Reading [grief] like a Writer: THE POND

IMG_1208

The Pond by Nicola Davies is—in hindsight—the book I wish I’d found immediately after my brother died suddenly in February 2001. But even if it had existed then, I probably wouldn’t have found it, because it’s a children’s picture book, and I was an adult without children at the time.

One thing I remember about those months following my brother’s death is my desperate attempt to find a book to help me grieve. I spent hours at the library and bookstores—I even got a part-time job in a bookstore and spent the slow shifts searching the “Books in Print” database—looking for help. Not self-help or pop psychology literature on grief and dying, because I was already getting enough of that by mail compliments of the funeral home and found it too textbook-y, a simplified regurgitation of clinical facts I had learned as an undergraduate psychology major. Not literary fiction, because even as I intellectually knew the plots were grounded in as much truth as can probably exist, I felt resentful that the characters weren’t really experiencing what I was, and indulging in make-believe felt frivolous. And not, much to my surprise then, memoir written by adults that had lost a sibling. I became hyper-focused on the differences between these writers’ losses and mine, and although I couldn’t identify or name it then, I resented the years of distance they had from their losses, the narrative distance that I now know was necessary for them to write well about their stories.

What I remember thinking—and saying repeatedly to therapists—during the first two years after my brother’s death was, “I know that what I’m feeling is normal, and I know my life will go on somehow, that my family will learn how to co-exist with our grief, but what am I supposed to do in the meantime while I’m waiting for all that to happen?”

Go through the motions, they said. Just keep putting one foot in front of the other. At some point, it will get easier.

I was an ambitious Type A personality at the time, someone who hadn’t waited for much in my twenty-some years. Their advice did not compute for me.

All these feelings came rushing back to mind when I first read The Pond. In Davies’ story, a young boy loses his father. Confronted with a sloppy mess of the dad’s unrealized pond in the backyard, the boy and his mom begin work to fulfill the dad’s goal, carefully bringing an entire ecosystem to life before ultimately moving on to a new home, leaving the pond behind them.

Two huge revelations about my grief struck me while reading The Pond.

First, I would have benefited from nurturing something, cultivating life in the months after my brother died. I had a cat at the time, but at 17-years-old, the cat was too close to death for comfort. I worried about her demise, had dreams about it, was constantly making hypothetical plans for how to deal with it. I was a teacher at the time, too, but none of my students that year needed me; no one’s survival depended on me. Why hadn’t someone told me to start a garden, volunteer at a no-kill shelter for pets, or volunteer to cuddle babies in neonatal intensive care? I needed to witness the emergence of life in those days, and I needed to have a role in it.

One spread from THE POND by Nicola Davies, illustrated by Cathy Fisher

Second, visual reminders of our loved ones can be healing. Proving that good illustrators add depth to a story rather than simply translate words into pictures, Cathy Fisher layers in a full-spread illustration of a bulletin board full of photographs, mementos, and drawings—a shrine, of sorts, to the deceased and the pond project. My eyes filled with tears when I turned to this page, as the significance of a much sloppier rendition I had created on a shelf in my living room suddenly sank in. This part I had, apparently, discovered for myself somewhere in the middle stages of grief, but again, what if someone had explicitly told me to line up childhood photos and sentimental knickknacks as I tried to remember and record as much about life with my brother as I could? That would have been practical, actionable advice to help me pass time while I waited to feel differently, while I waited for life to resume in a new, altered state.

I doubt that Davies or Fisher would describe The Pond as a how-to guide for coping with grief, yet to me it houses at least two huge suggestions for slogging through the muck of it. It is the book I longed for when I confronted my own first real loss, true in the deepest sense in spite of its “fiction” label. In fact, if ever there’s been a book that I wish I had birthed myself, this is it.

My strong reaction to this book as a reader—and griever—begs a subsequent question for me as a writer: how did they do that? What can I learn about the craft of writing by looking at how this story was assembled?

One thing I notice about The Pond is its setting. Not “setting” as in a geographic location but rather a location in time. The story told here is tightly focused on the “after”—what happened after the father died, rather than what happened to cause him to die. This is perhaps the beauty of a picture book, as the word count (typically under 1,000 words) forces the writer to be efficient and omit all detail that is not absolutely necessary. We don’t need details about any illness or accident to understand this story, just enough backstory to hear the father’s dreams for the pond.

The next thing I notice is that the concrete image of the pond works as an extended metaphor in this story. It looks initially as we know grief looks: a sloppy, ugly mess—not like things were supposed to be—but as the pond/their grief is tended to, it becomes less ugly; it eventually sprouts new life, and in time, the pond/grief looks entirely different. When the family finally moves to a new home, the original pond/grief gets left behind, even as they carry the experience of it with them forever and promise to build a new pond at their new home—in other words, they vow not to forget their father. The pond/grief metaphor works on a symbolic level, too: water often reminds us of tears, and a pond is a deep, broad hole.

There’s smart character development work in this book, too. We can easily infer that the boy’s brother and mother are also struggling with grief, but that each expresses it differently. We know much about the personality and interests of the deceased father (visionary, dreamer, gardener, outdoorsman, caregiver, scientist, naturalist, maybe put needs/desires of others before his own since he hadn’t fully realized his crazy dream of the pond yet). That’s a lot to know about a guy we never actually meet!

And this is just a high level discussion of the smart craft strategies in the book! We could look closely at every line and notice even more, thinking about what each page/paragraph/line/word does for the story—what function each serves. I will continue to do so (and so should you), because (1) that’s how we will become better writers ourselves and (2) we’ll likely discover something new each time we look closely (same as if we observed a pond closely over time!)

YOU MIGHT ALSO LIKE

Want more practice reading like a writer? Check out Reading Like a Writer: Looking closely at “Speech Class.”

Interested specifically in writing about grief? See Crafting Grief: Intentional choice of narrative point-of-view