Writing Between Paragraphs An Essay Forms

This week, wanting so much to write on the day that would have been my son’s 44th birthday, but not knowing how to put my heart-filled words on the page, I reread “Canoe” by Sherrie Flick, a story in 446 words about a daughter grieving her father. Those words ultimately inspired an essay for me of about 1,000 words

Please read Flick’s story here and then read on in this article to view my writing inserted between the paragraphs of Flick’s. You will see how certain of the author’s words inspired associations that brought my own words and way of remembering a loved one who has died.

I’ve bolded Flick’s title and paragraphs above my own. After showing you how I did that exercise, I share my essay without the bolded paragraphs that helped me write it.

Sometimes, when you don’t know how you will write what is knocking at the door to be written, finding a story with which you feel a strong simpatico helps. Going paragraph by paragraph kept me from being overwhelmed by how I would write what was in my heart that day. Triggering off of Flick’s words and where she heads from paragraph to paragraph helped me follow an emotional thread and weave my own story. 

Canoe

Kayak

Diane’s father had thick fingers and rough hands. He’d once had dark black hair like hers, but it had grayed and receded as he got older. He was thick and tubby, and then he was slender. Almost too thin. Then he was gone from this earth and she was left to open the cottage and find the fishing tackle herself. She was left to remember how to fish and how to sleep in.

Seth was left-handed like his father. I loved seeing his arm hooked up and around the top of a page as he wrote his school assignments. I loved his neat and regular printing. I wondered why he never wrote in script, how he could make his letters spaced so regularly and their height so even, how my own handwriting had gotten so illegible, how handsome my little boy had gotten, how deep his voice, how dreamy his blue, blue eyes, how lovely his curls were and the strength in his hands.

Now he is gone, almost 19 years, gone since he was 25 and died in a snowboarding accident. I am living in the house he designed for us when he was 17, a high school senior, raring to get started in studying architecture, raring to leave home for college. But he had one last school year and a summer before that could happen.

As my son, my second child, was preparing to leave the nest, I hatched the idea of having a place by the water to write. His Steppie, as Seth called my husband, supported me in the project, in making that dream come true. We purchased a building lot in a community along a bay I loved the name of, Discovery Bay. What would I discover in this new chapter of my life?

“Seth,” I cautioned, “I don’t know if we can afford to build a house you would design for us.” I had been thinking of a manufactured house, one that wouldn’t break the bank and be there quickly.

“Mom, I will interview you and Kurt about what you each want in a house and we’ll see.” He seemed to know what he was doing right from the get-go. How had he learned this?

“I’d like three bedrooms and three bathrooms,” I said, thinking about wanting family and friends to be comfortable on visits to this community 8 miles from a Victorian town, which is a destination site in Washington State.

“I’d like room for a pool table,” Kurt said. He loved the game and would have liked to have guests shoot those crazy hard balls into the pockets.

“Mom, your budget allows for two bedrooms and two baths with showers. Kurt, I’ll find out how much a basement raises the cost of the project. But I’m not hopeful.”

He hooked his left arm over the notebook he’d brought to our meeting, the same way he would over the paper on his drafting table when he designed the project we could afford. I could look at him writing and drawing forever, sleeves of his button-down cotton shirt rolled to the elbow.

With the inheritance, a surprising gift, she left her job at the bookstore. A stupid job with a power-mongering manager. She left. Poof. And came to the cottage to exist. It has been easy leaving her life in the city, packing up the car and the dog and heading north.

Now in the house he designed (that came in on budget), there is not a day that goes by that I don’t feel my son here with me, looking at the corners, the windows, the window trims, and the flow of people and light in the small, sunlit house. Not a day goes by that I don’t remember the wooden kayak he built here in the garage, how he paddled the water of Discovery Bay, a block down a hill, and made a set of wheels to roll the beautiful boat down to the bay and back up, and feel the presence of his drafting table still stored in the crawl space under the house.

Once she arrived at the cottage, she sent out invitations. Everyone wanted to leave the city in the summer, after all, so it was easy to be surrounded by groups large and small. She curated her summer, much like she had curated the children’s section of the bookstore. And both were a glaring success. Ex co-workers and neighbors became both jealous of her and pleased with her generosity as they sat around the firepit, stuck smoldering sticks into the last embers.

And after a summer of guests from Seattle, Jacksonville, Cleveland, Bellingham and Los Angeles, after a summer of luncheons and dinners under the great room’s skylights, after the days between then and today, I sit down to write on the anniversary of Seth’s birth, and what I think of are two photographs: the kindergarten photograph of Seth at five and the photograph of him during his graduate education in architecture. In the first, he wears a hardhat he selected as his prop that day and in the second he squats at the site where, with his graduate school classmates, he will build a bus shelter for migrant workers in the Central Valley of California. He hated that they worked all day in the hot sun and then waited for their bus home in the same hot sun.

Diane knew she should keep her head down or word would spread to her family—something about too much partying or too much canoeing or too much smiling in this summer of sadness. Not enough casseroles.

Diane resolved to buy a cardigan sweater later in the day, Tuesday. She’d drive into town and buy a sweater. This would show her preparation for the fall, and it would show her frumpiness, which the neighbors would appreciate. She’d buy a sweater in a bad brown color that wouldn’t offset her eyes. A baggy sweater with puckering buttons. 

I have entertained all summer in this house knowing fall and the excruciating calendar of missing would come. Seth’s birthday October 1, Thanksgiving that always marks the last visit he would make to see us, December 27 the day of his accident, December 28 the day we agreed to take his body off life support, January 2 the Temple services before we scattered his ashes. And then the air I walk through begins to clear as if the air itself is preparing me to go on into the next seasons.

In this way, Diane could be left alone to read the books she’d brought with her from the store. She’d turn the pages and in that tiny moment—fingers gripping the page, taking it from one side to the next—she’d remember snippets of her life too. Walking on the pier at sunset; screaming at her father at the bottom of her driveway; the subway car rocking her to sleep; her father eating fried eggs for breakfast in his dark blue robe, nodding yes; the canoe unlocked from its shed. The world she’d known. This new world she lived in. She simmered herself, tried to make herself into something denser, something better.

And in this season, in this house my son designed for us, in the quiet of coming winter and later the bursting forth of early spring crocus, I will feel cared for and invest again in my life as Seth invested in his. I will treasure the way I can meet the needs of others with my passions as I believe he did. I will plant vegetables and herbs and hope for their treasure as I watch them grow, as I watched my son grow into the man he was.

I will sow and I will weed. I will prune and I will harvest. And I will cook that harvest. All in a row of time. But I will think of my life and his as a book I carry with me and read from front to back and back to front, midsection first or by random pages.

And this is why, also, she surmised, she continued to row in the rain even as the chill settled into her bones and puddles formed in the boat’s bottom, even as new drops plunked in.

He had 25 years on this earth, and now I imagine what he would be doing, how many children he’d have, how they might all paddle along the waters of Discovery Bay in their beautiful wooden kayaks. Kayaks their father would have shown them how to build. Kayaks that bring back to mind Seth’s passion, his hard work to realize his dreams and the dreams of others, even as the ghost boats move farther and farther from where I stand.

And here are more words as a whole essay born of this experiment in writing between the lines of another’s writing:

Kayak

Seth was left-handed like his father. I loved seeing his arm hooked up and around the top of a page as he wrote his school assignments. I loved his neat and regular printing. I wondered why he never wrote in script, how he could make his letters spaced so regularly and their height so even, how my own handwriting had gotten so illegible, how handsome my little boy had gotten, how deep his voice, how dreamy his blue, blue eyes, how lovely his curls were and the strength in his hands.

Now he is gone, almost 19 years, gone since he was 25 and died in a snowboarding accident. I am living in the house he designed for us when he was 17, a high school senior, raring to get started in studying architecture, raring to leave home for college. But he had one last school year and a summer before that could happen.

As my son, my second child, was preparing to leave the nest, I hatched the idea of having a place by the water to write. His Steppie, as Seth called my husband, supported me in the project, in making that dream come true. We purchased a building lot in a community along a bay I loved the name of, Discovery Bay. What would I discover in this new chapter of my life?

“Seth,” I cautioned, “I don’t know if we can afford to build a house you would design for us.” I had been thinking of a manufactured house, one that wouldn’t break the bank and be there quickly.

“Mom, I will interview you and Kurt about what you each want in a house and we’ll see.” He seemed to know what he was doing right from the get-go. How had he learned this?

“I’d like three bedrooms and three bathrooms,” I said, thinking about wanting family and friends to be comfortable on visits to this community 8 miles from a Victorian town, which is a destination site in Washington State.

“I’d like room for a pool table,” Kurt said. He loved the game and would have liked to have guests shoot those crazy hard balls into the pockets.

“Mom, your budget allows for two bedrooms and two baths with showers. Kurt, I’ll find out how much a basement raises the cost of the project. But I’m not hopeful.”

He hooked his left arm over the notebook he’d brought to our meeting, the same way he would over the paper on his drafting table when he designed the project we could afford. I could look at him writing and drawing forever, sleeves of his button-down cotton shirt rolled to the elbow.

Now in the house he designed (that came in on budget), there is not a day that goes by that I don’t feel my son here with me, looking at the corners, the windows, the window trims, and the flow of people and light in the small, sunlit house. Not a day goes by that I don’t remember the wooden kayak he built here in the garage, how he paddled the water of Discovery Bay, a block down a hill, and made a set of wheels to roll the beautiful boat down to the bay and back up, and feel the presence of his drafting table still stored in the crawl space under the house.

And after a summer of guests from Seattle, Jacksonville, Cleveland, Bellingham and Los Angeles, after a summer of luncheons and dinners under the great room’s skylights, after the days between then and today, I sit down to write on the anniversary of Seth’s birth, and what I think of are two photographs: the kindergarten photograph of Seth at five and the photograph of him during his graduate education in architecture. In the first, he wears a hardhat he selected as his prop that day and in the second he squats at the site where, with his graduate school classmates, he will build a bus shelter for migrant workers in the Central Valley of California. He hated that they worked all day in the hot sun and then waited for their bus home in the same hot sun. 

I have entertained all summer in this house knowing fall and the excruciating calendar of missing would come. Seth’s birthday October 1, Thanksgiving that always marks the last visit he would make to see us, December 27 the day of his accident, December 28 the day we agreed to take his body off life support, January 2 the Temple services before we scattered his ashes. And then the air I walk through begins to clear as if the air itself is preparing me to go on into the next seasons.

And in this season, in this house my son designed for us, in the quiet of coming winter and later the bursting forth of early spring crocus, I will feel cared for and invest again in my life as Seth invested in his. I will treasure the way I can meet the needs of others with my passions as I believe he did. I will plant vegetables and herbs and hope for their treasure as I watch them grow, as I watched my son grow into the man he was.

I will sow and I will weed. I will prune and I will harvest. And I will cook that harvest. All in a row of time. But I will think of my life and his as a book I carry with me and read from front to back and back to front, midsection first or by random pages. 

He had 25 years on this earth, and now I imagine what he would be doing, how many children he’d have, how they might all paddle along the waters of Discovery Bay in their beautiful wooden kayaks. Kayaks their father would have shown them how to build. Kayaks that bring back to mind Seth’s passion, his hard work to realize his dreams and the dreams of others, even as the ghost boats move farther and farther from where I stand.

****

I hope you will try this way of pulling what you have in you to write: find a poem or a story or random sentences from an article or emails and set yourself the task of going with the flow of what comes to you to write between the lines.

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Comments

Writing Between Paragraphs An Essay Forms — 10 Comments

  1. Oh gosh, Sheila, this is fantastic. I liked Canoe but found yours so much more emotionally resonant; for me it also embodied the lost one so much more for the reader. Your love and loss show in crystalline clarity — both painful and beautiful, breath-taking each way.

    “The excruciating calendar of missing” — both lovely and too true. And interesting, too, how words and images can connect people, writer and reader, intangibly.

    I’m learning so much from you, both lessons and your work. In addition to wanting to try this “in between” approach (and boy, is grief anything if not liminal??) a few lines in yours in particularly sparked independent ideas, too. Thank you.

  2. Also, want to acknowledge the writing of your son. Have a new appreciation of your house up there in the wilds of Washington State with the wonderful view, and your garden. My thought is your studio was not part of the original plan.
    It’s all so peaceful up there, I still remember walking to the mailbox with you.
    Love, Bree

    • The studio is an extension built ten years after the house was built. When Seth designed the house, he designed a small office in it for me with a view of Discovery Bay. As the house got busier with us living in it full-time, rather than it being a place to retreat to write, Seth’s fiance, also an architect, designed my studio which also has a view over Discovery Bay. The little office became the place my two grandsons sleep during their visits out here. At 6 ft and almost 6 ft, they still like to open up the trundle bed and sleep in that room!

      I love that walk to the mailboxes along the road that follows the bay.

      I am glad you remember it.

      Sheila

  3. Hi Sheila,
    I loved this exercise. Used one of my heart-held, long-standing poems. “Geroge Gray” from the Spoon River Anthology. Have kept this poem as an incentive for rough times and it brought back my years of semi-depression. Thank heavens I’ve moved on.
    Appreciate your suggestion.
    Think, next time I’ll use “Wild Geese” by Mary Oliver.

  4. Hi,
    Yesterday our internet was down and I couldn’t open your monthly article. Today is the 5th anniversary of my brother’s death. I had been struggling with what to write. Now, I’m writing. Tearfully, but gratefully. Thank you.
    Katherine Clarke

  5. Thank you Sheila for Sharing this article, and for the touching tribute to your son. Every time I read what you write about him I want to cry. Not in a way to stop me reading, but in a way that makes me want to read more because in your writing about your son, you tweak out beauty out of the most painful of circumstances.

    Thank you.
    Maureen

  6. Thank you for this great idea. I have used “Elements of the Writing Craft” by Robert Olmstead, He uses some techniques similar to this, but you take it to a higher level. I will be trying it out.

    Your essay is a wonderful compliment to your son.

    Suzy Beal

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