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.
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.