Writing Our Way Through Grief a guest post by Dallas Woodburn
My debut YA novel, The Best Week That Never Happened, is hitting shelves April 21—a day that has been a long time in the making. I have dreamed of publishing a novel since I was a little girl, and this book is the fourth novel manuscript I have written. I finished the first draft of The Best Week That Never Happened more than three years ago, and in the ensuing months and years I poured myself into rewriting this novel over and over again until it became as perfect as I could make it.
I could not be prouder of this book.
And yet, I also wish more than anything that I had never written it.
While it is hard to pinpoint exactly where ideas come from, I began writing The Best Week That Never Happened after one of my best friends, C, was killed in a car accident at the age of 26. Undoubtedly, I would never have gotten the inspiration for this novel if not for C’s death. I didn’t realize it while I was writing the first draft, but looking back on the book now, it is clear that on some level I was writing—trying to write—a different ending for her than the one she was dealt.
C and I met on move-in day our freshman year of college, when she poked her head into my dorm room and offered me a popsicle. She lived right across the hall, and neither of our roommates had arrived yet. I chose cherry; she picked orange. Then we sat on my bed and chatted. With her stylish asymmetrical haircut and dangly earrings, she seemed way too cool to be my friend—I figured we would be dorm-acquaintances before drifting apart sophomore year. But that was okay. C had a wonderful warm presence that you were just grateful to bask in for as long as you could.
I was wrong about the acquaintances thing, and wrong about us drifting apart. In fact, C became one of my very best friends. We lived together throughout college after that first year of being dorm neighbors, moving into a series of off-campus apartments where we hosted costume parties, raided each other’s closets, and stayed up talking until the wee hours. C dreamed of attending Parsons School of Design in Paris and, after graduation, that is exactly what she did. I visited her once in Paris; she was the best tour guide, showing me parts of the city I never would have found in a guidebook.
She was my beautiful, vibrant, adventurous best friend, one of the most vividly alive people I have ever met. When I received the news that she had died—she was traveling in India and her taxi was broadsided by a bus—my world was thrown into chaos. I could not imagine the world without her in it. Nothing made sense to me anymore.
Even writing, which had always been a comfort to me in the past, no longer made sense. I couldn’t summon the energy to daydream about plot threads, outline chapter ideas, or interview my characters. What was the point?
Books, however, remained a consolation. I spent many hours reading. I cooked elaborate recipes and took up knitting again. I talked on the phone multiple times a day to my other best friend, the third star in our friendship constellation, and it was a solace to grieve C together. Sometimes, all I wanted to do was talk about her. Sometimes, I wanted to talk about anything else.
I thought back to my self before C’s death, and that person seemed so much younger. So much more innocent. So certain that her life, and the lives of those she loved, would keep unfurling into the wide-open future.
I wondered if I would ever feel okay again. If life would ever feel “normal” again. If I would ever not sob when I looked at C’s photo.
Then one day, nearly a year after C’s death, an idea struck my consciousness like the proverbial lightning bolt. An idea for a story. I won’t share exactly what the idea was, because there is a mystery in my book, and I don’t want to ruin it for you.
But suffice to say that once the idea took hold in my heart, it refused to let go.
I didn’t consciously realize that I was writing about my beautiful friend and the huge hole her absence left in the world and in my life. I didn’t realize that I was pouring my grief and my anger and my everlasting love for her into each word my fingers typed across that computer screen. But that is exactly what I was doing. Deep down below the surface of me. And with every chapter I wrote, the heaviness inside of me felt a teeny bit… lighter.
C was always a huge supporter of my writing. I like to think that she would be proud of The Best Week That Never Happened. Actually, I like to think that she was the one who sent me that lightning bolt of an idea.
Right now, in the midst of a terrifying pandemic, I flash back often to those first weeks and months after C died. The texture of our lives now reminds me of those days. It seems the whole world is grieving together. We are all wondering if life will ever get back to “normal.” The past of just a month ago seems an unreachable place.
I don’t know what will happen. None of us do. But what I’ve learned about grief is that we can’t muscle our way through it. We can’t force ourselves to get over it, to feel better, to stop
yearning for our lives as they used to be. We can’t rush the process of healing. All we can do is give ourselves, and each other, time and grace and understanding. And maybe writing can be a way to channel all of the uncertainty and stress and grief and anxiety out of our physical bodies and onto blank pages. Even if we don’t realize that’s what we are doing.
One last thing I can tell you is this: it has been more than five years since C died, and I still miss her every day, and her death will never make sense and it will never seem “normal” to me that she is gone. But the sharp breathless pain of her loss has softened with time, so I am now able to share a funny story about her and laugh. When I dream about her, I wake up with a sense of peace rather than despair. There was a time when glimpsing her photo would make me burst into helpless tears. Now, I keep a photo of her on my fridge, where I see it many times throughout the day, and the sight of her vibrant smiling face makes me smile, too.
Author Bio: Dallas Woodburn is the author of the short story collection Woman, Running Late, in a Dress and the novel The Best Week That Never Happened. A former John Steinbeck Fellow in Creative Writing and a current San Francisco Writers Grotto Fellow, her work has been honored with the Cypress & Pine Short Fiction Award, the international Glass Woman Prize, second place in the American Fiction Prize, and four Pushcart Prize nominations. She is also the host of the popular book-lovers podcast “Overflowing Bookshelves” and founder of the organization Write On! Books (www.writeonbooks.org) that empowers youth through reading and writing endeavors. Dallas lives in the San Francisco Bay Area with her husband and daughter.
About The Best Week That Never Happened:
After her parents’ bitter divorce, family vacations to the Big Island in Hawaii ceased. But across the miles, eighteen-year-old Tegan Rossi remains connected to local Kai Kapule, her best friend from childhood. Now, Tegan finds herself alone and confused about how she got to the Big Island. With no wallet, no cell phone, purse, or plane ticket, Tegan struggles to piece together what happened. She must have come to surprise-visit Kai. Right?
As the teens grow even closer, Tegan pushes aside her worries and gets swept away in the vacation of her dreams. But each morning, Tegan startles awake from nightmares that become more difficult to ignore. Something is eerily amiss. Why is there a strange gap in her memory? Why can’t she reach her parents or friends from home? And what’s with the mysterious hourglass tattoo over her heart?
Kai promises to help Tegan figure out what is going on. But the answers they find only lead to more questions. As the week unfolds, Tegan will experience the magic of first love, the hope of second chances, and the bittersweet joy and grief of being human.
Book Purchase Links:
Headshot attached; credit Jeffrey Dransfeldt
Photo attached of the author & her friend C; credit Dallas Woodburn
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About Robin Willis
After working in middle school libraries for over 20 years, Robin Willis now works in a public library system in Maryland.
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