Sometimes, I think of reflective thought like a muscle, like an easy to neglect part of my brain. Without exercise, without training, this thought muscle will atrophy, wither away. I worry—too often, almost constantly—that if I don’t pause to reflect, don’t work to figure out why did I feel that way, why did I react that way, all the stuff of my life—the milestones, the mundane—will reduce to points on a timeline, my experiences rendered in 2D.
I know I’ve been trained to feel this way—like reflection is necessary work, daily exercise—because of what writing has demanded of me. I know that nearly three years ago, when I arrived here as an MFA candidate, I didn’t understand how my writing and this community of writers would mandate this shift, make me learn to interrogate the past.
And yes, I do mean interrogate. I can see how that word might seem overly dramatic, a clichéd desire to wring meaning out of my experiences. But I do know, without question, that the time I’ve spent in this writing community has altered my relationship with my history, and has, in some ways, loosened the grip of a family tragedy.
I arrived at American one year after catastrophe fractured my family. My little brother, Tim, had spent years fleeing shadows his ill mind convinced him were real. Though he had been in and out of treatment, his disease, schizophrenia, was left to fester in the summer of 2014. Only our mother stood with him, a sentinel against his mounting madness.
I was twenty-seven when Tim killed our mother. He attacked her while she was sifting through used jewelry on eBay. Tim’s demons, electric in his ill mind, convinced him that the woman who had made him peanut butter sandwiches when he was a grass-stained child was the source of his constant pain. These delusions, the crescendo of his untreated disease, roiled in his head, bending his world into terrifying shapes. My family was left to live in the aftermath of what his illness wrought.
I came to American a year after my mother’s death. When I arrived, I didn’t know that I would write my family’s story. I didn’t know that I would sit in Richard McCann’s nonfiction workshop and feel for the first time that I needed to interrogate the past in order to survive.
People who have read my writing have asked me, Is writing therapeutic? Is writing cathartic? Does writing help you feel better? I understand the motive for these questions, why people want to believe that there is some catharsis in writing about loss and pain. If writing achieved this end, it would fit into an easy narrative of perseverance, of writer expunging negative feelings, conquering loss.
But this easy narrative is not my experience. My writing process has not been about expelling pain.
Once, when I was just starting this writing project, when I was frustrated, lost trying to figure out if my family’s story was something I could tell, something I could make matter, Richard showed me a Joan Didion essay, a piece titled “Why I Write.” The crux of her answer became my answer too.
I write entirely to find out what I’m thinking, what I’m looking at, what I see and what it means. What I want and what I fear.
My family’s story will always color my world, leave open wounds that writing can’t erase. But I do believe, as Didion believes, that writing can make the space around these wounds less alienating, less terrifying. Interrogating the past gives me a way to marshal my thoughts, drag the wounds into the light, make some sense out of the senseless.
So when I reflect on these three years, on what I’ve learned from this community of writers, I recognize a gift, a new way to think. Writing lets me hold loss and pain and look at all the pieces of my family’s story, pieces I felt that I could never understand. And yes, this process—recognizing the pieces, struggling to put them in order—is painful, sometimes unbearably so. But through this process, through writing, the past is losing its power over me.
Vince Granata is an outgoing staff editor at Café MFA. He holds an MFA from American University’s Creative Writing MFA program.