7.2: Models of Creative Nonfiction
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Now that we have analyzed a creative nonfiction essay together, try your own hand at this process. With each of the following essays, I have included Questions for Consideration to help guide you to some of the key elements that generate particular effects and meanings. Once you have observed how these works make meaning, you might choose one on which to formulate a perspective and then compose a written argument making a case for that perspective. Let’s begin with “Goodbye to All That,” by Joan Didion, 1967, at juliaallison.com/goodbye-to-a...y-joan-didion/.
Questions for Consideration
- How does Didion employ sensory detail to draw us into her experience of New York City?
- Of her images of New York, which are the most striking to you? What gives these images their impact?
- What general impression of New York is created by the essay?
- How does Didion use catalogs (or lists) to help generate a panoramic impression of the city in her early years there?
- How does the writer experience her memories of New York City now? How does she use the notion of “film dissolve” to convey this perspective?
- Why did her experience of the city change when she was twentyeight?
- What do you think is the general message of this essay?
While Didion’s “Goodbye to All That” is a personal essay, offering a glimpse into Didion’s own life as a vehicle for more general insight into human experience, Richard P. Feynman’s work “The Value of Science” focuses on the subject of science in a context more social than personal. In fact, it was originally offered as a lecture in 1955 for the National Academy of Sciences. As you read the work in its written form at calteches.library.caltech.edu/40/2/Science.htm, consider how it might have been shaped by its original intent for lecture delivery to an audience composed primarily of scientists.
Questions for Consideration
- In the beginning of the lecture, Feynman says that in talking not about scientific subjects but rather about values, he is “as dumb as the next guy.” How does this notion fit into his later argument that one important value of science is that it teaches us to live with uncertainty?
- How does Feynman differentiate between scientific knowledge and moral choice? How does he make his case for the value of the key to heaven and hell?
- The second value of science, according to Feynman, is that it stimulates a unique imaginative process, one that causes those who get turned onto the scientific perspective to “turn over each new stone.” How does his poem exemplify this unique kind of imagining? What is the meaning of line 17, “A mite makes the sea roar”?
- How does Feynman use the metaphor of playing music to explain why perhaps more people are not “inspired by our present picture of the universe”?
- What is your personal response to his reminder that our brain, which we equate with our mind (on which we base our notion of our individuality) is not made of the same atoms it was made of two weeks ago? Does this point affect you the way Feynman desired it to? Why or why not?
- What, according to Feynman, is the importance of our learning to live in a state of uncertainty? How does science help foster this world view?
the Fourth Genre George Orwell, author of the novels Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty- Four, among many other works, brings us back to the personal essay in his 1946 “Why I Write.” This essay not only offers a useful example of effective , but it also gives us a glimpse into the subject of writing itself, raising questions about our own reasons for writing. You can read it at http://gutenberg.net.au/ebooks03/0300011h.html#part47.
Questions for Consideration
- What does Orwell mean when he says that in his early resistance to becoming a writer, he was “outraging my true nature”? Can you identify with this sentiment in light of your own “natural” tendencies?
- What kind of “literary activities” did Orwell engage in even when he was not purposefully developing his aspirations of becoming a writer? How then does his attitude contrast his perspective on that period as he looks back now, writing this essay?
- What is the “joy of mere words” he describes? Can you give examples of words that affect you this way?
- Consider the “four great motives for writing” listed by Orwell. According to him, how might these motives work against one another?
- How does Orwell use his poem to explain why he eventually became political even though it was not in his “nature” to do so?
- What is the role of aestheticism for Orwell even in writing a book with a political theme?
- What does he mean when he says that “every book is a failure”?
- If you were to write a similar essay tracing your development into a _____ major, what details of your life would you focus on? If this major, and the profession it leads to, does not always fit well with your character and habits, where do the discrepancies lie?
- If you were to write an essay about your development as a writer, how would your story be similar to Orwell’s? How would it be different?
The essays presented in this chapter reveal the potential power of creative nonfiction. Exhibiting strong differences from one another, these pieces illuminate the ways that various literary strategies can be used to generate particular effects. You may end up writing your own essay that provides a literary analysis of one of these works, giving you a chance to practice composing argument based on textual evidence. Whether you write about these essays or not, these works model strategies available to you as a writer.
Since the length of this chapter is limited by the constraints of space, I have included a brief list, below, of additional essays that might be of interest to you. These should be accessible, free of charge, on the internet. Like the other essays whose links are included in this chapter, these works provide both fascinating subjects for analysis and useful models for your own writing.
Anzaldua, Gloria. “How to Tame a Wild Tongue.” Borderlands / La Frontera, 2nd ed., Aunt Lute Books, 1987. www.sfu.ca/iirp/ documents/Anzaldua%201999.pdf. Accessed 21 Dec. 2014.
Postman, Neil. “Of Luddites, Learning, and Life.” Technos Quarterly, vol. 2, no. 4, Winter 1993. http://www.faculty.rsu.edu/users/f/ felwell/www/Theorists/Postman/Articles/TECHNOS_NET.htm. Accessed 3 June 2014.
Sedaris, David. “Old Lady Down the Hall.” Esquire, www.esquire. com/news-politics/a498/old-lady-hall-sedaris-1000/. Accessed 5 Feb. 2014.
Wimsatt, William Upski. “How I Got My D.I.Y Degree.” Unte Reader, May/June 1998. Self Education Foundation. https:// selfeducationfoundation.wordpress.com/sef-history/diy-degree/. Accessed 7 Feb. 2014.