Friday, December 2, 2011

Writing through Grief (or, How I got over critical distance and just started writing)

Kate's recent post on grief was inspiring and honest and brave, and the fact that it led to so much wonderful discussion, both in the blog comments and in other forums, indicates that others found it inspiring as well. Her ideas on grief specifically struck me, since grief has been a powerful force in my graduate career thus far, but I was also interested in her combination of the personal and the professional. I admire those people who admit their personal connection to their work, those people who admit that they have lives and loves and families and that those things don't just take away from their work but actually inform and influence it. Finding a way to do so can be tricky, and can also be scary, especially to grad students who are trying desperately to professionalize. However, I do think it's important and rewarding, so I will try it out here and see what people think.

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In my second year of PhD work, my father died. The loss was crippling. I didn't know how to function in the world, no less to go on with my work. My dad had believed I was intelligent, capable of anything, but I didn't know how to be these things once he was gone. Yet I simply returned to my courses and my work and tried to understand how to exist in a world without my father. I had been writing a seminar paper on a 15th century play, the Digby Mary Magdalene, and, though I forced myself to continue with my coursework, I couldn't return to that paper right away. I took an incomplete (something I would warn other grad students to avoid at all costs), and focused on my other work. When I came back to that paper, I saw it in a new way. Near the play's opening, Mary's father dies suddenly. I had previously seen this plot point as a clumsy bit of writing. Right after a perfectly nice conversation with his children, the father is struck down by death with no warning and no explanation. Before, this seemed far-fetched. But after my own father's death, I suddenly understood. Death is sudden, inexplicable, and terrible. Even in cases of lingering illness, death itself rarely feels anything but shocking. The timing is seldom right. I had been writing vaguely about the positive way in which Mary Magdalene is depicted in the play, but I was now able to understand what was so different about this depiction of the saint.

Though Mary Magdalene is meant to represent the redemption possible to every sinner, many medieval sermons discussed her early life in a decidedly misogynist way. Her early sins (completely fabricated, by the way -- there's no mention in the Bible that she was a prostitute) were represented as evidence of female weakness and wickedness. Fathers and brothers and husbands were warned not to give their daughters and sisters and wives too much freedom. If the Magdalene was any example, an unchaperoned woman couldn't help but turn to sin. (For more information on these sermons, see The Making of the Magdalen: Preaching and Popular Devotion in the Later Middle Ages by Katherine Ludwig Jansen.) But that's not how it was depicted in this play. In the Digby play, Mary's a sweet but naive young woman, a dutiful daughter. She grows lost not because of female weakness but because of human grief. The playwright never denigrates Mary, something that I'd noticed in my initial readings of the play. Yet now I saw something more. Mary says that grief has wounded her. She's struck down by the loss of her father and no longer knows how to exist in the world. Most everyone in the audience would have experienced some kind of grief. Her heartache would have made sense, particularly at a time when the infant mortality rate was high and the Black Death was still in recent memory. Mary's fumbling to recover from her loss and reclaim her identity, perhaps making a few mistakes along the way, would have evoked sympathy, not derision. Her mistakes are not those of a wicked woman, but a grieving human. What I had written off as an awkward side note turned out to be the key to Mary's positive characterization. Anyone who has experienced any kind of heartache can recognize a bit of him or herself in Mary, a point I find crucial for the play's message.

This is not to discount rigorous research or careful examination of the evidence in the play, but rather to demonstrate how I could see important aspects of the play better when I approached it as a human who had experienced loss as well. My attempt at critical distance had blinded me to those features of the play meant for a very human audience. Combining my own personal response to my research and analysis brought me a much fuller picture of the play, and allowed me to clear up my incomplete. That paper has turned into several presentations, an article, and a dissertation chapter. I had discovered a new way to engage with my sources, and people seemed to be responding to it as well. I used a similar tactic when writing about Joan of Arc. My own horror at the sight of my father's ashes turned into an examination of the symbolism of Joan's execution. Joan was burned twice, and her ashes were thrown in the river, and I wondered what to make of this horrifying spectacle. I found a great deal to say about the way in which Joan's enemies attempted to annihilate Joan's body and keep peasants from making relics out of her. More to the point, I found a great deal of fascinating evidence. By the time I finished, I felt better about my father's ashes, and about my research. Joan was a real human who lived and who died, and it seemed right to take her death seriously (and even a bit emotionally). Instead of keeping me from doing careful scholarship, my human response to Joan aided me once again.

I am not saying that I have any real answers. I'm still sometimes overwhelmed, confused, scared, sad. I'm still not sure how to write a dissertation. And I am not saying that my father died so that I could learn something or so that I could write better papers, but rather that the only way for me to survive the rush of emotion that flooded me in the wake of my father's death was to allow it to flow into my work. The texts I read were written by humans for other humans. I am, after all, in the humanities, and admitting that I was a human with all of my faults and feelings was a relief. Pretending to a kind of objectivity which I simply cannot (and don't really want to) have is neither honest nor productive. It's scary to admit my emotional connection to my work, but it feels right, too. It is not necessarily narcissistic to focus on one's own experiences. It may be self-centered to wallow indefinitely (though a little wallowing can be quite helpful), but I think that bringing personal emotions and experiences and traumas into a larger conversation is quite the opposite. It's a way that we can all connect and gain a greater understanding. We can't say that people or literature were just the same in the Middle Ages as they are now. We can't say that people around the world or even in our own neighborhoods experience anything in the same way as we do. Grief is particular, to be sure. Neither can traumas be compared. One child experiences war or genocide while another loses a beloved family pet. No, these situations cannot be equated. Yet anyone who has experienced heartache of any kind, from a first break-up to the death of a parent, has a share in human suffering. Such heartaches are soul-crushing, and yet they contain within them a gift: human empathy. All grief is different, and yet those who have experienced any grief can understand the depth of human emotion and therefore feel for others who suffer. Not everyone can accept this gift. Some turn inward and never look back out. Nor does this gift bring any final answers. But there's a beauty in caring for others. There's a beauty in bringing our own human vulnerabilities and offering them up to others and accepting their vulnerabilities in return. There's a beauty in caring about one's work enough to let it be emotional, imperfect, human.


  1. I really appreciate the thoughtful and honest writing that you and Kate have shared about grief and its literary representations. It seems to me that your writing is particularly nuanced because of your awareness that the "personal" is not always seen as rigorous-- and so your approach seems more carefully considered than many works of supposedly pure scholarship. Thanks for sharing, Kristi and Kate. It looks to me like you do know how to write a dissertation : )

  2. "The texts I read were written by humans for other humans." Love this sentence. It's something I've been thinking about. I love visiting museums, but I've wondered about the "why" when it comes to them, and what justifies my interest. (I'm sure you've had to deal with the "What's the point of studying old books?" people too.) A few weeks ago I was leaving the Legion of Honor and realized, "It's hard to be human, on this one little rock out here in the universe. And all this art is centuries of people dealing with that, exploring that, questioning that." This essay, about the personal and universal (for humans, at least), really struck a chord with me. Great post, Kristi.

  3. I really enjoyed the entry, Kristi. It ties in beautifully with Kate's last entry as well. It all goes back to perspective and, I think, to the notion of the stage (and all lit, really) as a mirror reflecting mankind. Kate's entry showed how we use literature to regain a sense of our selves after loss. Your entry shows how our own lives can expand the way we view the literature we read. It's all sort of cyclical, isn't it? We use stories and are in turn used BY stories in ways that are exceptionally complicated.

    Our literary stories seem like signposts, marking points of emotional exchange between the individual and humanity. Grief is one of these points of exchange, along with beauty, laughter, love and everything else that makes us human.

    In the long run, I think this is why so many people turn to literature to deal with grief (as we discussed in Kate's last post). If literature serves as an immortal site of emotional exchange, then those we've lost never truly go anywhere. Jonson's children have survived past the death of their own father, and have offered insight to grieving parents for more than 400 years. Your own father, through your own work and the perspective you bring to other work, still believes in you, and will be there IN that work to believe in remarkable daughters long after we all have shuffled off this mortal coil.

    It's a strange kind of double-bind. Literature reminds us and forces us to accept that we are human (though I've had some professors who might not be willing to admit that, haha). How we interpret that reminder of our own humanity is totally up to us, however. While Memento Mori stands true, it is also true that, through our written stories, we can live forever, very much alive in the way our words influence others. We must remember that, as humans, we must die. We also must remember that, as humanists, it is possible to live forever.

  4. Kristi, apologies for being a delinquent co-blogger!

    I've been thinking about this post quite often though, and wanted to say here how moving I found it to be. As previous posters have mentioned, there is something truly brave about being willing take the kinds of risks you've taken here, and the results are truly rewarding for all involved.

    I was particularly struck by your closing sentences as well as your reminder that literature was written "by humans, for other humans." Rarely do we write without some kind of audience in mind, even (or perhaps especially) when the writing is deeply personal. We are often encouraged, however, to distance ourselves from the texts we study, to exfoliate from our analyses any shred of emotional response. What you offer here, I feel, is a fresh challenge -- a blurring of personal/professional reading practices. This kind of middle ground stands in complement to high scholarly practices, and I have a good feeling that you will continue to find ways to push this complementary practice forward.

    Thanks so much for sharing!

  5. Thanks so much for your thoughtful comments, everyone! As Kate knows, I hesitated for a couple of weeks after I wrote this blog, unsure whether to post or not. I couldn't tell if it was a diary entry only useful to me, or a blog that would be useful to others. The comments I've received, both here and elsewhere, have shown me that I was right to post it. I wonder if my hesitation shows the difficulty in finding that line between the personal and the professional. I believe in blurring that line, but am still attempting to figure out how to do it.

    Feminist critics have promoted such a blurring for a while, seeing the dichotomy as analogous to the (false) dichotomy of public/private sphere that has been instrumental in the gender trouble we've had in this country (and other countries as well). Yet often I feel that we're still taught to be objective, to gain a professional persona. If what we do is worth doing, then it's worth caring about. Passion and emotion and personal connections need not discount rigorous scholarship, yet that is often the idea we get, as Heidi points out. I think it's fairly clear that passionate teaching is more likely to get students excited about literature, history, etc. But writing can, I hope, function this way, too.

    I teach my students about the "so what?" factor in freshman writing, and I tell them that they must find a topic that they care about (or find a way to care about a topic they're given) if they hope to make the reader care about it. What you said, Janna, about the purpose of art and literature, really struck a chord with me. I think sometimes the idea of the "so what?" factor can be counterproductive. It can be turned into a need for finding some practical use. It can be used to try and prove that what we do actually matters, which begins from a defensive position. What Janna and Scott (and all on this comment thread, really) have said points to a different kind of "so what?" that allows that literature and art matter and encourages us to begin from that assumption. We may care about any given project for different reasons, but caring is a given. The history of people's thoughts and feelings, the ways in which people have grappled with the mysteries and joys and miseries of life, certainly matter. The uses for literature may be varied, but we shouldn't need to justify its value.

    Scott's mention of literature having a kind of immortality, as expounded both here and in the comments to Kate's recent post on grief, really struck a chord with me. I hope that my readings convey the way in which the literature itself can reach out and that criticism can not only respond but perhaps reach out as well. Maybe I'm trying to blur the line a bit between these categories as well. The Ben Jonson poems that Scott included after Kate's post struck me because they are both extremely personal to Jonson and entirely relevant to anyone going through a similar loss. They also struck me because I attempted to write poems after my own father's death, and they fell flat. Before I began my Joan of Arc paper, for example, I wrote some truly mediocre poems about my father's ashes. It wasn't until I used the emotions (and even some of the words) from those poems in my paper than I felt better. Perhaps this just shows that I've chosen the right career. It is certainly an example of the healing potential of both reading and writing. But it also may show that criticism itself can take on some of the characteristics of poetry without losing its scholarly validity. I'm not sure how this works, but I'm certainly interested in figuring it out.

    So this response is getting longer than I'd intended, but you all gave me so much to think about! Thanks for encouraging me to post this, Kate, and for inspiring me with your own very brave post on grief and scholarship.


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