Writing the Road of Loss, from Grief to Growth

My mother died suddenly of acute bronchial pneumonia in June 2008. I was nineteen. We didn’t have the best relationship; sometimes I’d ignore her constant calls for weeks. Our last conversation, the day before her death, was about bacon.

I was drunk when I faced the funeral arrangements, the cremation, and the weeks of grief that followed. That summer, Into the Wild was playing at the Super Cinemas in Toledo, Ohio. I must have went to see that movie five times. There was something about the freedom the protagonist, Christopher McCandless, found from indulging in wanderlust that connected with me.

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In my downward spiral, I’d believed the only way I could cope with death was to hike from Pennsylvania to the East Coast. I’d convinced one of my two best friends to accompany me on said hike, and the other best friend to drop us off on the side of a Pennsylvania freeway. The experience was intended to sober me up and help me embrace the inevitability of death. My friend and I hiked, hitched rides, spent time with strangers and family, and made the best of our journey. Though we were gone but a few weeks, I returned to Toledo with equal amounts of credit card debt and spiritual growth. When I look back on the trip, I find it miraculous that no real trouble had befallen us; we’d romanticized the idea of traveling like beatniks without considering the real dangers of being on the road. I swear there must have been someone watching over us.

In a way, running from my home and its ghosts enabled me to walk the path of self-discovery. I thought about all the fights I’d had with my mom. I thought about what it meant to be a motherless son. I thought about how she might tell me to live if she were still alive. I’m no expert on the stages of grief, but complete detachment permitted me to put everything back into perspective.

In 2010, I tried to write about the trip in a creative nonfiction independent study with the late poet Rane Arroyo at the University of Toledo. Rane guided me to find poetry in the specific details of my adventure, and to understand how my mother’s death shaped my identity. He helped me to translate my lived experience into language and understand the themes of my own life. My writing had just started to take shape when there was another unexpected loss: Rane died of cerebral hemorrhage. I stopped writing about the trip and mourned the loss of my friend and mentor.

It wasn’t until June 2016, eight years after my mother’s death, that I tried to write about the trip again. Recently enrolled in the MFA Program in Creative Writing at Antioch University Los Angeles, I decided to try writing a fictional version of the trip while working with the writer Alma Luz Villanueva. As any great instructor would, Alma encouraged me to write deeply and honestly about the story I needed to tell. Enough time had elapsed that I felt I could reinvestigate that time period for writing purposes. Between the trip and the MFA Program, I never went on another daring adventure. I did, however, move to Los Angeles where I let go of fiction to focus on filmmaking and acting. As I immersed myself back into prose and literature, Alma stressed the pursuit of the fictive dream (to enter the world of the story and inhabit its characters). To do this, Alma recommended taking my characters with me into my dreams, to contemplate their existence subconsciously. Embodying my characters on this level required me to retrace the steps of my trip via piles of scraps, journal entries, and Google Earth.

I’d kept a journal during the trip, notating our routes, distances traveled per day, and encounters with people. I’d written in a notebook and typed notes onto Facebook whenever I had access to a computer. Later, when recreating the experience with prose, I’d relied on my notes to capture the essence of my internal state. At the time of writing, years later, I had become a completely new person. A little less naive, I’d like to believe, and a smidge wiser. With that said, I also became more hardened, less sentimental and nostalgic than my younger self. When I revisited this material it became easier for me to dream with my characters and re-envision the pain I had felt as a young man.

When working on the story as a creative nonfiction piece with Rane, I’d felt obligated to keep the details factual. Writing the story as fiction taught me that I could still aspire for truth without the arduous relaying of facts. Untethered from history, I could exploit themes such as displacement with invented elements inside the narrative. I called the story A Myriad of Roads That Lead to Here and, after several revisions, I felt like the story was finally out of my body and on the page. I submitted it to literary journals and was surprised when notified from a small press that they wanted to publish it as a chapbook. I’d poured raw emotion into the story. I’d spent months composing and revising. I’d spent years thinking about it. The time had come to turn off my critical mind and allow the story to take life.

Since the book’s publication, I have done readings in Los Angeles, and each time it feels like there is a part of me still walking the roads of Pennsylvania back in 2008. Although not all of my writing is based on personal experience, A Myriad of Roads That Lead to Here is the most autobiographical. I don’t disclose this when I read to an audience; I prefer to introduce it as a work of fiction, a completely made up story. But I think that no matter what story is being told, the audience wants to believe there is some personal connection to the writer. In my case, writing from my heart allowed me to grow, and sharing my work with the world helped me move on.

We carry our loved ones in our hearts, and when they’re taken away it feels we are left fractured. But we move on. We have to. Writing A Myriad of Roads That Lead to Here, in all of its incarnations, helped me come to terms with the absence of my mother over nearly a decade of grief. I’d carried the story around with me, in the back of my mind, wondering if it was worth the energy to tell. I’ve learned that when a story keeps coming back, there’s often no other choice but to write it, get it out for good, purge it from the soul.

A Myriad of Roads That Lead to Here is available here. 

Book Review – Radial Symmetry: Poems by Katherine Larson

One of the most dynamic qualities of this collection of poetry is the fact that Larson is not only a poet, but also a molecular biologist and field ecologist. The author’s expertise in these areas brings a specificity to the language that connects poetic and abstract ideas to the cellular, often organic level. The collection is broken down into four sections, each one focusing on a different thematic element.radialsymmetry.jpeg

One introduces nature, and Larson tries to depict a oneness between the self and nature. In the first poem, “Statuary”, Larson concludes, “But somewhere between/ the crane and the worm/ between the days I pass through/ and the days that pass through me/ is the mind. And memory/ which outruns the body and/ grief which arrests it.” The poem takes the reader into the sky and the earth, juxtaposing this high and this low with imagery of cranes and earthworms. Larson offers that earthworms connect everything together.

The following poem is the first introduction into Larson’s concerns for love, intimacy, and connectedness in the romantic sense. It also familiarizes the reader with the type of language that Larson utilizes for information and poetry. “The man next to her has fingers trapped in a botanical book.” The woman in this poem “thinks of dinner with the man” later. She recalls a time when “they strayed/ through terraced shales and grey-blue/ limestones searching for fossils, the sea/ licks pale lichens off the rocks/”.

Next, in “Study for Love’s Body”, Larson is concerned with theories of love becoming overcomplicated. This poem is broken into four sections, ranging from drastically different tones, themes, and poetic structure. From contemplating how Gauguin told van Gogh that “in his painting he wants to suggest/ the idea of suffering–without ever explaining what kind/” to the symmetry of octopus arms, to wanting to kiss a stranger’s hands. Throughout the rest of One Larson talks of dissecting squid, tortoises as priests “of an exclusive past”, and the difference between “Crypsis and Mimicry”.

Two takes the reader to Tunisia, Mali, Uganda, and Naples to contemplated Death, “a woman selling hills of green powder/ (alcove of shade)/”, and a confession to Paul Klee: “I cheat on everyone I love./ My tired letters shuffle through dusk/ like summer insects.” Three is one poem in eleven parts. “Ghost Nets” ranges in tone by altering scene and theme in each section. Some of Larson’s more vivid messages in this section include: “Memory. The invention/ of meaning. Our minds with deeps/ /where only symbols creep.”, “All living is brushwork, you say./”, and “Ask the blind how carefully we build our world on light./ Ask the octopus how the evolution of our eyes converged./”

The poems in Four see less cohesive or linked thematically. Each poem is more independent in this section. By teetering on the bleak, Larson poses many significant questions such as in “Landscape Tilting Towards Oblivion”, “Why do some plants wear human faces?/ What makes stars shiver in their burning coats?”

Larson connects biological and universal truths with the precise eye of a scientist, linguist, lover, and poet. In the end, Radial Symmetry is a transcendent reading experience; each poem draws the reader in with the natural ebb and flow of nature, of the heart, of the body, and the mind. It is impossible not to see the symmetry in ourselves and nature, which Larson portrays seamlessly.

Book Review: Shoot the Messenger by John Dorsey

I’ve been reading John Dorsey for nearly a decade and have had the privilege of seeing this poet perform many times in Toledo, Ohio. I’ve been haunted by his words—stories of ghosts, of friends, of towns—and often wondered what it must feel like to be loved by John Dorsey.

In the Shoot the Messenger’s first poem, “The Alligator Man”, he writes, “the sun is just one of a thousand knick knacks / that gets drowned out by the pulse of your love” and “a marriage that can no longer walk / on water / gets frozen in time”.

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Cover photograph, “You and Me and Me and You,” digital image from Polaroid photo, 2012 by Greg Edmondson

Reading Dorsey’s poetry is like receiving a love letter from the world, and being affirmed that the world is an apologetic and welcoming place to live. Each poem feels so personal, as if I shouldn’t be allowed in on the idiosyncratic relationship between the poet and his subject. This is what also makes the poetry ring true on a universal level because each piece is so specific that they become undeniably relatable.

What makes this publication by Red Flag Poetry doubly enjoyable is the accompanying art by Greg Edmondson. Using a variety of mediums in the collection, Edmondson evokes a sublime sentimentality that transcends human nature into a more objective and abstract periphery.

The sum of the poetry and the art is a dadaist juxtaposition, a fusion of the surreal and the microscopic truths of everyday life. In pairings such as Dorsey’s poem “County Route 705” with Edmondson’s color pencil and collage “Perilous Journey”, the existentialism becomes more prevalent, accentuating the aesthetic of both the poetry and the artwork.

June 24, 2014:  Artwork of Greg Edmondson. (Photo: Danny Reise)

“Perilous Journey,” color pencil and collage on paper, 30″ x 22″, 2015 by Greg Edomndson

County Route 705

is full of ghost stories

faded yearbook photos
of dreams that died
on loose gravel

the sun shining
on our failures

just hanging there
like a rusty hubcap
nailed to the cross.

                           by John Dorsey

 

 

 

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5 (of Many) Things I Learned During My First M.F.A. Low-Residency

After attending a 10-day low-residency at Antioch University Los Angeles there are thoughts I gathered, retained, and changed due to the experience. A low-residency is an intensive marathon for writers who have lives and cannot necessarily attend college full-time. For years I was hesitant about a low-residency versus a traditional Graduate School experience. Here is how I feel now about writing and being/living as a writer.old-typewriter

1. You don’t need a degree or a program or a system to be a writer. A writer must physically sit down, block out the world, have a story in mind, and write. They must write first drafts to be bad so that their soul can be content with its release, and then later go back with craft in mind and bring that draft to life the way it was initially conceptualized (or allow the writing to take its own form, craftily guiding it along the way to fruition).

2. Culture matters. As a writer and a person it is important to grasp the idea of The Other in society in order to ‘Write What You Know’—what I mean is that, in searching for identity and the ability to write from the heart I believe it is an ethical obligation to step outside of one’s Self and consider what it is like to be a drastically different human being. Then return to the Self and write. (This way a writer will find that: A. Their beliefs have changed about things or B. Their beliefs remain the same but at least they can be affirmed in their beliefs because they’ve taken the risk of empathizing with another human being in order to fully understand their own condition and existence.)

3. Take all advice from writers with a grain of salt while at the same time being completely open-minded. Some things will stick, some will downright make you want to walk out of the room. Only you can write the piece you want to write. Just as in other things in life, every person has a different perspective. Listen to your heart.

4. A creative writer is an artist. In the traditional sense of walking into an Art Museum to gaze at paintings and other visuals—writing is the art of language, storytelling, and narrative. We all live our own narrative experience—our own story. The act of creative writing is form the writer takes to express her own reality. I see all arts on the same playing field: visual art, film and videomaking, music, writing, performance. It takes an artist to create the things that exist which are not completely commercial. This reminds me of Van Gogh lamenting as a 16 year old dealing art from his family’s studio—“one-tenth of all business that is transacted is really done out of belief in the art.”

5. Letting go of expectations helps reach personal successThere are varying schools of thought on what a creative writer is and how writers ought to achieve their place in the world as a writer. To do art for the money…is a choice, I hope. Personally, I feel that an artist should stray away from this and do art because they have no other choice. That is what happened to me, and I ended up being able to support myself as a creative writer (ghost writing fiction, non-fiction, children’s books). It wasn’t until after I stopped trying to make money in the film and television industry that I found the opportunity to support myself doing something I love. I think this type of opportunity only comes around when a person learns to truly let go of things done for money or out of fear.

With all this said, I am thankful for my first residency at Antioch University Los Angeles. I met wonderful people whom I otherwise would never had the opportunity of getting to know. Stay in touch for more of updates and reflections on my experience with a low-residency M.F.A. program in Creative Writing.