Tragedy Was My Inspiration to Write

Filed in Book Writing Inspiration by on November 1, 2017 2 Comments • views: 832

by Maryanne Pope

Maryanne and her husband, John, at the beach.

“Writing is not life, but I think that sometimes it can be a way back to life.”

– Stephen King, On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft

On Thursday September 28th, 2000, my husband John and I had an argument while walking our dog. I told him how scared I was of waking up twenty years later and still not having finished writing a book.

John stopped walking, turned to me and said, “You’re probably right about that, Maryanne. Just as long as you know that will have been your choice.”

Ouch.

But he was right. By that point, we’d been together as a couple for 12 years…that’s a long time listening to someone talk about wanting to become a writer—and complaining about how she doesn’t have the time or money—yet doing very little in the way of any actual writing.

After John went to the work that night—he was a police officer—I promised myself I would wake up early the next morning and do an hour of writing before going to my clerical job.

“I’ll show him!” I thought to myself.

A Wake-Up Call That Was Devastatingly Real

But when my alarm clock went off the next morning, I pushed snooze. “I’m too tired,” I said to myself. “I don’t want to get up.”

And wouldn’t you know it but at the exact same time that I was pushing snooze, yet again, on my writing dream, John was dying on the lunchroom floor of a warehouse.

He had been investigating a break and enter complaint and was searching the mezzanine level when he stepped from a safe surface right through an unmarked false ceiling. There was no safety railing in place to warn him—or anyone else—about the danger. He fell a mere nine feet into the lunchroom below but the back of his head struck the concrete with such a force that he succumbed to a massive brain injury within hours. He was 32. So was I.

The break and enter complaint turned out to be a false alarm; there was no intruder in the building. My wake-up call, however, was devastatingly real.

Two weeks later, I started writing what would become my creative non-fiction book, A Widow’s Awakening. It took me eight years to get the manuscript—and me—where it needed to be. But I did it.

Tragedy was my inspiration to write; tough love my motivation.

To Be a Writer, You Actually Have to Write

I had wanted to become a writer since I was seven years old. What I didn’t understand—until John’s death shattered the illusion that we have all the time in the world to achieve our dreams—is that in order to be a writer, you actually have to WRITE.

Although in the years leading up to John’s death, I had written a few short stories here and there and was chipping away at writing a novel (about a woman who wanted to write but didn’t have the time or money!), in the back of my mind, I kept thinking the day would come when I would finally start to take my writing seriously.

Well, that day came all right—cloaked in tragedy, heartbreak and regret…not the wisest way (at least, in the short term) to finally begin to take one’s literary aspirations seriously. Writing is difficult enough; learning to write while grieving can be treacherous.

But before I get to my experience with the writing process, let’s talk practicalities i.e. money.

What Does a Writer Really Need to Write?

I first read Virginia Woolf’s book, A Room of One’s Own, in university. Then, in the years to follow, I read it half a dozen times more. If you’re not familiar with the book, the author maintains that in order for women to write fiction well, they need a secure income and a room of their own.

Well, guess what? Because John died in the line of duty, that meant I was entitled to receive his paycheque for the rest of my life.

In an instant, I was handed on a silver platter the greatest gift—financial freedom—that a writer could receive. But it came on the same platter as my soul-mate’s life.

Interestingly, John and I used to argue about A Room of One’s Own. He thought one’s inner qualities—motivation, self-determination, will and good habits—were more important than external conditions such as money, space and time. I sided with Virginia.

When John died, both his and Virginia Woolf’s theories were put to the test. Seventeen years later, I can safely say they were both right. My play, Saviour, explores this.

This why I chose to write in the wake of John’s death. If I ever wanted to look myself in mirror again, I really had no choice. I had been given everything a wanna-be-writer could ever need: a guaranteed income, an entire home (completely paid for, thanks to mortgage insurance), no child/ren to care for, no need to go to a job to pay the bills…and one heck of a story to tell.

I had no more excuses for not writing.

The problem, of course, was that in exchange for all of the above, I no longer had my husband, best friend, lover and biggest fan. And quite frankly, the hurt associated with losing John damn near killed me—literally. But it didn’t.

Using Tragedy to Make the World a Better Place

Writing, of course, was not the only thing I had to contend with in the wake of John’s easily preventable death. In addition to the myriad of practical matters that needed to be sorted, figuring out my new (and unwanted) life, while managing dozens of loved ones who were very concerned about me (to this day, I still wince when the phone rings), there was also a rather large elephant in the living room to contend with: the issue that led to John’s death…an unsafe workplace.

And so, onto my already seriously overloaded plate, I placed the responsibility (some might say burden) of also becoming a workplace safety advocate.

Thankfully, I wasn’t alone in this endeavour.

After John’s death, several of his police recruit classmates started the John Petropoulos Memorial Fund (JPMF), which is now a charity that educates the public about why and how to ensure their workplace is safe for everyone, including first responders. Over the years, the JPMF has produced five TV ads that have aired over a million times, as well as a 10-minute safety video that is viewed on-line and shown in presentations.

I put my heart and soul—and time and money—into working with other like-minded people to raise awareness about workplace safety, so that others don’t have to go through what I did…nor have their lives cut drastically short, as did John.

Is Writing from Grief Therapeutic?

I thought writing was difficult before my heart and soul were shattered and I found myself on a nice long swan dive off the deep end of a grief-induced (but thankfully temporary) insanity.

Trying to write a cohesive (never mind coherent) book while muddling my way through a quagmire of extremely difficult emotions, bizarre ideas, confusion, fear, guilt, self-pity, anger and a myriad of other conflicting thoughts and feelings was, in hindsight, a recipe for disaster…at least, for the manuscript.

I did NOT find the early writing to be at all freeing or therapeutic. Getting down on the page what had happened to John—and my reaction to it—was a horrific experience. I hated it. I hated myself for waiting for John’s death to wake me up to the importance of taking my writing dream seriously. I hated the fact it was John’s death that I was writing about.

The benefit for the future reader, however, was that because I jotted down the specific details of the factual events so soon after they actually happened, this made for a very realistic story.

But here’s the odd thing: as heart-breakingingly tragic as the real-life events were, the first draft of my manuscript was oddly positive and hopeful! I wanted everything to be okay again, so I tried to tell the story as if it would be.

In hindsight, I could not yet handle the reality of what had happened to John, so although I did a great job of getting down the details of the factual circumstances, I was a long way from being able to admit—never mind process, let alone heal—the devastating impact that his death had on me.

I was also extremely embarrassed of the weird religious thoughts I was having, and ashamed of the self-pity I was feeling about the fact that while my friends and family still got to snuggle up to their spouses at night and have babies, I didn’t get to.

And I suspect that when we can’t face the brutal reality of a situation, we try to candy-coat it…at least, that’s what I did in the first draft of my manuscript. It was a meandering mess of half-truths…but at least I got the factual details down!

And then, wouldn’t you know it, shortly after the one-year anniversary of John’s death, I ended up in the arms of one of his close friends.

Working with My Editor was the Turning Point for Me as a Writer

Now, don’t get all excited about a happy ending. There wasn’t one…at least, not the Hollywood, romantic kind. The guy dumped me and I ran off to Oregon to rewrite my mess of a manuscript, with the hopes of wooing him back. The second draft was more succinct (and honest), but it didn’t succeed in wooing him back.

However, it was in decent enough shape that I was able to work with an editor on it…a very good editor! She taught me, line by line, how to write creative non-fiction…to “show don’t tell.” She had to handle me with kid-gloves at times because of the intensely personal and intimate nature of the story.

Working with that editor was the turning point for me, as a writer. I worked with her through several rewrites and eventually, I even began to somewhat enjoy the writing process…even though the story broke my heart.

And then, after about four years of working steadily on the manuscript (and grieving John’s death), the creative magic of the writing process finally started to kick in. I didn’t just enjoy writing, I began to LOVE it. Elizabeth Gilbert, in her book, Big Magic; Creative Living Beyond Fear, describes the creative experience beautifully:

“The effort is worth it, because when at last you do connect, it is an otherworldly delight of the highest order…you make the connection. Out of nowhere it all comes together. You must keep calling out in those dark woods for your own Big Magic…because when it all comes together, it’s amazing. The only thing you can do is bow down in gratitude, as if you have been granted an audience with the divine. Because you have.”

There is one last thing I would like to mention about my writing process for A Widow’s Awakening: due to the traumatic nature of the story, I suspect spending so many years (eight in total) rewriting the manuscript was a double-edged sword for me, personally. I think writing about John’s death over and over again kept me stuck in the past. But I also think it forced me to fully heal. So in the long run, there is no stone left unturned, emotionally or psychologically.

Writing Made Me a Better Person

Becoming a writer fundamentally changed who I am as a person and my life. Now that seventeen years have passed since John’s death, writing has become as important to me as breathing. I have to write…for me. Writing helps me understand the world and my tiny place in it. Writing helps me make sense of the past, understand my present and plan for my future.

I write five days a week—anywhere between ninety minutes and five hours a day. I am extremely focused and disciplined. But I have had to learn patience. Many of the writing projects I’m working on—play scripts and screenplays—I have been writing for more than decade. But I firmly believe that as long I show up, every day, and do the best I can…the works will get done when they are meant to get done.

I also write a weekly blog, which I love because there is a real sense of satisfaction that is rather slow-coming in the larger writing projects. Plus the weekly blogs help me keep top of mind with my readers…and stay connected.

I love the creativity that my writing triggers. I love connecting ideas. I love sharing what I write.

I think writing has made me a better person. It’s certainly made me a better listener! I don’t have to be the one talking all the time now because I know I can express my thoughts, feelings, opinions, ideas and experiences through my writing.

My writing has also changed my life – because writing has changed me. The more I write, and share what I am writing, the more opportunities that are presenting themselves.

It’s Okay If Others Don’t See Writing as “Work”

After A Widow’s Awakening was published, I was asked to deliver presentations. I did so many times, but grudgingly. I despised public speaking! But over the years, I have found my groove and I don’t hate it anymore. In fact, I have learned to embrace the challenge and run with the opportunities that come along with having public speaking as another skill.

One last thing I would I would like to mention about how writing changed me has to do with how it changed my relationship with other people. I had to learn how to set boundaries very quickly! John had been my buffer. When he died, I had to learn how to say NO all my own.

In the months following his death, I was amazed at how often I was asked the question: “When are you going to back to work?” When John died, I had been working as a civilian for the same police service he did (as a records processing clerk).

I would tell people that I was writing a book.

“Uh huh,” they’d say. “But when are you going back to work?”

I look back now at the first three months after John’s death and I can honestly say I have never worked so hard in my entire life—and probably never will. I was trying to come to terms with his death, grieving, writing, accepting the fact that we hadn’t had a family, contemplating suicide, going off the deep end, trying to figure out how to tackle the rather enormous issue of workplace safety, handling all the tasks that need to get done after someone dies…all while trying not to throw the constantly ringing phone out the window.

What I soon realized is that many people don’t perceive writing as “work.” And that’s okay. All that mattered was that I began to perceive writing—and grieving—as work. Because once I did that, the ability to set, and enforce, firm boundaries soon followed.

My Favorite Feedback: When a Reader Cannot Put the Book Down

The first edition of A Widow’s Awakening was self-published in 2008. I have sold more than 2,000 copies. I’ve received feedback from dozens of readers.

Some testimonials speak to the impact that my book has had on them: it tends to hit people hard…regardless of whether or not they have experienced a significant loss themselves.

I think my favourite feedback is when I hear how a reader “could not put the book down.” That tells me I have managed to write a good story…and I love hearing that!

Advice to Writers Considering Writing About a Traumatic Event

The advice I would give to another person who is considering writing about a personal traumatic event is this:

  1. Jot down detailed notes as soon as possible…get your deepest thoughts and feelings down on paper. A journal is a good place to do this.
  2. Try and get the who, what, where, when and how down, but don’t worry too much yet about the “why!”
  3. Do NOT worry about making your notes pretty or trying to make it into a story right off the bat. What is far more important is that you get the basic emotions, experiences and sequence of events down on paper first, and worry later about the telling of the story. The “book” part of it will come with time.
  4. Get professional editorial help. There is a significant difference between telling your story and telling your story WELL, i.e. in a way that engages the reader’s attention.
  5. Commit to spending a specific amount of time on writing your story, i.e. 30 minutes a day. Then show up when you tell yourself you are going to and do the work.
  6. I strongly suggest using a timer and setting it for a short period of time to start, and then just writing to your heart’s content. Then when the timer goes off, you can either continue (if you’re on a roll) or finish up…perhaps even make notes to yourself for the next day’s writing session.
  7. Getting any major writing project completed is daunting enough; throw in the fact that it is intensely emotional and personal makes it even more difficult, so be reasonable with the expectations you place upon yourself. It is usually far more effective to put in an hour a day, five days a week on a writing project than it is to keep putting it off and then sitting down and trying to write for five hours straight. Don’t set yourself up to fail.
  8. Develop and enforce boundaries. Make “No” your new favourite word.
  9. Figure out when you have the most creative energy in the day and schedule your writing time for then.

My advice to people who have NOT experienced a traumatic event but do want to write: Don’t wait for a tragedy to wake you up to the importance of becoming a writer.

 * * *

Maryanne Pope writes books, blogs, screenplays and play scripts. She is the author of A Widow’s Awakening, the playwright of Saviour and the screenwriter of God’s Country. She was the executive producer of the documentary, Whatever Floats Your Boat…Perspectives on Motherhood. Maryanne is the CEO of Pink Gazelle Productions and Chair of the John Petropoulos Memorial Fund.

If you would like to receive her regular weekly blog, please sign up here. Maryanne lives on Vancouver Island, British Columbia. Connect with her on Twitter.


A Widow’s Awakening: With nearly 2,000 copies sold, A Widow’s Awakening is touching the heart and soul of readers.

This extraordinary story is a candid portrayal of Maryanne’s journey through the first year of grief after the on-duty death of her police officer husband.

Engaging, powerful and heart-wrenching, this book captures the immense difficulty of accepting the unacceptable while learning to transform loss into positive change.

Available at Amazon and wherever eBooks are sold. Print version available here.

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Comments (2)

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  1. Nillu says:

    I was touched by the love, strength and resolve in this post. All the best, Nillu

  2. I can’t even imagine the shock that comes with a sudden loss like this. Maryanne, I admire you for your courage and commitment after such trauma.

    A character in my first novel said, “There are no shortcuts to the other side of grief.” I think that’s true, and every person finds his or her own path. For me, it’s usually some kind of work that gets me through. Sometimes that work is writing, but it can also be gardening, or the day job, or even volunteer work. I’m so happy you found your way through writing. I’ve added A Widow’s Awakening to my “Want to Read” list.

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