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

The Humble Essayist Press Announces New Book by Author Annie Dawid

Cover for Put Off My Sackcloth: Essays
Available Through Amazon

Of course, no one else was walking in the downpour that afternoon at Lands End, so my shame was all my own. Only later could I see the humor in it, the slapstick quality of a suicidal woman diverted from the deed by her golden fancy pants’ dysfunction, but at the time it was a terrible humiliation from which I had to flee. Returned to my room at the bed & breakfast, which was cold and unwelcoming, I went on living.

from Put Off My SackCloth: Essays by Award-winning Author, Annie Dawid


The Humble Essayist Press (and I) are pleased to announce our most recent publication: a collection of essays by Annie Dawid, novelist, essayist, playwright, and poet. Put Off My SackCloth is Annie’s fifth book. A previous Colorado Voices Author, Annie has been the recipient of multiple awards including The International Rubery Book Award, The Dana Award, and the New Millennium Award for short fiction. Her previous books have been published by Litchfield Review Press, Carnegie Mellon University Press, and Cane Hill Press.

In Dawid’s essay, “Babysitter Goes to War,”  the eighteen-year-old in glittering braces, who cares for Dawid’s young son, pronounces that he will go to Iraq to prove that he has “what it takes to be a man.”

            “How will you be of use to the world as another casualty?” Dawid asks him.

It is this simple question that Dawid confronts throughout this collection of essays, whether that casualty be a babysitter, a stranger, a loved one or Dawid faltering in the 20th century maelstrom of war and drugs and depression and modern-day massacre that can and does annihilate the very youngest of our school children.  Into this mosaic of memory Dawid takes us, holding out for us yet another chip of painted light to finger under the estranged sun.

Like the question, this collection could be a simple journey: once there was a sad girl from a sad family with a sad life. And one night she stood on a twelfth-floor balcony, holding her child in her arms.  

But there is nothing simple here in this essay collection crafted by a writer, scholar, professor, journalist, daughter of a holocaust survivor, a modern woman who finds in the reckonings of T.S. Eliot’s “Wasteland” her own fragments that she will gather against her ruins, “harvesting bits of self,” as she describes it, “scattered like meteorites everywhere.”

Dawid’s essays bear witness to her searing, unflinching honesty and keen eye for detail, the precision and lyricism of her prose, the sophistication of her ability to “tell a yarn.” As Jill Christman, author of Darkroom: A Family Exposure, asks, “How have I lived so long in this world without reading Annie Dawid’s essays?”

Find out more about Annie Dawid, her splendid collection of essay, Put Off My Sackcloth, and The Humble Essayist Press here.

backcover for Put Off My SackCloth: Essays

The Poetry of Prose in Creative Nonfiction

Snow in Trees

Finished reading James Agee’s “A Death in the Family.” Been thinking a lot about the “poetry of prose” in creative nonfiction these days.   Not just the lyrical beauty of prose, though it’s hard not to get stuck in a brilliant passage like this, “fiction” as it may be, from Agee as he describes the evening noises of a neighborhood settling down toward sleep, the fathers after dinner hosing down the summer yards:

Meantime from low in the dark, just outside the swaying horizons of the hoses, conveying always grass in the damp of dew and its strong green-black smear of smell, the regular yet spaced noises of the crickets, each a sweet cold silver noise three-noted, like the slipping each time of three matched links of a small chain.

Look at that little piece of figurative language, those links of a silver chain slipping.  Just look and listen.   In a piece I did for Essay Daily on the lyric impulse, about a student who wouldn’t look at her own bricks strewed throughout her essay on building a house, I quoted from the philologist Max Mueller, who said, “man, as he develops his conceptions of immaterial things, must perforce express them in terms of material things because his language lags behind his needs.” What I understood then was that figurative language becomes the vehicle for greater precision of expression; exactitude grows through metaphor, not necessarily through narrative.

I still believe it. Leonard sent me to a stunning essay published in the New York Times, I’m Going to Die. I May as Well Be Cheerful About It, by Mary PipherMy mom is almost 91 and she wants to die, which she tells me every time I see her, so I think a lot about death now.

At the end Pipher’s essay, Pipher suddenly turns to the image of snow, what becomes the profound metaphor of her piece: “All of my life I have loved snow.” She then describes a beautiful memory of her and her family safely ensconced in their home while a Nebraska blizzard raged outside. That memory becomes a spiritual experience, snow outward and inward until death becomes a whiteout.  There is the great precision, the greater exactitude of metaphor:

Snow falls inside and outside of me. It settles my brain and calms my body.

I hope death feels like watching the snow grow thicker and thicker. Doctors call dying of a morphine overdose being “snowed.” I would not mind that at all. I would like to disappear in a whiteout.

As I tried to tell that student of mine so long ago who wouldn’t pick up the gift of the bricks she had given herself for even a moment,  sometimes we have to hold the thing our heart sends us, though unbidden, though not always understood, and let it just be for a little while, filled with mystery and some other kind of better truth.

#writerat9600ft

My newest book, Slow Arrow: Unearthing the Frail Children from Saddle Road Press, available through Amazon, Barnes & Nobles, Powell’s Books, and Indie Bound.

Crafting the Personal Essay into The Larger World: Gerald Early, Case Study

Gerald Early’s Life with Daughters: Watching the Miss America Pageant

I’m finding that learning about essay writing is never ending.  Probably that’s why I like it. This week, I finished The Best American Essays of the Century (Joyce Carol Oates ed)  and found Gerald Early’s essay, “Life with Daughters: Watching the Miss America Pageant.”  Just another humbling and soaring moment in the learning curve for me, specifically on how to breach the cozy family wall of the personal essay into the wide cultural, political, and racial world we all stem from.

If you don’t know Gerald Early as a writer and cultural critic, you should. Not only is he the Merle Kling Professor of Modern Letters in the African and African American Studies Department at Washington University, exceptional scholar and essayist who has been a commentary for NPR and the executive editor of The Common Reader, but he has worked multiple times with Ken Burns on Burns’ documentary.

So, what’s to learn from  Gerald Early’s essay?

Start with its deceptively simple title, which in no way prepares you for the complexity of Early’s moves between the seemingly pedestrian scenes of family life, like watching the Miss America Pageant, playing with dolls, and deciding on hair styles, and his searing polemics around the pageant as a vehicle of popular culture that represent for Early “a totemic occupation with and representation of a particularly stilted form of patriarchal white supremacy.”  

(This essay, of course, is a lot more complicated and a lot more beautiful than what I can share here. Read it through JSTOR if you have access or through Kindle for free.)

At the risk of oversimplification, here are four techniques of craft I recognized for myself in moving the essay from the strictly personal to, as Miller and Paulo call it in their Tell It Slant, “Writing the Larger World”:

  • Let family ritual and family members frame and serve as “touchstones” throughout the essay.   Early’s essay begins with the family’s tradition of watching the Miss America Pageant and continuously circles back to that tradition.  The Miss America Pageant serves as the frame of the essay, helping to keep the general reader centered in a wide-ranging and complex essay and emotionally connected to Early and his family.  The “simple” family scenes— his wife straightening her hair, his daughters playing with black and white dolls, the family making jokes as they watch the pageant—are the touchstones that launch Early into staggering cultural, political, and historical analysis.
  • Use Family history as an envoy into Cultural history.  Family history in Early’s essay, such as an old photograph of his sister holding a white doll, doesn’t exist only to serve itself. It sets up the broader and deeper history of American culture.  The white doll his sister holds serves as symbol for the “fetishization of young white feminine beauty, and the complexity of black girlhood.”  His beautifully described walk as a boy through the streets of Philadelphia past a “large black beauty shop on Broad and South Streets” becomes an image for the “epistemology of race pride for black American women so paradoxically symbolized by their straightened hair.”  (I told you this was a cool essay.)
  • Write yourself as the complex, multi-dimensional narrator you are: Early is loving father and husband.  Early is astute critic and academician. Early is an African American son/grandson/great grandson connected by family lineage and personal experience to the atrocities and subterfuges of a white culture. Early is the father of a new generation of daughters (in 1990) unbothered by the overt and subterranean racism that Early finds in even their black Ken and Barbie dolls. Early enjoys watching these beauty pageants with his wife and daughters even as he feels “shame-facedness”  and “embarrassment” at this “spectacle of classlessness and tastelessness.”  Early confesses that he still needs Miss Missouri, Debbye Turner, to be the third black woman, at the time, to win a pageant even as he damns the pageant’s complicity in the feeling that “race pride for the African American, finally, is something that can only be understand as existing on the edge of tragedy and history.” In short, Early is a man of the family and a man of the world.
  • Do the Research, dummy.  Of course. And bring in the experts from that research.

We are composites of the past, the present, and the future. The family of our house and the family of our planet.  Perhaps knowing and understanding what that means matters most in the breaking down of any wall.

How to Write a Braided Essay: Case Study

Highlighted draft image

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:

essay daily logo

Kathryn Winograd On the Intimacies of Revision.


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 Teeth here.

River Teeth Journal Cover
River Teeth issue

One Good Book Tip

A good friend of mine, who has published books, won awards, had two essays featured in the Best American Essays series, plus thirteen other “notable essays,” and is a senior editor at a highly regarded literary journal, recently wrote me an email, asking if I would blurb his upcoming book—an absolute honor.

The subject title of his email?  “The Dreaded Blurb Request.”

Continue reading “One Good Book Tip”

Reading Audubon in the Light of the Migratory Bird Treaty Act’s “Clarification”

Audubon's Birds of America cover

I just happened upon the current administration’s “clarification” of the Migratory Bird Treaty Act about the same time my husband handed me an old book buried in our bookcase, the 1950 Popular Edition of Audubon’s Birds of America. There was no grand public announcement by the administration on a decision made back in 2018, (you can read about it yourself because I can’t anymore ), in which the “incidental” death of a dozen (or a million) birds is A- okay.

At the same time, my daughter, a senior educator for the Aspen Center for Environmental Studies (ACES), had just gotten word that the transfer to ACES of a once broken-winged golden eagle rescued near the National Sand Dunes

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Pre-Orders and the Journey of a Book in a Year of Yes

cover of slow arrow with description of book
http://saddleroadpress.com/slow-arrow.html

Perhaps it’s the few new minutes of light since Winter Solstice or the still days between the end of Christmas and the hopes of a new year. Or just simply being stuck in bed with a lousy cold. But today seemed like the perfect one to begin the next stage of this long journey I’ve been on, the journey of the book in a year of yes.

Continue reading “Pre-Orders and the Journey of a Book in a Year of Yes”

Convergences of Poetry and Prose: In the Light of Ocean Vuong and Michael Steinberg

Book cover for On Earth We're Briefly Gorgeous

I was in the Florida Keys, reading the poet Ocean Vuong’s genre-blurring novel, On Earth We Are Briefly Gorgeous, off my Kindle when the first social media posting of Michael Steinberg’s death appeared in my Earthlink. Michael, writer and founding editor of the literary journal, The Fourth Genre: Explorations in Nonfiction, and I had just emailed each other a couple months before because, as all the beautiful tributes to Michael’s generosity attest to, he had kindly agreed to write a blurb for my upcoming book, Slow Arrow: Unearthing the Frail Children, despite his upcoming eye surgery, asking only that I send my manuscript in large script. I did not realize then how serious his eye condition was, nor to what discovery it would, so sadly, so soon, lead.  

But even before I heard about Michael’s death, Vuong’s novel, a soaring and lyrical tour de force about Little Dog and his family of refugees from Vietnam, had me thinking about the convergence of poetry and prose and what Michael had written to me a few years ago when I asked him to be part of an AWP presentation on the lyric essay.

Continue reading “Convergences of Poetry and Prose: In the Light of Ocean Vuong and Michael Steinberg”

Still Frozen: Olaf, Oates, and Morality in Creative Nonfiction

best american essay book cover

As I girded myself at the end of Thanksgiving for this week’s news cycle of impeachment shockers and “presidential” deflections, I started thinking about the five-year-old who had been seated two seats away from me at the matinee showing of Frozen II and of the anthology edited by Joyce Carol Oates, Best American Essays of the Century, that I was in the midst of reading.  

Both left me weepy.

Continue reading “Still Frozen: Olaf, Oates, and Morality in Creative Nonfiction”