Grief, Writer’s Blocks, and Breakthroughs

One of the most distressing things of the last year or so has been my inability to write. The well-known “writer’s block” set in after Dad died. For several months I’d been writing two blogs, one on Dad and being a caregiver, and one on post-retirement life.

A second draft manuscript of creative non-fiction/memoir essays has been untouched for months. I hadn’t written anything on a project about growing up in an oil-field camp. My still-in-first-draft manuscript about American writers and Greece has been stalled for two years. I hadn’t written any poems in months.

But the blogs — especially the blog about Dad — came flowing out.

And then he died. I got some more written. And then everything stopped.

It felt as though I’d never get anything written again. My journal had haphazard entries. Even last summer’s travel blog didn’t get completed.

When my brain shut down from overload after months of stress, it really stopped everything. I felt dead. I could read, read for hours. But write? Not really, other than occasional journals. My head just was fuzzy.

In Greece during the summer of 2012 for six weeks, I attended a wedding in Naoussa, in the north of Greece. My friend Carolyn’s niece was getting married to a lovely young man from there. I loved being included, and thoroughly enjoyed the days leading up to the wedding, and dancing and partying at the reception. The day after, we headed back to Thessaloniki by chartered bus, and picked up two Jeeps. Eight of us drove on to Chalkidiki to join the bride and groom and his family.

That’s when my stamina — and my energy — really flagged. I slept. I stayed in. It was the week of Father’s Day and my dad’s birthday. Those days hit me — he wasn’t there. When we all left, I flew back to Athens and hibernated.

That hibernation lasted for most of the rest of the year. In late December I began to “wake up,” as I called it. Rising out of hibernation, out of my stupor of grief and exhaustion, I found myself enjoying my house in Lake Charles, and anticipating find my new routine. I also thought I’d broken the writing block barrier.

Wrong. That went on for months.

Greece has been for me a place of rejuvenation, of healing, and of discovery. When I lived there for six months in 1996, teaching at the University of Athens as a Senior Fulbright Scholar, I arrived two weeks after we’d buried my brother Phil. It was my therapy, my refuge.

For years after that, I went to Greece every summer. Those summer breaks were my respite from much stress (work-related, mostly, at least at first). For a few years, I rented an apartment from the Athens Centre and took intensive or immersion Greek classes. Then I bought an apartment, and the few weeks stretched to two and a half months.

Usually I referred to going to Greece as “running away” — temporarily, of course. I always returned ready to go back to my “real life,” to work, to handle everything.

But after Dad died, it took more than a summer. As I’ve mentioned in earlier blogs, I didn’t really realize just how exhausted I was, on every level possible. Coming back from that state took over a year for me.

And it only broke while I was in Greece this year. I arrived in Greece on April 20; I wanted to be in Greece for Orthodox Easter. Friends visited me for differing amounts of time. I traveled to London for a 5-day/4-night break. I went to Istanbul for a few days. I visited with friends. I had friends over for dinner.

And then came a real treat: I was fortunate enough to attend the poetry workshop of my friend Alicia Stallings, at the Athens Centre, in Athens. For three wonderful weeks, I woke up, went to class, walked to a coffee shop, and read and wrote. We wrote, on average, a poem a day. Sometimes more. We worked with different forms, usually one a day.

There were only a few of us in the group, and it was wonderful to once more be part of a writing circle, to laugh and to listen and to read my own work out loud.

That’s when the dam apparently broke open. The class ended on a Friday, and on the following Thursday I returned to the U.S. By the following week, I’d combined my two blogs into one and began writing that daily.

My poems are in my laptop bag, and I have started to type them into my laptop, working on them as I go.

The schedule isn’t perfect yet. It’s still emerging. But I find myself writing daily and thinking about writing. What I haven’t begun working on yet I am thinking about, planning.

We often laugh about writer’s block. I’d had it before, but nothing quite so profound as I’ve experienced in the last year and a half or so. Of course, I’d never been quite so emotionally static, either, or so exhausted on every level possible.

Week by week, month by month, I read and slept and waited. Sometimes I felt bits of myself return. But a lot of times, I wondered if I’d ever be myself again.

Slowly, I emerged from the fog, the den of whatever hibernation I had entered. The death of my father clearly led to another death, the death of one part of me. Just as retirement had been a kind of death, so was losing Dad. And I was rudderless. My purposes in life were gone.

I spent six weeks in Greece in 2012. That fall, I enjoyed being in my own home, visiting with friends, picking up the pieces of my life there. In January 2013 I began to get renovations on my own Lake Charles home started. My house was no longer just a place I visited, but my home once more, and I wanted to have a place where friends could feel comfortable. Those renovations stopped when I went to Greece in April 2013, and are ready to begin again. On July 18, I flew back to Houston. By the next week, I was writing again.

Friends have told me that this time, when I came back and they heard my voice, they knew I was “back,” in a way that I hadn’t been for over a year. That’s true. I feel that I am myself again, though admittedly a changed self.

They noticed my physical voice, which clued them in that I was back.

I noticed my writing voice was back.

A new energy suffuses my outlook. Day after day for so long, I simply woke up, slept, read, ate, and talked to friends. That was a necessary time, a healing time, and something that healed me from the inside out.

Once I found I could write, I knew I was back. Now I’m ready to work on existing projects, to plan new ones. There are still days of “I think I’ll sleep in,” but there is always a time of day when I’m eager to sit down and write. Or revise.

Thanks, Alicia, for helping me break through. Thanks to all my fellow poets in the group, who patiently listened and critiqued and encouraged.

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2 thoughts on “Grief, Writer’s Blocks, and Breakthroughs

  1. Debra Sandlin

    My journal sits in my night stand collecting dust. It’s my sounding board. My world of writing vastly differs from yours . Thirty-four years of reading for critical thinking skills, grammar connections with little creative applications. I understand your tiredness and stress. I keep telling myself when my roller coaster ride slows down I will pull out the journal and sound off. Pretty sure I will need to burn it before they put me in the home.

    Sent from my iPad

    • Deb, I know what you mean. I have a box of journals like that, and I tell myself that I will have a huge bonfire one day. Or make sure that my will has a rider to require them to be burned without being read. So much of my journals are just my emotional outpourings. About me, about others, about particular situations.

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