Writing What's Left

At a Wordstock panel presented by Tin House last Saturday, Kathleen Alcott talked about her new book Infinite Home. She was joined by Mary Gaitskill (The Mare) and Claire Vaye Watkins (Gold Fame Citrus.) It didn’t take much for Hannah and I to stop chatting about the tamales we had just devoured in the rain outside the auditorium — the women discussed everything from the implicative psychology of giving young girls newborn baby dolls, to California all covered in dust and draught. The panel, called “Unexpected Family: Finding Home,” inspired funny and dark conversations about what it means to have a family and what it means to find one. I am often a witness to moments and interactions that feel more relevant to me than they should, but I usually attribute their impact to how many times I’ve let the band Heart play on my phone that morning.  Going into this particular day, I was clean of Heart, but managed to receive my daily dose of extra feelings from three brilliant writers talking about their perceptions of family in relation to their own writing and growing up.

There are many significant moments from that panel, but one comment in particular stuck with me throughout the week. When the moderator asked about the impact of loss on the writing process, how grief finds its way into our writing, Alcott put her microphone to her lips and was silent for a moment. Alcott said, in regards to her mother’s death, she didn’t often think of her illness but instead of the dirty dishes in the sink and coffee grounds left on the counter.

And in that moment something occurred to me for the first time, which may be something that’s occurred to everyone else since the dawn of time. So often we categorize our losses into events — things that happened, then ended. We map grief on a calendar like a bad cold even if we can’t really remember when it started. We just know it did. Then sometime after the going happens and the person we love leaves, there are still cups in the sink and coffee grounds on the counter and we’re expected to move on. Here, our loss is in continuing. Our pain is a Sunday evening afterthought. What’s left when everyone’s gone home from the grieving? What do we do when the last car pulls out of the driveway and there’s still a light on in the room upstairs, a fridge full of random produce, and the local news summarizing the ten day forecast? These are the contents of our memory, the remnants that shape us. If anything, I think in our daily meditations and mediocre third drafts we should try to examine what’s left. If we start to do that, maybe we can see our continuing as more than just a devastating but necessary extension, and more of a comfort. These stillnesses are, after all, reminders of a world we are in — one that gives us laughter and poetry and stale coffee grounds, one that is longing for our consideration. 


Jesse Ewing-Frable

Founder, Sweet Tree Review