June 29, 2011 § 5 Comments

A guest post from David Wanczyk, director of Ohio University’s Special Programs in Creative Writing office.  Dave has written nonfiction for The Awl, Defunct, SplitSider, and Prick of the Spindle, among others:

When I played guitar in fifth grade, I wanted to be like Axel Rose (or at least like the lead singer of Mr. Big).

Instead, I was inserted into a talent show and performed a song that was the antithesis of rock-and-roll, the opposite of elementary school cool.  This is how I remembered the scene in one of my essays:

At this talent show, I was to make my performing debut with the bass guitar.  It was June and I was two months removed from my week with my band, The Wyld Pygz.  We’d broken up and now here I was—on the day Lorena Bobbit sliced off her husband’s penis—playing “Mary Had a Little Lamb” with two girl violinists:

                        It made the children laugh and play,

                        Laugh and play, laugh and play.

                        It made the children laugh and play

                        To see a lamb at school.

I stood there sheepishly, fingering the notes for endless minutes as their violins shattered my remaining pane of cool.  I was a poser with two shoes, and the ultimate ninny.  Rows of students and teachers looked at each other with wow-grins as a custodian stopped to shake his head.  Nice girls wore that bad kind of “oh sweetie” pity-smile.  Zeppelin’s John Paul Jones crystallized to slap me, and my mom got it all on tape.

Writing that reminded me of something I’ve encountered in Creative Nonfiction quite often—what I call “Embellassment.”  In order to achieve a number of effects—humor among them—we sometimes tend to embellish our embarrassments, to embellass.  And is this embellassment acceptable in memoir and essays?  I’d say that it is, to a point.

Now, in the above scene, I’ve certainly bastardized the truth.  It’s clear that I wasn’t actually attacked by an English musician.  And I can’t be completely sure that there was a custodian either.  But, as has been argued widely, this kind of embellishment can contribute to an emotional truth.  Adolescent embarrassment felt so large to us that in order to re-imagine it we have to have more than zits; we have to have third nostrils.  Our failure with the opposite sex can’t be merely run-of-the-mill; it has to be Charlie Brownish.  And those moments of breathtaking mortification, like playing “Mary Had a Little Lamb” in front of the whole school, might have to be written in a sort of expressionistic way—that is, we have to recreate the world as though each and every detail is reflective of our inner humiliation.  Is Munch’s “The Scream” a true statement about anguish?  If so, then embellished embarrassment can be true too.

This sort of embellassment also helps build trust in the reader.  When we’re willing to cop to those monumentally embarrassing moments, we’re vulnerable and we present ourselves as possible friends.  “Look what befell me,” we say.  “You got anything like that?”  Embellassment also plays a dual roll.  When I remember my embarrassments, I suggest to the audience that I’m still caught up in those moments, somewhat unattractively.  I’m building a neurotic persona.  But when I embellish, I seem to suggest that I’m both caught up in the embarrassment and able to reframe it.  By making these moments into stylized scenes, I think I can somehow control them in a way I couldn’t at the time.

I do worry, though, that by embellassing we’ll build ourselves into people we weren’t—the extreme outsider, the epitome of loser, the guy with the most egregiously bad hair.  Scott Russell Sanders warns us not to compete for “a trophy in suffering,” and I think it’s important to remember that our embarrassments, while worthy topics, are almost definitely not the most acute of all time.  We will not win a trophy, or get much sympathy, for overstating how we were pantsed in eighth grade.  So, if we go to embellassment too often, we risk implying that we, and no one else, had it real bad.  And we ask our audience, implicitly, to note the difference between that freak back then and the utterly cool fella who stands before you now, comfortably recounting his misery.  We say “Aren’t I even cooler for having risen so high from such pathetic lows?”  This is disingenuous.  I call for restraint.

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§ 5 Responses to Embellassment

  • Thedesertrocks says:

    A subject broached by Longfellow, Twain, Emerson, and others who exemplified the “coolness” with their “memories”….

  • Gary Presley says:

    I’m ambivalent about “embellassment,” although if it comes from memory, why not?

    I don’t think the John Paul Jones slap-in-the-kisser meets the criteria, though. It’s the adult author “interpreting” the mood of the kid stuck on stage playing “Mary …”

    What tickled me most in the anecdote was the appearance of “sheepishly” grinning snarkily a few words after “lamb at school.” It’s a winner for that alone.

  • Yes, indeed. This was written just for me. How do you do this, Dinty? I feel like you’re reading over my shoulder as I wade through the keep this, slash and burn that of my memoir… And I’m always grateful!

  • Zach says:

    Your idea that trumped up failures look like brags of now-confidence reminds me a lot of this time in high school when I was wearing pleated jeans and was pantsed by guest speaker, Ralph Lauren, who then high-fived the girl I had a crush on while correcting my understanding of the expression, “me love you long time.”

  • We all take what we believe to be “truth” and change it because our truth is just our perspective of a given situation, and not necessarily what really happened. I don’t know if I would call that embellishing because sometimes our version of the truth is more interesting than what “Joe Somebody’s” is. (That’s why investigators ask questions and then compare answers to find out what really happened).

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