Sunday, July 25, 2010

Essay without reflection that works

I talk often about the New York Times Lives/Modern Love columns because they are a good place to read new, often quite literary, essays. Lives is pretty short, and sometimes that means that there is a bit of "so what" in them, because the writer didn't really get around to saying much. In a recent one, Strangers on a Train by Marcia DeSanctis, the shortness works quite well.

It starts like this:

When I travel alone, my preference is to keep it that way. I’m not really one for chatting people up in hotel bars or for reeling out my anecdotes or listening to theirs. Which is why my heart sank, a few weeks ago, when a man entered my chamber just as the overnight train from Moscow to St. Petersburg departed the station.

She goes on to tell the story of awkwardly sharing a tiny sleeping car with Igor, a perfectly nice Russian man. She tells it well, but nothing terribly dramatic happens. Then, either by design or because of the short word count, there really isnt a lot of reflection or chatter, or talking directly to the reader about the ideas or feelings that this experience prompted in the writer. However, for me this essay works because the writer was skillful enough to imply those prompted thoughts and feelings between the lines.

For example:

Our dinner came. He ordered water, not beer, to drink. I was relieved and, I confess, surprised.

She didn't have to say "It was extremely awkward to be so physically close and isolated with a man, who could become amorous or belligerent." The detail of the beer says it for her.

The ending is the one part where I'm not really sure what she is trying to say, and I think many readers might have a "so what?" moment here.

In St. Petersburg, Igor held me as I negotiated the chasm between the train and the platform. I greeted a driver from my hotel and handed over my bags. I turned with my arms half open, to say goodbye to Igor. But he was already gone, disappeared into the crowd.

I think she is commenting on the oddness of being simultaneously so intimate and so distant/unconnected with a person. But I'm not sure. It doesn't matter to me though because for me her kind of wondering-but-still-analytical style and choice of detail make this essay resonate.

Final note:

Even though we talked about an essentially plotless moment here, stories---with plot and movement---always make for good reading, (as long as they fit into the larger narrative or idea.) So learn to write good stories!

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