He’s Dead So I Can Say Whatever I Want About Him

Parc de la Ciutadella, Barcelona

Do you ever come up with titles for your unwritten memoirs? The only reason I’m writing this post is because the title struck me as I was walking home. Its subtitle will be “And Other Pithy Essays About My Family.” It will be my second book – a slightly more sophisticated follow-up to the fresh voice readers fell in love with in my debut, It Starts and Ends in Barcelona: A Memoir of Grief and Travel.

“Holliday’s work reads like Wild if Cheryl Strayed were snarkier and had a less interesting story to tell…” –New York Times Book Review

I’m taking a writing class and today one of my classmates’ shared a heart wrenching, visceral piece about her family. She asked our teacher how to write about family in a way that won’t hurt them. It’s a question that’s come up a few times in our classroom full of personal essayists – how do we write about our friends and families in ways that ring true to us and to them and also don’t open old wounds or cause fresh hurt?

I’m so far away from sharing It Starts and Ends in Barcelona: A Memoir of Grief and Travel with anyone that this worry hasn’t plagued me much yet. My classmate said she wouldn’t feel comfortable sharing her essay with a wider audience until everyone she wrote about was dead. When she made this comment, it struck me that the primary subject of my work, besides me of course, will never get to be hurt by my writing. Our friends and family might be upset by how I portray him, by how my memory of him differs from theirs, but, ultimately, he’s dead so I can say whatever I want about him!

When my grandmother was dying she said she didn’t want a funeral, she wanted a party, but she didn’t care if anyone came or not because she wasn’t going to be there. This was always one of my favorite anecdotes about my grandmother. If the dead care how we talk about them, they haven’t figured out a way to let us know. And that’s quite handy when you’re talking shit about them in your writing.

Barcelona is 250 pages of Holliday talking shit about her father, which the literary world was sorely missing…” –Newsweek

My classmates think I use humor to distance myself from my grief. They want me to be more vulnerable in my writing. I don’t think I’ve ever been accused of not being emotional enough. This class has got me rethinking my relationship with my grief.

For today’s in-class prompt, I wrote about going back into our apartment after the fire that consumed most of our possession (nbd). The teacher, visibly surprised, asked if this was recent. I shrugged and told her it had been three years. I thought, but did not say, I’m kind of over it. Because of course that’s not true, but the memory of that night doesn’t make my heart race anymore. Thinking about the fire doesn’t cause a list of mementos I lost and am never getting back to scroll through my mind. Instead I make bleak jokes about it. This is also what I do when I talk about my dad. I’m so flattered my classmates think I’m funny.

“Your wit makes this piece engaging and relatable” –An actual comment one of my classmates made on the most recent chapter I handed in for critique

Maybe finding the comedy in the tragedies of my life is another stage of grieving. Maybe someday I’ll be able to talk about these topics sincerely and it won’t feel forced and that will be a sign that I’m really “over” it. Maybe I shouldn’t act like humor and sincerity are at odds with one another. Maybe it’s okay to feel sad and make jokes about it.

Emma Holliday is well-traveled. After 5 years in Boston, she and her husband upended their lives to move to Berlin where she is currently writing a (funny) book about travel and grief and attempting to learn German.

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