Swimming Sideways: Navigating Grief As A Writer And An Artist

“Hi. I am a fellow writer and have enjoyed your blog over the years. I know you lost your mom recently and I wanted to share my condolences. I, also, lost mine over a year ago and it has completely paralyzed me — stopped me in my creative tracks. I read your blog regarding self-care: do you take time to lick your wounds or soldier on? Not to bring you down, but I’ve found that soldiering on, for me, is impossible — and the more I try, the worse I feel… like I’ve been abandoned on the lower end of a see-saw — my heels stuck in the dirt. I have started three separate books and have abandoned them all and am stymied: writing was how I got someone to jump on the other end of the see saw — but I’m still there, alone on the playground. “Just write” are the words I hear. Writing words are easy. Writing a cohesive story is not. No one understands, not my therapist, my agent, my loved ones, not even myself. I don’t know what I want you to say, if anything, I just wanted to write THESE words down to someone who I think understands.”

That came from an email I received, and I wanted to respond to it, but I didn’t know how. And I didn’t know that my answer would be fruitful, or useful, or even sensible, honestly. But just the same, I wanted to say something about this. Many somethings, as a matter of fact, and so here I am to do exactly that. I want to acknowledge this question and this email, even if I cannot answer it, not truly.

What I want to say is this:

Grief is water. Grief is wave, river, and lake, it is the sea, it is a current.

You do not control it; rather, you can only respond to it. It wants what it wants, and it is always moving, ready to fill the low spaces. Sometimes you’re in its shallows, sometimes you step wrong and you’re in its tireless, unrelenting depths looking for light, trying to find which way is up. But it’s always there. Sometimes wet on your feet. Other times a fog, a mist, a light rain.

There are rocks to crash against. Shoals to trap you. Probably some pinchy crabs, too.

When my father died, I wrote my way through it. I don’t know that I wrote my way out of it, though that’s what I told myself at the time. Simply, I had work, I had deadlines, and they were an anchor chain to hold onto down there in the dark. Was it healthy? I don’t know. Probably not. But I had bills to pay and at that point I wasn’t a proper novelist, but had freelance clients whose books would not wait for my words; I either wrote them and they’d be in there with some coin in my pocket, or I wouldn’t, and the books would go on without me. So I wrote anyway. Not because of. But rather, despite. Or even in spite, or to spite the grief — to spit in the unfair eye of an unfuckwithable universe, to assert my control over something I surely did not control.

This time, I didn’t. The grief is different somehow but so is the situation — a lot more chaos in my life, and also, fewer immediate deadlines. (I still have them, but they’re longer on the horizon.) Maybe too there’s a difference in losing a mother versus losing a father, I don’t know. I know that I’ve tried writing some fresh words and they were mostly just crumbs, and stale crumbs, at best, so I resorted instead to doing reading and research, which has been a good default. I’ll get there. I’m starting to feel like I want to get there. I can see how to swim up. But the water wants what it wants. It goes where it goes and I’ll have to respond to it.

And that’s all I know how to do. I can’t bail myself out of it with a bucket. I can’t fly above it. It’s water, as prevalent and present as it is all around us — it’s in the air, in our bodies, it’s our sweat and our tears. (And don’t forget: crying is just our eyes puking up sadness.) You can’t get away from it. You can’t dry it up, or out. You can only respond to it. Do you write through it? I don’t know. Maybe. Do you write garbage even knowing its garbage just to keep fresh? If you want. Do you write about it, as I’m doing here? If you’d like. Or do you rest for a while? Writing isn’t always writing. Sometimes writing is resting. (Though, writing is also knowing when not to rest, even when it feels easiest to do exactly that. Sometimes, hard as it is, you gotta wake up.) The river takes you where it takes you; it’s up to you whether you follow its path or reach for shore. Or maybe —

Maybe grief is undertow. You don’t swim away from it. You damn sure don’t swim into it. You swim sideways. You find a way left or right and you swim out of its current. That’s the only response, I think. What that looks like, in form, is up to you. But I want to say it’s okay to write, it’s okay not to write, it’s okay to write badly, it’s okay to write beautifully in a way that isn’t practical or useable, it’s okay to write about it or write to avoid it. Whatever it is you create, it’s a response to the grief or looking away from it. Toward it to see it and understand it, or from it to escape it.

It’s swimming sideways.

All I know is, keep on going. Keep swimming. Those we have lost would want us to, wouldn’t they? One suspects it might be their greatest wish, and so we honoring them by doing exactly that, in whatever we we can muster, in whatever direction we find best, with our strongest stroke.

Stay afloat, fellow writer. Respond to the current. You are not its master, but nor is it yours.