The Nonfiction Editors, Rappahannock Review: Each of your pieces seem to revolve around the death of your brother. How do you balance the emotion of the tragedy with the narrative?
Joyce Hayden: When writing creative nonfiction, I write from the observer’s perspective… as though I am “out of body,” looking at a scene from a distance. This allows me to follow images as if they were highway signs. In this way, I am led by image rather than emotion. The images convey both the experience and the feeling. In that way, I’m not “stuck” in the emotion of the writing/the difficulty or weight of the grief; instead, I’m able to “watch” the story unfold, and tell that narrative from someone else’s point of view.
RR: How long did it take for you to process and convert the trauma of losing a family member into writing?
JH: I’ve lost two brothers to tragedy. The piece “Behind Your Back” alludes to the death of my oldest brother Jerry who drowned when he was nine. That loss was the cornerstone of my emotional life growing up. I didn’t realize what “dead” meant until I was ten years old, and that moment of visceral understanding was profound. My parents rarely spoke of Jerry in my younger years, so I processed the grief alone. It took decades before I could write about the experience and its impact. I didn’t share the writing with family members for years.
My brother Stephen, the subject of “Cloven in Twain” and “Feels Like Stone, Looks Like Rope, Call it Grief,” died in a motorcycle accident the week before Christmas in 2008. At the time, I taught college English at a state university in western Massachusetts. I wrote and presented two conference papers the semester following his death. But it was over a year before I was capable of really examining that experience on the page. I spent the summer after he died, and after my academic year had ended, simply staring out my art studio window onto Walker Brook below. All I could do for those three months was watch the river flow by, watch the occasional heron snatch a trout from the stream. Even though I chastised myself for being “unproductive,” the waiting, the listening, the watching, was integral to my healing. That time helped me to arrive at an emotional state where I could bare entering the story.
RR: Does your writing act as a form of self-healing for you?
JH: Writing has always been an act of survival for me. I’m a classic introvert and although I have close friends and family to share my grief with, the blank page, the written word, is, for me, a magical container. I can say whatever I please; I don’t have to consider the receiver’s feelings or reactions or judgements. So, yes, writing is therapeutic; it’s part of my grieving process. It’s one step, one outlet, on the long road to trauma recovery. As a writing teacher, I’ve seen what a powerful tool self-expression on the page can offer students. I’ve worked with students and young people who have written, often for the first time, about their experiences with eating disorders, divorce, abuse and deaths. I’ve then watched as these people transformed in ways that helped them become stronger and more engaged with the world, as a result of finally writing/speaking/sharing their work. There’s a physical component: people, including myself, tend to stand taller, look others in the eye once they’ve had the opportunity to write and share their experiences.
RR: Your work contains beautiful imagery, compelling emotions, and a fluid narrative that keeps the reader engaged. How do you maintain such a strong aesthetic in your writing?
JH: The primary way that I maintain a strong aesthetic in my work is through the revision process. My first writing mentor, Genie Zeiger, taught me that the most horrendous circumstances can be rendered into beauty through details and truth. So, even if you’re writing about severe physical trauma, about rape or domestic violence, the writing can be made beautiful. I arrive at that point by trusting the images that come to me and through thorough revision. I go back and back and I cut and dig deeper in order to convey meaning with precision and concise diction.
For years I have written daily “morning pages,” three sheets of stream of conscious writing suggested by Julia Cameron in her book, The Artist’s Way. So when writing, I have a habit of including everything I can think of, of keeping my pen moving. My rough drafts cover a lot of territory. Then I revise many times until I feel the piece is succinct in terms of its aesthetics.
RR: Your work implements different approaches to very eloquently depicted imagery. A lot of these juxtapositions seem to augment the collaborative themes centered around the death of your brother. How do you want readers to interpret the varying tonalities in your work—what overall “takeaway” are you hoping your work will give them?
JH: My hope is that readers bring something of themselves when they are reading my work. How does the writing resonate with them? What do the images remind them of… where does the emotion take them? How do they connect and empathize with the words on the page?
I expect to not leave readers in the depths of grief, but I do ask then to follow me to that edge and peer over. I try to convey a journey of sorts through the writing, and I want the readers to go on the journey with me and to bring their own stories with them. I hope readers will trust their instincts and innate emotional responses and discover something new about themselves or the larger world.
Joyce Hayden’s work in Issue 5.1: