Thursday, October 29, 2009

Creative Nonfiction and the Not-for-College Essay

On Tuesday and Wednesday we read, took notes on, and discussed excerpts from Phillip Lopate's essay "Are We Living Through a Resurgence of the Essay?" We were especially keen to find answers to his question: "How can you tell a first-rate essay?"

To answer the question we looked at Lopate's own words but now we'll cast our net farther into the sea of personal essay writing. So let's go over to Brevity: a Journal of Concise Creative Nonfiction. By class time on Monday (1:16 pm) read and respond to one piece that you find there. (I've read and enjoyed most of the essays in the Fall 2009 issue.)

Your response should focus on interpreting how the author's use of literary techniques (language choices) contributes to meaning and effect.

How does the way it is written affect what it means? How does the way it is written affect the reader? How is the author using language in a way that will provoke you to think and feel certain things?

After analyzing how the piece works you might also evaluate if it has done what it sets out to do well and if what it sets out to do is worth doing.


Megan Keegan said...

“Sketch” is a piece that talks about how people around you see you. Rigoberto Gonzalez paints a very interesting picture about a coffee house in New York City. The first sentence in the narrative immediately captured my attention because of the way he throws you right into his story, making you feel as though you’re sitting in a coffee shop with him. Gonzalez proceeds to give an unflattering description of a man sketching in the shop. From the way that this character is introduced, the reader instantly gets a vibe that the man is making Gonzalez feel very uncomfortable. The best line in the narrative is “And then I get the “feeling”.” Even before I read the next line, I knew exactly how he felt and was excited to read on to see what the sketcher was doing. The sketcher had used Gonzalez as a model for his next piece. This made him feel uncomfortable and nervous, so he left the shop hoping to never see the man again. I relate very much to this piece because often times when walking by an artist on the street I wonder who the models for their pieces are. This narrative made it a bad thing to be used as a model. The imagery that was used to describe the painting of him was very vivid. He said, “I hardly recognize myself, looking so forlorn as if I were the forgotten mug, its smell of coffee going faint, its ceramic body growing cold, its handle longing for the act of touch.” The choice of words, to me, was perfect. I can relate very much to this piece and find it very interesting how the simplest word choices made by Gonzalez really made this piece come alive.

Anonymous said...

“Incase of Emergency” By: Rebecca Frost

The language in this piece of non-fiction brings the reader to feel the heartache and confusion that the girl is feeling. Words such as "numb", "creator", and "haunts" are all thought provoking words. This piece is full of raw emotion, that shows the innocence of the hammer, a tool used to escape a physical boundary, verses what it is actually used for - to escape broken dreams, and numbness. "Except she isn't the destroying type. She creates" provokes the reader to feel sorrow for her. I believe that this piece set out to bring out the emotion that the girl is feeling, to show a loss of innocence, by using the hammer her grandfather gave her to escape something like a fire, rather than to escape a ex-fiancé, and a feeling of rejection. It does a good job of doing this by it's detailed word choice, and way of letting to know more about the girl through her past, and her weekend away with her best friend.

Andrew Ryan said...

Based on the piece Swerve by Brenda Miller it appears that a woman is involved in an abusive relationship and not strong enough to break away. It also appears that the couple is fleeing from the cops based on the fact that they are driving through the desert at night and for being in possession of marijuana and having a broken brake light. By mentioning the boyfriends’ marijuana in the trunk of the beat-up car, the couple appears poor and perhaps drug-dealers. The author repeats the phrase “I’m sorry” throughout the piece which puts the reader on edge and makes them feels unsafe. The boyfriend’s outburst at the author further builds the tension of the piece. The outburst also makes the reader find sympathy with the author but also feels nervous for her. By the author saying “…we traveled for miles into our future…I didn’t get out of the way” it reveals that the author has accepted the fact that she will spend the rest of her apologizing and feeling miserable. Even though she is apologizing to her boyfriend, the author is aware that she is not at fault. The author blames the boyfriend for the broken brake light and the marijuana which reveals that the author is not completely subservient. It appears that the author does not want conflict and so she chooses to apologize to suppress it. The author lets the boyfriend feel as if he has control in the relationship to prevent future clashes. The piece accomplishes its goal of making the reader feel trapped and on-edge. Brenda Miller builds the tension and reveals the authors hopelessness yet reconciliation to her situation. This piece of writing is important because it shows what can happen if a person does not stand up for oneself. The author prevents conflicts with her boyfriend by apologizing but this does not stop the boyfriend from being rude and obnoxious toward her. This lets the boyfriend maintain control over her. The message from this piece is to stand up for yourself and to not let yourself be taken advantage of.

Brianna A said...

In "Twan’t Much", Lee Martin walks you right into his imagery. With his short paragraph organization of writing we read to understand his complete thoughts and then quickly move on to the next one. It seems in this piece, the shorter the paragraph the more dramatic the meaning is supposed to hit. His direct personal language compliments the ideas in the passage; such as Martin quoting his father, “as much as a pot to piss in” or “He was a poor man with no prospects”. This language was effectively used to make us feel the empathy that Martin felt. In the sentence, “I had no idea that my gift would call attention to the fact that Jack’s life would more than likely always be exactly what it was at that moment” Martin again makes us see his empathy and Jack’s struggle in life. Also, Martin’s use of specific references outlines a clear image to picture. Using dates like 1976 and then backing up with an explanation of inflation and interest rates helped me as the reader place myself into the situation at hand; and again when Martin discusses the play he uses specific evidence of the play which may not seem to relevant, such as the date of the little girl’s birthday, but still adds to the specific image that Martin wants to place us in. When Martin uses the Christmas Party drunk story, I see how hard it is for Jack, his wife but most importantly for Martin when he knows he can not say anything to the poor man. This story parallels the play’s rescue that Martin’s character the constable acts in. Martin uses listing adjectives to try to describe exactly how he wants it: “I want just the right balance of humility and pride and unease.” This brings us down Martin’s thought process and sets us up for the dramatic execution of the line, “Twan’t Much”. After this delivery Martin sticks with the dramatic exit of only a few lines, to leave us thinking of what they should mean to the story as a whole. Leaving is easy, but delivering something meaningful and honorable to whatever you are representing is the hard part. Martin wanted to deliver for the constable and for Jack, rather than to feel Jack’s embarrassment and shame again.

Sabrina said...

Swerve by Brenda Miller starts off by talking about an illegal action, and how someone is getting really angry. The narrator gives us a glimpse of what she is going through and the way she acts to someone. She is driving a car, and realizing something about herself. The way that it is written affects its meaning a lot; the words come right from the author, allowing the reader to pick up the author’s feelings. The narrator’s use of imagery creates an illustration of the situation she is in, which is detailed enough for the reader to put themselves in the scene. The author’s language shows a lack of self confidence in herself. They way she always apologizes gives the reader insight on her character; it shows that the author is a pushover. The character that the narrator talks about seems scary and mean by the way she mentions how his “face so twisted now, and ugly,” when she talks about him yelling at her. The last line was the strongest. “I’d say sorry for being in the bathroom, and sorry for crying, and sorry for laughing, I would apologize, finally, for simply being alive, and even now I’m sorry I didn’t swerve, I didn’t get out of the way.” It brings out everything the narrator is making a point of in the beginning for just not swerving. It makes the piece reach the level it “set out” to reach. Swerve is very short, (a brevity piece), but it has concrete information that makes the story whole. The piece is one that many people can relate to. It is easy to catch yourself saying sorry about things that you could not have controlled even if you tried. Swerve makes a strong example of a typical relationship struggle (minus the illegal business!!)

Anonymous said...

Terri M.

The short narrative called Swerve, by Brenda Miller captures how a person who is stuck in a destructive relationship feels.

The narrator talks about apologizing at least ten times through out it. The amount of times the narrator says they sorry for shows the relationship is an unhealthy one. The narrator is trapped doing things for their partner for one reason or another; the story does not get deep into those specifics. Currently he or she is driving in the desert with drugs in the car, this potentially could get the couple in trouble with the police, yet the narrator does it anyway.
The imagery displayed about the face of the oppressive partner gave me a chill because I can picture someone’s face darkening and turning away. The imagery about the abusive partner is straight to the point, this way the emotions tied to the actions are clear. When the narrator tries to confront his/her partner they “explode”, and act in a self-righteous fashion. You can comprehend so much about the partner who is abusive because the narrator has such low self-esteem.
Being in first person adds a lot to this brevity piece because the reader feels like they are inside the head of the narrator. The reader hopes that the narrator will break free of the relationship because they have no backbone as it is; the only problem is we can tell she has fallen into a pattern that will be difficult to shake.

Katina T said...

In the piece by Brenda Miller, called “Swerve”, Miller’s main use of literary technique is repetition. As the character is driving a car with a pound of marijuana in it and a brake light flickering on and off, the tone is already set that she is anxious about being caught by the police. As she hits a log in the road, the other character (I’m going to make the inference that he is her significant other) explodes on her about being careless. He claims that he’s always the one to fix things when they break. She says, “I’m sorry” repeatedly to him as they keep driving. As the story goes on, I realized that the woman should be the last one of that relationship to be apologizing. That was the exact thought the author wants her readers to think. The character’s repetition of saying “I’m sorry” is the opposite of what she should be doing. The author wants you to be thinking, “Why? Stop saying sorry, and stand up for yourself.” She knows that the man she is with has problems. She voices this to us when she explains he has been too drunk, tired, or depressed to drive that night she hit the log. But she hasn’t stuck up for herself as far as I’ve read, and she keeps on apologizing for the silliest things, like the music being on too loud…or too low, until she becomes sorry for even being alive. Because of the way the story is written, it instantly made the reader feel the emotions of annoyance, anger, and slight sympathy for the woman because she clearly is in a state of helplessness. The author has done a decent job of using this literary technique to provoke a feeling of hopelessness among the character and anger and irritation among the readers (I know those are the emotions I felt when reading it.) The repeated apologies has made the readers realize to stand up for themselves whenever put in a situation like this story, or else it will grow into a problem as big as apologizing for even being alive. It is definitely something worth writing about. There are plenty of people who are in the same situation as the women in this story. Perhaps after reading this, they will stand up for themselves before their problems escalate.

nFrye said...

The author of "Twan't Much", Lee Martin, conveyed his ideas within a very short essay in such a powerful way that I honestly was close to tears. The story was touching because Martin was able to make the reader feel as he had when the cookies were given to Jack, or when he found the chocolates. The chocolate part really touched me because, prior to that moment, Martin had established so well the fact that Jack was poor. That Jack had gone beyond his means for him was so heartbreaking. Another situation where the reader is made to feel as the narrator did is when Jack gets incredibly drunk. It is possible to feel the shame that the author felt as well as the shame of Jack's wife. By use of less formal language, the author is able to relate his own thoughts to how a reader thinks. Sometimes, while reading things, I almost have to translate from the formal writing to how I think. I believe that Martin was able to capture my "translation" so that I could think of things in the manner that he did. Overall, I found the author's style very successful. It is what my goal as a writer is: to convey a message in a powerful way, using my own language.

Meredith S said...

The author of the essay “This is Not to Say” begins with lines from a poem. The rest of the essay reflects on what the poem means- what it is “supposed to be” about. She uses colorful imagery to describe situations that the poem brings to mind for her. Most of the things she describes are brief clips of events and people from her memory, but there are also some that seem to be based off of careful observations. There is so much imagery used in this essay that it is impossible not to be able to imagine every situation the author presents. At the same time, she does not overwhelm the reader with unimportant details. Every detail makes a significant contribution to the images presented. The way it is written reveals the author’s remarkable ability to make ordinary moments seem precious and rare. Her writing makes the reader feel nostalgic for her memories that she describes, even though the reader does not know her. This effect is incredibly strong and it would certainly not be so if her writing did not flow from image to image as it does in an almost dream-like fashion. The idea behind this essay is the author’s personal interpretation of the lines of poetry she introduces at the beginning. She definitely does well with presenting her interpretations, while still allowing the reader to make their own connections.

B Shay said...

Brendan Shay

The Potato Harvest

There’s a lot of emphasis on the plant’s, season’s, and nature. The author is trying to convey the hard work of harvesting the yearly potatoes, and how the environment is sending out an urgency to get the job done. The story put’s you in the shoes of a family who’s survival is in either their hand’s, or natures. It all depends on how fast they can harvest their crops before the winter’s frost comes again to take what is rightfully theirs. Yet despite all this negativity coming from nature, the family does not show any signs of hatred towards it. The mother describes vividly her surroundings as she is walking to the harvest, as well as how eager her child is to get out and exploring the world. The work now seems as a kind of experience, or pleasure rather than labor. I feel that the passage is trying to tell us reader’s that nature is cruel and powerful, yet should be appreciated by everyone. You should pay respect to the way thing’s are now, because they will not be that way forever. This is because the story starts out with the urgency of getting the potatoes dug up before nature kills them, yet end’s with the family resting a moment appreciating something that they didn’t notice before (the geese). So overall this little essay was good, but it wouldn’t be the same if it wasn’t for all the vivid imagery. That’s what really got you feeling like you were on the ground digging up the potatoes.

fenkor said...

H. Ono

Somebody Else's Genocide

The Germans are the people we think of whenever we say the word Genocide. BUt, we never really think about what the U.S. has done to the Indians and no one reminds us. Since we have won wars and became the allies of nations who could really call attention to this. Most of those countries also have or had problems with their natives too.

The writer also mentions a "black woman" and a "white woman" who both gasped when they heard the German woman call the problems with the Native Americans Genocide. The African AMerican woman came from a history of discrimination and a possible genocide while the White Anglo Saxon woman who came from the opposing side. These people bring up more questions on the term genocide. Also, an Aryan woman passing judgment on a genocide makes people wonder if some people really realize what genocide is. She evensays that the mass killing of the Jewish people as just a "blip" or nothing important.

There is also the important fact that some homes even share a wall with the death camp, Dachau. Living right next to a death camp would mean that the house was built before the genocide. The fact that you could live next to the death camp brings up questions of just how much people will be able to stand. A genocide would even become "normal" or an everyday occurance to those people.

This piece has brought up many important thoughts within a short period of time. It really brings up the idea that genocide could happen anywhere and people could become used to it. Even now in many parts of Africa genocide is still occuring and it is important for people to know about genocide and realize that it isn't just a problem of the past.

amycarpenter57 said...


Ron Arias uses very basic but effective literary techniques in this piece about interviewing Daniel Ortega. He uses basic, uncomplicated languages but still manages to paint a very detailed picture of his short time with the Nicaraguan leader. I don’t know what the name for the technique is, but Arias keeps bringing up the fact that there might be poisonous snakes off the beaten path of where he and Ortega are running which he delightfully subverts at the end of the story as Ortega poses for a photo in the ruff off on the side of the path despite his earlier warnings.

Nick B said...

Swerve, by Brenda Miller, is a short story most likely documenting a mistreated and probably abused woman and her angry husband. Miller slowly unfolds the environment as you read. At first it seems like a couple friends smuggling drugs, but as you go along you start to realize the more likely circumstances. She still leaves it with some uncertainty, however, to add to the unsettling feeling of the whole piece. The way that she makes it an ever-unfolding story makes the reader go back and re-read everything several times as you get a better picture of what it’s all about. Normally stories of controlling husbands who use their wives as scapegoats are written from the wife’s perspective, but she’s only submissive on the surface. Underneath they’re unhappy, hate their life, and resent their husband. In Swerve, however, the wife is just sorry; sorry for his mistakes, her mistakes, life’s mistakes, the world’s mistakes. She shows no thread of resentment at all. This digression from the norm causes the reader to feel a greater sense of resentment to compensate. I found by the end that I was much angrier at the husband than if I had read a generic story along the same lines. That was Miller’s aim, to give her own unique twist to a common story and see what effect the change would have on the reader. It did have a change, and definitely one that supports the purpose of the story, to spark thought and hopefully anger about and towards abusive and controlling husbands.

Molly A said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Molly A said...

The piece, In Case of Emergency by Rebecca Frost, illustrates a lonely individual’s struggle to leave an important, yet extremely unwanted part of her past behind. Through this struggle, she discovers an array of sadness and anger, as well as a lack of feeling, a numbness that the loss of her fiancée has left in its wake. During this time of self-discovery, she is mentally revisited by her grandfather’s presence, through a gift and an accompanying lesson that he had passed on to her many years before
The narrator often refers back to the initials, the one symbolic thing that continues to bind the subject to her ex- fiancé. The fact that these initials remain, illustrates the remainder of importance that the lost relationship has in her life. The initials are there as a constant, lasting through the course of the relationship as well as its demise, where it then only serves as a weight on her shoulders. The vivid descriptions of her numbness further illustrate the extents to which the narrator will go, to end all existing reminders. The pain, or lack there of, that she feels, displays the narrator’s motivation. “She doesn’t know how to destroy, but she knows how to be numb”. The way this is written, shows the reader that she is going to do anything to make the pain, the lingering existence of memories, disappear.
In Case of Emergency is written through the eyes of an onlooker, observing a girl engulfed in loss and sadness. What is unique, however, is that this “onlooker” seems to absorb, understand, and experience the pain felt by the girl. This understanding guides the reader to do the same. The message, along with distinct sadness, anger, and betrayal, is conveyed successfully due to the manner in which it is written. This style of writing creates a scenario that readers would find extremely easy to relate to.

Francesco P said...

Somebody else's Genocide by Sherman Alexie provides an illuminating insight on the perceptions that different races hold on their own society. Alexie introduces a woman with a German accent who asks her if she translates and publishes her books in German; a succinct introduction that this piece is German influenced. Alexie uses actual German terms and expressions to illustrate her limited German capabilities. Immediately after, the woman asks why she think Germans love Indians, as though it were the first thing on her mind. It makes the contradiction of her words that much much more influential over the reader. Where the "average" and educated person correlates a genocide with the archetype of Nazi Germany, this German woman is entirely aloof from such a correlation, and rather concentrates on the genocide on Native Americans. The article further illustrates her evident ignorance, as she is initially confused over the reference to the Holocaust, and then refers to it in a concise and "appropriate" manner as a blip. Later on, we find the author pondering whether elderly Germans on a train were exposed to the sight of the ashes and the sound of screams; suggesting and relying on our knowledge, the horrors of the Holocaust. Alexie becomes aware that some homes abutted the walls of Dachau, where the infamous nefarious activities had occurred over six decades before. It creates a tangible surface which one may observe the existence of those who chose to remain inactive while they directly observed the massacres. Just because such events like the Holocaust occurred, and have now been permanently ingrained within our history books, won't suffice to eradicate them. So long as individuals exist, such as this German woman, who remain unaware of the genuine nature of events such as the Holocaust, there exists the possibility for the recurrence of another genocide. This notion can be affirmed by merely being observant of the state of the world; Genocides are occurring while we read and analyze the history of those of the past. Sherman Alexie succeeds in illustrating for the reader the existence of a cruelty which may never fade from the continuing history of our human civilization.

hayden said...

The piece “Somebody else’s Genocide” was a rather controversial piece that I read. It discussed an author talking to a fan from Germany who felt sympathy with the writer who seemed to be of Indian heritage. When the German woman said that her race could not believe the United States could have ever done the genocidal events that had happened. The author becomes so shocked along with several people in the line. Then he points out the obvious connection to the Nazi era of Germany and in response the woman refers to it as a blip. He goes on to say that he had visited Germany and Dachau and the environment around the concentration camp saying it could happen anytime in the same manner. The author uses regular speech throughout the piece to keep the realism of you being in that conversation as almost you were there yourself. The author also makes various references to his surroundings and the people there. He expresses the German woman’s emotions as statements to add seriousness to them showing you that she really didn’t think she had done anything of utter offensiveness. The author also uses his own experience to add a personal touch examining the situation again to show another view of an experience with a different view, what you’re supposed to do in a situation like that. The piece showed that everyone has differing views of things no matter how ignorant they can be.