The Genesis of “What If?”

September 28, 2007 § 2 Comments


Every once in a while, a recent or past BREVITY author will weigh in on the origins of their brief essay. Here, Ira Sukrungruang launches this feature with a discussion of his essay “What If?” from Issue 24:

“What If?” started when I received an email from my Polish friend after five years without any communication. Yo, I’m in some shit and the cops are looking for me. I’m coming to stay at your crib for a couple of months. P.S. I love you. He didn’t sign his name, but his email address gave his identity away. I replied quickly—Don’t forget the guns!

In the first draft of the essay, I used my friend’s name. Instead of the direct-address “you,” my friend was a “he.” After I completed the piece, the essay did not sit well with me. I read it out loud over and over—this is part of my process—and at the end of every reading, the essay seemed wrong. In fact, the reading made it worse.

The remedy came a couple of days later when I was teaching one of my favorite essays, “Tracks and Ties” by Andre Dubus III, in my beginning creative nonfiction class. I’ve been teaching the essay for years, and an incredibly compelling aspect of the piece is how Dubus addresses his dead friend. This direct address immediately makes the piece more intimate—something students will readily point out—but it also allows a deeper exploration of time and friendship. I asked my class, as I often do, “Why does Dubus use the ‘you’?” And for the first time, a student offered this answer: “Well, if he used “he,” it would sound like a eulogy.”

There it was. The reason my essay seemed off—especially when read—was because it sounded like I was delivering a eulogy. I did not want to close the book on my friend, especially because he was alive and still wreaking havoc in Chicago. Although he is part of my past, he is part of the living and breathing past that I carry with me daily, a past that is alive with questions and complexities, a past that makes essay writing challenging and exciting. It was the simplest of fixes, the change of a pronoun, but the “he” presented a finality in the piece that was inauthentic to the relationship of these two Chicago boys, while the “you” seems to represent a continuity.


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§ 2 Responses to The Genesis of “What If?”

  • Andi Cumbo says:

    I’m struck, as I often am in my own classes, by how your student gave you clarity.
    Thank you for reminding me, in the midst of a stack of grading, that our students can give us as much as try to give them.

  • Your student’s answer is one of the most naturally insightful ones I’ve heard on choosing to write in the second person. In the case of “What If,” it was the perfect choice for just that reason.

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