Sometimes I’m a deadset wanker – no two ways about it. And posting up my uni essay may actually be one of the most wankerish things I have done of late.
But the bookish nerd dies hard and, needless to say if there had been teh interwebs around when I was a crazy moping high school student or a lonely undergraduate, I would have been posting up stuff like this left right and centre.
*sigh* silly me.
This blog post won’t be for everyone – in fact I think that my lovely friend and tweep @skippy_2 may be the only one who will read it. Although I know there are a few followers/friends/tweeps who take a passing interest in writing and its stylistic elements – so hopefully there’s something of interest here for you as well.
The subject for which this essay was submitted is called Creative Nonfiction and is part of my Masters in Social Science (Creative Writing specialisation). The question for this one was something like this:
“Choose two of the pieces of creative nonfiction from the course reader and discuss the narrative techniques they employ. What narrative features mark these works as creative nonfiction and how else would you define their genre (ie. memoir, travelogue, personal essay)? How are the themes of these pieces developed in narrative style and voice? To what effect?”
Oh, and btw I got a High Distinction for this essay. Lol. Otherwise it wouldn’t be here at all.
Creative Nonfiction Critical Essay
“In order for creative nonfiction to be creative nonfiction it must be framed and focused.”(Gutkind 2007, p.180) Lee Gutkind continues to define creative nonfiction as being comprised of, “story and information, style and substance, frame and focus.” (Gutkind 2007,p.180) ‘Framing’ is the organising by “time and shape” whereas ‘focus’ is organising by “meaning and content”. In Lee Stringer’s Grand Central Winter and Richard Ford’s Accommodations the authors employ frame and focus in their search for the embodiment of creative nonfiction – the desire to reveal an emotional truth through reflection upon a real-life event or events.
By utilising tools of narrative fiction, the creative nonfiction writer marks their work as distinct from simple reportage or recount. Structure is one such tool. Where recount generally creates a chronological rendering of the factual story, narrative looks at creating dramatic tension which renders it as narrative. In Grand Central Winter Stringer starts with an abrupt orientation: “What happened was I was digging around in my hole –there’s this long, narrow crawl space in Grand Central’s lower regions, of which few people are aware and into which I moved some time ago. It is strung with lights and there is a water spigot just outside the cubbyhole through which I enter.”(Stringer 1998, p.13) This introduction into Stringer’s world – understated and conversational – brings the reader immediately into the scene without requiring a more traditional set-up. The use of the present tense makes the action immediate. While sparse, the description is symbolic of the subject. Having established a tone of understated exposition he moves quickly to the fulcrum of the narrative. Digging for something to clean his pipe Stringer says, “I pull it out and it’s a pencil and it does the trick.” (Stringer 1998, p.14) This is the heart of the piece, the symbol of his eventual salvation – a fictional device which helps the full meaning of the narrative to be finally attained. Stringer’s narrative structure is further foreshadowed when he invokes the writing of Tenessee Williams: “It kind of comes in through the side door. I mean Williams will start talking about, say what it smells like to work in a factory, and before you know it, he’s going on about wanting to kill his father or something like that.” (Stringer 1998, p.16) Williams’ style informs Grand Central Winter from the abrupt structural orientation – an ‘in through the side door’ technique – which then gathers to the dramatic narrative turning point: his fevered writing of his first story. Ultimately the narrative moves forward until it reaches a traditional climax – being the moment when he and his friend bond over the story he has written – and onward to the resolution: “After that I did four things every day. Hustle up money, cop some stuff, beam up and write. And in the end I wound up dropping the other three.” (Stringer 1998, p.18) It is obvious that the framing and stylistic elements of Grand Central Winter are narrative features which mark it as creative nonfiction.
Accommodations by Richard Ford, begins in a remarkably similar fashion to Grand Central Winter. Abrupt, almost staccato introduction in the present tense: “I am in bed. It is one o’clock in the morning. I am eleven years old, and in a room inside my grandfather’s hotel.”(Ford 1995, p.114) The present tense creates immediacy and draws the reader quickly into the narrative world. Ford then uses snatched dialogue and scattered imagery to evoke a child’s perception. Descriptive devices such as “the orchid smell”; “the elevator grate drawn back” and “a second woman’s voice far away… a car horn blows.” (Ford 1995, p.114) create a sense of mystery and things half-seen which becomes a motif in this piece. But, after this similarity in narrative introduction, Accommodations veers into markedly different stylistic territory from Stringer’s piece. Ford reverts to the past tense after his introduction and gives some lucidly detailed descriptions such as: “Little Rock was a mealy, low-rise town on a slow river and the hotel was the toniest, plushest place in town. And still it was blowsy…” When it comes to the depiction of character Ford purposefully places himself in the background – “I simply stood alongside that for a while in my young life – neither behind the scenes nor in front.” (Ford 1995, p.119) – giving the spotlight to his grandfather and those who people his world. Paul Mills says, “It can be fruitful and interesting to explore personal narratives within a group or community, showing contrasting perspectives, shared perceptions, difference and coincidence.” (Mills 2005, p.37) This seems to be Ford’s approach and symbolic of his themes. In this way he almost writes himself out of the narrative, subjugated for the most part beneath the more strongly painted portraits of the other characters. “Employees, guests, ‘The Permanents’ (old bachelors, old shopkeepers, old married couples in cheap rooms with no better homes to hold onto) lobby lizards – older men with baffling nicknames like Spider, Goldie, Ish…” (Ford 1995, p.115) The narrative function of evoking a sense of place and character is therefore imperative to the purpose of the piece. In a world of constant change Ford says, “To live in a hotel promotes a cool two-mindedness: one is both steady and in a sea that passes with tides.” (Ford 1995, p.114) This observation underscores the thematic questions about permanence. Structurally Ford’s piece finds its narrative complication in the tension behind this boy’s recollections and his almost absent personality. There is also a hint of dramatic complication when he says, “If my grandfather lost his job – always the backstage scare story – we lost it all.” (Ford 1995, p.118) Ultimately his theme is that, “every little thing is life”, and that questions of permanence are almost irrelevant. Thus this ‘floating life’ – the life where ‘everything counts’- becomes important and reflected in his seemingly unstructured yet purposeful series of events. The structure now mirrors the theme. As Gutkind says, “In order for scenes to fit together (in creative nonfiction), they must reflect the same or similar focuses.” (Gutkind 2007, p. 180) This is exactly what Ford has done in Accommodations.
Just as framing marks out the realm of creative nonfiction so necessarily must ‘focus’ or theme. Grand Central Winter is a redemptive, epiphanous and self-reflexive story of the writer’s journey out of drug addiction and into the writing life. The sparse, almost detached descriptive approach to the story pre-empts the moment of salvation when, digging for an implement with which to clean his crack pipe Stringer finds a pencil. With deceptive nonchalance he says, “The good thing about carrying a pencil is that it’s a pencil.” (Stringer 1998, p.14) The impact of this statement is layered retrospectively with the narrative turning point which comes later: “It dawns on me that it’s a pencil. I mean, it’s got a lead in it and all, and you can write with the thing.” (Stringer 1998, p.14) Ultimately this pencil leads to the redemptive moment which parallels Stringer’s earlier descriptions of his drug use. “I’m scribbling like a maniac; heart pumping, adrenaline rushing, hands trembling. I’m so excited I almost crap on myself. It’s just like taking a hit.” (Stringer 1998, p.15) The pencil, at first a part of his despair, becomes a narrative symbol of his salvation.
Richard Ford’s thematic focus concerns the definition of home, and the permanence and reality of life. His piece is interesting in that it reads as nostalgia but in fact has at its heart not so much a longing (as is nostalgia’s hallmark) but a questioning borne from his experiences. “How permanent is real life?” (Ford 1995, p.119) he wonders at the conclusion. This questioning stance originates from the intrinsically transient nature of the lives he observed as a child: “The place was a hollow place, like any home, in which things went on, a setting where situations developed and ended.” Ultimately the theme of permanence and transience is symbolised by the detailed rendering of life within his grandfather’s hotel.
While these two pieces have stylistic, structural and thematic differences the claim to emotional truth must necessarily unite them as creative nonfiction. Stringer’s emotional truth comes through his raw and understated description. When he says, “I take a hit and have a pleasurable half hour of sweaty trembling panic that at any second someone or something is going to jump out of the dark,” (Stringer 1998, p.14), the ironic tension between the pleasure and the panic rings with authenticity. In Ford’s Accommodations the claim to truth comes through the lovingly rendered descriptions and evocation of place and character. The ultimate expression of the truth behind these representations comes when the narrator says of his grandfather, “I could think different of him now, see him through new eyes, revise history, take a narrower latter-day view. But why?” (Ford 1995, p.116) The reader is alerted to the author’s intention to represent – as much as possible – things as they really were, seeming almost at pains not to interpret too much. This method of recollection suits his theme of the importance of the ordinary; articulated when he says: “To make regular life seem regular need not always be to bleach the strong colours out. But just for a time it can help. When you look for what’s unique and also true of life, you’re lucky to find less than you imagined.” (Ford 1995, p.119)
Creative nonfiction is marked by the emotional truth distilled from reflection upon real events rendered through the application of narrative techniques. Grand Central Winter and Accommodations both use such techniques in order to ultimately express the central theme of their reflections. And it is perhaps in a shared technique that they each find their quintessential expression: the invocation of a rhetorical question in the second person. Stringer says: “What can I tell you? It was one of those moments.” By virtue of its simplicity this is an incredibly moving representation of his salvation. Ford similarly addresses his reader – encouraging them to reflect alongside him: “Everything counts. What else do you need to know?” By insisting that the reader engage with the writer, the narrative itself and the emotional truth, creative nonfiction – such as the pieces discussed here – achieves its ultimate function.
Ford, R. (1995). Accommodations. Best American Essays 1995. J. Kincaid and R. Atwan. New York, Houghton Mifflin.
Gutkind, L. (2007). Everything You Ever Wanted to Know About Creative Nonfiction But Were Too Naive or Uninformed to Ask. The Handbook of Creative Writing. S. Earnshaw. Edinburgh, Edinburgh University Press.
Mills, P. (2005). The Routledge Creative Writing Handbook. Oxon, Routledge.
Stringer, L. (1998). Grand Central Winter: Stories From the Street. New York, Seven Stories Press.