Monday, May 7, 2018

Lisa Romeo talks about grief, healing, and STARTING WITH GOODBYE

Lisa Romeo is a writer and a writing coach and I am so honored to have her here to talk about her memoir, STARTING WITH GOODBYE. Thank you, Lisa!

Grief is never-ending, but there must have been a moment when you felt, okay, now I am ready to write this. Can you talk about that moment please?

There were many different moments. I actually began the writing almost immediately, in the two weeks after my father died, and then on and off for about six years. I went to the page each time I felt that I had something else, something new or what struck me as unusual to record about the grief experience. The writing and the curiosity about the unfolding experience seemed to occur in partnership. Of that early writing, some became essays of different lengths and forms and appeared in literary journals. The rest stayed in my notebook until the structure for the book solidified.

There was a point—maybe that moment you’re asking about—when it felt like the right time to transform all the essays and the bits and pieces in notebooks, into a memoir, though I honestly can’t say precisely when that happened or just what the exact impetus might have been. It certainly wasn’t an aha moment where I thought, “okay, time to move on from grief.” It was subtler than that and was imperceptibly tied to the act of writing.

I’d resisted moving from the essay from to a long continuous narrative for a couple of years, despite good advice, because grief to me, even then, still seemed mostly fragmented and episodic, not linear. In late 2015 though, I realized that this book had to happen before anything else, before I could write any other book. I was getting too comfortable writing short pieces about grief, and grief is not supposed to be so comfortable that you don’t want to move on. It was time. I went away for a week to a quiet bed-and-breakfast in remote Maine in January 2016 to get started.

One of the things that people may not realize is that when a person dies, the relationship does not. You still can work on that relationship. Can you talk about how you came to see your father differently?

When my father was still alive, even in his final two years when he was dealing with Alzheimer’s, severe arthritis, heart disease and other ailments, to a certain extent we were still playing out roles I believe got decided in my childhood and teen years.  We were locked in those roles: he was the self-made, successful businessman without much education, who always had to be right, and I was the modern daughter with the privilege of higher education, who felt I needed to align with my mother, and who had to prove that I was his equal and that we were nothing alike.

The joke was on me. After he died, there was nothing left to struggle against anymore, and I got curious about why we had so often been at odds, why it was that we had a lot in common but didn’t want to admit it. The reality was that the friction came from being so very much alike. Once he was gone, I felt free to ask myself questions about his life, his behavior and decisions, that I hadn’t bothered to investigate before, because I’d been, frankly, a rather dismissive snob.

I found that I was able to come to know my father differently, that I had more of an open mind, and he thus became an even bigger part of my life than in the years before his death. In that way, the relationship seemed to continue and even, in a sense, flourish.

The phrase “Love after Loss” really resonated with me. Can you talk about what this feels like for you?

When Dad and I had “conversations” after he was gone, so many things came clear for me; I had patience and curiosity then which had been lacking when he was alive. At first there was a certain amount of shame involved for how I’d treated him at times in my adult life, but that faded because I felt so much love and acceptance in return—which I now interpret as my finally grasping the depth of his love for me, something which he wasn’t really ever able to express in life (and I wasn’t open to hearing either).

When our parents age and decline, there are so many mixed emotions—even though we act from love and compassion, for many adult children I think there may also be guilt, impatience, confusion, exasperation, inadequacy, judgment, bewilderment, all churning and distracting us. There certainly was for me. But once he was gone, and I was able to think about, acknowledge and process all of that, there was a certain calm. And the only thing left, was love.

What kind of writer are you? Do you map things out? What was it like to write this particular book?

For short pieces, I usually know where I want to begin and where I will end. The middle is a mystery and I mean that in the best way; I enjoy figuring out how to get from A to Z, even if that means a number of rewrites and/or if it takes me in some unexpected direction in form.

For a few years, I saw this as a book of linked essays. Publishers and some trusted beta readers didn’t agree, and I was stuck for a while. Then I decided to take their advice and rework it as a more traditional memoir. For someone like me who feels like an essayist at heart, that was a rather frightening step, but eventually the right one.

Because I had the challenge of breaking down a number of pre-exiting essays and weaving that material into the longer narrative I was writing, I felt I needed a firm chronological frame—beginning two months before Dad died and ending two-and-a-half years after. But inside of those bookends, the narrator needed to be able to move around in time—back, way back, a little ahead, and then always returning to the unfolding moment.

I made probably five different chapter outlines, and then when I had a crappy first draft, I printed it all out, got a pair of scissors and a roll of tape, cut things up according to events and theme, and put it all together again. Several times. Then as I poured it all back into the computer, I revised heavily and rewrote. Rinse, repeat. After five months, I had a fairly polished manuscript and began submitting.

What’s obsessing you now and why?

A few things. First, what the next book will be. I have three different ideas, and when I tell them to the few people I want advice from, I get wildly different feedback. One involves horses—I rode and competed for many years, and horses were the first thing I ever wrote about, first as a kid for fun, and then later professionally. The second is another family-centered memoir. The third is a combination reported and personal narrative.

Besides the sophomore book question, I’m constantly upset by the state of the country, the divisive society that my (college-age) sons will be inheriting. Finally, I’m always obsessed with watching British crime dramas, and dark chocolate.

What question didn’t I ask that I should have?

By now I figured someone would have asked, “What do you think your father would say about the book?”, so I’ll go with that. The answer is, I don’t think he’d say much at all to me directly, as was his way. But at some point, I’d probably overhear him telling other people, “My daughter wrote a bestseller!” That will of course have no foundation in reality! When I was a low-level staffer in a midsized public relations agency, he’d boast, “My daughter is a top executive at one of the best PR firms in New York City.” When I’d hear that, I’d get so frustrated and wonder why he had to brag so. I sure wouldn’t mind hearing him bragging like that now though.

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