Interviewed by Amelia Loulli

Read Sarah Kilch Gaffney’s nonfiction piece, This Washcloth


Amelia: I was really captured by how you manage to pack so much emotive substance into this succinctly compact story. As a writer, do you find yourself drawn to this kind of concentrated work? 

Sarah: I started out as a poet, and though I write primarily nonfiction these days, my poetic tendencies consistently bleed through. I think the heart of poetry has always shown through in my writing, but even more so as my work has evolved.

Do you think there is a power inherent in the flash, perhaps comparable to poetry? That notion of saying more with less holding its own kind of potency?

I find myself more and more drawn to short pieces as the years go on. Of all of the work I have written, some of my favorites are strange hybrid combinations of poetry and nonfiction, nearly always contained within a single page, and that often spill out of me in a single sitting. There is something to be said for brevity, for letting the power of a small number of words carry a piece, and also to not giving everything away, allowing for the reader to fill in some of the space.

I found there to be a strong, poetically symbolic feel to the central image of the washcloth, and all the ordinary, and in this case extraordinary, domesticity attached to it. I wonder if you find that anchoring on one aspect of the tangible everyday is an effective way of processing and capturing life’s more painful and difficult experiences?

I have always been attracted to certain aspects of the physical, domestic life: digging in the garden, kneading bread, stacking firewood, etc. Exploring these everyday parts of my life has been an important way for me to work through my grief, and as a parent, my days are rife with domestic projects and details. So much of my grieving process revolved around carrying on with life with my daughter after my first husband’s death, so I think tackling my grief through the objects and domestic tasks of our life together has always made sense to my mind. I have cried over checkbooks and sweaters, dishes and snowsuits, even apples. Grief manifests itself in countless ways, frequently unexpected, and sometimes in something as boring and ordinary as a washcloth.

Do you have any thoughts on writing as a cathartic tool, or any advice for writers looking to tell a powerful but painful story?

When my first husband died, I was 29 and our daughter was barely three. One day he was alive and the next day he was not. Eventually, I figured out that writing my way through this fact was the only way that I could manage it. At its very core, the act of writing through my grief has been selfish, but it has helped me move through my most devastating days and also honor my late husband’s life. I am also deeply heartened when people reach out to me to tell me how much my words have meant to them and how grateful they are to know that they are not alone in their experience. It’s a powerful and humbling experience to impact someone else’s life in that way.