Monday, December 1, 2008

Say it Harder, so They can Feel it

I just so happen to have read all four of these pieces before.  The Sedaris piece (like all of his work) I've read over and over again, and the other three essays were assigned in the class that I am preceptoring with Dr. Nels.   I think these four are excellent examples of personal essays/memoirs.  Each one deals with pain on some level, but each uses a distinctly different tone to do so, and to connect with their intended audience.  Also - I've come to realize how very important a strong beginning is to a successful memoir.

Sedaris' essay deals with his mother's death - a tragedy which seems almost incomprehensible to me.  I think it might be easy to lose my attention with overt melancholy, but instead of being morose Sedaris skillfully uses humor to disarm some of the horror of the story.  His opening is particularly appealing to me, dealing with both latent homosexuality and recreational drug use. I think another clever thing Sedaris does to draw a reader in and keep the story interesting, is to use his sister's marriage (a typically happy and life-affirming affair) as a counterpoint to his mother's looming lung cancer.

Beth Richards' essay was not necessarily about death, but the slow failure of her grandmother's mind toward the end of her life.  Richards' strength, I think, lies in her amazing gift for description.  Her first paragraph is some of the best description I've ever read.  The character of her great-grandmother becomes so clear in so few sentences.  Richards chooses her words so carefully - I could tell that even if I didn't know her habit of revising a piece over and over again.  I am immediately drawn into her story, because I want to keep listening to her voice.

You certainly can't argue with Strayed's first line.  "The first time I cheated on my husband, my mother had been dead for exactly one week."  Wow.  Obviously an attention getter.  Also - it sets the tone for a very raunchy story.  It can almost act as its own warning.  Do not read on if you don't want to encounter something kind of nasty.  I don't know if I could ever be this nakedly honest in a memoir of my own - especially about something sexual.  I might be willing to kiss and tell - but not betray.  Her tone is effective, but not something I could necessarily use myself.

Beard's story I found to be an engaging story, but definitely the least effective of the four, for me.  Specifically, her first paragraph is kind of sappy, and it doesn't really set the stage properly for the rest of the story.  In fact - the whole first couple of pages seems slow to me.

For all of this memoir reading, I still have little to no idea of what I want to write about for the final essay.