The Joy of Detail in Nonfiction

October 4, 2021 § 7 Comments

By Sonya Huber

“Detail” is a word I say so often that I maybe don’t even hear it anymore. But the benefits and the joy of chasing detail in the real world and putting it on the page never get old. Maybe it’s the way that, once you summon those details—not the eyeglasses in the dish, but the pink/mauve frames with your old prescription in the cobalt glass butter dish you found at a yard sale in Georgia—you’re summoned back to yourself. I am summoned back to myself and summoned back to the world where I live. I wonder sometimes if this trick, too, is the core of teaching writing, that once you teach someone the magic trick of making the world shine, making the everyday talk back, the person might never forget that feeling.

In this act—stop time and linger not on forward motion but on color, shape, shadow, substance, material, weight, origin, impression—there is the secret to living forever, temporarily, the secret to time travel. And, too, there is the subtle compassion for one’s self that I find so difficult to call on at the edge of the present moment. In looking to the past, handling these objects, choosing them, wondering what I stored in the butter dish that left a mysterious rust stains etched in the glass, I remember a self with a different kind of broken heart. The details bring my past and present selves together, and the doubling adds dimension, then makes the present richer for its shadow.

I’ve wanted to write an account of a day, morning to night, for years, spurred on first by the beautiful stream of consciousness in Virginia Woolf’s The Waves and Mrs. Dalloway. When Ander Monson began his lovely project, “What Happened,” he offered everyone a day, pre-chosen. Writers who signed on had to make an essay, or an entry, about that very day and whatever it brought us. It was amazing, a nonfiction kind of Christmas: we were living an essay together in real time! (You can read collections of these on the “Essay Daily” website.) After I participated in that, I wanted to see if maybe I could do a bigger one. And then eventually that want came to fruition in my new book, Supremely Tiny Acts: A Memoir of a Day.

It’s about getting arrested at a climate protest in 2019, and the day itself is the day I go to court for that. So I kind of cheat because there’s dramatic action, but the substance of it is in my boring thoughts ordering tacos in Grand Central Station, in my awkwardness and the crap that’s in the bottom of my shoulder bag. In sifting through the mundane material.

I read somewhere, or heard, that faith is an underlying confidence that there’s an order to things. Not that the order is good, or that it’s protective, but simply that there’s a pattern that might mean something unseen. I think I like chasing the details in nonfiction because I glimpse, just out of the corner of my eye, mutely and partially, a wink of light in pursuing those details in order to intuit the pattern of myself and the mark I make in the large cobalt butter dish of the world.
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Sonya Huber is the author of the award-winning essay collection on chronic pain, Pain Woman Takes Your Keys and Other Essays from a Nervous System. Her other books include Opa Nobody and Cover Me: A Health Insurance MemoirHer work has appeared in the New York Times, Brevity, Creative Nonfiction, and other outlets. She teaches at Fairfield University.

Developing a Time of Writing Voice in Memoir

February 5, 2020 § 5 Comments

schallerBy Jennifer Jordán Schaller

Even though self-compassion is not my strongest trait, I was able to figure out how to characterize myself in my memoir manuscript after reflecting on my writing using a few steps. My manuscript explores the effect of trauma on the ability of the protagonist, that’s me, to parent as an adult. My old dissertation director, Greg Martin, calls this the “time-of-writing” voice, the voice that struggles to make sense of the past. In one scene, I explore domestic violence from the point of view of an abuser.

By the way, I was the abuser.

Sibling abuse in my home occurred when I was given power I did not deserve. When I was nine years old, I *babysat* my brother. Here’s a sample scene:

My mom was a single mother who left for work each weekday morning while my brother and I finished our breakfast. As the oldest child, my mother told me it was my job to get us to school in the morning – me, a third grader; my brother, a first grader. I should not have been left in charge; I had no knowledge of child development. As a daughter, I was obedient because rules made sense, but as a leader, I was a dictator.

Mornings in our apartment followed the same pattern. Every morning we had to be to school by nine, and it took at least ten minutes to get to school. The trouble was, my brother never wanted to turn off his favorite show, Transformers, until it was over. The show ended at 8:56 a.m., which meant every day we were late to school.

Every morning, I would slink into Mrs. Ortega’s third grade class while kids recited the pledge of allegiance. I tried to disguise my tardiness by ducking behind my peers, who were busy holding their right hands over their hearts, but each morning, my teacher marked me tardy, made me stay inside for recess, and told me she would have to call my mom if I didn’t start coming to school on time.

While this cycle of truancy repeated itself, every morning before school, I tried, in what I believed was a valiant attempt, to get my brother and me to school on time. While my brother rooted for Optimus Prime, I would begin my supervisory duties with a pronouncement: “It’s time to go to school.” If he ignored me, I would shift into yelling: “It’s time to go to school!”  And when he did not listen again, I would clobber him.

I remember jumping on top of him and battering him using right and left hooks in quick, back-and-forth motions. I struck him in the gut, gut, gut, in his legs, legs, legs, wherever I could land a punch. I didn’t realize the tenuous nature of existence, how an abdominal organ could rupture. I was more concerned with short term consequences like getting in trouble. My critical thinking skills were not in full bloom. As an adult, my brother’s defiance makes sense to me: Why turn off the TV before the Autobots crushed the Decepticons?

I didn’t like being a bully. I felt ashamed and guilty. I knew violence contradicted the responsibilities I had of keeping my brother safe. And I felt terrible for beating him. I didn’t confess the morning beatings to my priest, where I gave my first confession during that third-grade year. I didn’t tell anyone. My brother didn’t tell anyone either, not even our mother.

*

Through writing and revising this scene, I could more accurately render my younger self. Here are some steps I took:

  1. Step One: I read my work as an objective outsider

I had to believe my point of view was worthy of understanding. I started by thinking of nine-year-old me as a character separate from who I am now. I would have sympathized with any other child in the same situation, so I applied that same sympathy to myself. Once I could entertain that the character was worthy of a rounded characterization, I was able to see that this was a precarious situation, and I was given far too much responsibility as a child.

  1. Step Two: I was fair to my persona

In the same way that I strive to be fair to all my characters, I had to be fair to my creative nonfiction protagonist. I had to consider all the reasons why my character abused her power and I explored them in the scene. Once I looked objectively at the material of my life as an outsider, I could honor the journey of that confused little girl. Pretending I was objective eventually turned into real compassion.

  1. Step Three: I cut out reflection that did not drive the narrative forward

This brings me to my last point, a part of me worried when writing this scene that if I did not address the topic of domestic violence, I was somehow condoning or justifying my behavior. As an adult, I strongly disagree with corporal punishment, and initially I wrote several paragraphs about this. I needed to write them, but I didn’t need to publish them in this story because they had no momentum.

I used my time-of-writing voice to illustrate compassion for the character of my child-self, who was growing and learning, just as I would any child who makes a mistake. I strove to show that I was aware of the injustice of hitting one’s brother, without having to apologize for it on the page, even though I have apologized both to myself and my brother for the way that I was. For me, the trick to developing a time-of-writing voice in memoir includes looking back and characterizing my protagonist with wisdom, not guilt, and directing my focus toward an audience larger than my family of origin.
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Jennifer Jordán Schaller is a writer and teacher from New Mexico. Her work has appeared in Creative Nonfiction; NPR’s This American LifeSonora ReviewBrain, ChildNew Mexico English JournalAscent (this essay was nominated for a Pushcart Prize); and others. See more of her work at jenniferjordanschaller.com.

A Review of Leslie Jamison’s The Empathy Exams: Essays

August 24, 2015 § 5 Comments

By e.v. de cleyre

empThe only seat left on the bus was half-occupied by a guy who was man-spreading. One thin thigh spilled over two seats, and I squeezed myself onto the last bit of real estate, cursing him.

He said, “Watch out” and pointed to his elbow, where the skin was scraped to expose red road rash. He sat stiff, uncomfortable, trying not to touch me or the seat.

I mumbled, “No worries,” and opened the book I brought for the evening commute, Leslie Jamison’s The Empathy Exams: Essays.

“Empathy isn’t just something that happens to us—a meteor shower of synapses firing across the brain—it’s also a choice we make; to pay attention, to extend ourselves.”

My seatmate cringed each time the bus swerved or bounced over potholes. It seemed I had a choice: engage this human being, pay attention, extend myself, empathize, or stick to reading about and intellectualizing empathy.

“Did you fall off a bike or something?” I asked.

He explained, the bicycle shop where he worked faced the train tracks, and when he left, his tires snagged on iron and steel. He pointed to where it hurt: left elbow, bandaged right hand, knees.            

All I could say was, “That sucks.” Two hundred pages of essays on empathy, pain, sentimentality, human suffering, and all I could conjure were two measly words.

The bus stopped. People left. “I’ll give you space,” I said, and switched seats.

To expect The Empathy Exams to equip me with a deeper sense of humanity is to expect a lot from a book—maybe too much. Still, I found myself staring at the words but not understanding them—instead, wracking my brain for something of solace to offer this man. The Empathy Exams is not a practical guide on how to live an empathetic life, but an intellectual exploration of the subject from a range of angles. My wanting to act with compassion and empathy was a byproduct of excellent writing.

The book, I thought. I could give him the book. But is that what he wanted? To read about pain while he was in pain? And would it only increase his suffering to subject him to my marginalia, my underlined passages? I’m not sure solace would be the result of reading a piece about a conference for a phantom disease or a mugging in Nicaragua—two of a rich tapestry of essays that blend research, reporting, and personal experience. The best books are the ones that alter your habitual patterns—that break you out of your routine (in my case, my evening commute), cause you to question how you participate in the world, and urge you to take action. Was what I defined as an empathetic gesture the kind of sentimental or saccharine (or worse, romantic) thing Jamison writes about? “When we hear saccharine, we think of language that has shamed us, netted our hearts in trite articulations: words repeated too many times for cheap effect, recycled ad nauseam.”

What get-well-soon-sentiments could I write that wouldn’t be cheapened by overuse? I scribbled be well on the inside of the cover. The bus reached my stop—his stop too, and he hobbled off the bus in front of me, onto the sidewalk.

“Hey,” I said.

He turned.

“Here,” I said, and shoved the paperback into his hands. He took it. I turned and walked away, feeling not proud but quite trite. I allowed myself to look back only once. He limped up the street with the book in his right hand.

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e.v. de cleyre is a semi-nomadic writer, currently residing in the Pacific Northwest. She holds an MFA in nonfiction from New Hampshire Institute of Art, and her essays and reviews have appeared in Ploughshares online, The Review Review, and ayris.

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