“The Learning Curve”

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Last week I picked apart Picka Pocketoni. So this week I’d like to pick apart—in a more positive way—another Sedaris essay: The Learning Curve (Me Talk Pretty One Day, 83-96).

This essay hit home for me (and I assume for many of you) in many ways, particularly as a writer, writing student and someone who would someday love to teach writing workshops. But also, I’m currently writing a novel and one of the main themes is how we all find ourselves faking it (or feeling as though we’re faking it) at one point or another. We don’t start out being experienced. It takes time but we all have to start somewhere. That’s simply how life works.

Thematically, this story speaks to anyone who has ever felt like a faker. When Sedaris gets his first teaching gig, he feels like an imposter. And in a way he is one. But I bet anyone who’s ever been in his shoes has felt the same way. Of course, while most of us might not admit it or write a whole essay shouting it to the world, personally, I love how honest he is about it.

Sedaris exposes so many parts of himself to us, including: Sedaris as writer, Sedaris as teacher, Sedaris as the child who just wants to be loved and, perhaps most notably in this essay Sedaris as self-proclaimed, self-deprecating, low self-esteem fraud. All of these elements somehow add up to expose Sedaris as a charming, humorous, honest and relatable human.

“Like branding steers or embalming the dead, teaching was a profession I had never seriously considered.” Ha! Me either! Until recently anyway. Workshops have turned me on to a whole new side of myself. I’ve always loved writing and my initial goal coming into the MFA program here was to get my writing to the next level, where I will hopefully get my novels published. My writing has certainly improved but another side of me, one I didn’t know existed, has been nurtured, too. I love reading my peers’ work and offering my feedback. That critiquing part of workshops that so many of us dislike? Yeah, I love that part. In eight grade I was voted “Most Likely to Become a Teacher” and I’ve always scoffed at the notion but now I’m looking at it and thinking maybe my classmates back in 1989 knew something I wasn’t yet able to see or willing to admit. I flashed back to that moment while reading The Learning Curve and as I read about Sedaris’s experiences, I thought about all of these things I’m learning about myself.

I could picture myself standing before a classroom frantically trying to say and do all the right things, trying to make an impact on these students who expect to learn something. Just like any other experience in life, Sedaris started out self-conscious and self-absorbed and once those things fell away, along with all the butterflies, that’s when everything came together for him.

All of this adds to the tone of the piece. I found the tone of this story as well as Sedaris himself as the story’s main character to be honest and sincere. While he, at times, borders on self-deprecation he does so humorously and that adds to the gritty, realistic feel of the piece. Plus, there’s just something sweet about it, too. While each of his essays affects me in different ways and while I don’t find all of them as relatable as this one, I could follow his tone anywhere.

Structurally speaking, this essay hits all the right notes. He grounds the setting for us in the classroom and allows us to picture everything from his perspective. He starts by showing and telling us about himself physically and even adds insight into his mind through sharing his thoughts and fears as well as comparing himself to his father. Then he introduces the rest of the cast of characters and simultaneously presents the main conflicts which will affect all of them. He lets us see the floor fall from beneath his feet as he stands clueless before this classroom for the very first time. We get to see him squirm and then watch as he tries and fails multiple times, continuously adding tension along the way, giving us the opportunity to root for him and care about what happens to him and his students so we feel satisfied when he figures it all out in the end. The work he does with characterization in general but also in particular with his set up and descriptions, are awesome, too, because if we as the reader cannot relate to him or even find him likeable in some way, then surely we can relate to one of his students instead. That’s brilliant!

There was a point when I felt bad for him and for his students, too. Sedaris somehow became the protagonist and the antagonist and his students played villains and victims. He gives us just the right amount of detail to picture him (right down to his briefcase) and enough detail, physically and emotionally, on each of his students to picture each of them staring back at him. In one way or another, through his characters, this story becomes relatable to just about everyone. Additionally, he pays close attention to his own arc in the story. He starts out a little cocky and then falls from grace. We see all of his insecurities and we can see and judge his mistakes and along the way he himself does the same. Eventually he figures it out and succeeds.

The only thing this was missing for me from his experience in the workshop was the actual critique portion and how that transpired in his classroom. He tells us his thoughts on critiquing (he says whoever designed the workshops “struck the perfect balance between sadism and masochism.”) but he never gets overly detailed about the process. But I can’t help but think that may simply be because Sedaris was more concerned with being critiqued and letting us know how he felt than in critiquing his students and/or in watching them critique each other. In a way, it was like he was saying that he only really knows and can speak honestly about how he feels about the situation and if we want to know how they felt, then we’d have to ask them.

In The Learning Curve, Sedaris invites us into a personal side of himself and he shows and tells us more than what “normal” people would dare show and tell. He sets aside any sort of pretense or shield one might have when discussing our views of ourselves, specifically our skills and abilities, and he puts all of his insecurities out on the table for everyone to see and judge.

I absolutely loved this story. I felt connected to it and to all of its characters, including Sedaris and his students. I felt like I was learning along with them and experiencing their trials and tribulations, as if I was actually one of the characters in the story. I felt invested in what happened. The story kept my attention and kept me laughing from start to finish, too.

Sedaris doesn’t seem to care what others might think or say about him; he just puts it all out there, blurting at times, and then lets the experience speak for itself. He lets us decide what’s weird, embarrassing and/or shameful. The fact that he’s not embarrassed to reveal such things makes him charming, I think, and his point of view personable and it’s what makes me feel connected to him and really love reading his essays. I want to know what else he’ll reveal and even more than the content I want to know how he’ll reveal it. It’s safe to say it’ll always be with some level of humor, but there are varying degrees of emotion and sentimentality there, too.

After reading The Learning Curve, I wonder how many new teachers feel like children playing teacher on that first day of school. Sedaris struck a chord here and it’s one that goes beyond the classroom. In truth, don’t we all feel like we’re faking it at one point or another?

Works Cited:

Sedaris, David. Me Talk Pretty One Day. New York: Little, Brown and Company, 2001.

Creative Nonfiction: Some Stuff I’ve Learned

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For this reading response, I’ll be discussing the following essays and their affects on me as both a reader and a writer and what I think worked and didn’t: The Learning Curve (Me Talk Pretty One Day, 83-96) and Shiner Like a Diamond (Me Talk Pretty One Day, 132-141) by David Sedaris, Los Angeles Notebook (Slouching Towards Bethlehem, 217-224) by Joan Didion and Ain’t No Middle Class (Literary Nonfiction, 269-289) by Susan Sheehan.

For the most part, this is about what I liked and disliked about these four essays as well as what they have taught me about myself as a reader and, in turn, as a writer.

I want to start by saying the more I read creative nonfiction, the more my tastes change. That said; even when I think he’s full of sh*t, my favorite essays (and the ones I find most memorable) week after week have been those written by Sedaris. He keeps my attention through and through. And there’s just something awesome about that! Plus, he keeps me laughing and thinking, too. The things I consistently like best about his essays are his quick pacing, his approach to conflict and the way he builds tension and, of course, his humor. I struggle at times with the authenticity of his characters and the believability of his stories. While I don’t always truly believe that what he’s writing is true, his essays are certainly fun to read.
For the most part, I found his stories this week believable. That was a plus. But above that, I found them and his parts in them gritty and realistic. They felt like real life to me—stories I could relate to in many ways. In both The Learning Curve and Shiner like a Diamond, Sedaris invites us into a personal side of himself and he shows and tells us more than what “normal” people would dare show and tell. He sets aside any sort of pretense or shield one might have when discussing our views of ourselves and our families and puts it all out on the table, so to speak, for everyone to see and pass judgments. I truly respect that. I mean, who of us wants to share and air our personal lives or our family’s dirty laundry and secrets like that? The private nature of his stories and the issues he reveals create a natural tension and sense of conflict.

In The Learning Curve, Sedaris throws his resume, intelligence and skills (or lack of skills) on the table and then points out the exaggerations and little white lies. I love the way he makes fun of himself while playfully discussing his first experience as a teacher and his thoughts about writing workshops in general. He’s like a blurter on a date or during a job interview—the guy who tells you way more than what you needed to know! While most people, and writers in particular, tend to censor themselves and/or withhold something, showing just what their inner PR person wants the world to see, Sedaris, is seemingly unconcerned by TMI protocol and unaffected by his own fears, oddities or issues. He doesn’t seem to care what others might think or say; he just puts it all out there and lets the experience speak for itself. He lets us decide what’s weird, embarrassing and/or shameful. The fact that he’s not embarrassed to reveal such things makes him charming, I think, and his point of view personable and it’s what makes me feel connected to him and really love reading his essays. I want to know what else he’ll reveal and even more than the content I want to know how he’ll reveal it. It’s safe to say it’ll always be with some level of humor, but there are varying degrees of emotion and sentimentality there, too.

In A Shiner like a Diamond, Sedaris takes his lack of shame a step further by throwing his family into the ring, too, and at times his father under the bus, when he tells us how his father negatively views women and how he even disrespects his own daughters. There were moments when the story got so awkwardly personal that I felt uncomfortable. It was sort of like being invited over to a friend’s house for Thanksgiving and learning his or her parents are racists. In the moment, you might want to run away but you feel tied to the table by the awkwardness of the moment’s revelation but also because of your own insatiable curiosity. While reading this story, I felt like I was being told secrets I had no business knowing but I couldn’t stop reading. I wanted to know more about Sedaris’s dad and I was curious to see what else Sedaris would reveal.

On the other hand, while I previously enjoyed reading her essays, Joan Didion’s writing has become painful for me. Her pretentious tone grates at me now and, while I had been enjoying her sort of disconnected “I don’t take sides” journalistic point of view, those same qualities have caused me to lose interest in her altogether. Her writing feels cold and at times heartless to me and as a reader I want and need more emotion from her. Her lack of emotion translates to an overall lack of interest and connection in me. There are moments when she doesn’t seem invested in what she’s reporting (it feels more like reporting than writing) about and if she’s not invested in it, then why should I be?

This week, I struggled to get through each of the three choices written by her (Where the Kissing Never Stops, Notes from a Native Daughter, Los Angeles Notebook). Though I struggled with all three, Los Angeles Notebook was the least painful for me (and it’s not lost on me that it was also the shortest in page length). But there was also something more easygoing and comfortable about the tone of Los Angeles Notebook. And while it still felt more like a news story than an essay to me, it also felt more conversational and personal than the other two.

Finally, and this has been the case week after week, there’s always been one diamond in the rough essay that grabs my attention and manages to keep it from start to finish while really touching my soul in some profound way. Last week, for example, that essay was Absences by James Conaway. I felt a personal connection to that one. This week it’s Ain’t No Middle Class by Susan Sheehan. I just loved this essay! It’s not the sort of story that needs bells and whistles to get my attention, nor does it need to fit a mold or tickle my funny bone to make me like it and want to keep reading. The content and writing go beyond all that and the story resonated with me because it’s its own. What I found truly interesting about my experience reading this story is that the essay came wielding a lot of statistics and numbers. There was even a point in it when Sheehan broke the Mertens’ budget down to the final penny. Typically that sort of thing would’ve bored me to pieces and yet this time it pulled me in. Sheehan quickly established and carefully built empathy for the Mertens. The characters felt genuine and they gave the story depth. It felt important to me and it was impossible not to care about these people—these people with real problems. It’s a really good story about real life told in an authentic way. That’s all.
Deciding (if you’d consider it a decision, really) that I like or dislike a story is easy. We like what we like, right? Determining the reasons why I liked or disliked something isn’t quite as easy but it’s not exactly the world’s biggest challenge either. The real challenge takes place for me when I, as a writer, try to break down those stories, those I liked and/or disliked, and then attempt to extract lessons from them for my own writing.

But here goes…

I’ve learned a lot from these four stories and perhaps more so from these writers. From Sedaris, I’ve learned that as a writer I want to be funny when the story calls for it but still personable and engaging. I shouldn’t sacrifice the story at the expense of any one joke or lesson. In Cliché Land they call that “cutting off your nose to spite your face” and that’s never a good plan. I’ve learned that while a reader’s attention is easy to grab, it’s also easy to lose. And while it’s possible to eventually regain a reader’s lost attention, it’s unlikely to regain their faith in the story and in me as the storyteller. From Didion, I’ve learned that it’s important to find that fine line between showing and telling without seeming and sounding pretentious, cold or unaffected. And from Sheehan, I’ve learned that if I want my story to be that diamond in the rough—the one that grabs and keeps the reader’s attention from start to finish—then I need to connect in a real way while telling a story that needs to be told. At the end of the day, it’s not about bells or whistles. It’s about how our stories and characters affect the people who read them.

It sounds so simple, but as writers we all know it’s not simple at all.

Works Cited:
Didion, Joan. Slouching Towards Bethlehem. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2008.
Sedaris, David. Me Talk Pretty One Day. New York: Little, Brown and Company, 2001.
Sims, Patsy. Literary Nonfiction. New York: Oxford, 2002.

Picking Apart Picka Pocketoni

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I thought Picka Pocketoni (Me Talk Pretty One Day, 219-227) was hilarious and, as usual, David Sedaris had me laughing out loud time and time again. I even picked it (no pun intended) because I knew it would be funny. I could tell by the title and more so by the writer. Sedaris, in my limited experience of him, is almost always funny and his POV usually interests me. But while I found this story just as funny and interesting as the rest, I simply didn’t find it believable.

It’s not that I don’t think it could’ve happened. And, in fact, I more than believe something happened that inspired this essay, but the story itself in its entirety, and the way Sedaris tells it, felt exaggerated and in moments even entirely fabricated to me. It’s a great story in that it kept my attention from start to finish but it didn’t feel real to me. It didn’t seem true.

Part of a writer’s mission, whether he or she is writing fiction or nonfiction, is to write in such a way as to suspend disbelief—to make us believe. In other words, even the craziest things should have us believing. Even when reading fantasy, we start to believe, at least for the sake of the story, in things we wouldn’t typically believe in like, say, aliens or zombies or unicorns. In nonfiction, this should be a no brainer—since the things, the writer’s stories and experiences, allegedly really happened. Right? Well, I’m no longer sure that’s the case since, basically, while I enjoyed the story, I don’t believe it happened—or at least I don’t believe it happened like this.

I’m disappointed, too, because I wanted to believe. I rode the subway in NYC for years, through most of my 20s, and have quite a few stories of my own brewing in my brain since some crazy stuff happens on trains but my issue isn’t with the probability of the occurrence itself it’s in the believability of the telling of the story. Sedaris set the story up well. I could picture this train. Hell, I could smell it. The story about the obnoxious Texas college kids was believable but it was also short and not so breathtaking. It was more of an observation than a complete story. I’m wondering if Sedaris decided to make up the second part to fill out the story. Perhaps if the story wasn’t already about those Texan kids, had Sedaris focused specifically on the couple instead, or entirely on either one or the other, it might have been more believable to me. I don’t know.

Have you ever people watched and then made up stories about those people? This felt like that to me. I don’t doubt he spotted an American couple on the train or even that they were rude and obnoxious. Maybe they were even talking about this particular topic of being robbed on a train. But that’s about as far as my faith goes on this particular story. I question the likelihood of Sedaris’s reaction or lack of reaction to being the topic of this couple’s false accusations, fear and anger. The words and actions of the couple, in particular the man, seemed farfetched to me. But Sedaris’s thoughts and reactions, or lack of reaction, is what really had me scratching my head. Based on what Sedaris has shared about himself in this story and in other stories, I think if this had happened he’d have moved to another part of the train, closer to Hugh, perhaps.

The fact that he was previously buying burlap for no apparent reason made me wonder if that was his way of saying he was about to sell us a bag of goods. There’s just something about the burlap. I mean, why burlap? There are many uses for burlap but he doesn’t tell us why “he’d hoped to buy a good deal of burlap.” He could have said it was for painting or to make a sack or mask, for example. But he skips the explanation. And by mentioning it and then never returning to it like this it somehow drew my attention to the burlap. And suddenly I’m obsessing over burlap and I’m not sure why. Was the burlap a distraction, like one a magician might use in a slight of hand trick? It may be a stretch but burlap is also a tough, resilient fabric so maybe Sedaris was making a point about people needing to be tough to deal with other people. Either way, something about the burlap had me wondering if this experience even really happened.

In so many of his stories, Sedaris seems determined to put two elements before everything else: humor and some sort of moral message or lesson. But while his other stories managed to grab and keep my attention, and more importantly suspend my disbelief, while simultaneously making me laugh, think and feel something, this one didn’t. His humor kept my attention but, at times, I found myself laughing at him, as well as at the ridiculousness of certain elements of this story, more often than I was laughing with him. So much felt exaggerated, even fabricated, for the sake of the joke. There was a moment when I actually rolled my eyes and that’s never a good thing. The moment when Sedaris writes: “Now I was a stinkpot and a thief. It occurred to me to say something, but I thought it might be better to wait and see what he came up with next.” I rolled my eyes at this because Sedaris himself says he’s not the type of person who would have said something, or even think quickly enough on his feet to say something in the moment, so the claim that he’d considered doing so plays false to me, but also the line “see what he came up with next” made me stop and wonder what Sedaris would come up with next.

Even the dialogue seems fake to me. It’s more comical than believable. “Golly, Pete?” Really? Did she really say that? Maybe, but this seems more like a caricature he’s painting than a reenactment of an actual memory which makes me wonder if maybe he’s the one doing the discriminating here. This dialogue feels so fabricated, forced and false to me that if it really had happened just like this then I’d probably recommend changing it in the story anyway to make it seem more believable. Just the fact that a story is true isn’t always enough to make it believable.

Sedaris admits “I was now licensed to hate this couple as much as I wanted. This made me happy, as I’d wanted to hate them from the moment I’d entered the subway car and seen them hugging the pole.” It seems to me that it was his reaction to the Texas college kids that upset him. I think he made up the story about the couple because the story about the Texas kids wasn’t enough to fill the essay. Later, after picking the couple apart and mentally mocking them, Sedaris says: “In disliking them, I was forced to recognize my own pretension, and that made me hate them even more.” Immediately after this, as if given a gift from the karma gods Sedaris was given a reason to hate the couple as if he hadn’t already made up his mind to do so. This felt a bit too convenient and for me was the turning point when I lost my faith entirely in the story.

Sedaris gives us several clues that may imply he’s making this story up. Again there was the burlap, which I can’t seem to let go of, and there’s also the memory of his sister shouting: “Good luck beating that rape charge.” Also, the fact that Sedaris seems to have taken all of this as a compliment, like he let it go in his imagination a bit too far to the point he was enjoying the implication that he could have been a sly thief, leads me to think he was too busy daydreaming on that train to have absorbed such a detailed and dialogue filled recap of actual events.

On my first read I was already feeling skeptical of the story and I found myself wondering how much was true versus how much was made up simply for the sake of the “don’t judge a book by its cover” theme. Sedaris seemed hell bent on teaching this lesson. But after reading it again, letting it sit for a bit and looking back, I think the lesson goes a step further. Perhaps Sedaris is also saying: “Don’t believe everything you hear.” Or, in this case, read.

Unit 3’s lecture on Character says: “As you begin to develop in your writing character sketches, remember that you have precious little time to convey a life of a person to a reader, and so finding (and, if need be, altering or creating) these moments can be key; if you can create a strong, visual, memorable image of a person, where a distinct personality is conveyed through a line, an exchange, or an action, you can really do wonders to unlock the power of a story.”

Sedaris took this lesson to heart as he described the characters in his story. He painted vivid pictures of these people, perhaps too vivid and overly detailed. Details are good, don’t get me wrong, but sometimes when a story has too many details, if any one detail starts to seem even slightly off, even just a tad BS-ish, then the rest of the story quickly falls down like dominoes.

My brother is a horrible liar. When he lies, he has a few “tells.” For one, he smirks when he lies, like his body knows he’s a horrible liar and is laughing at his brain for even attempting such a thing. But, in addition to the smirk, he just flat out says too much. When he’s telling the truth, he gets to the point quicker and doesn’t take a bunch of detours. But when he lies, he piles on the details like he’s hoping one of them (or the combination of so many perhaps) will be the one that convinces me he’s telling the truth. Instead, more often than not, the opposite happens. Somewhere in the abundance of details he loses me altogether. And this is what Sedaris did.

A few paragraphs before the American couple acted scared of him Sedaris says: “People are often frightened of Parisians…” It’s like he was setting up his story—or setting up his joke. This could be seen as foreshadowing, I guess, but then there was just something about the way Sedaris continuously changes his reasoning for not speaking up. Every few paragraphs or so, Sedaris offers a new reason why he isn’t reacting. At first, insulted by the couple’s comments, he says he stayed quiet so he could criticize them in his head. Then when they accuse him of stealing, Sedaris still doesn’t say anything because he wants to see what they’ll “come up with next,” then because he doesn’t want to risk receiving an awkward apology that would result in an uncomfortable handshake, then because he’s trying to come up with a witty response or he’s daydreaming about the big scene with the cops. I wonder if he had simply stuck to that first reason, my mind might not have shifted so much and that shifting, I think, in the end caused me to stop focusing on his characters and start looking at him and his thoughts and actions instead.

In Picka Pocketoni, there was a moment when Sedaris saw and took an opportunity to pretend to be someone else and he let his imagination take him to another place. His intention was to take us with him on the journey and while he achieved this to a degree, especially through his humor, his characters and the story he told about his alleged experience on the train in Paris that particular day came across instead as exaggerated, fabricated, preachy and contrived.

Although I laughed a lot along the way, rather than pull me into his world and inspire me to feel connected to him and to his story and experiences, Sedaris lost me on this one.

Works Cited:

Sedaris, David. Me Talk Pretty One Day. New York: Little, Brown and Company, 2001.

Character in Creative Nonfiction

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To explore character and its importance in creative nonfiction, my focus is on the following four essays: Absences (Literary Nonfiction, 34-42) by James Conaway and Giant Dreams, Midget Possibilities (Me Talk Pretty One Day, 16-31), The Youth in Asia, (Me Talk Pretty One Day, 69-82) and Picka Pocketoni (Me Talk Pretty One Day, 219-227) by David Sedaris.

I chose these particular four stories because I believe they exemplify the use of character well but I also chose them for both personal and, in reaction to the personal, sort of emotionally strategic reasons, too. I read Absences and it hit me so hard emotionally, as my father was very recently diagnosed with Alzheimer’s Dementia and I could see him and what he’s been going through as well as me and my family in this story. I was so affected emotionally that I had to read it twice—both times crying my way through the pages. I selected the other three essays (all three by Sedaris) more so “strategically” because they each made me laugh so hard that the sadness and some of the pain finally subsided. These four essays combined somehow balanced each other out allowing my emotions to balance, too, in the end.

This week’s lecture on Character says: “As you begin to develop in your writing character sketches, remember that you have precious little time to convey a life of a person to a reader, and so finding (and, if need be, altering or creating) these moments can be key; if you can create a strong, visual, memorable image of a person, where a distinct personality is conveyed through a line, an exchange, or an action, you can really do wonders to unlock the power of a story.”

All four of these essays exemplified this brilliantly but each reveals something different.

In the blurb on Conaway that introduces Absences in Literary Nonfiction, Patsy Sims writes: Conaway himself believes that good memoir should capture both a person and a time vital to the author. “The best approach to autobiography is, paradoxically, a story about someone else to whom the writer is attached emotionally, as I was to my father,” he says.

Absences is a story about love, loss, mourning and healing. It’s about learning to move on and let go of the sadness, confusion and pain associated with illness and death of our loved ones. Through his personal story about losing his father to Alzheimer’s, mentally at first and later physically, too, and his mother, perhaps more tragically still, to a stroke which came while she was dealing with the stress of her husband’s disease, the essay highlights Conaway and his family’s experiences, and in doing so the disease itself becomes a critical character, as well.

This part hit home for me and I felt Conaway, while speaking of his mother and father, could have easily been speaking about my parents: “It fell on my mother, also in her seventies, to care for an invalid who increasingly failed to remember the most potent pharmacopeia to keep her awake, dribbled his food, railed at her for the loss of his right to drive and other frustrations, and eventually threatened violence if the increasingly phantasmagoric landscape would not hold still. Yet she refused to entomb him in a nursing home.”

By sharing his own experiences, as well as his confusion and pain, Conaway allows us to go through it with him, to go beyond sympathy but rather to suffer alongside of him (and his family), as he mourns the loss of his father’s mind and later his body. By joining him on this journey, we empathize with him. There is a certain self-discovery which can sometimes be cathartic with a story like this and, for me, it manifested itself as a colossal coming-to-terms event as I, in many ways, felt Conaway was giving me a glimpse at my own future. This is why, I believe, this essay affected me so deeply. And while I don’t necessarily think a reader needs to relate personally to the topic or characters, or even in this case the specific disease of Alzheimer’s Dementia, it seems this essay was therapeutic for Conaway, and in turn it was therapeutic for me and I imagine for others like me who find themselves or a loved one in similar circumstances. The essay actually goes beyond the specifics of the disease it discusses by speaking in larger terms to the circle of life in which most can, or most likely will someday, relate on some level to growing up and having to care for and eventually bury our parents.

After reading Absences, I needed a break, one I knew Sedaris would provide. The three Sedaris essays were lighter while also discussing some heavy themes (maybe not as heavy as Conaway’s Absences, but still on the darker side). But it’s Sedaris’s comedic approach and his humor that I knew would not disappoint me. Somehow he can be discussing the most depressing topic and still make me laugh. As predicted, he didn’t let me down.

In The Youth in Asia Sedaris takes us on a journey through his family history by focusing on their seemingly endless list of pets. Through their deaths specifically, he shows us how his parents viewed their pets and in a way expressed their love in general and how their feelings of love and attachment changed and grew over time. The fact that the love and attachment to their pets seemed to grow once the children grew up and left home was also poignant. Previously the family had the motto “another day another collar,” but once the nest had been emptied the parents started obsessing over the pets as if they were family members. It was like they needed to fill that emotional hole, the one that had been left by their grown children leaving home.

In his essay, Sedaris effectively uses pets to define moments and milestones in his life and to show us how, in a way, we all do this. In discussing the death of his own cat, Neil, Sedaris says something important here: “The cat’s death struck me as the end of an era. It was, of course, the end of her era, but with the death of a pet there’s always that urge to string black crepe over an entire ten- or twenty-year period.”

I had a white and gray cat named Gullie who I found as a kitten when I was 17-years-old while walking on the beach in Cape May, NJ. I took that cat with me to college, moved with it to New York City after graduation and had it while I worked my way up in my career there. She moved with me and my then boyfriend (now he’s my husband) to Dallas and then back to New York when we got married. She died at the age of 17 (I was 34, so I had her half my life at this point) on the Monday after I returned home from the hospital after the birth of my daughter. She was there with me while I grew up and, to me, she represented by late teens, 20s and early 30s.

I loved this story but it wasn’t simply because of the funny and even touching stories Sedaris shared about his pets or what those stories said about Sedaris and his family, but more so for how it made me take a look at myself and for what it taught me about me and my own family.

Though I found them enjoyable, Sedaris’s other two essays, Giant Dreams, Midget Possibilities and Picka Pocketoni, didn’t have the same effect on me. Both are twists on the classic “you can’t judge a book by its cover” story. The two stories have a lot in common and in a way for me it was almost like reading two versions of the same thing. While I liked both stories, I liked them best for their humor over the lessons they seemed set on teaching.

In Giant Dreams, Midget Possibilities, Sedaris gives us another sneak peek into the relationship he had with his father and it delves deeper into his struggles with his own sexuality. While taking guitar lessons only to please his father, Sedaris connected with his teacher because he could relate to the fact that he was “different” but he was jealous of him too because, small in stature, “Mr. Mancini could hide just about anywhere.” Sedaris, uncomfortable in his own skin and with his sexuality, wished he could hide away from the world. Sedaris becomes fascinated by his instructor Mr. Mancini, a little person who Sedaris puts up on a proverbial pedestal until one day Mr. Mancini shuns Sedaris for being homosexual. Sedaris loses all interest and faith in Mr. Mancini and the class altogether and even gives up what was left of his musical interest.

Picka Pocketoni adds to this idea that you can’t judge a book by its cover, which seems to be an important theme to Sedaris as he discusses his life, by telling a story of how a stranger on a train in France once thought he was a French pick pocket. It was by all accounts a hilarious story but in moments it struck me as unbelievable and as I looked back at it and compared and contrasted it to Giant Dreams, Midget Possibilities, I could hardly peel them apart. In both stories, Sedaris was misunderstood, shunned and afraid to speak up. In both stories, there was a moment when Sedaris saw and took an opportunity to pretend to be someone else, in both stories there was a character who we don’t know much about playing the role of the accidental villain and in the end Sedaris walked away feeling sad that he didn’t do more to stand up for himself.

In all three of his essays, Sedaris uses humor to deal with dark and maybe even painful personal topics and relationships. His comedic style makes me think of the way in which my father and I always get the giggles and start telling inappropriate jokes at funerals. It’s our way of dealing with the discomfort and pain. Of course, some folks might find the humor distasteful or maybe even feel more uncomfortable because of it. I think humor is a great way to deal with pain. It doesn’t diminish or take away the pain but for people like me it certainly helps manage it.

While all four of these essays teach lessons on character, specifically how to establish character and how to use characters to spark emotion and create connections and maybe even a sense of empathy with the reader, they do so in different ways and to different degrees.

I felt most connected to and, in turn, I think I learned the most about myself as a person and as a writer from Absences and The Youth in Asia. These two came across as honest portrayals of very personal stories with well-developed characters while the other two essays, Giant Dreams, Midget Possibilities and Picka Pocketoni, and their characters seemed, at times, fabricated, exaggerated and rather than cause me to feel connected they came across as preachy.

I enjoyed all four but my natural reaction to Absences and The Youth in Asia was to fall deeper and deeper into the stories and characters while my reaction to Giant Dreams, Midget Possibilities and Picka Pocketoni was to laugh at the jokes while dismissing the messages.

Works Cited:

Sedaris, David. Me Talk Pretty One Day. New York: Little, Brown and Company, 2001.

Sims, Patsy. Literary Nonfiction. New York: Oxford, 2002.

“On Going Home” by Joan Didion (response)

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In On Going Home, Didion tackles themes such as belonging, family and home by telling the story of a time when, without her husband, she took her daughter “home” to celebrate her first birthday to the hometown where Didion grew up in the house where she lived with her mother and premarital family. The essay deals with Didion’s personal issues as she compares and contrasts her current life with her husband and their child versus her life and experiences growing up. The essay speaks to the internal conflict many of us feel as adults once we leave the nest, so to speak, and go out into the world to find new “homes” while always looking back to our pasts. I felt connected to this piece and that connection inspired me to want to dive deeper.

This essay spoke to me on various levels but the main reason why I chose it is because I could see myself in it. Both as a mother of a young child and as a married woman who has chosen to live far from “home,” I felt connected to this piece and to Didion as its writer.

I have traveled with my daughter, now age four, back to visit my family in Philadelphia numerous times since she was born. When we lived in New York, I made the drive three to four times per year and now that I live in Iowa, the frequency has diminished to an annual flight but she and I still find ourselves making the trip without my husband, due to his work schedule.

Our recent two lectures discussed the importance of “place” and its meaning in our writing. Unit One discussed place as a specific location and Unit Two took the discussion to another level by looking at “place” in a broader sense as culture. In “On Going Home” Didion uses place in both ways. She discusses her childhood home, in the Central Valley of California, the specific place where she grew up and where her mother resides, and as she shares her memories and experiences with the location itself, she also gives up insight into her history, culture, what her family is/was like and how that place affected and still affects her emotionally and how it compares to the home she’s made with her husband and daughter in Los Angeles.

This week’s lecture states: “What emerges in essays like these is the way in which paying attention to one’s culture or geographic surroundings can be key to building a compelling essay, one which engages your reader on multiple levels. At its best, writing about place challenges us to rethink the way in which we view our own place—what we take for granted, how we choose to define ourselves, and what we mean to others.”

Didion’s essay had a profound effect on me. It caused me to reflect on my own life and to think about where I came from versus where I am now and where I’m going. I’ve lived in various places and have considered each one my “home” at one time or another. Although Didion was talking about her own life, I felt as though she might as well have been talking about me and mine even though I no longer think of the house I grew up in as my home. While the elements were different, there were so many similarities. It was like meeting someone at a party and realizing you and he or she have so much in common that you can literally talk for hours.

Didion’s tone is sad and frustrated, tinged with bitterness, and her language throughout reflected that. I think this is where we as writers can learn the most from Didion in this essay. Her tone is consistent and by using words like “uneasy, troublesome, difficult, oblique, degradation, condemnation, fragmentation, rejection, dread, graveyard, abandoned, ambushes…” throughout she keeps us firmly rooted beneath her tone the entire time. Even when discussing happier elements, for example the idea that this homecoming is for a birthday celebration for her child, Didion continues to use words that keep reminding us that this is not a happy story. Through her language and descriptions, it is like she’s telling us she is unhappy in both places.

I think while “place” itself is important in writing and in many ways is highlighted in this essay, as Didion compares and contrasts the two places she calls “home,” in a way Didion is showing us that it’s not about the place itself but more so the people who make a home. Both the people from our past and our present mold us into who we are. Didion longs to unite her two families and she expresses the desire for each to love the other, as they love her. She seems to want everyone to cohabitate happily and, yet, she has resigned herself to the fact that that will never happen. I sometimes compare my biological family with my marital family. Don’t we all? I can’t help it; they are so different and, yet, I love them both. Both sides of my family get along well, thankfully, despite their many differences. That’s not to say there aren’t moments when one irritates, misunderstands or maybe even wants to strangle the other. That’s life. And life, as well as relationships, takes work, communication and compromise. Didion doesn’t speak of these things. She focuses most of her essay on the differences, the issues and the problems without taking action or attempting to find resolution. She seems satisfied in separating her two “homes.”

Didion shares vivid details to make her points about the differences between her current life/family and her background and in doing so she reveals some positive but mostly negative qualities about both. It is as though she’s saying she’s unhappy in both places. I loved the story about the dust. By telling us that it was so dusty that her husband could literally write the word “dust” in it, it shows how unkempt the house is while also showing the condescending and pretentious qualities of her husband. The dust speaks negatively about both sides of Didion’s life.

I loved this essay so much, I think, because I could relate to it. The story connects so well to the feeling many, including myself, get when they grow up, marry or enter a commitment with someone from a wildly different background. It’s so easy to see the differences, both positive and negative, between the families we are given and the families we choose. For example, I grew up in the inner city in Philadelphia while my husband grew up on a farm in Iowa (keeping in mind that while I grew up in Philly, I currently live in Iowa with my husband and daughter). It’s impossible to ignore the many glaring differences between the two that I often find myself loving and hating one over the other and shifting back and forth between which one wins or loses the individual battles of comparison. For example, while I love that my husband comes from a large laid back family with so many cousins all living nearby and the fun and festivities which come naturally with that, I hate that everyone knows each other’s business. Of course, there are also things I love and hate about my own premarital family, too, like the faster paced life of the city and the way that we, as a small family, all truly seem to “get each other.” But while I love “going home,” when I do there are moments when I feel like Didion as she revealed in her essay.

My favorite aspect of this essay is how Didion lets us in. She welcomes us into a very personal part of herself and does so in such a casual way that we feel like we belong there, like we’re not snooping around in someone else’s business. And the surroundings are familiar, like when a good friend invites you over and doesn’t bother to clean up. It was like she was saying “my home is your home” and “good, bad, or indifferent, I have nothing to hide from you.”

Didion is obviously conflicted between her childhood family life and her new family life as an adult. It doesn’t help that her husband looks down on her premarital family and how they live and how she acts around them. Personally, I wish Didion would have gone deeper into this aspect of her struggle. While her husband’s discomfort was obvious through his absence and through her recollection of his experiences there and his negative, snarky, condescending attitude toward Didion’s family’s “inarticulate” ways as well as the dust that disgusted him and mementos which confused him and though the essay seems to point to issues in the marriage, Didion never quite fully admits or commits to them. On page 3, she says “I come to dread my husband’s evening call…” and I wonder if there’s more here that isn’t being said or revealed.

The essay, especially the ending where Didion is reflecting on all the things she cannot give her daughter in her current “home,” made me wonder more and more what her current life, and in particular her marriage, is like by comparison. Structurally, I wondered if this was perhaps part of the reason the essay was so short—did Didion not want to get into that part?

Personally, I think if you are happy where you are and with whom you are with, then you consider that place home and its people your family—whether they’re blood or marriage related family or friends. While I look back at my family and the place where I grew up happily and love visiting, for example, I’m perfectly happy where I am now. It’s not that I don’t look back fondly, but I spend more time looking forward. In this instance, it is as though suddenly the concept of “place” isn’t all that important anymore—at least not by comparison to the people.

There were so many things about this story which I found relatable, but I also loved it for the parts I found unrelatable. For example, while I can certainly relate on so many levels to Didion’s story and her struggles, a part of me felt sorry for her because she seemed to be lost in the in between place between her past and her present. Even though she has family who she loves and who love her back, in a strange way, it was like she was homeless. To bring this back to our lecture on place, it was as if Didion was admitting she didn’t know where she belonged. Instead of embracing the differences between the home where she was raised and the home where she lived currently with her husband and daughter, Didion seems consumed by conflict. This made me sad. I couldn’t escape the feeling that Didion had chosen to be unhappy and alone.

My husband, Jason, and I, since we’ve been together, have lived together in New Jersey, Texas, New York (twice) and now Iowa. Add those to places he and I’ve lived on our own prior to meeting and we also have Pennsylvania, Florida, Oklahoma, Nebraska, California, Connecticut and even China.

As the saying goes, “Home is where the heart is…” and I love him and our daughter so much that it really doesn’t matter to me where we live. In this case, place doesn’t matter because they are my family and they have my heart so this—wherever this may be—is our home.

Works Cited:

Didion, Joan. Slouching Towards Bethlehem. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2008.

Creative Nonfiction: Didion and Sedaris

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My focus for this reading response is on the following four essays: Joan Didion’s Some Dreamers of the Golden Dream (Slouching Towards Bethlehem, 3-28), California Dreaming (Slouching Towards Bethlehem, 73-78), On Going Home (Slouching Towards Bethlehem, 164-168) and David Sedaris’s Go Carolina (Me Talk Pretty One Day, 3-15).

I enjoyed all four essays but to different extents and for different reasons. While I appreciated the first two (Some Dreamers of the Golden Dream and California Dreaming) primarily from a stylistic standpoint and because they gave insights which sparked my curiosity, I connected on a more personal level to the other two (On Going Home and Go Carolina).

In Some Dreamers of the Golden Dream (Slouching Towards Bethlehem, 3-28), Didion tells the story of “Lucille Marie Maxwell Miller” (AKA: Lucille Miller) who allegedly murdered her husband, Gordon “Cork” Miller by setting his car on fire with him still alive in it late one night on Banyan Street nearby their home in the San Bernardino Mountains in California. While Lucille Miller eventually gets convicted and sentenced for this crime, Didion never seems to pass judgment on her or settle on any particular conclusion of guilt or innocence in the story she tells. Instead, Didion seems to use this particular story as commentary on this place and the type of people who live there, as well as food for thought on the case, our legal system and society itself.

Stylistically, this essay struck me as both beautiful and functional. Didion’s transitions worked especially well as they allowed her to move the essay masterfully back and forth between the facts of the case and the illusions of opinion. Transitions like “Of course she came from somewhere else” (7) and “Unhappy marriages so resemble one another that we do not need to know about the course of this one” (8) gave Didion the ability and flexibility to weave in and out of the information she wanted to share and leave out things she deemed unimportant to her essay. These transitions allowed Didion to tell an otherwise tangled tale in an easy-to-digest way.

Didion’s California Dreaming, a much shorter essay though equally revealing story, is about the Center for the Study of Democratic Institutions, “the current mutation of the Fund for the Republic.” It’s in the little details where we as readers learn the most. For example, by choosing to use the word “mutation” here Didion is able to make a subtle though still poignant statement. In this essay, Didion takes what’s on the surface, or otherwise known as public knowledge,” and adds details, like the nepotistic aspects of the society for example, and even makes a few cult-like parallels, to make us curious about what is really going on here. Though Didion herself avoids making accusations and seems to almost dance around what she really thinks, she gives enough information so we, as readers, can come to our own conclusions.

In both essays, Didion take news stories and public information and dives deeper into them to reveal the aspects anyone not paying close attention may have missed. In doing so, she provides a unique insight into California culture while showing an uglier side of the so-called “American Dream.” In both essays, Didion uses imagery and description exceptionally to add layer after layer, while transitioning smoothly between those layers, to build toward climax. I felt myself being pulled so deeply into these stories that I was itching to know what would be revealed at every turn. And, even though neither essay provided a sense of closure, both gave me so much to think about that I could happily chew for days on certain paragraphs in an effort to try to figure out what Didion really thought about the people and events she was writing about.

On the downside, both Some Dreamers of the Golden Dream and California Dreaming struck me as a bit rushed, perhaps due to the sheer quantity of information being shared. And by rushing and squeezing so much in, I think, both essays also dismissed a sense of human connection and feeling. These essays, while profoundly interesting and stylistically beautiful, struck me at times as a collection of informative facts and quotes with little to no emotion.

The final two essays, Didion’s On Going Home (Slouching Towards Bethlehem, 164-168) and David Sedaris’s Go Carolina (Me Talk Pretty One Day, 3-15), also made good choices stylistically but they didn’t make those choices at the expense of emotion and in doing so they were able to reach the next level by making the personal connections the other two essays missed. Both relied more heavily on opinion and feelings over “just the facts” and gave very personal accounts of the writers’ lives to give insight into perhaps why they are who they are.

In On Going Home, Didion tells the story of a time when, without her husband, she took her daughter “home” to celebrate her first birthday in the home where Didion grew up and with her premarital family. The essay deals with Didion’s personal issues as she compares and contrasts her current life with her husband and their child versus her life and experiences growing up. Didion shares vivid details to make her points about the differences between her current life/family and her background and in doing so she reveals positive and negative qualities about both. For example, I loved the story about the dust. By telling us that it was so dusty that her husband could literally write the word “dust” in it, it shows how unkempt the house is while also showing the condescending and pretentious qualities of her husband.

I really loved this story, and will likely use it as my second reading response later this week. I loved it so much, I think, because I could relate to it. It connects so well to the feeling many, including myself, get when they grow up, marry or enter a commitment with someone from a wildly different background. It’s so easy to see the differences, both positive and negative, between the families we are given and the families we choose. For example, I grew up in the inner city in Philadelphia while my husband grew up on a farm in Iowa (keeping in mind that while I grew up in Philly, I currently live in Iowa with my husband and daughter). It’s impossible to ignore the many glaring differences between the two that I often find myself loving and hating one over the other and shifting back and forth between which one wins or loses the individual battles of comparison. For example, while I love that my husband comes from a large laid back family with so many cousins all living nearby and the fun and festivities which come naturally with that, I hate that everyone knows each other’s business. Of course, there are also things I love, especially by comparison, about my own premarital family, too, like the faster paced life of the city and the way that how we, as a small family, act in times of struggle like it’s us against the world and how we all truly seem to “get each other.” But while I love “going home,” when I do there are moments when I feel like Didion as she revealed in her essay.

Not only was this story far more personal and emotional than Didion’s other two essays, in the other two she goes to great efforts to set up her stories before revealing the underlying issues and elements, while in this one she gets to the main points almost immediately and was far more conversational and raw, both personally and emotionally, than the other two.

Go Carolina (Me Talk Pretty One Day, 3-15) by David Sedaris made similar emotional connections for me as Didion’s On Going Home but while it had some similarities to Didion’s other two essays it maintained a style of its own. Like Some Dreamers of the Golden Dream and California Dreaming by Didion, Sedaris goes to great efforts to set up his story before jumping into its true themes and getting to the good stuff, so to speak. I liked his quirkier style and specifically how he used elements from a young boy’s imagination, like referring to the speech therapist as “Agent Samson” and his younger self’s creative problem solving, like avoiding the Ss. But what I really liked about this particular essay was the smart humor throughout and the way in which Sedaris set up this story—how he leads us to believe that this is a story about a boy who battled a speech impediment, but as the story builds the story behind the story is revealed and this is where Sedaris shares a far more personal journey and his issues with his sexuality.

Like Didion’s On Going Home, my favorite aspect of this essay is how Sedaris lets us in. He welcomes us into a very personal part of himself and does so in such a way where we feel like we belong there, like we’re not snooping around in someone else’s business.

Didion’s Some Dreamers of the Golden Dream, California Dreaming, On Going Home, and Sedaris’s Go Carolina are exceptional examples of how to weave a story that will grab and maintain a reader’s attention from start to finish. In all four of these essays, Didion and Sedaris use dark humor to deal with dark topics and some intense issues as they lead us down various well detailed paths in what felt to me, at times, like layered labyrinths. But none of them strolled too far down any particular path long enough for me to nod off, stop reading or skip ahead.

What I admire most and aspire toward, as a writer and writing student, is how Didion and Sedaris masterfully set up and paced their stories, as well as how they grabbed and kept my attention from start to finish by revealing just what I needed to know just when I needed to know it. Each told unique stories in his and her own unique ways and in reading them I feel satisfied by what I’ve consumed and yet I am still left thinking and wondering and wanting more.

Works Cited:

Didion, Joan. Slouching Towards Bethlehem. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2008.

Sedaris, David. Me Talk Pretty One Day. New York: Little, Brown and Company, 2001.

Meet Emma

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Emma Russell is a beautiful 2-year-old girl, born and being raised here in Omaha. She’s sweet, funny, imaginative, and, at times, even a little sassy. In fact, Emma is no different than any other toddler girl from the great state of Nebraska—she likes to play, laugh, dance and climb. Her favorite colors are yellow and pink and she loves bananas (or as she calls them: “bananananas”).

You wouldn’t know it by looking at her, but Emma has Polycystic Kidney Disease (PKD).

When Emma’s mommy, Jennifer, was pregnant and in her third trimester, she went to her 35 week OB checkup and that’s when the doctors noticed something was wrong. While it appeared at first that mom’s water had broken or that she’d been leaking amniotic fluid, it didn’t take the doctors long to realize baby Emma was in danger and she’d need to make an early appearance. Five weeks early, Emma was born the next day. And she was perfect… except for her kidneys.

Immediately after being delivered and quickly bonding with mom and dad, Emma was taken to the NICU, where Emma and her kidneys were monitored—a standard procedure for a premature infant born before 36 weeks. But the next day, an ultrasound revealed cysts on Emma’s kidneys and she was subsequently diagnosed with Polycystic Kidney Disease (PKD).

PKD is one of the world’s most common, life-threatening genetic diseases. PKD causes fluid-filled cysts to grow on the kidneys affecting kidney function and often leading to kidney failure and death. A relatively rare form of PKD (autosomal recessive polycystic kidney disease, ARPKD) affects 1 in 20,000 children and often causes death in the first month of life. There is currently no treatment or cure for PKD but there are more people than ever uniting to fight this disease. Through events like the Walk for PKD, the PKD Foundation is working to find treatments and ultimately a cure to end PKD and improve the lives of all those whom it affects.

Emma sees a pediatric nephrologist, here in Omaha, who regularly monitors the health of her kidneys and the progression of her PKD. Because of the disease, in addition to normal toddler well visits, Emma must also endure blood and urine tests as well as abdominal and renal ultrasounds. And, in between visits, Emma’s parents work hard to keep Emma as healthy and happy as possible by watching her blood pressure and by helping her meet her nutrition needs.

Emma’s mom and dad are determined to help find a cure and effective treatments for Polycystic Kidney Disease. Like all good parents, they love their daughter immensely and can’t stand to see her suffer. They want her to have a better life. As a result, they have partnered with the PKD Foundation, a national non-profit organization which funds PKD research and education. In the spring of 2013, Jennifer accepted the roll of PKD Walk Coordinator (Nebraska Chapter).

Your donation will help millions of people worldwide who have Polycystic Kidney Disease, many of whom live right here in our community. It will promote awareness and it will help fund research and education which will someday put a treatment and cure within reach.

Most importantly, your donation will help children like Emma.

Please donate. With your support, we can take steps toward a future without PKD.

To donate to my Walk for PKD, please go to: http://walkforpkd.kintera.org/nebraska/valzane