Myra here. I’m so happy to welcome today’s guest blogger, Kristi Holl. I’ve known Kristi since 1983, when she was assigned as my Institute of Children’s Literature instructor. Kristi’s expert teaching, encouragement, and friendship have guided many a wannabe writer—including me!—along the path toward publishing success.
Recently I spent time with some children grappling with a deep loss, and it reminded me of a time of loss in my own life. Years ago, when the crisis was over, I found myself in a writer’s block of monumental proportions. Friends and family had gone back about their business, and I ached at the quietness of the house. I couldn’t focus on a grocery list, much less my novel-in-progress. One day, as I faced another empty evening, I glanced at the overcrowded shelves in the hallway.
My gaze fell on treasured childhood books that dated back forty years: The Trail of the Lonesome Pine, Little Women, Blue Willow, Anne of Green Gables. I held my breath. Something stirred within, some sense of recognition. By doing no more than reading the titles, a sense of peace washed over me. I wasn’t alone. My best friends were right there—waiting patiently between the covers of books—just as they had been all my life.
Take Me Away!
Many of us grew up escaping into fiction because it was a world that was safe. A book wasn’t going to hurt us. In a book, we could find a world better than the one we lived in. As I talk to writers, it continues to astound me the numbers who grew up deprived of love (and often abused). However, others from “normal” homes, who had to deal with tragedy and hardship, also learned to escape into books. Madeleine L’Engle, author of Newbery winner A Wrinkle in Time, said it this way: “I tried to heal my fear with stories, stories which gave me courage, stories which affirmed that ultimately love is stronger than hate… Story was in no way an evasion of life, but a way of living life creatively instead of fearfully.”
If you’re a writer who has experienced a deep loss and you find your emotions frozen and fingers unable to write, I suggest you rediscover the healing power of fiction. It’s free; you find it between the covers of a book instead of in a pill bottle. Think back to the stories that comforted you as a child. Chances are you still have those books in a box somewhere, a box you’ve carted from house to house for a lifetime. Get them out. Dust them off. (Or hunt down specific titles at the library or used book store.)
Healing in the Mind
What kinds of fiction are most healing? Stories of triumph and love, and loss and recovery, and family and belonging—stories with imaginary worlds that are sometimes more real than your own home. These stories give you a place to escape your pain, at least for a brief time. (Note: Not just any book will do. You need more than mere distraction, which can be had by reading a suspense thriller.) You need stories that feed you, restore you, and begin to heal your wounded spirit. Re-entering the world of best-loved childhood fiction pulls you into a setting with people you love and remember, a nurturing place. Choosing to heal begins in our thoughts, and lost in your fictional world you can absorb thoughts that once again bring you moments of joy. How can you not laugh at Jo March cutting off and selling her hair, “her one beauty”? Or Anne (with an “e”) dying her red hair green?
It’s true that when your loss is very fresh it is difficult to focus enough to read. In
that case, work into it slowly. For example, watching six hours of “Anne of Green
Gables,” taped from the public television channel, was enough to propel me into re-reading the whole series. Watching my “Little Women” video had the same affect. It is still revisiting favorite fictional friends. Then, when the grief has settled down (or settled in), try again to focus on the books. There is a richness in the printed words and details that transports you into their world for a time. These details of home and clothing and scenery may be present in the movie too, but images on a screen change quickly, and we catch no more than glimpses and impressions. Reading—and reading slowly—allows you to savor the details. And oddly enough, it’s drinking in the details where healing actually begins.
No matter who in your real life dies or abandons you, the precious friends in childhood books are always there waiting. They’re stable. In a world that never stops changing, your fictional friends remain the same. And at times of grief and loss, we desperately need people we can count on. Until that loss, I had no idea the amount of comfort you could receive from fictional people in books.
Truth? Or Fiction?
How can that be, since fiction (by definition) isn’t real? Or ... is it? I believe that some of the greatest truths I ever read were shown to me (or voiced) by characters in novels. (Do not confuse truth with “facts.”) Katherine Paterson says books “allow us to enter imaginatively into someone else’s life. And when we do that, we learn to sympathize with other people. But the real surprise is that we also learn truths about ourselves, about our own lives, that somehow we hadn’t been able to see before.”
These truths can be one way out of the dark and lonely tunnel of grief. We identify with our fictional friends—and learn from them. How did Anne and Marilla handle Matthew Cuthbert’s death? How did the March girls’ faith get them through the loss of their sister, Beth? These (and a dozen other favorite childhood books of mine) taught me how to love, to survive, to grieve—and then to heal. It was no surprise to me that these books got me through my childhood. It was a great surprise to discover they could help me heal an adult loss.
Whether you write fiction for children or adults, can you think of a greater reward than that? Don’t you want to write stories that someone might pick up someday when they need to visit a dear and treasured friend?
Kristi Holl is the author of 35 books, both fiction and nonfiction, including WRITER'S FIRST AID. Her most recent release is a four-book series published in June by Zonderkidz, the Boarding School Mysteries.