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Words Across the Chasm

It’s been 163 days since my best writing buddy died, and apparently what they say is true, even for me: death really does happen, and it’s forever, and you can’t do a damn thing about it.  And for awhile, I thought the words had gone as well, that I would never find my way back to the place where I made stories and told them to other people.  The words just hurt too much.  My best writing buddy was also one of my best friends in the world, my mom, Jean Frankel Hearst. 


We became writers together.  We’d both been talking about writing, and thinking about writing, but about twelve years ago, we’d both found new motivation and energy.  My mom was recovering from a heart attack, I was recovering from a soul-killing relationship.   And we both wrote.

We both wrote a lot of really bad stuff, to begin with.  We encouraged each other, while managing to remain honest with each other and to help each other become better writers.  Those of you who are writers know how hard it is to find someone who can do that. We had complementary strengths and weaknesses.  My mom never wrote enough in her first drafts.  I’d remind her that the readers couldn’t actually see what was inside her head and that she needed to tell them.  I wrote way too much in my early drafts and my mom would gently but firmly order me to cut stuff out.   I would add italics for emphasis in her drafts while she removed them from mine.  I was good at plotting and horrible at setting.  She found her plots tangling but wrote descriptions so subtly beautiful they made me howl in envy. 

She was the first one published, her short story Ashes, debuting in Pangolin Papers.  She was also the first one to break the cherry and share a sex scene.  I wasn’t yet writing about the wolves, and I was working on a short story about a young woman sleeping with a bunch of different guys so she could have practice for her husband to be.  How can I show that to my mom? I wondered.   But then she sent me this great story she was writing about woman who meets a sexy turtle-man in Hawaii, and then it was ok. 

I still can’t believe I can’t share my work with her anymore.  At least a couple times a day, when I’m writing, I want to shoot my mom an email about what I’m working on and check in on how her work is going.  She was working on two novels when she died and the writing was going really well.  She’d sent me the first third of her mystery the morning she got sick and we’d spent some time talking about it.  I’m really, really happy about that.  The last thing I talked to her about was her writing.  A few hours before she fell ill, she and my dad had been discussing the story.  So she died in the saddle, which is how she would have wanted it.

My own writing, right now, makes me think of an hourglass.   I have all these ideas and possibilities, and there is only the narrowest passage, between the sorrow and the anger, for them to get through. But they do get through.  I was certain, after my mom died, that I just wouldn’t give a damn about writing, that it wouldn’t matter anymore.  I was surprised at the quiet, fierce insistence of the words.  It reminds me of how they gently but relentlessly pushed me to leave my job to write my novel, how they moved me through the uncertainties and fears of a first-time novelist.  Now they just as gently and just as stubbornly move me through the syrupy darkness of grieving. Yes, you are sad, they say, yes you are so heavy with sadness it feels like each breath is a day’s worth of work.  But we have a story to tell. 

My mom began writing seriously at 63 and had twelve years to write.  Today is my 43rd birthday, my first one without my mom.  I have to admit I spent a good chunk of the day crying.  But I also spent a good chunk writing. If things go well, I’ve got thirty or forty more years than she had to tell stories.  And she would be so mad at me if I didn’t tell the stories.  She doesn’t get to anymore, so it’s up to me.

And so I follow the words.  I let them lead me to who I will be from now on.  I know better than to think I will be the same writer, or the same person, that I was before.  I know that it’s through the words that I find my way through this, and that it is through the words that I can keep sharing the stories with my mom. 

And I actually do write those emails to her about how the writing is going.  


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Dorothy, this is a beautiful tribute...

to your mother and your relationship, both as mother and daughter and as writers. Thank you for sharing this with us.

Jennifer Gibbons, Red Room