Novel Catharsis

The day I accidentally started my novel, there was a torrential downpour. I remember sitting in the car waiting to pick up my children from preschool, rain streaming down the windshield. Like tears, I thought. And out of nowhere—because they’re always out of nowhere, the mental triggers of grief—I thought of my friend who’d been on Flight 11 on September 11th.

Four years had passed since the terrorist attacks, but the thoughts were still with me. In the midst of mundane activities, I’d find myself wondering the sort of things that aren’t polite to wonder alound. About her last thoughts. Who sat beside her on the plane, and what they said to one another. Whether she’d had time to cry.

I had always expressed myself through writing. I’d been a magazine writer for a decade, and I kept a journal to scratch the itch for anything more personal. But suddenly it wasn’t enough. As much as I love reading fiction, I’d never had an urge to write it, not even so much as a short story. Yet after I got home that rainy day and put the kids down to nap, I wrote a dream sequence about a woman imagining her friend’s last moments. Not on a flight that day, because that was too close to the bone. A generic plane crash, if such a thing can ever be generic.

It didn’t occur to me that this would be part of anything more than an unusual journal entry. But that raw spurt of writing would become chapter three of a novel, to be bought by Crown four years later, just before the birth of my fifth child.

We each have our own methods of catharsis, of letting the tapes finally spool themselves out. Some people establish charitable foundations, some plant memorial gardens, or throw themselves into athletic challenges. Some go quiet until the tears run dry.  

Writing the novel was my way to make sense of the thoughts I couldn’t quite put a name to. I’d just had my third child, and after I’d tucked all three into bed at night I’d settle into writing this thing that was not a thing—not an article any magazine was paying me to write, so too indulgent a use of daytime sitter hours. But I kept writing, and the further I wrote, the more I shed anything that resembled my actual friend, her actual husband, their actual baby. The nameless piece of writing became peopled with strangers familiar only to me, driven by unique motivations, idiosyncrasies, pain, and joy. Most fiction writers I’ve come to know are propelled by “what-ifs,” and these were mine: What if someone who kept journals all her life died suddenly? What if the journals showed an interior life that was nothing like what her friends and family expected—including where she was really going when she died?

Fictionalizing the facts of the story freed me up to dig deep into emotion I could imagine, and expand upon in my characters. The widower, who receives consolatory lasagna when he’s seen mowing his lawn while his children play in the driveway, when all he wants to do is mow his own damn lawn like other fathers. The children, baffled by the suffocating kindness of strangers. The friend who inherits the journals, slowly becoming unhinged by the anxiety of parenting in a world where everything seems dangerous, and possible.

I set the story in 2002, so that my characters would be experiencing the same tenuous sense of safety I remembered. There was anthrax, and there was Mad Cow disease. There were bomb threats and fear of contaminated reservoirs. If the Ebola virus had arrived at a U.S. airport it would not have been surprising. Many of my friends felt the same way. We walked around numb, waiting.

Two days after the terrorist attacks, I spent the afternoon fielding media calls for my friend’s family. I developed a handful of quotes to focus on her life rather than on her inconceivable death — pithy sentences about her sense of humor and ridiculous laugh, her road races undertaken with a baby jogger, the way she’d navigated the challenges of returning to work after her maternity leave. I believe I even said she’d “hit her stride.” After I returned the last call I sank to the bedroom floor, nauseated by reducing a person to a sound bite. What would she have wanted said about her? I wondered. What would she have thought should be her legacy?

Interestingly, few of the newspapers or magazines mentioned her strong career in retail, beyond the fact that she’d been traveling on business that day. It struck me that in the end most of us will not be remembered for what we do, but for who we have been to others and for others—thoughtful friends, generous volunteers, dedicated advocates, supportive family members. But for some people who are passionate about their work, what they do might just be integral to who they are. That became something I wanted to explore in my novel, too.

I never thought of myself as someone who would write fiction, but now I can’t imagine myself without it. The older I get, the more people I meet who’ve taken on new challenges or changed direction, driven by some pivotal experience. It seems to me that in many kinds of healing there is an element of reach, of going beyond our comfort zone when it’s failing to provide comfort. That we don’t know what we’re capable of until we embrace something we never thought we could do, sometimes as an antidote to something we cannot bear. 


This entry was posted in On Faith, Hope & Love, On Learning, On Writing. Bookmark the permalink.

12 Responses to Novel Catharsis

  1. Linda Joyner says:

    I need to write a book! Reading how you “accidentally” started your novel goes right to the heart of so many things that I have been feeling lately. A lot of “what if’s”, dealing with a death very close to home, dealing with my husband and son both being deployed at the same time and the overwhelming worry that accompanies it. I have been a journal keeper all my life and I often think that no one will care and they will end up in a landfill. You give me hope.

    And finally, the part about a person being reduced to what they did instead of who they were is an excellent point. When our family experienced our loss, we made sure that didn’t happen. Very healing for us all.


    “We each have our own method of catharsis, of letting the constantly replaying tapes finally spool themselves out. Some people establish charitable foundations, plant memorial gardens, or throw themselves into athletic feats fueled by confusion and grief. Some go quiet until the tears run dry.”
    I have to read your book now. The beauty of the above paragraph gives me the chill’s. I want to share it with everyone I know.

  3. Lorraine Berry (http://www NULL.talkingwriting says:

    This all makes sense to me. As writers, it feels like the most natural thing to write about grief. What makes your book so wonderful, and the reason I’ve been recommending it to my friends, is that you manage to capture the children of grief: rage and loneliness and the constant need to know “why? why now? why him/her?” and really, why me?
    I sat down and wrote a memoir about a love affair that was cut brutally short by my newfound lover dying of a brain aneurysm while I was with him. As a writer, my terror was that I would forget one single moment of having been with him, and was thus obligated to write everything I could remember immediately. Later, I took that writing and used it as the basis for the memoir.
    I love how, in this blogpost, you link what happened in your own life to how it came out in the novel. As a teacher of creative writing, I can tell you that this will be helpful to me as I teach writing. I can point to your writing here as an example of how we turn experience into words.
    Thanks for writing such a great book.

  4. John Churchill (http://twitter!/jpchurch) says:

    Thought-provoking post, Nichole … Writing as catharsis is something near and dear to me. I’ve had one friend — and a few acquaintances — die in war over the past several years, and the questions you asked yourself (What were they thinking? What were their last words?) have often played in my own mind.

    I have often thought of writing a story or book about this as a way to come to terms with it all and bring voice to the issue, but every time I do, that famous Russell Lynes quote comes to mind: “Every journalist has a novel inside, which is an excellent place for it.” Perhaps someday. Keep up the great work!

    • NicholeBernier says:

      I’m sorry for your losses, John….Whether or not the cathartic writing gets published, it’s such a useful source of expression and working through the thoughts, isn’t it?

  5. Hallie Sawyer (http://www NULL.halliesawyer says:

    Such a beautiful post, Nichole. This speaks volumes about the kind of person you are…thoughtful, intelligent, insightful, and loving. Your behind-the-scenes posts are cathartic to read as well. What if’s are a large part of how we assess our lives (“What if I would have done that?” or “What if I do this? How will it affect my life?” ) and I’m not surprised that you use those two words a lot in your writing process.

    Thanks for sharing this great post!

  6. Katie @ cakes, tea and dreams (http://katieleigh NULL.wordpress says:

    This is so lovely and thought-provoking. And I’m so glad your book made its way into the world. (Such a pleasure to meet you the other night!)

    • NicholeBernier says:

      So nice to finally meet you, too! One of the unexpected pleasures of the book tour is being about to meet twitter friends in real life.

  7. Pingback: Interview & Giveaway with Nichole Bernier, Author of The Unfinished Work of Elizabeth D. | Christi Craig (http://christicraig

  8. Kerry from Australia says:

    I picked up your book yesterday (Sunday) whilst on my way to meet a manuscript assessor/editor for my own manuscript. I had an hour spare before my meeting when I should have been going over my own work, but after I’d read the first paragraph of your book, I couldn’t put it down – such a beautifully written, heartfelt story, it was so hard to pull myself away from it to go to my meeting. Last night I read it non-stop and wanted more at the end. Reading where your inspiration came for this story has left me both sad for your loss and filled with warmth that you were able to take those questions that you had at the time and to write such a beautiful story that in part honours your friend.

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