How to write through grief and turn trauma into readable writing

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15 August 2018
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Kim1-51522.jpg Kim Sherwood
Author Kim Sherwood talks about writing through different kinds of grief to create her debut novel, Testament
How to write through grief and turn trauma into readable writing Images

 

Author Kim Sherwood talks about writing through different kinds of grief to create her debut novel, Testament

The title for this is slightly misleading. ‘Writing your way through grief’ suggests that writing can carry you on its back through the minefield, the swamp, the desert – whatever grief might feel like for you. When my grandfather died, grief was a ten-foot wave that dumped me and wouldn’t let me go, turning me in its grip until I lost all bearings.

People tell you time heals all wounds, and it does in a way, the wounds becoming scars that might sometimes ache, but don’t stop us in our tracks, in the way a fresh wound might. I found the platitude both helpful and deeply unhelpful. Grief can make us feel like we’re going mad, and it is good to know we’ll return to ourselves one day. But it also seems impossible, and we can wind up telling ourselves off: why am I not “better” yet? Our wounds are invisible, and it’s hard to explain to strangers on a train why we’re suddenly crying.

In this, writing can be a companion who isn’t waiting for you to make sense, to cohere. Because of that, I think it’s important not to approach writing about grief with any future expectation. Don’t look for where it might take you after grief – you don’t know yourself yet, not this new you with scars. Instead, look for what it can bring you now. A way to articulate your loss – and so to speak something that sometimes feels unspeakable, and sometimes eats up all the words you possess, in its hunger to be spoken.

That’s how it was for me, writing my debut novel Testament, which opens with a grandfather dying, an artist named Joseph Silk, and his granddaughter Eva consumed by grief and unanswered questions. Because grief can be both static and demanding, your characters might at first refuse to move, refuse to even breathe, or might rush about in a plotless frenzy. That’s OK. That’s what they need. Plot will come to you later. For now, let the words take you: pour yourself into them, and be held.

Testament is about the impact of the Holocaust on three generations of a family. I began writing the novel after my grandmother, a Jewish Hungarian Survivor, told me about her childhood memories for the first time. In writing about the Holocaust, I was writing about a much wider grief, a grief that consumes communities, and a trauma that is often seen as un-write-able, and unreadable.  

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But turning trauma into readable writing is essential. Testament follows Joseph Silk as a young man through forced labour service, the death marches, and liberation. I had no blueprint as I began to write about these things – again, I was writing from a need to articulate, this time my horror and sorrow – but developed one as I went on. It was important to research as diligently as possible, from reading witness testimonies to visiting the villages, cities, and former camps in my story.

When describing the violence Silk experiences as a young man during forced labour service, I tried to ground it in the human – who is witnessing this act, who is feeling it? All the acts of violence in the novel are taken from the historical record. It was important to me not to embellish or exaggerate, to avoid hyperbole or gratuitousness. As Laurent Binet writes in HHHH, to do so would be ‘like planting false proof at a crime scene where the floor is already strewn with incriminating evidence.’

I also wanted to explore what happens next, if you survive. My two timelines – 1944-1951, and the present-day – are intertwined, showing Joseph’s life after 1945. In this way, I hoped to make the trauma readable, because there is relief, and to try through form and structure to capture something of the human spirit. Even in the historic timeline, Joseph is reaching elsewhere in his imagination, back to his family, or forward to the future. Bodies can be trapped – minds, rarely. That’s part of making trauma human, too. The Holocaust is often described as incommunicable. Making it readable is part of making it communicable, something I believe to be an essential aspect of remembering, as Paul Celan writes, that ‘Inhumanity is human too.’

Testament by Kim Sherwood is published by riverrun (£14.99)

 

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