On Writing Grief and the Braided Essay

to HJ Burt, 1929-2020, photograph by KW

All this year, I’ve been thinking about how to write about grief. Kafka said, “Everything you love, you will eventually lose.”  So it seems exactly right that just moments ago the grief counselor called from the hospice where my mother died.  Checking in on me. Their last call–Sunday the first year anniversary of my mother’s death.

My mother prepared me for her death for many years—it was the thing she wanted.  But I did not realize how grief entwines with regret entwines with guilt each time we are at the cusp of sleep, faithless and alone.  The writer Bruce Ballenger says about writing grief, “ Add a sentence that says ‘I was devastated.’ Most of the time this falls flat because it states the obvious. . . perhaps writers should trust that a situation that calls for sentiment can express it most strongly by withholding feeling.” 

All I could think of was the “devastated.”

I thought to go back to my writing, what has always sustained me, but I didn’t know what to say, how to say it.  Steve Harvey, creator of The Humble Essayist, says that as writers  “what happened may matter to us but it is lost on us if we do not transform it into art.”  Yet how do we shape raw grief into art, into something outside the grieving body, an artifact to be softened, hardened, handled, polished?  

The summer my mother died, my daughters and son-in-law went hiking in the San Juan mountains to an alpine lake with the young son of one of my oldest friends.  My son-in-law loves nothing more than to talk dares, though at thirty, he is long past the expectation that anyone would take him up on one. But, of course, the just-twenty-something in response to a ridiculous dare tore off his clothes, climbed a boulder, and then cannonballed into the air before disappearing into the still freezing waters of an alpine lake no one could even see.

 “Did you at least check to see how deep the water was?” my friend later asked her son.

I had always thought of the braided essay  as the way to “luck” into the deep image, into deep meaning, that poet’s way of totally giving in to the powerful prayer of language.   It’s a cannonball, I thought, a leap into the unchartered, a faith that we will sink into the unknown and then pop out again, blue sky and air in mouthfuls. 

Brenda Miller, best known for her braided essays,  says that at some point-some crucial point-we need to shift our allegiance from experience itself, to the artifact we’re making of that experience on the page. To do so, we mustn’t find courage; we must, instead, become keenly interested in metaphor, image, syntax, and structure: all the stuff that comprises form.”

I had never fully believed that the braided essay gives the writer courage to write what they think they cannot write. Or that it is the way to move out of the freewriting of grief into something of beauty, grace, purpose.  That is until I found this one sentence in my journal and so begins my own cannonball:  

My mother came from a family of floaters. “Your grandmother could float in a pond on her back for hours and sleep,” my mother would tell me the childhood summers I floated  with her in the green pond behind the Ohio farm house . . . A year now and I am looking for metaphor everywhere.

                                                            From Floating

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