Bacon on the Bookshelf

Savory picks for the free range reader

June 23, 2017
by jenniferpuryear

Option B: Facing Adversity, Building Resilience, and Finding Joy

It can feel daunting and even overwhelming to try to find the right thing to say to a friend who is grieving – particularly one suffering the loss of a child, spouse, or parent. Mary Raymond returns to Bacon today to share what she’s learned from the New York Times bestseller Option B: Facing Adversity, Building Resilience, and Finding Joy, by Sheryl Sandberg and Adam Grant.

Mary Raymond

From Mary: Most of us know Sheryl Sandberg from her 2013 book Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead. Her book encouraged women to take risks, sit at the table, and embrace leadership opportunities at work. Sandberg started a movement and rose to fame as the newest version of the Silicon Valley unicorn: the woman who had it all.

On May 1, 2015, Sandberg lost her husband, Dave Goldberg, when he died suddenly of a cardiac arrhythmia and head injury while they were on vacation with friends. Lean In introduced readers to Sandberg’s love of data and her unique ability to translate complex research into practical guidance. In Option B she uses those same gifts to shepherd herself and her children out of the grief, loneliness, and despair they experienced after Goldberg’s death.

“Grief,” writes Sandberg, “is a demanding companion. In those early days and weeks and months it was always there, not just below the surface, but on the surface.” Sandberg acknowledges that she had no shortage of support from friends and family. However, she soon learned that not all attempts at support proved helpful. An acquaintance wrote her a letter explaining that she had lost her husband years before and found that time had not lessened her grief. “Try as I might,” the letter read, “I can’t come up with a single thing that I know will help you.” The letter chilled Sandberg and motivated her to call her co-author, Adam Grant, a psychologist and professor at Wharton. Was there really no end to this grief? Were she and her children doomed to soldier stoically through a joyless existence?

Grant helped Sandberg understand that “while grief was unavoidable, there were things I could do to lessen the anguish for myself and my children… While my grief would have to run its course, my beliefs and actions could shape how quickly I moved through the void and where I ended up.” Sandberg longed for Grant to show her a way out of the darkness, and the flashlight he gave her was the belief that “resilience is the strength and speed of our response to adversity – and we can build it.”

Buoyed by this insight, Sandberg learned that there are three “p’s” that inhibit recovery from setbacks: personalization, pervasiveness, and permanence. She quickly realized that she had fallen into each trap, starting with personalization. She had blamed herself for Dave’s death, convinced that if she had gotten to him sooner he would not have died. Barring that, she believed she could have noticed the signs of his impending cardiac event, stopping it before it proved fatal.

Pervasiveness convinces the bereaved that the loss will impact every aspect of life, offering no safe haven in which to recover in peace. Sandberg realized that once she was able to stop personalizing her role in her husband’s death, she “started to notice that not everything was terrible. My son and daughter were sleeping through the night, crying less, and playing more.” She returned to work, and though she felt fragile and confused by previously familiar routines, she treasured the moments when she was drawn into a discussion. For brief interludes – sometimes only for a second – she forgot the painful memories of her husband lying lifeless on the floor. This tiptoeing into normalcy chipped away at the pervasiveness of her grief.

The permanence of grief proved hardest for Sandberg to navigate. Though many people assured her that her grief would subside over time, she did not believe them. She projected forward to all the milestones that he would miss, and “the fear of forever without Dave was paralyzing.” Rabbi Nat Ezray counseled Sandberg to expect things to feel awful. On its face this seemed like particularly discouraging advice, but Sandberg realized the wisdom of such thinking when she noticed that she had “stronger second-derivative negative feelings than ever before. I wasn’t just grief-stricken; I was grief-stricken that I was grief-stricken. I wasn’t just anxious; I was meta-anxious.” Expecting to feel grief and anxiety relieved Sandberg of the accompanying judgment of the appropriateness of those feelings and of the pace of her own recovery.

As Sandberg learned which traps to avoid, she recovered her sense of agency. This came as a welcome relief after weeks and months of feeling entirely controlled by her grief. Encouraged by what she saw as her own growing resilience, she could again look outward and recognize that “we all deal with loss: jobs lost, loves lost, lives lost. The question is not whether these things will happen. They will, and we will have to face them. Resilience comes from deep within us and from support outside us… Sometimes we have less control than we think. Other times we have more.”

Even so, Sandberg pointed out that there are after-effects of going through adversity that compound the sense of grief and loss. For her, one of the worst was the feeling of isolation. While many friends and family members rallied around her, others withdrew. Intellectually, she understood that those who said nothing to her about her loss were likely just trying to avoid causing her more pain. She realized she had done the same thing with suffering friends, initially offering words of encouragement and then never bringing up the painful subject again for fear of saying the wrong thing.

Ever the teacher, Sandberg understood that since everyone will experience adversity, perhaps offering guidance on how to be a supportive friend would be beneficial to the people around her – and help her feel less alone. One month after Goldberg’s death, she shared a post on Facebook which “thanked my family and friends who had helped me through those incomprehensible first weeks. Then I did what proved so difficult to do with friends and colleagues face-to-face: I described how a casual greeting like ‘How are you?’ hurt because it didn’t acknowledge that anything out of the ordinary had happened. I pointed out that if people asked instead ‘How are you today?’ it showed that they were aware that I was struggling to get through each day.”

After the post, Sandberg noticed an immediate change in how friends and colleagues interacted with her. Because she had told them what she needed, they felt more comfortable approaching her – and she felt less alone. Additionally, strangers shared with her their own stories of grief and what her post had meant to them. Believing that sharing her pain had helped others increased her feelings of optimism and resilience.

Sheryl Sandberg

Before she lost her husband, Sandberg had been a champion of women’s empowerment, so a particularly painful casualty of her grief was her diminished self-confidence. Sandberg learned that “loss of confidence is another symptom of pervasiveness: we are struggling in one area and suddenly we stop believing in our capabilities in other areas… My confidence crumbled overnight.” In those early days back at work she struggled to pay attention in meetings and felt ashamed of her still raw emotions. Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg proved particularly comforting during this time. After she bemoaned how she had flailed in a meeting with a client, Zuckerberg calmly dissented and reminded her about two key points she had made which no one else had considered. Sandberg blossomed when someone pointed out her contributions and shrank when someone suggested she do less work “during this difficult time.” While empathy was appreciated, encouragement and inclusion buoyed her confidence.

When she wrote Lean In, Sandberg received criticism from single parents on her advice to find a partner who shared 50/50 in the work of raising children and maintaining a home. After losing her husband she acknowledged, “now I see how insensitive and unhelpful this was to so many single moms who live with 100/0.” Her wealth, status, and liberal bereavement leave gave her the space to heal without the additional burden of financial stress. Sandberg argues that “compassion at work shouldn’t be a luxury; it’s important to develop policies that give people the time off and the support they need.”

Slowly emerging from her grief, Sandberg found her curiosity returning as she examined how adversity can lead to “post-traumatic growth.” Richard Tedeschi and Lawrence Calhoun studied this concept and noted that while some survivors of trauma continued to struggle with anxiety and depression after the triggering event, others bounced back to their original state of mental health. Interestingly, though, a third group emerged: those who bounced forward after tragedy. Tedeschi and Calhoun learned that this sub-group did not pretend they had not suffered. Rather, they acknowledged the coexistence of their vulnerability and their strength. Sandberg learned that “when we face the slings and arrows of life, we are wounded and the scars stay with us. But we can walk away with greater resolve.” Sandberg profiles survivors of adversity who pointed to their increased perspective and gratitude, deeper interpersonal connections, and greater senses of spirituality and meaning as welcome byproducts of painful experiences.

As Sandberg’s friend Katie Couric pointed out, “we’re all terminal.” We will all experience loss and adversity and watch our loved ones endure the same. The gifts of Option B are Sandberg’s assurance that we can endure pain and still experience joy again and her guidance on how to support our friends during their own dark days.

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From Mary: Mavis (red collar) lost her brother Max in December 2015. Although she misses him, she has shown resilience in exploring her Option B as an only child.

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Top image: <a href=’https://www.123rf.com/profile_kavram’>kavram / 123RF Stock Photo</a>

Image of Sheryl Sandberg: https://www.theodysseyonline.com/10-lessons-learned-sheryl-sandbergs-mantra-lean

June 20, 2017
by jenniferpuryear

The Sewanee Review: Summer Interview with Adam Ross

Photo by Jack Barnwell

I love to dip in and out of The New Yorker, Garden & Gun, other glossies. I do interplanetary research on another species – men – by reading my husband’s Esquire. I hadn’t picked up a literary magazine in years until a Nashville friend – Adam Ross – took over as editor of The Sewanee Review in 2016. Now I’ve added it to the stack, with pleasure! It’s a great place to browse short fiction, essays, and poetry, featuring new and established voices – Adam’s ambitious for this Grande Dame of letters to become even more relevant, more fresh, and more widely read. He’s gotten great ink in The New York Times and other publications, including The Paris Review and Chapter 16. The second issue arrived in my mailbox a couple of weeks ago, and Adam is kind enough to stop in at Bacon today for a conversation.

Hi Adam! The second issue is beautiful! I’ve got a few questions for you about it, but first, some general questions about your job as editor.

In your interview with Brooks Egerton at Chapter16 a few months back, you describe the pleasure of working with writers who submit their work. What has been the most surprising aspect of the job to you so far?

That I experience the same thrill seeing debut writers in print as I do my own work. There’s an aspect of midwifery to editing this material that makes you feel a degree of pride and ownership of it. I heard from Jen Logan Meyer yesterday, whose story we just published. She wrote to tell me that a professor she knows decided to teach it. And it made my day. Because for a writer being published for the first time is the most concrete indication that they can do this – write something worth reading. It means they’re on their way.

The Sewanee Review has a storied past. What would you like people to be saying about it in 5 years? In 15?

That it became relevant to an even broader audience and that it was where they first read, say, Sidik Fofana. That readers associate us with such literary discoveries and consequently trust us to bring them the news about what’s out there. And that the Review is still great, even after 140 years.

What is the community of literary journals like? Do the editors know each other and help each other out or advise new kids on the block? Who do you admire in the field?

I admire Chad Harbach, Lorin Stein, David Yezzi, and David Lynn of n +1, The Paris Review, Johns Hopkins Review, and The Kenyon Review respectively. There are so many others, too many to list here; however, the Davids and Lorin have given me specific advice about various matters and I’ve really appreciated their generosity.

And the community, I’ve found, is just generally very collegial. We have a particular place in the literary ecosystem. We are a place of nourishment, a proving ground, for up and coming writers. We give other writers a place to publish pieces they might not be able to elsewhere, even Pulitzer winners. We have a remarkable essay by Richard Russo coming out in the Summer issue. It’s over 24,000 words and it’s remarkable. No glossy magazine could publish something of that length.

The jobs we do change us (maybe). True or false? Some of my friends’ daughters had you as a teacher, years ago, at Harpeth Hall. How did that job change you? It’s early yet – but how is your work at The Sewanee Review affecting you?

Adam Ross

I taught 7th and 8th graders at Harpeth Hall for four years and was then the writer in residence for one year. How did that job change me? Too many ways to list here but here’s a favorite: Before my daughter, Margot, was born, my 7th graders threw me a surprise baby shower. They gave me a box in which all of them wrote me a note with advice about how to be a great Dad. Wallace Morgan said this: Sometimes when I talk with you, I don’t need you to say anything. I just need you to listen.

It makes me want to cry, thinking about that. This kid was 12. Guess what? Just spoke to her on the phone yesterday. She’s a publicist, working in New York City, and she called me for some advice. She’s as perceptive now as she was then.

As for my work at The Sewanee Review, well, I’ll pass this along as important and oft-forgotten advice to writers: Get that first draft done. It’s been amazing to witness writers as great Lauren Groff, Hannah Pittard, Stephanie Danler, and Sidik Fofana move from their initial draft to something solid, refined, and finished. All of them do such a good job of getting words down on paper first, or first words down, unselfconsciously, in the full faith that they’ll have a better idea of what they’re doing after they get to the end of something. It’s been encouraging to me as I’ve continued to work on my own novel. It’s helped me trust that I’ll figure things out down the road.

I know you spend a fair amount of time in the car between Nashville and Sewanee. Music, audiobooks or cell phone?

Music (I just switched to Apple music, ten dollars a month, all you can consume), Audible (I’m currently listening to Toni Morrison read Beloved, though I highly recommend Rosamund Pike reading Pride and Prejudice), and cell phone (it’s my favorite time to chat with friends).

Okay, let’s turn to the second issue of the Review.

The most suspenseful and surprising piece in this issue, to me, is “Cow Man,” by Tom Franklin (Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter), a short story with both paranormal and horror elements while remaining beautifully literary. Do you know Franklin? Did he write this piece specifically for the Review?

Okay, so correction. That’s the first chapter of his new novel. And I’m glad you liked it, because I think it’s amazing. There’s a great story of how it came to my attention. I was a winner of the Berlin Prize and have been a reader for it for the past several years. Two years ago, Franklin applied. I happened to luck out and get him in my pile of submissions. The excerpt, “Cow Man,” knocked me out. It lit up all my pleasure centers, as Dwight Garner likes to say: it had narrative propulsion and beautiful writing. He was my finalist in my group, along with Adam Johnson. Molly Antopol too (I got a good packet). They all won the prize. (Yay!)

Tom Franklin

Flash forward a year, Tom’s off to Berlin, I’m the new editor of the Review and I’m like, “Hey, Tom, any chance I could publish that first chapter.” And Tom being the great guy he is was like, “Hell yes.” Enjoy the coming attraction.

I was also quite taken by the three short stories by Monica Lavin, one of Mexico’s most prolific and respected modern writers, whom I’d never heard of before reading this issue of The Sewanee Review. I think one of the best things a literary journal can do is pique the reader’s curiosity about an author. It seems to me you’re aiming to expose readers to authors they haven’t heard of, as well as featuring names they’ll recognize… am I right about that? 

Yes, and I’m so glad you liked Lavin’s stories. They floored me. So disturbing. So vivid. Such powerful statements about what it means to be a woman in Mexico. The Monica Lavin stories came to us via Sewanee School of Letters grad Dorothy Potter Snyder, a translator who approached me about this discovery she’d made. She gives her students money to buy books when they’re traveling in Mexico and one of them returned with Lavin. So yes, I’m just paying Dorothy’s gift forward to American readers. It is the first time the Review has published translated work. And yes, I’m always trying to mix it up between new writers and established ones. So when we published Stephanie Danler’s essay this winter, or Lauren Groff’s, we’re trying to give readers a different look at a writer plying a different genre. Same goes for Richard Russo, or my new managing editor, Alec Hill, who co-authored the Jill McCorkle interview this spring and will be publishing his first nonfiction piece, “The Waterman,” about his summer working at an oyster farm, this summer.

Alice McDermott, unlike Monica Lavin, is known to many American readers (National Book Award for Charming Billy). McDermott’s piece speaks most directly to novelists about craft, specifically about rereading work while writing it. What did you find most interesting about that piece?

Alice McDermott

Alice’s piece blew my mind. God, she is such a pro. She gave the most remarkable reading from her new novel at the Sewanee Writers’ Conference this summer. Keep a look out for her new novel. What I found most interesting about her craft lecture, which is called “Only Connect,” is that part of the challenge of the novelist is to discover the internal connections in their novels as if they didn’t write it. This is a beautiful idea. It implies, at least to me, that a novel in even its most nascent stages already contains the DNA of its fully realized state.

Another nonfiction piece that really caught my attention is “Scenes from a Marriage,” by Hannah Pittard. Her novel Listen to Me tells the story of a strained marriage, and Pittard and her husband divorced not long after its publication. Pittard’s essay for the Review is brutally honest, not least on the subject of how (some) novelists use dialogue and scenes directly from their own lives and the lives of those around them. I can’t think of anywhere else I would have read a meditation like this… maybe The New Yorker? Do you see some overlap between pieces in The New Yorker and the Review?

I don’t see overlap but I’ll take the compliment. I’m a huge fan of Hannah’s, ever since her first novel, The Fates Will Find Their Way. I contacted her after listening to her new novel, Listen to Me, on Audible, dying to work with her. She is a big Mr. Peanut fan and so we got to talking about the challenges of writing about marriage and then she drops this bomb: On the day my novel published, I discovered my husband was cheating on me with my best friend. Well, her novel anticipates this very thing happening. The same tensions are there. So we began to delve into the very grey area between autobiography and fiction. I think the results are riveting.

Another similarity between The New Yorker and the Review is the sprinkling of poetry throughout each. You open the most recent issue of the Review with Five Love Poems by Kaveh Akbar. Akbar’s first poem begins –

“I meant to invite you/to my confession/and maybe I did/it might have gotten lost in the mail/or in the back/of my mouth…”.

The idea of a confession getting lost in the back of your mouth – that is just arresting. How did you discover Akbar’s work, or did he discover you?

Oh, Kaveh is very much out there, publishing everywhere. I’d read him in all sorts of places. We were just lucky he was willing to submit work to us. I will add that discovering these poets is easier for everyone than they might think. In the Fall issue, our 500th, we’ll be publishing new work by Donika Kelly. How did I discover her? The Vanderbilt Creative Writing Series.

The editors of TSR have selected Mary Ruefle as the thirty-first recipient of the Aiken Taylor Award in Modern American Poetry. Other recipients include luminaries like Wendell Berry and Louise Gluck. You include two of Ruefle’s poems and a “Piece of Prose” from her in this issue. How did the editors choose Ruefle, and what do you find most special or interesting about her work?

Mary Ruefle, Photo credit: Michelle Eikenbary

These are great questions. We made the decision about the Aiken Taylor Award in Modern Poetry as a staff. I had certain poets in mind, I reached out to quite a few poets that I knew as to who they considered deserving of such an honor, we came up with a longlist, the staff and I winnowed that to a shortlist, and then made a final decision. What do I love about Ruefle? Before I answer that, everyone should read her remarkable book of poetry lectures, “Madness, Rack, and Honey.” This is a first-rate literary intelligence at work and her essay “On Sentimentality” is seminal. Maybe more than anything what I love most about her are her perfect lateral moves, associatively, in a poem. Consider this brilliant short poem:

The Hand

The teacher asks a question.

You know the answer, you suspect

you are the only one in the classroom

who knows the answer, because the person

in question is yourself, and on that

you are the greatest living authority,

but you don’t raise your hand.

You raise the top of your desk

and take out an apple.

You look out the window.

You don’t raise your hand and there is

some essential beauty in your fingers,

which aren’t even drumming, but lie

flat and peaceful.

The teacher repeats the question.

Outside the window, on an overhanging branch,

a robin is ruffling its feathers

and spring is in the air.

 

This is a poem about the beauty and generative power of self-knowledge, how withholding can be so affirming and clearly indicate one’s identity. It’s that move she makes to the robin that’s classic Ruefle to me. The robin is what it is; here, a child has become aware of what she is, and there is no fall to consciousness (the apple) but rather an awareness of her own “essential beauty.”

Speaking of literary awards – I loved Merritt Moseley’s piece “On the Man Booker Prize.” How interesting that he’s been covering the Man Booker for the Review since 1993! “What an exhilirating, unsettling, darkly hilarious book this is,” he writes about The Sellout, by Paul Beatty, the 2016 winner. “Sometimes the Booker judges go really wrong; sometimes they choose a winner that one must concede isn’t at all bad; and sometimes – as with Possession, Wolf Hall, and now The Sellout – they get it exactly right.” I didn’t love The Sellout – I put it down without finishing it – but his piece makes me think I should pick it up again. Have you read it? (And – what books are on your nightstand table right now?)

Thanks for this embarrassing question. Haven’t read The Sellout yet. We will chat when I do. Here’s what’s on my nightstand: Swing Time by Zadie Smith; The Joke by Milan Kundera; Trajectory by Richard Russo; Texas Blood by Roger Hodge (that’s a galley); Imagine Me Gone by Adam Haslett; A Friend of My Youth by Alice Munro. That’s my Nashville nightstand, btw. Down at Sewanee, I have another nightstand.

Adam, I can’t even begin to highlight everything that’s going on in this second issue of the Review. Readers will have to pick it up for themselves! Subscriptions are available at www.thesewaneereview.com. Hard copies are also available at Parnassus.

Thank you for spending some time at Bacon today!

 

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Adam in front of the Watson House, new home for The Sewanee Review

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Copyright reserved for hummingbird photo: Jack Barnwell. 

Photo of Tom Franklin from http://www.harpercollinsspeakersbureau.com/speaker/tom-franklin/

Photo of Alice McDermott from http://writingseminars.jhu.edu/directory/alice-mcdermott/

Photo credit at Watson House: http://www.sewanee.edu/features/story/sewanee-review.html