This post serves as both a welcome back note and a blog entry on the writer’s craft, the second one I’ve written with you. (I posted the first one on January 22.)
I’m always grateful when I discover that readings and assignments in my various courses dovetail. It reminds me that although the particulars of the courses differ, communicating effectively in writing and closely examining written texts are fundamentals they all share.
Two dovetail discoveries occurred earlier this semester. The first one happened when I was reading the composition students’ weekly assignment in The Norton Field Guide to Writing. It was in the chapter devoted to description. There the textbook’s authors include excerpts from two pieces of writing about multiple sclerosis that together illustrate lucidly the differences between the general description of objective nonfiction and the concrete, significant details and voice that bring creative nonfiction to life. Read the two excerpts that follow and consider both the differences between the words and how the words in each excerpt affect you.
First, a description from a brochure published by the National Multiple Sclerosis Society:
Multiple sclerosis is a chronic, unpredictable disease of the central nervous system (the brain, optic nerves, spinal cord). It is thought to be an autoimmune disorder. This means the immune system incorrectly attacks a person’s healthy tissue.
MS can cause blurred vision, loss of balance, poor coordination, slurred speech, tremors, numbness, extreme fatigue, problems with memory and concentration, paralysis, and blindness. These problems may be permanent, or they may come and go. (qtd. in Bullock et al. 444)
Second, an excerpt from “On Being a Cripple,” by Nancy Mairs, a writer with MS:
During its course, which is unpredictable and uncontrollable, one may lose vision, hearing, speech, the ability to walk, control bladder and/or bowels, strength in any or all extremities, sensitivity to touch, vibration and/or pain, potency, coordination of movements–the list of possibilities is lengthy and yes, horrifying. One may also lose one’s sense of humor. That’s the easiest to lose and the hardest to survive without.
In the past ten years, I have sustained some of these losses. Characteristic of MS are sudden attacks, called exacerbations, followed by remissions, and these I have not had. Instead my disease has been slowly progressive. My left leg is now so weak that I walk with the aid of a brace and a cane, and for distances I use an Amigo, a variation on the electric wheelchair that looks rather like an electrified kiddie car. I no longer have much use of my left hand. Now my right side is weakening as well. I still have the blurred spot in my right eye. Overall, though, I’ve been lucky so far. (qtd. in Bullock et al. 443-44)
Another dovetail discovery occurred when my composition students were studying Chapter 11 of Tara Westover’s memoir, Educated. The latter half of that chapter, “Instinct,” depicts Westover’s brother Shawn reining in the frightened gelding, Bud, preventing him from throwing Tara.
As my composition students and I examined the series of conflicts that propel the chapter forward, it occurred to me that the concluding pages of Chapter 11 would serve as an ideal segue from our study, in English 126, of creative nonfiction to our study of fiction. That scene exemplifies the structural similarities between fiction and memoirs, such Westover’s, that follow the same narrative arc.
In the span of only two and a half pages, Westover presents five conflicts: (1) Bud, the gelding, in conflict with the angry mare, (2) Tara in conflict with the frightened Bud, (3) Tara in conflict with herself (Should she let go of the saddle horn?), (4) Shawn in conflict with the mare, and (5) Shawn in conflict with–and ultimately prevailing over–Bud. Thanks to Brennan for pointing out the fourth conflict, which I had overlooked earlier.
Lastly, I’ll address our final in-class reading on March 12, Christopher Durang’s For Whom the Southern Belle Tolls. Not only did Durang’s play let us exit laughing, it also showed us how quirky, well-wrought parody can pull readers into a play regardless of their knowledge of the source. When Lawrence says: “I call this [cocktail stirrer] Q-tip because I realized it looks like a Q-tip” (19), readers will laugh even if they don’t know that he’s a spoof of Laura Wingfield.
Bullock, Richard et al. Chapter 42: “Describing.” The Norton Field Guide to Writing with Handbook. 5th ed., 2019. pp. 443-44.
Durang, Christopher. For Whom the Southern Belle Tolls. Christopher Durang: Twenty-Seven Short Plays. Smith and Krauss, 1995. pp. 12-27.