Tuesday, April 14, 2015

Death and Loss: Women Writing Out Loud

BinderCon LA Recap #6

Nicole Belanger 
Emily Rapp Black 
Mattea Kramer   
Claire Bidwell Smith 
Niva Dorell Smith
Rebecca Soffer 

“In nonfiction, grief is the richest experience you have,” said Emily Rapp Black, author of The Still Point of the Turning World, a memoir about her son, who was diagnosed with a fatal disease in infancy. “Everyone experiences it differently.

“I wrote my book when my son was still living,” she said, “After he died, I literally was out of my mind. I was trying to find meaning, not feelings, before he died. After, all I had was feelings.”

Death and Loss Panel at BinderCon
 “I didn’t think I was allowed to be that messy,” said Nicole Belanger. “I waited to write about grief.”

“I wrote down every memory I could immediately while I still remembered them vividly,” said Niva Dorell Smith, whose husband died 11 days after they married.

It becomes a very different book than you set out to write. There’s a lot of truth to reveal that we
don’t yet know until we write it down,” said Mattea Kramer.

“I wrote the Rules of Inheritance three times,” said Claire Bidwell Smith. “I trashed the first two.”

The process took her eight years, she said. She kept asking herself, “Who cares?” but she “kept writing it” and “kept sucking.” Then she “decided on a new take on the five stages of grief.”

The third time was the charm. Her memoir is beautiful and is in the process of being made into a film starring Jennifer Lawrence. Bidwell Smith is releasing her second book, After This, on April 28th.

“I came from an atheist/agnostic background,” she said. “I expanded and suspended and transformed for After This. I’m nervous there will be people out there who will rip me to shreds.”

Rapp Black said, “I wrote my second book in eight or nine months. I was in a fugue. I don’t want to repeat that. I was a little bit nut-balls. I was on planes writing on coffee cups and napkins.”

Her “boss calls [her] the ‘soft serve essayist.’” He says, “You just pull down the lever, and Rapp has a new essay.”

Dorell Smith said, “I just finished a draft of my memoir. There’s a responsibility when we write about people who have passed away.

Before her husband died, she “asked [him] for his blessing” to “write about them.” She said she “wrote about him as a man, not just as a sick person—before the eating away part.”

She was “as honest as possible,” without being “gratuitous.” She wanted to write “something he would be proud of.”

Belanger’s “mom died in 2011,” but she didn’t write her “HuffPost piece until last year.”

She “begrudgingly read a self-help book” and “started writing because [she] felt [she] had a debt to pay to help others.”

She said, “Meditation has really helped me. I trust myself and what I remember.”

“My dad died in 2003, and my grandma died in 2013,” shared Kramer. “I started writing after Grandma’s death about both of them. I’m working on a book about both deaths set 10 years apart.”

Bidwell Smith joked, “I was a writer before I had dead parents.”

Her parents were both diagnosed with cancer when Bidwell Smith was only 14-years-old. She talked about her emotional state after they both passed away.

“I remember going to meet Dave Eggers and crying in my car after because he gave me a pen.”

She added, “I was super fucking honest in that book I wrote,” and “I encourage my patients to write letters to deceased loved ones.”

Someone in the audience asked the panel how they deal with strangers who approach them.

“I have really good radar for the crazies,” Bidwell Smith said. “I have a wall that goes up. Otherwise I’m okay with the familiarity of people who approach me.”

“The person in the book is the truest me,” Rapp Black said, “I’m very protective of my privacy when people ask me rude questions. No is a complete sentence.”

She says she’s “been working on a novel half [her] life.” She “had the idea 20 years ago.” She only “figured out how to write the novel because of [her] experience with [her] son. The form broke open for [her] when her son was diagnosed.”

And she “really didn’t care what people thought of it.”

“Early on I wanted the loneliness. I didn’t want to be around people,” Dorell Smith said.

Her process was “write and cry. Cry and write. Writing was part of the grieving process,” but “gradually, [she] got more comfortable interacting with people after sharing work publicly.”

Dorell Smith still “lives the life of a writer all the time” and is “alone a lot.”

Rebecca Soffer likened grief and loss to “the iHop endless pot of coffee.”

Then the panel gave writing advice.

“Don’t get bogged down in voice shame,” said Kramer. “My mentor said, ‘Courageously pursue your course in the darkness.’”

To that Black Rapp added, “There aren’t rules. Don’t judge yourself. Take the nice gloves off. Take the cuffs off.” Tell yourself, “I’m going to write the truth, even if you don’t like it.”

“Write because you don’t have a choice,” Bidwell Smith said.

Kramer added, “Don’t worry about if there’s room in the market for your book. Go from a point of abundance. We need all the stories. Yours too will be a gift.”

“Write it for yourself,” Dorell Smith said.

“Write it raw. Absolutely write it raw,” Kramer said. “On the 34th time you’ll see, ‘Oh, here’s the place for humor.’”

There’s no ladder of loss,” Rapp Black said. “You don’t want the top spot. ‘I got the worst one!’ It’s not a competition.”

“There aren’t as many men writing about grief,” Bidwell Smith said. “We should include them. Don’t edge them out.”

“This topic affects everyone,” Kramer said.


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