Deb’s top tip for aspiring authors: Believe in yourself. Everyone writes well some days, and not so well on other days. Focus on why you’re writing, and what you will produce for your reader. Then write with all your passion and heart.
My guest today is Deb Rae, bereavement expert and author of Getting There: Grief to Peace for Young Widows. Deb’s learning started through personal experience when she decided to quit her day job at age 36 and travel the world with her husband Stuart. However, Stuart was killed in a road accident in Poland and Deb found herself thrust into a slow, confusing, painful, personal transformation. Everything changed for her. She had to find a new home, a new job, a new country. As a result of her experience she found herself thinking a lot about how life works and the ways people deal with change. Deb’s transformation process took her back to university, out to a little farmhouse and back overseas. She was also invited into the homes and workplaces of many other people looking for better lives, stronger teams and more productive businesses.
Why did you feel there was a need to write this book? I have always preferred to express myself through writing. After my husband Stuart died, I started writing even more than ever. I struggled to understand what was happening to me in my grief, and had no idea how to talk about it. So I wrote. At first it was just for me to process the confusion and pain, but then I began to realise that my stories would be useful for others experiencing a confounding loss.
After Stuart died, I also looked around for books to help me, but found they were too sentimental, abstract, or just told the grieving person’s story. I also couldn’t find any books for young widows written by an Australian. I wanted to get the low-down about grief. I wanted the raw, honest truth.
I decided to produce a book that was a resource for other young women; that told real stories about what happens when you’re grieving, had lots of suggestions for action and had a sense of humour. I spoke with many other young widows whose quotes in my book are as real as you can get.
What was your greatest personal challenge in writing it? People often asked me if writing the book was cathartic and maybe at first it was. But a lot of the time it was actually pretty painful. To write about what it’s like to grieve, I had to relive many experiences I’d rather forget.
So I procrastinated! I was also still working full-time and dreaded coming home to have to think about the worst days of my life all over again. There were many nights and weekends when I ate lots of ice-cream and wrote very little. It took years to produce just a few chapters.
Finally I gave myself a deadline. I sent my family and friends an invitation to a party that was five months away – when I would introduce the first draft of my book. And it worked! I gained some momentum and finished the book relatively quickly.
Were there any obstacles to having the book published? I talked to other authors and did a lot of research about how to publish the book. Over the 10 years it took me to finish the book, the publishing world changed quite dramatically. More books were being self-published and e-books became far more popular.
I eventually decided to self-publish so I could have more control over the layout and marketing of the book. I also had a mentor who helped me through the process, shared contacts and advised me about potential pitfalls. There were many decisions to be made and I learned about a lot of things I’d never heard of before.
How involved have you been in the book’s development? Did you have input into the layout/cover/illustrations? I had full control over designing the layout of the book, its cover and the photos that are included. My book is intended to be an honest conversation between two grieving people – the reader and me. It’s also resource where a grieving woman will write her deepest secrets and come back to many times over many years. It therefore had to be inviting, beautiful and make a connection. That’s why the cover shows a group of women holding hands and walking a long road together, all the pages have a beautiful design overlay and the book includes photos of my husband and myself so the reader can really see who I am.
What do you wish you’d been told before you set out to write your book? Not to take on the whole project as a huge single task. Every time I sat at my desk, I’d think to myself that I had to write a whole book, which was incredibly daunting!
I eventually worked out how to break the book down into chapters and sub-chapters. Each day I would focus on writing a couple of sub-chapters, which seemed much more manageable. Or I would just go with whatever creative flow turned up on a given day and write what appealed to me in that moment. That writing was always the best I did.
If you were writing it now, what would you do differently? I’d doubt myself less and recognise my achievements more. I wouldn’t wait until I thought I was ‘ready’ because that day never comes. I’d just start. I’d also connect with other writers and get more feedback about my writing from people I trust to be honest with me.
How do you hope your book will contribute to a greater understanding of grief? My intention is that people understand grief more, are aware of the misconceptions we can hold about grief and are more comfortable about talking about death and dying. I talk in my book about the importance of recognising that grief is an individual journey. We do it in our own time, in our own way.
Social perceptions about how long grief should take, how much we should cry and how we should be strong can actually make dealing with a loss even more difficult. Understanding that we don’t have to have all the answers when we’re supporting someone who’s grieving can be a great relief. You just need to be with the person and give them the space to experience their grief in whatever way it’s happening for them.
My book is honest, real and will make you laugh. I created it this way so people who are grieving, and the people who support them, can really understand what grief is like, and not be so afraid of it. When we have that shared understanding, we can talk about grief more (without relying on misconceptions). That will make life easier for everyone.
What do you think you would be doing now if your life hadn’t taken this path? I would probably be writing policies and procedures for not-for-profit organisations all over Mackay! My life would certainly not be so fulfilled and I wouldn’t have the same level of confidence I have in myself now.
It wouldn’t even matter if my book was truly terrible – it’s more about the fact that I had a big goal and I kept on going until I achieved it. I think that, whatever our goal is, fighting to make it a reality is one of the greatest things we can do as a human being.
Because of this expanded confidence, I’ve since taken on many other goals and had many other experiences that wouldn’t have happened if I hadn’t written the book.
What’s the best aspect of your writing life? The people I get to meet who have read my book. We’ve both been through grief and instantly have a connection. They include young widows, but also people who have divorced, given up a child for adoption or older widowed men. I love having the opportunity to support people in a meaningful way and help them feel understood.
—the worst? Trying to decide what to write about next! I have lots of ideas and not enough time to do work associated with my current book as well as start writing another one.
What would you do differently if you were starting out now as a writer? I wouldn’t be so hard on myself. I’d understand that some days you get into the groove and produce some excellent work. Other days are more of a struggle and far less productive. You need to keep perspective on the overall goal and have realistic expectations (especially if you’re holding a paying job at the same time).
I’d also develop more of a routine. Having certain habits or routines can get you into a head space that is conducive to creativity and writing. Set up your work space, use a certain pen or computer, and follow a few set activities before you start writing. The routine subconsciously gets your mind ready to jump into the desired activity.
What’s the best writing advice you were ever given? Write from the heart. Whenever I obsessed about whether my writing was good enough, my writing was terrible! I finally learned to just focus on saying (through my writing) what I really knew needed to be said. Then my words were authentic, powerful and meaningful.
What do you read for enjoyment? I love to read autobiographies. I also find myself reading a lot about neuroscience, neuroplasticity and the latest theories from world renowned psychologists. I find human beings and our minds fascinating and we’re learning so much more now than we ever knew.
If you could sit down and have a chat with any writer past or present, who would it be and why? Stephen Fry. I love his honesty, authenticity and willingness to talk openly about his life experiences, which may be perceived as successes and failures. This is the way I’d like for all of us to be able to talk about grief. I enjoy Stephen Fry’s intellect and sense of humour. He also doesn’t pretend to be something he isn’t (or so it appears!) and he fully embraces every experience life offers him. That reminds me of my late husband.
Getting there: Grief to Peace for Young Widows
When your world is rocked by disaster where do you go? What do you do? How do you go on? In her words, Deb sucks as a widow. She kicked, screamed, ran away. She felt alone, overwhelmed and thought she’d never be happy again. Deb’s husband was killed in a random accident while they were living overseas. In an instant, she lost her best friend and had to leave behind her home, her job and her dreams. She gets how horrible life becomes as a young widow, how you wonder if you’re going crazy and whether there’s any hope for a better future.
Her real, honest and revealing words connect with your pain. Then make you laugh. She helps you understand why you feel the way you do and that it’s (almost) all ‘normal’. And she helps you dig deep into your own strength so you can take another step into your future. All this is backed up with lots of practical survival tips tested by many other young women.
The book is available here.