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.

“Rock of Ages” and Pondering Relatability


After reading Rock of Ages (an essay about Alcatraz) by Joan Didion, it was brought to my attention by a classmate that the story was written in 1967. Even though I’d read the same thing and I was fully aware that Didion wrote the story in the 60s, knowing that seemed to play little to no role at all in my reading and absorption of the story’s details.

I’m glad she pointed it out though because it means the story was written during a time when Alcatraz was closed and hadn’t yet become the tourist attraction it is today. Like I said, I knew that but it didn’t really click or sink into my head that Alcatraz in the 60s had to be different than Alcatraz today.

See, I visited Alcatraz in 1998 and I recall feeling similar to Didion in regards to the beauty of the island but not so much in regards to the feeling of being isolated mostly because there were a ton of tourists there with me at the time of my visit. Hell, there was even a gift shop. It’s hard to make a place with a gift shop feel like an actual prison (though my husband would argue otherwise). Also, the place had been renovated for tourists so it wasn’t as abandoned looking as Didion had described.

The point I’m trying to make really has nothing to do with Alcatraz itself or even with Didion’s story about Alcatraz. It has more to do with the fact that in reading her essay, though I was reading her words I was picturing the place as it was when I visited in the late 90s and in the condition it was in when I visited it, rather than the condition she saw and described it. I think my own familiarity and memories of the setting interfered with my reading and absorbing some of Didion’s details, if that makes sense. It’s like I was reading the story but my imagination was moving away from the story and into itself and my own perceptions and thoughts.

Since a similar thing happened to me with some of the other essays we’ve covered in this Creative Nonfiction course, including Absences by James Conaway and Mrs. Kelly’s Monster by Jon Franklin (both of which were similar to experiences and relationships I’ve had in my life), I can’t help but wonder if this is a natural thing that happens when we read. Looking back, I wonder how often my own imagination or my own memories and experiences, both positive and negative, have interfered with the intentions of the writer.

Is it possible to read 100% objectively when we already feel connected? I guess in a way it goes back to the idea that we tend to enjoy stories which we can relate to more than those we don’t. Do you think, as readers, our relating to a story, a particular writer, the setting, situation or characters can perhaps play a significant role or even interfere with the story itself? Or more importantly, how we read and digest the story and its author’s messages? I know I’m rambling here but I can’t help but wonder how often our imaginations wander off and we see a story, or parts of a story, which aren’t necessarily there.

I think about my closest friendships and smile as I think how often we finish a friend’s thoughts and/or sentences. Usually we are right, too, because we know these people so well that it’s easy to guess what they’d say or do in a particular situation or moment. But how often are we wrong? How often do we put incorrect words in someone else’s mouth or draw the wrong conclusions?

And, more on topic, how often when we’re reading do we see people, places and things which aren’t necessarily there? Have you ever read a story and pictured the main character as, say, a blond with blue eyes then came to discover s/he was actually a brunette? There are times this happens to me and my mind simply refuses to see the brunette no matter how clearly the author’s descriptions may be!

Maybe I’m just that stubborn but even after going back and reading Rock of Ages a second time, with all of this in mind, I tried my best to focus but still ended up picturing the tourist attraction I visited in 1998.

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.

On Self-Respect

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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.