Writing Into (and Out of) the Void
Written by
gayle brandeis
December 2011
Written by
gayle brandeis
December 2011

Well, I did it. I finished my NaNoWriMo novel on November 28--50,049 words that add up to a very rough draft of my YA novel, Seed Bombs. It was such a relief to reach the finish line--it reminded me that I am indeed a writer (something that should have been a given in my mind, but after writing so little the last couple of years, part of me couldn’t help but worry that those days were over.) It was also a relief to finish a couple of days early, because the 2nd anniversary of my mom’s death was the 29th, and I was grateful to not have word counts looming in the back of my mind as my family and I honored her yahrzeit, releasing roses into the Oceanside harbor off the same pier where we had released her ashes.

My mom’s death has affected my writing life in ways that I haven’t been able to fully process yet. When she took her own life, it was as if she also took my writerly ambitions. Not at first--at first I was burning to get to the page, filled with an urgency to research and write about her life, so I could try to begin to understand it, understand her. It was how I coped with going through all of her papers, her belongings--I was excavating for clues, I told myself, finding things to write about. At some point, though, that urgency faded and I was left with the cold hard fact that she’d be dead the rest of my life, that there was no great hurry to try to figure things out, get them on paper. This new sense of ennui invaded other parts of my life, especially my own writing. Part of me responded to my mother’s death by wanting to life live to the fullest, wanting to enjoy every tiny moment of my brief time on this beautiful planet; another part of me suddenly saw everything as meaningless. What’s the point of striving, I thought, when we’re all just tiny specks in the universe and we’re all going to die, anyway?

My mom had been an incredibly ambitious woman, filled with delusions of grandeur, convinced that the Museum of Contemporary Art would show her paintings when she had been a painter for just 40 wildly inspired days. The variety of business cards that littered her home spoke to her broad range of ambition--she had tried over the years to rebrand herself as a tour guide, a media escort, a nutrition bar magnate, an art dealer, a divorce reformer, a head hunter, to begin to scratch the surface. At the time of her death, she was working on a documentary called The Art of Misdiagnosis, which showcased her own artwork and how it related to diseases that she thought her family had suffered from. This documentary completely took over her life, and may in fact have contributed to her death.

As I watched my mom’s projects crash and burn over the years, I stayed steadfast on my own writing path. I knew my experience was different from hers--I was grounded in my craft, while she flitted from passion to temporary passion. I was digging deep; she was casting wide. I always appreciated her ambition, although her ambitious hopes for my own writing career often made me feel as if I wasn’t living up to my full potential.

With her death, any sense of ambition I may have had plummeted. I watched my own work crash and burn as two books I wrote with love, Delta Girls and My Life with the Lincolns, came out last year to little to no fanfare. I began to wonder why I should even continue to be an author when my work was met with such resounding silence, and when I was starting to feel a looming silence inside myself that swallowed up any words I might want to write.

In her moving acceptance speech at the recent National Book Awards, novelist Jesmyn Ward talked about how losing her brother taught her that life is “a ‘feeble, unpredictable thing,’ but that books were a testament of strength before a punishing world.” Writing, she had told the AP earlier that week, was a way to “ease the looming fact of death.” I had been given that same lesson about the feebleness and unpredictability of life after my mother’s death, but even books felt feeble and unpredictable to me--they didn’t save me the way they had Jesmyn Ward (even though they have saved me in so many ways throughout my life). My own words felt frail and pointless against the looming fact of her death, of my eventual death, of all of our mortality.

But at some point, I could start to feel the words fight back. I could feel stories forming inside myself with a renewed vigor. I wasn’t sure what to do with them. I was still doubting myself, doubting the worth of whatever handfuls of words I might fling against a page. But I decided to give in to them. I plunged into National Novel Writing Month (and I released my 2002 NaNoWriMo novel, The Book of Live Wires, as an ebook--itself a leap of faith). And this returned me to myself. Death is still there, hovering, but so is life. So is the lusciousness of language. And it *is* worthwhile. It is important. Death is the ultimate silencer. Why not use our voices as freely and fully as we can, while we can? They may get swallowed up, but there is great beauty in singing into the void. There is great beauty in singing one’s way out of the void, as well. Thanks again to NaNoWriMo for bringing my writing voice back.

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  • gayle brandeis

    Hello, wonderful people. I'm so sorry it's taken me so long to respond to these generous, amazing comments--December was a blur, but I was so moved by these posts and have been wanting to respond.

    Patricia, it is quite amazing to me that our mothers died on the same day (though many years apart)--when I mark my mom's yahrzeit each year, I will think of you and your mom. I am so glad that you received permission to work on the new project--how amazing. I look forward to following your journey with it!

    Kiersi, yes, I do plan to revisit the book about my mom--in fact, I have been feeling a strong pull toward it lately that I don't want to ignore, even though it is terrifying. Thank you so much for your support. Glad that writing has brought you back to life, too!

    Debbie, I hope you will start singing on the page again soon, if you haven't already!

    Thank you all again.



  • Debra Thomas

    First of all, congratulations on finishing your draft of a new YA novel.  Anything you write will bring a much needed positive message to our young readers.

    Second, thank you once again for inspiring and encouraging me--all of us--to just keep writing.  Yes, there is a great beauty in singing into the void and out of the void.  I have often told myself that, but I haven't felt it in a long time.  Your heartfelt words have touched me deeply for many reasons, and I am beginning to feel the desire to sing again.

  • Patricia Harrelson

    Gayle, this post slammed into me on so many levels, I was breathless by the time I finished reading. As one who recommends and loans Self Storage and The Book of Dead Birds over and over as a book written by the most promising, compassionate classmate in my MFA program, it's unfathomable that you need to remind yourself that you are a writer. But it is said in your own words. It will take me a while to chew this bittersweet piece of information: i.e. a writer I admire and follow devotedly has times when she lacks confidence. GEEZE! Well OK then.

    I didn't participate in NaNoWriMo this year but I helped our regional rep promote write ins, cheered several writer friends who did participate, and checked into the website to read some of the inspirational posts. I had moments when I felt negligent and wistful about not jumping in, but too many commitments and a week long trip scheduled the 2nd week of the month made participation foolhardy at this point.

    November 29 marked the 30th anniversary of my mother's death. It's always a day on which I feel kind of raw and vulnerable. This year I wrote my annual email message to my siblings and to my mom's best friends with "mommy thoughts." This year I wrote about a conversation with my granddaughter in which I mentioned my mother by the name her mother called her, "Granny." My granddaughter's expression was blank. Clearly she had no idea who I was talking about. Suddenly I knew that I needed to get busy making my mother visible to my 14 grandkids with stories, pictures, and by attributing traditions to her.

    November 29 also marked the day that I received permission to start a writing project I've envision since 2006. I want to write the biography of a local family practice doctor who changed the face of medicine in this community. He was my family doctor and cared for my mother at the end of her life. When I asked his permission to do this project in 2006, he was in the midst of personal and professional crisis and could not wrap his mind around the idea. I approached him 2 more times and then last year he died suddenly. But I couldn't let go of the idea. On the 29th, I met with his widow to describe my vision for the project. She gave me the go ahead and full family support.

    This book project follows the self-publication of two books neither of which have made much of an impact despite way too much time spent trying to get them noticed. But I'm so excited that I know that it's the right thing to do. Yes, I want to use my voice as "feely and fully as I can, while I can."

    Thanks Gayle! You will always be a model and mentor to my writer-self.

  • Kiersi Burkhart

    As a side question, do you plan to revisit the project of writing about your mother's life? It is very interesting to see you contrasting your own life goals and ambitions with your mother's, and the progress you each made that was so separate and distinct.

  • Kiersi Burkhart

    Congratulations, Gayle. I can't imagine how it feels to pour yourself into a book only to have it release and go nowhere (as I am still in the second stage of that process). But your dedication to your craft (and skill, as shown above) will carry you far above and beyond your disappointments.

    I know how it feels to fall in love with writing all over again. Doesn't it make you feel alive again?

    That's how you can tell this is what you were born to do.