Interview with Madeline Sharples

with Madeline Sharples

Take a long slow look out a window.  One you are familiar with.  One you gaze from frequently.  Now … try to see what aspect of that scene has changed since last May.  Nearly always, something has changed.  If you’re looking into your yard, something new may be growing.  Something may be dying, or have died during the winter months.  If you’re gazing into a busy city street, maybe a street sign has been knocked over or a new one installed.  The traffic patterns might seem different.  Or perhaps a new building is nearing completion.

  • What is the point?

To see what is so often missed.  To realize that our environment, even our personal worlds, are constantly in a state of flux.  Children are born; people pass away.  A kaleidoscope of scenes and personalities grace our lives.  Some change is so subtle we barely notice it; yet, it still occurs … with or without our permission or awareness.

  • So did you see anything that has changed since last year at this time?  Even something seemingly insignificant counts.

I noticed, in gazing from my office window, a broken branch that wasn’t there last year at this time.  A casualty of a late March ice storm, it hangs loosely, adrift and out of place, its leaves now facing the ground.  The rather large branch looks like it could fall from the tree any second, yet, it doesn’t.  Instead, it simply sways in the breeze, reminding me that everything in our lives is in motion.  Constantly.  If you feel out of touch with the changes in your environment, just look again.

Even the magical blossoms of spring will soon vanish.

Though temporary, we still love to gaze at them.  We take pictures, draw them, find ways to write about the colors of spring.  Like magical robes on plants and trees that are coming to life once more, we seem to take special notice of them since we know spring is relatively short-lived.

But sometimes a late freeze comes along.  The blossoms quickly fade or perhaps they never quite open.  Nature can be unpredictable (we know this), but still, we wanted those delicate blossoms and sprays of color to last a bit longer, didn’t we?

Sometimes life trips us up like this.  Someone dear to us leaves us before we are ready; when we don’t expect it.  And the sudden loss crushes us like we’ve never been crushed before.

Yet, not everyone understands how death feels in this context; how the sudden absence of someone loved unconditionally provokes a deep vulnerability in our souls; how we have to learn to trust life all over again.

And maybe we do, or maybe we don’t.

Each experience with death is different, because relationships and life situations are always unique.  Likewise, there is no universal path through grief.  No “right” way to go about it.  No set length of time that suddenly makes life less painful.

But we can learn from others — from anyone willing to share the steps of their journey.  Here to tell you about her experience with life and loss is author Madeline Sharples.  I hope you enjoy meeting her and learning more about her son.

Welcome, Madeline, to SunnyRoomStudio — it’s wonderful to have you as a guest here in this sunny space.  Your son, Paul, in the above poster, looks like a natural musician.  I’m sure you still hear, each day, the life notes he left behind, but especially as Mother’s Day draws near.  Once again, thank you for your interview, Madeline.

When you were a teen, say 17 or 18, how did you envision your life ahead?  When did your youthful expectations and the real world begin to diverge? 

At that point I had no doubt I would go to college, study journalism and have a career like Brenda Starr Reporter. I had always loved to write, and could see nothing to stand in the way of a career in writing. But, of course things did – almost immediately after I graduated from college, and only in the last five to ten years have I fulfilled my youthful expectations.

◊  Mother’s Day, 2011, you published a memoir about your son Paul … tell us about that journey and who might benefit from reading your book, Leaving the Hall Light On?

A friend recently asked me how I got started on my book.  I answered, “I wrote in my journal every day.”

Although I started journal writing many times throughout my life and know its benefits, I began journaling full force when my son Paul was diagnosed with bipolar disorder. Writing helped me stay sane while going through that huge stress in my life. And I continued – after his death and into my present life. Writing became my method of healing. It allowed me to put my pain on the page.

When I was encouraged to turn my journal entries into a book, I read them through, highlighted everything I thought applicable, and then transferred that material onto my computer. It was a grueling process.

I also wrote pieces of my memoir, Leaving the Hall Light On as early as 1995 in a creative writing class at the UCLA Extension Writer’s Program, in the  “Writing About Our Lives” and poetry workshops at Esalen in Big Sur, CA. and in Jack Grapes’ (Los Angeles Poets and Writers Collective) method writing class where he and my classmates were very forgiving of my endless pieces about grief and my son’s death.

  • In 2002 I met a young woman – a former literary agent – who read my poetry manuscript and some of my prose and suggested I organize my book based on the sequence of my poems. She also gave me advice and writing prompts – all useful to the content of my book. When I finally had a book together with each chapter starting with a poem, I hired an editor, who is a writing teacher, who read my book chapter by chapter and gave me comments. Once I integrated her comments she read the book as a whole and made more comments which I integrated again. I sent out that completed draft when a prospective agent or publisher asked to see my manuscript.

When I finally had a publishing contract with Lucky Press LLC I hadn’t read my manuscript in over two years. The first thing I did before embarking on the hordes of revisions I had committed to do before publication was read my memoir front to back, noting typos, repeats, inconsistencies, and most important of all, places where the information was outdated. It took me six months to complete the revisions. I knew I was finally finished when I stopped thinking about what more I could do to it and when I felt comfortable letting it go.

  • Who might benefit (I’ve included a few testimonials that speak of the benefits better than I could):

“Anyone who wants to learn how to live with children or adults with bipolar disorder, must read this book.”

“I could imagine that this book might be helpful for those dealing with bipolar disease or suicide in the family, but for those of us fortunate enough not to have yet experienced those problems, it also provides a very real look into how good but human people deal with the cruelty of fate.”

“I am still struggling with the passing of my son, Justin, 34 weeks ago and this book offered me hope that my grief can soften and my life can continue on.”

“As the mother of a suicide I can relate to so many of her comments. I hope her book will become a source for others who are attempting to cope with bipolar disorder and what suicide does to the family left behind….”

“I highly recommend this to anyone who is ready to explore their deepest feelings.”

“The book is incredibly moving and has much to teach anyone grieving the loss of a loved one. Or suffering any kind of loss — what she learns along the way can be applied to so much that people go through.”

◊  The publishing industry is in a state of enormous flux.  What should readers expect in 5-10 years?  Who will still be reading books and in what format?

I really don’t know enough about the publishing world to fully respond to this question. Though I’ve recently read comments that people still like to read from the printed page more than their e-readers, I have no idea what the future will hold. This is a question for someone with a crystal ball.

◊  What are the secrets to timeless writing?

I read an article recently advising writers not to put details about our today’s technology in their books – such as Facebook, the iPhone, the iPad, Netflix. Those are the things that tend to date our work and not allow it to stand the test of time. I think it’s okay to write about those things if they are part of a historical piece, but not for timeless writing.

 ◊  Do you have a favorite author or poet?

I think I’m a very fickle reader.  If I like a book I’ve just read, that author is my favorite at the time.  Yet, I always go back to my favorite book of all time, Margret Mitchell’s Gone with the Wind.  However, right now, I’d say my favorite is Jonathan Safran Foer author of Everything is Illuminated and Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close.  I think he is brilliant.

 ◊  What, in your mind, is the most mysterious thing about the Universe? 

That we have been unable to communicate with the others that I’m sure are out there somewhere.

◊  If you could spend time with a well-known spiritual leader, who would inspire you to write a book about them?  Why?

I would pick either Pema Chodron or Ram Dass. I think they are so selfless, personable, and real. Chodron’s book When Things Fall Apart was so helpful after my son died. She taught me the healing practice of Tonglen meditation. Also, I encountered Ram Dass very early on, actually hearing him speak a couple of times. “Be here now” is one of my favorite aphorisms. I think he and I have grown old together.

◊  How do you like to spend a Sunday afternoon in the spring or the summer?

Taking a long walk, having a long nap on the family room sofa, curling up with a good book, or going to the theater, opera, or the movies.

 ◊  What should every woman know about becoming a mother beforehand?

That there are no rules. That the only constant is that things continually change. That we need to use our instincts and the power of love to bring up happy children. Plus it’s good to have a partner who values mothering, believing it to be as important as working outside the home.

 ◊  Mother’s Day is next weekend, how will you celebrate the day?

Mother’s Day, along with Paul’s birthday and death day, are very hard days for me. This year we will celebrate with our son and his wife as always: a great late afternoon movie and dinner afterward. We try to keep this day very casual.

 ◊  What inspires you most about the past?  

I think where I came from. My father and his family emigrated from Poland in the early 1900s and my mother came with her widowed mother and five siblings from Lithuania in the 1920s. And still they were able to totally assimilate into the American culture, create a beautiful home, and raise three college-educated children. That they could do this coming from almost nothing is so inspiring to me. It still makes me feel anything is possible – even in today’s world. I think that’s why I’ve been so stubbornly persistent in getting things done that are important to me. I don’t think the words, “Give Up,” apply to me.

 ◊  How can people who have experienced a personal tragedy find peace …

  1. Take your time – don’t let anyone tell you that the time for grief should be over
  2. Take good care of your health: workout, eat healthy, get enough rest, meditate, and be open to new friends and new things
  3. Pamper yourself: stay in shape physically, get massages, facials, and manicures and pedicures
  4. Pretend you’re feeling better by putting on a smiley face and pretty soon you will feel better (like playacting)
  5. Find an artistic outlet and other positive diversions

 … or meaning?

Although I never thought this would be possible, I have received many gifts as a result of the death of my son: the ability to write poetry, a stronger and fitter me, a marriage that continues to be loving and resilient, a wonderful loving relationship with my surviving son and his wife, a suitcase full of Paul’s music that hopefully in the next year will come out as a CD, and the career I’ve always wanted to have as a full-time writer and web journalist.

◊  What else is on your mind, early May, 2012, Madeline?

We feel so fortunate that even in our seventies we are healthy and able to travel and visit parts of the world we’ve never been. We plan to eventually go around the world, but in small digestible chunks.

I also want to thank you, Daisy for inviting me to SunnyRoomStudio. I love the spirit of this place, its warmth as an extension of you, the beautiful photos, the meaningful quotes, and your deep interest in the spiritual world. I hope this is just the beginning to our lasting conversation.

◊  More about Madeline … 

Madeline Sharples studied journalism in high school and college and wrote for the high school newspaper, but only started to fulfill her dream to work as a creative writer and journalist late in life. Her memoir, Leaving the Hall Light On: A Mother’s Memoir of Living with Her Son’s Bipolar Disorder and Surviving His Suicide, was released by Lucky Press LLC in 2011. It tells the steps she took in living with the loss of her oldest son, first and foremost that she chose to live and take care of herself as a woman, wife, mother, and writer. She hopes that her story will inspire others to find ways to survive their own tragic experiences.

She also co-authored Blue-Collar Women: Trailblazing Women Take on Men-Only Jobs (New Horizon Press, 1994), co-edited the poetry anthology, The Great American Poetry Show, Volumes 1 and 2, and wrote the poems for two photography books, The Emerging Goddess and Intimacy (Paul Blieden, photographer). Her poems have also appeared online and in print magazines.

Madeline’s articles appear regularly in the Huffington Post, Naturally Savvy, and PsychAlive. She also posts at her blogs, Choices and Red Room. Madeline’s mission since the death of her son is to raise awareness, educate, and erase the stigma of mental illness and suicide in the hope of saving lives.

You can find Madeline on Facebook or @Madeline40 on twitter.  Also, you can visit the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention online if you’d like to learn more about the organization and its important goals.


Thank you, Madeline, for sharing your story.  I’m sure SunnyRoomStudio readers appreciate your candor and courage.  Loss and life are of the same coin; yet, one side is nearly always more difficult to understand.  Wishing you a continuing journey of discovery and renewal. 

 Blog by DazyDayWriter @ work in SunnyRoomStudio: all rights reserved.

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