Photo of a stretch of the Nueces River, which runs through Uvalde, Texas

A stretch of the Nueces River, which runs through Uvalde, Texas.

By Trevor Pyle

When a former student killed 19 students and two teachers in a Uvalde, Texas, elementary school last year, the ache spread worldwide. One who felt the pain keenly was Kim Garza, a professor and novelist who grew up in Uvalde.

The author of “The Last Karankawas” and a professor of creative writing and literature at the University of Texas San Antonio, Garza had agreed early in 2022 to write an essay for Texas Highways. Then the shooting at Robb Elementary School happened.

“It was shattering,” she said. “Like everyone, I was wrecked, reeling from that event. And the more I thought about it, the more it seemed impossible to write an essay about anywhere but home.”

Texas author and professor Kim Garza

Kim Garza

Garza wasn’t interested in an essay as focused on trauma as many that emerged in the wake of the shooting. Instead, she thought about the rivers near her hometown; the ones that are gathering spots; are places of healing, are settings where memories as vivid and bracing as the waters themselves are made.

“I pitched a pretty nebulous idea to Mike (Hoinski, deputy editor at Texas Highways) about an essay on the rivers Uvalde is famous for — was once famous for — and the concepts of water and healing. I didn’t know quite where it would lead. I didn’t know what the structure or the scope would be,” she said. “But he told me to go for it. I did some research, and on a weekend home I took time to drive to some of those river spots I knew well to sit there, soak them in. I had some brief sketches I had started, but after that trip, when I sat down to write, the words just spilled out of me.”

The resulting piece is “We Were Known for Our Rivers.” Dropping the reader into a river — “so cold and shocking it’s nearly nuclear” — right away, it then winds and bends and rushes and slows down, all to give readers an essay that is baleful and celebratory in equal measure.

Garza is a teacher of writing, and several of her lessons can be gleaned from this essay.

Go small to go big. Garza’s piece feels universal, but also intimate. That was no mistake; it was a survival mechanism. Whenever Garza felt intimidated by a story so in the public eye and so freighted with grief, she made herself narrow it to moments and meaning in her own ambit.

“There were moments where I nearly quit writing because it felt impossible. But ultimately, I tried to do what I always do: focus on my own personal story rather than trying to represent everyone, which I could never do anyway. I centered on my family and my life in Uvalde, on what grief and loss meant to me, on the rivers and their connection to me. The expectation was to go big with this essay, but I tried to go small when I felt that pressure, focus on me and my grief, not anyone else’s. It was the only way I could write this.”

Do research, then leave (some of) it out. Once Garza had found the theme of Uvalde’s rivers, it was time for research. Aided greatly by research assistant Roxanna Rodriguez, Garza read everything from facts on the biology of water to literary touchstones such as Ernest Hemingway’s  “Big Two-Hearted River.”

Some of this material made it into the essay; much of it didn’t. But that doesn’t make a single moment of it a waste. Garza emphasized that even research that doesn’t make it into the final story can be valuable.

“Reading through all that research was necessary. Keeping them in my mind was crucial and it gave me so much to say as I wrote the essay, so I never stalled out. I was taught as a college journalist to research more than you end up writing — to know more than you include on the page. I still hold to that as a writer.”

Put down roots. A tinny sketch of Uvalde can be drawn from facts easily found online. For some stories churned out on deadline, that’s OK; not so much with a story where the writer wants to reach for a deeply etched sense of place.

One of Garza’s hopes for her piece was to bring her hometown to life for those who may be reading the piece from thousands of miles away. So she turned to details that express the spirit of the place, from its small-town flavor to its respectful treatments of its towering oaks. She writes: “A few years ago, we got a Starbucks; it’s next to the Tractor Supply. We call ourselves “Tree City, U.S.A.” — you can drive down Nopal or Wood streets, for example, to see the ancient oaks that sit in the middle of our roads. We don’t tear them down. We paint their trunks white, install reflectors, and drive around them. Our high school football stadium is called the Honey Bowl.”

Garza has the advantage of growing up in Uvalde, but also picked up keen lessons from narratives about place, which she describes herself as a “ravenous reader” of.

“For me, the very best ones are the ones that focus on the small details as well as the big census-data ones,” she said.

Garza spoke to Storyboard about the conception, writing and editing of her essay. Her answers have been edited for length and clarity.

A rosary at a memorial honoring the victims of the July 11, 2022, mass shooting at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas.

A rosary at a memorial for victims of the May 24, 2022, shooting at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas.

Please describe, either as generally or detailed as you’d like, how this piece was conceived, written and edited.
I was contacted by Mike Hoinski about writing a Texas-related essay for the magazine early last year. I promised to take a few months to put some pitches together and send them to him that summer. I was rolling a couple of ideas through my head — about traveling to my father’s home in the Rio Grande Valley, or maybe the drives I made constantly from San Antonio to visit my loved ones’ graves, like my mother’s in Houston and my grandfather’s in Corpus Christi. But then in May, my hometown of Uvalde was devastated by the mass shooting at Robb.

There was so much pain, so much weariness and anger in how we were talking about Uvalde (for a lot of good reasons). I didn’t want to continue that, and I didn’t want to write something exploitative when people were suffering. So I considered another angle — the rivers Uvalde is famous for and the concepts of water and healing. I didn’t know quite where it would lead; I didn’t know what the structure or the scope would be. I had some brief sketches I had started, but after that trip (back to Uvalde), when I sat down to write, the words just spilled out of me. Mike and his team had just a few small edits, so the version that ran is essentially the one I turned in. I’m very proud of that.

This piece uses rivers to knit together thoughts on community, on loss, on the passage of time. How did you land on the theme to carry readers through the essay?
The theme found me — that happens a lot. I don’t like beginning with a capital-T Theme in mind when I write, since the writing can get preachy that way. I had the grounding element —  the rivers — and I had the vague concepts of healing, grief and home in mind. I just began writing things I had read, things I could remember, and things I recently had experienced related to home and water. When I felt the writing or my own thoughts meander away, I tried to bring the narrative back to the rivers. In that way, the river becomes the central thread of the essay — it carries and binds all of these disparate, heavy themes. It can represent grief and loss, healing and hope, time and change. And for people in a place like Uvalde, it represents home, too. So much of who we are is bound up in the rivers.

The story joins together several vignettes, from a family trip to healing waters in France to powerful myths from ancient Greece; yet it never feels distracted. How did you order the part of the story? Is the essay in more or less the same order as the first draft, or did it change with editing by you or others?
The final order is pretty close to the first draft I wrote. In the first go, I just let my thoughts flow. The only consideration I had was trying to stagger between topics, time, and voice: vignettes that were personal and those that were external research, ones that took place in the past and ones that were present, and those related to the shooting and those related to my mother and my family. I ended up cutting a few things, mostly nuggets of that external research on river therapy, water healing, the science of water, that just felt superfluous or repetitive. And I moved a few pieces around as I edited. An essay made up of many vignettes and segments can feel jarring, so I rearranged a few pieces or broke up or combined others to help the narrative feel more fluid. And there were a few places where I wanted to turn the concept from one theme to another. For example, after the section on how Uvalde has changed since the shooting — the fences around our schools, the slogan “Uvalde Strong” cropping up everywhere — I wanted that next moment to introduce healing. So I moved the section about my family’s trip to France and the shrine waters right after. It felt like a good transition, since I’m talking about how my mother eventually did pass away, but we still had some time, still had some healing.

One thing that stayed throughout every draft was the beginning and the end sections. I knew I wanted to start and end with the present moment, my trip to the Nueces in April. It felt cyclical, but also like something in me — or in the way I’m viewing the river in that moment — has changed by the time we return to the river at the end. In an essay about things unresolved, this was as close as I could get to resolution.

Particularly striking were the details that summon Uvalde as a real place for readers, not just as shorthand for tragedy. Readers learn which streets to drive down to view the town’s oak trees; they learn which store, exactly, the Starbucks is located next to. (I used to live near a Tractor Supply and could immediately picture its logo.) How mindful were you of creating a sense of place for readers?
Thank you so much for that — it’s absolutely what I was going for and was the most important thing in my mind, to bring this place to life for people who have never been there, or have only heard about us on the news. That in itself is so strange; before May 2022 we always had to describe where Uvalde was to other people (an hour west of San Antonio, close to the border, hometown of Matthew McConaughey, etc.). I’m a ravenous reader when it comes to narratives about place and I love writing them. The very best ones are the ones that focus on the small details as well as the big census-data ones. So yes, we’re 90 miles west of San Antonio, but we also leave oak trees in the middle of our streets that we drive around. We’re the hometown of Matthew McConaughey and have a population of 15,000 people, but those people are immigrants from many countries as well as families who have been there for generations, working the land or building businesses or raising their kids. These are the ways I tried to make it feel real for people who don’t know us as anything other than a name on the news. And for those of us from there who know it and its complexities, I wanted those moments to be shout-outs, things we all share.

You could have limited yourself to the rivers near Uvalde, but you widen your scope, pulling in the rivers of Greek myth and a short Latin lesson about the origin of the word spa. How did you find those facets to draw them into the essay?
I love using research and external facts in personal essays; there’s something about juxtaposing very intimate issues and memories with broad, universal ones that feels so striking. In the early research stages, I went with the keywords river, water, healing, and then just gathered everything I could, honestly. I’m a professor, and I was fortunate to have a graduate research assistant, Roxanna Rodriguez, who helped me gather info and sources — river therapy, the biology of water, literary works that mentioned rivers, like Hemingway’s famous two-part story “Big Two-Hearted River.” (Thank you, Roxanna!) In the end, I didn’t use many of those elements. Either they didn’t introduce anything new, or they just didn’t seem to click with the other pieces. I had a brief mention of the Hemingway story that my editor Mike suggested we cut, since unlike the Didion quote, it didn’t have a personal stake in the essay; it was just there to introduce rivers as a literary element. He was right, so we cut it, and we did that for a few other elements. But reading through all that research was necessary.

I was moved by the essay’s final paragraph, particularly how it feels like, sentence by sentence, it’s winnowing its way down to something elemental — a two-word sentence. What do you remember, if anything, about the writing and editing of this paragraph? What effect do you hope it has on readers?
I love that read on it. Personally, I wanted the ending to look ahead. I had that in mind as I wrote, and those final sentences essentially stayed the same throughout every round of editing. The last two sentences were always those two, short and punchy, almost a command as well as an observation. This is an essay dealing with heavy things like grief, loss and changes we didn’t ask for. It’s easy to wonder: How can anyone look to the future after experiencing such sorrow? How can anyone move forward under all that weight? But it’s what we all do eventually, and what we have to do. It’s hard to have hope in bleak moments, but I personally try to return to hope. The rivers dry up or they deepen, depending on the season. They move fast or trickle in stretches. Change is constant, not always good. But they keep moving in spite of the changes. I wanted to show that, for better or worse, we do, too.

Is there anything you learned writing this piece that you may carry forward into a lesson for future writing?
This was the first time I wrote something that felt incredibly public. I felt such pressure not just to represent the place and its people, but to address the horror of the shooting without getting exploitative or manipulative, and to look at other aspects of being from Uvalde without ignoring or dismissing the tragedy. It really felt incumbent on me to do all of these things. I’ve grappled with representation before — I have a Mexican-American father and a Filipina immigrant mother, and I write about those communities and many others that I’m part of in my fiction. But this was different.

Is there anything I didn’t ask about you’d like to mention about the writing or editing of this piece?
I feel very fortunate that Mike Hoinski and the TH team gave me free rein over this essay from the very beginning, and that it ran almost down to the word in the way I envisioned it. Although that definitely put the pressure on as to how it would be received, I’d have no one to blame but myself! I hoped this would be regarded well by outside readers, but I kind of agonized over how Uvaldeans would take it. I’ve been bowled over by the beautiful feedback I’ve gotten and my family has gotten, from friends and neighbors to complete strangers, that it feels like us, feels like home. I can’t imagine higher praise.

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Trevor Pyle, a newspaper reporter in the Pacific Northwest for several years, is a communications officer for a regional nonprofit.

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