Watch Your Tone (in Creative Nonfiction)

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I’m in the final weeks of this creative nonfiction course and with only four readings left in the course to discuss, I guess my focus for this reading response will be on the following four essays: Tracy Kidder’s “September” (Literary Nonfiction, 131-148), Joan Didion’s “Goodbye to All That” (Slouching Towards Bethlehem, 225-238), and David Sedaris’s “Today’s Special” (Me Talk Pretty One Day, 120-124) and “I’ll Eat What He’s Wearing” (Me Talk Pretty One Day 265-272).

While these four essays had very little in common in the ways of topic, theme, structure and style, there was one thing that struck me as special about each piece—one thing that, while wildly different from one to the next, each one did quite well. So let’s talk about tone! Shall we?

I have mixed emotions on September. There are things I loved about it and other things I downright hated about it. Typically, in a read such as this, the sum of the parts speaks to me in some profound way where I am able to see beyond those individual likes and dislikes but that wasn’t really the case here. At the end of this, I simply felt “meh” about the piece, I think, mostly because of the way it ended. I wanted closure but didn’t get any, and that left me with an overall feeling of disappointment, which I think was actually Kidder’s intention. That said; I loved the tone of the piece and how Kidder captured the feeling of that first week back to school for both students and teachers. In a way, the story felt like advice or words of wisdom from one teacher to future teachers—much like the “cume” folders discussed and how they’re meant to help the next teacher learn about students’ cumulative pasts. I felt Mrs. Zajac’s pain and frustration and how tired she already was by the Friday of the first week of school. It’s a long school year and she was already exhausted emotionally and physically. I also felt her sense of hope that these kids would overcome adversity, have bright futures and that they wouldn’t somehow fall to the waste side of a hard knock life. Mrs. Zajac’s hope gave me hope for her, too, that she would find her drive again and rediscover her passion during this new school year. It also gave me hope for Clarence and other kids like him who need that extra push, guidance and support. I felt she had a lot to offer these kids and I would have loved to see how it all panned out at the end of the year. The fact that I didn’t get that sense of closure from the piece left me dissatisfied but the tone reflected the way I imagine many teachers must feel at the end of the school year when they say goodbye to their students knowing they may never know what will eventually become of them.

I related in so many ways to Goodbye to All That. Although Didion experienced her 20s in NYC long before I did, her experience felt so familiar to what I experienced living and working there in my 20s. Like Didion, I moved to NYC at the age of 20, right out of college. For me, Didion captured the feeling of being young and carefree in NYC and she also captured how those feelings change as we grow up and experience life. Little details about the piece screamed out to me like the Chock Full O’ Nuts reference (my husband and I now buy that brand of coffee online because it’s nearly impossible to find in the Midwest). At 27, I moved from New York to Dallas with my then-boyfriend (now husband) because he and I both craved the adventure one can only achieve from moving away to another new place. Later, though still young by most people’s definitions, we got married and moved back, and enjoyed more of what NYC has to offer in the way of fun and spontaneity and excitement for a few more years. After having a child NYC lost much of its luster for us, and we eventually moved away again, and this is precisely why: “It is often said that New York is a city for only the very rich and the very poor. It is less often said that New York is also, at least for those of us who came there from somewhere else, a city for only the very young.” I hadn’t realized how much Didion, at least in this essay, and I have in common. Her tone throughout this piece mirrors the tone of my own life experience and my memories of my time spent in NYC and it is her tone and perhaps those shared experiences which I feel have touched my soul in the way kindred spirits connect and relate to one another.

Today’s Special did nothing for me except for make me irritated at Sedaris. In this piece, his tone struck me as moody and bitchy and spoiled and, honestly, even ungrateful. I hate reading stuff like that. I felt like I was forced to sit across from him at that restaurant while he sat there in a foul mood sulking while bound and determined to dislike everything and everyone. It was like he wanted me to coddle him and ask him again and again: “Are you okay?” In a personal relationship, romantic or platonic, I might feel obligated to cheer him up but, as a reader, I’m just not willing to do that. I felt more connected to and sympathetic toward the waiter who sarcastically whispered: “Love your jacket.” I felt a sense of relief when Sedaris finally left the restaurant and grabbed something to eat from the food cart, but even the image of him eating a hotdog on the street didn’t erase the image I had of him pompously rolling his eyes and turning his nose up at every item previously presented to him. I think Sedaris wanted this action of grabbing a hotdog from the vendor to somehow show how down to earth he is, since at the heart of it all he’d prefer a hotdog to the frufie high-end restaurant cuisine and atmosphere, but instead it made me think he really isn’t down to earth at all. If he was, perhaps he wouldn’t have gone to that particular restaurant in the first place and instead gone directly to the cart. Still, the tone of this piece and how it affected me is what I will remember most of all. As much as it irritated me and even caused me to dislike Sedaris in the moment, the tone certainly fit the piece.

I’ll Eat What He’s Wearing contrasted nicely to Today’s Special. The tone was livelier, more satisfied, grateful and far less spoiled-bratty. While Sedaris is making fun of his father and in particular his father’s thrifty/cheap ways throughout the piece, his tone suggests that he’s doing do playfully. I love the line: “It was people who were spoiled, not food.” That line took me immediately back to the tone of Today’s Special. By contrast, the tone of I’ll Eat What He’s Wearing felt far more down to earth and to me. I love the way Sedaris presents his father as cheap and even embarrassing but somehow manages to balance those negative traits through humor, memories and love. He seemed to be poking fun at his dad throughout the piece but I never once felt like Sedaris crossed any line that changed his carefree, good-natured, playful, teasing tone. Because of the stark difference in tone, I preferred this piece over the other one.

I often say that a writer’s tone is the primary cause of me loving or hating a piece of their work, and this week was no exception. This week was like a tonal rollercoaster—an interesting week of ups and downs, both emotionally and mentally, for me. In fact, each of these four works and their writers had me feeling passionately in both positive and negative ways. While I will walk away feeling differently about each one, liking and disliking different things about each of them, I believe their unique individual tones is what makes them each successful and memorable.

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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