Tag Archive | Essays

Writing for Survival: Fran on She Writes.com

I wrote the following piece on writing and my new book for a great writerly website called, shewrites.  As usual I’m out there with honesty.


I’ve just completed a memoir in essays I’m calling “How I Lost My Bellybutton and Other Naked Survival Stories,” in which I try to make sense of the ridiculous amount of “tsuris” I’ve had in my fifty-seven years. As I begin sending it out into a publishing world that’s become quite weird, I’m feeling surprisingly Buddhist. Of course I want to entertain, illuminate, and move others with published work, but finding and telling my own story in my authentic voice, sometimes using my (recovered) sense of humor, has helped me accept that I actually write to survive. Writing is my solace, therapy, coping tool, refuge, calming mechanism, path to healing, and way to make sense of life.

So what have I survived? Well, who’s counting, but just for starters we’re talking a husband’s brain tumor (1 time), the same husband’s cancer (2 times), my own miscarriages (3 times), breast cancer and a mastectomy whose aftermath nearly killed me (1 time, so far), a brother who thinks he’s the Angel of Philadelphia from the Bible (He’s not unlovable, but 1 deluded brother is plenty), and familial mental illness that I realize now pervaded every corner of our house in the Philadelphia suburbs, however in denial my father was. (3 mad aunts, 2 depressed parents).

None of it comes even close to the 1994 death of my three-year-old son, Michael. Surviving that is, I believe, one of the two greatest accomplishments of my life.

My relationship with writing has been explosive and fickle, beginning when I wrote to cope as a teenager, secretly. Like a junkie who keeps going into rehab, only to relapse every time, I’ve stopped when I lost focus on process, suffered rejection, envied another writer’s talent or success, had to abandon a project that didn’t work out, didn’t realize that everything you do, even that which fails or hurts, can teach.
I’ve even condemned and ridiculed my Muse without mercy, beaten the poor thing over the head until she shuts down, rebels, abandons me, or even hits back. Here’s a Survival Tip She-writers might find useful:

Survival Tip #1: Do not beat your muse. She’s sensitive, and doesn’t respond well to bullying. Who does?

Even during my most successful period, when I had multiple book deals, foreign translations, a German best seller, film options, nice sales, great reviews, I kept beating my Muse for not being better. I kept trying to quit.

And then came December 7th, 1993, my version of Pearl Harbor Day, the day my son had a seizure. My husband and I rushed him to a Hospital, but we arrived with our baggage in Hell.

At the time of my son’s death I had a two-book contract that I tried to fulfill by frantically finishing the second book in a few weeks. What a sight I must have been, pounding on the computer, a wild-eyed zombie—in a bathrobe, since I hardly ever got dressed. The editor rejected that violent mess of a book, and I lost my deal.

Was I thinking I could plow through such a loss, or maybe put off grief until later? This kind of grief makes you insane. And in my insanity, I stopped writing again, just when I needed it most.

I spent the next three years walking around wearing only my bathrobe and my grief, only vaguely aware of my daughter and husband, like floaters in my field of vision. People suggested I write a journal, but I became enraged at anyone who presumed to tell me how to cope. One desperate day three years later, I scrawled the words “Help me” over and over in a notebook until they dissolved into unrecognizable strokes. Eventually I turned that journal into my unconventional third novel, “Saving Elijah.” Writing that book saved my life. Even so, when my next novel didn’t sell to a publisher, I gave up writing again.  Here’s another tip:

Survival Tip #2: Rejection and failure come with the territory. Art is subjective and interactive. 

I went back to school for social work, and now have a clinical practice I love. I also facilitate “write to heal” workshops. And writing eventually lured me back, first poetry to cope with the trauma of sitting with other people’s trauma, and then after surviving the breast cancer (barely), I started the bellybutton essay, to which I added Other Naked Survival Stories, including several about my son, what Hell is like, how I escaped it. The book is part memoir, part self help, with 70 or so Survival Tips based on all I’ve learned about psychology, resilience, and coping with emotional pain. Writing the tips—the real ones and even the bits of schtick I threw in for fun—was instructive for me, and I hope will be for readers, too. Here are a few tips more for writers that aren’t in the book:

Survival Tip #3: Banish all self-censorship, whether you’re “writing-for-healing,” or writing a first draft.

Survival Tip #4: Draw blood. This is the (oddly) healing part. Corollary: It helps to examine and unpack your psychological baggage when you’re forced to deal with trauma in your life, and/or when working with it in your writing.

Survival Tip #5: Learn craft. Learn more. Craft (and even art) comes with practice and study, and with a willingness to write and rewrite, examine and reexamine the material (along with your mind and heart) to shape it so it resonates emotionally with other readers. Corollary for Older Writers: Do not be dismayed that on the Internet, your writing is called “content.” Fuss with it anyway. Writers fuss because they care about each word.

Survival Tip #6: Learn to distinguish between criticism or honest reaction, and snark. Criticism can help you in your work. Snark is about the person giving it. Corollary: Don’t become overly fond of your words, but learn to stand your ground on the words that work.

Survival Tip #7: Tell the truth. Or your truth, anyway. But don’t expect to be thanked. Corollary: To tell your truth, find your authentic voice.

Survival Tip #8: Count your blessings. One blessing is that you have the gift of writing to see you through this life.

Semi-reformed cynic that I am, I feel blessed to have been able to use my writing to see myself as a survivor, rather than as victim of emotional (not to mention physical) suffering. I’ll be thrilled if readers find my new book moving, wise, funny, and (God forbid) inspirational, but whatever happens out there in the big bad publishing world, I know that I can no sooner give up writing than give up my nose. I’m definitely keeping my nose, since I no longer have a bellybutton. As for how, exactly, I lost my bellybutton, that, Sister Survivors, is a long story, which I hope you’ll read about in the memoir.

Writing Prompt: Here’s an idea I explored in my novel, “Saving Elijah.” I recommend it for anyone who’s suffered trauma, loss, illness, or emotional pain. (That would be just about everyone!) With all the creativity and imagination in She-Writes-Land, I trust we’ll see some interesting results. Post and tag your efforts so we can all enjoy them.
Imagine a scene in which you (or a character) meet God, or God’s emissary. Place the scene in any era: the 1950’s or 1500’s, the future, now. Any locale: France, Detroit, your kitchen, the New York Stock Exchange, a dusty road. Dress God in any guise: someone meaningful from your (or the character’s) past, a dead father, a purple angel or demon, a crooked old man. Now write the scene, with dialogue. You might (but don’t have to) start with your character imploring to God, “Why me?”
Why me, indeed.

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On grief, with “Codependent No More” author, Melody Beattie…Friends are invited to tell a story of loss

Okay, so it’s been months since I last posted, and I feel like a neglectful blog-mother, but a lot has happened that has kept me busy. Mainly, most importantly, I’ve become a grandmother! The daughter of my daughter was born on Friday evening March 5th at 9:06 PM. But I’m not writing about that today, because I need more time to process it, old-school writer that I am.

Today, I’m writing about an interview for “Bottom Line/Women’s Health” I did with a true pioneer of the self-help industry, Melody Beattie, whose book, “Codependent No More,” introduced the country and the world to the term “codependency” way back in 1986, and essentially spawned the support group movement, which has saved so many lives. (Wow! We were all wearing big hair and shoulder pads back then, and none of us had computers, let alone blogs.) Just to show the longevity of Melody’s ideas and work, I checked Amazon, and found that  “Codependent No More” ranks at #242 today. It is truly impressive and rare that more than twenty years after the book’s publication, it still enjoys that kind of sales. By way of comparison, I’ll admit that back in 2000, “Saving Elijah” got up to #730 the day after a wonderful review appeared in the Wall Street Journal, but two days later sank like a stone.

During the interview, I discovered that Melody too had lost a child, a son named Shane, so we got to talking about grief. She is developing her own website about grief, which I am linking to. I sent her a copy of my essay from the Wellness and Writing Connections Anthology, “My Son’s Name was Michael — Not Elijah,” which reflects on the process and consequences of turning my own grief into fiction.  Below, I’m posting her response to my essay. (In bold are my comments and explanatory notes)

Isn’t that the beginning of a book?  I wanted to turn the page and read more.  A lovely compliment from Melody.  In fact, I am writing a kind of memoir in essays, which will include a version of “My Son’s Name.”

It took a long, long time to develop any compassion for people who say stupid things, and I still don’t have much of it, so I teach. I teach them what to say and more importantly, what not to say (and will have a section for them on my site).

I teach them what to do.

Step by step, paragraph by paragraph, I teach them how to write a comforting letter to someone in grief.

I teach people that grieving is not a “condition” nor is it wasted time. Our personal velocity changes and we move at a different pace than many other people in the world.

And the second year is worse than the first — it does not, as people enjoy saying, “get better with time.” The longer I don’t see Shane, the more I miss him, not less.

My AA sponsor told me after funeral that I needed to write out a check for each of the people who had helped me get through the week of his death so they could take a vacation, as I had “drained them.” And it would be a nice thank-you gift. Well, I didn’t feel grateful to anyone for anything, but I did as she said — and of course, the people who received a check (for $2,000) included her.

Nobody talks about how vulnerable we are.

I had a contract too — had to pay back the advance. (Here Melody, the author of 15 books, is referring to the section of my essay that talks about losing a two book contract for “Flight” and one other novel with Dutton in 1992, after Michael got sick, when I couldn’t produce a second book.

I started crying 30 days before Shane died, and couldn’t stop — and I wasn’t a crier. My soul knew what was coming, and my grief began before he left, when our souls started to say “see you” but in a different way.

And who in the hell says we have to let go completely and forever? In what book is that written? We don’t have to let go of someone when they move away, forget about them, or stop missing them.

People comfort themselves, not the person in grief. I want to help them to learn to switch that around. Here Melody is referring to the tendency of people say things that push the grief away.  People do this because it’s hard to sit with pain, very hard, it takes stamina and real compassion. My favorite quote in this regard is a Buddhist one, “Compassion is willingness to be close to suffering.”

Your story got me going. There was a real taboo in the media about the death of children at that time. Producers, etc. didn’t want to talk about the idea that children die. The world wasn’t ready for it yet. But every year, in this country alone, 250,000 people die before they receive their allotted 70-90 years of life — die before their parents do.

And God does too make mistakes. The New York Times says that 88 percent of the people we hire for assistants steal. I think that statistic applies to people generally, and not just about stealing. I think about 9 out of every ten people we meet have the ability to love and care. In the Old Testament of the Bible, which covers both Jews and Christians, it says on the seventh day He rested. Well, I think that whoever he goes to handle things on day seven went by those same statistics, so only one in ten of his workers did a good job. The other nine made mistakes. They let our children die. That’s what I think, anyway. It’s the only way I can make sense out of something so cruel and senseless. God’s assistant’s messed up, and we (and our families) became the victims of their ineptitude. Interesting theory, this one, not one I subscribe to. I believe that if there is a God, God doesn’t intervene with individuals in day to day events.  Or, maybe I subscribe to the notion that we live our lives on earth to learn certain lessons, and my own lesson may have been related to losing one I love. Of course neither of these theories explain theodicy, or the existence of evil in a world supposedly controlled by a good God.  Events unexplainable include the Holocaust, slavery, natural disasters, terrorism, or other horrific, “evil” events of history.

I hope you keep writing.

I hope you had an affair. Because if you were touched, then you knew you were still alive, whether you wanted to be or not. Here, in her lovely, supportive way, Melody is referring to the way I open my essay, with an account of a women in my town whom I ran into at Starbucks after she’d read Saving Elijah and confused my fictional character with me, and who asked if my husband took me back after I had an affair. Quoting my essay, “I looked at her, speechless. Saving Elijah, to describe it as the aggressively sensational Putnam cover copy did, is about a woman named Dinah Galligan, who while keeping vigil over her comatose five-year-old son, Elijah, “meets a seductive spirit in the hospital corridor outside the pediatric intensive care unit, one with a startling connection to her past, who claims he can make her child well again—if she’s willing to pay the price.” Near the end of the novel Dinah has a brief, desperate affair, so the question wasn’t totally weird, but I still wanted to shake her and scream, “DINAH IS A CHARACTER, YOU IDIOT.” Luckily I was not only speechless I was paralyzed.” And then later in the essay, I say, ““The question I’m most often asked now when I confess that I lost a child AND wrote a novel inspired by the experience (depending on who asks, I might leave out one or the other of those facts) is why didn’t I write a memoir? I could have, I suppose. A carefully constructed memoir can give a reader unique access to someone else’s singular experience, possibly fostering empathy, learning, understanding, growth. But reading a memoir can also make us feel safe, even smug, in the essential “otherness” of the author’s experience. Like the millions who gawk at a celebrity’s all-too-human troubles, or hoot at bad behavior on Jerry Springer, the woman at Starbucks could think, “Well, I would NEVER have had an affair.” You wish, lady. You have no idea what you would do if your child died, let alone what I would do.”

Talking to, and receiving this response from Melody gave me an idea, which I shared with her. Expanding on the idea that everyone has a story to tell and wants to tell it, it seems to me that it would be interesting to invite people (famous and not, anonymous and not) to tell a story of personal loss and discuss how it changed them, in, say, two or three paragraphs.

Any takers out there? Write me an email at frandorf@aol.com or leave a comment and I’ll post it.

Kissing Stanley

I’m pleased to report that Perigee, a respected online literary magazine, has published my essay, “Kissing Stanley.” This is “creative non-fiction,” and even though it’s about a very small event in my life that happened a very long time ago, I stand by its significance. I’ve changed some of the names to protect the innocent, the guilty, and the dead.  Here’s a teaser.  For the rest of the essay, follow the link at the end:

 

Perigee FictionKISSING STANLEY
                                          FRAN DORF

The biggest, baddest cooties in my whole high school belonged to Stanley Gluck, and I was simply not going to kiss him. I had turned seventeen that December, my friend Merry and I had spent the previous summer practicing oral sex on bananas, and I’d already had actual sex with one boy, but I had my standards. If I kissed Stanley Gluck, I’d be tainted with his cooties and no matter what the consequences of not kissing Stanley, I wasn’t going to do it.  

It wasn’t that Stanley was ugly, or fat, or smelled, or had obvious canker sores; he may have been a rather good looking young man, even if he had a cartoonish triangular head.  But it’s one of those unfortunate facts of high school that some get singled out for universal derision, often for reasons that aren’t necessarily clear. Other than the triangular head, Stanley’s main offense—and the reason I was so dead set against kissing him—was that he talked like a professor, and not just any professor, but some upper crust Wasp professor with a pole up his butt. We all spoke American teenage vernacular of the groovy anti-establishment era, and there was Stanley with his peculiar, patrician affectation, enunciating each syllable to within an inch of its life, using odd, formal sentence structure, and speckling his speech with ten dollar words that no one our age used, like “impertinence,” and “erudite,” and obsequious.” As in, “Mr. Shis-sler, Char-lie is sleeping in the back of the classroom. I simply cannot fathom why you would tolerate such impertinence!”

To continue, click here to go to Perigee, then click on “Non-fiction.”