Exploring nonfiction can offer a refreshing break from the rigors of academic reading, providing an accessible dive into diverse topics. While typically favoring lighter reads, I recently ventured into nonfiction and found it to be a stress-free way of delving into new subjects. Here are my takeaways from three recent nonfiction reads, where I learned about various intriguing topics.

  1. “Finding Meaning: The Sixth Stage of Grief” by David Kessler 

Truthfully, I picked up this book because of the title. Drawing on his expertise as a grief researcher, David Kessler offers a poignant exploration of loss in this book, intertwining professional insights with his personal reflections following the death of his son from a drug overdose. 

Firstly, we must confront the reality that while grief may gradually diminish in intensity, sometimes it never fully dissipates. Grief is an integral and inescapable part of life. As Erich Fromm states: “To spare oneself from grief at all costs can be achieved only at the price of total detachment, which excludes the ability to experience happiness.” Love and grief come together. To know love means to also one day know sorrow. This leads to the sixth step of finding meaning. Finding meaning transforms grief into something more profound and fulfilling. Thus, we can find more than pain in our losses. 

But what does finding meaning entail? Meaning in grief is subjective, time-consuming, and doesn’t hinge on understanding the loss. Loss does not always have to be a blessing or lesson. Sometimes loss is simply loss. But meaning is what you choose to do after this loss. One of my favorite quotes is: “The reality is post-traumatic growth happens more than post-traumatic stress.” 

When crafting meaning, stories play a pivotal role, serving as both the beginning and end of our search for understanding. Honest storytelling reinstates our agency and aids in our understanding and processing of loss. Our thoughts control how we feel and our thoughts are what create meaning. “Meaning guides the story in our mind… I’m healing versus I’m stuck.” Our thoughts also manifest as mental images. Visualize your thoughts as a garden: the ones you nurture will flourish — both good and bad. Instead of dwelling on negative images, redirect your focus to positive memories. “You have the power to bring attention to the memories most meaningful to you.” Control over our thoughts and mental imagery is crucial, especially in envisioning the positive. 

Storytelling can involve sharing with others or privately through journaling. Kessler describes effectual research where participants write about traumatic experiences, which led to profound therapeutic effects, aiding individuals in examining causes and consequences, shifting perspectives and finding positive meaning amidst adversity. Through storytelling, we reshape our perceptions and feelings, offering a pathway to healing. 

Dealing with grief has no straightforward formula. Time continues forward, and at some point, so must we. Yet, the choice to live requires active participation. When reflecting on the death of his son, Kessler reflects: “People often say, “I don’t know how you’re doing it.” I tell them that I’m not. I’m not deciding to wake up in the morning. I just do. Then I put one foot in front of the other because there’s nothing else to do. Whether I like it or not, my life is continuing, and I have decided to be part of it.” 

The book emphasizes that love surpasses pain, urging us to move beyond mere focus on loss and recognize love’s enduring presence. “Death doesn’t end a relationship it changes it. When someone dies the relationship doesn’t die with them.”  By incorporating practices like “taking in the good,” individuals deepen their connection to cherished memories, strengthening their bond with departed loved ones. Despite death’s changes, relationships endure, transcending the physical realm.

Ultimately, it is our responsibility to honor and understand our own grief. As life progresses, the potential for growth and meaning remains ever-present. The book’s title aptly summarizes its message, which extends beyond loss to find meaning in life’s challenges.

  1. “On Writing” by Stephen King 

Stephen King’s “On Writing” offers a comprehensive guide for aspiring writers, drawing from his own experiences and insights gained throughout his career. One aspect that stands out is King’s straightforward approach, coupled with a generous dose of humor throughout the text. The book is divided into two main sections: the first consists of memoir essays and anecdotes from King’s own life, while the latter delves into crucial principles and techniques for successful storytelling.

King cautions against the overuse of complex vocabulary, urging writers to prioritize clarity and authenticity over flashy language. He advocates for the use of simple, direct language, encouraging short sentences. “Remember that the basic rule of vocabulary is to use the first word that comes to your mind.” One of the most significant pieces of advice he imparts is to avoid using adverbs. 

The author stresses the importance of reading extensively and writing regularly, emphasizing that these are the fundamental activities for honing one’s craft. As King states: “If you want to be a writer, you must do two things above all others: read a lot, and write a lot. there’s no way around these two things that I’m aware of, no shortcut.” Whatever you read will impact and share your writing as well. All writing, both good and bad, is an example to learn more. “Reading is the creative center of a writer’s life.” 

King advocates for a narrative approach where plots organically emerge from the story itself rather than being imposed. He views storytelling as a process of excavation, with writers uncovering pre-existing narratives like fossils. The best stories always are about people and the plotline. King emphasizes intuition and honesty in dialogue, believing that good storytelling involves capturing authentic details and letting characters dictate their own paths. “I want you to understand that my basic belief about making stories is that they pretty much make themselves. The job of the writer is to give them a place to grow.” 

Throughout “On Writing,” King’s conversational tone and candid anecdotes make it an instructive and engaging read for aspiring writers like myself. I was pleasantly surprised to discover that writing a story is not solely about plot and planning, but also about intuition and character-driven narratives. Overall, King’s insights have taught me the importance of allowing stories to unfold organically, focusing on the actions of characters and the natural flow of cause and effect.

  1. “Moonwalking with Einstein: The Art and Science of Remembering Everything” by Joshua Foer 

“Moonwalking with Einstein: The Art and Science of Remembering Everything” delves into the fascinating world of memory training, blending science with anecdotes to unveil techniques for enhancing memory. Despite his journalistic background, Foer recounts his transformative journey under the guidance of British grandmaster Ed Cooke, culminating in his participation in the USA Memory Championship. Additionally, the book explores memory as a muscle, trainable through mental workouts. Through interviews, Foer showcases individuals with remarkable mnemonic abilities, emphasizing the effectiveness of vivid imagery and association in boosting memory retention.

The key technique implemented in the memory competitions was memory palaces. Memory palaces, as elucidated in the book, serve as versatile mental constructs, ranging from familiar buildings to abstract concepts like mythical creatures or zodiacs. The primary aim is to utilize spatial memory for organizing and storing information, providing a structured framework for recall. By associating each item with a specific location within the palace, individuals can easily retrieve information by mentally retracing their steps. Injecting humor or novelty into the mental imagery enhances retention, while creativity is paramount in generating vivid and unique associations. Participants in memory competitions often cultivate multiple memory palaces, enabling the memorization of vast amounts of data with speed and precision.

The book highlights how memory and creativity are closely connected, suggesting that creativity is like a form of “future memory.” It explains that creativity involves combining different ideas to create something new. Creativity utilizes vivid imagery to enhance memory retention and recall, providing unique hooks for anchoring information in the brain. This challenges the idea that memory and creativity are opposites, instead showing that they work together, with memory providing a base for creative thinking. 

Two key takeaways from the book are the notions that memory functions akin to a muscle, requiring training for improvement, and that memory is very much about creativity.