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‘Grieving Together, Alone’: Two journalists talk about writing through grief

The Covid-19 pandemic has put death and grief before all of us. Keith Woods, NPR’s Chief Diversity Officer, and Tom Huang, Dallas Morning News assistant managing editor for journalism initiatives, joined the National Press Club Journalism Institute for a conversation about “Writing Through: Grieving Together, Alone.” Both journalists have written about personal loss and decline in a time of collective grief.

Here are some of the insights they shared:

Writing about grief is confronting it

Huang: Grieving and writing for me are intertwined because I’m the kind of person who needs to write things down to discover things about myself and my emotions and how I relate to the people that I love.

Woods: The emotion is right there all the time. Writing doesn’t relieve me of it, but it does give me a place to safely feel it. This is such a powerful feeling – grief — that I think we are reluctant to write about it because in order to write about it you have to get all the way to feeling it. That scares the crap out of me every time. 

It takes time to write about grief

Huang: What I found has helped me as a writer is to actually write short pieces and share them on Facebook with my friends. Step away from those dispatches, and then take some of that material and write essays that have been published over the last seven years. So again, the writing has helped me process the grief along the way.

Woods: I tell the story a lot before I write the story. That’s generally how I do essays. And then the actual writing of it, I find that I have to sit down and read the emotions. I’m pretty clear on how I’m feeling when I’m feeling. I’m not having to discover that point. I think in a lot of ways, my challenge is to sort it all out and find words for it. 

Details tell a larger story

Woods: In personal writing, people I think a lot of times think, ‘well, why would anybody be interested in the fact that I fed my mom applesauce and vanilla ice cream?’ And I think you really have to release that. You noticed it. It has a significance in that moment to you. Trust me to, as a reader, integrate into my own story.

Huang: Chip Scanlan I think once said the more specific details you use the more universal a piece can be. And it doesn’t mean that you spew out 12 different details, but you decide the one or two that are really important to you. 

It can be painful, but be honest

Huang: I made a decision early on, and it’s a hard one, but that I would try to be as open about my family as I could… I just had to make a decision that to write about this honestly I would have to show really difficult moments and ugly moments … You have to take a leap of faith as a writer that you’re going to do the right thing.

Woods: My approach in personal writing always has been, first, claim my story. You’ve intersected in my life in some kind of way, but it’s always my story first… But when I’ve published pieces about family, as often as possible, I’ve sent it to family ahead of time…It’s an accuracy check. Everybody understands the deal: If it’s true and it hurts, then, it’s still true. And I’m not reckless about that, I’m not cavalier about it.

You can watch video of the half-hour program here.