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.

“Me Talk Pretty One Day”

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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.

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.

“The Learning Curve”


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.

Picking Apart Picka Pocketoni


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.