Monday, April 7, 2014

Chelsea Biondolillo : On Long Winters, Short Essays, and a Sky that Stretches Forever

We suffer from snow blindness, selecting what we see and feel while our pain whites itself out. But where there is suffocation and self-imposed ignorance, there is also refreshment—snow on flushed cheeks and a pristine kind of thinking. All winter we skate the small ponds—places that in summer are water holes for cattle and sheep—and here a reflection of mind appears, sharp, vigilant, precise. —Gretel Ehrlich, The Solace of Open Spaces

As I write this, April is in sight and the long Wyoming winter is only now showing signs of breaking. I spent the last few months far from any town center, surrounded by cows and mule deer and only a small handful of neighbors, thinking incorrectly that the isolation would be conducive to writing. It was something else entirely: in the great expanse that surrounded me, I found myself longing for smallness. In a harsh winter climate, one way to survive the elements, if you find yourself at their mercy, is to carve out a space in the snow and ice, just big enough for yourself. This is how you stay warm.

Gretel Ehrlich, in her novella-length collection of essays on Wyoming, The Solace of Open Spaces, writes, “Winter is smooth-skulled, and all our skids on black ice are cerebral.” She’s right; this stuck of mine is all in my mind. I like to say it’s something about the snow, the shut-in-ness, the screaming wind, that has inhibited rather than encouraged my writing, but I’ve been the one fighting myself, not the fields that stretch forever or the boundless ice-blue sky.

Mark Spragg’s “In Wyoming” from Wind, asserts,
This place is violent, and it is raw. Wyoming is not a land that lends itself to nakedness, or leniency. There is an edge here, living is accomplished on that edge. Most birds migrate. Hibernation is viewed as necessary, not stolid. The crippled, old, the inattentive perish.
When I’m being honest, I have to admit that I’m afraid of that edge. All winter I’ve been hanging back, playing it too safe to get any real work done. I’ve been lenient with myself—staying warm instead of sharp—afraid of the despair that I sense out there in my own cerebral snow fields.


Judith Kitchen in Short Takes defines an essay as “the building of a process of thought through a singular contemplative voice—to show how we see the same world differently.”

If that’s an essay, then my Facebook feed has been an essay about winter ever since November. All over the country, everyone has spoken in a singular, if choir-like, voice of Instagram filters and screenshots. Sometimes the voice is awed, “It’s actually sunny today!” And sometimes the voice can’t believe it is snowing again. Today, in Ucross, Wyoming, it’s over 50° but another snowstorm is predicted to hit this weekend. Winter has been too long over me, an endless avalanche of words: cold, snow, ice, more, still.


Ehrlich’s book is not long. Weighing in between feather- and lightweight, she has nonetheless crafted as notable a “Wyoming” book as heavyweights, McPhee’s Rising from the Plains and Owen Wister’s The Virginian. Even in a compressed collection though, “The Smooth Skull of Winter” stands out as the shortest essay in the book. In my paperback edition, it’s just over three pages long.

Buried in the exact middle of six months of winter, I was angry the first time I read it. Or tripped across it, as I may have described it at the time. Would anyone write a book about California, or Florida, and give only three and a half pages to the ocean? This is not a book for residents (at less than half a million people in the state, that would be a very targeted and limiting demographic)—so how can anyone else understand the gravity of this thing I’m in, I thought, if it can be shrunk down into the same space as a preface?

But Ehrlich, in three pages, gets the better of winter. She turns the January wind into an opportunity. Ehrlich is not trapped by her three small pages, but distilled to clear purpose. She carves her shape into winter, not to hide, but to be carried forward, like a standard. This is easier to see in winter’s wake.

I was recently on a panel discussing some finer points of short form nonfiction. One of the panel members, the managing editor of a respected journal, said (and I’m paraphrasing) “Please, no more funerals and hospital rooms.”

She said between 10-15% of the submissions she receives take place in either a hospital room, or at someone’s funeral. I began to wonder what it is about the form that lends itself so well to pain, loss, and melancholy.

Bret Lott, seems to speak to this drive in “Writing in Place” from the Rose Metal Press Field Guide to Writing Flash Nonfiction, when he says “every time I put a word down … I am inside a moment in which I had better be attempting to wrestle with a matter of life and death.”

Too often, the editor in the above example might say, the problem is that submitters confuse a matter of life and death with the moment between them. The real loss might come later, trying to match all the saucers to the teacups for the estate sale, or worrying about what hieroglyphic notations in an old field guide meant, the intrepid explorer, now gone.

In Larry Woiwode’s “Winter,” an essay collected in Kitchen’s Short Takes, he recounts his struggle to re-fire an outdoor furnace that has gone out on a night when the temperature, including wind chill, is -85°. He fights the snow and wind to the furnace and then struggles with a blowtorch to melt thick ice that is preventing the damper from opening. As he starts to fade from clear thinking into hypothermia, he lists loved ones, and thinks to them,
…it may be by a row of words you remember me, or maybe not. Or images, once my body is gone. You’ll have to resolve the distinctions between the two for yourselves, if I can’t keep the torch on target, get us heat, undo the miscues that brought us to this, so you’ll know it wasn’t my interior and its revolving search for words that held me here, but you.
It’s a startling moment, and comes one sentence before the dénouement (this is nonfiction, so I don’t think I’m spoiling it when I reveal that he lives). He manages, by keeping the moment singular (torch, heat, the day’s miscues) and the language neutral (body, distinctions, interior), to avoid what could have been an easy slip into over-sentimentality. He literally stops short of the happy ending, and lets the reader float in the interstitial white space at the end of the essay, assuming the best or worst of his narrator/self’s struggle back to the house from the re-started furnace.

Woiwode takes us to the exact minute when he thought his life might end, but the feeling that resonates is not sadness—it helps that he lives, I’ll grant—it’s something warm, even in all that snow. In less-skilled hands, this essay may have read like a Chicken Soup for the Soul: all lesson, no learning. Instead the reader is on the same edge as the narrator, all along, until this last moment of exhale, out of nowhere comes this idea—we are the sum of our love.

In a short essay (unlike a long winter), there is no time to get maudlin. The form itself asserts a shape of stolidity in the form of brevity. There won’t be room for gnashing teeth, rending garments, Fourth of July fried chicken and all of grandma’s teacups—something will have to go. The craftsperson can see beyond the glissando of the stalling EKG—to the moment when her deeply personal sorrow breaks away from the “self-imposed ignorance” of the solo voice to join a whole choir of humanity.


In Wyoming, the sky is very big (at least as big as Montana’s, but not on record as such). This can create a sense of freedom—and Ehrlich, along with many a cowboy poet, found her song in its open spaces.

But it can be a discomfort, too, all this unbound landscape.

I remember lying in summer grass at the Brooklyn botanical garden, listening in disbelief as a friend tried to explain her childhood fear of stars. It was after she learned in science class that the universe was endless, she said, that the night sky became terrifying. Vastness is like ecstasy in this way (the state of consciousness, not the drug).

Smallness, then—as distillate rather than cage—can be its own solace: a way to refine some of the more difficult feelings for the writer, while opening the ideas up for the reader.

I suspect this is why some stories seem ripe for condensation: any more than 500 words and they might swallow you whole. But it isn’t the word count or formal considerations of an essay that protect (the reader, the writer); it’s what the constraint requires you to discard.

It is fair to say that what I am still stuck in is the moment of winter—and I may not grasp the matter of it for some time.

Ehrlich and Spragg’s Wyoming has laid down lenient cowboys, lazy ranchers, and lesser writers. It’s the edge they are talking about, not the space stretching away from it. And it is their focus on that icy line, their characterization of the line as a threat and a comfort, that allow them to reach past state boundaries, past definitions of rancher or pioneer to the place where the elements bend a person. There, you are changed or you are broken.


Mary Cappello, in her essay “Propositions; Provocations: Inventions,” in Bending Genre, attempts to define creative nonfiction:
The operative distinctions are “transform” rather than “transcribe,” and “apposite” rather than “opposite.” Creative nonfiction remakes rather than reports. Like poetry, it relies on novel appositions that make exquisite demands: opposition cancels, apposition makes apparent… Why not call it poetry then? Because of the way it enjoins and calls upon a witness, but also an interloper, and eavesdropper: placing oneself where one is not supposed to be.
Spragg knows too well the transformative power of a Wyoming winter. If you grow upright, the wind will cant you; if you sprawl like a rangeland, the weight of the snow will press into you, until you remember it all year: a thawed and muddy water hole after years of winters becomes a summer pond.

Ehrlich, too, is concerned, in “Smooth Skull” not with winter’s length—though it is acknowledged—but in its oppositions. A snow wall threatens, but also protects. “The deep ache of this audacious Arctic air is also the ache in our lives made physical.” But this ache makes personal connections all the more urgent, as friends and lovers check in, help out, warm one another up with words or food or a fire.

The right short essay offers a view of where-we-shouldn’t-be as a single day, one storm, or a small lake we can skate. The beauty of concision is that all you need is the hint of the grinding squeal that signals cracking ice and the reader will fill in the dark, cold water, the struggling for purchase and air, for long moments after you, the writer, have left the page.


A recent study by researchers from the University of California, San Diego found that social media posts about crummy weather in one part of the country were more likely to put people in other parts of the country in bad moods.

And yet, a 2008 neurological study used functional magnetic resonance imaging to prove that sad music tends to make listeners happy.

I recently asked my own social media circle for recommendations of good “divorce songs” to inspire an essay I’m writing—and within a couple of hours, I had over 100 suggestions. Did thinking about divorce make my friends sad, or did listening to their favorite sad songs cheer them up?

If I had to read 130 pages about the torture that half the year inflicts upon the landscape between the Big Horn and Snowy Mountains—if I had to write each moment as it had happened, status update by status update—would I pack right up for some proverbial summer beach, instead of learning anything from these last few months?


Yet, if I were to try and write 500 words about the life and death matters that this winter has asked me to consider, I might still fail before I even begin, because I could not make the sky smaller, or the staggering weight of the snow on the fields lighter. It is useful as an exercise to begin with the fence in sight, but not as a practice.

Instead, I must write and write and write until I have wrung all the ache of this damn unending winter from me. Only then can I start to prune—and in pruning, learn the shape of the thing. One makes a mistake in thinking that the antidote for fear of edges is a fence. The antidote is to learn the exact shape and degree of the edge. You can only do that right up next to it.

Spragg says that in Wyoming, “There is the wind.” Because here, the wind is a constant. It is vast and it demands attention. The wind is huge. But he also says, “The winds wail a hymn of transience.” Because even this, the wind, the cold, even winter, passes.

When talking about the value of writing in place, Lott says first to find a sacred place, “in which the world seems to present itself in its mystery and beauty, its sorrow and grief, its vast breadth and its ultimate intimacy.” It’s here, he argues, that you are most yourself. Where else “are you more you—are you more a partaker in the whole of man’s estate—than in that place where you are alone, and you are simply and complexly and utterly you?”

This is the place—this middle of nowhere—and the season—the sharpest, longest—where we can get past the moment to the matter. This is where to fire up the blow torch, where to carve a figure-8 in the ice.


Chelsea Biondolillo (@devakali) received a dual MFA in creative nonfiction and environmental studies from the University of Wyoming, where she reported on local flora and fauna for Wyoming Public Radio, and prepared bird skins for the vertebrate museum. Her nonfiction has appeared recently or is forthcoming in Shenandoah, Passages North, River Teeth, Hayden's Ferry Review, The Fourth River, and others. She blogs intermittently at

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