Why My Mood Board is Full of Ghosts

Writing through grief, about grief

Penny Zang
Dec 24, 2019 · 3 min read

I started writing about ghosts after my father died two years ago. It was not intentional. I did not set out to write haunted stories. But then my grandmother and my aunt passed away. A year before, another aunt. And not long before that, one of my best friends passed away unexpectedly, too.

I kept dreaming about ghosts and since I wake up very early in the morning to write, when I’m still half-asleep, my writing reflected my dreams.

I wrote about ghosts because they were all around me. Each song on the radio, each holiday that passed. Sometimes there is no way to avoid the dead. Memories emerge whether you like it or not.

When it was apparent that I should embrace the hauntings in my stories, I began to read more ghost stories. Not the gothic kind of story that appear in every literature anthology, but the contemporary kind of ghost story that sneaks up on you. Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders and Her Body and Other Parties by Carmen Maria Machado are two books that stayed on my nightstand for a year. The Third Hotel by Laura van den Berg and Sing, Unburied, Sing by Jesmyn Ward are two others that shook me out of my grief and into someone else’s.

Fiction helps. When I try to write non-fiction about mourning, it feels forced, cliché, and distant. There is a wall between me and my grief, at least for now.

But when someone asks what I am writing about, I don’t mind talking about the ghosts. There are pictures of gauzy spirits and headless dresses on the cork board above my desk, right next to the memorial programs and the old photos of my loved ones. Spirits are everywhere because I invited them to stay.

In “On Becoming an American Writer,” Alexander Chee says, “Speak to your dead. Write for your dead…Let them make you bolder or more modest or louder or more loving, whatever it is, but ask them in, listen, and then write.” I think about Chee’s essay all the time. I wonder how I, too, can write for my dead in a way that matters to more than just me.

For now, I will keep writing about ghosts because I can’t make myself stop. The dead has something to say. Only time will tell if I can be the one to say it for them.


This story is published in a Few Words, Medium’s publication that only accepts stories under 500 words.

If you have a few meaningful words to say and want to be a writer in our publication, visit here.

a Few Words

A few words can change lives.

Penny Zang

Written by

English professor + book nerd + drinking buddy. Visit me at Pennyzang.com and Twitter: @penny_zang

a Few Words

A few words can change lives.

More From Medium

More from a Few Words

More from a Few Words

What Is Mindfulness?

599

More from a Few Words

156

More from a Few Words

More from a Few Words

Like the Sun

613

Welcome to a place where words matter. On Medium, smart voices and original ideas take center stage - with no ads in sight. Watch
Follow all the topics you care about, and we’ll deliver the best stories for you to your homepage and inbox. Explore
Get unlimited access to the best stories on Medium — and support writers while you’re at it. Just $5/month. Upgrade