Teaching Brevity: Joe Mackall’s The Little Girl at the Door

September 20, 2017 § 12 Comments


pgBy Penny Guisinger

My students are arguing. One of them points to a paragraph in the essay  we’ve just read and says, “No, this is reflection, not summary. The author is telling us how he feels.”

The passage reads, “I want nothing more in life at this moment than for this child to leave our home. I don’t want her to return, not ever. I don’t want to care for her. I don’t want to worry about her.”

Another student shakes her head. “No.  This is information he could have showed us in a scene, but he’s telling us instead, so it’s summary.” She runs her fingertip under the words and reads aloud, completely clear that she has this figured out.

I offer my best, most-practiced, most-teacherly nod at this exchange, but the truth is that I don’t care which of them is right, and that’s fortunate because I’m not sure  I even know which one is right because I think, in some ways, they might both be right. What I care about is that they’re having the conversation at all. Further, they’re taking sides and getting upset. While they parry and thrust, I rub my inner hands together in delight. We are here to learn about the building blocks of CNF, but also more.

We’ve just read Joe Mackall’s piece, “The Little Girl at the Door” from the September 2005 issue of Brevity. I’ve taught this essay many times in CNF courses because I love the way the sentences (mostly) break cleanly across the lines (when we can find them) between the tools of scene, summary, and reflection. These terms are abstract until we do a close reading of Mackall together.

Check out the four sentences that open the second paragraph:

Sure enough, it’s the girl from the next street asking if my granddaughter is over. The little shit seems to have a sixth sense about Ellie’s visits. What I hate admitting to myself or anybody else is that I fear this child. The house she lives in screams of too much activity and not enough care.

Four sentences serving up the three tools: scene, summary, reflection, plus one line-straddler, which is part of the lesson. The first sentence is clear action: scene.  The second doesn’t want to be categorized right away. The third? Such a clear example of the reflective voice that it makes the distinction impossible to miss. And the bit that glosses over about what the house screams is a fine example of summary.

It’s the moments when the sentences sit on those blurry lines that can often be squeezed for the pulpiest juice. When the students disagree, and have to mount a defense of their position, they have to get their mouths around these concepts and describe them. What makes something a scene? The verbs? The sensory information? I hold myself back from the fray here and let them argue.

I have a hidden agenda. Getting students’ heads around scene, summary, and reflection is important, yes, but this piece has more important lessons to teach. That sentence about the little shit? I tell them, “It might be some fourth category. It might be summary or scene, but thoroughly filtered through this narrator’s eyes. Just because it reveals something about the narrator doesn’t automatically categorize it solely as reflection.” I pause, watching foreheads crinkle around the table. “In some ways, really, every sentence can and should reflect on the ‘I’ that’s telling the story, right?”

Now, they’re kind of annoyed.

Over and over, students of writing have to confront this terrible reality about our craft: the answer to most questions is “it depends.”  Sentences defy categorization. Narrators are shifty. And – here’s the worst news – narrators and writers do not have the same goals and are, in certain important ways, not always the same people.

“Do you like this narrator?” I ask.

At first, universally, they do not. “He’s mean. He’s judgmental. You’re not supposed to say things like this.” His willingness to be so openly unlikable feels risqué.

This conversation unfolds predictably.  Some student with children or grandchildren puts together enough courage to say, “I understand him.”

Silence. For about ten seconds.

Then others creep onto that same platform, tentatively at first then more firmly. “He just wants to protect his granddaughter. He’s kind of right, you really can’t save everybody.” And, finally, we get to the truth: “I have felt like this, but I’m not proud of it.”

I ask, “Do you think Joe Mackall is proud of this?”

Nobody thinks that. Together, we zero in on this central line: In certain important ways, I’m much less of a person now. This line is the gravity around which the whole piece orbits. I talk about the narrative hand-tip. The pulling back of the curtain. The authorial back-flip required to get there.

At this point, all concerns about which sentences are which things have fallen away. Now we’re talking about the real issue on the table: we’ve moved into a discussion about situation and story, as defined by Gornick. We have moved beyond craft into questions about why we write CNF at all.

I reach for Philip Lopate’s Introduction to the impressive-looking anthology, The Art of the Personal Essay – an introduction I keep in my teacherly hip pocket for this moment. I read two sentences, heavily underlined:

(1) The harvesting of self-contradiction is an intrinsic part of the personal essay form.

(2) If some readers are repelled by a writer’s behavioral contradictions, this is quite all right, because the personal essayist is not necessarily out to win the audience’s unqualified love but to present the complex portrait of a human being.

I have shared similar ideas from minute one of every class, but this is the moment when it sinks in: using the tools we have at hand, we make our work resonate by admitting our complicity in this flawed mess called humanity.

All around the classroom table, heads slowly nod and eyes roam across the printouts of Mackall’s piece.

Class ends, as all classes eventually do, and my students slide their copies of Mackall into backpacks, inside the covers of notebooks, or into computer bags. The course changes – every time – at this moment. Students leave this conversation less content with telling their stories as anecdotes. They want their stories to do that magic trick of lifting off the page, doing the half gainer, flipping inside out, and revealing something complicated about the “I” on the page. They’ve seen it. Deconstructed it. They get it.

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‘Teaching Brevity‘ is a special blog series celebrating the magazine’s 20th Anniversary, edited by Sarah Einstein. Read the other teaching posts here (once they are posted) : 1, 3, 4, 5, 6.
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Penny Guisinger is the author of Postcards from Here. Her work has appeared in Fourth Genre, River Teeth, Guernica, the Brevity blog, Solstice Literary Magazine, and others. Pushcart nominated, a Maine Literary Award winner, and twice named a notable in Best American Essays, she is the director of Iota: Conference of Short Prose and an assistant editor at Brevity. Penny is a graduate of the Stonecoast MFA Program.

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