What is your book about and what compelled you to write this memoir?
My book, The Red Ribbon, A Memoir of Lightning and Rebuilding After Loss, is initially about the aftermath of a sudden and violent event, the lightning strike that killed my husband and critically injured my younger son in July of 1994. My husband and son were sea-kayaking out of Portsmouth, New Hampshire, when an isolated and freak storm arose. Although they made land and found shelter in a WWI bunker on an island, lightning hit the bunker.
The Red Ribbon ties the death of my husband to subsequent losses. First my father, just a year later, and then other loved ones. Hollis Gillespie, an author and humor columnist, describes my book as “a satisfying chronicle of love, loss, anger, more love, and ultimate redemption.” That pretty much sums it up!
In my chapter, “Stone House,” I describe how a summer workshop leader blurted out, “Sometimes, lightning strikes. It strikes, and a writer has no choice. He or she has been chosen to write.” That’s how I felt. I had a worthy and rare subject; all I needed was to find the courage to share my experiences and to develop the writing skills I would need.
Originally you wrote the book as short pieces, then made them into a book. Can you explain why?
I didn’t have a book in mind when I began writing. My goal was to test myself, to see what I could bear to write about, and to learn to write well and bravely. I took years of classes in memoir and fiction writing, and I joined writing workshops in both memoir and fiction, even one year in poetry. Writing short pieces, 1000-1500 words, was manageable, and the feedback I received encouraged me to keep challenging myself. For instance, I would tackle dialog that gave each speaker recognizable speech patterns. I had fun with the funeral home directors in “The Oak Box” and “Burial at Sea.” Each has a formal persona that breaks down occasionally making the reader smile.
Eventually, my memoir teacher suggested that because I had a collection of stories about the same theme, I should think about writing a book.
Did you experience any synchronicity or serendipity when you wrote the book? If so, what?
Yes, I had the sensation that many experiences led to the next because of serendipity. My involvement with OLLI/USM, Osher Lifelong Learning Institute at the University of Southern Maine, has felt like a particularly fortunate and unexpected blessing. Three teachers, Ruth Story, Denney Morton, and Tim Baehr, began as my teachers, then became mentors, and now are good friends; this evolution was unexpected and a happy surprise. Also, my fellow writers at OLLI/USM have become what often feels like a second family. All of the above have been remarkable discoveries. I consider myself a lucky woman.
Conversely, how do you lead workshops and teach writing? What do you hope to inspire in your students?
First of all, I teach with a fellow writer, and we co-facilitate. Our relationship with the workshop participants is of one peer to another. I have tried to create the kind of environment that I wished for when I was a workshop participant. My first goal was to insure that anyone who wished to have his or her work discussed would be given time. No waiting until the next month. I feel fiercely that my writers deserve respectful attention.
My goal is to inspire hard work, a focus on setting goals for oneself, and honest if well-worded feedback. I try to set a good example and share my disappointments as well as my successes.
Responses to your memoir have been quite powerful. Why do you think you book is striking a chord?
Our culture has been poor about supporting the grieving. Even health and mental health professionals have been impatient and insensitive to the grieving. The expectation that grief be resolved after one year is absurd. My readers tell me that they carry the effects of losses lifelong. At my book launch, a fellow writer shared that she was particularly touched by my call for more kindness. I don’t ever come out and say that, but it must be part of each story. I am proud to be a voice for the needs of the dying and their loved ones.
You worked as a therapist for years. How did that inform your writing process?
Much of my work as a psychotherapist and a psychiatric social worker was with individual adults, couples, and adolescents who were grieving losses. As I look back, I see that those years prepared me to write my memoir. My patients faced a great variety of losses—the loss of loved ones, the loss of innocence, the loss of safety, and the loss of hope, perhaps the worst. My patients needed to tell their stories over and over until they experienced less pain. There was no hurrying them along. And each one needed something different.
The process of therapy is intimate, and full of both silence and careful words. Often, what worked was listening and empathizing rather than giving advice. In my memoir, I try to avoid coming to conclusions but leaving them to the reader.
My memoir is also intimate, full of interior conversations, prayers, and dreams. These elements are my signature.
Your memoir describes many losses. Were you writing through all these losses? Did writing help your healing process?
No, I was in no shape to write for many years after the lightning accident in 1994 and my father’s death in 1995. However, by the time my mother-in-law, my mother, and my friend, David, died, I was writing about my experiences as they occurred.
I began writing pieces that are part of The Red Ribbon with “The Emptying and Filling of the Drawer” written for a class at USM in 2001. I conclude the story with the line, “Art sustains us.” My focus in this piece is not upon my loss, but upon my son’s progress in creating an assemblage and the role of art in allowing him to express his grief.
At first, I was unaware of my progression through grief, but now I can look back and see how each time I wrote a memoir piece, the degree of my pain diminished. Once I set a piece aside, I could move along to the next.
Losses remain with us lifelong, and one loss reminds us of others, but writing has been therapeutic for me. I recommend it. And I am assured that my book is helpful to others grieving their own losses, their own “lightning strikes.”
Additional information about The Red Ribbon, A Memoir of Lightning and Rebuilding After Loss can be accessed at: https://nancybills-memoir.com/