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.

Why Are Sharks Mean? (On Writing the Kid-Mind)

December 5, 2010 § Leave a comment

From guest blogger David Wanczyk, essayist and Ohio University Director of Special Programs:

“Why are sharks mean?” was the question that propelled “The Way Grown-Ups Talk: Adult Narrators, Childhood Stories,” a panel presentation at The NonfictioNow Conference early last month.  The question had been originally asked by the writer Ryan Van Meter’s young nephew, and Van Meter used it to remind us that children aren’t simple (or simple-minded).  Kids, he insisted, are brilliant in an idiosyncratic, unexpected way.  And sharks, he insisted, are, by most measures, mean!

This panel—which also included Michele Morano, Sarah Dohrmann, Elmar Lueth, and John T. Price—brought to mind discussions I’d been having with my own students in our class, “Writing the Family.”  Together, we were reading Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home, Sonja Livingston’s Ghostbread, and Frank McCourt’s Angela’s Ashes, memoirs which, to differing degrees, seek to emulate the thought-processes of children.

Bechdel repeatedly contrasts her adult-voice and her childhood voice to show us how she slowly came to the knowledge of her father’s and her own homosexuality.  Livingston uses short sentences and short chapters to replicate the feeling of dislocation she had during a childhood in which she moved constantly.  But it’s McCourt who seemed most instructive to my students.

In his ubiquitous (but still excellent) tale of growing up poor on both sides of the Atlantic, he rarely if ever strays from the voice of the growing Frankie.  And while Thomas Larson has rightly suggested that “Angela’s Ashes is a triumph of artifice [. . .] that holds back the willfulness and complexity of the adult’s voice,” it’s still useful for emerging writers to look at the specific techniques McCourt uses to construct that child’s voice.

I will list a few of his techniques below with examples from McCourt in the hope that others will add examples from other texts.  Let’s be precise when we talk about the various ways writers recreate the brilliant idiosyncracies of the childhood mind.  And let’s not forget the meanness of sharks.

How the kid-mind gets written :

1.   Kids speak in mostly basic words, but use language they’ve learned from stories and from adults.  The contrast can be hilariously apparent.

“We can’t have tea because the milk is sour in the icebox where the ice is melted again and everyone knows you can’t drink tea without milk unless your father gives it to you out of his mug while he’s telling you about Cuchulain.”

2.   Kids repeat and ramble, especially when overwhelmed.  To emulate this, writers use anaphora (repeated words at the beginning of sentences) and polysyndeton (repeated conjunctions where they’re not necessarily needed).  I think this kind of repetition is often used as a shortcut.  The syntax blasts us with the idea: I was traumatized and can only relate that trauma in breathless bursts.  But that’s a different post.

“My face was wet from his tears and his spit and his snot and I was hungry and I didn’t know what to say when he cried all over my head.”

3.   Kids often misunderstand figures of speech and think very literally.

“[She said] Angela’s mother was spotless, so clean you could eat her dinner of her floor.  I wonder why you’d want to eat your dinner off the floor when you had a table and chair.”

4.   Kids over-generalize in amusing ways.  Here, Frankie McCourt believes that his injured Uncle’s strange behavior represents a universal truth.

“People who were dropped on their heads always worry someone will steal their stout.”

5.   Kids are rarely sentimental.  McCourt often has his childhood self relate the saddest events in the most matter-of-fact ways.  [note numbers 2 and 4 at play in this example as well].

“They put Oliver in a white box that came with us in the carriage and we took him to the graveyard.  They put the white box into a hole in the ground and covered it with earth.  My mother and Aunt Aggie cried, Grandma looked angry, Dad, Uncle Pa Keating, and Uncle Pat Sheehan looked sad but did not cry and I thought that if you’re a man you can cry only when you have the black stuff that is called the pint”

This is just a start.  Some of these may be obvious.  But my attempt this semester was to move beyond the comment, “He sounds like a kid here” and ask what—in the diction, syntax, and rhetoric—created that response.  To isolate and then emulate.

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