Thievery: A Rough Guide to Grief
On Thursdays, I invite my favourite writers to share the inspirations behind their stories. Here’s one from one of Scotland’s finest up-and-coming writers, Anneliese Mackintosh.
‘A Rough Guide To Grief’ was originally published in Gutter #8.
Everyone grieves differently. There is no right or wrong way to do it. Your grief is personal to you. It is unique.
Unique is a very strong word, isn’t it?
Actually, many people who grieve report remarkably similar experiences, and it can be really helpful to share such things.
What you’ll find here are a few hints and tips on how to cope with your grief. A rough guide to grief, as it were. You may want to keep it somewhere handy over the coming weeks and months: on a bedside table, by the phone, or next to the kitchen knives, for instance, and refer to it when you are feeling bad.
You may also find it helpful to talk through the guide with your doctor, family and friends, or you may want to look at it in private, seething at its poor use of apostrophes and over-reliance on the passive voice. If the latter, try drawing moustaches on the people in the photographs to let off steam. Whatever works for you.
Initially, you may find you are in shock. Even though you cried when you saw the dead body, lying there so cold and yellow, with its downturned mouth and shattered eyes, you may find it hard to believe that any of this has really happened.
You may surprise yourself by how strong you are as you walk away from the hospital, having kissed the corpse goodbye. As you cross the car park trying to remember where you left the bloody car, you may even find yourself joking about the fact that without your loved one here to guide you, you could end up roaming this patch of concrete for all eternity, a ghost just like him.
My short stories are like personal essays. They are my way of reacting to and dealing with important life events. If I am particularly angry or upset, I write in order to get the chaos inside me into some sort of order. I see my stories as I see my tattoos – as physical marks, embodying life ‘markers’. When my dad died, for instance, I got a tattoo, and I wrote about the grieving process. When I quit drinking alcohol, I got a tattoo, and I wrote about the recovery process.
In this sense, writing is about control. Taking control of my own life with ink – creating a piece of art built to last, turning pain into something beautiful.
As my tattoos became more obvious, I found that more and more people felt the need to comment on them, to give their opinion on how ‘moral’ I was, how ‘thuggish’ or ‘ugly’ I looked. At first, I worried that my body was becoming public property, that I no longer owned the distinctly personal messages that I (along with my tattoo artist) had laid down on my skin, that my body art was seen as nothing more than a set of mission statements to the outside world.
A similar thing has happened with my writing. The more public my work has become, the more my world view has been challenged. I recently read out a story about plans for my own funeral, and an audience member remarked, ‘Why are you so angry with your mother?’ It is of course natural and healthy that people will glean all sorts of meanings from my work. It is part of the joy of being a reader, and indeed the joy of being a writer. However, I do not write, in the first instance, to tell other people about myself. I write to turn my insides out. I write in order to express my human experience, to lay down my roots on the page and keep myself grounded.
Nonetheless, I choose to show people my writing. And I do not keep my tattoos hidden or secret. Sometimes, there are positive side effects to this. Someone tells me my tattoos look good. Someone tells me she likes one of my stories, or that a piece of my writing has helped her deal with a comparable issue in her own life.
During the first few months after my dad died, I found the grief almost unbearable. I was given a leaflet on ‘How To Cope With Your Grief’ by my doctor, and I kept it on my desk, next to my laptop. I’d glance at it while I was checking my emails, suspicious of its patronising tone, feeling that nothing in it spoke to me. One day, I took a pen and began underlining text within the leaflet, the stock phrases and clichés that I had been hearing so often of late: ‘it gets better’, ‘one day at a time’, ‘don’t expect too much of yourself’. After a disastrous visit to the bereavement counsellors, in which a member of staff made an off-hand, insensitive remark about my frequent self-harming habits, I went home, and instead of reaching for a razor blade, this time I reached for a blank page, and I wrote my own ‘How To’ guide for grief. This version was personal to me, and helped me feel more in control.
Shortly after that I got my dad’s initials tattooed onto my skin, in the same font as the gold letters he used to have on his briefcase.
I began to feel a bit better.
When I quit drinking, the doctor gave me another leaflet: ‘Alcohol, A Self-Help Guide’. During the difficult first fortnight of withdrawal symptoms, I started to put my relationship with alcohol into words. I created a step-by-step guide that traced how I’d become an alcoholic to how I’d finally found sobriety. A month later, I got a yellow rose tattooed onto my right shoulder; a sign of hope. Each month I stayed off the booze I added to it, until, nine months later, I have a full sleeve of flowers in bloom.
I’m happy to say that quitting drinking has signalled the end of my self-harming, and the beginning of the most wonderful recovery period I could ever have imagined. It has also signalled the completion of my first short story collection.
Over the past couple of years, I have collected enough personal essays to put together a book. This book, Any Other Mouth, will be out in June 2014, published by Freight. I’ve written about experiences ranging from sexual assaults to life-threatening illnesses to failed exams to turning thirty to stumbling across my dad’s porn stash. My writing style isn’t downbeat; I inject my writing with as much warmth and humour and love as I feel in my daily life. But the ability to turn experiences into ink is, for me, vital. And it is not about forcing experiences on to others, or taking experiences away from them – it is about ownership. Being unafraid to take ownership of my life, and boldly presenting myself in my own skin, as I am. It feels amazing.
‘A Rough Guide to Grief’ is part of Any Other Mouth (Freight).