The Young Widow’s Book of Home Improvement is Virginia Lloyd’s haunting account of her short time with her beloved husband before his tragic death, followed by her efforts to reconstruct a self “from the wreckage of a life that was no longer possible,” while at the same time overseeing extensive renovations to her home.
Before I even finished the memoir, “a true story of love and renovation,” I knew I wanted to talk with Virginia about what it took to write about her devastating loss while she was so young and newly grieving—and how she discovered the relationship between her efforts to rebuild her life, on the one hand, and her home renovations, on the other.
Virginia’s response follows.
The home my husband John and I had shared in Australia was waterlogged from the porous sandstone foundations soaking up excess rainwater. This led to “rising damp,” whereby the excess water defies gravity, travels up the walls, splitting paint and creating cracked window and plaster dust (“like those delicate mounds of sifted flour in the mixing bowl before you add the eggs”), as well as patches of mold across the ceiling. I got hundreds of bricks drilled so that fresh air could reach inside and slowly dry it out, and watched the drilling of the bricks, the mess it created, and the process of the bricks drying.
One day I saw the link between rebuilding, grieving from the deepest part of me, and what the world saw on my surface, and the renovation of the house that went from its foundations to its repainted interior and exterior. It was a simple but powerful connection that gave me a metaphor and a structure to work with. I could not have written this book without it.
Writing the book was certainly part of my grieving. I’m not sure that it helped me heal more quickly, or even more slowly, than I would have if I had not written it. To write it meant to relive the joys of my relationship with my husband as well as the harrowing depths of our challenges, John’s physical pain, and the worst of my grief. I had to bring those things to life for the reader, which meant dwelling in the lows as well as the highs of all that had gone before it. I sometimes look at the book and wonder how I did it. I’m very proud that I wrote it and that it was published.
It’s important not to confuse the raw details of memory, those myriad scraps you might jot down on a shopping receipt or in your journal, with the hard-nosed selection of relevant material for a book-length memoir. In early drafts, you do need to capture the visceral details of place, character, sounds, sights, and even smells. We bring all our senses to reading, so our writing must do that, too. As you revise, you begin to feel that some of the stories or other elements you believed essential to the work suddenly have no business being there. This is a sign that you are paring back unnecessary and irrelevant material, and letting the story tell itself through careful selection.
Work in Progress
I am wrestling with another work of nonfiction now. This manuscript, almost a complete draft, has been very difficult. I’m trying to write about the relationship between words and music, weaving through it stories from my musical childhood and that of my grandmother whose musical career ended prematurely due to changes beyond her control. There are so many musical young women who become writers—Jane Austen’s heroines are the first pianists in fiction, for example, and are based on her own musical training—that I’m curious as to where all that musicality goes.
Trying to decide if your manuscript is a memoir or a family history? Read Virginia’s take on the topic.