Daisy Hickman on grief, youth suicides, “finding the story” & self-publishing.
Eventually it occurred to me that life is more than an ending. That despite the trauma of my son’s loss and everything leading up to it, there IS something more. I will always be a dedicated student of society looking for the essential story, the universal message: a path with less suffering, deeper awareness.—D.A. Hickman, The Silence of Morning
I met D. A. “Daisy” Hickman, a poet and prose author, through her blog focused on writing, memoir, and spirituality, SunnyRoomStudio, a “creative, sunny space for kindred spirits.” The author of a trade-published book on the American prairie, she founded Capturing Morning Press, which reissued that book and has recently published The Silence of Morning: A Memoir of Time Undone. This new memoir tells the story of her son, who struggled with substance abuse and took his own life, and recounts her grief and healing.
When I read The Silence of Morning, I was struck by Hickman’s response to her grief, which she calls “the world’s teacher in disguise.” Such a phrase is distillate. It comes from her wide perspective, which was slowly earned in the magnitude of her suffering and through her enlightened actions: reading widely and reflecting on society, herself, and her son, Matthew. These seem unusual acts, perhaps because they’re simply private. Or maybe it’s simply that a serious writer took time to convey them.
Anyone who grieves or is touched by death or illness cannot fail to notice the world’s steady preference: mindlessness. And America seems to want suffering out of sight, its impatience palpable with the sick and dying. Amidst Hickman’s inquiry into this indifference, she gives us glimpses of Matthew—the boy with the fishing pole and paper route, the struggling young man devouring books while incarcerated, the hopeful farm hand in jeans and scuffed boots seeking a fresh start.
Hickman holds a master’s degree in sociology from Iowa State University, and earned her bachelor’s degree in legal studies at Stephens College in Columbia, Missouri. A member of the Academy of American Poets and South Dakota State Poetry Society, she’s at work on her first poetry collection. Previously, she worked with nonprofits in the areas of organizational development, fund development, management, and strategic planning.
She answered some questions for Draft No. 4.• You have long been a spiritual writer and blogger. Someone concerned with spiritual insight and discipline. Are there spiritual traditions that you find more useful than others in helping those grieving?
Interesting question. In the introduction to my memoir, I delved into some basic philosophies around the Zen tradition but, ultimately, I explore many spiritual threads throughout the book. The key, in any challenging life situation, is to look for spiritual insight in any and all directions. Something will resonate. But too often we are locked in old beliefs and values, so some teachings are overlooked or disregarded without exploration. From the book: “We don’t know what we need to know until we know it; we don’t know what is missing until we find it.”
The more open we can stay to various teachings, the greater the odds of actualizing meaningful growth and finding inspiration. And, eventually, when a commitment to discovery is made and sustained, prior traditions can be released, because we find our own way, create our own discipline or spiritual path. Spiritual actualization is difficult to describe but, for me, it has felt like learning to live from an innate sense of “knowing” that is beyond intellectual understanding, lived experience, and anything I could have imagined beforehand.
• I’ll ask the expected question that people often put to memoirists. Did writing about this painful matter “help you”? That is, aid you in processing loss or being able better to deal with it?
Yes, a common question, an even more predictable assumption. Curiously, there is the misconception that writing memoir is all about authors—how we “survive” a riveting sadness. While this could be true for some, from my perspective, a memoir is a gift of self . . . more than anything. Suffering is best met by reaching out one way or another, and that implies an acceptance of the inherently painful aspects of the mortal journey, while remembering everyone is suffering . . . one way or another.
Extending empathy and compassion via memoir is also a good way to explore the vagaries of the human condition, but I don’t really buy into the “healing” notion that is found in a great deal of the literature. Overworked, generic, increasingly meaningless.
“The notion, in fact,” I wrote, “is somewhat misleading, suggesting a linear path, a terminal destination created by a world dominated by time, and its heavy, misdirected expectations.”
Also, from the Afterword: “When looking at the big picture—the yin, the yang, of things—grief and loss are, more precisely, about finding the courage and the determination to come to a more complete understanding of life in its glorious yet, utterly baffling, entirety.”
• What did you learn about grief in looking back on and portraying it? Is that knowledge a gift you hope to give with the book? Or do you feel that simply being open about grieving in our death-denying culture is itself the gift?
If we are to better understand the reality of the human condition . . . we need memoir. Breaking news headlines, quick-and-fast snippets from popularized media outlets and various social networks, the artificial nature of our celebrity culture, and the long-term tendency of a society to reject what isn’t trendy, fun, or familiar, too often produce useless streams of “information” geared to mainstream consumption.
None of this takes us inside the realities of profound challenge. None of this helps us understand human suffering: widespread and, seemingly, increasing.
I hear about another youthful suicide nearly every week. And yet we don’t look closely at the collective energy behind it. We feel safer focusing on individuals, their troubles or problems, to the exclusion of the insidious impact of our seriously disturbed global environment . . . the human condition that we all are born into. Ultimately, individuals are merely a reflection of the world around us, nearby or featured on the nightly news.So in my memoir I made an effort to highlight the sociology of grief, loss, addiction (we are a world addicted to everything and anything), and suicide. Addicts did not create addiction, for instance, nor can they cure it, singlehandedly. That will take systemic change that flows from the very origins of our species, from the fabric of society and societies.
It seems both aspects of your question are true, Richard. Being open about the human condition—my son’s death from suicide in the riveting context of daily life—and, yes, the hard-earned knowledge that somehow emerged from those years, are both relevant to the national conversation around these daunting and commonplace issues. A staid conversation, I might add, that is largely unproductive.
But my memoir also offers awareness and compassion to anyone contending more immediately, more directly, with loss, grief, and the deeper mysteries of existence. I wrote, for instance, about my unexpected confrontation with a vast unknown. The trepidation I felt, the longing for understanding.
• Speaking of portraying, after learning of your son’s death you are reeling but must travel to Missouri for the funeral and burial. You delay, for some time, many of the details around that experience. This seems to embody your book’s larger point about the “conditioned mind,” which grief derails. Could you discuss your memoir’s structure, the risk you took in thwarting readers’ narrative expectations?
• The Silence of Morning is self-published under your authorial imprint (Capturing Morning Press), which makes you part of the boom and renaissance in publishing. You also published with a trade press, however, with your nonfiction book about the power of place, Where the Heart Resides: Timeless Wisdom of the American Prairie (William Morrow), updating and editing that book in 2014 for a 15th anniversary edition newly titled Always Returning: The Wisdom of Place. Could you discuss the benefits, the tradeoffs of each path?
We are all controlled by time—calendars, clocks, expectations around certain dates, deadlines—more than we realize. One of my personal revelations in the book was learning to look through the veil of time for a more timeless dimension that is often overlooked during this curious mortal race to the grave. Time seems to spin a limiting, often painful, web around and in our lives, so when it came to book structure, I wanted to downplay this dynamic. Instead, I sought the deeper story, one that had nothing to do with “what happened when” or the chronological impact of grief.
For one thing, grief itself is a nonlinear experience; it defies all “rules” of time and space. In many ways, grief is a curious door to all things beyond time, and once opened, cannot easily be closed. It is also an invitation—powerful, ubiquitous, almost obvious—to explore life without traditional expectations of any kind. Too often we are locked in sequential thought patterns; too often we fail to see the deeper story, which is always there when we let go of our cookie-cutter conditioning (family, friends, society) and seek liberation from suffering.
I hope the narrative challenges readers (we all need a challenge!), because it is a memoir that only truly reveals itself on the last page. I also wrote, intentionally, a “slow read” . . . why?
Because we rush around with time as our merciless master and miss the nuance and grace in our own lives. A book about so many weighty topics needed ample artistic space to fully evolve and, hopefully, readers will sense this at the start . . . instead of pushing themselves to race through it in a few days.
It’s not a thriller.
This is a life and death story that belongs to everyone.
We are on the same path, the same journey, and readers who take this book and try to see how aspects of it pertain to their own lives will value the slower pace, the deeper look, the universal message. In my wildest dreams, some readers may even want to read it more than once!
Author-publishing is something I gravitated to for many reasons. It seems tremendous time and energy is wasted by writers seeking traditional publishing—too often a political, inherently biased process beset by monetary values and marketing priorities. Also an extremely slow and tedious process, this path can easily interfere with the creative quality of literature and the original inspiration of the artist/writer. In the end, it is a system of power and control that largely generates “more of the same.” Yes, there are exceptions to all of this, but it is my impression that our “celebrity culture” is increasingly dominating the book industry. Name recognition equals instant (and easy) book marketing, right?
On a very pragmatic level, it behooves authors to retain the rights to their work. Companies of all kinds, including traditional publishing houses, merge and shift nearly overnight, and a book can be lost in the shuffle. Also, in working closely with a book designer (in my case, 1106 Design, Phoenix), I participate in the process from start to finish. I choose the cover art (worked with the incredible Missouri artist, Paul C. Jackson) in this regard, and then react to various cover designs, until we find just the right image and message. The same process happens for the interior design. Something unique can be born this way; my books don’t have to look like every other book out there. Lots of work but, overall, fun and rewarding.
Working with William Morrow was a tremendous learning experience (how not to do it, as much as how to do it), but the worlds of publishing and technology are in serious flux—the latest promising frontier quickly outdated. So why would I want to be the last person through the golden gates of innovation? The learning curve was worth it. Literary perfection has never been my goal (life is too short for that), but I have felt compelled to delve into the more mysterious aspects of life.
When I wrote The Silence of Morning, I wanted to respect the divine proclivities of grief itself. I also felt deeply committed to sharing my son’s story in a way that honored his journey, and mine. A commercial publisher may not have agreed with my priorities, so I simply trusted my intuition . . . went from there.
In the end, as I shared on the book’s back cover: I will always be a dedicated student of society looking for the essential story, the universal message: a path with less suffering, deeper awareness.Thank you so much, Richard, for the opportunity to share a few thoughts about how tragedy and spiritual curiosity pushed me to evolve in unexpected ways. Now I better understand the curious twining of life and loss. How we all benefit when we are roused from our sleep. At the start of my memoir, I wondered what was left to be said after a sudden death—when everyone departs and you are frightened and alone like never before. It turned out that a great deal was left to be said; I discovered that as each chapter began to take shape.
Also meaningful in this context are the poetic words of Tagore, Stray Birds: “Your voice, my friend, wanders in my heart like the muffled sound of the sea among listening pines.” And, yes, Matthew’s voice, silenced now for some nine years, still rings in my soul like a distant bell—one that chimes from a place that feels known, yet unseen.
[For author updates or to subscribe to Hickman’s blog, visit her website or follow SunnyRoomStudio on Facebook and Twitter @dhsunwriter.]