Friday, October 12, 2007

Triage (And, A Space to Breathe)

Because recent sad events have reached their inevitable end, some respite from the emotional intensity:

“I keep remembering one of my Guru’s teachings about happiness. She says that people universally tend to think that happiness is a stroke of luck, something that will maybe descend upon you like fine weather if you’re fortunate. But that’s not how happiness works. Happiness is the consequence of personal effort. You fight for it, strive for it, insist upon it, and sometimes even travel around the world looking for it. You have to participate relentlessly in the manifestations of your own blessings… It’s easy to pray when you’re in distress but continuing to pray even when your crisis has passed is like a sealing process, helping your soul hold tight to its good attainments.” (260)

(Pause here, and apply to your own life circumstances if you are so inclined.)

The preceding quote is taken from Elizabeth Gilbert’s Eat, Pray, Love. I’m sure you’ve heard of it—according to Oprah, every woman around is reading it. Of course that’s exactly why I approached it with a bit of skepticism—surely we’ve read enough tales of down-and-out Americans traveling to exotic places and uncovering the basic truths of life that set them free from their miseries?—but I really enjoyed the book. There’s a lot to be said for figuring out how to be a whole self before you try to be someone else’s.

Abigail Thomas’s A Three Dog Life, which recounts the life she built after her husband suffered traumatic brain injury, is easily one of the most luminous, compelling memoirs I’ve read. One of its reviewers said something along the lines of it’s impossible to select quotes for it because the entire book is quotable, and I agree with that assessment. Today, however, this particular passage really resonated with me:

I thought I had accepted Rich’s accident, even though I kept putting myself in a place where it hadn’t happened yet … I thought that not accepting meant turning my face to the wall, unable to function. So now today I look up the word acceptance and the definition is “to receive gladly” and that doesn’t sound right. I flip to the back, and look up its earliest root, “to grasp,” and discover this comes from the old English for “a thread used in weaving” and bingo, that’s it. You can’t keep pulling out the thread. You have to weave it in and then you have to go on weaving.” (121-122)

(Pause here, and apply to your own life circumstances if you are so inclined. Call someone you love. Tell them that.)

For a unit on professional writing, my students and I have been talking a lot about the concept of triaging and how it relates to health information: If you are asking readers for their time and attention, provide them with something that contains substance. Write with clarity and purpose. Prioritize your information, placing emphasis on the most important facts and streamlining the least essential.

The questions and assertions we’ve discussed are also applicable to blogging, at once a profoundly personal and widely proliferating public genre, and they are things I think about a lot: where to draw the line between being authentic (so important) and lingering in the mundane minutiae of daily life (so overdone); how to balance the privacy of others with the human need to tell a story; how to infuse humor and levity in writing without sacrificing seriousness or scholarship.

I don’t have the answers nailed down, and I know I am not always successful in my attempts to uphold these standards. But in the back of my mind remains the advice an editor once gave me, advice that applies to all kinds of writing and advice I turn to often:

If you do not have something insightful or universal for the reader to take away from your work, then try harder. You can be specific, you can be particular, but always strive to produce something greater than your singular story.

Is there anything more universal and at the same time more intensely personal than grief?


Terry at Counting Sheep said...

So beautifully written. I am sorry for your loss.

Andrea said...

Laurie, So sorry for your loss. This is a beautifully written post, and I totally agree with you about Eat, Pray, Love. Peace to you and your family.

j said...

I'm sorry for you loss. This post was so touching and beautiful, and completely right. You are an amazing writer!

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Anonymous said...

You've "nailed it" when you talk about the universal quality of grief. When I was in my 20's, I was entranced with the Buddhist concept that "life is suffering". I've since realized that is a simplistic understanding of this complex religion. But over the past 30 yeares, I've come to truly realize that only when you accept the notion of suffering can you move beyond it. Chronic illness is about loss and only when you embrace that can you move on to joy.

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