounding the plot of whatever book he has finished after me. Confession here – I read fast, and I tend to stay up late for a good story. He appreciates the need for eight or more hours of snoozing.

We’ve tried exotic foods read about in books and looked up places on the internet. I remember us looking at Turkey’s Hagia Sophia museum online after reading a richly textured description of it in Anne Perry’s The Sheen on the Silk.

You can partially quote a really good line and receive a grin of acknowledgement from your significant other while leaving others baffled. Jokes, inside information, favorite characters become fodder for your moments together.

Good reads promote good dialogue. We’ve discussed the plausibility of whodunnits, physics (which he understood and I didn’t and needed some explanations) and whether or not we would try recipe X. Confession here – I read the cookbooks. He agrees to be a guinea pig as long as I don’t get too weird. He now agrees that kale can be made edible.

Your Children Benefit

Everyone wants their kid to be smart right? Everyone wants that intimate connection that comes from shared moments. Reading builds that seamlessly. From the moment my son was born, my husband and I read to him. We read Dr. Seuss, We read Magic Tree House and the entire Little House on the Prairie Series.

It was the lifesaving component of the nighttime ritual. You know, the one where you say it’s bedtime and your kid replies in that whiny, tired voice, “I’m not sleepy,”  initiating bedtime guerrilla warfare.

Plunking a tired, cranky kid in bed doesn’t work. I’ve tried it, got the tee shirt and been back in his room 3 million times because, “I can’t sleep, I need water, it’s dark and I hear a weird noise.”   What saved my sanity, such as it existed, were books.   Bedtime was when we would pick a book, he would lie in bed and I or my husband would read, usually a chapter or less if he dropped off.

I read to my child until he took the book (Despereaux) out of my hands and said “I want to read it for myself!”  He went on to read all the Harry Potter books before fifth grade only to be bummed to discover he could not get AR (Advanced Reader) points, because all but the first volume are considered middle school books.  I discovered we could talk about The Lord of the Rings as well as Hatchet.

Even now that he is a teen, we talk books. We don’t always have the same taste. I’m not into Dr. Who, and he doesn’t really enjoy some of the history I read, but we still have wonderful, literate discussions born out of all the books we read together.

Shared reading experience opens your mind

I belong to a reading group. A lot of what is read is philosophy. which is not my area of expertise. Some of these individuals started talking about what these theories meant, and my mind was blown. What seemed simple on the printed page had interpretations that had never occurred to me.

Listening to my friends discuss subjects ranging from physics to religion made me contemplate deeper meanings that I normally wouldn’t have.  They made me think rather than blindly accept what was on the page. While I will never be a debater, I have benefited from being exposed to many points of view. Who doesn’t want to expand their mind?

Good books increase friendships

I’ve had lovely discussions about books with people I’ve never met before. One of us would see the other with a book and comment about it and conversation would ensue.

Sometimes I’ve had someone say, “If you like this author, try so-and-so.”  Scribbling down the name, I’ve gone to my local library and discovered a brand new read, which I could then share with someone else.

Good books are contagious.

So why share what you’re reading?

If all the reasons I’ve already stated are not enough, think about what it does for you.  You have something to share – your opinion. Some reads inspire passion, others curiosity, others are so excruciatingly bad, we never finish, but they all affect us in some way.

Why not share that feeling? Not everyone will want to listen, but someone will. That could be the start of a beautiful relationship.

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Julie Bates is a writer and former teacher living in North Carolina. She likes to read anything that is well written, entertaining or thought provoking.

For further reading on making reading a shared activity please consider:  Reading and Writing in Relationships: How Partners Encourage Learning and Enjoyment ; How Reading Can Improve Your Love Life.

Photo: Some rights reserved by Michael Bentley.

Required Reading for Halloween

halloween reading

This essay was written by Amarie Fox. 

Every October, I stand and look out over my street. The leaves on the trees are as green as in summer, as if dipped in wax, glistening in the sun; the air, damp and muggy, suffocating in its heavy humidity; a single trace of autumn, if there is one, is invisible or else hidden. The season-less, static south!

To siphon a spirit of the fall, I tend to compile a list of books that will fit or change my mood for the month. Set the scene, so to speak, because it won’t set itself. I make my own magic.

In the weeks leading up to Halloween, especially, I gather the treasures from my childhood along with a few physiologically-chilling stories. Unlike December – a real busy time for everyone, when I tend to get less reading done – I usually have more time to read and why not fill thirty-one days full of the spookiest reading possible?

This year, I thought I’d share some of my selections. Keep in mind, I have tried to veer away from adding the typical choices like Poe’s The Raven, Stocker’s Dracula, or Shelley’s Frankenstein. Here are some fresher, perhaps unheard of options. I hope you enjoy some of them:

  • The Halloween Tree by Ray Bradbury: As a child, I had a VHS cassette of the television film adaptation. Being so small, I had no idea the film was based on an actual story. Since this is a child’s novel, it is very fast-paced – there are trips to ancient Egypt and even the Middle Ages. By high school, I discovered Bradbury wrote this! (And don’t tell anyone, but I cherish this little story over Fahrenheit 451.)
  • The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson: If you’re not familiar with one of America’s best horror writers, or have only read her most famous short story The Lottery, shame on you! Jackson is not only one of my favorite writers, but she’s the queen of siphoning dark atmospheres and some of the most unforgettable scenes ever. Her characters are always fantastic. This novel is no different. (And just in time for October, Penguin is releasing a special new edition, which belongs to a series of other volumes selected by award-winning director Guillermo del Toro.)
  • Doctor Sleep by Stephen King: How could I not include a King novel on this list? This is the follow up to 1977’s The Shining and follows Dan Torrance (the boy narrator of The Shining, now middle aged). I feel like this will be a good push to a whole new generation to check out The Shining, more than anything, which is one of the reasons I am adding it to this list. After all, the movie never did the novel justice.
  • Roald Dahl’s Book of Ghost Stories by Roald Dahl: Most known for his children’s work – Matilda, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, James and the Giant Peach – this small collection is not written by Dahl, but a collection that he put together after reading through 749 tales at the British Museum Library. The 14 here were his obvious favorites. Like Neil Gaiman’s Unnatural Creatures, this is a good primer of scary stories.
  • My Mother She Killed Me, My Father He Ate Me: Forty New Fairy Tales: Kate Bernheimer edited this novel of 40 tremendously dark fairy tales from everyone from Joyce Carol Oates to Joy Williams to Aimee Bender. The title enough should convince you, but even if it doesn’t,  I can assure you this is a great volume to dip into from time to time.
  • The Bloody Chamber by Angela Carter: Within this collection of short stories there are re-tellings of Bluebeard, Little Red Riding Hood, Beauty and the Beast, and even Snow White. However, I wouldn’t say you have to necessarily be familiar with any of the traditional fairy tales. Carter literally lifts each one from its origins and enchants it with such gorgeous language and unforgettable imagery.
  • Jamaica Inn by Daphne du Maurier: I could not end this without including a proper, albeit over the top Gothic tale – Orphans! A murder mystery! A moor! I was slightly tempted to choose Rebecca over this, but Jamaica Inn is lesser known and deserves a proper read. Written in 1935, this isn’t your traditional Gothic novel. So, even if you hated Wuthering Heights, I have a feeling you will love this, since it is a bit more modern.

Do you base your reading around seasons? Occasions? Holidays? If not, what are you planning to read in October?

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Amarie Fox is a writer and artist. She recently graduated with a BA in English Literature. She plans of making an origami swan out of her diploma. Her recent fiction work has been published by Little Fiction, NIB, and Literary Orphans. Find more information at amariefoxart.wordpress.com.

For more suggestions of scary tales consider: On Going Dark: Why We Read Scary Things by Chris Ciolli.

Photo: Some rights reserved by Windell Oskay