Jessica Handler has always turned to writing to document her everyday life — and to cope with searing grief.
From a lock-and-key diary to countless spiral notebooks to typed-up college essays, Handler’s ink on paper captured pieces of history and served as inspiration for her critically acclaimed 2009 book, “Invisible Sisters: A Memoir.”
Handler, who lives in Atlanta, is the only one of three sisters still alive. Her younger sister Susie died of leukemia when she was just 8 years old. The youngest sister, Sarah, born with a rare, fatal blood disorder, wasn’t expected to live past age 3. Sarah went on to live another 24 years.
Handler’s achingly beautiful memoir was named by the Georgia Center for the Book as one of the “25 Books All Georgians Should Read.”
Handler, now 54, has a new book to help others write about grief and loss — “Braving the Fire” (St. Martin’s Press, $14.99). Loosely organized around the five stages of grief and woven around Handler’s own personal story, the book includes step-by-step exercises to help people write about loss along with excerpts from other writers.
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution recently interviewed Handler, who will hold her book launch on Dec. 14 at the First Existentialist Church in Atlanta.
Q: How did this book come about?
A: After “Invisible Sisters” was released in the spring of 2009, people would come to me at book signings, and they would almost confide in me: “I am an only one left, too.” We know intellectually that others have experienced losses. So many people want to write about it, need to write about it, but are afraid to write — for emotional reasons or if Uncle Joe reads it. People want to write — not for fame or fortune but for themselves, to better understand themselves. There are a lot of guidebooks on writing memoirs, but there are some specific challenges when confronting something that breaks your heart.
Q: People often ask: Where do I start? You talk about “brain sparks” leading the way. Please explain.
A: Sometimes people feel, especially when new to writing, that they need to write everything in order. Certainly when it’s finished, you’ll need to have the writing organized. But at first, you just need to start writing. A brain spark is anything that inspires you to write or anything about your story that is surprising and gets you thinking. It’s about any given moment that sparks an emotion or thought. … For me, planning my own wedding was a brain spark. I hadn’t grown up thinking of my wedding day, and there I was realizing that without my sisters I didn’t want to do the bridesmaid thing, and there went a brain spark that led to a scene in the book, and the book’s title.
Q: When did you first start writing to document your feelings and observations?
A: I started keeping journals when I was 9. I had one of those lock-and-key jobs. It had on the cover one of those hippie silhouettes of a man and woman embracing. I grew up in a very literate environment. And words were my first touchstone. As artists, whether we are painters or photographers or musicians, we create something to codify the world we live in, our place in it and how it changes. I am language-driven, and language is my portal. … My parents did a good job at giving us all love and attention, but when you have a child with more immediate needs, the attention goes there. I introduced myself to a doctor once as the “well sibling.” My journal was a way of saying, “I am here.” “I exist.” “I am real.” Some entries were about a crush on a boy, and at one point, I wrote about learning to make a banana split but I couldn’t spell it so I wrote “bunny split.” … When I was about 13, one of the entries in my journal was … Sarah would listen, but she’s asleep in the hosp. For such a little kid, she’s so used to hospitals and all. She’s so tough! Smart, too. And beautiful. I’m not jealous because I know that I am smart and tough. Egleston (Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta) brings back not painful memories, just a strong feeling of hurt and injustice.
Q: During the holidays, when people can feel a sense of loss particularly intensely, can you recommend a writing exercise?
A: Pretend you are telling your story to a friend, and why you are thinking about this family member today. Maybe write a paragraph or two in writing in a friendly conversational tone, like “Gee, I wish I was at so-and-so’s house today because … .” Another exercise I feel really strongly about is sometimes we need step away from writing. I know it may sound counter-intuitive coming from the author of a writing guide, but sometimes it’s a good idea to look at the life you are living now and maybe you volunteer or do something for a day or two with an organization that matters to you or to the person you are missing. Being aware of the good in the life we’re living now can be a brain spark. There is a Hebrew phrase “tikkun olam” — loosely translated means “repairing the world.” My sisters and I were raised to repair the world in the ways that we can. In the past, I have volunteered with an organization that helps out with Thanksgiving and Christmas at hospitals. I am not sure what I am doing this year.
MEET THE AUTHOR
Book Launch, 7-8 p.m. Dec. 14. First Existentialist Church, 470 Candler Park Drive N.E., Atlanta. 404-378-5570.
“Braving the Fire and Writing the Tough Stuff: A Craft Class on Difficult Memoir Strategies,” 7:30-9:30 p.m. Jan. 9. Suggested donation of $5. Charis Books & More, 1189 Euclid Ave. N.E., Atlanta. 404-524-0304.
Workshop: “Creating Powerful Prose After Grief or Trauma,” 11 a.m.-5 p.m. Jan. 25. $150. Shocking Real Life Academy, 695 Pylant St. N.E., Atlanta. To enroll, go to www.shockingreallife.com/writing-through-grief.
TIPS FOR WRITING ABOUT GRIEF
1. Dedicate a journal for working on writing exercises. You can write, draw, laugh, weep, spill your coffee on the pages. Writing about grief requires honesty, guts, creativity.
2. Give yourself formal permission to write about your grief by making a pledge to the person/people/relationship missing from your life.
3. Write about a time when you did not tell the truth about your experience with grief. Where were you? How old were you? How recent was the loss? Who or what were you grieving? Who asked you about it, and why? What did you say to them?
4. Write about a time when you and another person involved in the same grief-causing event realized that you had different impressions or beliefs about what happened or why. Make a list of your memories about that event. If you are comfortable doing so, share your list with that other person. How do your memories differ or how do they think they might differ? How are they similar?
5. Complete these six statements directed toward the person/place or thing you have lost.
- Since you’ve been gone, I have …
- I still keep …
- I won’t tell anyone about …
- A funny thing that happened with you was that time when …
- Where did the …
- You would be happy to know … .
SOURCE: “Braving the Fire” by Jessica Handler