I finished writing my first book last month.
It’s a very rough book in need of many more revisions, but I still wrote a book from beginning to end. I have always been more of a short story/poetry/creative non-fiction essay gal but like many writers, I’ve harbored the dream of writing a book since I first picked up a pen. This dream has always felt out of reach (i.e. how could I ever be a good enough writer to write a book?). To my (pleasant) surprise, I was finally able to hunker down and slam out a 250-page manuscript.
How was this possible?
Technically there are two reasons. The first: Coronavirus lockdown. I’d be lying if I said being shut inside for months hasn’t given me the time to devote to my writing.
But the second and bigger reason is Grief with a capital G. Yes, grief managed to kickstart my creativity despite first sending me into a dark and pitifully sad downward spiral.
You see, my mom died at the end of 2019 after a horrific and tragically short battle with brain cancer. When she died, the last thing I wanted to do was let the creative juices flow. I didn’t want to write anymore. I didn’t have the energy. I felt stuck and empty, drained of anything that had ever provided a sense of joy and hope in my life. My creativity appeared to have died along with my mom, joining her in the crematorium incinerator to burn to ash.
Okay, I’m being slightly dramatic. My creativity didn’t die. Grief just borrowed it for a little while and tricked me into thinking I would never get it back.
Around the six-month mark following my mom’s passing, and after months of sitting around punishing myself for not writing, I experienced the creative burst that sent thousands of words shooting from my fingertips into a Word document. The words that would become my book.
My experience isn’t unique.
Loss and creativity tend to travel hand-in-hand. The beginning stages of grief are brutal, purely about survival. But many people have found creativity to help them navigate profound grief and discover meaning in their loss. Creative pursuits don’t take away the grief or make the loss more bearable per se, but they are a way to channel the pain and provide opportunities for healing.
Tapping into my creativity was a way for me to gain some control over my grief while also serving as a form of self-care. Hyped on pain and loss, I felt as if my neurons were firing at a speed I could barely keep up with. The ideas, the imagery, the metaphors, and the emotion welled up inside of me and came pouring out through my writing to the point I could no longer control it.
I woke at all hours of the night with new ideas and solutions to problems within my book that I hadn’t been able to work out during daylight hours. I would lose hours throughout the day to writing, only stepping away from my computer when my eyes burned from the strain and felt moments away from melting out of their sockets.
Research has shown that expressing emotion through artistic and creative means can be beneficial when we are hurting.
The sadness we experience following a loss comes from the deactivation of the left prefrontal areas of the brain, the part of the brain that houses positive emotions, according to Dr. Shelley Carson, author of “Your Creative Brain, Seven Steps to Maximize Imagination, Productivity, and Innovation in Your Life.”
Creativity, and the burst of creativity often experienced by mourning individuals at some point following their loss, may be the brain’s way of compensating for this deactivation. Our creative pursuits provide an opportunity for healing and redirection, allowing us to find a renewed sense of purpose.
Clinical psychologist Henry Seiden, Ph.D affirms, “Creativity is the essential response to grief.”
Susan Kavaler-Adler, a clinical psychologist and psychoanalyst, agrees with Seiden: “When you open up mourning from the deep core of the self, not only is it extremely healing but also people can become more authentic and express themselves in a deeper way.”
Grief is a natural part of the human experience.
It is unavoidable. And above all, it is painful. But the way I saw it, I could have covered my ears when my creativity came knocking at the door, when it whispered, Maybe this could be your opportunity. I could have chosen to continue wallowing in the loss, using my mom’s death as an excuse to stop living. Or, I had the option to use it in a different way. I could turn the pain into something that showed me my mom’s death did not have to destroy me. Something that would still be imperfect and jagged around the edges. But something bigger than myself.
The grief, which I saw as a monster that came only to take from me, ultimately gave me something in return — a layer of understanding about the human experience that allowed me to connect with myself and with others on a deeper level.
I don’t know what I will end up doing with my book.
At the moment I am in the editing process, which I don’t expect to end anytime soon. Like writers before me, I hope to one day share my story, to connect and resonate with others. But if this book doesn’t make its way out of my hands, I’m okay with that. Because I know now that I have it in me to write another one. And another. And another.
I know now that something beautiful can come from something ugly and excruciatingly painful. And for now, that is enough.
Isabel Cohen is a writer, editor, teacher, and bookworm. She has a BS in Psychology with a focus in Linguistics and Education from the University of Colorado Boulder. She has worked as a content and copywriter for various online publications and websites as well as a journalist for a global entertainment and lifestyle publication based in Lisbon, Portugal. She enjoys writing short stories, poetry, and creative nonfiction.