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How Writing About Loss Helps You Heal

Just a few days before my 27th birthday, she had a severe heart attack. I returned to Ohio, never imagining I’d remain there for over a year—Mom spending that entire time in one hospital or another, battling congestive heart failure, stomach paralysis, ventilator dependency, and lung cancer (the thing that would ultimately claim her life). I didn’t write during those months. I didn’t have any time. I was too tired. There was too much other stuff to think about. Guest column by Sean Manning, author of The Things That Need Doing (Dec. 2010, Broadway), a memoir that Publishers Weekly called "a universal story ... tremendously moving."

In fourth grade, I decided I wanted to be a writer. One day, my teacher, Mrs. Koltnow (“It’s easy to remember,” she’d said on the first day of class. “Just think, ‘Colt now, horse later.’ ”), passed out slim, white, hardbound books. Our assignment was to fill the dozen or so empty pages with a story as well as draw the cover and a few interior pictures. We were given the rest of the class to brainstorm but I knew what I’d write about instantly: a group of young friends follow a set of railroad tracks and wind up having all sorts of crazy misadventures. Yes, I’d seen Stand by Me, and yes, I thought it was awesome—especially the part where the fat kid throws up on everybody—but I wasn’t plagiarizing.

Sean is excited to give away a free book to one random commenter. Comment within one week; winners must live in Canada/US48 to receive the print book by mail. You can win a blog contest even if you've won before. (Update: Carol won.)

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Guest column by Sean Manning, author of The Things
That Need Doing (Dec. 2010, Broadway), a memoir
that Publishers Weekly called "a universal story ...
tremendously moving." He is the editor of the nonfiction
anthologies The Show I’ll Never Forget, Rock and Roll
Cage Match, Top of the Order, and Bound to
Last. (See all
the anthologies here.) Sean lives in New York.

There were railroad tracks in my neighborhood my friends and I were always exploring, since way before that movie came out. And though we never stumbled across a dead body, we did get chased by high school skinheads who hung out there drinking something called Mickey’s Big Mouth and shot at with salt pellets by
conductors for throwing rocks at their passing trains.

We had a week to finish the assignment. It took me two days When my friends asked me to come play baseball or Nintendo after school, I refused. Working on the book was way more fun. I hardly slept and asked to take my dinner in my room. My mom didn’t drag me to the table or make me go to bed. I was a good student, but I’d never been this excited about homework. She didn’t want to do anything to discourage my passion. And after I’d turned in the book, and got an A+ and an enthusiastic note from Mrs. Koltnow, Mom bought me a journal to jot down ideas for future books.

I filled the journal about halfway. Then one night I happened to catch the movie Breakin’ on TV. As the end credits rolled, I told Mom I was going to become a professional breakdancer.
“What about writing?” she asked.
“It’s okay, I guess. But did you see those awesome moves??" And all those cool clothes?! And, oh man, that music! No,” I said as I pitifully attempted to pop and lock, “breakdancing is my real calling.”

In my sophomore year of college, I took a Shakespeare class and once again fell in love with writing. When I called and told Mom I was switching my major to English, she simply said, “Finally.” I asked her what she meant. She reminded me of Mrs. Koltnow’s assignment. I’d completely forgot. “I still have that book,” she said. “I always knew you’d become a writer.” I never heard her happier than when my last semester of college I called to tell her I’d gotten into an MFA program in New York. And I never saw her prouder than when, two years later, she sat watching me and the rest of the program’s graduates read from our theses.

Just a few days before my 27th birthday, she had a severe heart attack. I returned to Ohio, never imagining I’d remain there for over a year—Mom spending that entire time in one hospital or another, battling congestive heart failure, stomach paralysis, ventilator dependency, and lung cancer (the thing that would ultimately claim her life). I didn’t write during those months. I didn’t have any time. I was too tired. There was too much other stuff to think about.

I was there with her the morning she passed away in hospice. After kissing her, and saying a prayer, and calling the rest of the family to let them know, I asked one of the nurses for a pen and a piece of paper. There at a round, cherry wood table, I began to write her obituary for the local newspaper. It’s strange to me now that I’d do it right then.

But there was something compelling me to hurry up and get writing, as if there was some comfort to be found in it. And there was. It felt good writing the obituary, even though it was only a short paragraph. And it felt good writing an inscription for the bench we had installed along the park trail where Mom would walk with her best friend every day after work. Writing about her made it feel like she wasn’t really gone.

So when I returned to New York—motivated as well by a desire for catharsis, a hope that putting to paper all the misery I’d witnessed might stop me from thinking about it constantly or at least end the bad dreams that had me (and sometimes have me still) waking up to a tear-soaked pillow—I began to write about the days I spent with Mom in the hospital. I was lucky enough to get my memoir, The Things That Need Doing, published. And in the month it’s been out, the book’s received several positive reviews. But it’s hard to be too excited without Mom here to share in it.

Sometimes I wonder if maybe she knew I’d write about our ordeal, and that maybe part of the reason she fought so valiantly was because she knew that every day she stayed alive, she was giving me a better story to write. Even if not, in her death, the way she died, the way she refused to die, she gave me the greatest gift any parent could ever give their child: the opportunity to fulfill their dream.

Sean is excited to give away a free book to one random commenter. Comment within one week; winners must live in Canada/US48 to receive the print book by mail. Youcan win a blog contest even if you've won before. (Update: Carol won.)

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