Heather Sellers on her Essay “In Graves with My Student Elizabeth”

January 18, 2013 § 3 Comments

heather-sellersWe regularly ask Brevity authors if they would write a short blog post on the genesis of the essay just published.  Today, Heather Sellers tells us how she came to write “In Graves with My Student Elizabeth:” 

The roots of this piece are from a poetry assignment—a kind of marathon writing run I do each year with a friend.  For Lent, instead of giving something up, I like to give something out.  Each year for Lent I write a poem a day for the forty days. It’s intense and wonderful and demanding and incredibly fun. My writing partner send the poems to each other via e-mail by 11 AM.  And we write back quick comments—just saying what we loved. On the fly. What’s wonderful about Poetry Lent is you walk around looking, hungrily, for anything you can use as fodder because the next poem is already demanding your attention. And you wake up with a poem in your heart, on your lips. It’s a luscious position in which to be. (Option: you can do a twenty day mini-lent, or a seven-day “cleanse.”)  If, at the end of Lent I end up with one “keeper,” I’m thrilled.  The assignment is more about the process of paying attention than it is about product development.

So, I was writing a poem each day for forty days and the morning after the interaction with Liz I began writing about what had happened. I described the gift of this student’s tears, the grace of her profound sadness, a sadness which circled me and held me and somehow brought me into closer touch with the griefs around my parents’ endings. As I wrote and revised, I noticed how much teaching is based on listening, and being present, being with. I began writing on Friday morning, and the campus was closed and the town was empty because it was Spring Break. In the quiet and space allowed by those wide windy days, in the dead quiet, the poem grew, changed shape, shifted its center, and by the end of the week, it had become this short essay.  Form follows vacation. 

The parts were all there—the assignment and deadline and reader waiting are for me an essential part of the writing process; the exquisite overlap of the student feeling and saying the very things in my own heart; and, crucially, the empty “dead” campus, a feeling it was just the two of us left living, trapped and held by that great old stone mausoleum-temple, Graves Hall.

This piece was originally titled “Us in Graves” until a reader pointed out that the title could be misread as the United States in Graves. The new title still gives the effect of us being buried by grief, I think.

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§ 3 Responses to Heather Sellers on her Essay “In Graves with My Student Elizabeth”

  • […] Heather Sellers is the author of the award-winning memoir You Don’t Look Like Anyone I Know, and the linked short story collection, Georgia Under Water. She teaches fiction, poetry, and creative nonfiction at Hope College in Holland, Michigan. (Heather blogs on the origin of this essay here.) […]

  • Sigrun says:

    Oh, I must admit I love this: “instead of giving something up, I like to give something out”. I’m in the beginning of 365 days of mindful writing project (http://paradigmeskifte.wordpress.com/), and as you say about poetry Lent, its all about paying attention.

  • lucinda.wiley@stisd.net says:

    “Take your next breath, take it slow, I will say to Liz. The only thing the dead can’t do. ”

    This is the FINAL line of a flash NF piece in Brevity by Dr. Heather Sellers, a piece entitled, “In Graves With My Student Elizabeth.”
    I chose to respond to this piece when I realized that this author is my former poetry professor at University of Texas San Antonio…she’s since moved on to another post at Hope College in Holland, Michicgan. Dr. Sellers first helped me to sow and till my own fields of poetry and lines…I’ll never forget what she taught me about lines–she’ll always be a poetry mentor/ hero of mine.

    What first drew me into this essay was obviously the author, but the title, too, drew me in further. I wondered if the place was a literal grave; it turns out Graves is the name of the oldest building on campus at Hope College, not a burial grave. But since she and her student Liz are really talking about death, and since the Graves room really does resemble a coffin, the dual meaning/ application of “Graves” is powerful. The professor (Sellers) is having a difficult time helping her student Liz catch her breath after Liz talks about the death of her mother. Sellers is compassionate and empathetic since her own mother’s death is not a thing of the past, though it should be–in her eyes…it’s time. Sellers is so moved by her student’s pain because they are both still living it, and this will never stop. The last line is a potent reminder to the reader that one never forgets, never stops living the pain of a loved one lost, lost to us in every breath that we take, and every breath our loved ones won’t. Sellers’ last line matches the power of her entire essay.

    I enjoyed reading the extra information about the author and her crafting of this piece –in it, she explains a Lenten writing exercise that she does for 40 days. She and a writing partner write a poem daily, exchange it, give quick feedback, and move on to the next day, the next poem. This is not so much an exercise in writing perfection, but in teaching the mind and heart to stop and pay attention to life’s poems lying–like blessings–all around us. I will definitely be trying this this coming Lent…but first, I’m going to take it for a test drive over the Thanksgiving break from school…and over the 12 Days of Christmas, too. Exciting! 🙂 Thank you, Dr. Sellers, for still teaching me from afar. <3, Lucinda Zamora-Wiley (UTSA student in 1993-94)

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