The "Process" of Grief: POP!

By Mark Polanzak, author of Stillhouse Press' first memoir, POP!

Drag Me to Hell (2009)

Drag Me to Hell (2009)

If you've seen Sam Raimi’s comedy-horror film Drag Me to Hell, you'll understand my writing and grieving process pretty well. The main character, Christine, finds herself cursed and goes to a medium for help. The medium channels the dark spirit haunting her into a goat in order to slaughter it and rid Christine of the curse. There are parallels between Raimi’s film and my father’s death, and subsequently my writing about it years later. But although there is a proper process for channeling spirits, there isn’t a prescribed path for grieving. And instead of a goat, there’s my first book, POP!.

As a bereaved seventeen-year-old, I didn’t want to go through the grieving process. Not because I didn’t want to admit that I had lost my dad—though that was in there—but because it seemed really, really difficult and complicated. I didn’t want to cross the Rubicon that separates blissful teenage naivety and experienced young adulthood. I was having enough trouble learning the mitosis cycle and how cosine waves worked; I would surely botch the task of grief. But of course you can’t refuse to grieve. It’s autonomic.

One important thing I learned about grief is that there is no standard process. You can’t do it wrong. The order of grief operations we’ve all heard about—denial, anger, acceptance, and stuff—isn’t real. The person who conceived of it flat out made it up. But I didn’t know this between the ages of 17 and 21, which messed me up. I thought there was a right way to grieve, and so my sadness and sacredness and confusion and anxiety—all coming at me out of order and without warning—were compounded by a sense of self-castigation that I wasn’t doing it right, wasn’t being serious and dedicated enough to the process of grieving. I had no control over any of it. It owned me.

POP!, Stillhouse Press, March 2016

POP!, Stillhouse Press, March 2016

The process of writing my very personal, if-not-exactly-memoir, POP! mirrors my discoveries along the path of grief. After two years of writing fabulist, fantastical, magically realist, and absurdist short stories in my MFA program at the University of Arizona, I thought it was time to write a magical, fantastical novel. It seemed really, really hard, but I did it anyway. I began a book (it was about a stick figure). And pretty quickly, I hit an enormous problem in the story (big shock—the character was flat). I abandoned it after a year. I concluded that I was not ready to write a book, not there yet. So, I stopped trying.

I thought that there was a certain way a book was supposed to look sound, arc, unfold, and there was a way a writer wrote a book—through diligence every single day, working through scenes, developing characters, constructing plot and making the setting just so—I knew I couldn’t be working on a book when I began, at first haphazardly, writing what would become POP!. I wrote unlinked vignettes in a notebook, wrote a scene four different ways, drew characters and then redrew them, stuck them where they didn’t belong, and never gave a thought to the elements that I believed all real books needed.

But that’s just it: there is no proper way to write a book. These vignettes, fragments, character morphs, and all the rest eventually presented themselves as parts of a single organism that was steadily growing together. The pieces I had simply thought of as good practice for a big project began to come together, to brush up against one another, until one day there was a whole. The ending scene reached back and connected to the beginning. I had done it without really knowing it. I had written a book.

The book is about my father’s death, its many meanings and effects on me as a son and a writer, and on my mom and my brother. Yet I was never sad while writing it; I was in the medium’s trance. I was excited and energized to be writing something personal, something that broke the rules of how I felt I was supposed to write. I am sad now when I read sections of POP!. I channeled my grief into the book. It no longer possesses me. I can kill the goat or keep it.

Mark Polanzak is the author of the forthcoming hybrid memoir, POP! (Stillhouse Press, 2016) and several short stories. Despite his conclusion that there are no rules in grieving or writing, he is currently writing a fictional rule book on etiquette. Read more about Polanzak here.