Amy Lin

On Starting Where it Hurts Most, Writing About the Death of a Spouse, Creative Constraints for Revision, and Her Debut Memoir ‘Here After’

Cover of Amy Lin: On Starting Where it Hurts Most, Writing About the Death of a Spouse, Creative Constraints for Revision, and Her Debut Memoir ‘Here After’

“How can grief be so universal and yet still so widely misunderstood?” asks Amy Lin in her debut book, Here After (Zibby Books, 2024). Written in the aftermath of the sudden, shocking passing of her perfectly healthy 32-year-old husband, Kurtis, this nonlinear narrative composed of vignettes is as much an unflinching, intimate look at young widowhood as it is an act of remembrance, a celebration of him, his life, and their love, and an acknowledgement of everything lost.

Lin uses pared down but luminous and tender prose, the simplicity of which belies the heft and depth of its reality, its hard-fought wisdom, and its oftentimes searing emotional honesty. She asks only that we allow space for and witness her most vulnerable self as she navigates the minutiae of existence after life-altering grief.

I had the privilege of speaking with Amy over Zoom, a day before the release of the book, where we discussed that, and so much more. Read an edited transcript of our chat below.


Anushree Nande: When did you realize this was gonna be a book and how does it feel to see it out in the world?

Amy Lin: It’s funny, this book was [one] that I never intended. I started writing a Substack that I still write called At the Bottom of Everything after Kurtis died, as a therapy exercise for my therapist who said, “you really need to share how you feel or people are just not going be able to understand; they are not going be able to access the depth of grief that it takes you to.” And I wrote in that for two years. It was a project and it was a really helpful therapy project in terms of connecting with people. But it didn’t occur to me that it was a book. 

My agent actually said to me after about two years, “well, do you think you have a book here?” I told her even though I didn’t think, hadn’t thought about it. Then I actually looked at the manuscript and I took all of the letters that I had written on Substack and put them in a Word document, and it was about 110,000 words. As I read through it, I was like, oh, I don’t have a book here. This is just 110,000 words. It was the difference between a project and a book. A project is maybe done for a specific purpose or it’s made as it goes. But a book is not only made for a really specific purpose, but it’s crafted in a way that the letters in a project might not be—those freeing projects aren’t held to any particular notion of craft. 

And so I thought, well, I’m gonna sit with it. I was kind of working with it and I was at the three or four month mark of working where I thought, maybe I just have a project. That happens sometimes, not everything is a book. But as a final kind of playing in this space, I had it all in a Word document. You know, those text boxes you can make in Word? It’s kind of archaic now but (for those who aren’t familiar) you can make this little box and there’s a box within the word box. And then you can put words in that small box, but the textboxes will show only so much. I made these really small boxes long enough for like an original Instagram caption. The captions are obviously now very long, but the original ones weren’t. For every page that I had, which was hundreds of pages, I decided to put the full page into this very small box. I would delete every line that I did not feel was essential to my experience of grief. And I would only keep as much as that small text box would allow me, because I thought it might help me see what was really the essential part of my experience and the essential part of my experience of grief. It’s very tedious work to do this. 

I got about two months in and I messaged a friend of mine, my first reader, and I said, okay, I have a book. It really showed up when I started taking away and doing this very formal work of constraint. Then I thought, okay, here’s the book.

AN: I came across your book announcement through a book instagram friend of mine, and the blurb caught my eye, but I still didn’t know what to expect. Once I started reading it, it took me a few pages to realize that it was vignettes, but I was struck, from the start, by how much you were able to capture within that small space. One of my follow-up questions was going to be, how did you decide what bits were going to stay, and I already have my answer!

AL: Yeah. I think the thing about when you write in this kind of very fragmented style is that there is a bit of a danger maybe only to the artist where people can look at that and think, well, I could have done this. Do you know what I mean? But there is this question of constraint—for me, the guide posts of that were simply what was essential to my grief experience. And what’s more, who was Kurtis and what was my understanding and my knowledge and my love of who he was. These two guideposts allowed me very clearly to be like, this is what’s in, this is what’s out.

AN: How did you decide the structure, and how long did it take for the entire structure to fall in place?

AL: Well, I knew very early on when I started working with these text boxes that it was going to be nonlinear, that we were gonna move back and forth in time. This is because I actually still continue to really struggle to read. We know that grief is as much an emotional trauma as it is a physical trauma to the brain. You have physical and emotional manifestations of grief. One of my physical manifestations of grief is that I really struggle to read, like really struggle. And after Kurtis died, I could not face a wall of text, it was incomprehensible to me. We all know pain and grief in some way or know someone who is grieving. But I especially wanted grievers who would read this book to be able to read it over a long period of time where they pick it up and put it down but still immerse themselves in where they were. It’s also why I wanted the size of the book to be so small and knew people would carry it with them. My ability to follow a linear thread was nonexistent for years after Kurtis died, perhaps because my experience of linearity really snapped, and remains snapped for me. I wanted to reflect that grief completely does unmoor you, and that the past is as present to you as the present is; in some ways, the past, in grief, is actually the more powerful timeframe. The narrative structure of the book needed to reflect all of that.

AN: Did you find it difficult to put your grief into words on Substack, how much did you struggle to try and figure out what it was you wanted to say?

AL: Great question. Yes, I did. I had set this sort of impossible task for myself where I was going to write a letter a week. I started a month after Kurtis died, which in some ways was total madness, but in other ways the only thing I could actually physically do. As you know, I was also recovering from my own personal health crisis at the time, and every week I would be seated and I would think, oh, there’s just, there’s no way I can say anything. I have nothing I could say. But then I would just start somewhere. Usually I started where my therapist told me to, which was basically where it hurt the most, and I would just start writing and I would see what was there. And I really did write the letters. I didn’t really edit. 

There’s a risk that I didn’t think about at the time, which is that people don’t hold you gently when you’re writing in the fire of something; people think that they need to teach you how to handle fire. I mean I definitely received some of that and I write about it in the book too. But my experience of those early letters was largely just of tenderness and of people writing to me about their own pain. I always feel really lucky and really blessed by that, very grateful, and it remains a lodestar in my experience of grief. I really wouldn’t have continued in some of the very difficult parts of my journey without that kind of witness, and I think that’s one of the most beautiful things that’s ever been offered to me.

AN: That’s amazing. And now you also already have a community that knows you and loves you, who get to read more of you with the book.

AL: Exactly, and what a gift that is.

AN: So, apart from your therapist’s advice of starting where it hurts, do you have any guidance for writers who are navigating writing about their own grief and loss?

AL: I want to step carefully here. I really believe that one person grieving is just one person grieving. Writing was the thing that I had. It won’t be the thing that everybody else has. I have another friend whose husband died very young as well, and she would often say, “oh my gosh, I should be writing, I should be writing. Look at what it’s doing for you.” And then she would go try to write, but it wasn’t for her. It just wasn’t what she had. She has different things, other things that I sort of feel like I should be doing, but don’t. We’re different grievers, you know. Of course, we’re different kinds of grievers. She’s very symbolic. She does these rituals and these beautiful things anchored by sentimental items and they’re stunning. They’re things that I really struggle to access because I find physical remainders very painful in a way that she finds comforting. While she finds the writing of her own emotions very painful in a way that I find necessary. 

So I would say to any person thinking, oh, I should write my grief first. Ask if you are being called to it, if that’s what feels like the way to grieve, because if it doesn’t then there’s no need to. I think that there is a lot of censorship, particularly if you are a woman or identify as a woman who’s grieving. A lot of ideas about how you should or should not do it, and I think that can interfere with people’s ability to put things on the page. But as in my case, I would simply start, I would just begin with: What is drawing you to the page? What is the thing that’s causing you to feel like you should write? Start there.

AN: The epigraph in the book reads, “You pile up associations, the way you pile up bricks. Memory itself is a form of architecture.” Later, you write how there’s no right way to remember or honor someone. Was all of this on your mind when you were writing the book? And if so, how did it impact how you were approaching it or how you approached it?

AL: Yeah. I chose that epigraph by Louise Bourgeois because I was so aware when I was creating this book that a book is a made project. The madness of memory itself means that things have been left out and that there is a narrative perspective. There is a builder at work. And something that I thought very carefully about when I put this project together was that this was my experience of grief. That was one builder and one woman and one wife’s experience of her love and her husband and her memories. I wanted to acknowledge that, that it was mine, but also that it’s made and that there will be other brick walls of Kurtis built by other people that hold different things and are made differently. That grief itself is built differently and held differently depending on who you are. I wanted, and I continue to want, people to know that even if your grief does not reflect my experience or my kind of grieving, that’s okay. You’ll build differently and in a different way. But that this was just mine.

AN: How has the writing of this changed you? And if you could, what would you say to the you in the before?

AL: You know, this book was something I could not have imagined, even literally as I was standing at the precipice of it. This book, it’s my first book. It’s an entry into a world that Kurtis assured me that I was a part of long before I could see that for myself. And so in many ways it feels so much like, or is, I should say, this idea of claiming the identity of a writer that Kurtis gave to me, claiming something that he didn’t live long enough to see. In some ways that’s very painful, of course, and it makes this, the realities of this book, very painful, but it also makes it exactly the same as anything that Kurtis ever gave me, which was this radical gift of love and witness—something that continues to be the most transformative thing in my life, continues to change me every day.



Writer and teacher Amy Lin lives in Calgary, Canada where there are two seasons: winter and road construction. She completed her MFA at Warren Wilson College and holds BAs in English Literature and Education. She takes everything seriously, including trying not to take everything seriously.

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