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.
Sedaris, David. Me Talk Pretty One Day. New York: Little, Brown and Company, 2001.
Sims, Patsy. Literary Nonfiction. New York: Oxford, 2002.