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Fiction Writing as a Prescription for Grief?

Posted on Jan 18, 2007 by

Last week there was an interesting article in our local paper, the Winston Salem-Journal, entitled “Lee Smith’s Pain,” by Martha Waggoner. The article describes how Lee Smith, the novelist, now living in Hillsborough, North Carolina, found writing to be a remedy for grief. But—and I think this is the interesting part—she didn’t write directly about her grief. She found a remedy in writing fiction.

Lee Smith is the author of several novels, including Black Mountain Breakdown, Family Linen, and The Last Girls. A little over three years ago now, her son Josh, only thirty-three, died of acute cardiomyopathy. Lee Smith describes herself as feeling, afterward, as if her finger was stuck in an electrical outlet, all the time. She had, before her son’s death, been working on a new book, a story of an orphan girl named Molly in post-Civil War North Carolina. After her son’s death she put the story aside.

She describes herself as being unable to eat, unable to sleep. She had trouble finding the school where she’d been teaching for twenty years. She had trouble finding the grocery store. She lost thirty pounds. She began seeing a therapist. And when, after several weeks, her therapist offered to write her a prescription, she figured it would be for some kind of drug that might numb her pain—and she was ready for such. Instead, the prescription simply stated: “Write every day.”

Specifically, her therapist (I suspect he was a psychiatrist if he was writing prescriptions) told her he thought she would benefit by getting back to the book she’d been working on, that she might benefit from working on a narrative other than her own.

And that’s what Smith did. She went back the story of that orphan girl, Molly, that she’d put aside after her son’s death.
And, in the article, she’s quoted as saying this about returning to Molly’s story:

I was in a very heightened emotional state the whole time I was writing it, and it meant everything to me to have it to write. And Molly’s story became my story, or at least a receptacle of all this emotion I didn’t have anything to do with.

Molly’s story became my story. That seems somehow at the crux of it. A way to write her own story without writing her own story. The kind of catharsis that can come sometimes with a bit of distance.

Incidentally, that story of Molly as an orphan became a book, On Agate Hill, Lee Smith’s twelfth novel, published in 2006, and well-reviewed, including this review in the Washington Post. I’ve not read the book yet, but I plan to look for it.