Do you remember… “September”

Leave a comment

Since I had mixed emotions on September by Tracy Kidder (Literary Nonfiction, 131-148), I decided to dig deeper into it and attempt to figure out why. As I stated in my previous response, there were things I hated about it and other things I downright loved.

I immediately hated the way Mrs. Zajac refers to herself, especially early in the piece and in the classroom, in third person. That struck me as weird, set a sort of poor first impression and it also made me feel distanced from her. I wondered how I would feel sitting before her in that classroom while she did that. Would I recognize it as strange or, worse, at such a young impressionable age would I start referring to myself in third person, too? Maybe, like Clarence, I would shout my frustrations out in the hall (notice he also used third person when it would have made more sense to shout “I hate you!” Was he mocking her, too, in addition to his anger?).

In addition to the way Mrs. Zajac specifically refers to herself, the author, Tracy Kidder, also uses third person to tell the story. While that should work fine since he’s telling the story of another person, for me, there was something that just didn’t work about it. It felt overly disconnected and, at times, even cold. The story seemed to be told with a spirit of unreasonable detachment and I wondered if maybe this was due to the fact that Kidder was not a teacher himself. While I liked the way Kidder presented Mrs. Zajac’s point of view, I think, maybe, the story would have benefited from a bit more personal insight on Kidder’s part. After all, even if he wasn’t actually a teacher himself, he had to at one time have at least been a student.

Similarly, the back and forth between referring to her as Mrs. Zajac and Chris felt odd to me, too. While I get that Kidder used Mrs. Zajac’s first name to show a more human and personal side of her outside of the classroom and at home, it always seemed to come across as a bit weird. Maybe since I’m not actually a teacher myself, and therefore I possibly related more to the role of student, but I just couldn’t escape the feeling of wanting her to be “Mrs. Zajac.” Even as an adult who has reconnected and even became friends with a few of my childhood favorites, I still struggle to refer to my own high school and elementary school teachers by their first names.

I liked the way Kidder described Mrs. Zajac and the other characters in the story physically so we could easily picture them. These stand out as gems: “Their faces ranged from dark brown to gold, to pink, to pasty white, the color Chris associated with sunless tenements and too much TV.” Also: “Taking her stand in front of the green chalkboard, discussing the rules with her new class, she repeated sentences, and her lips held the shapes of certain words, such as homework… Her hands kept very busy. They sliced the air and made karate chops to mark off boundaries. They extended straight out like a traffic cop’s, halting illegal maneuvers yet to be perpetrated.” I also loved this insight here: “She never cried in front of her students.”

The more I read about Mrs. Zajac and her story, the more I felt like I could understand her, sympathize and empathize with her. Being a teacher has to be one of the hardest and most self-sacrificing jobs around. Her career choice alone made me feel inclined to like her and root for her as the protagonist of the story. It became clear rather quickly through her interaction with Clarence and by the way she took her work and her worries home with her each night and on the weekends, too, that she really cares deeply about her students and truly wants the best for them. The characterization of Mrs. Zajac was done well. Through Kidder’s careful descriptions, we can see Mrs. Zajac and through her words, thoughts and actions we are able to really get to know her.

I found Clarence easy to picture, too, and I found myself worrying about him and specifically his home situation. But, like Mrs. Zajac, I had no idea really what his home life was or wasn’t like and how he was treated or possibly mistreated there. I had to rely on these “cumes” just like Mrs. Zajac. Mrs. Zajac’s interactions and conflict with Clarence is what drives the story forward and makes us, or at least made me, feel invested in these people and made me care about what was going to happen to them. Still, the ending left me feeling a bit “meh” about the piece. I wanted closure but didn’t get any, and because I didn’t get it I felt disappointed.

Although I was disappointed with the ending because it left me without closure, I also in a way liked it to a degree because I found myself imagining Mrs. Zajac’s arc in the story continuing beyond these pages. I found myself guessing what might’ve happened next to her and to her students, both immediately and in the next few weeks, throughout the school year and beyond. I could imagine anything I wanted to imagine and because of that I didn’t have to succumb to an unhappy ending that might have happened here. I would like to read the rest of Kidder’s book to see what really happened (and to see if the rest of the school year was in fact in line with how I’d imagined it). I’ve always been a bit of a happy ending girl myself so while I guess it would have been easy enough to imagine Clarence dropping out of school or simply continuing his antics, personally I pictured him eventually seeing the light, overcoming the odds, going on to college and someday taking over the world. I wonder if all that’s in the book.

That said; something about the overall tone of the piece, and how that tone shifted along the way, makes me wonder if Kidder intended to instill those initial feelings of disappointment so that he could counter with those teasing feelings of longing, wonder and hope at the end. As I read the piece again, I caught more serious laden tones throughout. Kidder captured the feelings of wonder and unknowing and trepidation and even despair, as well as anxiety and excitement, of that first week back to school for both students and teachers, too. 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. As the saying goes, this wasn’t her first rodeo, and as such she already knew what to expect. But the tone changed somewhere in the middle as a feeling of hope set in. I could feel Mrs. Zajac’s 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. Toward the end of the piece, the tone shifted a third time, this time more optimistically—but still conservatively optimistic, as Clarence arrived back at school that next day with a seemingly apparent change of attitude and possibly of heart, though no one including Mrs. Zajac could be certain of either.

Throughout the piece, Kidder instilled and then continued to build on that sense of hope. That hope contrasted nicely with the other more serious and somewhat sad elements in the story and it grew stronger and stronger in between the lines. 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, inspiration and support—that they would get the things they needed to thrive and excel. I felt Mrs. Zajac 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 but the fact that I didn’t get that sense of closure left me feeling dissatisfied. Of course, this essay, while able to stand alone, was also an excerpt from a larger work by Kidder so structurally speaking leaving us with this teasing cliffhanger ending was highly successful, too.

All in all, I think Kidder accomplished what I think he set out to accomplish here. He made me think about the status of schools today and he got me to care about this specific teacher and her class. The tone of the piece and all those feelings I felt along the way reflected the way I imagine many teachers, like Mrs. Zajac, must feel at the start of each new year and then again at the end of each school year as they say goodbye to their students knowing they may never know what will eventually become of them. A job like that requires a great deal of hope.

As I read this story, that feeling of hope was there to carry me through.

Works Cited:

Sims, Patsy. Literary Nonfiction. New York: Oxford, 2002.

“Me Talk Pretty One Day”

Leave a comment

In Me Talk Pretty One Day (Me Talk Pretty One Day, 166-173), David Sedaris tells the story of his time in Paris while taking a French class taught by an abrasive teacher. He describes his struggles learning the language and the acquaintances he makes along the way, effectively engaging the reader’s sense of humor. In the essay, Sedaris uses the English language in a very calculated manner and he uses the words themselves, both real words and gibberish, not simply to tell the story but also as structural and stylistic tools, too, and devices of theme, conflict, tension, detail, description and characterization, as well as to show us his own character arc.

In this essay, Sedaris exhibits varied levels of vocabulary, sentence structure, diction and grammar to show us his struggle to learn French. By comparison, in the essay, Sedaris speaks eloquently in English. When speaking English, he speaks naturally and in complete sentences but when he attempts French he speaks in simple sentences and often with broken structure and with obvious grammar mistakes. Not only is this quite comical to picture him trying to wrap his mind and mouth around the words but it also makes it easy for us to see his struggle and make sense of his classroom experience. He doesn’t make the essay all about French words and phrases either as that might exclude us if we’re unfamiliar with the language. Instead, he makes it about the feeling of confusion itself and that relatable feeling of exile that comes with it.

Sedaris’s style of writing is more inclined towards humorous, witty, self-deprecating, silly, sarcastic and concise language and that translates (no pun intended) nicely into this piece. Having had struggled myself through six years of Spanish (from which I am now able to freely toss around questions like “Donde esta el bano?” and, of course, such suitable answers as: “El bano esta en el pescaderia!”), I could totally relate to Sedaris’s struggles to learn a second language and his inclination to poke fun of himself and the process.

When Sedaris describes his attempts to speak to his fellow classmates he uses only basic vocabulary words and he uses them in a disorganized structure like they do. I 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.

Perhaps the best part of this essay is how Sedaris presents his French teacher to us. Although it’s unclear if she’s really as awful as he makes her out to be or if he’s exaggerating since the majority of his issues with her are due to a language barrier combined with his own frustration, but either way he makes her out to be a rude and cruel monster—albeit a monster who is highly intelligent and fluent in multiple languages. The teacher plays the role of the antagonist and heightens the conflict and tension throughout the story. His interaction with her becomes a lesson on tone, too. Sedaris does an excellent job of capturing the teacher’s snarky sadistic tone and relaying it to us so that, even though we really don’t always know what she said or her intentions, we believe she’s purposely being mean to him and his classmates.

I loved the way Sedaris used gibberish to replace words. 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.

When the teacher speaks, we don’t even need to know the word she really said because what we don’t know is made up for through context and tone. For example, when she says “’Were you always this palicmkrexis? Even a fiuscrzsa ticiwelmun knows that a typewriter is feminine.’” In this line, like Sedaris, we are forced to fill in the blanks of what we think she was saying. Because of her tone, it’s clear that she’s insulting him. We do not need an actual English translation to see this, and neither does Sedaris. Additionally, the teacher speaks eloquently with a very high vocabulary and strong diction which shows the reader her high level of understanding of French. This technique is also used when the teacher insults Sedaris directly in flawless English and, in doing so, she adds insult to injury. This increases her power over the classroom, too, since she is the only one who can communicate there completely.

The teacher and her insults play an important role in Sedaris’s character development throughout the story and throughout his learning experience because as the gibberish ends, coinciding with the story’s conclusion, Sedaris realizes he can actually understand what is being said. Even though what he’s hearing is insulting, he’s happy because he finally understands it. This moment is both satisfying and somewhat psychologically dysfunctional he’s still being insulted and, yet, he’s happy that we also feel happy for him

While I absolutely loved this essay, I didn’t like the way Sedaris constantly shifted back and forth between tenses. On one hand, this added to the conversational, informal feel of the story itself and it also sort of played nicely into the whole language lesson themes and conflicts as this was one of the lessons Sedaris struggled to learn. That thought made me wonder if this was a conscious decision and if Sedaris was in fact shifting tenses on purpose to make some sort of point or to carry though the language lesson themes but still, at times, I found it distracting.

The overall point of this essay was to amuse and entertain while showcasing his own experiences and I think he did a fantastic job. Even though I struggled at times with his tense shifts, I truly loved this essay. Not only was it, quite frankly, one of the most hilarious things I’ve ever read but, in terms of language, it opened up a whole new world for me as a writer.

There have been plenty of times, in my own experience as a writer, when I’ve felt bogged down by structural or stylistic rules and other times when I’ve given in and changed something I loved to please someone else. But Sedaris doesn’t seem fazed by what others might think and he doesn’t seem to be playing by any particular rules. There is a sense of freedom to his writing that I really like. For example, I love the way he just threw in a bunch of gibberish nonsense and actually made it work! There have been plenty of times when I’ve second guessed myself as a writer or when I wanted to break a rule or even make up a new word, for example, but didn’t.

Maybe next time I will.

This essay has broadened my thoughts on what can be done. Sedaris has made me realize that there is no limit to my writing. The possibilities are infinite. I feel empowered.

Works Cited:

Sedaris, David. Me Talk Pretty One Day. New York: Little, Brown and Company, 2001.

On Self-Respect

Leave a comment

Joan Didion’s essay On Self-Respect (Slouching Towards Bethlehem, 142) is a beautifully-written essay about what self-respect is and what it really means. Didion’s tone is open and honest throughout and she uses it, along with thoughtful language and examples to skillfully establish her attitude, thoughts, feelings and her frustrations on the topic of self-respect.

This essay shined a new light on Didion for me and allowed me to see her and her work in a whole new way. While the topic of self-respect could have so easily lent itself to Didion talking down to her readers, it didn’t have the same pretentious tone I’ve come to expect from her 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 tone of the essay to match and manifest itself into 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 felt 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. One writer to another, I felt connected to Didion as I read her essay.

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. We all have (or had) grandparents and, whether or not we have (or had) a personal relationship with our own, we each have a similar perception of what grandparents are like. Even if one has never met his or her own grandparents, we still maintain this ideal and hold them up to this sort of standard.

Similarly, by speaking of Indians, again Didion touches on something we all know or believe to be true based on what we’ve learned and/or been told and taught all along. Didion uses common knowledge, bits of history, relatable memories and information we all already know 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.”

Wow! I think that bears repeating, so here goes: “To free us from the expectations of others, to give us back to ourselves—there lies the great, singular power of self-respect.”

Didion makes broad sweeping points which consistently feel borderline pretentious (or maybe it’s my expectation more so than an actual feeling, though it’s sometimes hard to separate an expectation, once one has been established through repetition and experience, from an actual feeling) at times but then in this particular essay she follows up with examples and illustrations and then turns those examples and illustrations loose on herself to provide another emotional dimension that helps bolster her points and somehow makes her relatable and even likeable.

For example, she states: “That kind of self-respect is a discipline, a habit of mind that can never be faked but can be developed, trained, coaxed forth.” In that moment, I sighed audibly and probably even rolled my eyes and thought “oh here it comes” since I honestly believed I saw the next part—the pretentious and seemingly self-absorbed part where I feel talked at or spoken down to—coming. But, then she surprised me and followed that line by recounting a particular moment when she herself learned this lesson by breathing into a paper bag as an antidote to crying. Of course, breathing into a paper bag to stop hyperventilation is common knowledge (or at least common practice) but as a reader, I paused at this admission and thought “why was she crying?” She doesn’t go into the details in regards to the why but that doesn’t matter. In essence, the admission itself—the fact that there was a time when she was so distraught that she bordered on panic attack and needed to breathe into a paper bag—is to admit she’s human.

On that note, this essay spoke to me as one human speaking to another about an issue we all care about. We all want to be respected. But Didion is saying, something we all know is true, that first you must respect yourself and others. But what does that even mean?

Well, for one, at least for me as I read this essay, it meant me having a moment of clarity, revelation and self-reflection in which I had to pause and say “Okay, enough already, Val. Open your mind and read the essay without trying to guess where it’s going.”

Even if we dislike a piece of work, or even more so have decided to dislike the writer as a result of something he or she has written, we must choose to respect the act of writing and the writing itself for it’s a part of us, too. Disrespecting the writer is, in turn, disrespecting ourselves.

Once I realized this lesson on self-respect, I knew I needed to respect Didion and her writing style, too, despite any previous experiences, and read her essay with an open mind. I could see that I was being disrespectful—to her and to me—and deep down I knew it all along. If I wanted to learn from her and benefit in some way from her writing and from this experience I needed to set aside my griping and grumbling and pay her and her writing their due respect.

Doing so meant respecting my own writing, too, as well as my time and energy as a reader. But beyond that, it allowed me to set aside judgment and preconceived notions of taste in terms of style or delivery and instead to absorb Didion’s message and the meaning behind her writing. As a fellow writer, as a writing student and most of all as a person, I’m glad I did.

Works Cited:

Didion, Joan. Slouching Towards Bethlehem. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2008.

“The Learning Curve”

2 Comments

Last week I picked apart Picka Pocketoni. So this week I’d like to pick apart—in a more positive way—another Sedaris essay: The Learning Curve (Me Talk Pretty One Day, 83-96).

This essay hit home for me (and I assume for many of you) in many ways, particularly as a writer, writing student and someone who would someday love to teach writing workshops. But also, I’m currently writing a novel and one of the main themes is how we all find ourselves faking it (or feeling as though we’re faking it) at one point or another. We don’t start out being experienced. It takes time but we all have to start somewhere. That’s simply how life works.

Thematically, this story speaks to anyone who has ever felt like a faker. When Sedaris gets his first teaching gig, he feels like an imposter. And in a way he is one. But I bet anyone who’s ever been in his shoes has felt the same way. Of course, while most of us might not admit it or write a whole essay shouting it to the world, personally, I love how honest he is about it.

Sedaris exposes so many parts of himself to us, including: Sedaris as writer, Sedaris as teacher, Sedaris as the child who just wants to be loved and, perhaps most notably in this essay Sedaris as self-proclaimed, self-deprecating, low self-esteem fraud. All of these elements somehow add up to expose Sedaris as a charming, humorous, honest and relatable human.

“Like branding steers or embalming the dead, teaching was a profession I had never seriously considered.” Ha! Me either! Until recently anyway. Workshops have turned me on to a whole new side of myself. I’ve always loved writing and my initial goal coming into the MFA program here was to get my writing to the next level, where I will hopefully get my novels published. My writing has certainly improved but another side of me, one I didn’t know existed, has been nurtured, too. I love reading my peers’ work and offering my feedback. That critiquing part of workshops that so many of us dislike? Yeah, I love that part. In eight grade I was voted “Most Likely to Become a Teacher” and I’ve always scoffed at the notion but now I’m looking at it and thinking maybe my classmates back in 1989 knew something I wasn’t yet able to see or willing to admit. I flashed back to that moment while reading The Learning Curve and as I read about Sedaris’s experiences, I thought about all of these things I’m learning about myself.

I could picture myself standing before a classroom frantically trying to say and do all the right things, trying to make an impact on these students who expect to learn something. Just like any other experience in life, Sedaris started out self-conscious and self-absorbed and once those things fell away, along with all the butterflies, that’s when everything came together for him.

All of this adds to the tone of the piece. I found the tone of this story as well as Sedaris himself as the story’s main character to be honest and sincere. While he, at times, borders on self-deprecation he does so humorously and that adds to the gritty, realistic feel of the piece. Plus, there’s just something sweet about it, too. While each of his essays affects me in different ways and while I don’t find all of them as relatable as this one, I could follow his tone anywhere.

Structurally speaking, this essay hits all the right notes. He grounds the setting for us in the classroom and allows us to picture everything from his perspective. He starts by showing and telling us about himself physically and even adds insight into his mind through sharing his thoughts and fears as well as comparing himself to his father. Then he introduces the rest of the cast of characters and simultaneously presents the main conflicts which will affect all of them. He lets us see the floor fall from beneath his feet as he stands clueless before this classroom for the very first time. We get to see him squirm and then watch as he tries and fails multiple times, continuously adding tension along the way, giving us the opportunity to root for him and care about what happens to him and his students so we feel satisfied when he figures it all out in the end. The work he does with characterization in general but also in particular with his set up and descriptions, are awesome, too, because if we as the reader cannot relate to him or even find him likeable in some way, then surely we can relate to one of his students instead. That’s brilliant!

There was a point when I felt bad for him and for his students, too. Sedaris somehow became the protagonist and the antagonist and his students played villains and victims. He gives us just the right amount of detail to picture him (right down to his briefcase) and enough detail, physically and emotionally, on each of his students to picture each of them staring back at him. In one way or another, through his characters, this story becomes relatable to just about everyone. Additionally, he pays close attention to his own arc in the story. He starts out a little cocky and then falls from grace. We see all of his insecurities and we can see and judge his mistakes and along the way he himself does the same. Eventually he figures it out and succeeds.

The only thing this was missing for me from his experience in the workshop was the actual critique portion and how that transpired in his classroom. He tells us his thoughts on critiquing (he says whoever designed the workshops “struck the perfect balance between sadism and masochism.”) but he never gets overly detailed about the process. But I can’t help but think that may simply be because Sedaris was more concerned with being critiqued and letting us know how he felt than in critiquing his students and/or in watching them critique each other. In a way, it was like he was saying that he only really knows and can speak honestly about how he feels about the situation and if we want to know how they felt, then we’d have to ask them.

In The Learning Curve, 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, specifically our skills and abilities, and he puts all of his insecurities out on the table for everyone to see and judge.

I absolutely loved this story. I felt connected to it and to all of its characters, including Sedaris and his students. I felt like I was learning along with them and experiencing their trials and tribulations, as if I was actually one of the characters in the story. I felt invested in what happened. The story kept my attention and kept me laughing from start to finish, too.

Sedaris doesn’t seem to care what others might think or say about him; he just puts it all out there, blurting at times, and then 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.

After reading The Learning Curve, I wonder how many new teachers feel like children playing teacher on that first day of school. Sedaris struck a chord here and it’s one that goes beyond the classroom. In truth, don’t we all feel like we’re faking it at one point or another?

Works Cited:

Sedaris, David. Me Talk Pretty One Day. New York: Little, Brown and Company, 2001.

Creative Nonfiction: Some Stuff I’ve Learned

Leave a comment

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.

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.

Picking Apart Picka Pocketoni

2 Comments

I thought Picka Pocketoni (Me Talk Pretty One Day, 219-227) was hilarious and, as usual, David Sedaris had me laughing out loud time and time again. I even picked it (no pun intended) because I knew it would be funny. I could tell by the title and more so by the writer. Sedaris, in my limited experience of him, is almost always funny and his POV usually interests me. But while I found this story just as funny and interesting as the rest, I simply didn’t find it believable.

It’s not that I don’t think it could’ve happened. And, in fact, I more than believe something happened that inspired this essay, but the story itself in its entirety, and the way Sedaris tells it, felt exaggerated and in moments even entirely fabricated to me. It’s a great story in that it kept my attention from start to finish but it didn’t feel real to me. It didn’t seem true.

Part of a writer’s mission, whether he or she is writing fiction or nonfiction, is to write in such a way as to suspend disbelief—to make us believe. In other words, even the craziest things should have us believing. Even when reading fantasy, we start to believe, at least for the sake of the story, in things we wouldn’t typically believe in like, say, aliens or zombies or unicorns. In nonfiction, this should be a no brainer—since the things, the writer’s stories and experiences, allegedly really happened. Right? Well, I’m no longer sure that’s the case since, basically, while I enjoyed the story, I don’t believe it happened—or at least I don’t believe it happened like this.

I’m disappointed, too, because I wanted to believe. I rode the subway in NYC for years, through most of my 20s, and have quite a few stories of my own brewing in my brain since some crazy stuff happens on trains but my issue isn’t with the probability of the occurrence itself it’s in the believability of the telling of the story. Sedaris set the story up well. I could picture this train. Hell, I could smell it. The story about the obnoxious Texas college kids was believable but it was also short and not so breathtaking. It was more of an observation than a complete story. I’m wondering if Sedaris decided to make up the second part to fill out the story. Perhaps if the story wasn’t already about those Texan kids, had Sedaris focused specifically on the couple instead, or entirely on either one or the other, it might have been more believable to me. I don’t know.

Have you ever people watched and then made up stories about those people? This felt like that to me. I don’t doubt he spotted an American couple on the train or even that they were rude and obnoxious. Maybe they were even talking about this particular topic of being robbed on a train. But that’s about as far as my faith goes on this particular story. I question the likelihood of Sedaris’s reaction or lack of reaction to being the topic of this couple’s false accusations, fear and anger. The words and actions of the couple, in particular the man, seemed farfetched to me. But Sedaris’s thoughts and reactions, or lack of reaction, is what really had me scratching my head. Based on what Sedaris has shared about himself in this story and in other stories, I think if this had happened he’d have moved to another part of the train, closer to Hugh, perhaps.

The fact that he was previously buying burlap for no apparent reason made me wonder if that was his way of saying he was about to sell us a bag of goods. There’s just something about the burlap. I mean, why burlap? There are many uses for burlap but he doesn’t tell us why “he’d hoped to buy a good deal of burlap.” He could have said it was for painting or to make a sack or mask, for example. But he skips the explanation. And by mentioning it and then never returning to it like this it somehow drew my attention to the burlap. And suddenly I’m obsessing over burlap and I’m not sure why. Was the burlap a distraction, like one a magician might use in a slight of hand trick? It may be a stretch but burlap is also a tough, resilient fabric so maybe Sedaris was making a point about people needing to be tough to deal with other people. Either way, something about the burlap had me wondering if this experience even really happened.

In so many of his stories, Sedaris seems determined to put two elements before everything else: humor and some sort of moral message or lesson. But while his other stories managed to grab and keep my attention, and more importantly suspend my disbelief, while simultaneously making me laugh, think and feel something, this one didn’t. His humor kept my attention but, at times, I found myself laughing at him, as well as at the ridiculousness of certain elements of this story, more often than I was laughing with him. So much felt exaggerated, even fabricated, for the sake of the joke. There was a moment when I actually rolled my eyes and that’s never a good thing. The moment when Sedaris writes: “Now I was a stinkpot and a thief. It occurred to me to say something, but I thought it might be better to wait and see what he came up with next.” I rolled my eyes at this because Sedaris himself says he’s not the type of person who would have said something, or even think quickly enough on his feet to say something in the moment, so the claim that he’d considered doing so plays false to me, but also the line “see what he came up with next” made me stop and wonder what Sedaris would come up with next.

Even the dialogue seems fake to me. It’s more comical than believable. “Golly, Pete?” Really? Did she really say that? Maybe, but this seems more like a caricature he’s painting than a reenactment of an actual memory which makes me wonder if maybe he’s the one doing the discriminating here. This dialogue feels so fabricated, forced and false to me that if it really had happened just like this then I’d probably recommend changing it in the story anyway to make it seem more believable. Just the fact that a story is true isn’t always enough to make it believable.

Sedaris admits “I was now licensed to hate this couple as much as I wanted. This made me happy, as I’d wanted to hate them from the moment I’d entered the subway car and seen them hugging the pole.” It seems to me that it was his reaction to the Texas college kids that upset him. I think he made up the story about the couple because the story about the Texas kids wasn’t enough to fill the essay. Later, after picking the couple apart and mentally mocking them, Sedaris says: “In disliking them, I was forced to recognize my own pretension, and that made me hate them even more.” Immediately after this, as if given a gift from the karma gods Sedaris was given a reason to hate the couple as if he hadn’t already made up his mind to do so. This felt a bit too convenient and for me was the turning point when I lost my faith entirely in the story.

Sedaris gives us several clues that may imply he’s making this story up. Again there was the burlap, which I can’t seem to let go of, and there’s also the memory of his sister shouting: “Good luck beating that rape charge.” Also, the fact that Sedaris seems to have taken all of this as a compliment, like he let it go in his imagination a bit too far to the point he was enjoying the implication that he could have been a sly thief, leads me to think he was too busy daydreaming on that train to have absorbed such a detailed and dialogue filled recap of actual events.

On my first read I was already feeling skeptical of the story and I found myself wondering how much was true versus how much was made up simply for the sake of the “don’t judge a book by its cover” theme. Sedaris seemed hell bent on teaching this lesson. But after reading it again, letting it sit for a bit and looking back, I think the lesson goes a step further. Perhaps Sedaris is also saying: “Don’t believe everything you hear.” Or, in this case, read.

Unit 3’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.”

Sedaris took this lesson to heart as he described the characters in his story. He painted vivid pictures of these people, perhaps too vivid and overly detailed. Details are good, don’t get me wrong, but sometimes when a story has too many details, if any one detail starts to seem even slightly off, even just a tad BS-ish, then the rest of the story quickly falls down like dominoes.

My brother is a horrible liar. When he lies, he has a few “tells.” For one, he smirks when he lies, like his body knows he’s a horrible liar and is laughing at his brain for even attempting such a thing. But, in addition to the smirk, he just flat out says too much. When he’s telling the truth, he gets to the point quicker and doesn’t take a bunch of detours. But when he lies, he piles on the details like he’s hoping one of them (or the combination of so many perhaps) will be the one that convinces me he’s telling the truth. Instead, more often than not, the opposite happens. Somewhere in the abundance of details he loses me altogether. And this is what Sedaris did.

A few paragraphs before the American couple acted scared of him Sedaris says: “People are often frightened of Parisians…” It’s like he was setting up his story—or setting up his joke. This could be seen as foreshadowing, I guess, but then there was just something about the way Sedaris continuously changes his reasoning for not speaking up. Every few paragraphs or so, Sedaris offers a new reason why he isn’t reacting. At first, insulted by the couple’s comments, he says he stayed quiet so he could criticize them in his head. Then when they accuse him of stealing, Sedaris still doesn’t say anything because he wants to see what they’ll “come up with next,” then because he doesn’t want to risk receiving an awkward apology that would result in an uncomfortable handshake, then because he’s trying to come up with a witty response or he’s daydreaming about the big scene with the cops. I wonder if he had simply stuck to that first reason, my mind might not have shifted so much and that shifting, I think, in the end caused me to stop focusing on his characters and start looking at him and his thoughts and actions instead.

In Picka Pocketoni, there was a moment when Sedaris saw and took an opportunity to pretend to be someone else and he let his imagination take him to another place. His intention was to take us with him on the journey and while he achieved this to a degree, especially through his humor, his characters and the story he told about his alleged experience on the train in Paris that particular day came across instead as exaggerated, fabricated, preachy and contrived.

Although I laughed a lot along the way, rather than pull me into his world and inspire me to feel connected to him and to his story and experiences, Sedaris lost me on this one.

Works Cited:

Sedaris, David. Me Talk Pretty One Day. New York: Little, Brown and Company, 2001.

Character in Creative Nonfiction

2 Comments

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.

Works Cited:

Sedaris, David. Me Talk Pretty One Day. New York: Little, Brown and Company, 2001.

Sims, Patsy. Literary Nonfiction. New York: Oxford, 2002.