On the many ways of writing about loss

Wednesday, June 27, 2018
Eliza Henry-Jones

Eliza Henry Jones sitting in front of a window, smiling
Eliza Henry-Jones

Author and tutor Eliza Henry-Jones believes that writing about loss and grief can help us find meaning in overwhelming circumstances. Ahead of her upcoming workshop, we caught up with Eliza to find out what motivates writers to explore this difficult, yet necessary, terrain.

What drives people to write about loss?

Writing about loss helps us to understand it. I think this is true for writers exploring their own loss – whether through fiction or non-fiction – and also writers exploring losses they haven’t experienced. For people writing about their own experiences of loss, writing can help to construct a narrative; to find meaning in a situation that feels utterly overwhelming. I also think that people write about loss because they recognise how important different depictions of loss are. Too often people experiencing grief feel pressure to adhere to norms that don’t actually exist. The more stories, poems, memoirs and everything else that explore different experiences of grief, loss and trauma, the more we’ll truly accept that there is no right way to experience them.

When’s the best time to write about a traumatic experience? Should writers begin putting words down while the pain is still raw, or let it sit for a while?

This is such a personal decision. Some research has indicated that it’s best to wait at least one to two months after the traumatic event before writing about it. However, some people might still benefit from writing about trauma sooner than this. We’re all so complex. Some people might need months, years or decades before they’re ready to write about what they’ve experienced. And some people will never write about their trauma – even if they’re writers. It also depends on how people are writing about their traumatic experiences. Is it a straight retelling? Is it a theme in their fiction writing? Is it a line in a poem? For instance, I personally find it cathartic to write fiction that draws on my own losses and traumatic experiences. Exploring the same things in a non-fiction context I find extremely triggering, even years after.

How should a writer approach writing about trauma that’s not their own?

I think it depends on whether you’re writing things purely for yourself – to help you understand, to explore, to consider – or whether you’re writing something with a view to it becoming part of a public discourse. Trauma does not exist in a bubble and being mindful of other intersecting experiences – such as race, gender and sexual diversity – and how they impact traumatic experiences is critical. It’s extremely important to listen to the voices of the communities and individuals whose experiences you want to explore and to be guided by them. This is particularly true if we’re contributing to a dialogue around a trauma that the traumatised people aren’t able to contribute to, themselves.

Can you share one piece of self-care advice for those writing about potentially triggering topics?

I that that sometimes the idea of self-care gets co-opted by things that are indulgent and luxurious – things that involve a yielding to urges, rather than bracing against them. My advice would be to be mindful that sometimes self-care takes the shape of things that might not be what we want to do in that moment – such as going for a walk, when we want to lie down; eating healthy food when we’d rather eat ten kilos of chocolate or nothing; seeing friends, when we’d rather be alone. Sometimes self-care is extremely difficult, but it’s so important.

After publishing two novels for adults, you recently announced you’re working on your first young adult novel. Can you tell us a little bit about From the Sea, and what inspired you to write for a YA audience?

I actually wrote From the Sea eleven years ago when I was sixteen. I typeset it, designed a cover and had it bound for my VCE art final. For me, it was around reconciling the ideas of mental illness and family – how often we frame difficult or stigmatised situations as truly belonging to strangers, only to realise that they exist in our homes and how strange and difficult that realisation is. I love YA literature and often return to books I read and loved as a teenager. I think there’s a real truth and emotional integrity in YA that I never get tired of being drawn into. I’m ridiculously excited about From the Sea!  


About Eliza Henry-Jones

Eliza Henry-Jones is a Melbourne based writer. Her debut novel ‘In the Quiet’ was shortlisted for the NSW Premier’s Literary Awards, the Readings Prize for New Australian Fiction and longlisted for the ABIA and Indie Book Awards. She has qualifications in grief, loss and trauma counselling and psychology and has completed a thesis exploring bushfire trauma.