Sorrow Into Story

Several years ago I designed and taught a graduate course called “The Resilient Spirit; Art out of Adversity.”  Like the best classes, the preparation of the course was its own gift: for months I read books and researched artists, I watched documentaries and dance performances, listened to symphonies and lectures, attended shows in galleries, tracked down interviews with artists who’d found a way to transform loss.  From public suffering to private trauma, I studied artists across disciplines whose art had helped them heal. 

The Danish writer Isak Dinesen is quoted as saying, “All sorrows can be borne if you put them in a story or tell a story about them.”   As a child-writer, who turned to language as a way to process loss, I hold this notion dear:  “All sorrow can be borne.”  For me, whether it’s in poetry or fiction, or most recently a lyric essay I wrote on family illness, there’s a way in which my writing has nurtured my resilience, has consistently delivered me from adversity to hope.      

The real mystery for me is how this transformation happens sideways in my fiction—that is to say without intention, by chance--because I’ve never written fiction to heal a wounded heart.  And still there it is—hidden somewhere in the text—the promise of redemption, a small bright light in all the suffering, the assurance in the end that goodness will endure. 

And it’s not autobiographical—I wasn’t an orphaned child selling pony rides like Pride in Keeping Safe the Stars, or a stroke survivor like Old Finn.  I wasn’t a girl who never knew her father like Raine in Sparrow Road, I wasn’t a reclusive troubled composer like cold Viktor, or a recovering alcoholic like Gray James.  I wasn’t ever any of these people and yet their sorrows were my own.  And unlike in some of the worst suffering I’ve witnessed in my real life, in my fiction my characters can triumph. 

And triumph is enough to keep me writing through the tough times.  If I tell the story well I get to believe it—and if I’m lucky someone else does, and in this way I’m building my own resilient spirit, making art out of adversity, letting the imagination find a way to help us heal.       


  1. I do believe in the power of imagination and creativity to heal... and I would love to take your class, Sheila! xo

  2. I am halfway through SPARROW ROAD and absolutely mesmerized by it! Started it this morning, then had to go to work, now will finish it tonight. So hauntingly beautiful. (Hope her mother ends up with Diego! But I'll wait to find out!)

  3. What a powerful last paragraph. Love this post.

  4. I would sign up for your class in a heartbeat. The analogy of sideways transformation is perfect!


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