The Seven Powers of Laurie Lynn Drummond’s ‘Alive’
August 18, 2021 § 6 Comments
By Samuel Autman
I don’t know if my obsession with Laurie Lynn Drummond’s flash essay “Alive,” reflects a fascination with serial killers, or if I feel attached to it because it was published in 2003, the year I began teaching college, shortly after leaving daily journalism. No matter the reason, I can’t go for a semester without teaching this creative writing catnip.
With unforgettable grit, vulnerability and powerful detail, Drummond’s piece never fails to dazzle the students in my classrooms. This scorching little essay demonstrates how to blend personal history, location and reflection in less than 700 words.
Over the years I’ve narrowed Drummond’s work down to seven powers.
An Irresistible Opening
Like the first five minutes of Law & Order: SVU, an effective opening must hook the audience. Americans are obsessed with serial killers. In the first paragraph we learn of a serial killer at work, with a trail of “three murdered women,” “four attempted abductions,” and been off “with a machete.” In Baton Rouge he’s created “a line of women snaked out of the police supply store” buying pepper spray.
Then I ask the class to imagine what kind of an atmosphere would there be if a serial killer was active on our town or campus? Location matters. While people expect larger cities like New York or Chicago to be scary, Baton Rouge doesn’t seem like a place to expect such violent crime.
Relevant Personal Detail
That the serial killer is targeting women makes the narrator’s gender significant. She’s also a former Baton Rouge police officer who knows firsthand “what one human being can do to another.” She has “seen crime scene pictures of the serial killer’s first victim,” details withheld from the press.” As the narrator, Drummond is uniquely positioned to tell this story.
Because the piece is gendered I always ask for a show of hands “How many people in class have ever felt someone was following them?” Without fail most young women raise their hands. In recent years young men are doing so, too, underscoring a collective sense of danger.
People in law enforcement are trained to scan their surroundings and people. One day while picking up a newspaper at a newsstand, Drummond catches a man eyeballing her. He’s a “A nice-looking man–bald, early thirties, dark shirt–in a green Chevy Blazer is backing out of the space across from mine.” This is just enough detail to paint an image in the reader’s mind. The essay was enhanced by an accompanying police sketch.
Unpacking Moments of Transformation
Up until this moment Drummond’s life was going along fine. This stranger is an interruption. “His car stops, and I feel his gaze as I retrieve my wallet, open the car door. Our eyes meet, and he smiles. I keep my face blank and walk briskly into the store.” She recreates this moment skillfully by using bodily details, hers and his.
Drummond pulls the reader into her trembling hands, dry mouth and constricting throat, sensations we all fear in moments of terror. She’s simultaneously writing from her body and pulling us into her head. In the same brief paragraphs she describes the way he moves.
When she leaves the newsstand she’s convinced he’s following her vehicle. During that time we are hearing her inner thoughts. What’s so masterful is there’s no proof that this is the serial killer.
And then his car pulls off onto the freeway. She’s free
While the eyes of the reader’s mind are led to wonder if she has interacted with the Baton Rouge serial killer, most people don’t realize Drummond’s piece has not one word of dialogue.
Drummond voices her thoughts as they unfold creating a heightened tension revealing her inner world. It’s an exquisite dance between the inner and outer worlds. Had it all been her describing the outer world, it could have been void of her emotions. Had it been only inner musing it could have become disembodied text that didn’t connect with anyone else. Because they are seamlessly married, dialogue is not needed.
The Cloud of Unknowing
For the rest of the essay Drummond marinates, ruminates and reflects on the vulnerability that hangs in the Baton Rouge air, hers and the collective. She never tells us if the guy she saw at the newsstand was the serial killer.
Here are the big questions. Does Drummond even know if the guy she has seen is the serial killer at work? Did anything happen other than she saw a guy who smiled at her and followed her a few blocks? Are we convinced he’s the serial killer? Does it even matter? These questions feed a spirited debate for a few minutes. Then an insightful person will say something like, “It’s not about whether or not he was the serial killer. It’s about the writer making us feel the fear she felt.”
Because I came from daily newspapers I was accustomed to writing for a limited space. That’s the beauty of Brevity’s 750-word limit. Students are forced to think like journalists but be more literary. The challenge of any ending is to close the essay in a way that allows the curtain to fall without moralizing or being preachy.
Drummond’s parting epiphany: “And that’s when I finally get, really get, what I have always known. Alertness, tolerance, compassion, suspicion: none of it matters. I am vulnerable simply because I’m alive,” often leaves the class divided. Some argue ending on “ I am vulnerable simply because I’m alive” is a cop out. Others note the universality of aliveness in the human experience. Despite all of our differences, isn’t everybody in the classroom alive?
If someone doesn’t say it, I point out that the essay’s last word happens to be the essay’s title, and manages to do so without being sappy.
Samuel Autman teaches creative writing at DePauw University. His essays have appeared in The Chalk Circle, The Kept Secret, The St. Louis Anthology, Sweeter Voices Still, Ninth Letter, The Common Reader, Under the Gum Tree, The Little Patuxent Review, Bonfires, Panorama: The Journal of Intelligent Travel, Memoir Magazine and Brevity.