by Susan Wittig Albert

Last week we published part one of our interview with our Stories from the Heart Conference keynote speaker, Brooke Warner. Want to see Brooke in person? Make sure and sign up early for the conference!

Photo Credit: Edgar Valdes

Photo Credit: Edgar Valdes

Brooke Warner is the keynote speaker at Stories From the Heart VIII. She is the founder of Warner Coaching Inc., publisher at She Writes Press, and author of What’s Your Book? A Step-by-Step Guide to Get You from Inspiration to Published AuthorIn her fourteen years in the publishing industry, including eight years as Executive Editor at Seal Press, Brooke has shepherded hundreds of books through the publication process. As a teacher, coach, author, and publisher, she is a champion of women writers, with a special commitment to memoirists.

Susan: At SCN, we believe that the act of telling the story is very much its own reward—and for many of us, that is our chief goal. We want to develop a mature writing practice that we can enjoy and that allows us to tell our story with a creative passion. But some of us also want to publish our work. As a teacher/coach, how do you know when a writer is ready to consider that move?

Brooke: Great question. I work closely with the writer to determine when they’re ready based on what’s going on with them. Because writers come in all different forms, some are very eager, too eager, to get their work out before it’s really ready. Others are overly hesitant. I have worked with authors who’ve been stuck in revision land for upwards of ten years because they’re stuck in fear of outcome, whether it’s positive or negative. They’re unwilling to let go of the project. If an author is overly anxious and I don’t think she’s ready, I tell her that gently, but I also can’t stop her from querying agents and editors if that’s what she wants to do. If an author is on the other side of the equation, I try to work with her to consider what it would look like to get her work out into the world. Readiness varies so much, and I give really honest feedback to anyone who hires me to look at the work. Sometimes a work is “publish ready” but not commercial, meaning that it’s a great book but one that a traditional publisher is unlikely to acquire. I help authors determine what their books need in order to be publish-ready, and work with writers to improve their books, to tighten and polish and get the books ready for publication. It’s a somewhat subjective question you’re posing, but the work of all teachers, coaches, and editors is to help a client get her book in the best shape it can be. And generally a person who’s in this field as a coach or editor does have a clear sense of a manuscript’s viability and should be able to convey that to the writer.

You’ve said that you and Kamy Wicoff founded She Writes Press because the barriers to traditional publishing were getting higher and higher for authors. Why were you interested in starting a press that would publish only women? What interests you in working with women writers?

I was interested in continuing to work with women authors after my eight years at Seal Press. I had been immersed in women’s publishing and the advocacy issues that come along with that. Although I do have male clients, I wasn’t interested in founding a press that would serve both men and women after having been in women’s publishing for as long as I had been. I was proud of the work Seal Press was doing championing women and giving women a voice, and I saw how I could leverage this even more at She Writes Press. I founded SWP for all those women I had to turn down at Seal.

She Writes Press is known as a “hybrid” publishing house. What does this mean? Why is it important? What do authors need to know about this kind of publishing model?

To me, hybrid is anything in the gray zone between a traditional publishing model [where the publisher is responsible for underwriting the full cost of editing, producing, and distributing the book] and self-publishing [where the author underwrites the cost and does or manages the work of editing, production, and distribution]. She Writes Press is a hybrid; we’re also a partnership publishing model. We are a publishing company, and our authors pay to publish under our imprint. The authors absorb the financial risk of their publishing endeavor; in return, they keep a high percentage of their royalties. We curate and have a selective acquisitions process. We have a publisher at the helm—me—making sure that here’s a cohesive vision and that all of the books are adhering to a level of quality that’s on a par with traditional publishing. We offer traditional distribution and the extra benefits that brings, including preordering and data management. Our authors, like those working with traditional publishers, qualify to submit their books to the traditional review channels, Publishers Weekly, Kirkus, Booklist, and Library Journal. This is a boon to authors who depend on reviews to drive sales—namely novelists and memoirists.

I think the main thing authors need to know about hybrid models is that not all companies are created equal, and that publishing a book is not a reliable way to make money. There are companies out there taking advantage of authors, making false promises, and delivering substandard services. Many of these companies are not transparent about costs or possibilities for earnings. Some of our authors are earning back their initial investment and even earn a profit, but it’s not part of what we promise. What we promise is the opportunity to play in the big leagues and to produce a book that can rival its competition. But there’s no sure bet in publishing—not in traditional publishing and not in hybrid publishing.

As a publisher, in what way do you think She Writes can be an “industry game-changer”?

I think we already are a game-changer because we’re forging new ground in the hybrid space. We’re doing the hybrid thing at least as well as anyone else out there, if not better. Our covers are superb, and that matters in today’s publishing climate. We have all the right elements in place to have a breakout book or two—and I believe that will happen for us. When it does, it will raise the bar on what we’re doing even more. In the interim, I’m very focused on advocacy issues. I write a lot about the prejudice against authors who pay to publish. The traditional publishing industry is looking for ways to classify “us against them” and I’m fundamentally opposed to this concept because it’s archaic and it doesn’t hold up. Authors subsidize their work at all different points in the process. Traditionally published authors may pay for their work to be edited before they land deals, and the savvy ones have their own publicist. No one balks at this. So the notion that a book is lesser because the author pays to publish (never mind the fact that selfpublished and hybrid authors reap the reward of much higher royalties) really gets to me. But the discrimination goes way past this, extending into book reviews, association membership, contests, and more. I feel that She Writes Press is a trailblazer because we’re not trying to hide the fact that our authors invest in themselves. We’re proud of this partnership, and the authors have earned a right to publish with us because we’re not publishing just anyone. That’s what should matter—the book’s quality. We have begun to make some progress in leading this conversation and we have a lot of support for what we’re doing. There’s a surprising amount of controversy in publishing, though, and strong feelings about almost every issue. This keeps it challenging—and interesting.



by Susan Wittig Albert

BrookeWarner_177x200Brooke Warner is the keynote speaker at Stories From the Heart VIII. She is the founder of Warner Coaching Inc., publisher at She Writes Press, and author of What’s Your Book? A Step-by-Step Guide to Get You from Inspiration to Published Author.

In her fourteen years in the publishing industry, including eight years as Executive Editor at Seal Press, Brooke has shepherded hundreds of books through the publication process. As a teacher, coach, author, and publisher, she is a champion of women writers, with a special commitment to memoirists.

Susan: Many members of our SCN community know they have a story to tell, but they find it hard to get started. What suggestions do you have for them?

Brooke: In my memoir-writing classes I always say to just start with one single memory and then to create a single scene. (This holds true for fiction, too, though in the beginning it’s important to write what you know—whether you end up with fiction or nonfiction.) A scene will lead to a story, and a story can lead to a book. I know a lot of writers struggle with overwhelm, especially when they’re working on a book. The sheer length is daunting. And that’s why it’s important to take small steps, to find a regular practice, to get into a rhythm. Writing is a discipline. It requires attentiveness and care. Doing a little bit a few times a week gives you confidence, until you discover that place where you actually want to do more.

What is your advice for memoirists, especially novice writers, in writing groups? What should they look for in a group? What should they be wary of?

Great question. Finding a supportive group is so important. My main piece of advice is not to stay in a group if it’s not fully supporting you. I know a lot of writers who’ve been eroded by their writing groups. The place that was supposed to be a safe place turns out not to be. People bring their personalities to writing groups, so if you’re in the position to start one, or if you’re laying ground rules, establish what’s not okay. Discuss with the group how you want to give and receive feedback. Have accountability structures in place so that if someone gives feedback that stings, or that’s not delivered in the right way, tthat member of the group gets feedback as well. Writing groups sometimes suffer jealous members, and people can poison the well. But then there are also members who champion each other, who are each other’s biggest advocates. When you find that, it’s gold, but don’t think that you have the power to change a difficult person or a complicated dynamic. If you’re experiencing something like this, it’s probably best to leave and search elsewhere, or start your own group.

You’ve said that memoir is your favorite genre. Why? What about it has captivated you? What challenges you?

During my tenure as Executive Editor at Seal Press, I worked mostly on memoirs. Women’s voices and stories were always at the center of the work. I loved bearing witness to the honesty a memoir requires. I loved being in process with authors and their truths—watching them triumph after so much struggle. Memoir is a unique, storydriven genre that asks so much of writers, and then it’s so often dismissed as somehow “less,” as if opening your heart is something we shouldn’t be in awe of. I personally am in awe of it, and I love reading it, teaching it, and editing it. It’s very fulfilling for me, and I find memoir writers to be a very courageous bunch.

You wear a great many hats: you’re a teacher, a coach, an editor, a publisher. As a teacher, you see a great many writers up close and personal. What kind of help do you think they need most? Do they need assistance in defining and focusing on their stories? On ways to tell the story? On the mechanics of writing?

The kind of help authors need has a lot to do with their personalities. Some need support and validation more than anything. They don’t struggle with writers’ block but do struggle with validation issues. They might not have anyone who’s supportive of their writing. They might be the black sheep of the family. They might have people actively discouraging them from writing their book, or for spending time on “that hobby.” Other writers need help with their process—organization, how to schedule their writing, how to manage their time. These are my accountability clients and students. They just need someone to report into, and to help them brainstorm ideas and ways to actually do the writing. Then finally there are the craft folks, who really don’t understand certain elements of writing—scene, scope, character development, takeaway, whatever. These authors want someone to teach them the ropes and make their story better. They’re trying to figure out what’s not working, and they’re actively wanting to learn along the way. Some of my clients and students want or need support in all these way, but others are more definitely in a particular camp. My work is getting to know them as writers, figuring out what drives them and what their strengths are. The variety is rewarding to me. It keeps me on my toes.

At what point do you think a writer can best use a coach? What should a writer look for in a coach—and how does she go about finding that coach?

I think writers would do well to look for a coach at the beginning of their writing process. Of course you can always look for a coach later, but too many writers come to me after a manuscript is complete, looking for a “fix.” They know something is wrong but they don’t know what. If they had worked with a coach from the beginning, there are so many rabbit holes they simply wouldn’t have fallen down. But of course any point in the process is a good place to seek support. It’s just that too often writers want to be lone rangers, and can’t see all the ways a coach provides value, so they wait until they have a problem.

Finding a coach. Good question. There are many writing coaches out there, but too many of them who hang out their shingle without true experience other than having written their own books. I would recommend that authors ask other writer friends about coaches they’ve worked with. Coaches are easy to find at writing conferences, and usually they won’t be invited to attend unless they have some credentials. Once a writer has identified a few coaches, they should ask to talk to them, and then if they want to, they can contact references. Even if publishing is not your end goal, it’s good to look for a coach who has a track record of supporting authors all the way to publication. Many coaches will also refer other coaches they know and like. SheWrites actually has a stable of coaches, and I’ve been working to cultivate this list.

Join us next week for part two of our interview with Brooke Warner!

Why We Must Tell Our Stories


by Susan Wittig Albert

As women, we have always found ourselves in story. From the beginning of human existence, while we planted and harvested and prepared food, spun thread and wove cloth, tended our babies and cared for our elderly parents, we told one another the stories of our lives, and the lives of our grandmothers and mothers and daughters and granddaughters. Our shared stories became a many-voiced chorus singing the same song: the story-song of women at work and women at play, women loving and living, women birthing, women dying. Those stories were full of pain because human lives have always been like that. They were full of joy because lives are like that, too. Pain and joy were woven like golden threads through the full, rich, round stories of women’s lives, passed from mother to daughter to granddaughter through the generations, so that the experiences of women would not be forgotten.

Of course, the urge to shape our lives in story is not just a woman’s urge. As women remembered themselves in story, so did men, telling tales in which men worked and played and fought and died, honorably and dishonorably; tales in which men governed, wisely and unwisely; tales in which men loved women, fathered children, revered parents.

Then men learned to write and wrote these stories down so that they could share their experiences with other men and pass their knowledge of themselves from generation to generation. When writing became printing, these stories, oral and written, were gathered into books, so that men’s triumphs and tragedies would be remembered.

medieval-woman-writing-detail-150x150But what happened to women’s stories when men learned to write? In one sense, nothing happened. Women still remembered themselves in story as they worked, played, and rested, and those stories still echoed through the generations, from heart to heart. But through the centuries of recorded history, far fewer women than men were initiated into the mysteries of writing, and those who did learn to write did not often write about the lives of women. Because ordinary women couldn’t write, their stories of ordinary life were lost or misremembered or changed. It was the same cycle of decay we find elsewhere in the oral tradition, in primitive tribes or among the enslaved in assimilated societies, overwhelmed by the rush to technology. Because the stories weren’t valued, they weren’t written. And because they weren’t written, they weren’t valued. They were just . . . well, women’s stories. Tittle-tattle. Old wives’ tales. Idle gossip, created to pass the empty hours when men weren’t around. Not worth writing down. Not worth much in the coin of the realm.

This is not to say, of course, that women’s stories vanished. A few women could write, but the stories they preserved were mostly the stories men taught them, or wanted them to write. Women appeared (often in starring roles) as characters in men’s stories, first orally, then in writing, then in print, and much later in movies and television. But these were (and are) women’s lives seen through the eyes of the male storyteller. Men told what they knew about women, what they had been taught, what other men expected to hear. That Adam was evicted from Paradise because he listened to Eve. That women are unclean (and dangerously mad) during their menstrual periods. That women can’t participate in business or government because they have inferior intellects. And until women began to have unmediated access to the printed page, we had no way of crying out, “Wait! These are not our bodies, or our minds, or our lives! They are only men’s imaginings of us!”

So men’s stories about women were accepted, uncorrected and unchallenged, as true stories, and everybody was fooled. Including women. For writing is such a persuasive medium that most of us believed that we were (or ought to be) like the women in men’s stories. We should wait patiently at home, while men discover new continents. We should love men, while men love ideas. We should give birth to children (preferably male children) while men give birth to writing and the electric light and the airplane and the bomb. Of course, there were many women who did not want to wait for men, or love men, or give birth to men’s children, but their refusals were scarcely heard and rarely heeded. Theirs were the deviant voices, singular, sinister, frightening. For many women, it was necessary (and easier) to be agreeable, to be what they were expected to be—at least on the surface.

But underneath the facade of conformable docility, beneath the appearance of a life shaped by men’s stories of how women ought to think and act, there has always echoed a different story, a true story. My story. Your story. Our stories, our real, true, different lives.



Susan Wittig Albert, founder and current president of Story Circle Network, is the author of several books including the long running China Bayles mystery series, two nonfiction books, and two memoirs. She currently blogs at Lifescapes

Writing Through Burn-out

Double rainbow over my neighborhood.

Double rainbow over my neighborhood.

Last month I wrote about realizing that I’ve worn my creative self down so much over the past five years that I’m “ground to dust,” as a friend put it. It’s not that I’m sick of writing; I’m just sick of doing the sort of writing I get paid for. That writing feels like drudgery to me right now. It doesn’t refill my creative well or my spirit.

So as I work on the remaining assignments I’ve promised I’ll finish, I’ve been thinking about why I write and what I love. (Which would include the double rainbow in the photo above that graced my view last night–without the rain we need, but still a glorious sight.)

Tonight, as I was looking up a quote from my memoir, Walking Nature Home, for a friend, I came across this passage that sums up the kind of writing that does feed my spirit:

Our truest and most compelling writing comes from deep within, conscious or unconscious knowledge that is innately part of who we are. For me that is the set of relationships that make up what we call nature: who sleeps with whom, who eats whom, who cooperates and competes, and who cannot survive without whom. I know these stories both from the rigorous observation of field ecology and the experience of intimacy in my kinship with other species. –Susan J. Tweit, Walking Nature Home

It is that intimate kinship with other species that sustains me these days. Not that the human community isn’t wonderful too. But right now the company of other species is more restful–equally fascinating and nurturing, without being quite so demanding as people can be.

For example, here two photos of wildflowers I shot this evening in the restored mountain prairie that is beginning to flourish in my post-industrial-dump yard. Watching these plants re-colonize a very-much-altered landscape they clearly still recognize and embrace brings me a great deal of reassurance and joy.

The rough blazing-star at the foot of my front steps has dozens of flowers open this evening. Notice the tiny hunting spider with front legs extended on the middle flower of this group, waiting patiently to catch one of the small flies that pollinate these starry blossoms.

The rough blazing-star at the foot of my front steps has dozens of flowers open this evening. Notice the tiny hunting spider with front legs extended on the middle flower of this group, waiting patiently to catch one of the small flies that pollinate these starry blossoms.

And here's wholeleaf indian paintbrush, one of my favorite wildflowers because it won't just sprout anywhere. A hummingbird was feeding at this cluster of flowers before I shot the photo (I wasn't quick enough to catch the hummer).

And here’s wholeleaf indian paintbrush, one of my favorite wildflowers because it only sprouts where its favorite native grass and sagebrush flourish as well. A hummingbird was feeding at this cluster of flowers before I shot the photo (I wasn’t quick enough to catch the hummer).

That these native plants can return to this blighted site, it seems to me, that they sprout from the seeds I carefully spread, grow, bloom, and reweave the relationships with other species that make a healthy prairie community, is evidence that we can restore this beleaguered earth. Bit by bit, day by day.

If these wildflowers can flourish in a place that was for a century an informal railroad-track-side dump; if their lives and the relationships they sustain can return the beauty of this land, my thinking goes, I too can revive and crawl out of this deep slump of the soul, this weariness to the bone.

I just need to remember to go outside. To watch the community of the land go about its exquisitely complicated business, full of inter-weavings and interdependencies, right out my front door.

Those wildflowers are the voices I want to listen to and the stories I want to write. They are the metaphorical pots of gold at the end of the double-rainbow in my heart, the tangerine sunset that fills me with awe.

When I begin telling these stories, I believe my delight in playing with words and narrative, with articulating the love I feel for this glorious blue planet–battered as it may be–will return full force.

Prompt: What stories and voices speak to you so urgently that you must tell them? What kind of writing feeds your soul?

(This post was originally published on my blog.)

A tangerine sunset from my side deck...

A tangerine sunset from my side deck…


by Khadijah 

flowers1One of the greatest gifts I’ve received from my membership in Story Circle Network is the blessing of community. My sisters in my internet writing circles convinced me that my story is worth telling, and helped me find my voice to speak up and share my life with others. Some of them, through death or circumstance, have left my life forever; others are still a part of my writing life, offering support, encouragement and insight whenever I share a story with them.

Our internet writing circles were established to give our members a safe place to share their life stories with others. Members respond to a monthly prompt, and others respond to their writings in a supportive, positive manner. These circles help us develop and keep up our writing practices, while at the same time giving feedback so we can improve and grow as writers.

Sometimes, though, we need a little more. A little more personal connection. A little more encouragement to be consistent in our writing and work toward our goals. A little more advice and insight from people who are doing what we’re doing. A little more sense of community and fellowship. A little more companionship on the paths we walk as writers.

To provide this “little more” Story Circle is pleased to announce our Online Writers’ Roundtables. We developed these groups as a place for members to share goals, discuss issues arising from our writing practice, learn from what others are doing, and to offer advice, support, and encouragement.

LifeWriters is for startup writers who are looking for encouragement and help in developing a consistent, focused writing practice through journaling, memoir, fiction, or poetry. The group is fairly structured, with email discussions facilitated by an experienced facilitator and focused on writing activities.

Caroline Ziel, moderator of LifeWriters, has been a member of SCN for five years, and has facilitated both a writing circle and the reading circle.

“My favorite part of SCN is building relationships with the splendid women of my circle, and also the women that I write with in classes.  Craftwise, I have grown hugely through the writing classes–especially poetry and nature writing.

The mentoring that I have received here has been life changing for me, and I hope that our Round Table will provide that to all of us who participate!  Before SCN, I felt like an “accidental” writer.  Through  the support that I have received here, I have grown to accept and embrace my abilities as a writer, and hope that will be a centerpiece of the Round Table: accepting, embracing, and nurturing our abilities as writers.”

Writer2Writer is an intermediate group for writers who have already developed a fairly mature, consistent writing practice and are working on defined writing projects in any genre. Loosely structured email discussions include topics of interest generated by group members.

Moderator Pat Bean was a longtime member of the original Lifewriters group that dissolved last year. She’s a former journalist, now a free-lance writer mostly doing travel and nature articles.She writes a monthly blog for Tucson Happenings, a birding blog for Tucson Audubon, and am in the final stages of finishing a travel book, Travels with Maggie, about her nine years spent traveling and living in a small RV with my canine companion Maggie.

She says,

“I’m looking forward to acting as a support system for writers of all experience. I worked a lot with young reporters when I was a city editor and some of them still keep in touch with me, so I assume I was helpful. But in writing we each have strengths that can be shared with others, so I’m also looking forward to learning things too.”

WorkInProgress is for writers who have either been published or are working on specific projects aimed at near-term publication. Unstructured discussion topics in this group include writing and editing, publishing (traditional and independent), marketing, working with agents, platform development, and similar topics.

Susan Tweit, one of the founding members of the WorkInProgress group, shares her insight and experience with the group, saying,

The first word I think of when I think of the WIP group is “community,” which comes from the root for “common,” something shared. What we share is a drive to write, whether we’re working on our first book or our many-dozenth. Perhaps more importantly what WIPpers share is a respect for each other and a desire to support each other in that writing. We share our writing triumphs and challenges each week, our smart list-mom shares links to interesting information about various aspects of writing from social media use to marketing to bookstore, we share what works for us in writing and marketing and publicity, and what doesn’t. That community of women writers “talking” in listserv form about our work has given me powerful motivation to take my work deeper and to persevere when I’ve doubted myself. It’s also given me the grace of laughter and the balm of sympathy, and the blessing of friendship. The WIP group is a gift to my work and my life.

Another member, Susan Schoch, adds,

“Though I have published and self-published several books, I had no real grasp of the full process needed to successfully create and market a book, until I joined the Work in Progress group. WIP members include not just accomplished writers, but also experts in social media, in traditional publishing, in self-publishing, in design, and more. Our online discussions are rich and continue to teach me every day, because members are generous with information and support. This lively community of writing women has turned out to be just what I needed to fill a gaping knowledge gap and to keep me writing.”

Not sure what group you fit into? Don’t worry, we will help you find the roundtable best suited to you and where you are with your writing. If you’d like to join one of these SCN members-only groups, please go here( to tell us about your interests. We’ll help you find the group that seems best suited to your writing interest and experience. Not a member? Go here to join us.

Khadijah and her family homestead on 25 acres in the Ozarks. They spent ten years living in Yemen in the capital city of Sana’a as well as in both mountain and seaside villages. She is a student, teacher, herbalist, writer and translator who has had several books published on the subject of Islaam, as well as a children’s poetry book. She is currently working on a women’s herbal book and a poetry book for adults, as well as her own story which you can read about at Yemeni Journey. She also writes about sustainable living at Wide Earth.

Why Journal? A Look at the Positive Effects of Journaling

Guest post by Story Circle Member B. Lynn Goodwin


How can a journal help a writer? Journaling allows writers to vent, process, explore, discover, and rejoice. It offers a safe place to explore, express oneself, dig deeper, analyze, and discover truths.

Over the past ten years my journals have been

A record

A place to spew

A place to delve and see where the pen takes me

A place to hone my thoughts

A place to sharpen my craft, and figure out what I really mean to say

A place to make discoveries

A place to find story ideas

A place to find resolution or the next step on my journey

A place to make lists and cross off what I accomplish

A place to look back on what was once important and gain perspective

A place to record my reflections

A place to hone my character’s voices

A place to explore my character’s secret thoughts and private lives

I write my journals in longhand. I like the smooth flow of a pen on paper. I like the progress of moving from left to right, line after line, traveling down one page and on to the next. The rhythm of longhand soothes me.

In addition to the fact that university studies have shown that writing saves lives, here are a few other reasons to journal:

I write to share

I write a pull out secrets locked place in my brain

I write to see what happens if I release my private truths

I write to move to a new level of comprehension or analysis

I write to tweak life and imagine happy endings

I write to tweak life and imagine worst-case scenarios

I write gratitude lists to feel better

Try some of my favorite sentence starts and see what happens:

Today I feel…

Today I believe…

Today I want…

Inside of me…

No one knows I worry about…

I am…

I can barely remember…

I love the smell of…

If I ever talk in my sleep…

What if…

Though it does not always seem like it, my journals have the power to get me out of my head and into action. They are a safe place to heal. Healing does not wipe out old problems or past actions. It washes over them, helping you cope, change your attitude, and move forward.

Heal your spirit and discover the spirits of your characters by writing in a journal.

BlynnPB.Lynn Goodwin is the owner of Writer Advice, and the author of You Want Me to Do What? Journaling for Caregivers, which contains encouragement, instructions, and over 200 sentence starts to help you journal any time, even if writer’s block rises up like a granite wall in front of you. She’s also the author of Talent (Eternal Press), which will be out November 1, 2015. 

She teaches through Story Circle Network, welcomes all kinds of editing clients, continues to journal frequently, and is hard at work on a YA novel. Talent Cover

Loss and Grief as Mindfulness Practice

Glendalough Mist 6[Author’s photo]

Many years ago, distraught and devastated after a miscarriage, I turned to literature for solace and comfort. So when my dear mother died just six weeks ago, I went searching for memoirs written in an attempt to decipher the overwhelming effects of death on those left behind. Consequently when I stumbled across the memoir, H is for Hawk by Helen Macdonald, the story of a woman who struggled with unbearable grief after her father died, it sounded just about right, albeit a little too close to the bone, my flesh still flayed raw by funeral corteges, my soul seared by heartrending hymns singing my mother’s soul back home. Was it too soon to try to understand, to unveil one of life’s greatest mysteries?

Bereavement. Or, Bereaved. Bereft. It’s taken from the Old English bereafian, meaning ‘to deprive of, take away, seize, rob.’ It happens to everyone. But you feel it alone.”

Wham! A gut-wrenching, heart-piercing, bolt of fire hurled from the gods above, hit their mark with absolute precision. I was winded. My spirit felt as if it had been severed from my body, arms and legs and, oh so heavy head, drowning, submerged, pushed, held under water, limbs like rocks dragging me down to the depths. Such heart pain leaves its mark; scar-faced channels of grief cut, sliced, engraved into deep, barren ravines.

Mum’s gone.”

“Gone where? It’s midnight!”

“No, you don’t understand. [How could I? It didn’t make sense.] She’s had a heart attack. The medics have stopped trying to revive her.

Since that horrendous night, it feels like I’m stuck in that moment, the phone call playing out repeatedly in my mind, over and over again, like a wound up gramophone which won’t shut up. Like Groundhog Day. Time seems to have altered, its shape and sequence forever changed. But not just time, meaning too. Before that night, Mum was an anchor, a force, a raison d’etre.  I have lost the one person in the world who was always, without reservation, on my side. My advocate and principle cheerleader is gone from this world. This vast, empty space where the bitterly cold Arctic winds blow without ceasing, will never feel the warmth of early morning sun again. Standing in this abyss of grief I feel not just lost and lonely, but as if my very moorings have come undone. It is simply inconceivable that life will go on. And yet it must.

What does one do when one is left drifting, floating on a river of despair which seems to follow no known pathway, meandering in and out of gloomy gullies and desolate deltas, pursuing its own course with a reasoning and logic all its own? I can neither control nor outmanoeuvre its trajectory. But I can give it room to roam. I can open a space within and without which would allow the force of this overwhelming grief to flow, not just in tears, but in memories too, remembrances of times past.

There is a place I go to whenever the world and my walking in it threatens to overcome me with its bustling busyness, too noisy and wearisome for a fragile soul. An ancient monastic site where the earth continues to hold in safe keeping the memory of its distant past. Steep slopes, deep lakes, and dead trees dot the scrub hillside surrounding the lakes. The veil between the natural and the supernatural is thin here, in this place where monks lived and moved and had their being, where they prayed in the darkness and again at dawn, and many times throughout the day, in the ‘big hours’ and the ‘little hours’ too, shivering in the damp and cold which seeps up from the sodden earth below. They must have stood by the edge of the lake and stared out over the still twilight, reflecting the sky and clouds above, just as I do when I return here to think about my mother. Their robes would have blown in the wind which always sweeps down from the gap between the mountains, the valley left behind when the glaciers moved through, sculpting the land aeons ago. I crave the spaciousness, the vast openness which only this landscape can offer.

Here in this numinous space, walking on this sacred earth, I can feel my mother hovering close by, as if the very air I am breathing is filled with her presence. The cold wind blowing down the valley makes my eyes well up, tears fall, dropping black stains on the grey stones by the lake shore. My gaze embraces the wider landscape, the white blasted trees which have all the appearance of sentinels, or mummified centurions keeping watch over all that lies below, including not just the monks’ graves from long gone, but me also, and my mother’s spirit joined now as one with the voices of the wind and the water, all the  ancient ruins, cells and chapels, stones too, still carrying traces of chanted psalms from long ago – nothing can drown out the songs of the past. The past and the present, and the future too, are all of a-piece.

This is the womb knowledge I carry back home with me when I return to the suburbs where I live and where my mother lived her entire married life, after moving up to the city from the country. And so when I stand at an opened kitchen window, or stroll out into the garden, I hear her sweet tones in the breeze which caresses my cheek, I feel her tender kiss in the first fall of a gentle summer’s rain. She hasn’t left me after all. I simply need to learn to adjust my vision, to recognize the new shape of her being, hovering as it does between heaven and earth.

-Writing this has almost been unbearable, a heaviness in my chest like someone has punched me so hard I am left winded, flying backwards through the air, back and down, down, down, down, free falling into a bottomless pit of despair. And just when I think I can’t breathe anymore, a little wisp of air blows gently from the blackened crevices, and I breathe it in gratefully, knowing that yes, I can go on.

Writing prompt:

I asked above what one can do in the attempt to make some kind of sense of death and loss and grieving. The only answer I can offer is, as Rilke tells us, “to live the questions now”, and if you are a writer, to write. For if you are like me, and I presume you are if you are reading this, then you make meaning of your life through the practice of writing. While the subject of death is far too enormous and mysterious to ever be encapsulated, codified and tamed through the act of laying words upon a page, like letting a diaphanous shroud drape gently over the embalmed body of our loved ones, still words are all we have at our disposal in the attempt to somehow understand. And maybe they are enough. At least for now we can practice seeing “through a glass, darkly.”

Write about the death of someone dear to you. Approach it any way you want – begin with the facts, if that is your best path into the mystery, the agony of your tangled memories. Be prepared for the onslaught of emotions which will surely take you by surprise. Be kind to yourself. This is mindful writing in its rawest form. Witness well to what emerges from behind the veil.

Edith Ó Nualláin lives with her family in a small village on the east coast of Ireland, snuggled between the mountains and the sea, where she reads, writes, and sits at her spinning wheel, spinning dreams with words and fibres. Some day she hopes to learn how to spin straw into gold. Her poetry is published in Crannóg, an Irish literary journal, and her book reviews are published in Calyx: A Journal of Art and Literature by Women, as well as online at Story Circle Book Reviews. She writes occasionally on her blog, In a Room of My Own