Inconsolable Wonder: Writing Loss and Reclamation

Quill Pen by Teodoro S Gruhl

It’s a classic, if twisted, version of the-chicken-and-the-egg, but here it is: I write because I am a writer. For me, it’s simple. Write, or go crazy with the stories in my head.  Write, or lose who I am. Write, or . . . well, there really isn’t any other option.

In a recent guest post on Natalie Whipple’s Between Fact and Fiction, Mindy McGinnis writes:

“I’d already made the decision to BE a writer, regardless of whether or not I was ever an author. Even if we stop taking our fingers to the pen or the keyboard, our brains will continue to function in the same way they always have. You can turn off the light switch, but there’s still an electrical current under there.”

McGinnis’s metaphor for how our brains work is both elegant and apt, and I imagine the concept applies to everyone, not just writers. You can flip the switch, but the current still runs. We are who we are, regardless.

I’m not arguing for fatalism or apologetics here. I know we can all grow, change, improve ourselves. Still, the basic wiring, the essence, the soul — it is what it is.  In the case of writers, we’re just hinged that way. We can play around with what we write, how we write, when and where and for whom we write, but the piece that never shifts is the writing itself, the stringing of words, the act of creation.

In my fiction and, more subtly, my nonfiction as well, I frequently write from the place where grief and hope intersect.  It’s a strange place to be, to linger, a place where the buildings have all already fallen, where new life sprouts from the rubble, pushes up between the cracks. It is a place of inconsolable wonder, of joy with an edge. The wonder itself is inviolate, but fringed with loss, heavy with its own steep price.

In my short story, “Little Bits”, inconsolable wonder takes the form of an old mountain woman with a secret history hidden in a china cup. When her granddaughter shatters the cup, a story of deep loss emerges from the splinters.  The old woman’s resilience is the knot that binds together two otherwise incompatible generations.

My novel, Grace Blinks, is woven from those same threads of ferocious tenacity and harrowing loss. The main character, Grace Holden, can’t move past the abrupt disappearance of her brother, twenty-three years ago. A painter who fears color, she casts her life in a sheen of mourning, a narrow shaft of grief. When she loses her long-time “temporary” job and her alienated boyfriend in a matter of weeks, it’s time to confront the past she’s been skirting and the life she’s laid aside.

A family ghost delivers tenuous hope in the form of a roller-coaster history of orphan trains and hobo signs, drownings and epidemics, secrets and stumblings. Cast inside this broader tale, Grace re-imagines herself, her history, and finds her own inconsolable wonder.

Sometimes I question the way I see the world, the lenses that screen my view.  What, after all, is this preoccupation with the lost and reclaimed, the fractured and renewed? It’s not just a single story or a novel, outlined in simple text. It’s not just a frame of reference, a literary device. It’s the current, coursing. It’s the switch and wires.  It’s me — as a writer, as a parent, a wife, a friend, a stranger on the sidewalk observing the passing tides. When wonder itself is inconsolable, the paradox is on the table: sometimes, there is no other way but loss; always, there is no other way but taking the shards and making of them something whole but imperfect. Something wondrous, and wondrously flawed.

That is where my current lies. Flip the switch. Let it roil.