By Jessie Ferree
March 16, 2021
Anchoring and Questioning:
Tracing Research and Reflection in Leonard Winograd’s “The Physics of Sorrow”
Leonard Winograd’s essay “The Physics of Sorrow,” found in River Teeth 21.1, provides a perfect example of the proper roles of research and reflective questioning. Of research as a tool for structural framework and an attempt to make sense of the inexplicable mysteries of life. Of questions not as a cheap deflection tactic, but an avenue for reflection and an invitation for readers to invest in the narrative. Of bridging that ever-looming gap we face as writers: write to make sense of yourself, but write in a way that others can make sense of you, too.
Winograd begins his essay by exploring a fascination with black holes, the start of a guiding metaphor that winds the following threads of this essay together. Acknowledging the conceptual, even philosophical, territory approaching, he immediately anchors the upcoming vague in the concrete: “I find myself with my ten-inch reflector, twenty-five miles south of Pikes Peak, on a high plain at 9600 feet, trying more and more often to locate galaxies and nebulae over my small piece of land” (66). From the title, we’re expecting the essay to enter more vulnerable places, but we’re lowered into its depths much like a launch sequence: in increments and with anticipation. I would ask readers to explore why knowing that scientists took months to “screen out all the dust and starlight that could mar the image” of the first photographed black hole prepares us for and adds to our understanding of the essay that follows (66).
Six paragraphs in, Winograd enters one of the emotional threads of the essay, where he and his wife make seemingly futile attempts to keep their cabin from nature and old age. This builds into the remaining themes: his failing health, the freedom retirement brings at the expense of purpose, the passing of an ex-girlfriend, the tragic death of his daughter’s boss, and her own emergency room scare. These topics, though linked to each other, still remain separate from the return to the lawlessness of space in paragraphs 8, 10, and 13; for each time we seem to near the emotional crux of the essay, Winograd quickly pulls back to the analytical. The personal and scientific finally knot and layer in paragraph 15, where the topical splits are no longer clear cut: “The gyre is pulling all of us down, inexorably, some faster than others. Hearts falter, knees go, visions dim, girlfriends die, memory disintegrates” (70). Any doubt of how the framing metaphor and Winograd’s personal journey inform each other is gone—the research “shield” covering the vulnerable innards of the essay is now shattered, mixing irrevocably with the meat. In this moment, Winograd stops pulling away and pushes forward at full force, a convergence of ideas made more powerful because of the preceding buildup.
In writing about these weighty and oft-tackled subjects (the inevitability of death and the lack of anything truly secure), the addition of research gives readers a fresh lens with which to view this material. Readers can easily see the overlap between Winograd’s explanation of the information paradox (“information… is never lost… it can eventually be retrieved, preserved, healed, resurrected”), his note that an exception to this law lives inside black holes and his helplessness to stop everything he loves from slipping away (69). The guiding metaphor also gives readers a much-needed distance to digest the intimately personal, as indicated by Winograd’s swerve between paragraph 12 and 13, from “Her sister later told me she found her sitting beside the bath in her robe dead” to “There must be a deeper appeal to the black hole, this enigmatic object, beyond the physics” (69). It would be a beneficial exercise for writers to trace the use of research as it evolves throughout the essay, seeing how they interpret each return to these “holes in space that eat things” (67).
But giving us a mental framework to tackle these issues doesn’t mean Winograd has given us answers. The first sequence of questions immediately follows the first-paragraph introduction of our guiding metaphor—“What to expect? A picture of nothingness? A ravenous monster?”—setting the expectation for more to come, which Winograd delivers (65). Each new set of questions adds to the mindset of his “infinitesimal understanding,” an on-the-page manifestation of the author questioning his role in the universe (65).
Winograd employs questions in paragraphs 1, 11, 13, 15, 19, and 21. The questions act as a consistent link that switches between the physics of black holes and his looming fear of mortality: “Where was that insulation now, those wall anchors, that siding wrapping the house, that defensible perimeter, keeping the darkness, the flames out, keeping the cracks, the rot from infiltrating? How had it got in?” (72). As this barrage of questions mimics the overwhelmed state of the author, it also invites readers to pause and engage. Readers will invariably have different responses to those questions, a tangible example of the author-reader relationship.
Reflection invokes the idea of looking back, lingering on, or considering the significance of a topic or event – who, what, when, where, and ultimately, why–and although a clear-cut meaning may not exist, human nature compels authors and readers to try. Perhaps that is the true goal of the personal essay—not to find answers, but to attempt to come to terms with your uncertainty, as Winograd does in the end: “I stand here vacuuming in this house with its red fissures and prayer-less cracks. It’s somehow comforting, soothing, this vacuuming—the noise, the repetition, the push and pull like breathing, the broad lines and ordered patterns I create in the carpet” (72).
I’m brought back to dissecting the title of the piece. Physics. Sorrow. Research. Unanswerable questions. And the balance between the two feels a little like being caught without gravity—floating, nothing solid beneath the cups of your palms or the dips of your feet, but knowing the walls of the space shuttle will always catch you, to keep you from that unsurvivable vacuum of space.
Find a personal essay you’ve written where you attempt a framing metaphor—a current event/element of popular culture, a scientific phenomenon/aspect of nature, an art form/practice within a field of study. Ask yourself questions about how your framing metaphor holds significance for the personal theme(s) you are exploring. Allow those moments of overlap to guide the construction of your essay and create a balance between research and your personal experience. Determine which questions are the “unanswerable” ones and build them into your reflection—using singular questions, series of questions, or paragraphs composed of a singular question.
Jessie Ferree is an MA student at Ball State University studying Creative Writing. She currently interns at River Teeth.
**Check with your library to find out if you have an institutional subscription to Project Muse, and thus, River Teeth’s archives.
Image courtesy of Pexels