What Does Writing Do?: On Creation, Vocation, and Calvin

Today, this recent article about grief by two writers working and writing from inside the experience.


My first response to this was mean-spirited annoyance. The losses described here are terrible, no doubt, as losses of loved ones inherently are; and these writers beautifully articulate the nexus of grief and creation – that organic connection — and I genuinely ache for them, but… we are expected to outlive our parents! (Yes, you say, but many parents die so young, too young. Yes, yes, I know you’re right.) Marriage always holds within it a note of sadness because we know that there exists a possibility that we will outlive our spouse! (Ever the optimist, I expressed this happy thought out loud to Rick on our wedding day.) Of course my initial reaction was knee jerk and overly emotional and assumed the existence of a ladder of loss and a method for placing a person’s sadness on a particular rung. (So…what, on the lower rung the loss of a pet fish? On the upper rung, the loss of a parent, a spouse or a child? Yes, you might say, just like that. Okay, but what if the fish belongs to a five-year-old, and it’s his first experience with death and you’re the one trying to explain what has happened and what it means while Goldy bobs in the water of his bowl-now-grave? What if the parent or spouse or baby was suffering for years or months or even just one minute, then what? Bumped down a few rungs on the ladder?) This idea that there exists a hierarchy, a “my grief is more grievous than yours,” method of ranking, with those at the top having a more gut-wrenching, authentically horrible experience while those on the lower rungs are – what? Just super super sad? – is obviously ludicrous, and I am forced to admit my shortsighted and simplistic response.

Loss, like any profound human experience, is not quantifiable (if there did exist a competition for grief, who would want to win it?), which is precisely why grief (like love and any other foundational, deceptively simple human experience) is the terrain of artists (and really bad poets, but that’s for the greeting card industry to sort out). And it is a writer’s even more specific job to give voice to loss in whatever ways they can, to give shape to this unspeakable reality beneath all other realities. (Elizabeth Bishop’s famous poem “One Loss,” speaks precisely to this fact. There are not a handful of losses to master, but one; not a bunch of emotions to understand, just the one: grief.)

What interests me now about this article (and after speaking to other writers who have written some of their best stuff while simultaneously being wrung out by grief or literally looking right at their dying loved one as they scribbled away on napkins or slips of paper or fast food receipts or paper pharmacy bags) is how deeply the methodology of O’Rourke and Oates runs against conventional writing wisdom, which advocates gaining objectivity, letting time pass, and other ways of distancing oneself from a primal experience before plunging into the telling of it.

Conventional writing wisdom (which doesn’t make much sense anyway; none of us has true writing wisdom, just hours logged in the chair, writing) is wrong.

When we first received Ronan’s diagnosis of Tay-Sachs, my first response was to write about it. I could not have been more surprised, and I was actually slightly embarrassed. I wanted to write? Really? Losing my child (an experience already against nature) will be my first experience of a loss of this magnitude (but there again — what do I mean by that? That pesky ranking system again) and I had expectations about what a “grieving person” does, says, feels, how they act, what they do. Wasn’t I supposed to run barefoot through the streets in my night dress and shriek and howl and pull my hair out? (I did a version of this, only indoors.) But one can only maintain that for so long. Eventually I sat up and thought, yes this is apocalyptic, world-ending, but also: leave me alone, get out of my way, I’ve got work to do.

Why now? I’d been disconnected for my writing life for years, and during those same years I’d been preaching in writing classes about the importance of establishing objective distance from difficult experiences. Or, and I quote myself here, “otherwise those stories can be heavy loads for the reader to lift.” Oy. Did I say that? “Writing,” I prattled on, “should not be therapeutic; it’s not therapy; it’s art.” Geez, when did I get so precious about my vocation? Now I’ve got my own monstrous load to haul around, and although I agree that it can’t be all doomsday and sadness in the writing, even if that’s what the heart feels, I find my advice, and my chirping on about “paper doll physics” – which has nothing to do with physics but everything to do with how you separate the “I” on the page from the “I” doing the writing (and yes, a physical paper doll is involved as an illustration) – naive at best, but borderline self-righteous and wholly uneducated in the vicissitudes of grief. In those first hellish weeks, I had to write; that was all there was. That was living. (It could also be done in my nightgown, so I could still have my daily, necessary sob-shriek.)

“Give it time,” I might have said to a weeping graduate student in my office overlooking (yep!) a cemetery in Los Angeles. That was last year. Now I might say, “Get writing.” What about distance and objectivity? What about being able to tell the truth without the veil of emotion obscuring a clear (or clear-ish) view? But isn’t art written from the inside of an experience simply (cue the eye roll) therapeutic? Just a few months ago I would have said yes; today I still hold that it is not therapeutic (if we presume that the end goal of therapy is emotional regulation), but it is absolutely cathartic – from the Greek, to purge, to cleanse; in short, to strip away. Writing from that stripped and hollowed center is terrifying but also euphoric, and it can and should be done. A person undergoing therapy is thinking and processing and considering (all good things! Save those skills for the fortieth draft!), but a person experiencing catharsis is on fire. Is there any better place from which to write, to make worlds? I would argue there is not. Your ego, your expectation, your vanity — all gone, burned away, a dim memory. There is you, the words, the act. It’s a thin thread, but you can hang your whole life on it.

Okay, that’s all very dramatic, but what does writing do? It’s not saving Ronan (if only if only if only), it won’t save the world (and how many times have I talked with my friends about chucking writing and actually doing something meaningful with our lives that is beyond ourselves and our pretty little stories? Yes, we’ll abandon it all, we agree. We’ll start helping people somehow. We go over the options: Peace Corps, human rights lawyer, social worker, and then, realizing that good writing can actually help people as it has helped us, that it can help people survive, as it has helped us survive, and that’s why we became writers and we’re only feeling self-conscious because are writing isn’t as good as it ought to be and oh shit, talk to you later, and we hang up the phone, pour ourselves a fresh cup of coffee and go back to our desks.)

But was I  somehow trying to “save” Ronan, as if turning the story into a project would make the situation less “true?” Yes and no. Both O’Rourke and Oates notice the ways in which writing about the experience from inside the experience creates a new experience which is in a way a place to rest; the creative act makes a new world with new rules and structure and form, and is therefore not only sustaining in both an emotional/human way, but also in an artistic way. This last point is key; yes, these grieving writers journaled and documented their day to day lived experiences, all those singular moments, but they also went back and shaped their words; they did the work of revision and wrestled with language and form. Plunked down into a situation in which they were entirely helpless, they found something to do, not to distract themselves from the situation, but to look it straight in the face as artists, like it or not, are required to do. Otherwise what are we doing?

After those first few weeks of blackness and bouncing back and forth in the void I realized that I didn’t want to be coddled (well, at least not all the time). I wanted to work, laugh, write, be, live. Ronan deserved a more present mother, Rick a less hysterical partner. People fully expected the weeping and gnashing of teeth, but as O’Rourke notes, grief makes people uncomfortable and awkward, in part because we are trained to say things like “I can’t imagine” and “somehow you’ll get past it” (As in, step around it like dog doo doo on the sidewalk? Unlikely) and “keep yourself busy” all of these useless sayings stem from the death-phobia that permeates our culture. We avoid death – we don’t want to see it, talk about it, or think about it. Yet as O’Rourke and Oates both point out, the experience of their losses was deeply profound and artistically, at some points, absolutely electric. People wanted (perhaps expected?) them to numb it or erase it or at the very least ignore it and all they could think to do was pull it closer and wrap their arms around it and dig in their fingernails and hang on.  “Don’t write if you don’t feel up to it,” people caution. But it doesn’t matter if I feel “up” to it. It’s my responsibility; it’s what I do. It is, as O’Rourke asserts, a way of ordering chaos, a way to focus energy, a way of “bearing up” that no period of restfulness could possibly accomplish. In other words, rendering loss is a way of honoring life. I can bring my whole self to the page and use my whole heart to consider what I’m writing; I can order thoughts and words and sentences. I can let go of my old fears about how my work was received, how I was or might be or will be received and just create. This is different, of course, than just emoting on the page. It is rendering thought and experience; it is extracting meaning from a situation that has none. People ask, “How are you?” but perhaps the better question is “Who are you?” because the experience of grief is so primal and smoldering, that you are literally molten, re-arranged every day, made anew. It is powerfully disorienting and it can be the place where great art is made.

So you might say that I am compelled to write, called to write, forced to write. Who is doing the calling?


Pastors and priests and other holy folks are “called” to their vocations. (It sounds nice, but believe me, when your pastor-dad is “called” to the middle-of-nowhere Nebraska when you’re a bratty thirteen-year-old, the romance of the idea fizzles quickly). Paul nee Saul had a conversion experience that was akin to a seizure and prompted him to change his entire life and write lots and lots of letters; Martin Luther was struck by a lightning force of a calling that had him trembling on his chubby knees on a dirt road somewhere in rural Germany, questioning all that he was. Do lawyers have such melodramatic vocational callings? Plumbers? Maids? Writers?

John Calvin thought so! Let’s ask him! Or, at the very least, someone who knows about him. I fired off an email to B, my former religious studies professor and now my friend (and an expert on this infamous Protestant Reformer), as if emailing a psychic a desperate question about the future (Does Fred love me? Will I win the lottery?), asking “Did Calvin think the events of our lives are pre-ordained? Is it linked to his notions of the elect and predestination?” (He gets in trouble for this last theological notion.)

In other words, is the instinct we have to pursue certain vocations a calling from God? Her response:

Short answer to the question: yes, absolutely. Not only foreknown but also foreordained. However, note that he distinguishes conceptually between

–“predestination” (=aka “election”), which refers particularly to salvation (not day to day living, historical events, etc.). In all the early editions of the Institutes, it is discussed at the end of the chapter on providence and is in fact a special kind of providence.  But in the last edition of the Institutes in 1559 he separates the discussion of election per se and puts it in Book III on how the believer appropriates the benefits of Christ (outlined in book 2). In this context, it is the ground for the certainty of faith.

–“providence”, to which is what your question refers. In the 1559 Institutes, providence is joined with the topic of creation in book I, chapters 16-17.  Divine providence actively governs all natural and historical events (God is not a “momentary creator”).  For him it’s a matter of God’s omnipotence, and he strongly rejects that this is akin to a Stoic notion of fate: events appear fortuitous to human beings, and he argues (largely in chapter 17) that the fact that God directs them should not lead them to inaction, does not undermine human responsibility, and is not an excuse for wickedness.  An oft-quoted passage is “For he who has set the limits to our life has also entrusted it to our care; he has provided means and helps to preserve it; he has also made us able to foresee dangers, that they may not overwhelm us unaware, he has offered precautions and remedies. Now it is very clear what our duty is: thus, if the Lord has committed to us the protection of our life, out duty is to protect it; if he offers helps, to use them; if he forewarns us of dangers, not to plunge headlong; if he makes remedies available not to neglect them” (Ins. 1.17.4).

Calvin believes that this is a comfort, in the end because believers trust and know that all things work for good and that the events that befall them are not random and meaningless.

According to Calvin’s understanding, all people (artists included) have a duty to follow their instincts because it’s all part of a grand design; we should not resist these instincts but accept them, live them out. Calvin was ahead of the social-cultural curve, because what he’s saying, in essence, is “follow your bliss.” I’m not sure it’s God calling me to write (if anything, I’m sure it’s not), but it’s an interesting concept, and one writers don’t often think about, so accustomed are we to obsessively analyzing our own amazing creative brains.

In Frances Sherwood’s brilliant historical novel, Vindication, about the life of pioneering feminist Mary Wollstonecraft, there’s a scene in which Mary is trying to puzzle out the age-old “why bad things happen to good people” conundrum. Why do some people receive soft down pillows and chocolates and other people are left to battle a constant shit storm? She turns Mr. Price for answers — her pastor, her mentor and — most importantly — the first gentle man she’s ever known.

“Let God be the judge,” Mr. Price cautioned. “Things happen for a reason.”

“Bad things?”

“Sometimes. We learn from them.”

Mrs. Price nodded in agreement.

“Tell me,” Mary insisted, “is there a reason for a child’s death. What does a dead child learn?”

Mr. Price has no pithy answer for this, and I doubt Calvin would either (his children all died in infancy). But later in the novel (which pulls no punches and can be rough-going; this portrait of the artist-as-a-young-woman makes clear all that being a brilliant thinker cost the oft-tormented Wollstonecraft, and how her inner and outer lives were constantly at odds), after a second suicide attempt, Mary awakens on the bank of the Thames, having been rescued from the water. This event marks a kind of rebirth for her, an awakening.

“We must go on living, Mary concluded. It is our duty.”

A writer’s duty is to write, especially in and through experiences of grief and loss. Not later, after an acceptable amount of time has passed and the writer has moved at an appropriate pace through those bogus stages of grief, but now. In this messy, overwhelming moment your presence, your witness, is required. No loss is worse than the other. My grief isn’t better than yours. But our tasks, as writers, are the same. Creation is a duty, it’s work, and as an artist you ignore this calling at your own peril.

Is it enough? “What did you do to manage it?” I’ve asked other Tay-Sachs moms, thinking about how the next few years of my life will roll out. “Make memories,” they advise. For some of them that meant going to Disneyland with their other children, or taking their sick child to a beach in the Bahamas. I understand both approaches, but they don’t resonate with me, especially on a practical level. “We sat on the couch a lot,” one mom told me. “That’s what I remember most.” That spoke to me. I’ve spent (and still do spend) a great deal of my life sitting on couches — reading, writing, and talking on the phone. (During my summer vacations during college I parked my book-hungry butt on the blue flowered couch in my parents’ living room and only got up for meals, the mail, the Cher exercise video that I did once a day, and the nightly jabberfest with my closest friends on the phone in my dad’s basement office.) What would I tell a new Tay-Sachs mom? Write. Write as if your life depends on it, because it might.

Today, as always, I sat with Ronan on the couch (even inside this frantic sadness, there exist these exquisite moments of pristine happiness and an almost-perfect peace) and stared at him and smiled at him and wished that my words — anything — could save him. But no, writing is not saving Ronan. But it might be saving me.

Seal and Diane, painting by Linda Quakenbush

10 responses to “What Does Writing Do?: On Creation, Vocation, and Calvin

  1. Jane Palacorolla

    Hi, Emily. I’m a relative who lives in Maryland. Your dad is my first cousin. I wanted to tell you how sorry I am this happened to you and Rick. No parent should ever have to lose a child. I lost my only son to suicide in 2002. I gardened. I told the story over and over. I sought therapy. So write, do what you need to do. I will be praying for you, for courage and grace to face the days ahead.
    Your website is wonderful, I am grateful for all the pictures. You are a very sensitive, caring mother, Emily, savor every moment. My heart aches for you and I just wanted you to know.
    Love, Jane

  2. Dear Emily —
    Today’s post resonated deeply with me. I wrote my first book, Somewhere Child (Viking Press, 1981) when my daughter was still missing. (She had been abducted by her father over ten years before.) At the end of this memoir, I wrote an open letter to her, including this: “Now that my story is almost ended, I realize I’ve written it also for myself. Not for exoneration, but for exorcism. The unspeakable memories, like fierce dragons from which I’d tried for years to flee, have been faced, and in a sense, slain. All of the words that could never seem to leave my lips are out now on this paper. I no longer feel so heavy.”
    Some time after the book came out, I learned, indirectly, that Somewhere Child was instrumental in the creation of the National Center of Missing Exploited Children. Was it God’s will that I should have experienced this loss in order to write about it in a way that would touch hearts and minds — and do good? I’ve often suspected so. And, yes, I did ultimately join the Peace Corps, and I wrote a book about that too.
    Life goes on. We must go on. We must turn the pain into words and the words into art.
    Love to you and Rick and Ronan,

  3. Keep writing, Emily. It helps me (to be selfish about it), and, if I count in some measure, then your writing is indeed helping some small part of the world. And I know for a fact that I’m not alone in this response to your writing.

  4. “A writer’s duty is to write, especially in and through experiences of grief and loss. Not later, after an acceptable amount of time has passed and the writer has moved at an appropriate pace through those bogus stages of grief, but now.”

    Emily, I was just thinking about this. I’m going through something pretty life-changing and the only way I know how to get through it is by writing. I wondered if I was doing the “right” thing, because I have always been told to put some space in between the event and writing about it.

    I have always believed that writing is not just art–writing is therapy. I’m glad you are writing now. I think now is important.

  5. Alma Luz Villanueva

    Yes, writing saves us over and over…and then it saves others over and over. Your courage and love glitters with every word, gracias…

  6. So beautiful, powerful and true. Thank you.

  7. Thank you for writing day after day, dear Emily. You draw us all as you write about what you are thinking and experiencing, and as you shape the chaos of life with your powerful love and wisdom. It will be good to be with you, Rick, and Ronan in a couple of weeks to celebrate Ronan’s first birthday. Sending you love.

  8. Em, LOVE this post. Thank you for such a thoughtprovoking, well constructed, experience-based and sources-based exposition. Thank you for your writing. It utterly enriches me. That ‘fire’ in your heart, I get to catch a bit of its heat from time to time and it excites me, it speaks to the liveliest part of me.

    I’m interested in how you settle on ‘duty’ as the reason to write. The other reasons – catharsis, making sense of something for yourself, because it is your work, make sense to me.

    My hesitation about duty is because duty can be a trap, a way of NOT being yourself. ‘Duty’ is something that feels ‘owed’ to someone, like you are serving something other than yourself. When duty and conforming go hand in hand, I get worried. (I mustn’t be gay because it’ll upset my parents or my community or my work.) When duty and no connection to one’s true self go hand in hand, I get worried. (I’ve got to do this for the Church. I’ve got to do that because it’s expected.)

    I guess if it’s a duty that is genuinely in service of the Divine, and I guess if we remind ourselves that the Divine is in us, as well as manifested externally, then that’s OK…?!

    Thanks for the scrumptious food for thought. x

  9. Talya Jankovits

    Powerful. Thank you for writing this.

  10. Emily,

    First, thank you for this post, and ALL your posts. When my father died in 2004, I wanted very much to write but absolutely couldn’t. Not a word. I mean I couldn’t write for ANY purpose whatsoever – to share with loved ones, to publish online, or even in a personal journal that would never get read by anyone other than myself. I couldn’t even write prepared words for his funeral! I spoke at the service but it was extemporaneous. I remember the night before, trying to prepare my notes, but ended up throwing them all in the garbage. I thought “Fuck it, I’ll just wing it.” And to my surprise, my impromptu public speaking resulted in genuine expression and, strangely, better composure than if I had been reading prepared text. I don’t know what any of this means, it’s just my personal experience.

    Certainly, every individual reacts differently to grief, and grief is a loaded topic for everyone involved. I do know that because my father’s death was so sudden and unexpected, our grief was exacerbated by a jarring, shattering effect – the kind that knocks you off your heels because you weren’t prepared. For weeks after Dad died, many well-meaning people expressed to me that it was “better” he died so suddenly because he didn’t suffer. “Better”? Really? Do we really want to get into a classification of “better” deaths? Part of me wanted to lash out and scream, “What was ‘better’ about my Dad collapsing from a stroke on the floor of his bedroom with his eyes rolled back in his head, literally dying in front of my hysterical mother, at 4:00 in the morning??? Because it took all of three seconds it was somehow merciful?? Because it was quick?” Instead, I was obsessed with those three seconds, for months after he died. I still am.

    I couldn’t write back then. I couldn’t do anything. I was paralyzed. Perhaps now, after six years, I can write about my grief.

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