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Is It Possible to Write a Memoir When You're Grieving a Loss? Interview with Artis Henderson of Unremarried Widow

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"I believe we are given the stories we must tell." - Artis Henderson.

In this blog post, I'll be interviewing Artis Henderson on the writing process for her memoir Unremarried Widow, which began as an essay for The New York Times's Modern Love column. This blog post will focus on the emotional narrative of losing her husband, a pilot for the US army in Afghanistan, and how the author was able to move past the emotionally difficult process of downloading "scenes" to create a memoir.

Note: This interview can also be heard in its audio format as part of my radio show, "Giving Voice to Your Story."

Dorit Sasson: How did you manage at first to voice the grief of your husband Miles and his memory in your memoir?

Artis Henderson: This is such a big question. Writing in general and writing a book in particular is almost like magic. I'm not even sure how it happened. It's such a mystery how to turn grief into a story. On a personal level, when I had first signed the contract, when I knew the book was coming, I remember feeling very worried. I had a proposal but I hadn't written the book. I talked to my memoir and he said, "just tell the story."

And so, that's what I did. I sat down and started writing. I started at the beginning of the memoir when I met Miles and wrote straight through to the end of it. Of course there was lots of editing and rewriting, but I think the hardest part is just finding a starting place. Maybe that's the answer.

DS: How did you get clarity as an insider and as an outsider when dealing with grief?

AH: I honestly didn't consider the reader until after the book was written. As I'm writing it, I'm telling the story for myself. I never worried about who would be reading it. I actually think if I thought about this too much, I might have censored what I put down. I may have been shy or even embarrassed. My goal however in the long run, was to help someone else feel what I was feeling in those moments.

DS: How did the writing impact the grieving and vis-versa?

AH: Yes, the two are so intertwined. The book only came out in January 2014, and it's a little over seven years since Miles passed away, so it hasn't been that long. Writing a book was a really big part of my grieving process. I grieved for him so intensely on an everyday basis for a solid year, but then by the second and third years, I started focusing on the future applying to grad schools and then going overseas. So I actually had to put my grief to the side and then when I started writing the book, I think I realized there was so much grieving to be done. Writing the book took two solid years and I have to tell you, I cried every day. There was no part of the book that didn't affect me. The encouraging part is that now I'm able to speak about him and about what happened without falling apart. I could not do that before writing the book.

I would trade everything to have Miles back in a second. But that's not an option. It took me a long time to realize that. I kept thinking, "if I did everything right, he would come back." But once I realized he wasn't coming back for good, I realized I had a huge responsibility to turn his death into something good.

I definitely wanted the reader to feel me taking that heavy responsibility. I just wanted to be a more active participant in my life.

DS: How did you plan those scenes so you were really touching on those message or was this not intentional or were you just occupied with telling the story and speaking your truth?

AH: At first, I was just focused on telling the story, and the truest moments of that story. It was only after coming up with the arc was completed I realized was me coming out with this grief. I shyed away from this at the beginning.

DS: What kinds of tips or strategies did you use to help you get clear on your story arc?

AH: I had written a solid chunk of the book. I was worried and obsessed with structure. I spent so much time on the arc and I would map everything out and think about the arc all the time. But then as I was writing, I realized that structure comes from writing. I had to keep writing. So after 120 pages, I realized I needed more pages and writing. It was only then that the structure emerged organically from that material.

DS: How did you get unstuck from the writing?

AH: I handed in my first draft the year after I signed the contract. During that year, I wrote furiously during which I wrote 130 pages and handed the draft to my editor. I said to them, this is all I can come up with! I couldn't think of anything else to write. And that was when I realized what a great editor can do for you. In that draft, she pulled out areas I needed to develop more. She asked questions and pointed me in some very clear directions. Once I had that, I was able to continue writing.

As you can see from this in-depth interview, grieving is not a pre-planned process. Much of it happens side by side with the writing. When we allow ourselves to grieve, we open the doors to deeper and continuous expression.