In the essay “Reflection and Retrospection: A Pedagogic Mystery Story,” Phillip Lopate tells us that he has always been attracted to the passages in memoir and personal essay “where the writing takes an analytical, interpretive turn.” He says that he considers these explicative moments to be “the dessert, the reward of prose.” Now, given Brevity’s nonfiction-nerd audience, my assumption is that we all agree with Lopate about the sweetness of reflection, analysis and high exposition. But I’ll also assume that in our creative work we hope to attract readers beyond those who hold MFAs in nonfiction writing. And if that’s the case, then I wonder if, in addition to heeding the advice of Professor Lopate, we might also take a lesson from Professor Poppins.
I bring up the well-umbrella’d nanny not to undermine the act of thinking on the page, but instead to emphasize its importance. Our ideas aren’t the dessert; they’re the medicine that must go down. The bits of scene, the characters, the action that we attach our ideas to—or maybe I should say chase our ideas with—amount to the sugar. But note that Poppins doesn’t call for the whole bowl. Just a spoonful. Ground our readers in place, set up an expectation of temporality and causality, and then we are free to deliver the medicine of analysis in, well, a most delightful way.
Readers already know that literature can tempt with the dessert of narrative and enlighten with the substance of exposition. In his essay, “The Genre Artist,” Ben Marcus—after arguing against the primacy of story, even in fiction—acknowledges that readers often approach a piece of writing with the expectation of either entertainment or an intellectual lesson. “This must either be fun,” Marcus writes, “or it must be good for me.” But why either/or? Why not and? Sugar and medicine. As Poppins asserts so forcefully, “In every job that must be done, there is an element of fun.”
Marcus concedes that as an opening gambit, Once upon a time offers much more hope and seduction than I have an idea does. Once upon a time, writes Marcus, promises that something happened in the physical world, not merely in the mind of the writer. Such are the conventions of narrative. And the reader in me—at least the part of me that loves to be propelled forward by the question And then what happened?—breathes a sigh of relief, or at least of recognition, when I’m dropped onto the page in a specific place and time before being asked to confront a whole bunch of thinking. As Marcus suggests, Once upon a time gets the clock ticking. And that clock becomes an engine that can push us through just as much thinking as the writer pleases.
One example of a personal essay that does first sugar, then medicine (a.k.a. the Poppins Stratagem) to especially cunning effect is Mark Doty’s “Return to Sender: Memory, Betrayal, and Memoir.” The piece starts with story: Mark and Paul packing up the Volvo and traveling from Houston to Cape Cod. On the way, they stop in Memphis to visit the house on Ramses Street where Mark lived as a boy. Unable to find the house, they soon realize that Mark had misremembered the name of the street. There is no Ramses Street in Memphis. Moreover, Doty had written this incorrect address into his memoir, Firebird. All of this action happens in the first page or two of the essay. The bulk of the piece is an extended meditation on the limits of memory and the issue of betrayal in memoir. We never go back to the scene, and we never find out if Mark and Paul make it to Cape Cod. It doesn’t matter, of course, because Doty has taken us on a different journey, a mental one, with its own inciting incident, rising action and climax. Still, would Doty’s ideas about memory mean as much if they were divorced from the introductory passage of narrative? Smart as Doty’s thinking is, would it be as emotionally resonant if the Memphis scene hadn’t sparked it?
In memoir there’s an obvious symbiosis between exposition and narrative. The conventions of story give shape and tangibility to nebulous and abstract ideas, like a dress form to a dress. Or, to further extend the Poppins analogy, like the underwire frame of the nanny’s umbrella. The fabric is ultimately what keeps the rain out; it’s also what catches the wind and allows her to fly. But without the frame, the fabric is formless. Just as without the fabric, the frame—substantive as it as it appears to be—is empty and worthless.
At this point, another part of me, the part that does hold an MFA in nonfiction writing, the part that refuses to underestimate the intelligence of his audience and their willingness to grapple with complicated and conflicting ideas, wants to say, “Not so fast, Poppins. When you sing, ‘In every job that must be done, there is an element of fun,’ don’t you mean that the fun doesn’t need to be applied to the job—but instead can be found within it? That the medicine already contains the sugar?” This is surely what Lopate has in mind when he calls analysis and interpretation the dessert of prose. The act of meaning-making is fun for the writer and—when done well, when more universal than solipsistic—for the reader, too. The mental voyage that starts with uncertainly and ends maybe with enlightenment and, then again, maybe with even deeper uncertainty, is a trip worth taking. But in “Reflection and Retrospection,” note the active and highly charged language Lopate uses to describe this intellectual journey: Figure out something you didn’t know at the start, he writes, and you can “truly engage the reader in the adventure of following you.” He continues: “To think on the page is difficult, but the writer’s struggle to master that which appeared hard to do is moving in itself and well worth undertaking.” Lopate is talking about exposition like it’s an expedition, as if he’s not essaying but instead ascending Everest. It could be that using the language of adventure to describe the act of thinking supports Lopate’s assertion that a journey of the mind can be just as riveting as a journey that happens Once upon a time. Or maybe the impulse to sugarcoat the act of thinking with the language of adventure just shows how badly we need that spoonful.
Doty, Mark. “Return to Sender.” The Touchstone Anthology of Contemporary Creative Nonfiction. Eds. Lex Williford and Michael Martone. New York: Touchstone, 2007. 152-164. Print.
Lopate, Phillip. “Reflection and Retrospection: A Pedagogic Mystery Story,” written for Fourth Genre 7.1 (Spring 2005), accessed November 24, 2015, http://philliplopate.com/2011/08/reflection-and-retrospection-a-pedagogic-mystery-story/
Marcus, Ben. “The Genre Artist,” The Believer, July 2003, accessed November 24, 2015, http://www.believermag.com/issues/200307/?read=article_marcus
Joe Oestreich is the author of two books of creative nonfiction: Lines of Scrimmage (co-written with Scott Pleasant, 2015) and Hitless Wonder (2012). His essays have appeared in Esquire, Creative Nonfiction, Ninth Letter, Fourth Genre, The Normal School, and many other magazines and journals. Four of his pieces have been cited as notable essays in the Best American series, and he’s received special mention twice in the Pushcart Prize anthology. He teaches creative writing at Coastal Carolina University in Conway, S.C., where he directs the M.A. in writing program.