October 2, 2017 § 5 Comments
By Heidi Czerwiec
Nicole Walker is a writer whose first book of poetry This Noisy Egg was followed by a book of lyric nonfiction, Quench Your Thirst With Salt, and a co-edited collection Bending Genre: Essays on Nonfiction. It is because of this thoughtful genre-bending she embraces that I enjoy teaching her work in multi-genre introductory creative writing workshops, in essay-writing courses, and, most recently, in a hybrid forms workshop. In particular, I have great success with her short piece “Fish,” the opening essay in Quench, and a Brevity essay as well, which never fails to provoke heated discussions and compelling imitations.
“Fish” is a nonfiction piece that complicates students’ ideas of what an essay is and how it should behave. A triptych, each part is only ¾–1 page long. The first part resembles nature or environmental writing and describes, in a zoomed-in empathetic third-person point of view, a salmon fighting to climb a man-made fish ladder: “The fish jumped a ladder built of electricity and concrete. Swimming up the Columbia teachers her a lesson about progress.” The second section, written in first person (but with an awareness that shifts between a child’s and an adult’s perspective), is a vivid memory of deep-sea fishing with her father and his friends, and struggling to reel in a huge barracuda: “I am eleven years old and holding onto a fishing pole, trolling for big fish in the deep water off Florida’s coast. I must have been beautiful then.” The third part, written in second person, reads like food writing – in this case, how to prepare fish: “Cooking filets of fish is not complicated…. It’s the sauce that’s difficult.”
“Fish” represents three different kinds of nonfiction writing – nature documentary, memoir, and food writing – with which students are already familiar. But how do they work (or not work) together as a triptych of styles seemingly linked only by topic? Each section presents only a brief, image-based moment addressing some aspect of fish – only the recipe-like third section offers us much closure, and none gives that satisfying moral or meaning that students long for. Their reaction to “Fish” is complicated further by unexpected lyric elements: “This isn’t an essay; it’s a poem,” they complain. While each section has its distinct voice, images and words echo across the essay: the straining of the salmon upstream becomes the straining of the young girl and barracuda against each other, and returns as directions for making a sauce: “Strain through a chinois. Strain through cheese cloth. Strain one more time for good measure.” Words like “circling,” “hold,” and “flesh” recur, accruing meaning. And Walker breaks her prose into short paragraphs sometimes only a line long, which visually resembles poetry and affects the pacing of how we read her essay. How can all of these elements co-exist in the same piece of writing?
As all of you are well aware, the verb “essay” or “assay” means to attempt. Walker’s “Fish” makes explicit the many approaches we may take to our topics. What is interesting is the way she tries to do several at once – create three distinct styles and voices and points of view, and yet tie them together not only through topic, but more subtly through recurrent words and images. As a result, “Fish” offers much for discussion about the choices she’s made and the effects they have on readers, both in the individual sections and across the whole piece.
After discussing “Fish,” I like to lead students through a guided free-write imitation: I have them start by writing about a vivid memory involving a single-ingredient food item – an animal, a fruit or vegetable, a spice, etc. Then, I have them try to write a brief scene from the sensory perspective of that food item. Finally, they write directions for their favorite recipe for that item. For their assignment, they can develop these sections, but I encourage them to explore other ways of considering that food item (its history, its cultural associations, etc.), so long as they end up with at least a three-part essay. As they refine their piece, they should also experiment with creating distinct voices, styles, and points of view for each section, as well as finding ways to tie the sections together via language, imagery, or other elements. This piece often is one of the strongest my students produce, and encourages them to play with a number of writing techniques in a short piece.
reprinted with permission, previously published in Assay
Heidi Czerwiec is a poet and essayist and serves as Poetry Editor at North Dakota Quarterly. She is the author of Sweet/Crude: A Bakken Boom Cycle, the forthcoming collection Conjoining, and the editor of North Dakota Is Everywhere: An Anthology of Contemporary North Dakota Poets. She lives in Minneapolis, where she works with various literary organizations, including Motionpoems, ROAR: Literature and Revolution from Feminist People, and the Minnesota Prison Writing Workshop.