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Thursday, January 24, 2013

Interview: Jacob Scheier

Jacob Scheier is the winner of the 2008 Governor General's Award for poetry and his poems, essays and articles have been published across North America. His second full length collection of poems, Letter from Brooklyn, is being published with ECW Press in Spring 2013. He is also a volunteer peer-facilitator with Bereaved Families of Ontario. Up until recently Jacob taught Writing Creatively About Grief through Ryerson University’s Continuing School of Education.

He is now offering a similar grief writing workshop course independently at The Centre for Social Innovation, Regent Park (third floor of the new Daniels Spectrum at 585 Dundas Street).

The ten week long course runs Wednesday evenings from 7pm-9:30 pm, starting February 13, 2013 (with an off week March 13). The cost is $200. EN

Consulting Group Inc. @ Centre for Social Innovation is pleased to sponsor the meeting space for the Winter/Spring 2013 “Writing About Grief.”

To learn more go to or contact him at or join the Writing About Grief Facebook page:
This is an interview about the grief writing workshop you lead, but I also want to hear about your writing in general. First, though, could you outline what it is that your workshop is about. 

The workshop is about how to make our personal experiences of loss and grief speak to others through the act of writing. In short, turning these difficult experiences into 'literature.' I think just expressing one's grief creatively – say by writing a poem about it can have a therapeutic effect – I know it has for me – but since I am not a trained mental health professional, my focus is, instead, on the art part; how to move from the diary or journal exploring loss into creating something that others will want to read. They will want to read it, I believe, because it's evocative, and has something to teach us about what it means to be human; what it means to lose, and go on – which is pretty much the most universal human experience there is, is it not? 

In my workshops we write in two different genres: personal narrative and personal or 'confessional' poetry. We look at examples of writing in each, which to my mind are very successful. I switch up the readings, but almost always use something from Joan Didion's The Year of Magical Thinking and a poem from Mary Jo Bang's collection Elegy. 

Through looking at these literary engagements with loss and grief, we discuss as a class what the author is doing to make their experience real for us, the readers. I then assign a weekly writing exercise in prose (for the first five weeks) or poetry (for the last five) in some way connected to these readings. For example in Donald Hall's Without, he has several poems addressed to his wife, the late poet Jane Kenyon, after she dies. 

After we look at one of these poems I have the students write a poetic-letter/address to someone they have lost. In broad strokes, I focus our discussions and workshops on personal narrative around the idea that the author organizes her or his experience around an insight about loss, and with poetry I focus more on the evocative power of imagery; how one can go about creating a complex, accurate image of loss or grief. 

Second, related, how did this workshop come about

This workshop, I guess you could say, was about a dozen years in the making. That is, I think the story of the workshop begin when my mother died, just over twelve years ago now. I was writing a bit before she got sick (breast cancer) and before she died, but it took on an urgency and necessity after that. I felt like I had to write all the time, and then eventually I wanted others to see it, to validate the experience I was articulating, I suppose. 

So, in short, I've been writing about grief and loss, mostly through poetry, though some personal (prose) narrative writing as well, for over a decade. Writing about my grief helped me a lot, I believe. What also helped me was joining a support group for bereaved young adults at BFO (Bereaved Families of Ontario). A couple years after that, I did volunteer training to become a peer co-facilitator of support groups just like the one I had taken. I've co-facilitated 3 groups (they are eight weeks long) since then. I've found it a really rewarding experience and a good way to stay in touch with my own grief (sometimes it's easy to ignore since the loss was some time ago, but I think it's always there; that it is a part of who I am and so I do not want it to become a stranger to me).

It was actually a friend of mine though who suggested I take my experiences of facilitating support groups and writing and create a workshop. A good friend.

The third question. I'd be interested in your thoughts on grief as a process of transformation, journey rather than destination. Does this transformation of the grieved one (rather than loss of the loved one) ring true for you (in your own writing)? Do you see it in the writing of people who come to your workshop? Is grief, therefore, ultimately, a process of creation (of future) rather than resolution (of past)? 

One of my favourite lines of prose in Joan Didion's The Year of Magical Thinking is "Grief turns out to be the place none of us know until we reach it." When I first read that it struck as so painfully accurate – how all my ideas of what grief were like were so different than the actual experience; and that that experience was really a place, an undiscovered country – a terrifying one, though one which eventually I realized I had to explore, in part, through writing.

In my experience the literary work on loss and grief is almost always a journey story – especially the memoirs and personal essays – the story of how one goes on the journey from the world turned upside down from loss to becoming someone who can adapt and cope with this new world, and is changed in the process.

In my training as a peer facilitator at BFO they called this "the new normal" – in short, one does not get closure or have finally dealt with the loss, but has a new relationship you could say with her or himself – going from the initial shock of a loss to 'this is who I am now; this is my life.' Something along those lines.

I think this journey, is, of course quite different for everyone, but my job, or one of my jobs, as writing workshop facilitator is to suggest tools for articulating that journey. That journey, not the loss, ultimately, is the real story of the grief narrative, I think.

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