Eight writers who influenced Loss Adjustment and my bereavement
By Linda Collins
I’ve been thinking about writers who influenced my own writing of my debut creative non-fiction book, Loss Adjustment. Ethos Books launched Loss Adjustment at The Moon bookstore & café in Chinatown on September 28. And I’ve also been thinking about how these writers affected my bereavement process. Loss Adjustment is about the death by suicide of my teenage daughter, Victoria McLeod, and my unwanted new life after that.
I’ve also just read a piece in The Guardian by Vietnamese-American essayist, poet and novelist Ocean Vuong on 10 books that influenced his debut novel, On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous. I am twice Vuong’s age (he is 31 this year) but he has wisdom I can learn from, particularly his comment that “these authors and their books found me. They helped realize my thinking”.
Here are eight writers—a small selection from many more—who informed Loss Adjustment and my still-evolving understanding of why Victoria left us. Some of my observations are written for this piece, and some are from my reading journal while writing Loss Adjustment for my MA in Creative Writing at the International Institute of Modern Letters (IIML), New Zealand.
- Eric Tinsey Valles. After the Fall: Dirges Among the Ruins
Shortly before Victoria took her own life in April 2014, one week-night evening I went to a writers’ meet-up at The Book Café, near Mohamed Sultan Street. I felt bad about taking time away from Victoria. I felt that I should be supervising her homework or something. Looking back, I think I must have already felt an undercurrent of dread that something was terribly wrong. Nothing I could put my finger on. But in her bright manner, Victoria insisted she was fine, that I should go out. I remember feeling torn and unmoored. I drifted amongst the bookshelves, stroking the spines for the comfort of familiarity. People were introducing themselves and I felt I should go through the ritual. There were faces I vaguely knew. I realised that I wanted to either be alone, or back with Victoria. But then Valles stepped up, and we shook hands, quite formally, but I liked that. It put me at ease, set parameters. He seemed to instinctively recognise my rattled mental state. I remember, he bought me a cup of coffee. It was a simple act of kindness that meant so much. He said something about writing about trauma, that he was a poet. Sometime later that year, after Victoria died, I bought After the Fall. The title both attracted and repelled me, as that was how Victoria left the world. I have since met Valles several times, and he is one of the few writers who has encountered both the Before-me, and the After-me. Valles’ poems don’t shy away from causing discomfort. I find that a comfort. And it planted the seed that my own writing, if I dared to venture there, could be allowed to do that.
- Joan Didion. My Year of Magical Thinking. Blue Nights
From my reading journal. May 15, 2017. Didion experiences similar aspects of grief that I do:
1) Dreams. Didion writes, “I need in the dream to discuss this with John (her late husband). Or was it even a dream?…Was it only by dreaming or writing that I could find out what I thought?”.
I rarely remember dreams, but when I do, they are thoughts seemingly from Victoria directing me, or via some third party like an imagined voice of a saint, to undertake various courses of action I’d been weighing up. I also find that the act of writing down these dream memories is essential to the processing of my grief. An IIML graduate, poet Natalie Morrison, identified specific recurring images in my writing, such as burning, things shaped in boxes, and lids that open to reveal grief. On reflection, these are clearly metaphors for Victoria’s body in the open coffin, and the lid going down on her, and of the fire of cremation, which I feel compelled to record in order to make real to my consciousness, or make unreal for those moments when one can only survive through denial.
2) Finding connection with a loved one, in everyday objects. I keep Vic’s coffee cups and drink out of them. I also use her favourite plates. Several months after John dies, rather than eat off her usual plateware, Didion finds herself taking from a cupboard John’s plates given to him by his mother and which he used before he met and married Didion.
3) Cognitive deficit/dysfunction. Didion: “There came a time in summer when I began feeling fragile, unstable…I could not trust myself to present a coherent face to the world.” Covering a Democrat convention, “I was seized by the overwhelming conviction that I needed to get out….now I have only rarely experienced panic but what set in next was recognisably panic…I fled my seat”. I can relate to this fragility, this panic. I experienced it when trying to go back to work several weeks after Victoria died. One task was resuming editing work on a book, 50 Things to Love About Singapore. I developed a mental block which prevented me from being able to work on it. The title may seem flippant, but the subject matter was quite serious and involved a lot of historical knowledge about anything from the making of a pineapple tart to satellite road-pricing systems. The first week back, working remotely from home, my hands shook over the keyboard. I would stare at a sentence for hours. I would plan to rewrite it or move a paragraph around, start to do it, and then forget what I intended. When I subsequently went back to the newsroom, I would burst into tears at the most unexpected things, and sometimes have to go home, unable to rein in the tears. These trigger points included a snatched glimpse of a canteen worker washing the body of a dead piglet in a sink; a news editor coming up to me with what I imagined would be a query on a story, only to hand me a pamphlet about a Bible study course at his church. Years passed, but the tears and panic never left. During a Grace Paley video shown during the MA course, when the famous writer talks about dressing the body of a dead child, I begin to sob uncontrollably as I sit amongst my fellow students. I need to flee the room, but am too embarrassed and distraught to even fathom how to get out.
4) Self-pity. Didion writes, “People in life think a great deal about self-pity. We worry it, dread it, scourge our thinking for signs of it…Visible mourning reminds us of death, which is construed as unnatural, a failure to manage the situation”. But Didion goes on to reassess that, noting that dolphins refuse to eat after the death of a mate, and that the grieving have urgent reasons to feel sorry for themselves. This is something for me to weigh up. I have been purging my folio of references that could be construed as self-pity, even though they were real responses by myself at the time. Maybe, I should put it in context, rather than obliterate it.
In Blue Nights, Didion berates herself over a note that her daughter had written as a youngster, titled Mom’s sayings: “Brush your teeth, brush your hair, shush I’m working.” I used to say similar things to Victoria. “Have you cleaned your teeth yet?” being the most common. I remember telling her when she asked me to go to the park with her, “I can’t, I’m busy working on this stuff for work,” referring to copyediting a Lee Kuan Yew book Hard Truths to Keep Singapore Going (2009). It was all-consuming and Victoria got neglected. She was about 12 or 13 at the time, what I realise now was a very vulnerable age in terms of discovery of self, confidence etc. Getting a credit on the book, if only as copyeditor of it, brought me kudos and extra work. But I would swap it for anything in order to go back and not do it and to spend more time with Victoria instead.
- “Lee-Ann”. Letter to Aly: Surviving My BFF’s Suicide
Not long into my grieving, a then-colleague at The Straits Times, Akshita Nanda, gave me this book to read. I will be forever grateful. The Singaporean writer, known simply as Lee-Ann, documents with honesty, and through acute pain, what the loss of her friend to suicide means. It was an utter relief to me to read this non-fiction account of someone who had gone through what I was going through. Lee-Ann seemed to give me the permission I needed, to fully feel my regrets, and my yearning.
Later, I got to meet the real Lee-Ann at an event organised by the Samaritans of Singapore to mark World Suicide Survivors Day. Attending that event was life-changing in other ways, too, as I could see that even though Lee-Ann’s loss had happened many years before, she was still deeply affected by it, she was still grieving—and importantly, it was okay to be like that.
Lee-Ann’s book made me realise the power of authentic connection, and how I might be able to translate that to the page, in my own words.
- Marion Coutts. The Iceberg
From my reading journal. May 3, 2017. The Iceberg (2014) is an acclaimed memoir about the slow death by cancer of art critic Tom Lubbock, written by his wife. Lubbock comes down with a brain tumour when their child, whom she calls Ev for the purpose of the book (and to give him privacy, I suppose), is only 18 months old. The memoir starts with a poem or song extract, I’m not sure which, titled Let It Go. This signals that the memoir will be deep and soul-searching, and also gives it an “otherworldly“ quality that could be dreamy. This sets the memoir up for fallibility, for unreliability, that this will not be rigorously researched non-fiction of an academic kind, nor will it have the factual foundation of journalism.
It also reassures that this will not be a warts-and-all confessional, with the words, “You don’t want madhouse and the whole thing there”. The Iceberg is very much in the candour camp, rather than confessional. Coutts allows space for the reader to go through some unpleasant truths that unfold in the story and yet emerge having gained valuable insight into themselves and life itself.
After finishing the book, with its drawing to the inevitable conclusion of death, I fall into a deep sleep. I wake with dried tears crusting my eyes, and the memory of having dreamt that I was the mother of a little boy, and of feeling what it used to be like to be connected by an emotional thread to a living child of your own.
- Ashleigh Young. Can You Tolerate This?
I was fortunate enough to read Young’s own MA reading journal, parts of which, I understand, went on to be in her debut essay collection, Can You Tolerate This?
From my reading journal. May 1, 2017. Takeaways for my memoir about Victoria:
1) The idea of injecting some fun into even the most grim of subjects. Young refers to an essay titled Cracking Open by Patricia Brieschke. Of the story about the writer’s baby born needing multiple operations, Young says, “…It’s a devastating story, but not once does she indulge in self-pity—it’s a remarkable feat of restraint, and generosity to the reader…she could have told it…the sad, heavy way, and that might well have been brilliant, but it also might have been a piece most people would feel they’d read before.” Young also notes the writer’s “ruthless honesty”.
2) Be wary of telling too much. Sometimes omissions and gaps speak louder. In Young’s journal, she refers to Australian writer Helen Garner, and on “trauma, the art of avoiding it in writing”, notes that “only by not describing it can she express this pain”.
3) The mind wanting a memoir narrative. On Garner’s The Spare Room, Young says that “My brain recognised Garner’s narrative as memoiristic and wouldn’t accept it as fiction…”. (I went on to play with this idea in Loss Adjutsment, by using fictional devices such as metaphor, such as the earthquaked house representing the foundations of my family being shaken.)
4) Beyond scene narrative, exploring ideas. Young references Susie Orbach (Fat is a feminist issue) and the idea of bodies, what they mean. One’s relationship with one’s physical self.
I relate this to the body of my daughter Victoria. So far my chapters have been about what took place in terms of the suicide, the morgue, the embalmer, the display of the body at the wake and funeral service, the extinguishing of it by fire. But I could really delve into that a lot more. Suicide is not just destruction of the self, but of the body. Yet Victoria had a beautiful body. It was not a manifestation of the ugliness, or perceived ugliness, in her mind. By that I mean the destructive thoughts of inadequacy and loathing that she was consumed by. There’s also the absurdity of putting make-up on her corpse for public display. It is kind of grotesque. Why did I, and my sisters-in-law Sharyn and Paula, feel the need to do this, to dress her up? Perhaps it was some instinctive feminine thing of bonding? Also, there is another aspect to explore later on, which is how mannerisms live on in relatives, that perhaps mannerisms are not just absorbed from relatives, perhaps mannerisms are genetically imparted? There is some research to back this up that I could cite. I am thinking of the time I saw Paula clasp the phone between chin and shoulder, a gesture identical to how Victoria often deployed her phone; and the way Sheila (Vic’s grandmother) flips her wrist and jangles her bracelets echoes Vic’s constant jangling of her numerous bangles.
- Decca Aitkenhead. All at Sea
From my reading journal. May 23, 2017. This has been useful in terms of Aitkenhead’s relatively straight-forward narrative text and in her use of language, tone and style, due to the fact that she is a journalist. I can see a similar compression of detail and expectation of reader’s needs in my own work, i.e. the telling of the death early up, with its almost matter-of-fact delivery reminiscent of an eyewitness account. It is effective in terms of giving an immediacy to a narrative. It is quite “clean”, unburdened by the need for stylistic devices to sustain a reader’s attention.
One piece that I really like is to do with Aitkenhead very early in the book foolishly declaring how she has interviewed people in tragedies, knows the key to bereavement is acceptance, and she will go straight to that and skip all the other bits. But she eventually learns that grief does not work like that. It won’t let go of you and can’t be buried.
The prologue opens with: “The thing to remember about this story is that every word is true.” Mentions survivor guilt, the issue of writing about a real-life event and inevitably turning it into fiction, the thing of taking control of the narrative and stealing its power over her. And, “So I write so I don’t forget.”
- Nick Flynn. The Re-enactments
From my reading journal. June 12, 2017. Flynn is particularly fascinating when he writes about the intersection of cognitive function and making meaning in terms of narratives on the screen and on the page. Flynn quotes Walter Benjamin on the idea of collective memory as saying, “the most extraordinary things, marvellous things, are related with the greatest accuracy, but the psychological connection of the events is not forced on the reader. It is left up to him to interpret things the way he understands them, and thus the narrative achieves an amplitude the information lacks”. Leaving space for the reader to do this, is something I am trying to learn to do. Sometimes I get it wrong. I take a new look at the prologue for my memoir. I realise that the space I create there is too open. I have started by writing about observing (ancient native lizard) tuatara, and relate that to survival, genes, my daughter. But I can see that this prologue has gaping holes in it, the way I have written it for a reader of prose narrative. This is because, while I have specific details about tuatara and evolution that are interesting and unexpected, these are details too far removed from the story of my daughter, who only emerges after about eight paragraphs, which is too long a wait in this prologue. The reader has to do too much interpretation, without yet even knowing my daughter.
July 15, 2017. The bits about Flynn on set watching the actor Julianna Moore play his mother in her various attempts to kill herself are harrowing to read, the actual death particularly so. Flynn instantly recreates for me that feeling of trauma. But it is helpful to read how he contextualises these feelings. A poet and hypnotherapist talks to Flynn about rewiring the brain, to play the “movie” of the event in your head, and then edit it to be in control of it. The hypnotherapist tells Flynn: “The amygdala tends to cluster images from a traumatic event (ocean, gun, pills), and this (the ‘movie’ re-enactment) is a way to separate them, to allow them to once again have their own existence, outside of the story you’ve attached to them.” She adds that the movie can thus lose some of its vivid presence. “But is that what I want, for her (his dead mother) to be less vivid?” Flynn asks.
This gets me thinking about a video that Vic made for a school art project. Can a hallucination be the “hinge” into a narrative? I have been struggling with making the chapter on how the school counsellor failed Vic, to be more lyrical and less mechanical. Flynn has this line: “Dean shoots her (Moore, playing Flynn’s late mother) standing, and then he shoots her gone—she simply walks out of the frame when the camera pans (away), and when it pans back she is gone. … She is never really there, she is a dream, a ghost, but we both see her, everyone sees her”. Vic made her video in November 2013, five months before she died. It is eerily prescient. The camera pans around a children’s playground, it is a real playground where Vic has spent years growing up and playing on the see-saw, the swings. There are shots of her in a bath, full of bubble foam, except it is sinister and it is bubbling over her face and she can’t breathe. The camera takes us back to the playground. We see Vic’s back, she is perched on the edge of the back of a concrete seat that mothers sit on while watching their children play. It is not a comfortable seat, but a large, solid construction. Vic’s body arches forward. The camera pans away. When it returns, Vic is gone.
She was already a ghost to us, as far back as then. Anyone who watches it now, sees her, and sees her gone. At one level this is because she vanishes, at another level it is because they are watching it with the prior knowledge that she is dead.
It was a fictional video for an art project, yet it shows a stunning glimpse into her mind. She was telling me she was going to jump off the ledge (the concrete seat a clear metaphor). I could see the video, and yet not see this. Till after the event.
The Re-enactments enables me to see this truth. It leaves me shaken.
- Stephanie Burt. Literary Style and the Lessons of Memoir
From my reading journal. September 1, 2017. During the university break, I have returned to my cottage retreat in the South Island. A fire is heating up the living room, and outside is night and completely black down the valley stretching to the mountains of the interior. I have just read an essay in The New Yorker titled Literary Style and the Lessons of Memoir, by Stephanie Burt. The essay notes that readers often turn to memoir for wisdom, from what the main character—mostly, naturally, the author—has learned about life or from some part of it. Burt also cites memoirs that take cues from lyrical essays such as Maggie Nelson’s The Argonauts (2015), which is unafraid to make use of white space, and Claudia Rankine’s Citizen. The essay’s main focus, though, is Brooklyn songwriter and poet Jasmine Dreame Wagner’s On a Clear Day, which, among other things, references social media listicles and “name-checked role models” such as Didion. The effect, says Burt, is that it is a book to dip into or get lost in. This gives me confidence in the direction my own memoir is taking. It has a strong narrative structure, but there are places where I fragment it.