Detail and Description in Creative Nonfiction

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“Remember that all description is an opinion about the world. Find a place to stand.” ~Annie Enright

I love this quote about description and detail and their importance in writing. To further explore detail and description in Creative Nonfiction, my focus will be the following four essays: Rock of Ages by Joan Didion (Slouching Towards Bethlehem) and, Me Talk Pretty One Day and The Tapeworm Is In by David Sedaris (Me Talk Pretty One Day).

In Rock of Ages, Didion uses beautiful language to describe Alcatraz. She starts with the flowers which cover the island: “orange and yellow nasturtiums, sweet grass, blue iris, black-eyed Susans.” Then keeping with these beautiful flowery images and matching tone, she brings the picture of this place to life by adding in elements of the prison itself and describing each area’s use back when it was open: “Candytuft spring up through the cracked concrete in the exercise yard. Ice plant carpets the rusting catwalks.” She’s describing what is supposed to be a scary, dark, godforsaken place but she’s using language that makes it sound downright wonderful, even splendid like a fantasy island of sorts or a spot one might consider vacationing. Didion goes on to describe in equally lavish, lovely and almost welcoming detail the lay of the land, as well as the people who still live there on the island and even some of the old prison cells. She writes: “Any child could imagine a prison more like a prison than Alcatraz looks, for what bars and wires there are seem perfunctory, beside the point; the island itself was the prison, and the cold tide its wall. It is precisely what they called it: the Rock.” Didion later goes on to say “I tried to imagine the prison as it had been, with the big lights playing over the windows all night long and the guards patrolling the gun galleries and the silverware clattering into a bag as it was checked in after meals, tried dutifully to summon up some distaste, some night terror of the doors locking and the boat pulling away. But the fact of it was that I liked it out there…” I felt the same way as Didion when I visited Alcatraz in 1998 during my first trip to San Francisco. I had that morning off work and so I decided to take a field trip and check it out. Honestly, much like Didion, I found the place enchanting, a sort of paradise. Looking back, I remember thinking, “Wow, I could live there.” Is that weird, it being an old prison and all? Maybe but it’s not like I planned to have that reaction. I thought it would be creepy visiting a place where so many convicts had lived and died. I anticipated feeling uncomfortable from the moment I stepped foot onto the island and figured I’d be in a hurry to jump right back on the ferry and head back to my hotel. But, just like Didion, I was smitten by the beauty of the water and the overall peace and tranquility of the island. Through her details, Didion captures the ironic essence of this place.

Sedaris also uses description and detail masterfully in all three of his featured essays this week. His style and techniques, of course, contrast Didion’s and his descriptions are reflected. His pace is quicker and he’s targeting humor so his timing and usage of details, while equally vivid, are typically more direct, concise and action oriented than Didion’s more eloquent, picturesque, flowery (this week literally since she actually used flowers as details) descriptions.

In Sedaris describes the ever changing world of technology through his father’s aspirations and dreams as well as through his own experiences, avoidance and fear of such changes. He makes us laugh, as always, with somewhat off the wall and humorous descriptions which while silly are also easy and fun (or funny) to imagine as he takes us on a journey from denial all the way through to acceptance as he learns to embrace computers. His descriptions along the way are nothing short of awesome. He crafts his details and playful exaggerations to make us laugh but also so we can “see” the points he’s making, understand him better and picture these things in our heads. He writes: “I was hoping the people of the world might be united by something more interesting, like drugs or an armed struggle against the undead” and I not only laughed but I briefly pictured this zombie apocalypse. Similarly, when he says: “the first two times I attended college, people were still counting on their fingers…” I pictured that, too. Sedaris uses his details to create a scene in our minds. He draws pictures for us to spark our imaginations so his intangible feelings, perceptions and memories can come alive for us and somehow become concrete and so we can start to see the world the way he sees it.

Me Talk Pretty One Day was my favorite essay of the week and arguably of the course. I laughed so hard in moments that I actually cried. Again, I never took French but Sedaris’s details made it so that I didn’t have to in order to totally get what he was saying. Through description, Sedaris drew his experiences onto the page in scenes, much like a screenwriter. I love the way he portrays his French teacher to us. He skips past or fast forwards through most of the physical descriptions of her and his classmates and instead describes their actions and words to make his points about them. All of the parts when he missed something in French altogether and chose to translate it to us as an obviously inaudible or incoherent “meinslsxp” or “lgpdmurct” instead of simply saying he didn’t catch the word or phrase was genius! It put me in the moment and I felt like I also didn’t catch the word or phrase. This is exactly how I felt time after time in Spanish class, too. I also loved when he and his classmates were bonding over their language difficulties and similar negative classroom experiences. He says “it was a conversation commonly overheard at a refugee camp” and that detail was both awful and awesome as it fit the moment perfectly. I couldn’t help but picture Sedaris and his classmates huddled in a corner struggling along in their broken French trying to communicate with each other about this shared experience. There are so many awesome moments in this piece when Sedaris’s unique eye for detail and description allowed me to visualize his story, feel his struggle and picture his experience in my head.

In The Tapeworm Is In, Sedaris takes us further into his journey and struggle to learn French. Through his details and descriptions, he makes it easy to picture him feeling totally out of place when he writes: “I’d been wrongly cast in an international Pepsi commercial.” Then he brings us with him as he walks around New York and later Paris with his Walkman on as he listens to audio books in French in an attempt to deter people from talking to him and also to further immerse himself into the language to speed up his learning. He describes his thoughts and his experiences along the way and his details make it all so vivid and alive that it’s easy and fun to go with him on the journey. Having lived, worked and taken public transportation in New York City, this line struck me as absolutely perfect: “Left alone and forced to wonder what everyone was screaming about, I found walking through New York became a real pleasure.” Largely in part to his unique details and descriptions, I found this essay humorous and his story and struggle relatable and easy to picture. The essay climaxes as Sedaris goes from audio books to the pocket medical guide as a desperate measure to obtain even more language lessons. Sedaris all but demands we picture him here: “That’s me at the glittering party, refilling my champagne glass and turning to ask my host if he’s noticed any unusual discharge.” And I almost died laughing when he said and then repeated the line at, fittingly, the end of the essay: “Has anything else been inserted into your anus?” In this essay, Sedaris strings together detail after detail and uses them to paint vivid pictures of his experiences, to take us happily along with him and to make us laugh both at him and with him.

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.

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