In the last couple of weeks, as the story of novel coronavirus has continued to shroud the globe and taken central stage in the news, I’ve uncharacteristically turned to Twitter for the latest headlines. Bite-sized pieces of information concerning the climbing numbers of cases and deaths, the state of the curve, the plummeting economy, the revised lockdown stats, and the conflicts in management at the state and federal levels are all I can digest amidst the restless charge of uncertainty lighting up my nerves.
So, on Sunday, April 19, when I scrolled through my feed, anticipating barely palatable scraps about the president converting daily briefings into political rallies, I was surprised to see Nova Scotia, the Canadian province I once called home, trending. My curiosity turned to shock and then heartbreak as I learned how, in the late night hours of Saturday, April 18, Portapique, a small coastal town just eighty miles north of where I’d lived in Halifax, became the epicenter of the deadliest mass shooting in Canadian history. A lone gunman, one of the hundred or so permanent residents of the community, went on a brutal, fourteen-hour shooting spree that left at least twenty-two people dead—a number that could still climb as the Royal Canadian Mounted Police continue to investigate the sixteen different crime scenes. For anyone with ties like mine to this place and its people, trying to fathom the horror of this tragedy against the backdrop of this peaceful and picturesque landscape is nearly impossible. And trying to locate this particular story against the backdrop of a global pandemic feels like a puzzle I can’t quite solve. How can something so terrible happen when there’s something so terrible already happening?
And yet, it’s this puzzle that reminds me that hard stories are still all around us. Just because our day-to-day routines and activities have come to a grinding halt, life has not. Life—with its joys, sorrows, and tragedies—is still moving beneath the endless breaking news of COVID-19. You’re likely to know people, like I do, who are confronting experiences that are not defined by this virus. Joys: people having babies; people preparing to get married; people celebrating birthdays and milestone anniversaries. Sorrows: people dying from the final impacts of chronic illness; people trying to hold together crumbling marriages; people coping with addiction; people navigating disabilities; people struggling with mental illness. Tragedies: people on the receiving end of catastrophic medical diagnoses; people victimized by domestic and sexual violence; and, unimaginably, people gunned down by a once trusted neighbor who, late on Saturday night, knocked at their door.
What do we do with these hard life stories? What do we do with all of the stories that are enveloped in this moment? The answer is simple. We lean in, listen closely, and we tell about them. Writing my own hard story has taught me that giving voice to difficult experiences can have deep personal value. Taking charge of the narrative helps us to more fully understand what we’ve been through and to take back ownership and regain a sense of control of a situation that can (or once did) leave us feeling without any.
However, what I have also learned from doing this kind of work and engaging with other writers, especially memoirists, in the journey that led to Writing Hard Stories: Celebrated Memoirists Who Shaped Art from Trauma, is that there is powerful collective value in sharing our stories. The world needs them. Clear, honest narratives that don’t look away from the truth of suffering have the potential to offer the gift of community and nurture empathetic connections. Putting words to what we have gone through in an intentional, creative, and artistic way enables us to shape it into something we can give to others facing adversity and say, “I understand.”
With the current mandates to self-isolate and to social distance, our standard ways of connecting have been suspended. Our common spaces are collapsing, and it’s easy to feel like we are stranded without support. Narratives like these that show how others have coped and found meaning reassure us that we are not alone. They provide grounding, expand those collapsed spaces, and clear enough room for each of us to enter, balancing all that we carry, including the losses, heartbreaks, and despair. They reach out a gentle hand in our present darkness and give us reason to hope.
About the Author
Melanie Brooks is the author of Writing Hard Stories: Celebrated Memoirists Who Shaped Art from Trauma (Beacon Press, 2017). Her work has appeared in Ms. Magazine, Washington Post, Huffington Post, Creative Nonfiction, and other notable journals. She received her Master’s in Fine Arts in creative nonfiction from the University of Southern Maine’s Stonecoast MFA program. She teaches college writing at Northeastern University in Boston, Massachusetts, and Merrimack College in Andover, Massachusetts. She also teaches creative writing at Nashua Community College in New Hampshire. Melanie is completing a memoir, All the Things I Couldn’t Say, about the lasting impact of living with the secret of her father’s HIV status. She lives in New Hampshire with her husband, two children and two Labs. Connect with her online at melaniebrooks.com and on Twitter at @MelanieJMBrooks.