Teaching Brevity: Anna Vodicka’s “Girl/Thing”
May 21, 2021 § 2 Comments
By Suzanne Roberts
In 1857 Henry David Thoreau wrote in a letter to a friend: “Not that the story need be long, but it will take a long while to make it short.” As a travel writer, I’m often asked to write about five ghost towns or six roadside attractions in 500 words. It feels impossible every time. I sit down and write 1,500 or 2,000 words. Then I kill 75% of my darlings.
Because I know this is what editors often ask for—challenging word counts—I assign the very short essay to my students. I ask for a 1,000-word essay, saying every word has to count. When they return to class, I tell them that every word must count double—in a revision of no more than 500 words. My students complain, and I send them home to do the work. Their next revision—you guessed it—can be no longer then 250 words. They tell me cutting that much will “ruin” their work, so I share with them an essay that does its work in a mere 230 words.
Anna Vodicka’s “Girl/Thing” captures the ways girls navigate a patriarchal world where the “girl thing to do” is to take care of babies and then suffer advances from the children’s lecherous fathers. The title “Girl/Thing” echoes the first line about babysitting being a “girl thing” but also, at the end of the essay, a girl that is a thing: “(Y)ou don’t know anymore if you are a girl and if that noun means you are a person, place, or thing.” Not only does the word “thing” accumulate meaning from the first line to the last, but as the essay moves along, the point of view shifts from the first person “I” to the plural “us” and finally to “you,” implicating the reader. In the end, it’s the reader who “can’t do anything” about the world she inhabits, that is not until the girl grows into a woman who writes her—and our—story.
Writers from Aristotle to Poe have told us to begin in medias res, or in the middle of things. Vodicka does this by beginning the essay with the word because. This puts the reader into the situation, in the middle of things, in that car with the creepy father, creating immediate conflict. When we begin a sentence with the word because, it usually follows a question, an interrogation. But the teenaged girl, who might answer a question with only the word because doesn’t get to speak in this essay at all. The only person whose voice we hear in direct dialogue is that of the father, the Patriarchy, who says, “You’re growing up so fast.” This sole line of dialogue could seem innocuous, for it’s something we often say to children. But because the father’s hand is on the narrator’s “innocuous upper thigh,” we see how menacing this line is. The use of the adjective “innocuous” signals the reader that while the thigh and the voiceless girl may be innocuous, the man’s hand and his words transform her very body to a thing, a place of danger.
“Girl/Thing” creates meaning sentence by sentence but also makes use of sound, word by word. We hear the father is “slurry” and the sentences that follows is heavy on s sounds—slides, space, seconds, says, sitting. As the danger of the “roving hand” slides across the divide, the alliteration reminds the reader of a hissing serpent, that original scourge of innocence. In the penultimate lines, Vodicka juxtaposes her newly earned certificate in “the art of child-rearing” with the next sentence: “A certified screw.” Female as mother, as object of desire, as girl/thing.
In teaching this essay, I don’t point out the ways that craft creates meaning but ask questions that lead students there: Why does the essay begin with the word because? What does the title mean? How is the language similar in the first and last lines? What is the point of view? Where does it change and why? Who gets to speak aloud in the essay and why? What sounds do you hear when we read this aloud? What details might have been left out of this essay?
Then I ask students to look critically at their own essays, with the questions we have discussed in mind. What details in their work can be left out or condensed into one word, action, or line of dialogue?Can titles contain double meanings? Is it possible to begin their essay with the word because? Can the direct dialogue be condensed to one line that will do the work of all the dialogue?
I often tell students I can’t teach them how to write, but I can assign literature that will, if they study the architecture of the work. Anna Vodicka’s “Girl/Thing” shows students how much meaning can be made in the space of 230 words.
Suzanne Roberts is the author of the memoir in travel essays, Bad Tourist: Misadventures in Love and Travel (NATJA Bronze Medal Winner and Finalist for the Gilda Award and Foreword Reviews Best Book of the Year in Travel) and the memoir Almost Somewhere: Twenty-Eight Days on the John Muir Trail (Winner of the National Outdoor Book Award), as well as four books of poems. Her collection of lyrical essays, Animal Bodies: On Death, Desire, & Other Difficulties is forthcoming from the University of Nebraska Press in 2022. Named “The Next Great Travel Writer” by National Geographic’s Traveler, Suzanne’s work has been listed as notable in Best American Essays and included twice in The Best Women’s Travel Writing. Her work has appeared in The New York Times, CNN, Creative Nonfiction, Brevity, The Rumpus, Hippocampus, The Normal School, River Teeth, and elsewhere. She holds a doctorate in literature and the environment from the University of Nevada-Reno and teaches for the low residency MFA program in Creative Writing at Sierra Nevada University.
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