Braving the Fire by Jessica Handler

A Guide to Writing About Grief and Loss

Books Reviews
Braving the Fire by Jessica Handler

When I began this book, I worried that my review might require asking others to join the ranks of granola-eating, mysticism-loving hippies who pluck self-help volumes from the dusty shelves of bookstores.

I needn’t have worried. Atlanta-based author Jessica Handler takes a traditional, deeply pragmatic stance on the concept of self-help: She shows writers how to write about sorrow. Her excellent book gives readers clear instructions for getting copy out of their heads and onto the pages.

The author uses her own heartbreaking story of loss to give the book a vitality that many similar advice books lack. Consider the following excerpt:

In 1969 after my sister Susie died, our mother dumped the leftover Methotrexate, an anticancer drug, into the toilet in our yellow and white bathroom, sending flotillas of the tablets into the swirling water. I remember watching her cleaning out the bathroom cabinet and crying, and the abrupt way she closed the bathroom door so I wouldn’t see. She wanted and needed to be alone, and not share that grief with ten-year-old me. In my imagination, I see my mother, in her early thirties, crying in the Jack and Jill bathroom that connected Sarah’s bedroom to the one Susie and I shared. In my imagination, I can see her methodically opening one after another of the prescription bottles that she took from the shelves and dumping them into the toilet, the same one where she sat and with the lid down and brushed my hair, the same bathroom with a stepstool for Sarah to reach the sink and clean her teeth.

In this heart-wrenching, real-life scene from her childhood, Handler throws readers headlong into the premise of her book: Writing candidly about loss can help healing. The fact that grief and loss are inextricably linked to life … that everyone must experience these emotions, no matter how old or young … lends a profound level of humanity to the piece.

Braving the Fire offers a healing balm to writers who decide to embark on this challenging and almost always painful literary journey. Handler encourages writers to view what they create from grief as a story of survival rather than victimization. According to Handler:

… writing through grief invites you to write evocatively and honestly about an emotional, physical or cultural blow that has irrevocably changed your life. As you write, you create a story that examines that grief and what surrounds it. As you write, you forge a coherent account of your loss that connects even the smallest, broken details with the blunt force of emotion and the recognition that you have survived to do many things, including write your true story.

Handler’s book isn’t only for those who want to share tales of mortality. The author uses various scenarios (terminal illness, divorce, even political uprising) to capture stories of loss from different subjects. Her use of Elisabeth Kübler-Ross’s five stages of grief gives the piece continuity, a linear feel.

Handler uses these stages to help writers gracefully put into words the complicated, sometimes soul-crushing experiences that shape human life. The author takes great care, however, to remind readers that these stages don’t always occur in the order they appear in her book. She also uses a system to address issues writers might experience with craft, such as character development, interviewing, and journaling as a form of record-keeping.

Handler reminds readers who write about grief that they join a literary brother/sisterhood. She even shares excerpts from memoirs of literary greats such as James Joyce, C.S. Lewis and Joan Didion.

She also brings strong credentials to writing about grief. Handler regularly contributes to Psychology Today online and The Writer magazine. Her own books include a memoir, Invisible Sisters, that details the heartbreaking story of losing an elder and a younger sibling to terminal illnesses.

Braving the Fire unfolds a road map for navigating country not everyone dares to explore: self-discovery. Handler’s ability to avoid the traps that bedevil many pseudo-therapy books on grief and loss feels not only masterful, but refreshing. Her book has much to offer.

Sonya Washington has a degree in print journalism from Georgia State University. She currently works as an arts journalist for the Macon Arts Alliance. She has also contributed to several online publications, including Little Pink Book and The Blue Indian. This is her first contribution to Paste.

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