Elizabeth Crowell


"The Tag"
Winner of the Burns Archive Prize for Nonfiction, 2011
Selected by Jerome Groopman 


What is your biggest challenge as a writer?

Time. I have two children and a full-time job as a teacher and administrator.

Do you structure your writing before you write, or do you begin by writing freely?

I begin by writing freely, usually by hand. Then, I write on the computer, sometimes not even looking at the initial draft.

Are there instances in your writing to which you did not intend to give thematic or symbolic meaning, but which you became aware of after writing them?

Sure. All the time. In “The Tag” the wolf decoys started as a literal detail and something upon which I could focus visually. Then, they began to echo for me as being about something predatory in nature, something that is meant both to protect and repel, something instinctual. These were all things that related to motherhood. By contrast, sometimes life just gives you one—the tagging griever in suburban Boston gave me this great gift, a way to frame the story of my own grief.

In “The Tag” you reference Things Fall Apart, Macbeth, and James Joyce’s “The Dead”; at another point, you refer to yourself as a poet. How did “The Tag” come about as a piece of creative nonfiction? Did you experiment with other forms as well?

The piece sprung from three poems I wrote while Matthew was still hospitalized and shortly thereafter. I found the poetry really helped have control over the obsessive level of detail that the trauma of the experience brought up for me. Then, piece by piece I could begin to narrate those details in prose form and make transitions between them.

Setting plays a huge role in this essay about grief. While writing it, did you find it necessary to return to those same places where the events detailed in “The Tag” occurred? Or did you rely on your memory of the setting?

I have been back to both Children’s Hospital and Beth Israel to show off Matthew, but I seem to be a “place” person in all my writing, and I tend to absorb those details automatically.

“The Tag” is about a trauma that affected not only you, but also your wife, Cheryl. How did your writing about this experience affect her? Was deciding to write this something you discussed beforehand?

I didn’t discuss it beforehand, though she’d read some of the poems. The piece opened up for both of us a discussion of my own lingering sense of guilt and how to begin to deal with it. It also made us both be honest about the fact that though we shared this loss, we had different experiences of it. In that way, it was quite healing.

What writers have inspired you? What are you currently reading?

I’m reading mostly poetry—Kay Ryan, Billy Collins. Gail Mazur. I like writers with crystal clear narrative voices—Willa Cather, Hemingway, and the poetry of Elizabeth Bishop. Bishop can take any object or noun in the world and infuse it with such weight. I love that.

Purchase the issue containing Elizabeth's essay.