rules_of_inheritanceAfter my mother died when I was eighteen, I was ravenous to find others who had been through a similar experience. Because I had never met anyone my age who had lost a parent, I turned to books. I’d always been an avid reader, but up until then I’d only read fiction and poetry.

When I stumbled into the genre of memoir, a whole new door opened. I couldn’t believe how many stories there were out there to pore through. It seemed there was a memoir for every kind of experience: grief, cancer, parenting, divorce, travel, sexual identity, substance abuse. The possibilities for reading were endless. Initially I tore through as many grief memoirs as I could, each one giving me a tiny sense of lightness, of not feeling so alone. Finally, when I’d run through everything on grief I read everything else. Even books about things I’d never experienced gave me a sense of solidarity in the face of hardship.

Each time I closed the cover of another memoir – some of them great, some of them not-so-great – I felt like I had a better understanding of myself and of people around me. I also had a better understanding of what it means to bare one’s soul, to really be honest about one’s feeling and thoughts. All the memoirs I read that were great were the most honest.

The thing was though, even after all the dozens and dozens of memoirs I read, I never quite found what I was looking for. Eventually I had to settle for the fact that no one had written it yet, but what I was really looking for was my story.

So I wrote it.

People ask if it was hard to be so honest in my own memoir and my answer is always no. After reading all the ones that I did, I knew that it would be pointless to write one myself if I wasn’t going to be as seriously truthful as the other great books I read. I can only hope that my book will help others as much as the ones I read helped me.

rules_of_inheritanceAs an experienced grief counselor, one of the tools I find most valuable for my clients is the act of writing. Taking pen to paper in the midst of grief can be one of the most powerful ways to access and process the heavy emotions that come with the loss of a loved one.

I was already a writer when my mother died so it came naturally to me, and I’m so grateful for that. I often felt very isolated and alone in my feelings of grief and writing about them helped me to understand them better and to just move through the emotions in general.

Sometimes I simply wrote about the painful memories and sometimes I wrote letters to my mother. Both exercises were incredibly cathartic. There is often so much left unsaid when someone dies and most people are surprised by how healing it can be to just write down those sentiments.

Every year on my mother’s death date I write her a letter, and every year I am somehow surprised by the emotion that it stirs up. It’s as though for that one brief moment while I’m writing she really can hear me. Just a few weeks ago I wrote the 15th letter to her and it was just as powerful as ever.

Writing the memoir was also cathartic. Sometimes it really takes writing about an event, really looking at it in a multi-faceted way, to understand what it was really about. I’ve written about my mother’s death a hundred times but every single time I do it I come to some new understanding about the loss, or about my connection to it.

There’s a French writer named Annie Ernaux who has half a dozen or more memoirs to her name, and each one follows the same story of her life, but each one is so different. This just proves to me how you can never out-write something that you’re trying to process.

Should you ever find yourself in the throes of grief, or just in a tumultuous time in your life, I highly recommend simply writing about it. It doesn’t have to be something anyone will ever see, but I can promise that it will help you to see.

rules_of_inheritanceOne of the most common kinds of question people ask me is about the process of writing my book. Did I always know I was going to write a memoir? How long did it take? Did I know the structure before I wrote it?

The answers to these questions aren’t very simple.

Writing a memoir is so different than writing fiction, or even some nonfiction. The hardest part, I believe, is that you—the subject—are always changing. I wrote three versions of my memoir. The first two weren’t very good, but they did pave the way for the third. I absolutely couldn’t have written the published version without having slaved away at those other two drafts.

I changed, my perspective and understanding of my story changed, and my writing changed, over the years I was working these drafts. So when someone asks me how long it took me to write The Rules of Inheritance there are really three answers.

  1. My whole life. I had to live my whole life so far in order to tell this story.
  2. Ten years. That’s how long ago I began writing about the events in the book.
  3. Ten months. That’s how long it took me to write the published version.

This is why whenever anyone asks me for advice on writing, I just tell them, “Write, write, write.” Write as much as you can, as often as you can, even if you think what you’re writing is terrible. The mediocre sentences simply pave the way for the brilliant ones. Few writers are brilliant right out of the gate. It’s a craft that takes years and years of practice and effort. But one thing I can promise is that the more you do it, the better you’ll become at it.