Sunday, July 25, 2010

Essay without reflection that doesn't work

I just posted about a Lives column that doesn't have a lot of essayistic reflection, but that I think works. Now I want to tell you about a Lives column that doesn't have a lot of reflection that doesn't work.

What do I mean by "works"? It's when the writing is transformed from an anecdote into a experience, into something that you tell your friends about later, that makes you think about things that you haven't thought of before, or maybe just in a long time.

Another way of thinking about this might be: it mattered that THIS writer told this story. Many others could competently---even elegantly---narrate this series of events, but this writer added her special take or insight, and that made it unique.

In Night of 130 Teenagers I don't think this happens. Michael Kirikorian tells about a party he chaperoned for his girlfriend's teenage son, which predictably swelled in size due to uninvited guests and included a desperately drunk 15-year-old girl, and maybe unpredictably turned out to be pretty tame and harmless. But at the end I found myself saying, "so what?"

There are several ideas that are mentioned but then dropped. For example, at the beginning the writer says:
He said there were going to be about 70 kids attending, almost all of them from his private high school, where the tuition runs more than $20,000 a year. Not exactly my alma mater, Gardena High, if you read me.

and also mentions his history of being convicted for assault when younger and says he's not a typical chaperone. But he never follows up on that theme. He mentions that when he saw kids with beer and told them to take it back to their cars, they politely did so, which is an interesting detail, but he never makes any comment on that, explicitly or otherwise. The drunk 15-year-old girl gets home fine (she slept it off!) but there's no commentary on that either.

It's a story without any light shed on it, and I'm not sure why Kirikorian chose to write about it. The guy chaperoned a party, and it went OK. So what?

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!

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Lost (the TV show) and Resonance

SPOILER ALERT. If you are a Lost fan and haven't seen the last season stop reading. Also stop if you havent read Wuthering Heights. And then go read Wuthering Heights right now.

I was a very dedicated Lost fan for its whole 5-year run until the last season, when it did exactly what we were all terrified it would---ended with no reasonable explanation for any of the last 5 seasons apart from the deus ex machina of all deus ex machinas of this stupid cave full of light that was somehow the source of good and evil in the world. Or something.


So why am I writing about this here? Because the real reason I am angry at the story tellers behind Lost connects back to what E.M. Forester is famous for saying: ' "The king died and then the queen died" is a story. "The king died and then the queen died of grief" is a plot.'

This means that a plot has to have cause and effect. Hamlet acts crazy and gets everyone killed because he suspects his uncle of murdering his father. Jesus suffers a horrible death because he is the son of God. Jake Ryan notices Sam because she writes a note about him. There is a chain of events, not some collection of unrelated incidents that happen by chance.

Lost told a story, and it was beautiful and nuanced and layered. And then in the end game we're told that none of it was for any reason (other than magic) and not a lot of it (Walt? Aaron? Mr. Friendly?) had any effects either. Why were these people brought to this island at *this moment in time*, rather than, say, a year earlier or a year later? Totally unclear. Were there tons of groups of people brought to the island, and we followed this group because they turned out to be successful "candidates"? Totally unclear. Did all the strange events and people and behavior LEAD to anything or CAUSE anything? Um, maybe? Maybe it lead to the status quo?

Basically the reader wants to know why you are saying what you are saying---that's what turns an anecdote into a story. If I tell you about my crazy abusive neighbor whose ex girlfriend died in childbirth, and isnt it weird that their kids are now in love, that's an anecdote. If I tell you about two lovers torn apart by inner turmoil, fate, and whim, and whose fiery and destructive passion trickles down through two generations of people only to dissipate in the gentle love of a third generation, in a redemption caused by an intense and unsinkable humanity---that is a story.

The same thing applies to essays. The reader will ask, why are you telling us this? You don't have to spell it out or get all Aesop Fable on us, but there needs to be resonance. A sense that the sum is more than the parts. On this note my next post will compare two recent New York Times essays---one that I think really told a story, and the other one that left me thinking, ok that was mildly interesting, but so what?

Saturday, July 10, 2010

The Essay That Didn't (Did?) Resolve Itself

Please excuse the long delay in posts.

Sometimes when you have an idea, you get in there to work on it and realize it's not that interesting or there isn't really that much to say. But usually when you tackle an idea that DOES prove interesting, and you generate lots of thoughts or images, or write up some nice anecdotes that fit in with it, or pontificate on some tangential thing, it all ends up in one complete package. Not a neat package maybe (more boring, usually, if it is) but a finished one that has some point or is about some bigger concept, or at least feels done.

I've been working on this essay about trains for months. It started out with the question of why I am so fascinated by certain romanticized images, and certain cliche, genre-ish stuff like Agatha Christie novels. I want familiarity in these cliches---I want to see the train snaking along the countryside, I want a narrow corridor where two youngish, attractive strangers pass each other in a strangely charged way en route to their berths in a pullman sleeper. I want dressing gowns, and Russians, and the promise of reaching Istanbul in a few days time.

It's all so canned, right? But why does it all fascinate me so much---that was the question.

Well I was going to say here that I have lots of content for the essay, but strangely couldn't find any ending. Or really what I mean is I couldn't find any larger points to make. Why do I care about trains? I didn't know---I didn't even have any ideas. And what's all these musings without some kind of insight to go along with it.

But while writing the above (like right then! During this very blog entry!) I got an idea that I think will work. So maybe the real point is that if going back to a piece of writing in your usual fashion doesn't help, try something different, like writing about your frustration. It's like cross training at the gym.