Time and Tension in Creative Nonfiction

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To further explore structure and style, and more specifically time and its correlation to tension, my focus will be on the following four essays: Make That a Double, (Me Talk Pretty One Day, 187) and Twelve Moments in the Life of an Artist (Me Talk Pretty One Day, 39) by David Sedaris, Mrs. Kelly’s Monster (Literary Nonfiction, 73) by Jon Franklin and On Self-Respect (Slouching Towards Bethlehem, 142) by Joan Didion.

Make That a Double is a brief, lighthearted look at Sedaris’s struggle to learn French. It’s funny and sweet. The essay itself is short and concise and I imagine that’s because it was meant as more of a succinct statement than an actual discussion or debate. There was no bigger picture to it, really. While brief, it’s really the perfect little package. It captures a moment in time, or rather a sequence of time, in Sedaris’s life and uses it to identify a struggle. I love the way the essay flows so naturally through Sedaris’s issues with the language and how he breaks his thought process down so that even if the reader has zero knowledge of French s/he can still “get” it. He uses the element of time in this essay subtly and successfully to establish his point of view and build his argument while backing up his thoughts with actual life experiences, both in and out of the classroom. I struggled with Spanish but I felt I could totally still relate to Sedaris in regards to the idea of the foreign language struggle and the confusion and frustration which come with learning a new language. By nature of the topic itself, the structure of the essay, as well as the examples he uses to make his points, Sedaris lets us know that this is not serious. It’s more of a conversation starter. It’s relatable but at the same time it never goes off topic or beneath the surface either. It doesn’t have to. In fact, part of this particular essay’s charm is that it doesn’t.

By comparison, Twelve Moments in the Life of an Artist is not only physically longer but it also goes much deeper into Sedaris’s life experiences and insecurities. The essay takes a close look at Sedaris’s attempt to be an artist and parallels that with his journey through depression and drug addiction which he refers to as his “long disgraceful blue period.” While this essay was also humorous, like his other essays, I found this one to be deeper, darker and far more personal than the rest. It felt important because of what Sedaris was sharing. By first seemingly innocuously comparing himself to his more artistically talented sister Gretchen, he shows us his younger naked inner-self through the lens of low self-esteem and his insatiable desire to be loved and admired. In the essay, Sedaris drips in other issues, like his mother’s alcoholism and the way his father never took him seriously, to show us where his self-esteem problems may have arisen and how lonely and desperate he became, too, perhaps so we could see and more importantly understand why and how he ended up a drug addict. By paralleling the addiction to his emotional issues like this, we start to see and understand what makes Sedaris tick as we notice a cause and effect quality between his thoughts and actions. This not only causes us to feel sorry for him but it lets us inside, it gets us beyond all the clown makeup and his need to simply make us laugh at him and lets us see what’s really going on in there. Once we’re inside we get to know and understand him better, too, and that emotes a sense of empathy. I love the way he structures this essay. By breaking the essay up into these numbered sort of mini chapters it makes it so easy for the reader to follow along and as the numbers grow we see time pass and we feel like we’re growing with Sedaris on this journey. And it’s all but impossible not to see the correlation between the twelve moments of being an artist and the twelve steps of addiction recovery. It is as if he is in an actual twelve step program looking back at his journey through drug addiction. Perhaps the essay itself is an actual manifestation of the first step: admitting the problem.

While remarkably different in topic and tone, Mrs. Kelly’s Monster is also structured chronologically as it takes us on a journey of its own through a medical procedure attempting to remove a brain tumor in an elderly patient. There is nothing funny about this essay, nor would we expect there to be, but rather it’s a very serious topic and it’s handed accordingly. The tone is serious, anxious and heavy. Early on in the essay, in the intro, when the surgeon is having breakfast (and “no coffee” because “coffee makes his hands shake.”) before leaving for work, we see the actual time of 6:30am. As the day progresses and even as the surgery starts and then transpires Franklin continuously provides time checks and we get to see time pass in this very literal way. Time itself feels like a living, breathing thing in this essay and as we watch it tick by we begin to rely on it and use it as our main source of hope that Mrs. Kelly will survive. To me, this paralleled how a loved one might feel sitting out in the waiting room watching the clock. Perhaps my favorite part about this essay is how Franklin translates the foreign language of brain surgery and medical jargon into simpler terms while using elements of onomatopoeia as well to add rhythm and portray the tension of the moment. For example, the “pop…pop…pop…” is such an awesome technique to pull us into the moment and into that room and allow us to feel and hear and experience it. The pop-pop-pop detail and similar details are repeated in the piece, too, and in doing so Franklin creates a natural if not harrowing rhythm to the piece. In addition to giving us immediate information, in this case that Mrs. Kelly’s heart is beating regularly and that she is still in stable condition, and providing us with a much welcomed feeling of ‘so far so good’ in the experience, it also adds another level of tension, too, and structurally, these pop-pop-pop details allow time to stand still, if only for a few a seconds at a time in a long, dangerous surgery, and give us, as readers, a moment to take our breath in this stressful situation.

Joan Didion’s essay On Self-Respect is a beautifully-written essay about what self-respect really means. And while the topic itself could have so easily lent itself to a writer talking down to his/her reader, it didn’t have the same pretentious tone I’ve come to expect in Didion’s essays. For me, it was a breath of fresh air and it caused me to view Didion in the same positive way I had when I was first introduced to her work. The title itself sounds pretentious and I honestly expected the essay to be a manifestation of that tone and come across as a lecture. But it didn’t. Instead, I felt connected to what Didion had to say and, perhaps more importantly, to the way she was saying it. For the first time in what feels like a long time, I could relate to her and to her feelings, ideas and thought processes. To me, the essay shines as a powerful representation of how writing can help make us feel less alone in the world and gives us an opportunity to share the burden of our problems and our struggles with others as well as our hopes and dreams, too. I love how Didion made her points through dissecting bits of culture and history and time. The line: “Self-respect is something our grandparents, whether or not they had it, knew all about” stands out as a gem in that it’s something we can all understand and agree upon. Even if one has never met his or her grandparents, we still maintain this ideal and hold them up to this sort of standard. Similarly, by speaking of Indians, again Joan touches on something we all know or believe to be true based on what we’ve learned, been told and taught all along. Stylistically and structurally, Didion does not shine a spotlight on time but rather she uses it in subtle ways to make her points, perhaps the most poignant one being: “To free us from the expectations of others, to give us back to ourselves—there lies the great, singular power of self-respect.”

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.

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