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Esther K. Willison
Winner of the Felice Buckvar Prize for Nonfiction, 2016
Selected by Mark Vonnegut
This is a very powerful and personal piece about your daughter. What were your greatest challenges and strengths in writing this piece?
This piece was composed of excerpts taken from a 300-page memoir I have written about my daughter between 1998 and 2015. Other excerpts from the book have also been published.
Challenges were, first of all, being able to survive the pain of putting down my feelings, which, literally, at least in the early years, were unbearable enough to question my survival. It seemed impossible for me to continue living when my own daughter, at age thirty-eight, was dead, not only dead, but dead because I was unable to save her. The “if only I had” was infinite. What good is a mother who cannot save her child? So the challenge was to keep going and write it down anyway, just as it came out of me, raw as it was, the keyboard so wet with tears my fingers slid over the letters.
The strengths? The daily writing got me out of bed, and after, dressed and washed. The physical movement was enough distraction from grief that I could, after writing a few hours, remember I had a partner who asked me six months after Andrea died if I was ever coming back to her (emotionally), and another daughter who had also been knocked down. And, eventually, the writing allowed me to leave the house, to connect again with the world, although I had to ask Andrea’s permission all along the way; it seemed unforgivable for me to even eat a meal when she was never going to eat again.
The opening of the essay is compelling—you describe a visceral and embodied experience of grief and fear. Can you talk a bit about the process of writing from an embodied perspective?
At the time I wrote the book I think this might have been the process: First, when I sat down at the computer Andrea’s presence was clear in my mind. This was both an intellectual and a physical experience. My heart beat more quickly; my body was tense, maybe evident as a stiff neck or a sore shoulder. Sometimes I felt I was typing for my life, for her life. That if I could recall her history and catch up with her I could finally come up from behind her and yell, wait, wait, I’m coming too. So the process of writing was partly not to lose her, or to go with her, or to recreate her—her birth, her childhood, her friends, her lovers, her humor—on paper. But, I feared if I printed it out she would reappear and smile at me, “What are you doing, Mom, I chose to go, why are you bringing me back?”
Maybe this will help answer the question. Here is more of that first section called “Grief” from the book memoir; the part that comes before I call grief a sonofabitch:
“Yet I live my life. I can walk, even straight up, even in and out of stores, restaurants, tennis clubs. I can smile, joke, make quips, dance, play an instrument, smash a ball, sit on the sofa in my writing group. I can do all those things but it is always there. Even if I’m talking to Andrea, in my head, in a perfectly normal voice, even a friendly voice, rather an optimistic voice, I mean a voice that’s full of hope and cheerfulness, even then it sucks my breath out and goes in the same passageway choking me down, stinging me, nettles all over my body. OhmyGod it is always there, encasing my fingers with sting as I type, waiting, waiting to roll over me, to squeeze out the air, nausea of a grand sort, nausea from all corners of the earth until I vomit tears and they wash me into a few hours of relief, exaltation from grief—there! I have named the demon. He is mine.”
What role does this chapter play in the context of your memoir?
The description of grief is from the first chapter of the book (written six months before the rest of the book) but the scene with her father comes later in the memoir, as does the scene with the egret.
I see my memoir as starting out hopeless. Gradually, with the help of writing about her (and, by the way, as I was writing I knew no one would EVER read what I was writing. I was sure of that. I wrote only for myself), and the help of my friends, my younger daughter and my partner, I decided to live. Then, still grieving, I return to my partner and the world and begin living again, hesitantly at first but by the end of the book I know everything will always be less but it WILL be. So the transformation throughout the book, I hope, is clear. The first chapter of the book is called Grief. And that’s what it is. From then on, over the next couple of hundred pages, you might call it “grief shrinking,” (in size but not in intensity), and, finally it fits into your pocket (as someone said in the suicide support group I attended) so you can feel it, and move it around, and even let go of it occasionally but it will always be a part of you. The last chapter is called Connection.
Which writers have inspired you? What are you currently reading?
Virginia Woolf has inspired me since I was in high school. I often reread her. Right now Joan Didion’s book The Year of Magical Thinking inspires me. My two favorite authors at this time are Marilynne Robinson and Cynthia Ozick. I’m also quite fond of Jhumpa Lahiri’s fiction and, recently, her non-fiction book, In Other Words. I’m crazy about Nicole Kraus’ The History of Love; I keep coming back to that. My favorite poet, aside from Andrea, is Gerard Manley Hopkins. He does something with words that’s more amazing than anyone else I know. At the moment I’m reading Cynthia Ozick’s latest book of essays, Critics, Monsters, Fanatics, and other Literary Essays. (It’s not out yet but we get Readers Copies at the bookstore where I work.)
What is the best piece of writing advice you’ve received?
Don’t try to be a “good” writer. Just write in your own style, however it comes out. And don’t rewrite too much, you might lose your original inspiration. (The second suggestion is Virginia Woolf’s.)