I’ve been thinking about the fluidity of genre: poetry to prose to poetry. Sometimes when I write prose, I feel myself skimming the edges of poetry–sounds, the phrasing and movement of line, the juxtaposition of images. And, now, there is the visual image itself, weaving itself into everything. Shanti Arts–Nature Art Spiritjust published this “proem” in their quarterly and I am taken by the eye of the editor, Christine Brooks Cote, for layout and image.
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.
I don’t know what it means to publish a book in the time of a coronavirus. What seemed large just a few weeks ago seems small now in a world of chaos and isolation and the loneliness of people afraid to breathe the same air. But today, on the official release date for Slow Arrow: Unearthing the Frail Children, I get to say that my book has finally arrived. Yes, the events and fuss planned around this book have been canceled or postponed, but Slow Arrow is, here, in this world.
The quote from Nietzsche that first sent me on this journey of the book feels as true now as it did then:
The slow arrow of beauty. . . which infiltrates slowly, which we carry along with us almost unnoticed, and meet up with again in dreams.
So many thanks to Ruth Thompson, editor of Saddle Press, and Don Mitchell, Saddle Road’s book designer, for taking on Slow Arrow and making it a beautiful book. Thanks to friends Steve Harvey, Laura Julier, Tom Larson, Bob Root, and the late and wonderful Michael Steinberg for their kind words on Slow Arrow. Thanks to the many literary journals that published pieces from this book. Thanks to the Cattywampus Club for its work on my website, kathrynwinograd.com, its author photos, its video book trailer, and marketing help. And to Chris Moore, who just posted the virtual, hands-free podcast we recorded this weekend for the Situation and the Story. And to Inverted Syntax, which just posted the first part of a two part interview on Slow Arrow
Saddle Road Press lists the links where you can purchase Slow Arrow through Amazon, Barnes & Nobles, Powell’s Books, and Indie Bound. If you decide to buy Slow Arrow and you like it, please go back to these links and share what you feel. And watch this video book trailer by Cattywampus.
Starting the Journey to a Book
How did Slow Arrow: Unearthing the Frail Children happen? A few years ago, I found a folder in my “cloud” named “On Beauty” under a larger folder named “Beacon.” Six years ago, when my then eighty-five-year-old mother announced that she would be moving to Colorado to live out her last years with me, I had just decided to follow what our former poet laureate, Natasha Trethewey, had said about exploring history through its “gaps” and set out to discover what it meant to be a steward of a little high mountain meadow at 9600 feet Leonard and I had bought and built a cabin on, and the land surrounding it that I knew so little about.
For a year, I wrote a monthly column for Beacon, a since defunct experiment in online journalism, using the land around our cabin near Victor and Cripple Creek as a microcosm for the larger world, both its beauties and the evidence of the environmental issues we face today. It was an exciting year writing those columns. I often took my mother with me through this deceptively remote and arid landscape at the back of Pikes Peak to explore the gold mines, and the wreckage of drought-induced wildfires, and the sudden aspen decline and the fossil quarries where once the first butterfly fossil ever found was unearthed by a homesteader named Charlotte Hill. Each month, I was clueless on how the next column would come together and then I would find my way to an unexpected story, an unexpected fact, an image I couldn’t forget.
And then the journey of writing for the book began.
Writing through the Collage
The essay, “Slow Arrow,” one of the title essays for the book, and the real start of the book, began as a collage — threads and snatches of prose I placed together on the blank page in hopes of puzzling together some momentary meaning. Then the essay unearthed itself from my husband’s Nietzsche books in the study, from the giant puffs of mushrooms I poked with a stick, and the unseen neighbors at that time in the little gulch below us staking out their territory, and from my born-again sister asking me the question that became seminal to the piece, “Why do you write of death?” But those threads only began to work when I remembered the bits of poetry lost in my journals and began to weave these lines of poetry through the essay. Then I discovered the form that allowed me not only reflection and experience, but to stumble into one of my favorite “leaps” in my prose or poetry at the end of the essay: “Our breath,” I write my sister, “flies from us like small sparrows.”
Slow Arrow proved to me, as creative nonfiction always does, the inseparability of poetry and prose.
Creating the Braids
The writing of Slow Arrow: Unearthing the Frail Children, the book, was long and sometimes hard and sometimes beautiful. After I finished writing the Beacon columns, I knew I had left placeholders in them for deeper, more personal journeys. As I lead my mother in and out of this landscape, I found myself drawn into not just the history and science of these places but to their metaphorical connections to the emotional landscape and history of my family. The places I had visited, the facts I had learned, the beautiful images I had witnessed still felt resonant to me and filled with the possibility. So I set out to find the threads I needed to braid these “columns” into creative nonfiction essays.
Sometimes the journeys in my book begin with what a tree cutter claims to be a pronghorn caught in the shaky pixels of his girlfriend’s iPhone and lead me to the Path of the Pronghorns in Wyoming and to my Russian immigrant mother-in-law crossing the tundra when she was a young girl caught in the pogrom, and then to the “streamers”—butterflies and birds caught in the solar farm light of 300,000 mirrors that turn these travelers into puffs of smoke. Or I visit a fossil quarry where a ten-year old Ryan teaches me to skin shale with a butter knife to find the carbon imprints of a whole tapestry of vegetation, insect, and animal life that lived when ashes and lava flowed from an Eocene volcano into a flowering lake long lost. And then I remember my father, lost to Alzheimer’s, his face pressed against the glass of the state psych unit. Exploring the gaps of a place turned into the braiding together of these environmental issues I kept finding and what I felt were the sacred and profane intersections of family and personal history. The writing of Slow Arrow turned into a journey I never expected, of getting to know my mother and to cherish her in this time of her life in ways I could never have imagined.
At a recent residency for the Regis University’s Mile High MFA program, I presented a craft seminar on the process of creating a braided essay, a beautiful form of the essay that weaves different “threads” together. I used as a case study one writer’s revision process that focused on framing and metaphor-patterning and turned a rough compilation of “this happened and then that” into a beautiful meditation on personal and universal “black holes.” River Teeth: A Journal of Narrative Nonfiction picked up this essay within a couple of weeks of the writer (okay, he’s my husband) submitting it.
After presenting my craft seminar, I had enough students and fellow faculty come up to me after the presentation saying how much they had learned about revision, framing, and metaphor in the braided essay that I asked Essay Daily if I could publish a write-up of the seminar with them. They said, yes! And here it is:
Leonard Winograd’s essay,” The Physics of Sorrow,” appears in River Teeth Journal: A Journal of Nonfiction Narrative, Issue 21. For readers with access to Project Muse, you can read it here. Or, even better, subscribe to River Teethhere.