Leaning in – to what’s natural, to what your body and mind need, and to circumstances you both can and cannot control – is a sentiment that appears again and again in award-winning journalist and author Poorna Bell’s work.
Whether talking of how powerlifting competitively changed her relationship with her body, or coping since her husband’s death by suicide in 2015, there is an overwhelming sense of “forging strength”, as she tells me in this interview, from unlikely places.
This is not a glamorisation of trauma or hard times. It’s a recognition of the spectrum of emotion – of the hope alongside the sorrow, the findings alongside the loss.
If hearing others’ tales of self-discovery helps with your own, you’d better read on.
Has expression – as both a human and a writer – felt like a journey for you?
I realised very early on that writing was a means of expressing myself in a way that I felt very comfortable with. Some people are visual, some vocal, but writing feels like home. I started writing for fun when I was around seven – and by that I mean just creative writing as a hobby and nothing to do with school work. Then, I always kept diaries. While the point of writing, for me, is for other people to read it and either enjoy it or understand something about themselves better, there is also writing that I just do for myself. I find it therapeutic and it helps me to order my thoughts.
Tell me about finding your voice in your writing and how that impacted your personal sense of self
I had my own style for most of my career, but often it had to be suppressed to fit the tone and style of the publication I was writing for. When I wrote my first book, Chase The Rainbow, that was the moment I found my own voice. I dithered about starting it because I kept thinking about what other people would want to read, and then I realised that I needed to think about what I would want to read. I kept it honest and true, and it was almost like a compass that guided me through a million different ways that my writing could have gone. Letting go of other people’s expectations around my writing was actually the thing that freed me to write in a way I wanted, and ironically was the thing that made them connect with it the way they did.
What motivated you to broach the subject of your husband’s death so publicly?
It was a need. It came at a time where I felt utterly isolated by my experience, and it seemed that societally grief and suicide were not acceptable topics. I had a solid support network but more widely you can’t really discuss grief because people don’t welcome it and don’t want it to ruin their fun – which is incredible when you think about the amount of pain you’re going through, versus another person’s few minutes of discomfort. Writing was the only way I could articulate all the love, sadness and loneliness I felt in it, and then when it started to connect me to other people who felt the same, things felt less lonely.
You’ve spoken of how your latest book, “In Search of Silence”, was forged from pain and sadness. How did you find the words to convey such personal emotions?
It’s something that just comes naturally and if it didn’t, I don’t think I would do it. When Rob died, it opened a door inside me to another place, and that place is so abstract and connects to the world in such a vast way. When I write about landscapes or what some people describe as poetical (even though I didn’t intend it to be), I’ve opened that doorway and that’s where I draw everything from. It’s a place of absolute certainty, and I don’t second guess myself, and part of that is because I feel so resolute and strong in how much I still love him.
Did writing about your grief online inform how you dealt with it IRL?
The way I write about grief is simply a reflection of what I feel inside, and I try and keep it ordered and emotional, yet not mawkish. Writing about grief is cathartic, but it helps me to release a lot of the frustration and sadness I feel around it. And when someone messages me to tell me it comforted them, that is the best possible outcome.
How do you keep yourself healthy mentally when revisiting painful memories?
Boundaries. I’ve learned that the hard way, but just because someone is asking me a question doesn’t mean I have to answer it. When I’m being interviewed and someone asks me for instance to talk about the point leading up to Rob’s death, I get that’s the first time they’re asking me the question but I’ve answered it a million times. And it does pull me back to a grief state and I don’t want to do that anymore. If people want to know, I’ve talked about it plenty of times that they can google it – so someone’s agenda of getting me to answer it specially for their program or article isn’t a good enough reason for me to mentally harm myself.
The question we ask everyone – what advice would you give to your 16-year-old self?
Enjoy every minute of it – even when you’re wondering if it will all work out. Love hard, live hard and don’t regret anything.