Monday, January 27, 2020

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.
“Why don’t you write an essay?” I ask the husband I found at the University of Iowa’s Playwrights Workshop over 35 years ago. We had just floated on the updraft for a few months of a congratulatory email from the literary office of the O’Neill Theater: his play, Birdsong, a semifinalist for its 2019 National Playwrights Conference. But given that there were 200 semifinalists out of 1400 submissions, we were back in the existential drift of thirty some years of teaching writing to the inner city community college students the husband wanted to teach and our shared raising of “Frick and Frack,” twins beloved since their first smudges on that ghostly sonogram so many years ago. “You’re a shoe-in.”
     I had only made this point for decades and received, as always, a grumbling from the reluctant husband, “But I like to write plays.”
     Then he did it, emailing me a four-page single-spaced soliloquy on the baneful retirement he had experienced these last couple of years, a retirement seemingly entrenched in the Theatre of the Absurd for its sycophantic adherence to the worse clichés:
     “Retirement?” his unknowing friends would laugh. “Why? You just get sick and die.”
     But now the reluctant husband had written an essay on retirement he titled, “Retirement,” which would propel us into an intimacy of revision I had never experienced before in my decades of teaching undergraduates and graduates how to write and, more importantly, to rewrite.
     “Find the hot spots,” I would always say, without ever really knowing what the exact hot spots might be in these writings of hopeful students who lent me their printed souls for a semester or two. But now I intimately knew this ringer of a “student,” whom I had once watched from the back of a film truck ride his beloved bike through Houston, Texas in the early dawn hours because a city magazine wanted to feature his essay (the first and only essay for a magazine he had ever written) on his life-long love of bikes, a magazine that would unbelievably go out of business just before printing his essay. And I was a character in this writing drama. And I had grown as a mentor, too, from the terminology of “hot spots” to the language of the lyric essay, its “frames” and “threads” I first learned of from Brenda Miller and Suzanne Paola’s Tell It Slant: Writing and Shaping Creative Nonfiction.


The reluctant husband had taught composition and rhetoric longer than I did, distilling at times from the half-drawn images of his students’ essay drafts the duende that the poet Lorca describes as “the mystery, the roots fastened in the mire that we all know and all ignore." Despite the proverb to the contrary, the good teacher IS the good “doer.” He had drafted his essay perfectly: creative nonfiction is about the journey, not the thesis, so, yes, throw the editor out the window and just write. But then the task of discovering and crafting the essay begins, and it begins with finding the essay’s organic frame and threads.
     “This is a list of everything that sucks about retirement,” I said. The reluctant husband shrugged. “Now we find the frame,” I said.
     The poet/essayist Carmon Gimenez Smith gave me the idea of highlighting in different colors every possible “thread” in the reluctant husband’s essay. She once described to me that in the writing of her memoir, Bringing Down the Birds, which won an American Book Award, how she filled her walls with different colored stickie notes to help her keep visual track of the threads in her book. I did the same with “Retirement” (the reluctant husband a reluctant techie as well), using the highlighting tool in Word and making my way through almost all its color selections. The reluctant husband had almost ten different subjects that could possibly be expanded into threads throughout his retirement essay, ranging from the universe to black holes to fear of fire to dead girl friends to health issues to fixing up our suburban house to whirling dog disease to buying new lamps for the fish tank. (Really?)

     But out of all those highlight colors—the blues, greens, reds, pinks, purples and the browns—one color stood out: the light blue of the beginning paragraphs on the Event Horizon Telescope and its mission to view a black hole and either buttress or weaken Einstein’s theory of gravity. Of all the possible threads that could be made into the main frame of “Retirement,” the black hole was the one thread the husband repeated in the draft and it had the most interesting potential for—and I’ll go back to Brenda Miller and Suzanne Paolo’s excellent book, Tell It Slant, for its language—“ [diffusing] some of the inward focus of creative nonfiction. . . not leaving the self behind, but perhaps sublimating it in order to discover anew the subjects the world has to offer.” In addition, I knew that bringing in that dimension of the outside world would create the possibility of metaphor, metaphor, as the poet Edward Hirsch calls it, “a collision, a collusion, a compression of two unlike things” that ultimately leads the reader into “meaning making” and “the sacred mysteries of poetry.” Or, for our purposes, “essay.”
     The reluctant husband’s first draft began this way:
Supposedly, someday soon, The Event Horizon Telescope is going to release the first picture ever of a black hole. I’m very curious about this, even anxious. 
That opening sentence, with its little add-on of “even anxious,” already hooked the outside world to the fragile inner world of the reluctant husband. It’s the first weld of a frame that would reconstruct this soliloquy, this laundry list of “retirement gone awry,” phrase by phrase into a beautiful meditation on personal and universal black holes. The half-spark of that eventual transformation was within yet another unexplored opening statement: In my own tiny way, I know what they’re trying to do. In that first draft’s compilation of “this happened and then this happened” is the germ of metaphor, the black hole reintroduced in a tiny concluding paragraph where the reluctant husband just mentions what had been a thunderous event for us—still only seen by him as through that biblical glass “darkly”—our beloved daughter experiencing two grand mal seizures on New Year’s Eve day:
. . . maybe it’s inside her, inside all of us, some dark monster we try to hold back, repress, some black hole waiting until the right time to come out and show itself? 
     The black hole, returned – internalized, monstrous.


Here’s the intimacy of revision I knew that I could never have experienced with my past students: the piles of astronomy magazines gathering dust on our coffee tables and the reluctant husband, a passionate armchair astronomer and physicist, spending the last few years pouring over the Event Horizon Telescope collaboration and the mysteries of the black hole, a phenomenon predicted mathematically by his hero, Albert Einstein, in his theory of relativity. And I knew that our world had been rocked by our daughter’s completely out of the blue seizures and our being trapped, as we had been, in a snow storm, in a cabin, hours away. Clearly in this first draft, the reluctant husband had intuited the metaphorical implications of the black hole; what he had to do now was to construct this frame of the black hole throughout the essay in order to discover what threads lay within and without the scope of it. And in doing so, that dark monster would earn its place.
     “Write more about the black hole and spread it throughout your essay,” I said. This time the reluctant husband grunted rather than shrugged and disappeared quickly into the basement, draft in hand. To weld the whole frame, he had to develop and extend the black hole, literally and figuratively, throughout his essay by widening the scope of his research and splitting that research and his reflections on what he discovered throughout the essay. Why do that? Because language has plasticity; it’s malleable: words carry their little cargos of denotative and connotative meanings and collect more and more allusions, more symbolism, more urgency as they are repeatedly pushed against other words. And, at the same time, the reader’s mind that wants order will shape that order out of what seems impossibly linked. The reluctant husband had already begun the transformation of black holes into an extended metaphor that could sustain the piece. Black holes, Event Horizon, Einstein: personal angst moved to the universal and then back again. He just had to find the right “blocking”—to borrow a theatre term.
     After a brief intermission, the reluctant husband returned with his revised essay, no longer titled “Retirement,” but now “The Physics of Sorrow,” and my stint as “advisor” quickly devolved into spectator as I watched him take his essay through astounding leaps because of not only the framing he found at the macro level, but, later, what he found at the micro level. The two blue highlights for black hole in the original draft had increased to over ten. The black hole deepened as image and symbol because of the transformative science the reluctant husband added to the essay: a more in-depth description of the Event Horizon Telescope process; an allusion to an astronomy program’s “How the Universe Works” description of black holes as “eaters” that prevent everything from escaping; a description of the clash over black holes between Einstein’s “elegant” theory of gravity (general relativity) and the chaotic jumble of quantum mechanics; reflections on the lure of the black hole and the information paradox that states information can never be lost except past the event horizon where everything is gone forever; and, finally, the startling scientific supposition that we already live in a black hole.
     “I knew I’d figured it out then,” the no longer reluctant husband said, every bit of scientific information ripe for a grieving father’s metaphors.

     Science transformed by a father’s anguish into metaphor now takes what might have been a small thing on the laundry list and spins it out into the universal, into the philosophical. In finding the organic frame of the black hole and then braiding the research throughout the essay, the husband discovered what was essential and what was, metaphorically speaking, just “laundry.” Now, when we did the highlighting, we discovered that the whirling dog, the fear of traveling, and even those new lamps for the fish tank had vanished. And as those threads raveled, new threads and images appeared that the husband wove into this tapestry of physics and sorrow: my father lost in the black hole of Alzheimer’s; our daughter’s boss killed in an avalanche and his four-year-old daughter saying that “he lives in her heart” to comfort her weeping mother, as if there is no event horizon within a child; and, the last surprise, vacuuming.
     The frame revealed to the husband on the macro level which travesty of his retirement really was the central force to be reckoned with: our daughter who, alone, confronted the horror of an inner black hole and who, alone, will always carry that looming specter within her. Kitty’s seizure had just been part of the husband’s long laundry list, part of the “Some examples” in that first draft. Now the duende of its presence flared:
And in this comical catalogue of grief, here’s the real capper, the crushing singularity to my first retired year. 
     “The Physics of Sorrow” had frame and centrifugal force on the macro level. But there was more crafting to be done because metaphors, extended metaphors, shape themselves through repetition, through that weaving together of seemingly disparate language by phrase, by image, half-image, even single word. So often my students have told me, “I don’t want to repeat myself;” “I don’t want to keep ‘reflecting’ and ‘explaining’ things.” In witnessing the husband’s revision, I realized that the very act of repetition is what forges the deep context of a piece, its crushing backdrop. The husband’s language of fire-proofing a house, so benign in its first usage, deepens when later juxtaposed with a helpless father trying to understand how the unknown can so afflict a daughter:
All their lives we tried to shelter and protect them, insulate them from the encroaching fires. Where was that insulation now, those wall anchors, that siding wrapping the house, that defensible perimeter, keeping the darkness, the flames out, keeping the cracks, the rot from infiltrating?
     All through “The Physics of Sorrow” now, unlike the original “Retirement,” the language of metaphor looks back and complicates, finds in this mire the language of Lorca’s duende—monster, perimeter, ordered, chaos, prayers in the crack, prayerless cracks, eyepiece of the telescope, vortex, whirling, draining, lost, taken apart, gone forever, threshold of house, of cabin, of event horizon. When we highlighted the threads once more, including the tiny snippets woven together through even individual paragraphs, the visual tapestry was a kaleidoscope of colliding colors.


Revision is an act of intimacy. It is a process of craft, a process of heart. The writer bears down into what he had originally, intrinsically, only touched on, and did not yet fully know. And that knowing, when it happens, makes its presence felt in even the smallest changes: an added phrase for context at the start of an essay, “Since I retired,” or a change of phrasing from “smelling gas” to “smelling something burning” that links inner fires to outer fires, or the heightening of a transition from “Maybe it’s all the solitude, introspection that darkens things” to an allusion—here, to King Lear, Shakespeare another passion of the husband’s—“The mortal smell hasn’t only come off me”. Or, more heartbreakingly, through the switch from a throw-away cliché like “a kick in the teeth” to a father’s cry against the blackest of holes: “And yet, and yet, it is Kitty, Kitty, who has incomparably suffered the most.”
     The essayist husband “gets it” now; no longer reluctant, he is in the machine of the gods, Deus ex Machina. And that old ending of fish tank lights and us holding hands beneath a pitiless dark has vanished, rightfully, beyond the event horizon. And in its place, an image, an image I will leave you to discover the meaning of when you read the husband’s essay, which is neither the sermon nor the moral my students often rally toward, but just a rug and a man vacuuming.


Kathy Winograd is a Colorado essayist and poet. She is the author of two essay collections, Slow Arrow: Unearthing the Frail Children, forthcoming from Saddle Road Press (March 2020), Phantom Canyon: Essays of Reclamation, finalist for the Foreword Review Indies Book of the Year contest, and a book of poetry, Air Into Breath, winner of the Colorado Book Award in Poetry. She currently teaches creative nonfiction and poetry for the Regis Mile High MFA program. Find more at

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