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 Four Stages of Making a Video Book Trailer

I have two vivid memories (besides a lot of apprehension) of creating the video book trailer for my new collection of braided essays, Slow Arrow: Unearthing the Frail Children, with The Cattywampus Club, a new marketing and branding business for writers started by Cassandra Vagher, Kateri Kramer, and Levi Noe.  

First, the sound of the wind rippling at the windshield as I sat in my car with Kateri in a tiny Golden History Park, miles from my Phantom Canyon cabin, and sputtered into a tiny recording microphone.  

And second, sitting knee to knee with Casi at a tiny children’s table in a tiny children’s playroom on the Regis campus for take-two of that recording– this time, while I fought a persistent frog in my throat.

Needless to say, Cattywampus Club had to contend with a complete first-time-to-the- process quivering idiot and her shoestring budget. I asked Casi of Cattywampus to share a few better tips and insights on the making of our video book trailer and added a bit of my own two-cents.

You can view the Video Book Trailer for Slow Arrow on Youtube.

#1 Creating the Vision

Casi: When multiple creatives come together to produce either photos or a video, it can become a difficult task. Each person in the group is a visionary and has fantastic ideas and concepts; however, sometimes communicating those can always be the most challenging piece.

But we could gather excerpts, the synopsis, and had a pretty good idea of the imagery that would pair well with Kathy’s words. Kathy’s poetic writing style allowed me to make the footage more of a cinematic B-roll type*  since the book is a collection of essays, rather than a plot-driven novel.

(Kathy: Casi and Kateri first asked me to choose some text from the book to use in a 3 minute or less video. What would best represent the arc of the book?  I chose to compress together a few paragraphs from the preface that I felt set the scene and story for the book. It did ultimately feel good reading those sections together. )

*Wikipedia definition? in film and television production, BrollB rollB-reel or B reel is supplemental or alternative footage intercut with the main shot.

#2 Dealing with the Budget and Other Details

Casi: Then comes the difficult stuff;  budget, schedule, and location. Kathy based much of her writing off her beautiful cabin that was hours away from Kateri and I. We opted for the Golden History Park, a frontier park that had cabins and a mountain feel, but the footage and mountains weren’t an exact fit.

We also had to be mindful that most cities and open spaces in Colorado require a permit for both photography and videography, which for filming are quite steep. Luckily the location we utilized only requires a license for productions over $15,000, which we were nowhere near.

For the restraints we had, I believe we produced imagery that fits the text reasonably well. 

(Kathy: This part was difficult for me, but because Cattywampus Club was a startup, Casi and Kateri had given me a real deal for producing the book trailer and I was quite conscious of not wanting to abuse their time and talents.  It wasn’t fair to ask Kateri and Casi to schlep their equipment two and a half hours to the cabin. I was ultimately able to give them some photographs I had taken in the area to use for the video.)

view of Sangre de Cristo from Goldfield

#3 The Filming Specifics

Casi: I filmed this in both 60 and 120 frames per second, which I can turn into slow motion for a more cinematic feel. Most streamed television is shot in 30 frames per second, and cinematic movies are at 24 frames per second. While footage filmed in 24 frames per second is beautiful and cinematic, you cannot correctly turn that into slow-motion footage.

I used a gimble to stabilize the camera footage so that we could have a smooth video with little to no camera shake. The smooth-moving footage also adds to the cinematic feel when tied in with the slow motion. 

(Kathy: Casi and Kateri made the filming, which I was, well, more than nervous about, fun. I think Casi shouted out some surprisingly bad word right before she began taking pictures and that pretty much got me laughing from then on.  The slow motion was nice, though I did ask Casi to cut out some of what felt like too many shots of me from the video—maybe back when I was a twenty-something, but at sixty? No.)

#4 Putting the Video Together

Casi: Once back in the studio, I decide whether clips are usable or not and start to determine if we need supplemental shots from stock imagery. For instance, we filmed this in the fall, and there was no chance we’d see a hummingbird, and I wasn’t going to get lucky and spot a coyote; instead, I tried to use a few clips from stock websites to pair with Kathy’s words. Kathy ended up having some photographs I could use and I had a few mountain scenic clips of my own. 

(Kathy: I found it was important to me to have some actual images from up at the cabin. Plus, two friends of mine, Liz Netzel and Greg Hobbs, had given me beautiful images for the book that I wanted to use in the video.)

Casi: Sequencing the footage is the next most challenging step. I wanted to pair the imagery as best as possible with the story, but I also wanted to add a bit of drama since we were going to be over a minute long. It took me about six edits to get the sequence and suspense down before I had a draft that I thought we could run with. 

 (Kathy:  At this point in the process, I probably drove Casi a bit crazy: I sent back lists of questions and suggestions twice after reviewing the trailer with some of my writer friends. Casi and I had a bit of back and forth over the sequences until we all were satisfied. Because I was getting worried about Casi’s time in developing the video, I ended up asking Kateri not to do a few things she had planned for marketing the book.  Casi and the video needed that time and money.)

Casi: The first bit of music was meant to add to the suspense when Leonard asks, “would you want to die here?” The next bit of music and footage was supposed to come around full circle, matching Kathy’s story of rebirth. I supplemented wind, stream, and other sounds to tie back into the cinematic footage to make the viewer feel like they were there in the setting. Adding an extra layer of well-paired noises can help tie the footage altogether. 

(Kathy: I found the music and sound effects very pretty and was happy that Casi had added that dimension to the video.)

Overall?  I would do it again. It was interesting to watch both Casi and Kateri in action and collaborate with them.  They inspired me to maybe even try doing something on my own, after a lot of practice.  It’s possible.  My friend the essayist Steve Harvey, creator of The Humble Essayist, has experimented with Animoto for creating video book trailers. You can see the video commentary he did for my book on The Humble Essayist.  

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”

Slow Arrow: Unearthing the Frail Children Begins the Road to Publication

book cover for Slow Arrow

Saddle Road Press (so happy I went with this press) has sent Slow Arrow off to  Lightning Source for our first Proof Copy. Thank you to Steve Harvey, Laura Julier, Tom Larson, Robert Root, and Michael Steinberg for their beautiful beautiful book blurbs.

Continue reading “Slow Arrow: Unearthing the Frail Children Begins the Road to Publication”