Heather Sellers on her Essay “In Graves with My Student Elizabeth”
January 18, 2013 § 3 Comments
We 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.