Learning to live (and write) again after losing a loved one
My grandmother, Frances, was my hero, my mentor and the only person I knew who could talk anyone’s ear off more than me. So when she passed away unexpectedly of pancreatic cancer, I was broken. A loved one’s passing is devastating, and it comes with so many unexpected emotions and feelings. For me, it was a turning point. My hopes, my dreams, and—perhaps, most surprisingly— my love of writing died with her on December 1st, 2011.
“Now it’s your turn,” my grandmother had said to me days earlier. My turn? She never had hers. My grandmother spent more than twenty years of her life writing a book called, “God is Expensive.” She never had the opportunity to share it in her lifetime. In fact, she kept it from our family for most of her life due to the book’s sensitive and highly personal subject matter. After my grandmother passed, I ravenously read her 108,000 word manuscript in a matter of days. And then I became determined to get it published. I queried what felt like every agent on the planet, with little luck. The problem, I think, was that her book doesn’t scream best-seller: there are no teenagers, vampires, or 50 Shades-worthy controversy. Instead it’s based on her mother’s life as missionary in China and it reads like literature from a different era—in a brilliant way. No one writes like this anymore. Especially not me.
The whole rejection process made me think that if her book would never be published, why should I bother pursuing my own projects? What is the point? She was so talented—and her work would never be seen. I felt like I wasn’t half the writer she was, so why should I even try?
I found it harder than ever to put words on a page. It suddenly seemed like every word had lost its impact. I can pinpoint exactly when this began and, no surprise, it was the last time I saw my grandmother. She was lying on my sister’s bed, where she would, days later, pass away. As I said my goodbyes, words failed me. Not only did I not know what to say to her, but I wondered, if she were in my position, how would she describe this scene and the severity of the situation in a way that would have lasting meaning? Then I thought, I’ll never be able to live up to her writing. I worried that, if I were to attempt to write about the moment, I wouldn’t be able to do it justice. I wouldn’t be able to bring it (or her) back to life again. All I could utter was, “I love you more than you’ll ever know. I’ll see you soon.” I knew this would be the last time I saw her, but it was all very surreal and I hadn’t come to terms with the finality of it. I still haven’t.
At that point in my life, three years ago, I didn’t call myself a writer. The term was more of an idea, an aspiration. Sure, I paid the rent by working as an entertainment journalist for various outlets, and yes I wrote daily, but my work suddenly had no meaning. It paled in comparison to my grandmother’s contributions. I was merely writing stories that would quickly fade away with yesterday’s news cycle. I wanted more, but didn’t feel capable.
I still churned out my bread-and-butter entertainment stories, but forget self-referential essays and personal projects. For the next year or so, when I would look at any word in front of me, it would fall flat and lack substance. As a writer (whether you’re comfortable calling yourself one or not), you tend to analyze and over analyze each and every word, every sentence, every paragraph. My grandmother and I used to do this together. Now I was going it alone. I was at a standstill. I knew I needed to be creatively re-inspired, but I didn’t know how. And I didn’t know if I had the energy.
Then came a chance encounter. While on a job, at the SAG Awards, I met a fellow journalist who mentioned she used to teach at Upright Citizens Brigade, an improvisation school and theatre with locations in both New York and Los Angeles. She urged me to give it a try. “If I’m ever brave enough,” I told her at the time. A month later, I turned 31 and had a Peter Pan-style breakdown. It was time to be brave.
I marched myself down to UCB, which Amy Poehler co-founded, by the way. Week after week, I tackled the anxiety of putting myself into new, uncomfortable territory. I was surrounded by aspiring actors and comedians. I was neither of those things, but I was willing to be open and apply the “Yes, and” technique. (In the “Yes, and” game, you can never negate an improv partner’s idea, you can only say “yes” and add to their made-up scenario.) I soon found that I was madly in love with improv. That’s not to say I nailed every exercise. I did my fair share of bombing among the pros, but bombing is an equally powerful yang to succeeding’s yin. It’s the equivalent of falling down and quickly getting back up again. Once you’ve done it, you realize you can survive it. That is one of my biggest takeaways. The other major lesson for an analytical writer who lives in their head is to simply make a choice, any choice—and follow through with it.
The experience provided the inspiration I needed after losing my grandma. If I could come up with words, thoughts, sentences, and statements while on-the-spot on stage, then somehow putting them on a page didn’t seem as daunting anymore.
Improv was the creative jolt I needed. It also helped me face and confirm my greatest fear. Yes, I can’t write like my grandmother did. And, I’m OK with that. In fact, I’m thrilled because I am my own writer with my own unique voice—just like my grandmother was, too. Since coming to terms with this, everything’s been lava—it’s flowed.
As for my grandmother’s book, it’s going to get the publication it deserves. I took matters into my own hands and self-published it through Amazon. Every day, I stalk its sales reports in hopes of seeing that someone new downloaded her book. Every now and again someone does—which keeps her spirit alive and reawakens my own hope. As for me, my story has only just begun. I vow, to myself and to anyone reading this, that I will continue to put words on paper and hope that they mean something or, at least, mean something to someone.