Ambient Grief: Writing the Alteration

with Jacinda Townsend

Ambient grief writing course

February 21, 2024
6 Weeks


How do we write about grief that the world doesn’t quite accept as grief? “Ambient grief” is not as immediate as the loss of a loved one or the sudden end of a relationship. Rather, it can accompany ongoing developments like climate change or the aging process, intense collective experiences such as the COVID pandemic that change our sense of the world, or even positive life transitions like changing careers, retiring, or helping one’s youngest child move out. We feel, and may grieve, the element of transformation and loss in each of these experiences.

If you’re experiencing ambient grief, then please join us. You’ll process personal grief through the writing process, with the goal of connecting with other writers who are traveling on similar paths. We’ll be exploring our experiences of ambient grief, isolating what we can in order to hammer the dross into meaningful, impactful work. Through weekly readings and assignments, we will examine the way ambient grief reshapes our sense of ourselves and sharpens our sense of other people.

Each week you will be given an assignment to help you generate a new piece of creative nonfiction that encourages you to explore the various ways to write about and process grief. By the end of the class, you will produce at least one polished personal essay. We will examine our own creative process, and the ways we digest our ambient grief by writing it. You will be encouraged, also, to share the ways in which the writing process has forged healing, transformation, or renewal.

Learning and Writing Goals

Learning Goals

  • Transforming personal grief into writing that resonates universally
  • Isolating the thematic underpinnings of ambient grief
  • How to move from draft to completion of a personal essay
  • Healing by transmitting and digestion of personal experiences
  • Productively engaging with others’ collective experience of grief

Writing Goals

  • Complete weekly writing assignments
  • Aim for a regular word count/time period in which to make writing a habit
  • Discuss and practice techniques employed by essayists
  • Complete an essay on ambient grief

Zoom Schedule

Wednesdays, 5-7 P.M. U.S. Eastern Time

Weekly Syllabus

Optional Text: Rebellious Mourning: The Collective Work of Grief

Week One: Introduction/Foundations: What is Our Process?

Assignment: Class participants will introduce themselves by writing about the moment that began their grief.

Week Two: Movement: From the Personal to the Universal

Assignment: Shakespeare once famously said, “There is nothing new under the sun,” yet what keeps us writing is that humans are constantly, brilliantly reinterpreting all that is “old.” What about your own grief is very particular to you? What writing makes that grief “fresh?”

Week Three: People: Whose Essay Is This?

Assignment: Your grief may involve other people, but it belongs to you. By asking you to write from the perspective of someone else of your choosing, this assignment will help you decide whether–and to what extent–others are focal points of your writing.

Week Four: Quickness: What Belongs and What Doesn’t

Pacing is important in an essay: if we pack too many details into a piece, the most salient of them are lost. This week’s assignment offers you artificial parameters of space and time in order to help you trim the superfluous.

Week Five: Epiphanies: Marching towards the End of the Essay

This week’s assignment is designed to help you reach alchemy, and help you find the transformation in your piece. We will discuss the turning point of your piece, and you will write that with an eye towards dramatic trajectory.

Week Six: Transformation and Revision: Recasting Ambient Grief

This week’s assignment is all about the act of reseeing–truly reseeing–what you’ve written. With the help of your peers, you will chisel the image you’ve created into sharper relief.

Course type:

Student Feedback for Jacinda Townsend:

February 21, 2024
6 Weeks


jacinda townsend headshot


Jacinda Townsend is the author of Mother Country (Graywolf, 2022), winner of the 2023 Ernest Gaines Award for Literary Excellence, and Saint Monkey (Norton, 2014), winner of the Janet Heidinger Kafka Prize and the James Fenimore Cooper Prize for historical fiction. A former broadcast journalist and antitrust lawyer, Townsend has written nonfiction for Al Jazeera and The White Review.