53 // Writing About Grief with Meli Walker of the Writing Grief Podcast

“Really, the thing that keeps me writing is knowing that at some point I will have some kind of shared connection with readers.” —Meli Walker
In this episode, I talk to Meli Walker about writing about grief and finding connection. We talk about our new joint-venture project, the podcast called Writing Grief, and how she is writing grief. Meli reads a recently published essay and I’ll insert a content warning here since those with younger folks around them might want to use headphones for this subject matter, and those not able to listen to us talk (mainly indirectly) about childhood abuse and trauma might take a break this time, if you need it. Listen to hear us talk about the difference between writing about trauma with an eye to publication versus writing about trauma to heal and how to discern the two. And listen to get to know my co-host for the new Writing Grief Podcast. Links and Resources from this Episode: Sign up for my Writerly Love Letters sent every-other week and filled with support for your writing practice at rachelthompson.co/letters  
Transcript

Rachel Thompson
Welcome to Write, Publish and Shine, Meli Walker.

Meli Walker
Thanks for having me.

Rachel Thompson
So this is a bit of a different interview because at this point, you and I have spent a lot of time together, and we’ve recorded now ten episodes of the Writing Grief podcast. By the time listeners hear this episode of Publish and Shine episode, one of Writing Grief will be out. Because of this, I know a lot of very specific things about a very specific slice of your life. And you’re also a colleague of mine you’re the community advocate for the writing community. I host Writerly Love, I also really love that we’re going to get this different angle of conversation and Hone in on parts of your writing life in this conversation. So before we talk more about Writing Grief, the podcast and I get your side of why we did this thing in this format, I want to talk about bees.

Rachel Thompson
Can you tell our listeners about how working with bees and flowers keeps you here? As you’ve said before, I’m quoting from your website and how it relates to writing.

Meli Walker
Yes. I have been bee-obsessed for a while now. I take a lot of pictures of flowers as well. Bees and flowers evolve together. Bees are like their ancestor is, like a prehistoric wasp. And so every pollinator has a different shaped tongue to fit with different shapes of flowers. And so that, to me, has a relational beauty that I really like. And I became a beekeeper almost a decade ago. I don’t have my own bees right now, but I did do some beekeeping this summer, but bee keeping just going inside honeybee hives really helped me slow down.

Meli Walker
And it’s kind of a funny hobby to have for someone with anxiety to go into a nest of buzzing insects. But they’re so beautiful, and they make decisions by consensus. They’re sort of the Royal Queen, that sort of colonial structure of how we perceive honeybees. But actually, they’re a lot more collaborative and act as one organism. And the Queen is more there for scent and for guidance rather than as a ruler. So there’s lots of different ways to think about them in comparison to humans. But also, they’ve really helped me feel more connected to the real world, which is nature. So, yeah, they’re really beautiful.

Rachel Thompson
You’re our community advocates, as I mentioned in the Writerly Love Community. And you’re so collaborative by nature, too. So it seems like there’s that inspiration in terms of writing communities, also part of the bee community, and like, watching the bees, I guess, and learning from bees, too.

Meli Walker
Yeah. We don’t do anything alone as much as I’d like to, sometimes. We do things together.

Rachel Thompson
I know when you talk about your work, your writing, you’ve said that you’re seeking connection with you, the universal you me, meaning yourself. You Meli and the land. I’m sort of confused that quote, but I’m speaking in your voice there. So you, me and the land. Tell me about the connection that comes from your practice of writing.

Meli Walker
I think we know a lot more now in terms of neuroscience or psychology or these areas that think about human behavior, and we have confirmation that we’re all connected. We have confirmation that we’re relational and that we don’t do well on our own. And so as a person with depression and family history of depression, there’s a tendency to want to isolate, and it can be really easy to think in lonely and isolated ways. And so I think that connection is the antidote to that kind of difficulty.

Meli Walker
And so connection with readers as I write is really important to me. I guess, really, the thing that keeps me writing is knowing that at some point I will have some kind of shared connection with readers. And then just in terms of the land, I feel that all of the systems of nature, the way that trees and microorganisms and mycelium all work together in this symbiotic way is just a really nice living example for us. And obviously the first person to talk about that. I have lots of people that have taught me how to talk about that, living and dead, so I’m just trying to live that and writing helps me keep that connection both.

Rachel Thompson
That is great. I have a mantra that I use about my own writing and publishing timeline, especially when I’m feeling like I’m falling behind or having a hard day and particularly on hard days related to trauma and grief. So I will say in my own time, in my own way, and I know you live with chronic pain, depression, developmental trauma. How do you navigate that pushing forward that our culture has shaped us to bend towards, with the truth of where you’re at on a given day?

Meli Walker
That is a good phrase in my own time, in my own way. Well, I guess I am still navigating it all the time. I think I was very well trained in the way that I was raised in, sort of the dominant middle-class aspiring culture to push and to progress and to be successful in a certain way. And I’ve had to unlearn a lot of that, but also recognize that that’s kind of part of my conditioning. And so I’ll probably always have to work on that kind of shame or deal with that guilt and try to tell the difference.

Meli Walker
But a lot of grief has come about because of chronic pain. And like you say, depression and developmental trauma, too, sometimes has felt like a major obstacle to writing into completing things to the point that I can publish and share. And so I’ve had to think in slower time. I’ve had to learn about ableism from good teachers and how to have more self-compassion because it also makes me hard on other people. And so that’s kind of an embarrassing thing to admit, as well, as soon as I’m thinking about what other people should be doing, I know that there’s something going on with me and that’s me saying I’m not meeting my own needs. So I don’t know. I think I’m always dealing with it. And I’m always reminding myself, and I think you’re saying that you say to yourself is important. And I think probably from what I hear a lot of people that live with chronic pain or neurodivergent folks who don’t think in linear and progress, who don’t think of progress as being a set of stairs going up that time kind of swirls around that there’s all these ways of thinking and doing that are not necessarily modeled. But it’s also very exciting to see how many people are talking about these different ways of thinking and being able to have words to describe an experience that I know I’ve been having. And so that’s a very good thing. But it is still come with a lot of grief. And I’m hearing in my voice right now that I sound very like calm about it, but sometimes there are very frustrating days, and that’s just the way it is.

Rachel Thompson
Yeah. I feel that you write about tough things with an eye to publication, and I’m wondering how you know, when you’re on the scent of writing that can be shared and put out in the world. I know you recently published the Creative Nonfiction up on JMWW. And what steps did you take to prepare this work? It’s a beautiful a segment to essay before you sent it out into the world?

Meli Walker
Thank you. It’s the kind of piece where I feel like I’ve been working on it for a long time in terms of the themes and even the scene of making bread. And I mean, I suppose I could say I divided it into different parts based on the act of baking bread, and that that was something I just tried as an exercise or as a way of outlining the piece. But then when I tried it, I found I liked it. So I had that form of the steps of preparing bread.

Meli Walker
And I have to admit, that part of me was also making use of the fact that bread making has been a popular hobby. And so there was kind of a part of me that thought, well, there’s ways in which making bread can be wholesome and beautiful and wonderful and loving, and that there can also be this edge of fear and harm in a household where bread is made. And so I enjoyed that tension. And I also knew that that was going to help me with my theme of how parent child relationships, in which abuse is a factor are complicated in that way that there’s warmth and love and laughter and connection, and there is the more fearful and shame driven behaviour.

Rachel Thompson
It’s making me think, too, that I mean, I called it a segmented essay, but it’s a little bit of a hermit crab essay. I guess, too, so it’s disguised in the form of steps. It’s not really a recipe, but the steps of making bread. Did that help? The hermit crab essay is often described as like, that shell that kind of protects the writer a bit, too. Did it feel that way if you wrote it or as you published it?

Meli Walker
Yeah, definitely. As I said, I started it as a way of outlining it. So if I were to break up these four steps to how bread was made in our house specifically, it did help me sort of hang the different sections on different hooks, so to speak. And then I kept it. Obviously, I had to change some things. I submitted it and had it rejected. And then when I went to revise it before submitting it again, I added the last line as a kind of f-you, like I was like, annoyed, I was like, Well, what does this really mean? And something about that energy of feeling like, what is this actually about? When I use that last line to leave in the different steps, I kind of did it as like, I don’t know, a joke to myself, maybe? Or a way of play even is probably a better word. But then it ended up making the whole thing makes sense. And it brought the larger meaning, like the sort of, like Zoom out from the kitchen to the whole life and the impact.

Meli Walker
Originally, I was calling it imprints. And so the imprint of that experience being lifelong, even for such a simple scene in a kitchen, was what I wanted to get across.

Rachel Thompson
That last line. In particular. It has a great impact on this reader anyway, me, I actually pulled it up. I’m wondering, would you mind reading it? It’s a short piece, and I don’t want to put you on the spot because we didn’t prepare this, but would you mind reading it since we discussed it like that?

Meli Walker
Sure, I can read it.

Meli Walker
Okay, so this is Bread Days as published on JMWW.

Meli Walker
Kneed.

Meli Walker
My dad cradles the dough in his giant hands, flower scatters across the counter, covering the kitchen with the quiet of snow. As he folds, turns, and pushes the dough. I remember my own skin being pressed by his callous fingers.

Meli Walker
Proof. He tucks the bundle into a bowl covered with linen, the gentle clink of the steel bowl on the bricks of the hearth rings in my chest. Fire crackles the yeast into being. When the pale wheat begins to brown in the oven and warm waves of sweetness fill the air.

Meli Walker
The stale knot in my stomach, begins to soften.

Meli Walker
Bake while we wait for the bread. He gets down on all fours, sliding his knees along the red shag carpet. He becomes the hey monster, growling heeeey over and over as he lumbers along after me. When he catches me, I dropped to the floor like a dead bug. All that tickling without a chance to breathe. I thought I liked it. Enjoy two bodies combined. We fill our bellies with one. Those tiny bites of fresh bread with butter and honey will stay with me for decades.

Meli Walker
I would rather remember how he handled the dough instead of the way he pressed his hands on me. For years. I’ve needed the truth, looking for the proof baked into my heart so that I could enjoy bread, sex, anything.

Rachel Thompson
It’s such a beautiful piece.

Rachel Thompson
Thank you. I guess I’m kind of hearing to the idea that it’s resonating with me and thinking about past interviews, I’ve had to the idea of writing around the trauma that I think it was actually Alicia Elliot brought that by way of Canisia Lubrin, the author and editor who I haven’t had on the podcast before, but who I’ve met and appreciate her writing as well, particularly appreciate that sentiment. It’s like, okay, I don’t have to describe exactly what happened, but I can hint to it and create that emotional impact for the reader, which I guess I’m wondering, obviously, that’s an important aspect, though, too, is that it has to connect with the reader when you’re writing to be published in this way.

Rachel Thompson
And we talk about this a lot in one of our episodes of Writing Grief, we talked about what’s the difference between writing to process trauma versus writing to be published. The question is, I guess, can you speak to that idea a little bit, and maybe even through the lens of this piece? Sure.

Meli Walker
And I’m also realizing that one of your previous questions asked, how did I know it was maybe ready to share, I think, was sort of what you were asking. So I think definitely writers like Canisia Lubrin with that quote. And I also think of Roxane Gay who we talked about in a few of our episodes. But writing about trauma and the idea that we don’t need to write the worst events or the details. And I think anyone who’s had trauma and specific events that they can remember or ongoing events knows what that means.

Meli Walker
So I hope that’s clear to everyone but to not have to write the worst part, basically, to not have to write the details of what happened because it also fits with the experience of it. In my opinion, it’s the impact and the sort of fall out how those experiences affected me for years. And that’s what that last line is saying is that days like this and everything that’s going on sort of underneath and unsaid and unspoken in those scenes, anyways, is still affecting me and has imprinted itself on me and has affected the way I see the world.

Meli Walker
And so I think that it’s really important to write about how we’ve been impacted by difficult things. And I think that some people need to write the details of what happened for themselves so that they know as part of maybe a truth-telling or as part of therapy or, obviously in safe ways. But I actually don’t think that that’s necessary to write the details. I think that for me, the reason why I’ve had to do that in the past, as a way of explaining it as a way of knowing that it’s true what I remember, what I experienced.

Meli Walker
I think that that’s why we do healing work, whatever that looks like so that we can believe ourselves so that we can believe our own truth. And then the writing that we share. I think distance is a good word, whether it’s time or therapy. It’s not a strange men. It’s not being unfeeling or disconnected from your knowing it’s having had your mind change even or to say, I’ve said this before, but I used to feel this, and now I feel this when you can start to write about things that are hard and you have different feelings about it or you’re sort of meaning-making about it shift changes, grows, that’s how I know I’m getting closer to being able to share it. This piece bread days is the first time in sharing outright, even if it’s hinted at the abuse that I experienced as a child. And so it’s very difficult to think about how that will be received. But for the most part, I feel comfortable with what’s being shared. I have had enough distance to be able to create that piece and to say this is what happened. And this is how I’ve been impacted. And I feel that I’m safe to share that.

Meli Walker
And I feel that because I haven’t written the details and I’ve made it into a scene with these undercurrents of difficulty or shame that I’m not putting the reader in a position of them being unsafe.

Rachel Thompson
We started collaborating and have been busy bees with creating a podcast all about connection because I guess our connection is that we do our writing for connection, these sort of layers, I guess to that, too, can we talk about the podcast Writing Grief? And I’m wondering if I can put you on the spot now to say, how do you define grief writers? Who are they and where are they at?

Meli Walker
It’s something that I don’t think we’ve made up this phrase of putting the word grief and writers together. I think that if you hear that grief writers and you feel like that might be me, then it’s probably you. I think it’s anyone who wants to write about grief, and it’s a full experience, and it’s a word that has a lot of meaning behind it. And so it’s going to be maybe a bit different for everybody. But I think grief writers, writers writing about grief are people that want to face those things and have almost a joy or desire about revealing that experience from their own perspective.

Meli Walker
It’s about using our own experiences or peak or definitive or transformative experiences as material for writing, but also because that material is something that we deeply want to understand, and we know that it might not be about flowers. It might not just be about a nice day in a Meadow with flowers that any nice day in a Meadow with flowers somewhere there is grief or sorrow kind of lurking. And maybe that’s just my haunted mind. But I think that the reason why I can appreciate flowers and meadows and bees and beauty is because I’ve also had to negotiate pain and had to live with pain.

Meli Walker
I just hope that people hear grief writers if they haven’t already and feel a bit of excitement about being met and being seen and meeting other writers who will read the work. That’s difficult within reason and respectful boundaries. But I think they’re everywhere. Yeah.

Rachel Thompson
I’m so excited about meeting those writers as well with that. What was the most surprising thing for you? I mentioned we produced ten episodes already, and we’ll be releasing them over the next few months. What was the most surprising thing for you about producing the podcast so far?

Meli Walker
That we have done it! [laughs]

Meli Walker
One thing I like about working with you, Rachel, is that you do the thing, and it’s been so great to be working with you and to get momentum and to keep going, even though we were doing it sort of on the side and from our own creative or passion project is it sometimes called. And so I’m truly a moment being a bit silly, but I am truly surprised that we’ve made a thing. One of my difficulties is finishing the thing, but in another way, it also feels very satisfying and rewarding and exciting to think about people listening, having their own reflections about their own meaning-making and how they’re telling their own stories.

Rachel Thompson
Yeah, I’m someone who pushes sometimes to make the thing. But one of the things I liked about our relationship in this, too, is that there was a lot of intentionality and slowing down and being careful in terms of producing it. So we produced all the episodes in advance rather than kind of pushing ourselves into a rushed schedule. So yeah, it was a good collaboration. I’m wondering if anything also surprised you about the subject of grief in writing, like good or bad as we kind of delve into those topics.

Meli Walker
I think it’s more of realizing that there are just more people who are trying to understand writing about hard things than I really could perceive or guess at. And since we’ve been doing this on the side and we’re not going on a big tour of promotion or anything like that, it sort of tends to come up more casually in conversations with friends and family. But other writers and I find people are interested and intrigued, and they kind of come a little closer. Whereas I think grief itself, like our personal experiences of grief as we’ve talked about on the show, can sometimes repel people because of their natural fear to not want those things to happen to them, whether they mean to do that or not.

Meli Walker
And I think that people are thinking about how to write their own stories, how to tell their own stories, and how to talk about those more poignant and difficult, sad things. So I’ve been surprised that again and then again, not surprised because so many writers are writing about grief. But even so called non writers or people who didn’t know might like to write. I’ve told, and they are. Oh, really? I’m curious to know if this inspires anyone to start even just journaling about their experiences. That would be so cool.

Meli Walker
Wonderful. What are you currently working on in your own writing, Meli?

Meli Walker
I am working on the memoir that I keep claiming I’m working on throughout this podcast that we made. So I’m working on the thing, and I’m in the stage of outlining the book links memoir, and I’m also enjoying writing flash or short creative nonfiction pieces. So I am revising some of those. I think I thought I would have more new material at this point, but also trying to appreciate the amount of work and meaning-making that has gone into making the podcast, and that that is also a part of my writing life.

Meli Walker
I come from theater and before this writing life, I also used to write plays and used to do some live storytelling, so I feel grateful for that experience, and I also don’t want to leave that behind. I really like hearing things aloud. I like live storytelling if we can do that again some day. And for now we have the digital option. So I want to do more of that. And actually, at some point would like to record some stories as well, because there are some that I’ve written for being told aloud.

Meli Walker
And so at some point I’d like to start doing more recording, too. That’s a lot of things. But yeah, that’s great.

Rachel Thompson
In this podcast. We often talk about lit mags, and you already shared the story that you’ve published with JMWW. Where are you sending your writing currently? And what do you look for in lime before you submit your work?

Meli Walker
Honestly, I look at the list of Editors. I look at the masthead, I like to see who’s part of the lit mag. I like reading those bios. It’s also a submission part of the submission practice of deciding fit, too. So in folks bios on lit mags, for example, or when I go and look at work that they’ve published, if I feel like they’re open to grief writing, or if I feel like they’re open to stories that are difficult but important, then that makes me feel a little more safe about submitting to those lit mags.

Meli Walker
I think that that can be difficult because that means I’m making assumptions about those people. So obviously I’m doing other things like reading the work that has been published, trying to find similar pieces, so to speak, like that might deal with either similar issues or maybe have like, a similar form. I think I do make some assessments based on how the submission guidelines are written. So it seems like there’s a level of care with the submission guidelines about how the work will be treated is there justice there, is there equity there in terms of how they’re doing their calls for submissions, even if that doesn’t include me, are the submission guidelines exciting is a theme that calls me. I might write to that. Yeah, I’m still new to figuring out the lit mag landscape. I find I need to do a lot of looking and reading before I submit. It’s worth the time. And it’s respectful to the work that it makers do. Like having worked in nonprofit arts before. I recognize that it’s a lot of work. It’s possibly underpaid, and I understand that that’s a specific life that those folks are choosing, and I really appreciate that they’re doing that work. And so I always want to be careful about whether I submit to them or not because disrespect for their time. It’s kind of like when you’ve been a server in a restaurant, you know to, like, tip properly and not complain. I don’t know. It’s the thing.

Rachel Thompson
Yeah, it’s more care that you’re bringing in connection. So thank you for sharing that about your log submission choices and also philosophy. We finish with a quick lit round with my guests these days, so I’m going to invite you to finish these sentences.

Rachel Thompson
The first is being a writer is…

Meli Walker
Ordinary, but magical.

Rachel Thompson
Literary magazines are…

Meli Walker
Important.

Rachel Thompson
Editing requires…

Meli Walker
Distance and self reflection.

Rachel Thompson
Rejection for writer means…

Meli Walker
Playing the odds and getting even closer to an acceptance.

Rachel Thompson
And finally, writing community is…

Meli Walker
Everything. We don’t do anything all alone, and we need each other.

Rachel Thompson
Well, thanks so much Melly for being my guest here on this podcast today, and also my collaborator on the Writing Grief podcast. Maybe you can tell people where they can listen to Writing Grief.

Meli Walker
Thank you for considering listening to Writing Grief. It’s found everywhere you can get your podcast. The trailer is out now, and episode one comes out soon. There’s also a website WritingGrief.com where you can find all of our show notes. We’ve been keeping track of all of our little references, so if you’re interested or curious about what you hear, you can go there. I hope you’ll hit subscribe. I hope you’ll tune in to us wherever you listen to your podcast.

Rachel Thompson
Thanks.

Meli Walker
Thank you.

So, that was my conversation with Meli Walker. I’m sure by now you want to hear more from Meli, I know I love and really appreciate being in dialogue with her in our new podcast, Writing Grief. You can subscribe wherever you get your podcasts and find out more about the pod and find all the show notes on WritingGrief.com.

The Write, Publish, and Shine podcast is brought to you by me, Rachel Thompson. You can learn more about the work I do to help writers, write, publish, and shine at rachelthompson.co. When you’re there, sign up for my Writerly Love letters, sent every-other Thursday and filled with support for your writing practice.⁠

If this episode encouraged you to write about grief and make connections with your writing, I would love to hear all about it. You can tag me on social media: rachelthompson Twitter or @rachelthompsonauthor IG.

And tell other luminous writers about this episode. You can do this by sending them to the podcast at rachelthompson.co/podcast or searching for Write, Publish, and Shine wherever they get their podcasts.

Thank you for listening—I encourage you to keep rising to the challenge and writing luminously!

My guest spoke to me from…the unceded territories of the Coast Salish peoples, including the Squamish, Tsleil-Waututh, Tsawwassen, and Musqueam Nations, in so-called Greater Vancouver,

And I am a guest in the South Sinai, Egypt, on lands historically and presently occupied by the el Tarabin Bedouin.

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