Surviving through Writing
by George Ochoa
I am a writer, and so was my only child, Martha Corey-Ochoa, until she killed herself. It was the family business. My wife and I worked at home as freelance writers for most of Martha’s life. As soon as Martha learned to write, she began working alongside us in our home office on projects of her own. She became an avid writer of poems, essays, and stories that impressed everyone who read them, and journals that she wrote only for herself. She wrote right up to her eighteenth year, when she threw herself out her fourteenth-story window on her first night at Columbia University.
Her death made no sense. But it makes sense that what helped me survive the loss was writing—first, editing her writings and, second, writing a memoir about her.
I didn’t take to editing her writings immediately. Years of abject grief passed, involving suicidal feelings of my own and two psychiatric hospitalizations. During all that time, a tall stack of Martha’s writings sat on a desk in our office, a stack I couldn’t bear to inspect or even move. Finally, in 2016, four years after her death, I had healed enough that I got interested in what was in that stack.
I read every page of it and was amazed. Her work was of even higher quality than I remembered. The voice in her writings was unmistakably Martha’s: sad, longing, insightful. It combined the freshness of youth with a command of her art that most writers of much greater age will never achieve. I felt sad for the literary career she did not live to have, but impressed with what she had accomplished in such a short time.
I decided to publish Martha’s work myself, on a website I created, marthacorey-ochoa.com. I edited the writings only lightly—Martha hardly ever made a typo—so my role was mainly compiling and arranging. I skimmed through her journals and published excerpts from them on the site. Launched on July 2, 2016, the site has had thousands of visitors. Many visitors have written to me, telling me how moved they were by Martha’s writing.
Creating and launching Martha’s website helped me to continue healing. Martha, through her writings, became once again part of the living world, not just a private sorrow of mine. More years passed, and, in 2019, seven years after her death, I reached a point where my grief entered a new stage—not as painful or obsessive. I finally accepted Martha’s death and turned my attention to loving life. At that point, to mark the shift, I decided to write a book about Martha and how I survived her death. I called it After Martha.
People have told me that writing After Martha must have been painful, but it wasn’t. The pain had all been suffered in the seven years before I wrote the book. The book poured out of me easily, based on my fond memories of Martha, my journals about her, her journals about herself, and the tough, redemptive realities I had lived since her death. Since May, I have been publishing it myself in the blog section of her website, one chapter a week. You can follow its publication at https://www.marthacorey-ochoa.com/blog/.
Having created Martha’s website and written her story, I feel that I’m done with her story at least for now, and can turn to other stories. I will always love and remember Martha, but a writer has many stories to tell. I am just beginning to find mine.
George Ochoa is the author or coauthor of thirty-five nonfiction books and seven short stories, and director of communications at a Manhattan nonprofit.