Life and Death and the Novel

bustle2Writing a novel, especially a first novel, can be a long, hard process. A few years ago, I began working on a novel that focuses on a mother-in-law and a daughter-in-law and examines the complexities of in-law relationships as well as the process of aging and the effects of grief.

It probably comes as no surprise that the novel grew out of my life and my desire to express some complicated emotional experiences. Though the mother-in-law in my book is not my mother-in-law, and the daughter-in-law is not me, there are pieces of both my mother-in-law and me in those characters. Even when we start with our own experience, it becomes something new through the process of writing the story. As Federico Fellini said, “All art is autobiographical. The pearl is the oyster’s autobiography.” I’ve gone through many revisions wanting to get the story and the characters right. Some days, especially this past spring, I’ve just wanted to walk away from it all, feeling like maybe it wasn’t worth all the effort.

But life can take a turn.

In July, my mother-in-law died unexpectedly, and I found myself in the middle of the themes and emotions of my novel in an entirely new way. After years of trying to craft believable versions of painful conversations and difficult confrontations of loss, there I was enmeshed in our family’s grief.

Of course, I put my novel revision aside as I tried to be there for my husband, his father and his siblings as well as our children, all of whom were devastated by the sudden loss. Face to face with the reality of life and death, fiction shrank in importance. What is art when you are trying to comfort your sobbing 14-year old daughter?

We struggled together through that first week feeling like we were all in a daze. A few days before the memorial my father-in-law turned to me and said, “Do you know that Emily Dickinson poem about what a house is like after a death?”

I felt my stomach drop and then recited the Dickinson poem 1108,  from memory:

The Bustle in a House
The Morning after Death
Is solemnest of industries
Enacted upon Earth –
The Sweeping up the Heart
And putting Love away
We shall not want to use again
Until Eternity –

“That’s the one,” he said, “I can’t get that out of my head. It captures the feeling so perfectly. I just keep thinking of it.”

“I know,” I said. I hugged him, but I’m pretty sure he didn’t notice the goose bumps on my arms.

What my father-in-law didn’t know was that the title of my novel came from that poem. More importantly, the feeling it conveys, the way that it so beautifully articulates what it is to move forward in grief, has been the driving force of the project. When he mentioned that poem—not some poem like it but that exact one—it felt like a confirmation of the power of art to comfort us even in our darkest moments. Dickinson’s masterful expression of loss created a connection across time and space of what it is to be human.

As soon as we were home after the memorial service I got back to my novel with a new set of experiences to inform my story, but also with a renewed commitment to take that hard won knowledge and try to make a pearl.

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