Time and Tension in Creative Nonfiction

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To further explore structure and style, and more specifically time and its correlation to tension, my focus will be on the following four essays: Make That a Double, (Me Talk Pretty One Day, 187) and Twelve Moments in the Life of an Artist (Me Talk Pretty One Day, 39) by David Sedaris, Mrs. Kelly’s Monster (Literary Nonfiction, 73) by Jon Franklin and On Self-Respect (Slouching Towards Bethlehem, 142) by Joan Didion.

Make That a Double is a brief, lighthearted look at Sedaris’s struggle to learn French. It’s funny and sweet. The essay itself is short and concise and I imagine that’s because it was meant as more of a succinct statement than an actual discussion or debate. There was no bigger picture to it, really. While brief, it’s really the perfect little package. It captures a moment in time, or rather a sequence of time, in Sedaris’s life and uses it to identify a struggle. I love the way the essay flows so naturally through Sedaris’s issues with the language and how he breaks his thought process down so that even if the reader has zero knowledge of French s/he can still “get” it. He uses the element of time in this essay subtly and successfully to establish his point of view and build his argument while backing up his thoughts with actual life experiences, both in and out of the classroom. I struggled with Spanish but I felt I could totally still relate to Sedaris in regards to the idea of the foreign language struggle and the confusion and frustration which come with learning a new language. By nature of the topic itself, the structure of the essay, as well as the examples he uses to make his points, Sedaris lets us know that this is not serious. It’s more of a conversation starter. It’s relatable but at the same time it never goes off topic or beneath the surface either. It doesn’t have to. In fact, part of this particular essay’s charm is that it doesn’t.

By comparison, Twelve Moments in the Life of an Artist is not only physically longer but it also goes much deeper into Sedaris’s life experiences and insecurities. The essay takes a close look at Sedaris’s attempt to be an artist and parallels that with his journey through depression and drug addiction which he refers to as his “long disgraceful blue period.” While this essay was also humorous, like his other essays, I found this one to be deeper, darker and far more personal than the rest. It felt important because of what Sedaris was sharing. By first seemingly innocuously comparing himself to his more artistically talented sister Gretchen, he shows us his younger naked inner-self through the lens of low self-esteem and his insatiable desire to be loved and admired. In the essay, Sedaris drips in other issues, like his mother’s alcoholism and the way his father never took him seriously, to show us where his self-esteem problems may have arisen and how lonely and desperate he became, too, perhaps so we could see and more importantly understand why and how he ended up a drug addict. By paralleling the addiction to his emotional issues like this, we start to see and understand what makes Sedaris tick as we notice a cause and effect quality between his thoughts and actions. This not only causes us to feel sorry for him but it lets us inside, it gets us beyond all the clown makeup and his need to simply make us laugh at him and lets us see what’s really going on in there. Once we’re inside we get to know and understand him better, too, and that emotes a sense of empathy. I love the way he structures this essay. By breaking the essay up into these numbered sort of mini chapters it makes it so easy for the reader to follow along and as the numbers grow we see time pass and we feel like we’re growing with Sedaris on this journey. And it’s all but impossible not to see the correlation between the twelve moments of being an artist and the twelve steps of addiction recovery. It is as if he is in an actual twelve step program looking back at his journey through drug addiction. Perhaps the essay itself is an actual manifestation of the first step: admitting the problem.

While remarkably different in topic and tone, Mrs. Kelly’s Monster is also structured chronologically as it takes us on a journey of its own through a medical procedure attempting to remove a brain tumor in an elderly patient. There is nothing funny about this essay, nor would we expect there to be, but rather it’s a very serious topic and it’s handed accordingly. The tone is serious, anxious and heavy. Early on in the essay, in the intro, when the surgeon is having breakfast (and “no coffee” because “coffee makes his hands shake.”) before leaving for work, we see the actual time of 6:30am. As the day progresses and even as the surgery starts and then transpires Franklin continuously provides time checks and we get to see time pass in this very literal way. Time itself feels like a living, breathing thing in this essay and as we watch it tick by we begin to rely on it and use it as our main source of hope that Mrs. Kelly will survive. To me, this paralleled how a loved one might feel sitting out in the waiting room watching the clock. Perhaps my favorite part about this essay is how Franklin translates the foreign language of brain surgery and medical jargon into simpler terms while using elements of onomatopoeia as well to add rhythm and portray the tension of the moment. For example, the “pop…pop…pop…” is such an awesome technique to pull us into the moment and into that room and allow us to feel and hear and experience it. The pop-pop-pop detail and similar details are repeated in the piece, too, and in doing so Franklin creates a natural if not harrowing rhythm to the piece. In addition to giving us immediate information, in this case that Mrs. Kelly’s heart is beating regularly and that she is still in stable condition, and providing us with a much welcomed feeling of ‘so far so good’ in the experience, it also adds another level of tension, too, and structurally, these pop-pop-pop details allow time to stand still, if only for a few a seconds at a time in a long, dangerous surgery, and give us, as readers, a moment to take our breath in this stressful situation.

Joan Didion’s essay On Self-Respect is a beautifully-written essay about what self-respect really means. And while the topic itself could have so easily lent itself to a writer talking down to his/her reader, it didn’t have the same pretentious tone I’ve come to expect in Didion’s 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 essay to be a manifestation of that tone and come across as 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 feels 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. 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. Even if one has never met his or her grandparents, we still maintain this ideal and hold them up to this sort of standard. Similarly, by speaking of Indians, again Joan touches on something we all know or believe to be true based on what we’ve learned, been told and taught all along. Stylistically and structurally, Didion does not shine a spotlight on time but rather she uses it in subtle ways 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.”

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.

Creative Nonfiction: Didion and Sedaris

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My focus for this reading response is on the following four essays: Joan Didion’s Some Dreamers of the Golden Dream (Slouching Towards Bethlehem, 3-28), California Dreaming (Slouching Towards Bethlehem, 73-78), On Going Home (Slouching Towards Bethlehem, 164-168) and David Sedaris’s Go Carolina (Me Talk Pretty One Day, 3-15).

I enjoyed all four essays but to different extents and for different reasons. While I appreciated the first two (Some Dreamers of the Golden Dream and California Dreaming) primarily from a stylistic standpoint and because they gave insights which sparked my curiosity, I connected on a more personal level to the other two (On Going Home and Go Carolina).

In Some Dreamers of the Golden Dream (Slouching Towards Bethlehem, 3-28), Didion tells the story of “Lucille Marie Maxwell Miller” (AKA: Lucille Miller) who allegedly murdered her husband, Gordon “Cork” Miller by setting his car on fire with him still alive in it late one night on Banyan Street nearby their home in the San Bernardino Mountains in California. While Lucille Miller eventually gets convicted and sentenced for this crime, Didion never seems to pass judgment on her or settle on any particular conclusion of guilt or innocence in the story she tells. Instead, Didion seems to use this particular story as commentary on this place and the type of people who live there, as well as food for thought on the case, our legal system and society itself.

Stylistically, this essay struck me as both beautiful and functional. Didion’s transitions worked especially well as they allowed her to move the essay masterfully back and forth between the facts of the case and the illusions of opinion. Transitions like “Of course she came from somewhere else” (7) and “Unhappy marriages so resemble one another that we do not need to know about the course of this one” (8) gave Didion the ability and flexibility to weave in and out of the information she wanted to share and leave out things she deemed unimportant to her essay. These transitions allowed Didion to tell an otherwise tangled tale in an easy-to-digest way.

Didion’s California Dreaming, a much shorter essay though equally revealing story, is about the Center for the Study of Democratic Institutions, “the current mutation of the Fund for the Republic.” It’s in the little details where we as readers learn the most. For example, by choosing to use the word “mutation” here Didion is able to make a subtle though still poignant statement. In this essay, Didion takes what’s on the surface, or otherwise known as public knowledge,” and adds details, like the nepotistic aspects of the society for example, and even makes a few cult-like parallels, to make us curious about what is really going on here. Though Didion herself avoids making accusations and seems to almost dance around what she really thinks, she gives enough information so we, as readers, can come to our own conclusions.

In both essays, Didion take news stories and public information and dives deeper into them to reveal the aspects anyone not paying close attention may have missed. In doing so, she provides a unique insight into California culture while showing an uglier side of the so-called “American Dream.” In both essays, Didion uses imagery and description exceptionally to add layer after layer, while transitioning smoothly between those layers, to build toward climax. I felt myself being pulled so deeply into these stories that I was itching to know what would be revealed at every turn. And, even though neither essay provided a sense of closure, both gave me so much to think about that I could happily chew for days on certain paragraphs in an effort to try to figure out what Didion really thought about the people and events she was writing about.

On the downside, both Some Dreamers of the Golden Dream and California Dreaming struck me as a bit rushed, perhaps due to the sheer quantity of information being shared. And by rushing and squeezing so much in, I think, both essays also dismissed a sense of human connection and feeling. These essays, while profoundly interesting and stylistically beautiful, struck me at times as a collection of informative facts and quotes with little to no emotion.

The final two essays, Didion’s On Going Home (Slouching Towards Bethlehem, 164-168) and David Sedaris’s Go Carolina (Me Talk Pretty One Day, 3-15), also made good choices stylistically but they didn’t make those choices at the expense of emotion and in doing so they were able to reach the next level by making the personal connections the other two essays missed. Both relied more heavily on opinion and feelings over “just the facts” and gave very personal accounts of the writers’ lives to give insight into perhaps why they are who they are.

In On Going Home, Didion tells the story of a time when, without her husband, she took her daughter “home” to celebrate her first birthday in the home where Didion grew up and with her premarital family. The essay deals with Didion’s personal issues as she compares and contrasts her current life with her husband and their child versus her life and experiences growing up. Didion shares vivid details to make her points about the differences between her current life/family and her background and in doing so she reveals positive and negative qualities about both. For example, I loved the story about the dust. By telling us that it was so dusty that her husband could literally write the word “dust” in it, it shows how unkempt the house is while also showing the condescending and pretentious qualities of her husband.

I really loved this story, and will likely use it as my second reading response later this week. I loved it so much, I think, because I could relate to it. It connects so well to the feeling many, including myself, get when they grow up, marry or enter a commitment with someone from a wildly different background. It’s so easy to see the differences, both positive and negative, between the families we are given and the families we choose. For example, I grew up in the inner city in Philadelphia while my husband grew up on a farm in Iowa (keeping in mind that while I grew up in Philly, I currently live in Iowa with my husband and daughter). It’s impossible to ignore the many glaring differences between the two that I often find myself loving and hating one over the other and shifting back and forth between which one wins or loses the individual battles of comparison. For example, while I love that my husband comes from a large laid back family with so many cousins all living nearby and the fun and festivities which come naturally with that, I hate that everyone knows each other’s business. Of course, there are also things I love, especially by comparison, about my own premarital family, too, like the faster paced life of the city and the way that how we, as a small family, act in times of struggle like it’s us against the world and how we all truly seem to “get each other.” But while I love “going home,” when I do there are moments when I feel like Didion as she revealed in her essay.

Not only was this story far more personal and emotional than Didion’s other two essays, in the other two she goes to great efforts to set up her stories before revealing the underlying issues and elements, while in this one she gets to the main points almost immediately and was far more conversational and raw, both personally and emotionally, than the other two.

Go Carolina (Me Talk Pretty One Day, 3-15) by David Sedaris made similar emotional connections for me as Didion’s On Going Home but while it had some similarities to Didion’s other two essays it maintained a style of its own. Like Some Dreamers of the Golden Dream and California Dreaming by Didion, Sedaris goes to great efforts to set up his story before jumping into its true themes and getting to the good stuff, so to speak. I liked his quirkier style and specifically how he used elements from a young boy’s imagination, like referring to the speech therapist as “Agent Samson” and his younger self’s creative problem solving, like avoiding the Ss. But what I really liked about this particular essay was the smart humor throughout and the way in which Sedaris set up this story—how he leads us to believe that this is a story about a boy who battled a speech impediment, but as the story builds the story behind the story is revealed and this is where Sedaris shares a far more personal journey and his issues with his sexuality.

Like Didion’s On Going Home, my favorite aspect of this essay is how Sedaris lets us in. He welcomes us into a very personal part of himself and does so in such a way where we feel like we belong there, like we’re not snooping around in someone else’s business.

Didion’s Some Dreamers of the Golden Dream, California Dreaming, On Going Home, and Sedaris’s Go Carolina are exceptional examples of how to weave a story that will grab and maintain a reader’s attention from start to finish. In all four of these essays, Didion and Sedaris use dark humor to deal with dark topics and some intense issues as they lead us down various well detailed paths in what felt to me, at times, like layered labyrinths. But none of them strolled too far down any particular path long enough for me to nod off, stop reading or skip ahead.

What I admire most and aspire toward, as a writer and writing student, is how Didion and Sedaris masterfully set up and paced their stories, as well as how they grabbed and kept my attention from start to finish by revealing just what I needed to know just when I needed to know it. Each told unique stories in his and her own unique ways and in reading them I feel satisfied by what I’ve consumed and yet I am still left thinking and wondering and wanting more.

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.