ASSAY: A JOURNAL OF NONFICTION STUDIES
On the evening of September 23, 2022, I pulled Matt Tullis’ memoir Running with Ghosts off my bookshelf. That Friday had already been a long day, and by the time I pulled this book off the shelf, I was in no mood to open the book and read. I stared at Running with Ghosts as I moved it from the back of my couch to the coffee table to the end table. The idea of starting this book on that evening felt like an impossible task. It was Matt’s death earlier that day that made me reach for his book in the first place. I knew exactly where the book sat because, after a move across town a couple of months before, I set aside a shelf for books written by friends and mentors. When I needed to hear their voices or remember what they taught me, their books were nearby even if the people who wrote them were far away.
Matt Tullis was the first of them to pass away. He was my journalism professor and advised our campus newspaper when I was an undergraduate student at Ashland University, a time that, as I sat in my living room and stared at his book, seemed like several lifetimes ago. He was also a journalist, an essayist, and someone who championed long forms of creative nonfiction and journalism.
I continued to stare at Running with Ghosts for the rest of the evening. In between staring matches with his book, I cried. I shared a tribute on Facebook. I felt the shock settle in, that someone who could complete the day’s Wordle puzzle after having brain surgery could be dead a day later. Staring at Matt’s book also left me with a sense of dread. I knew that, once I opened his book and started to read, that the way I approached this book as a reader would never be the same. Two new experiences waited for me as a reader: one, that I would know how Matt’s story of battling childhood cancer extended beyond the world of his memoir, and two, how Matt’s story touched or intersected with my own life.
Grief is an experience that needs space, whether that is space to allow us to be alone with our thoughts or space to come together with others who are grieving in community to make sense of what has happened. In her article “A Place None of Us Know Until We Reach It: Mapping Grief and Memory in Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking,” Marta Bladek discusses how the spatial nature of grief has often been overlooked despite the ways people use words and phrases centered around space to describe the causes of our grief. Bladek writes:
The emphasis on grief’s unfolding over time neglects its spatial aspect, the varied ways in which mourning and its accompanying emotions are experienced in space…After the death of a loved one, spaces and places formerly experienced as neutral acquire an emotional valence in relation to the dead. While some trigger the mourner’s distress, others provide comfort and respite from the pain of grief. As they move through geographical space, the bereaved literally navigate a landscape of loss, their world transformed by the absence of the now deceased. Mappable grief attests to ways in which places store and evoke memories; no less importantly, the spatiality of grief also shows that memory and acts of remembrance are crucial to the process of mourning. (938)
This is a quality of all good memoirs; through techniques like descriptive writing, narration, and writing in scene, memoirs not only recreate the experiences of the writer, but also create a space for the reader to begin thinking about those experiences and how they resonate with the reader. Bladek’s assertion helps us to understand why memoirs about grief are so popular; her focus on Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking, in which Didion writes about her husband’s sudden death and the year of grief that follows for her, is an example that has achieved canonical status among a category of writing that is the grief memoir. It is not just in Didion’s memoir that she creates space. In the context of reading as a form of grief work, the memoir itself, not only creates space for writers to write about and through their experiences, but also creates space for readers to work through their own grief by revisiting the personal experiences they might share with the departed. The space this particular collection of memoirs creates exists in several contexts, which I’ll discuss throughout this essay, but this space takes on a specific purpose when the reader and writer have a relationship that exists outside of and beyond the memoir itself.
Even though doing this kind of grief work does not make the grief completely dissipate – because grief does not truly ever disappear – it does enable readers to gain confidence in themselves and in their ability to handle the difficulties that life throws everyone’s way. This boost in confidence allows us to feel that our lives are coherent instead of chaotic, that there is some way to make sense of what is beyond our control (Shafer 39). Amidst the global events of the past few years, being alive has felt incredibly chaotic, which makes the ability to make coherence out of chaos even more important as we navigate the ongoing aftermath of a time in which death is hypervisible and the conversations around how we approached this new cause of death became more and more disconcerting. By offering memoir as a space of engagement that allows readers to do the work of grieving the writer/departed, readers are not only able to make sense of what has happened in the world of the memoir, but to also translate that coherence to the world in which we continue to live.
Ultimately, the space for grief that memoir offers readers to do that emotional work also helps them psychologically process this new realness of a world without the writer/departed. As psychologist Kristin Laurin writes, once people have realized that certain states of being have inevitable consequences, the nature of those consequences develops a realness (492). Laurin’s assertion can help us see where there is an opportunity to move through the stages of grief and towards a kind of acceptance that the reader’s world will never be the same – but there is the space of the memoir where the writer/departed’s thoughts, words, and experiences still exist, unchanged by time.
If grief has a spatial element and memoirs help create space for the reader, then what happens in that space that allows readers to do the work of grieving the departed? Julie Wittes Schlack writes, “In great memoir, the past and the present collide and converge, enabling moments to be more deeply felt and specifically rendered” (213). This is one way in which we as writers and scholars of creative nonfiction can think about the knowledge and experiences that readers bring to the page as well. In this instance, in reading our dearly departed’s memoirs to do the work of grieving, enabling the space of memoir to be used as a location where the past and present collide do two particular things for the reader; one, that collision within the space of the memoir allows the reader to begin to make sense of their grief. In this collision of the past and the present, readers are able to compare what has been and what currently is, as these two states of being have found themselves juxtaposed against one another in the space created by the memoir itself.
This collision and space create an opportunity through which the reader can access the past and the present and place them in direct comparison and contrast with one another. By doing this comparison work, readers also, as Suzanne Roberts writes in her essay “The Grief Scale” for Creative Nonfiction, weigh their grief against other scales to not only make sense of our grief, but to measure the weight of our feelings and experiences (84). When the past and the present collide in the space of the memoir, this collision gives readers the time and opportunity to make sense of their grief by measuring their grief against the experiences recounted in the departed’s memoir, to assemble a variety of emotions, experiences, and memories that help the reader not only understand and make sense of their grief, but to begin to work through the depth of that grief as well.
The second thing that the collision of past and present does for the reader is to help make death visible. In her article, Bladek explores how the changes in the funeral industry, especially in twentieth century America, have pushed death out of sight in favor of extravagance. As Bladek tracks scholarship on Western attitudes toward death, she argues that the changes in the language of death, death itself, and the extravagance of funerals have supported contemporary society’s idea that death is something to be denied and pushed away and not as a natural part of life (936-937). But, when readers who are grieving enter the space created by memoirs where the past and present collide, death becomes visible again. The present tells us that, as readers read, there is no longer a chance to relive or recreate those experiences or memories with the departed because they have passed away. The person the reader knew is no longer present in the same physical form they once were. Within the space of the memoir, though, the departed’s thoughts, experiences, memories, and work – because writing memoirs is a form of work – still lives on. Death becomes more visible because death creates a definitive end to a memoir that the writer/departed cannot write to contain their work, but instead establishes a point in time and space where there is and can be no more. The memoir, instead of having a created ending point for itself, now has a definitive end. It is no longer infinite and expansive but is made finite and definitive because of death.
The space created by memoirs is not an easy one to navigate. The work and the realizations that readers come to while reading their departed’s memoirs can be uncomfortable, especially when considering the subject of the departed’s written work. As Witte Schlack writes, “Awakening to the moment when ‘before’ converges with ‘now’ – what Kabat-Zinn describes as ‘falling into awareness’ – isn’t always pleasant” (214). As said earlier, grief work on its own is never easy, even if storytelling can be seen as a survival mechanism. Grieving is never pleasant, nor is it a state of being that ever really comes to an end. But, when thinking about grief work and its relationship to memoir, there eventually comes an awareness that, even if readers have questions for the departed/writer or if we recall shared memories differently, or even if readers disagree with what the departed/writer wrote, the reader cannot ask questions. The reader cannot sit down with the departed/writer and reconcile what they remember. In the collision of the past and the present, death becomes hypervisible for a time, reminding readers of not only the finality of death, but of the stories that their dearly departed has put into words on pages. That finality, that relative inaccessibility, that grappling with multiple kinds of truth in a time where the reader is already vulnerable in a variety of ways – that is the state of being that Wittes Schlack describes as not “always pleasant.” This state of being provides the reader the space to acknowledge that something has changed, that there is a new experience to learn from and emotions to grapple with, allowing readers to begin thinking about how to return to a new sense of stability that allows them to live with their grief. By placing the past and present in close proximity with one another, this state of being encourages an acknowledgement of change and discomfort, creating a point of tension that, in writer speak, could lead to some kind of resolution – the reader deciding how to live with their grief.
When I picked up Matt’s memoir the next day, September 24, 2023, I read the first 103 pages.
Reading about two-thirds of Running with Ghosts in the span of a day – well, less than a day – was not originally my plan. To be honest, I didn’t have a plan in mind at the time when I flopped down on my couch that day and started to read. I just had an innate sense that, in order to feel something about my grief, now was the time to read. Part of that sense may have been the distance; I was over 600 miles from Ashland, Ohio, where our shared alma mater and the campus where he was my professor and mentor was located. In the geographic distance between where I was, laying on my couch and opening the cover of his book, and the communities that united us, there were too many miles. Even if I could grieve in a digital space with my classmates, past professors, and colleagues, I was still ultimately left to process what I was feeling and experiencing by myself.
As I read, I found myself remembering details about his fight with childhood cancer that were not only in his book, but had shown up elsewhere: in discussions, social media posts, in his essay “The Ghosts I Run With” that informed his memoir. I also remember the insights he shared when I asked Matt to video chat with the first creative writing class I ever taught, back when I had no clue what I was doing other than repeating positive classroom experiences, back before “zoom” was more than just a verb to describe a motion to help us see things more closely. One recurring thought I had as I read about Matt’s repeated stays at Akron Children’s Hospital was how his experiences bumped into my own; I also visited the same hospital, though not at the same time, in the same manner, or for the same reasons. As a young teenager, I was a patient seeing doctors for the repeated severe headaches I had more than once a week that turned out to warrant a diagnosis of migraine headaches, but I wondered if there had been a time when we had moved down similar hallways or had sat and stared at the ball machine in the lobby in an attempt to pass time and, in some ways, distract us from what was going on in our heads. I found myself searching for ways in which the physical landscape of the hospital, despite the differences in paint colors and even the layout of each wing, could be mapped alongside other experiences.
None of this brought me comfort, though, as I often wondered how much Matt knew: as a child and teenager fighting for his life, as an adult reminded of what those lifesaving treatments could do to his body, as a writer and the directions his memoir would take. In Running with Ghosts, he recounts the initial meeting where he received his diagnosis, writing of the moment where his parents looked at the paperwork to enroll Matt in a study for a specific kind of chemotherapy:
“You/your child has acute lymphoblastic leukemia which has been characterized as having a poor prognosis or outlook on standard therapy. This means that within the group, some children have the potential for cure and others may not respond well to treatment or the duration of remission (control of disease) may be relatively short.”
My questions kept building. I mostly wanted to know how much Matt knew then and Matt knew in the weeks leading up to his brain surgery about what would ultimately kill him. My questions stemmed from the circumstances surrounding his death, a surgery to remove a brain tumor and the cycle of treatments meant to save his life that ultimately caused his passing. I found myself both reading the words and the spaces between them on each and every page, looking for a clue that, at some point in time, Matt had either come to a conclusion as to what his body had gone through and its breaking point, and whether or not he knew that Wordle he played after his surgery would be his last.
I didn’t feel the discomfort of the past and present colliding until the short chapter right before I stopped reading on that first day. In this chapter, Matt recounts the fall 1994 semester at Ashland University, his first semester of college. Things changed in the eleven years between Matt’s first semester and mine and changed even more in the fourteen years between his arrival as a student and returning as my journalism professor in the fall of 2008. But the intersections are still there. The names of places and the references to specific faculty members. The story he told about failing English 101 (99-101).
The discomfort continued to build. On the last page of this chapter, just two pages after Matt learns that a friend of his from Camp CHOMPS, a summer camp for teenagers with various forms of cancer, had died at the age of twenty-one, he writes:
I didn’t go to the calling hours or her funeral, although now, twenty-four years later, I don’t know why. Perhaps I just couldn’t take it. It was too close to home. I hadn’t gone to Todd’s funeral either. Melissa’s death shook me in a way Todd’s hadn’t, and I had no idea how to grapple with the state it left me in. And so I pushed it down, I buried the thoughts that came into my brain. I put the card in the mail and tried to go on living my life like I was perfectly normal. (103)
That was the point where I slammed the book shut and left it on the table. The realization that here, again, the past and present collided in a way that reminded me of not only my grief, but of the loneliness of this grief, reached beyond discomfort. I couldn’t attend Matt’s funeral; the distance and cost of travel didn’t allow for that. But I also sat on my couch and wasn’t sure who else could share in this experience, of sitting on the couch in my little apartment under the stairs in central Missouri on a late September afternoon and reading in the aftermath of someone’s unexpected death. Even though I had Matt’s book and a community in a virtual space, this grieving felt both communal and very isolating at the same time. For the first time, after angrily putting the book aside, I truly cried.
For grief work to happen in the space memoirs create, we as writers and readers need to know what happens after the collision in order to think about how we as people can and will live with the grief we’re now carrying. Within the somewhat closed space of the memoir, readers are also able to use memory and grief work to move toward the acceptance stage of grief. Psychologist Kristin Laurin writes, “When people recognize that a particular state of affairs has inevitable consequences, they develop an internal sense of its realness” (484). Part of the state of affairs of being human is death and knowing that we all will eventually die, but when this happens to someone a reader knows, readers can do the work of making networks and associations that make sense of how the past and present collide, the present itself, and how the past and present are now different based on who is present and who has passed on.
Because of the ways in which American culture has reconceived death and dying, as well as the ways in which the events of recent years have changed how we are able to grieve, those who are reading their dearly departed’s memoirs need something to happen in that space after the collision of past and present has taken place to help readers not only make sense of what has happened in the reader’s life, but to also begin to make meaning that will help them work their way through the grief process. One of the ways in which grief work happens in the space of memoir is to help readers make sense not only of the departed’s death but of their life as well. In the epigraph to David Lazar’s essay “The Memory Agent,” in which Lazar thinks about the relationship among perception, the malleability of memory, and satisfaction, Lazar cites Hannibal Lecter in Silence of the Lambs, writing “Memory, Agent Starling, is what I have instead of a view.” Lazar comments on his epigraph, writing, “My epigraphic source might seem a bit a bit [sic] dubious, though I think we are hungry to try and place ourselves in memory in ways that satisfy and make sense” (109-110). By revisiting memories that readers may share with the departed, readers are able to not only place themselves in experiences, memories, and places that satisfy a need for connection and to remember the departed, but also enables the reader to make sense of what has happened through the collision and juxtaposition of the past and present, even if the death of the writer of the memoir is not mentioned or foretold in the written work itself. In placing themselves in close proximity to those memories, readers can not only begin to make sense of what has happened, but can also begin to work towards some kind of idea as to how the reader is going to live with their grief.
The tools we use as writers help readers to place themselves in those experiences, memories, and places to satisfy those needs for connection. In her essay “Brain on Fire,” Nicole Walker writes:
As a writer, I want to know how many triggers I can pull using images, word choice, and metaphors to make the associations across the brain chime together in the way they do for me: brick to janitor to mop to brick. When I write nonfiction, I think of things like argument, memory, and story, but what I rely on, since I usually talk myself out of my argument, since my memory is a steel sieve, since story reads like interrupted anecdote, is image. (47)
But, in keeping with the focus on readers and the reading of memoir, it is important to also remember that what writers do in terms of what we call craft is just as important for storytelling as it is for other purposes, such as creating spaces within texts for readers to engage. By using craft techniques like imagery, repetition, metaphor, and other motifs to create associations across not only the writer’s brain but also the brains of the readers, the space created within memoir now has a purpose for those who are grieving the person who wrote the memoir and created that space (Walker 52). That purpose is to allow not only room for the reader’s mind to recreate and revisit the past, but to also begin processing how the present and, ultimately, the future, will be different.
This is key because creating associations and spaces allows for engagement between the writer and reader, or in the case of what I am exploring here, between the reader and the departed (Madden 37). Madden writes that this engagement, which he calls absorption, is key to “inducing the experience of thought in the reader. Here’s where absorption lies. It’s not enough to show your mind at work. We essayists need to get our readers’ minds working on their own” (38). This is not just the job of essayists, but of memoirists and nonfiction writers at large; that to create engagement or absorption, nonfiction writers need to show our minds at work in order to not only create these spaces, but to create spaces which readers want to enter and be a part of as they read. Engagement or absorption becomes particularly important in light of reading the memoirs by departed friends, family, and colleagues because it is not enough for the reader to simply enter the space. In order to do the grief work that memoirs present the opportunity for, readers need to be able to engage in that space in order to see the departed writer’s mind at work.
As these words and motifs are repeated across a text, readers and writers work together to create a world that allows experiences, memories, thoughts, and stories to “cohere beyond the more common understanding of coherence” and create a world for all of those things to occupy (Walker 54). This world becomes important for the grieving reader to do the work of grieving the writer/departed. We as people know that death is part of being human, even if acknowledging that truth is difficult. Patricia Hampl writes, “True memoir is written, like all literature, in an attempt to find not only a self but a world” (35). In finding this world where readers can see where and when and how the writer/departed once lived, the world gives dimension to the space that memoir creates for the grieving. The space within memoirs also helps the grieving reader make sense of a world without the writer/departed by reminding the reader that their departed did exist by working through the reader’s and writer’s shared memories. Lazar references Laurin’s study, which compares the ways we interact with our memories as a “‘psychological immune system…your brain is scrambling to make you feel okay and allow you to get on with your life’” (112). Although getting on with one’s life is not the ultimate goal of grieving since grief does not simply disappear, the ways in which the space within memoir can be used to do grief work is to provide a somewhat closed space for the reader to do the work of grieving while also revisiting the memories they may have shared with the writer/departed.
I most likely walked away from Running with Ghosts for a few days. My Goodreads account confirms that this is what had to have happened based on the start and end dates I recorded in the app. Not only did I need the space of the memoir to begin processing my personal grief, but I also needed time away from the book itself in order to sort through my thoughts.
A part of me also wondered how many of those shared experiences were going to come up in the last pages of Matt’s memoir. I looked ahead at the page numbers and saw that I had less than 100 pages left to read, but I also knew that there was so much more ground left to cover before the memoir reached a point where Matt as the writer created an ending so that the book had a defined space. Books can’t go on forever.
I don’t remember when I started reading again, but at some point I did. Those years in which Matt first started teaching at Ashland University, those early years in which I sat in his classroom, aren’t a part of the story Matt told in Running with Ghosts. But, as he uses that time to write about other parts of his story, I am able to fill in those networks of memories and experiences with the ways in which Matt’s story bumps into my own. As I read, Matt mentions a time when, in 2008, he and his family were living in Columbus, Ohio, and his son found a board game created by a fellow cancer patient to help children make sense of the disease they were fighting (133-134). I wondered when this event happened in relation to the first time I met Matt, which was during his teaching demonstration in the spring of that year. I remember that talk vividly, in part because of the circumstances; the previous journalism professor went on research leave and decided not to come back. Matt’s talk took place in our feature writing class, taught by one of the professors both Matt and I had, the professor who introduced me to creative nonfiction in the first place. Matt talked about the work he did as a reporter looking at obituaries and telling the stories of people who had passed away beyond what was published in those short columns. The sheet in front of me was the story of a sixteen-year-old girl, also named Ashley. The professor who taught the class sat next to me and, at one point, whispered, “Maybe you should go next,” prompting me to participate in the conversation when I more than likely would have just listened.
As I continued reading, I filled in other experiences and moments that didn’t make it into Matt’s memoir because of relevance. I thought about the first day of classes that fall semester in 2008, the one where Matt shared the story of his wife telling him that he should wear a tie that day. The memories of all the late afternoon newspaper staff meetings on Mondays came to mind, where we crammed into a corner room that seemed no bigger than a janitor’s closet to plan the next issue of the campus newspaper. Then there was the time that Matt required all of us to attend an all-institution meeting at eight in the morning to cover what we learned would be the announcement of forty-one layoffs while the university built a multimillion dollar football stadium, with the expectation that we would still be in class again that day at ten – and for some of us, also back in another class with him at noon.
I kept reading over the next few days, weaving memories together and trying to make sense of Matt’s death. My mind as a reader kept trying to match up timelines in spite of what was relevant to the focus of the book. The question that I wanted answered, the one that my memory kept zooming in on, was where in the memoir’s timeline did November 2008 fall. I wondered what ghosts Matt was running with – or towards or from – the evening that a few brave journalism students, myself included, decided to help with the campus newspaper election coverage the night that Barack Obama was elected president and, in the wee hours of the morning, we watched Obama’s victory speech on Matt’s laptop. Or later that month, on a Monday morning – Monday, November 17, 2008, rings a bell – when my 10 AM classmates and I sat in the computer lab where we had our advanced reporting class and stared at the empty computer. That computer was where one of our classmates used to sit before she died after falling from the window of her seventh-floor residence hall room over the weekend. Matt made space for us to grieve in that class, and in the class at noon that day, and at the weekly staff meeting. “I don’t know what to do,” Matt said in that 10 AM class, his voice breaking. “They don’t teach you this stuff in grad school.”
Whatever it was that clicked in my brain that day made me file that quote away, not knowing that, in my first year of teaching full-time right out of graduate school, a student at my university would be lured off campus and murdered in the fall semester. At the end of the next term, a student in an organization I helped advise would pass away, too. In both those moments, I remembered that classroom on that day of my senior year, when what we really needed was space to make sense of the world as it now was.
But what about other reader/writer relationships? The people who read memoirs are not just friends, family members, or colleagues of people who have passed away. Sometimes the relationship between a writer and a reader only extends as far as the act of reading and writing, in that the writer has written and published a memoir that the reader has decided to read. To complicate this landscape even more, the vast scope of memoir and, on an even larger scale, life writing poses even more questions as to the limitations of reading memoirs as a part of doing the work of grieving.
There is still value in thinking of memoirs as opportunities to create spaces for grief work, even if the relationship between the writer and the reader is much more distant. The key difference that this distanced relationship between writer and reader creates is an emphasis on the importance of the triggers that Walker discusses in “Brain on Fire.” The reader can no longer rely on their personal relationship with the writer to begin making space for and sense of their grief; instead, the reader now has to rely on those triggers that the writer has placed in the memoir itself to begin drawing parallels between the lives of the reader and writer. For example, a reader who sits down with Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking after the sudden death of their spouse most likely will not have a personal relationship with Didion, her husband, or anyone in her family. But, by thinking about the themes of Didion’s memoir and how they provide an opportunity to slightly close the distance between reader and writer, the memoir may serve as an entry point to other spaces where the reader can begin to do the work of grieving, such as conversations with family, friends, or support groups or as a way to find a community of survivors working through their grief in a different way.
Parasocial relationships add an extra layer of complexity to how we think about the space for grieving. As James Bingaman writes, parasocial relationships are a perceived, one-sided relationship between a spectator or viewer and a media figure. Bingaman argues that “these relationships complement social relationships and even though people understand that they are not real, they still feel as if the connection they have with media figures is meaningful” (367-368). Given the ease of access to media figures’ lives, particularly celebrities, because of social media and the 24-hour news cycle, thinking that the spectator in a parasocial relationship may find solace in reading the media figure’s memoir. To put this into a recent context, the train of thought I follow in this essay would mean that Parrotheads could begin to work through their grief after Jimmy Buffett’s death by reading one of the several memoirs Buffett published during his lifetime.
Well, maybe. Parasocial relationships in the context of this essay present two issues, one with media figures’ memoirs themselves and another with the venues in which these relationships form and develop. In terms of the memoirs themselves, the quality of memoirs as discussed up until this point is that the person who wrote the memoir is the person who experienced the experiences and life chronicled in the writing itself. That same relationship between writer and the subject of the memoir isn’t guaranteed when media figures at the center of these parasocial relationships can’t be guaranteed when looking at their memoirs. The presence of ghost writers in addition to the nature of these relationships creates an even larger distance between the spectator reading the memoir and the media figure, a distance that may be too large to bridge by drawing parallels between the life of the spectator/reader and the media figure/presumed writer.
Social media, the venue where parasocial relationships form and often flourish, may be the way in which this argument about grief and memoirs takes on a different form when considering parasocial relationships. Bingaman focuses on the space the social media platform Reddit provided for fans of Kobe Bryant after Bryant, his daughter Gianna, and seven others died in a helicopter crash in California on January 26, 2020 (365). He writes that “social media has been identified as an avenue for collective grieving wherein mourners use these social networks to connect with and share grief with others,” citing studies dating back to 2017 exploring the ways in which various communities use a range of social media platforms as an avenue for expressing grief (369-370). In looking at the reactions to Bryant’s death on Reddit, Bingaman found that there wasn’t a “statistically significant” relationship between any grief response and the memorializing that takes place after the death of a media figure (373-374).
An opportunity to continue the conversation about parasocial relationships, grief, and memoirs is thinking about how we define memoirs and the greater landscape of life writing. Thinking about the role that social media has in users writing about their lives and how that role factors into the nature of parasocial relationships would present more opportunities for writers to think about what we consider to be memoir. Additionally, looking at social media’s role in how personal and parasocial relationships are formed and flourish on these platforms may also help researchers and social media users better understand why these sites tend to be gaining traction as a space for people to express and begin processing their grief.
Towards the end of Running with Ghosts, after Matt no longer taught at Ashland University; after Matt wrote my letters of recommendation for graduate school; after he and his family moved to Connecticut; after the essay of his I taught in my very first creative writing workshop had been published; after he learns that many of the teenagers, nurses, and doctors who helped pull him through his battle with childhood cancer had also died; Matt writes:
I was left to make my own order, to create my own understanding. That knowledge led me to where I am at now, to my need for understanding exactly what I went through and to tell the stories of the people who meant so much to me, people I never actually told they meant so much to me, people whose families I hope can take solace in knowing that someone they’ve never heard of is still carrying the memories of their loved ones around in his heart and mind on a daily basis. (179)
I wondered if, while Matt wrote this memoir that spanned so many years and so many different lives, if this was also a space for him to make sense, too, both of what had happened and what could happen in the future. Would the non-human ghosts he ran with catch up with him, or would he win that race? What did he think? What did he know?
Just as importantly, I wondered what the space of this memoir offered me, the reader, as I processed what I knew, what I learned, and what I felt in the multiple ways I engaged with Matt’s book.
So where does all of this lead?
Grief is an experience that takes up space, an aspect of this experience that does not get enough attention. Memoirs create space in which the work of grieving can be done through the use of a variety of craft techniques and motifs that enable readers to not only engage with their own memories, but also allows readers to make sense of the collision between the past and the present. Through the formation and re-formation of these networks of memories and experiences, readers who read the memoirs written by those they have lost can begin to make sense of the present, a world in which their departed person still exists, and can begin to make sense of the new world in which the reader lives but the departed/writer is now a memory. This is uncomfortable work, nor is it pleasant as Wittes Schlack notes. All of this allows readers to come to the realization that the consequence of being alive is that we will all die someday. Out of that realization comes a sense of realness, which helps the reader begin to move through the stages of grief and towards some kind of acceptance.
Given the events of the last few years, the ways in which we grieve have changed and will likely continue to change. The COVID-19 pandemic, political upheaval, and the ways in which we all move through public spaces are not going to be the same as they were. The typical spaces in which we would grieve with community, such as funerals and memorial services, were no longer safe. People moved their grief to virtual spaces. Public discourse debated how we as a society could prevent even more deaths and even debated the causes of those losses. Political upheaval sparked questions of how different communities, particularly marginalized ones, faced death at the hands of people in authority more than others. We’ve all experienced death and grieving on an incredibly massive scale, the likes of which we may never truly understand, while also having vocal groups of people denying that any of the deaths, or the causes of those deaths, happened. This is on top of a virus that made and continue to make public spaces unsafe for large communities of people and legislators and politicians passing laws that make public spaces mentally and emotionally unsafe for particular communities as well. Because of all this, the ways in which we grieve have changed. Death has become hypervisible in ways most people alive today had never experienced before while also forcing all of us into more private spaces to do the work of grieving because the majority of the spaces where we did the work of grieving were no longer safe.
If the memoir contributes to creating spaces for readers to do the work of grieving their departed, then we as writers need be deliberate about the techniques that help us as writers create worlds within our work. Aspects of our writing such as description, imagery, repetition, and metaphor are no longer evidence of a writer’s awareness of craft and technique. These aspects of our writing take on new meaning by creating a space for engagement between the reader and writer, which allows those who are reading the memoirs of their dearly departed to begin the work of grieving in the spaces of the memoir.
For readers, this approach to memoir helps readers to find coherence in the chaos of a new world without the departed. As mentioned earlier, storytelling is not only an art, but is also necessary for our survival as humans. If, as Laurin mentions in her article, our memories act as a form of an immune system to protect us, then it is possible to think of storytelling in another way: as an antibiotic, a vaccine, a booster shot, something to give the psychological immune system Laurin speaks of support. Storytelling can help give those psychological immune systems the boost they need to begin processing difficult experiences, such as death, and begin to re-establish some kind of normalcy after readers' world has been upended.
There is an intimate moment in Running with Ghosts in which Matt talks about shaving his head, leading into an exploration of the spots that popped up on Matt’s skin as an adult, often as basal cell carcinomas. In this excerpt, Matt talks about staring at one or two of the scars those carcinomas left behind, wondering if there is a brain tumor or something else, “just waiting to wreck what has become an amazing life” (119). He continues:
When I look at the scars, I think of my friends, and I miss them and think they got a bad draw. My amazing life withers away in front of my eyes, and I feel like I’m not doing enough to justify my survival over their deaths. I do all of these mental calculations with the clear knowledge that those two things – my living and their dying – are not linked in any way. Still, I can’t stop thinking about it that way…My moles, all along, were warning signs, signs we didn’t even know to look for, that nobody knew to look for, at least not at the time. (120-121)
As I read, I paused at the moment where Matt writes about warning signs. I kept asking, both myself and his memoir, if Matt knew, and here was one such opportunity to make sense of Matt’s death. He knew that death was coming, as it comes for all of us; death is an inescapable part of life.
This passage helped me to make sense not only of Matt’s death, but the questions I had about his life as well. While reading, the question that loomed large at the back of my mind repeated itself over and over: did he know? When he found out that he did indeed have a brain tumor, did he know that this was going to be what killed him? What about when he went in for surgery? After the operation? When he posed for the picture posted on Facebook, triumphant that he was still able to complete the day’s Wordle puzzle after just having brain surgery? What about after that?
Maybe Matt knew, maybe he didn’t. By reading his memoir, though, I was able to enter a world where I could walk through Matt’s experiences, remember how his life bumped into mine, and ultimately, make sense of this new, unexplored world of which Matt was no longer a part. In a time that was mentally and emotionally uncomfortable, in which the past and present collided in a way that was completely and totally unexpected, taking the time to sit with Matt’s memoir and have a world, a space, created where I could begin to make sense of what happened allowed me to begin doing the work of grieving. This space that memoir creates will only continue to become more and more important not just for me, but for all of us as the ways in which the events of the past few years – pandemics, political upheaval, etc. – change how we grieve, where we go through this experience, and how we continue to understand the ways in which we cope with and understand loss.
Ashley Anderson’s work has appeared in or is forthcoming from Newfound, Hobart, Assay: A Journal of Nonfiction Studies, Wraparound South, Permafrost, Cosmonauts Avenue, Tahoma Literary Review, Badlands Literary Journal, Quarter After Eight, and others. She holds a PhD in English with a creative writing emphasis from the University of Missouri and MA degrees from Kent State University and the University of Cincinnati. Ashley currently teaches first-year composition with some Taylor Swift mixed in at the University of Missouri and, when she isn’t writing or teaching, can be found making something she found somewhere online.
All We Do Not Say:
The Art of Leaving Out
Assay 10.1 (Fall 2023)