Last week I attended a writing workshop for the first time.
The workshop is sponsored by the hospice program that helped my mother (and me!) when she was dying. Its basic purpose is to help people deal with bereavement through the writing process.
I already write about my bereavement (and just about everything else in my life) pretty regularly. Nevertheless, when the hospice people called and asked whether I’d like to attend I said yes. I had never participated in a writing workshop before, and I can always use a little feedback!
The workshop wasn’t quite what I expected since we don’t bring samples of writing from home to read. We just write in place, prompted by various cues from our group leader. We then read our writings aloud. If we don’t feel like reading, we don’t have to. So far everyone has felt like reading.
I wish I could tell you about the leader—and about my fellow workshop participants! Unfortunately, the whole thing is confidential. I can share some general impressions—and I’m sure as time goes by I’ll be sharing more of the essays I write.
Based on last week’s initial offering, I can say that I’m a bit different from the other participants—and not just because I’m a professional writer. The other group members expressed their grief in a manner that contrasted with my mode of writing.
Like me, most of them are dealing with the loss of parents. A couple have lost siblings, and one has lost a close friend. In general, their writings relayed their feelings in a way that made their sorrow sound more overt, more raw, than mine.
As we read our essays I felt a little phony somehow, a little less than authentic in my grief. I knew this was silly. I certainly miss my mother and mourn her death. And grieving isn’t a competition. I felt that way nevertheless.
Instead of dealing straightforwardly with death and loss as the other essays did, my writings skirted around those topics. They wove in a little philosophy, a few anecdotes, some threads of conversation, and even a joke or two.
I was reassured over the weekend as I dipped into a book called The Table Comes First: Family, France, and the Meaning of Food. Author Adam Gopnik included the following sentences in an essay about two turn-of-the-century (the 19th century, that is!) French food writers.
“We have often heard these days about the difference between sincerity (saying what you truly think) and authenticity (being who you really are). There is as big a difference, though, between being sincere and being in earnest.”
His point was that the people of whom he wrote were absolutely sincere, and really quite authentic, in their writing about food. They were seldom in earnest, however.
They toyed with their words and their concepts. They laughed at their subject matter even as they expressed passion for it. They were simultaneously serious and playful.
Gopnik believes that all food writing stems from these two writers, Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin and Alexandre Balthazar Laurent Grimod de La Reynière.
Perhaps I’ve been writing about food for too long. Perhaps I’m really French. All I can say is that I identified with the spirit Gopnik described in Brillat-Savarin and Grimod de La Reynière.
In writing about anything—including and perhaps especially bereavement—I almost always combine the playful and the serious, the sincere and the humorous.
I do occasionally feel a little out of place, and I’ll probably continue to do so all my life. Nevertheless, after some reflection I realize that I am ultimately comfortable with my writerly voice. It suits my personality. And it suits my view of life. I see our earthly existence as theater, rich in emotion but also rich in spectacle and humor.
The bereavement group wrote three separate essays last week, one that took about ten minutes, another that took 20, and a third that took less than five. Here is my third, very short essay.
A Place on a Map (an assigned topic)
My grandmother’s infinitely stretchable Victorian house in Rutland, Vermont, still exists on Route 7 and could probably be viewed on Google Maps … if I knew how to use Google Maps and if I had truly high-speed internet service.
I don’t need to see it as it is now. I can close my eyes and remember what it was like for me as a child, smelling beguilingly of stewed rhubarb and decaying books.
And can I recall my mother’s vivid memories of it in HER childhood—her Eden; her Disneyland; her evergreen, always safe home.