Writing the Hard Stuff

Difficult times hit everyone's lives. How do we write about the hard stuff? Can writing help us work our way through pain and misery, anger and grief? Sometimes.

A few weeks ago, a dear friend died in a rafting accident. As I struggled to accept the loss and find a way to not let the black cloud of grief settle solidly over my days, I realized that I needed to write as a way to honor both Carol's life and my feelings. So I wrote my own version of a personal obituary in my weekly newspaper column:

The call came on one of those afternoons when life moves so quickly that even though you're going as fast as you possibly can, you feel like the Red Queen in Through the Looking Glass, as if you're barely keeping up.

"Susan, it's Jim," my friend said, and then paused. "I've got sad news: Carol Jacobson died yesterday in a rafting accident on the Green River."

"No," I said.

We were silent, me attempting to make sense of nonsensical news; he probably wondering what he should say.

"But she was so excited about that trip," I said, as if that could change what had already happened. "She had always wanted to run Lodore Canyon."

"I'm sorry," he said.

"What happened?"

"The raft flipped in Triplet Falls and she fell out. They picked her up in the pool at the bottom, but she never recovered consciousness."

Silence again while we both tried to digest the news.

Then we talked for a bit, remembering the previous fall when we had signed books at her store, and how she had loved books and ideas and stories–and being home in northwestern Colorado after thirty years away.

"I'm sorry," he said again.

"Me, too."

That was a month ago, and I'm still trying to make sense of the news that Carol Valera Jacobson, age 54, co-owner of Downtown Books in Craig, Colorado, poet, teacher, memoirist, storyteller, gardener, mom to three grown sons, re-married barely two years, is dead.

We had just "talked" in email a few days before, as she was getting ready for the raft trip. She asked for advice on dealing with slugs and grasshoppers in her garden; she nudged me about arranging my trip to sign books at her store and talk to her memoir-writing classes; she wanted information on writing workshops I'll be teaching.
And then she fell out of a raft going over a series of drops in Lodore Canyon and she's gone. Just like that.

Carol lit up a room. She loved life–people say that, but Carol really did, and was engaged in every moment of it, from gardening to giving the best hugs and laughing whole-body laughs, to improving downtown Craig, the ranching and oil town where she had grown up and to which she had returned six years ago to be closer to family.

More than 400 people came to her memorial service, and the tears and laughter and remembrances went on for two hours.

I keep thinking of things I need to tell her. And then I remember she's gone.

I want to honor Carol's life, and her passion for stories and literacy and for the community of land and people there in Moffat County.

I want to carry forward her laugh and her stubborn genius for making good things happen; I want to be the writer she believed I am.

And I want to make sense of the door that closed with her sudden death, and watch for the one I'm sure she's holding open somewhere else.

Writing–whether it's about difficult times, difficult memories, or difficult feelings–can open that door. It can help us find a way through times that are tough, a way out of emotions that threaten to swamp us. And it can be a way to honor our losses and the scars we carry, those lessons that we wouldn't have chosen to learn, but which shape our lives.


(Carol Valera Jacobson in Downtown Books, Craig, Colorado)

This one's for you, Carol. My love and blessings go with you as you continue on this great journey, wherever it may take us…..

8 responses to “Writing the Hard Stuff

  1. I am so sorry for your loss. Losing friends has got to be one of the hardest things we face as humans. I lost a very dear friend several years ago and I still go to call her every once in awhile. Writing so helps me get through the tough times. It literally saved my sanity so many times. Thanks for sharing this poignant tribute to your friend.
    Karen Walker

  2. Beautiful tribute, her picture radiates all the joyful energies.

  3. Karen, I know just what you mean about writing having saved your sanity so many times. Over the years I worked on my memoir (Walking Nature Home, published this last spring by U of Texas Press), I often wondered whether it was worth the metaphorical sweat and literal tears. Then I’d read over something I finally got to sing and realize that I’d written myself into understanding and grace. Writing not only can save your sanity, it can help you find the blessings in the most difficult of times.
    Jill, thank you. To paraphrase Rachel Carson, if there’s beauty in my tribute to Carol, it’s because you can’t write truthfully about Carol and leave out the beauty.

  4. Susan, Jill, Karen…yes…to all.
    Thanks for sharing your experience and your thoughts, here, and in your memoir Walking Nature Home.
    I found that, too, in writing “Sightlines: A Poet’s Diary.” We can write our way through grief. We can lend sorrow words. We can find strength and clarity when nothing seems to make sense.
    We can celebrate that which we lose, and find our own sense of meaning through our words as they traverse and skein our inner worlds.
    Janet Riehl

  5. Beautifully, said, Janet!

  6. Your message about Carol speaks volumes about friendship.

  7. Thanks, Sue. This morning I got an email from a friend of Carol’s who had just finished my memoir, and was so touched by it that she was motivated to write and tell me how it had changed her view of life. Carol had given her the book a few months ago and the friend–who I didn’t know until her email today–was moved to read the book after Carol’s death. And now the friend is buying a copy to give to her sister. So Carol’s still selling my books….

  8. I am not a writer just a reader, a friend of Kendra Bonnets & following her workshops from a non writing point of view. Very thoughtful and true. Thank you for sharing.

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