Every Sentence Felt as if it had Been Wrung Out of My Very Soul
My journey into personal writing.
Even before I became a ‘real writer’ I knew early on that as much as I enjoyed reading those brave stories about someone’s deeply personal anguish they weren’t going to be my thing.
Reader’s Digest had at least a couple of them every month. The women’s magazines were full of them. Remember “Can This Marriage Be Saved?” in Good Housekeeping magazine? I was a young housewife reading the stories in that column, thinking even then, “Uh uh. Not now it can’t. Nobody likes a tattletale.”
Confessionals were big when I was young. We devoured “True Story” and “True Confessions”, those magazines filled with weepy, florid tales of women gone wrong or having been done wrong, only to see the light and find the courage to go on—to turn their lives around and become a better person for it.
It could be I became a better person, too, just by reading them, because somewhere in the depths of my newly discovered need to write I seem to have vowed never to arrange words into sentences that read like those. EVER.
I’d been writing columns and blogs for decades before I made the decision to even mention my husband’s name. My entry into Huffington Post may in fact have been a first. We’d celebrated our 63rd anniversary and it seemed like a big deal, and I saw that HuffPo was looking for human interest stories, so I wrote one.
Before I’d even submitted the essay about our long, long marriage I made sure Ed was okay with what I’d written. Both of us were private people. The intimacies of our life together were closed to the public—even to family and friends. We didn’t air our dirty laundry. We didn’t even air the clean stuff. Our private lives were nobody else’s business.
At the editor’s urging, I revised my draft, reluctantly telling far more than showing. I put both of our names in print. I talked about what it was like to be a young married housewife as the feminist movement took hold, about how each of us had to grow into that new and confusing world, and about the permanence of a love that some believed never stood a chance. I added photographs.
It’s the kind of piece I might have been drawn to if someone else had written it. I was thrilled that it had been published. I decided at some point, with nothing outward making me think it, that I wouldn’t be doing anything like that ever again.
But then Ed died, and I was drowning in grief. I was writing a newsletter and people were reading it and maybe even expecting more. I wasn’t sleeping or eating or even thinking straight, but writing was the one constant, and I knew I needed to keep doing it.
I’d been writing about my life without writing about my feelings, but when he died I was nothing but feelings. I could have stopped writing for a while. I could have released my jumbled thoughts into my journal, where nobody but me would ever see them, but I didn’t do that. I decided to put it all out there.
I started with ’A Quick Note to Tell You Where I Am’. I did it to let my readers know Ed was in hospice and I wouldn’t be around for a while. I turned off the comments because I couldn’t deal with sad condolences, and I thought that would be the end of it. I thought I would never write about death or grieving or my sadness or my terror. But I did. I even gave those pieces their own section. I called it ‘Widow’s Walk’.
I think I had to forget all I’d believed about confessionals and grow into the stories about this new and frightening life. I had to let go of the notion that nobody would care. Or that somebody might think those stories were weepy. Or florid.
I had to figure out boundaries. I didn’t want to pander or come off as pathetic or maudlin. I didn’t want to make a career out of my grief. I especially wanted to get the words right.
I gave a lot of thought to how I would handle this massive, unwelcome, too quick change in my life. It would have to be a delicate balancing act, but how? How was I going to do this? I was a new grieving widow—I couldn’t pretend I wasn’t—but my readers weren’t used to this new me. (Neither was I.) I needed to be honest, but I couldn’t make each post a therapy session. I would have hated that. I think my readers would have hated that, too.
I wrote my next post three days after Ed died—six days from the time of “A Quick Note…”. I called it ‘This is Not an Obituary’. If you’ve read it, it might have looked to you as if I’m calmly but sadly reporting what had happened, but every sentence felt as if it had been wrung out of my very soul.
Why did I keep writing those posts, to the point where I’ve given them their own section now? I think because the readers who engaged in the comments let me know they were with me. I was speaking to them and for them and they understood. They could relate. There isn’t a one of us who hasn’t had to grieve, and now we had a chance to open up and talk about it.
I couldn’t have done any of it even five years before. Even though I’d been blogging for some 15 years, I had to get comfortable with writing to readers who, because they’d accepted my invitation to come into my parlor, my salon, had become more like friends. (The HuffPo piece came out in September 2019. I’d had a radical mastectomy two years before, with months of chemo and radiation, and even though I was blogging throughout that whole time, I didn’t write about it. I couldn’t. It was not in me to get that personal.)
I’m writing this now because some of our writers have been wondering how personal their writing should get. Nobody can really answer that question, but if they’re thinking about heading into the personal, I expect they’re giving some thought to how far they’ll go.
I’m comfortable now with how far I’ll go. It’ll have to feel right. For me. I’m an old woman from another era and, like everyone else, I carry a ton of baggage. I’ll talk honestly about some of it, mainly because growing up during World War II and beyond needs to be understood, and who better to talk about it than someone who has lived through it?
I want people to know what it was like to be a girl in the forties and fifties, a young woman in the sixties and seventies, a wife, a mother, a grandmother, a burgeoning writer, a witness to the eighties and nineties and to a new and baffling century. I want people to know what it’s like to be old.
But I get to decide where I draw the line. Every writer gets to decide. That’s the beauty of personal writing. It’s our own story. We get to tell it.
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