Making Art from the Pain in One’s Personal Life

If Miriam Toews can write fiction about suicide in her own family, can I?

By coincidence, I finished reading Canadian prize-winning writer Miriam Toews’ newest novel “All My Puny Sorrows” on World Suicide Prevention Day.

As a “survivor of suicide” (a term used to refer to people who have lost a family member or close friend to suicide), I suppose I should have been aware of WSP Day, especially after all the publicity surrounding actor Robin Williams’ recent suicide. But I wasn’t. One tends to block out some things.

Miriam Toews is a gifted writer. Among her many accolades is the Governor General’s Award for Fiction that she won for her novel “A Complicated Kindness.” Toews brings those artistic skills to “All My Puny Sorrows.” But she also brings much more – her own family history.

Early in the story line of the novel, the father of Yolanda, the narrator, kills himself by jumping into the path of a speeding train. The focus of the plot is Yoli trying to prevent her sister Elfrieda from committing suicide. Elf, an internationally-acclaimed pianist, is as fragile as she is talented. Because of her internal demons, she has come to the conclusion that life is too painful to continue. Despite Yoli’s best efforts, Elf eventually succeeds. In Toews’ assured writing, “All My Puny Sorrows” melds excruciating sadness with subversive humour. The novel is a poignant, masterful, engaging read.

This is art imitating life. Miriam Toews’ father committed suicide. And so did her sister.

Was it scary for Toews to write about her sister’s death? She says that, once she got through the total immobilization that grief over her sister’s death caused, it was scarier not to write about it. She felt that she needed to address it head on. And she is a writer of fiction, so she wrote a piece of fiction.

I am a survivor of suicide. Rick, my younger brother, was only thirteen months younger than me and we grew up almost as if we had been twins. After retiring, he went into a deep depression and committed suicide. He killed himself a short six months before Bill my long-term gay lover died suddenly after being diagnosed with pancreatic cancer.

I have written explicitly and in detail about Bill’s death in the memoir “August Farewell.” I mentioned Rick’s suicide briefly in “August Farewell.” In my novel “Searching for Gilead” which was published a year after the memoir, the brother of one of the main characters commits suicide. That was a conscious, albeit tangential, way for me to write about my brother’s suicide. At least it feels tangential, and totally inadequate. Increasingly, I experience the compelling need to write a piece of fiction that more explicitly addresses my brother’s death.

Why?

I suppose it would be cathartic. I guess that I hope it would help me “process” (god, I hate that word) the feelings of regret and guilt that I, like many survivors of suicide, experience. Perhaps, it could play some role in helping other people understand the devastating impacts of depression and grapple with the precursors and consequences of suicide for all concerned. Certainly my memoir “August Farewell” about my lover’s cancer death gave me some measure of relief having recorded our sacred end-of-life journey and many readers have expressed profound appreciation for it as an aid in helping them deal with their own issues of love and loss.

But my sense of compulsion to write fictionally about my brother’s suicide is more than just for these personal and public reasons. I have a strong sense that the creation of art in fiction can go to places that non-fiction narrative cannot, that living in the realm of the imagination unlocks chambers that otherwise wouldn’t be, that universals are liberated from the specifics.

At this point, I know not when and how and in what fictional genre I may attempt to tread some of the same territory that Miriam Toews has. But I feel the need to. Stay tuned.

* * *

For information on Miriam Toews’ “All My Puny Sorrows”, see: http://amzn.to/1tNou01

For information on my writing, including my memoir “August Farewell” and my novel “Searching for Gilead”, see my author’s website at: http://DavidGHallman.com

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3 Comments

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3 responses to “Making Art from the Pain in One’s Personal Life

  1. Andy Sinclair

    I think you are on track when you talk about the paradox of fiction as the most effective conveyor of complicated truths. I look forward to your next project!

  2. Lillian Perigoe

    Thanks, David. I have found myself thinking a lot about your comments, perhaps especially this one: ‘the creation of art in fiction can go to places that non-fiction narrative cannot, that living in the realm of the imagination unlocks chambers that otherwise wouldn’t be, that universals are liberated from the specifics…’ Blessings as you move forward & continue your very special writing. LP

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