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An exploration of art in fiction, Part 3: Grief Art Writing

A guest post by Vivienne Tuffnell

To give this week’s guest post a rambling introduction would be to do it a disservice. It is more than capable of standing on its own two feet. Suffice to say that, when I read it, I felt as if I’d been given a gift. 

Vivienne Tuffnell is a writer, poet, explorer and mystic. She says that she has written stories her whole life, even before she could actually read. “My father mistakenly allowed me to use his typewriter from an early age and I was hooked. I’m not sure the typewriter survived very long having me bash out strings of letters in the belief that what I had in my head would magically transform into words others can read. I’ve got better at that.”

She writes novels, short stories and poetry, and also blogs at

“Real art is something that addresses the things that make us human – and one of those things is grief.” 

Most creative people have a point, often in childhood or during school days, where their primary creative outlet becomes defined as this or that. Some manage to embrace many modalities but for me around the age of fourteen, I was obliged (by reasons of timetabling, teacher pressure and so on) to let go of art as a potential path. Up to that point, I’d been writing since before I could read, using my father’s typewriter in the belief it could translate my thoughts into words others could read. I’d been artistically active as well. At the age of ten I’d written my first novel, long since consigned to flames, and I knew that whatever else I might be out there, inside I was a writer.

Yet life seldom turns out how you believe it will when you are a naïve and hopeful teen; it takes you places you didn’t even imagine existed and one of those places is the darkness of grief. I’ve realised that much of my adult writing has been very much about the theme of grief and loss, and that it’s been a part of my own processing that has fuelled this theme.

In my forties I began to enter the penumbra of one of the greatest minds and a pioneer of real true psychotherapy, and my journey through the works of Jung introduced me to the phenomenon of what he called active imagination. This is a method of accessing the deepest levels of our unconsciousness by means of a whole host of activities, from dance, sculpture, making model villages (one of his own, actually) writing and art. It’s an intuitive means, in essence, of getting out of our own way and letting our souls begin to heal, and can be extremely powerful.

Much of my life I have suffered with depression, the first episode manifesting when I was six. I cannot help wondering if my obsession with writing and with art was my instinctive way of trying to stay sane. As a mature adult, I struggle to cry, despite the wealth of information that crying is healing. Indeed, I harbour a fear that if I begin crying, I may never actually stop. This is an irrational fear, as one of the results of prolonged weeping is that the brain begins to produce a substance (an endorphin, I think) that is chemically so close to morphine as makes no real difference. It gives a high that is the dark mirror image of euphoria.

As a student, I experienced a relationship that was damaging, destructive and addictive; when I ended it finally, there was immense relief. But the underlying grief that resulted in a suicide attempt was complex. I was not grieving for the ex-boyfriend, or even for the relationship; rather I was grieving for my lost self, for the person I’d been before the whole thing had happened and who I would never be again. A couple of days after I’d returned to my grim little bedsit, I experienced a need to express all that was fermenting in my soul. Like most people, I’d written poetry in my teens, but poetry is something that needs immense skill to write and indeed, to read, a skill that is little taught and little valued these days.

I had gone to university with a sketch book and pencils but these were inadequate for this task. The little supermarket half a mile away had a section of children’s toys and one day, when out buying milk, I found a paintbox. It wasn’t an artists’ set, and it had a scratchy plastic brush, but I seized it, paid for it, forgot the milk and went home and began painting.

It was the first time I’d painted anything much since I was about fourteen. By some happy accident, I had happened upon my own form of active imagination. I painted myself, standing swinging a bag, with an open road ahead of me. The landscape was deserted apart from a bird in the sky and I was completely alone. I am facing away so my face is not visible, and though at the time I thought I was expressing my desolation, I see now I was actually expressing my hope and my freedom. The whole road and the whole world was ahead of me. In a fascinating detail that stands out to me now, I painted myself wearing my favourite trousers at the time: a pair of army surplus camouflage fatigues  bought in the Army and Navy stores in Conwy, Wales when I went on a week’s retreat with my youth group when I was seventeen. I painted myself as a kind of soldier, in camo gear. It marked a new start, a new journey. I cannot say I marched forward joyfully to greet the future, but I was able to move again. Painting that simple picture released something, by some sort of wild alchemy of psyche and pigment.

Art is more than mere pretty pictures; real art is something that addresses the things that make us human and one of those things is grief. Grief is that inarticulate, open-mouthed roar, horrifying and frightening to onlookers unaware of its source; art (of any form) is what captures the depth of pain and gives it form that another person can grasp and empathise with. It has a more immediate effect, sometimes instant, than other methods of articulating that pain.

Grief is complex, twisting and twining like the roots of some persistent weed; you think you have dealt with it all, and yet, it sprouts again and again from many sources. It is my belief that all grief has the same origin. Victorian poet-priest Gerard Manley Hopkins expressed it in his poem, Spring and Fall: (to a young child)

Márgarét, áre you gríeving

Over Goldengrove unleaving?

Leáves like the things of man, you

With your fresh thoughts care for, can you?

Ah! As the heart grows older

It will come to such sights colder

By and by, nor spare a sigh

Though worlds of wanwood leafmeal lie;

And yet you wíll weep and know why.

Now no matter, child, the name:

Sórrow’s spríngs áre the same.

Nor mouth had, no nor mind, expressed

What heart heard of, ghost guessed:

It ís the blight man was born for,

It is Margaret you mourn for.

(Set to music here by Natalie Merchant) 


All of my books have grief as a central theme. Whether it is loss of pregnancy, loss of family, loss of vocation, or loss of self, each of these is explored in words rather than pictures because I lack the real skill to create visual or other art to express what moves me to create at all.

Click here to look inside or buy’

‘Vivienne Tuffnell is never afraid to go the heart of the matter, without compromise, and bring out the wonders that we would also find, if only we would attend. These deep treasures are what connect the world we see and the world we dream of: they both create one reality.’

‘Isobel’s journey from self-denial to self-acceptance and self-expression really spoke to me.’ 


It’s no coincidence that Isobel, the main character of Away With The Fairies, is an artist. From being a jobbing artist (in Square Peg, where she is best friends with Chloe, the main character) who’ll do commissions to paint children and pets, her journey takes her to some very dark places indeed. One of the first paintings she does before things become so very dark prefigures the route she will take, but she does so quite unconsciously, only seeing the painting properly when her husband points out how disturbing it is:


Isobel stared at the painting for some minutes, blankly, until with a reeling sense of shock that she had not seen it before, she finally saw what Mickey was trying to show her. Even though it hadn’t been at all what she’d painted, she could see now that the entrance to the tunnel and the shadowy depiction of the cavern inside had the look of great hollow eye sockets, and the bare pale frost covered surface of the mound had the look of ancient bone, weathered and scarred by time. With growing horror, Isobel saw that what she had painted had the look of a skull, an ancient flensed head, crowned with monstrous trees that writhed and wriggled their roots down into the skull like burrowing maggots or worms.

But by the end her painting takes on a visionary quality that transcends but does not deny the darker experience.

The paint was still at that tacky stage where it can smudge so easily, but the picture had an almost liquid quality to it anyway, like an image seen reflected in calm waters; a tiny breeze will ripple and ruin the image. It seemed to show a cave, carved out of a mix of earth and rock so that tree roots like the questing trunks of elephants reached down into the sudden hollow. All round the edges of the cave stood tall candles, the flames casting clear golden light that glowed and reflected on metal surfaces. In the centre of the cave were two biers and laid on the first was a man arrayed like an Iron Age warrior, his clothes made of leather and some textiles. He lay like a crusader on his tomb, his feet even crossed at the ankles, and his arms crossed at the chest and clutching what Mickey first took to be weapons. He looked more closely and saw that in one hand the warrior held a dental drill, enlarged to the size of a warrior’s axe, and in the other, he held a toothbrush, again enlarged. Under the warrior’s chin was something he realised was a dental mask, pulled down as if he’d reached the end of a job and had partially discarded it. At his sides on the bier beside him lay other things, that Mickey had at first taken as the weapons of his defeated enemies but were in fact things like golf clubs, a walking stick, and an umbrella. Mickey leaned closer still and saw that the face of the warrior was that of his father-in-law. The second bier held a woman wearing a modern evening gown but wrapped as well in a heavy wool cloak fastened with a brooch patterned with Celtic serpents. Her feet too were crossed at the ankle, and rested on a velvet cushion. Her arms, again crossed at the breast held not weapons nor yet the spindle and distaff an Iron Age woman might have taken to the grave, but in one hand she held a giant egg whisk and in the other a pair of secateurs. Around her were things like cakes and oasis for flowers, sets of playing cards, packets of seeds and recipe books. Around both the lady and her lord were piles and piles of flowers, everything from Queen Anne’s lace and childish bouquets of dandelions and daisies to extravagant corsages of orchids and lilies. He wasn’t surprised to see that the face of the lady was that of his late mother-in-law. At the edges of the cavern were dark openings where the candlelight penetrated a little way, and there were suggestions of faces peering in at the lord and lady, faint faces that held some of the warm glow of the candles but so few details that it was impossible to see if they were male or female, old or young.


‘Tuffnell possesses a keen intelligence and understanding of human nature.’

‘…a masterly study in how we human beings function – and how it can go so badly wrong.’


If you enjoyed this post, you may also be interested to read about how I used art as an expression of grief in my novel,  Smash all the Windows.

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  1. Thank you so much for having me.

    Comment by Vivienne Tuffnell on June 21, 2018 at 1:59 pm
  2. As ever, a beautifully written, moving article. Thank you – I loved reading it:)

    Comment by sjhigbee on June 22, 2018 at 11:30 pm