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Erasing Heartbreak with J.M. Farkas

As the late Carrie Fisher once said, "Take your broken heart, and make it art." This week's guest, author, poet, and creator, J.M. Farkas has done just that - transforming the lemons of challenging life experiences into an empowering and provocative lemonade. J.M. is the author of Be Brave: An Unlikely Manual for Erasing Heartbreak—an erasure of Beowulf via blackout poetry. We read this gorgeous primer and had a couple of questions for the person behind the permanent ink.

Be Brave by J.M. Farkas

Onward: Thanks so much for chatting with us. We are truly wowed by your creation. You’ve constructed a beautiful physical document - a handmade book that erases sections of Beowulf and replaces it with a different narrative. How did you choose Beowulf as a basis for your work?

J.M. Farkas: In my former life, I was a high school English teacher, and I taught Beowulf to my beloved 9th graders. Several years later, I was living in Florida and walking through a second-hand book store in Boca Raton, while I was in the thick of my heartbrokenness. There are many translations and versions of Beowulf, but I happen to stumble upon the exact same version of the book that I taught to my students, and I believe is out-of-print. I tend to believe in a kind of "Book-Fate," that the right book (like the right person) comes into your life at just the right time.

Onward: How did you decide what words to “keep” and what sections to let go of?

J.M. Farkas: In terms of selecting words--erasure is a very mysterious process. Although I had obviously read Beowulf before, when I erase a text, I don’t read the whole thing through, or even read a whole page. Instead, certain words almost lift up and “call out to me.” And then once I have a sequence of phrases or a string of words, I might even search for a specific word on the next page. More often than not--the exact word I want, appears. It’s kind of cosmic and spooky and fateful and ultimately, hopeful.

Onward: The subtitle is “An Unlikely Manual for Erasing Heartbreak” - how did the process of developing this work help you navigate your own heartbreak?

J.M. Farkas: I think erasure is an incredible metaphor for carving out your own story, and even deeper than that--transforming one story into a completely new one. With Be Brave, I was very much my own audience; talking to myself and telling myself the things I needed to hear to move on.

When my book was accepted for publication, I was also dealing with another, much deeper heartbreak. I lost my grandmother, who was like a mother to me. Be Brave evolved into an unexpected elegy to my grandmother, Eva Braun, with a dedication in the back of the book that includes her remarkable history as a Holocaust survivor. My grandmother’s picture is also on the cover of my book, so in a way, what started out as a book on one kind of heartbreak, enabled me to honor another one. I’m incredibly grateful that I have been able to commemorate my grandmother in such a unique way.

Selection from Be Brave

Onward: Do you think creative endeavors can be useful for closing a chapter on a painful experience?

J.M. Farkas: I think creative endeavors are vital to working through painful experiences. With many losses, there is a sense of helplessness, and often a focus on the past. Creativity keeps you tethered to the present moment, and reminds you that there are almost always endless possibilities and ways to begin again. I also think there is tremendous benefit to making something with your hands, and getting outside of your own head and heart.

Onward: What advice do you have for someone experiencing loss?

J.M. Farkas: Tiny Beautiful Things by Cheryl Strayed is required reading for anyone going through any kind of loss or heartbreak. The Dear Sugars podcast with Strayed and the writer, Steve Almond, is the also perfect blend of empathy, consolation, and motivation.

This may sound overly simplistic, but I’m also a big believer in going for walks. I have never in my life gone for a walk and regretted it. I always feel better after I do it, even if it’s incredibly short. I also love that walking is something you can do anywhere, even if you have limited time. But it’s also such a great reminder to keep moving forward, one small step at a time, one brave foot in front of the other.

J.M. Farkas is the author of Be Brave: An Unlikely Manual for Erasing Heartbreak. She has written for The New York Times, Buzzfeed, and Electric Literature, and her poetry appears in a wide variety of literary magazines. Her next book, How to Be a Poet, an erasure of Ovid, is forthcoming. You can find her at and on Instagram: @jm.farkas.

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