The Writing Life: How Teaching Helped Me Reclaim My Voice

A sunset that fades from a dark purple-pink at the top, to a pink orange, before becoming yellow at the black horizon of trees. Overlayed are handwritten words that are small and illegible.

The summer my dad was dying, I went to work during the day, taught writing classes two nights a week, and then took the commuter rail to my parents’ house to help my mom. I watched her bathe, dress, shave, and reposition him in bed. The slew of hospice nurses left our home teary-eyed as they witnessed her desperation to keep him alive. I consoled her at the kitchen table, where she and I sat all those sleepless nights, refilling our coffee cups. 

Sometimes when I walked to the kitchen from the bathroom, I paused by the open door to my parents’ room and watched his chest slowly rise and fall as he slept in his hospital bed. A part of me wished he would stop breathing already. I felt desensitized to the deterioration. Heartless.

I stopped writing.


As a writing instructor, the number one question I get is, “How do you find something to write about?” Don’t write to entertain. Write to get something off your chest. If you keep coming back to the same set of memories, they hold importance, and you need to honor them. Pin those memories to the wall and find the question that needs to be answered. 

It’s not that I wasn’t writing at all. I wasn’t writing about my feelings. I busied myself by putting together a multi-week nonfiction curriculum for an Adult Education course and talked about writing with a newfound passion. 

All I could write was about writing. I didn’t know talking about nonfiction could be so liberating. I loved the feeling of forgetting myself when I was teaching, immersed in helping others find and tell their stories. In class we skipped the small talk, going straight for the contagious joy and nostalgia of memory. I forgot about updating dad’s Final Arrangements spreadsheet in my Google Drive. I forgot about the devastating look on my mom’s face. I forgot I was supposed to be grieving. 

I couldn’t write because I was already processing grief in the last year of my dad’s life, long before his body followed the departure of his mind. But I needed to confront loss before I could allow myself to write anything else. Writer’s block is not really about being uninspired. It is a resistance to writing about feeling. Resistance to actually feel. The subconscious pushes us to confront our shame, our anger, our brokenness, to move past the blockage.


After my father was gone, my mom draped a black shawl over her bedroom mirror and swiped the carpet where the hospital bed left its imprints. His plaid blue bathrobe still hung on the hook behind the bathroom door. I sat in the shade on the back porch with my journal in my lap. I noted the date on the top right corner and watched shadows of the garden plants tremble on the blank pages. There were no words, only keeping a tally of the days after.

Personal essays lend themselves to writing about trauma, but it is nearly impossible to write when one is in the midst of it. Writing nonfiction requires a certain level of self-awareness that comes with distancing yourself from pain. 

It is hard to take my own advice. The truth is, I couldn’t write about grief until I felt the weight of its aftermath. I couldn’t cry anymore, only feeling angry at my dad for the black scarf mom wore around her neck, like a noose. I blamed him for taking her away from me when he was ill. I blamed him for breaking her heart. For breaking mine. 

I kept seeing him in my dreams, storming out of the kitchen while mom cried over the sink; in the driver’s seat, speeding in silence while my mom and I braced for impact. The last time I was running up the stairs from something unspeakable. I slammed the door behind me and was flooded with a blinding light. He was sitting there, his stocky body hunched over a lounge chair in an empty room. 

“What are you doing here?” 

He leaned forward and opened his mouth, as if to speak, and then I woke up.


Each week I rearranged the classroom furniture to my liking and waited for my fellow writers to fill this space with life. In class, students were getting emotional during workshops. Little by little, I felt something break in me. Someone would often heave a great sigh and say, “This feels like group therapy.” With tears in their eyes, I’d feel overcome with a visceral feeling, a knot in my chest loosening. Leaning forward, my arms on the table, I felt as though I could reach out and hug them, but all I did was nod.

Once, when everyone left after class, a crimson red sunset stretched across the room, and I didn’t want to leave. I erased my notes from the whiteboard and pushed the chairs neatly against the tables, tucking them in for the night. Another instructor leaned in the doorway, seeing me tidying up, and stopped to chat. 

“This place is like home,” I said. 

“Oh,” he shrugged his shoulders, “I wouldn’t go that far.”

But I would, I thought.

My favorite icebreaker on the first day of class is to ask everyone to name the last book they read. We talk about books, and I follow up with instructions to write down a detail that resonated, no matter how insignificant or bizarre it may seem. Then I ask them to write a paragraph reflecting on why they believe that detail was relevant. For five more minutes we go deeper, elaborating on where we are in life now and why that detail holds meaning. Suddenly everyone starts to write in a great flurry, an ensemble of rustling pages and pens pressing on paper – hard. It sounds so beautiful I could cry.

Olga Katsovskiy, writer/editor/educator, is a Creative Nonfiction Editor at Minerva Rising Press, Associate Creative Nonfiction Editor at JMWW, and Reckon Review nonfiction reader. She works in a healthcare organization in Boston and is a writing instructor at the Cambridge Center for Adult Education. Her essays appear in Atticus Review: The Attic, Barzakh Magazine, Brevity Blog, Gone Lawn Journal, Pithead Chapel, and elsewhere. Read more at theweightofaletter.com.  

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