Grief Literature Spotlight: Half a Life by Darin Strauss

A little over a year ago I earned my MFA in creative writing, a program that includes a bunch of courses in writing and literature, the actual writing of a book-length manuscript, and the successful defense of the aforementioned manuscript.

Although my committee chair Greg Martin told me that he thinks of the defense as a “conversation about this draft” I still imagined donning Wonder Woman’s indestructible bracelets to deflect the incoming bullets comments about my manuscript.  Fortunately Greg’s vision of the event was how it actually played out.  One comment from my committee member Sharon Warner, however, haunted me.

“You need to stop apologizing for writing about death and grief. You should embrace writing about these things,” she said.

Since that time (April 2012) I have spent a lot of time reading grief memoirs.  You’ll find an annotated list here on this site, but I’ve not read all of them.  (not yet anyway!)  I also taught a Writing Grief class.  I still sometimes apologize, but I find myself embracing the fact that I write about grief and death and cancer more and more.

half-a-life

Enough about me, all that intro was to tell you I’ll be reviewing in more detail the grief memoirs I’ve read here, on this very blog.

I recently read Darin Strauss’ memoir, Half a Life at the suggestion of (it was actually assigned by) writer Emily Rapp (with whom I studied over the summer). 

From the first line, I was hooked. In fact, this may be one of the best first lines ever:

Half a life ago, I killed a girl.

Genius.  Now of course this first line works so well partly because of the lines that follow, the words that put the reader in a time and a place, and in sympathy with the narrator:

I had just turned eighteen, and when you drive in new post-adolescence, you drive with friends. We were headed to shoot a few rounds of putt-putt. It was May 1988.

In the text that follows we learn about Celine, who was riding her bicycle on the side of the road and for unknown reasons turned into the far left lane, into Darin Strauss’ car.  And she died. It is not his fault according to witnesses, to the police.  This thing that happened to him became a story he will keep secret.

Not only is this story of delayed grief, of guilt, and of trauma  compelling,  it is rendered beautifully.  The crisp clean prose, especially in the beginning works well to contrast the chaos of trauma.  The main narrative, the “what happened” and the “then what happened” is written in short chapters.  Those chapters are then interspersed with tiny chapters, some only one small square of text, like a photo, a flash of image, a memory, a thought, a realization.

Celine Zilke, the girl I killed, was sixteen and always will be sixteen. And I knew her: Celine went to my school. She was an eleventh grader. I see her playing field hockey in blue gym shorts–Celine had been that lively, athletic type one always imagines in shorts. Or I see her settled in beside friends on the concrete benches just outside the cafeteria, or dashing off some notes in the public speaking class we took together. Celine sat by the window.

When I look back now, she strikes me most of all as young.

Another favorite tiny chapter is just three sentences long and rests in the middle of a page surrounded by white space:

I’ve come to see our central nervous system as a kind of vintage switchboard, all thick foam wires and old-fashioned plugs. The circuitry isn’t properly equipped; after a surplus of emotional information the system overloads, the circuit breaks, the board runs dark. That’s what shock is.

If you’ve experienced trauma or a death, then this probably resonates with you as much as it does me….

I’ll be writing about more memoirs, as I gather my thoughts and read more….   let me know of any grief memoirs that are not already on my list.  I’m also interested in great grief essays and poetry so feel free to share those as well.  I’ve started a list online here as well.

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About Jennifer Simpson

I’m a freelance writer, marketing consultant, and teacher. I’m also the director of DimeStories International, where authors share their 3-minute stories aloud at open mic events and online, and I am the publisher and editor of the I WRITE BECAUSE project. Find out more at http://JenniferSimpsonWriter.com
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