Guest contributor: Richard Gilbert

Wild Ducks: How an Essay of the Empty Nest was Hatched

categories: Cocktail Hour / Reading Under the Influence


Claire Gilbert at eleven, sledding with her puppy Jack (January 1998)

The past few years, working on a memoir of my experiences farming in Appalachia, I’ve generated tons of material—twice, 500 pages—and have spun some passages into stand-alone pieces. The published ones include an essay on my hired hand who died; another about a legendary pond-builder with a tragic secret; one about the historic first meeting of my future wife and my father; yet another about my father’s return to farming in retirement and his decline and death.

When I first began adapting essays from the memoir, I noticed I had some vivid fragments of our kids growing up on our farm with animals. I liked the vignettes, chained them together, and told myself I’d written a postmodern collage. Here’s an excerpt from one, about hatching some wild mallards in an incubator:

      Claire and Tom and I watched the ducklings hatch. Wriggling like wet seals from the rocks, they emerged from their brittle cocoons. These were some sweet ducklings—literally: they smelled like maple syrup. I’d misted the eggs daily with water during incubation, using a recycled syrup bottle as a makeshift sprayer, and the incubator’s warmth had reconstituted a residue. The sugary scent had passed through the eggshells and coated the ducklings. All seven hatched, and when the black-and-yellow brood huddled in our children’s laps, the room filled with the smell of Sunday morning flapjacks.

Another scene, more pensive, has me reflecting upon a photo I took of our kids with a lamb that same spring—everything had gone wrong that first lambing—and my sensing, a dawning awareness, that I’d stopped getting the work-life balance right. I was holding down a day job in book publishing and farming on the side:

Tom, nine, sits cross-legged and tries to smile, his mouth pressed into a downward line that bunches his pink cheeks. He wears a blue tee shirt with white bands, and he must have been in a growth spurt because his canvas pants ride up his legs. Tom scratches at his neck with his left hand—he’s bothered by his long hair, which forms a dark blond helmet on his head and hangs down his neck and in his eyes. His little face peers out as if from under a haystack. Our Saturday barbershop ritual has dissolved here, a casualty of house construction and farm busyness and new school routines and the unpredictable weekend hours of Appalachian barbers. . . 

When I waved the kids into place that day for their portrait with a lamb, I wanted to capture a culmination, and I suppose I did. But now I can’t look at the photograph in its cherry frame on my desk without seeing something else. . . .

Editors I sent the essay to schooled me with rejections. Apparently it didn’t work after all. And yet some of the rejections were weirdly complimentary. I concluded the passages were fine but needed unifying, needed something more. I hadn’t a clue what, so I put the piece aside.

Then one morning the summer before last, as I was slaving away on yet another rewrite of the book, I began to tell a new story, about the time my wife and I took our daughter, Claire, off to college in Chicago. The account, or much of it, was played for humor. How our daughter was angered by our smothering emotion; how my wife and I melted down differently, and at different times, places, and rates, over losing her, our first born, to that threshold of adulthood; how I lost the ability to walk after our farewell restaurant meal—an allergic reaction to MSG—and how my wife, lost in her own grief, ignored my impairment as I whimpered and whined in our motel room.

I had it! The through-story. The foreground thread I needed to hang the baubles upon.

It would be a braided essay, a structure I’d grown fond of to the point of obsession.

I’d read a neat essay by Heather Sellers, in a 2009 issue of Writers Digest, extolling the form (and later I read her own braided essay she’d adapted from her fine memoir, You Don’t Look Like Anyone I Know). The problem with many essays, Sellers said, is that they’re only telling one story and that’s boring. “No room to wiggle around . . . discover the interesting, previously unnoticed thing. Art relies on surprise. In order to engage the reader (and yourself as a writer), you have to braid. You can’t be confusing, but you can’t spell it all out, either. The human mind, when it reads, needs something to figure out.”

Braiding at its most simple is telling two stories by alternating between one in the foreground and one unspooling farther in the past. The structure is used in so many novels, narrative nonfiction accounts, memoirs, and movies because it works. A great example is Sean Penn’s movie based on Jon Krakauer’s Into the Wild. The film opens with a Prologue of the protagonist, Christopher McCandless, starving to death in the Alaskan bush; then the foreground story begins with him finding his camp, an old abandoned bus; it flashes back to depict the two-year journey that got him there. The movie alternates between showing Chris in Alaska and scenes of the people he met on the way to getting there. The backstory is incredibly moving, because even though we know where he ended up it shows how and why; we watch him turn his back repeatedly on love and hearth to embark on his spiritually purifying but fatal quest. In fact, the backstory is more vivid and compelling than the final, wilderness thread, even though we know it’s “over,” in the past.

I cast my foreground story about taking Claire to college in present tense because I liked its immediacy. In “Wild Ducks” I liked too how present tense set the foreground events off from the past-tense thread of her growing up on the farm. Here’s the end of the essay’s opening passage, set on Claire’s campus in Chicago, which is followed by a line break and the story of the ducks we hatched:

Outside Claire’s dormitory we perch on a bench in a patio’s nook. Coneflowers hang in the warm air around us like pink shuttlecocks; a fat bumblebee clings to the brown button eye of one wavering blossom. Kathy reviews the use of debit cards and fumbles a speech about making the most of one’s college years. Claire glances toward her stone dormitory. “Kathy,” I say, “if we don’t leave, she can’t miss us.” I hug Claire, then Kathy does, holding on longer. She pats Claire’s shoulder. “Call us she says,” turning away as her face swells with emotion. She’s looking in her purse for a tissue.

      Claire stares at Kathy’s lowered head and throws out her arms in theatrical frustration. Parental emotion, especially her mother’s, is too heavy to lug into her new life.

I’d forgotten I’d sent “Wild Ducks” to River Teeth: A Journal of Nonfiction Narrative—they’d had it for about nine months—and when one of the editors, Joe Mackall, called me I was stunned. “It’s like E.B. White meets . . .” and he named two other writers, but I was too flummoxed to follow. “Regret runs like a thread through it,” he said. Or something. I was babbling my thanks.

Writer friends had worked me over good and hard for “Wild Ducks” since I’d sent it off so happily. One felt it wasn’t reflective enough, and she had a point—but now it was too late for a major recasting, just some tweaking. Another said I acted like a “big baby” in the MSG scene, and she was clearly disgusted by my persona. I disagreed—I couldn’t walk and was truly alarmed, plus I was playing the scene for humor. Yet even I felt another scene, since cut from the book, where I tease my wife seemed puerile. It was, however, an accurate depiction of my sometimes childish sense of humor. Truth in nonfiction!

Anyway, I’m thrilled to be in the current issue of River Teeth. My fellow contributors include two authors who awe me: The House of Sand and Fog author Andre Dubus III, who writes about his feelings of shock and vulnerability in being confronted by people pained by his perceptions or by their family secrets being aired in his gripping and gritty memoir, Townie; and Lee Martin, novelist and memoirist, who in “Selling Out in the Writing of Memoir” likewise explores hurting feelings in nonfiction.

My own second-guessing aside, I’m mostly okay with my essay, even if neither my wife nor my daughter can bear to read it. For better or worse, a writer comes to regard with a cooler eye his raw material—the upsetting event, the nagging memory, the painful emotion—that he’s shaping into story. And he assumes the narrative’s other actors share his clinical view. They don’t; they can’t. My experience was not theirs, but it triggers and perhaps threatens theirs.

Still, I’m glad I memorialized that trip we took years ago with Claire. I made meaning from it, distilled something clear and hard from the murk of memory. And now I also have that day when I finally figured out, with a yelp of joy, how to tell the story.


[Richard Gilbert, an instructor at Otterbein University, blogs at Narrative, Excepts, including now “Wild Ducks,” can be found at Scribd:]

  1. Andrea Q. writes:

    Such a great essay about one of my favorite forms… thanks for sharing this!

  2. Dave writes:

    This is great stuff. It’s like The Making of an Essay….

    “Braided” must be in the air. I’m teaching a class next term to grad students and that will be the focus.

    • Richard Gilbert writes:

      Thanks, Dave. Some great ones to teach: Jo Ann Beard’s “The Fourth State of Matter,” which may still be available on the New Yorker site, Susan Griffin’s “Our Secret,” Lee Martin’s “All Those Fathers That Night,” McPhee’s “The Search for Marvin Gardens,” Reg Saner’s “Technically Sweet,” one I learned about from you, Sherry Simpson’s “Fidelity,” and the Heather Sellers essay I mentioned above.

  3. Debora writes:

    Really really liked hearing about the evolution of this writing and the writer’s moments of certainty, and then uncertainty, and then certainty. I really really like that you are “mostly okay” with your essay but still thinking it over. You’ve shown how complicated our relationship with art is. Congrats on River Teeth–wow!

    • Richard Gilbert writes:

      Thanks, Debora–I wonder if any writer is totally pleased: the cuts, the decisions to go one way instead of another, the second- and third- and fourth-guessing. Things come together with work, no doubt, but sometimes, too, things get rushed and you only learn later that that bit you cut should have been left in.

      • Richard Gilbert writes:

        P.S.—Like I only noticed when the thing was published that I called the ducklings black and yellow. In dim light, and wet, that is their appearance, but the “black” is chocolate brown. I am not sure that’s so much an error, which it is, technically, as my subconscious taking over for a moment. Because I have hatched lots of mallards and know their infant color!

        • Debora writes:

          Richard, I’ve been thinking about the experiences and insights you shared. What you have said here is critical for anyone who wants to write. We must have the confidence to follow our instincts and to make the “final” decisions.

          But I think you’ve also raised the question: Whose art is it?

          I can’t help but wonder how you, other writers, readers, and Cocktail Hour philosophers might answer that question.

          • Richard Gilbert writes:

            What a great question. But a hard one. Because one must know enough to know when something is really right. I have had enough people read the same work at the same stage to be astounded by the range of reactions. And one must always remember that anyone’s advice falls into three categories: brilliant, maybe, and crazy. One’s editor or publisher is the one, in the end, with the real say, I say. But as I mentioned, mute rejection is a school, too. I finally got my essay right by my lights, and someone agreed, but many more would have kept rejecting it if it hadn’t found a home there.

            • Debora writes:

              Oh that is SO good, start to finish–plus funny! I printed it out! I’m going to tape it to my computer screen!

  4. Bill writes:

    Thanks for both the essay and its history, Richard–lovely. We are big fans of River Teeth here.