Biss, Eula. Notes from No Man’s Land: American Essays. Minneapolis: Graywolf Press, 2009. Print.
“In the United States, it is very easy for me to forget that the people around me are my people. It is easy, with all our divisions, to think of myself as an outsider in my own country.”
~ Eula Biss
Essay: Letter to Mexico
Notes from No Man’s Land (93)
It’s hard for me to believe Eula Biss is on a few years older than I or that she could understand, in fewer than 40 years alive, so much about people. I cannot think of a book that has moved me, changed my mind, or affirmed more of what I believe than this collection of essays. It would be easy to gush, to spend pages singing about the remarkable presentation of such treacherous and necessary subject matter, but this annotation will focus on Biss’s writing style – her language, construction, and persona. Through her essays, Biss offers permission to think honestly and express freely. She impressed me more than any writer of this generation both in the bravery of her presentation and in the quality of her writing.
Posted by Lee on Mar 8, 2012 in Craft, Essay, Non-Fiction | 0 comments
Gornick, Vivian. The Situation and the Story: The Art of Personal Narrative. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2001. Print.
“Because the narrator knew who was speaking, she always knew why she was speaking.”
~ Vivian Gornick, The Situation and the Story (6)
Gornick’s approach to writing personal narrative is one I can get behind not because it is mind- or world-changing, but because it is logical. Her writing is clear and sharp, and she presents in The Situation and the Story a strong, well-researched and supported argument for writing personal narrative with some important and potent concepts in mind. Early in her introduction, she makes a bold claim:
Every work of literature has both a situation and a story. The situation is the context or circumstance, sometimes the plot; the story is the emotional experience that preoccupies the writer: the insight, the wisdom, the thing one has come to say (13).
Kincaid, Jamaica. A Small Place. 1988. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2000. Print.
“Antigua is beautiful. Antigua is too beautiful.”
~ Jamaica Kincaid, A Small Place (77)
Jamaica Kincaid’s A Small Place is a small memoir with enormous quality. Having read none of Kincaid’s other work and not being familiar with her style, I had no expectations when picking the book up. Once I had it open to the first page, I could not put it down. The prose is direct and accessible, and Kincaid begins her long essay writing to the reader in second person perspective, inviting the reader to visualize Antigua. Within two pages, the beauty of the place is evident but so is Kincaid’s humor, as well as her cynicism. Where I, as a reader, slipped easily into the role of tourist at the start of the book, I quickly felt uncomfortable, guilty, even, for something of which I had neither prior knowledge nor direct responsibility. I felt tricked, but I kept reading. Kincaide swiftly indicts tourists, then Americans and Europeans, then nearly every government the small island nation has ever had. While full of bitter resentment, the book is not a diatribe, not really. It is an education, an observance of something greater than a person, or a place, or even a series of events. Kincaid, with wit and anger, uses the present and past Antigua to write a memoir that ruffles reader feathers by calling on them to examine their lives, to question everything around them by examining her own life and questioning everything around the place in which she was born and raised. Kincaid’s language, her strangely smooth while disjunct approach, and her cynical curiosity empower her writing and make this book one writers can turn to as an example of something that stirs.
White, E. B. One Man’s Meat. 1938. Maine: Tilbury House, 1997. Print.
“Freedom is a household word now, but it’s only once in a while
that you see a man who is actively, almost belligerently free.”
~ E. B. White,
One Man’s Meat Essay: Second World War (82)
E. B. White’s early prose appears on the page as simple, direct, and clean. Behind it, the content tells a different story – a story of complexity, confusion, a wondering wandering mind, and dirt. Not filth, but soil, the soil from which one iconic American writer, living as honestly as he could, grew his family, his life, and his words. I loved his fiction when I was a child, and I opened One Man’s Meat eager, expecting. No single essay disappointed me. White gives his language a soft economy, his essays written directly to his readers. He does not overwrite, he does not underwrite; he simply delivers, offering readers of his generation and every generation following pages of a curious, humorous, brilliant mind seeming to meander freely in and out of conclusions at a pace that invites and encourages similar open-minded perambling. The ease with which White is read is no accident. His success as a writer lies within his ability to structure his essays approachably with earnestness and humor, his ability to come off as a concerned and sympathetic friend sharing everyday life, and his ability to stir the pot without grabbing the spoon and whipping the froth.
Posted by Lee on Mar 8, 2012 in Craft, Essay, Non-Fiction | 0 comments
Zinsser, William. Inventing the Truth: The Art and Craft of Memoir. New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1998. Print.
“Memoir Writers must manufacture a text, imposing narrative order on a jumble of
half-remembered events. With that feat of manipulation, they arrive at a truth that is theirs alone, not quite like that of anybody else who was present at the same events.”~ William Zinsser
Inventing the Truth: Introduction (6)
William Zinsser, a career craftsman of writing, has put together a remarkable collection of essays about writing memoir. In his introduction, Zinsser discusses both his original idea for the collection of interviews and his process for compilation and presentation. He makes clear his intention of rendering each author’s voice authentic. In doing so, he’s established autonomous credibility in each essay. It’s not just the spectrum of authors and backgrounds that makes this collection remarkable – it’s the foundation supplements each essay offers. No two approaches are the same, nor does any insist upon itself as greater than any other. The advice shared in each interview is shared as “take it or leave it – this is how I did it and it worked for me.” While the collection’s essays do each fall into the category of memoir craft analysis, it is near impossible to annotate the work as a whole. Instead, I’ll highlight some craft nugget I sluiced from each author interview.
Hersey, John. Hiroshima. 1946. New York: Vintage – Random House, 1989. Print.
“(Almost no one in Hiroshima recalls hearing any noise of the bomb…)”
~ John Hersey, Hiroshima (5-6)
On August 6th, 1945, at 8:15 am, the United States dropped an atomic bomb on Hiroshima. More than 100,000 people died in the blast or shortly after as a result. It was a move that would ultimately end the war, but it was more than that. It was one of those rare moments in history where the world actually changed in an instant. John Hersey took his skills as a journalist to a handful of survivors to tell the story of the bomb and its effect from inside the blast radius. In an unprecedented publication, The New Yorker dedicated the entirety of its editorial space for Hersey’s initial report (in 1946). The copy I read included a conclusion section written 40 years after the blast, going back to visit the survivors whose experiences the book chronicles to follow-up on longer-term recovery. While it would be easy to jump into the polemics, culture, and emotion that envelope Hiroshima, his annotation will examine Hersey’s writing: the structure, style, and voice Hersey employs to tell the story of the bombing and the days/years that follow.