Guest Post: Patrick Madden, Some Notes on Expectations

My daughter loves this riddle I told her:

You are driving a bus. At the first stop, 7 people get on. At the next stop, 3 more get on. At the third, 2 get off and 5 get on. At the fourth, no one gets on and 2 get off. At the fifth, 7 get off and 1 gets on. At the sixth stop, 2 get on and 2 get off. At the seventh, 10 people get on and 3 get off. What is the bus driver’s name?

Reading it here, you can easily figure it out, because you can return to the text and reread, but aloud, this gets people (nearly) every time, because once they hear the numbers, they start trying to do arithmetic, thinking you’re going to ask them how many people are left on the bus. I apologize for stating the obvious. The point of the riddle is misdirection, a subversion of expectations that’s satisfying in its cleverness instead of frustrating. This is just one example of this principle in action. One might easily point to most Hollywood movies, for instance, with their twists and turns to keep viewers guessing. I know this, and you know this, but I hope it’s worth revisiting briefly here, as I retread some of my own path to realizing it (making it real), and applying it to essay writing, specifically.

Over the years, as I read and wrote and taught and critiqued thousands of essays, I formulated an observation into a theory. For context, you should know that, including graduate school, I’ve been at this essay thing semi-professionally for twenty years. Through reading and writing countless good and bad examples, I came to feel that the best essay endings worked their way backwards through the text to shift a reader’s understanding of the whole, to reconfigure interpretation from a new insight. Thus, the endings were a surprise that made sense; they granted an insight beyond what I would have come to on my own, but not beyond what was reasonable. I became fond of saying that this represented a surprising inevitability (or inevitable surprise).

While I never thought myself original for noticing this (and creating a handily chiastic catchphrase to describe it), it took me quite a while to discover that Aristotle had theorized essentially the same thing in the Poetics:

Such an effect [Tragedy inspiring fear or pity] is best produced when the events come on us by surprise; and the effect is heightened when, at the same time, they follow as cause and effect. The tragic wonder will then be greater than if they happened of themselves or by accident; for even coincidences are most striking when they have an air of design. …

A Complex action is one in which the change is accompanied by such Reversal, or by Recognition, or by both. These last should arise from the internal structure of the plot, so that what follows should be the necessary or probable result of the preceding action. It makes all the difference whether any given event is a case of propter hoc or post hoc.

That is, “because of this” versus simply “after this.” We want causation, not simply correlation. “The king died and then the queen died” is not a proper story. No, wait. It is a story, according to Forster, but it’s not a plot. A plot requires not only “a narrative of events arranged in their time-sequence,” but a sense of causality (“then the queen died of grief”). For context, you should know that Aristotle’s source texts were epic poems and plays, and Forster’s focus was the novel, primarily. And here we are talking of essays, mostly, though the principles, as I have said, apply broadly.

Expectations affect not only endings, influence not only twists of plot and action. When we read, we bring myriad expectations to the text, from the most basic (that it will be decipherable), through the conventional (that it will exemplify proper grammar), through the contextual (that it will present to us a world we recognize or, sometimes, characters that we “relate to”), to the transcendental (that it will satisfy in us a spiritual yearning we didn’t quite know we had). We read through our expectations at every turn, and every straightaway, too.

No one’s expectations are infallible; no reader is ideal. Yet I am paid to read others’ work and offer my honest critique, asking them questions and suggesting ways to improve. Perhaps the commonest category of misstep I find in draft work has to do with failing to meet or anticipate readers’ expectations, failing to consider the expansiveness of language and the way ambiguities can be detrimental, even antagonistic to readers. I tell my students that I am a lazy, impatient, intentional misreader. I expect them to do the work of considering their words and phrases and rooting out unintentional misreadings. Because I will misread them every chance they give me, I say. We laugh, but they know I’m serious.

I find such problems all the time, but I suppose I ought to include here an example. So I’ve asked permission of one of my students, whose recent essay caused me and her classmates a slight bit of consternated amusement. The essay was titled “Love Bursts,” which pressed play on my mental boom box with a two-song playlist of Def Leppard’s “Love Bites” and Nazareth’s “Love Hurts,” each of which strings together a litany of bad things love does (scars, wounds, marks, bleeds, brings me to my knees, etc.). [I could, too, have remembered the Everly Brothers’ original “Love Hurts,” or covers by Roy Orbison or Cher or… and who can forget the J. Geils Band’s “Love Stinks”? {rip J. Geils, who died a few days ago, and who was raised, I’ve just learned, the next town over from my hometown in New Jersey}]

Anyway. “Love Bursts” seemed obviously a sentence, subject-verb. Bursting was something love did. This determined my reading. And the first section did nothing to revise my expectation, as the author returned to her childhood, to a night she spent with her aunt and cousins in a hotel. Her mother had allowed her to go only on the condition that she not wet the bed. Uh oh. You know what’s going to happen next, don’t you? Our narrative expectations are primed. But they’re also confirmed in their reading of the title. Love bursts… we’ve got a bladder ready to burst in the nighttime, so… It’s obvious.

Only it wasn’t. The section ends in a display of auntly love, with smiles and bubble bath and not a hint of anger or frustration. Only later in the essay, two-thirds of the way through, does the title reconfigure into an adjective-noun phrase. It’s been about bursts of love all along, but I didn’t know it. I felt a bit misled. The author, knowing from the get-go how to apprehend the titular phrase, was surprised at my (and most of the class’s) misreading. It’s important to note that I don’t believe her to be wrong with her title choice; I just want her to think more broadly about potential meanings.

The advice part of this essay will be brief and general (“feeling myself too ill-instructed to instruct others” — Montaigne): Try to be aware of the various readings and meanings readers may come to give your text. Understand language not as denotative but as accumulative and tentative, words in order forming constellations from which meaning emerges. Anticipate your readers’ questions and objections, and avoid problems or address them as you write (perhaps even in direct address; the essay is wonderfully open to such meta-textuality).

If I weren’t already past the respectable word limit for blog posts, I’d talk us through an expert example of managing expectations, but instead, among so many possible models, I will simply exhort you to read Brian Doyle’s “His Last Game,” which was a Best American Essay in 2013. Savor how it both confirms and subverts your expectations throughout. To wrap up, then:

I love this story my mother told us. For context, you should know that for many years she worked as a secretary at a law firm that handled lots of motor vehicle cases.

You need to have uninsured motorist insurance. With the cases I see every day… there’s a lot of people out there driving around without insurance, or without enough insurance. And if one of them hits you… you’ll be on the hook for the damages. For years I kept telling Chris Leone, “Chris, you need to get uninsured motorist insurance,” and she wouldn’t listen. “Liz,” she’d say. “You worry too much.” But I kept telling her, for years, and finally she got uninsured motorist insurance.

You know what’s going to happen next, don’t you? And while you’re sad for Chris, at least you’re glad that she got uninsured motorist insurance just in time.

Except… in time for what? Nothing happened. Nobody hit Chris. Chris didn’t hit anybody. “Mom!” we laughed. “This is the part where an uninsured motorist hits Chris’s car, and…”

“No,” said Mom. “That’s it. She got the insurance. Now she’s covered.”

For context, you should know that almost exactly a year ago, my mother died of cancer. Because she had smoked almost her entire adult life, we long knew that the day would come, yet I echo what many have said: you’re never really prepared. Despite the disarming pain that still catches me unawares and plunges me into a deep melancholy, I am grateful that her whole family, her husband and all of her children and our spouses and her grandchildren, and many of her friends, gathered from near and very far to spend her last days with her, when she was still awake and aware and laughing and praying and telling us all how much she loved us. When she was gone, or nearly gone, I don’t quite remember, we told this story to each other and it was a salve to our wounds.

 

Guest Post, Donald Morrill: Nonfiction Fact and Poetic Fact

Donald MorrillIn December 2002, a justice of the Pennsylvania Supreme Court was castigated by his colleagues for delivering a legal opinion in quatrains.*

The case involved a woman who sought damages from her estranged, much older fiancé because he had lied to her about the nature of her engagement ring (not to mention its value). The majority of the court denied her claim, declaring that she, given the difference in their ages, had relied foolishly on his assurances.

But the poetic justice dissented. And thus sangeth:

A groom must expect matrimonial pandemonium

When his spouse finds he’s given her cubic zirconium.

Given their history and Pygmalion relation

I find her reliance was with justification.

One of the justice’s colleagues observed that “every jurist has the right to express him or herself in a manner the jurist deems appropriate,” but he was concerned about “the perception that litigants and the public at large might form when an opinion of the court is reduced to rhyme.”

Reduced to rhyme.

Perhaps the offending justice is merely a bad poet (though he defended his work, accurately, I think, by declaring: “You have an obligation to be right, but you have no obligation to be dull.”)

His critics, however, seem to be suggesting that the musical properties of verse are insufficiently serious for the task at hand; and that the characteristic virtue of poetry—to condense and transmute whatever it wishes into memorable, indestructible language—somehow harms the facts, stripping them of the gravitas appropriate, in this instance, to an instrument of law.

Yet there is a venerable legacy of serious nonfiction in verse. For instance, Lucretius in his treatise On the Nature of Things, from the first century B.C., presents in hexameters a full-scale exposition of the Greek Philosopher Epicurus and the atomic theory of Democritus. There is also Ovid’s satirical but no less serious handbook of seduction, The Art of Love.

So maybe poetry, or even merely verse, is not the problem here. Maybe the justice’s quatrains—his creative nonfiction, if you will—are unsuitably creative because they employ the wrong poetic techniques. If he had written his dissent in a less galloping meter or even in verse libre, if he had chosen fewer polysyllabic rhymes, or had used slant rhymes, or had dispensed with rhyme altogether, perhaps his colleagues, and the guffawing public they imagine, would not think his verse a diminishment.

Poetry, in its official get-up, is a matter of lines and line breaks, of course, and the interplay of these with sentences draped down the page, through the stanzas, across the pauses. It’s a spectacular confinement, and at its best, a delicious, necessary unsettling of the language.

But we also know that poetry appears in prose, as prose, perhaps as often as it appears in verse, as verse. It’s something other than just lines. So we might assert, for the sake of argument, that verse is to poetry as nonfiction is to creative nonfiction.

Nonfiction prides itself on trafficking in facts. But many poets assert that poems should be factually accurate, even when fictive. So what happens to the status of a fact once it is introduced into a poem? Is there such a thing as a poetic fact? If there is, can it be introduced into nonfiction? How is its status changed by doing so? And how does it alter the status of nonfiction?

Poetic writing consorts with a lyric consciousness, of course, and with the metaphoric—saying one thing by saying another, saying one thing in terms of another but in a more controlled and sharpened way than the metaphoric slip-slop of ordinary speech. A poetic fact—not a fact made poetic—embodies more than one kind of perception. It registers more than one kind of measurement. And it inspires in us a devoted restlessness among those perceptions and measurements, because it also welcomes the possibility of discovery at its edges. It presents—and verges on presenting something more.

Let me give just one example of a poetic fact, though they abound, of course—a line from “Chimes” by the wonderful poet Robert Dana:

Every day I live I live forever.

The statement is true, undeniably factual in several ways but not like My heart beats sixty times a minute now.

Both lines might be verse, since they both scan, but only the first is poetic, or poetry.

We might wonder how, then, a poet would rewrite the versifying justice’s opinion in order to include poetic fact and whether the law would still be the law if that were to happen. We nod yes when Ezra Pound says poetry is news that stays news. But if the newspaper were poetry, we certainly wouldn’t need a daily edition. (And can you imagine the 11 o’clock news as a poetry reading?)

***

Consider now Norman Maclean’s masterpiece Young Men and Fire. It is a book of nonfiction fact, relating the story of the death of a dozen smokejumpers—and the unlikely survival of three others—in a forest fire blow-up at Mann Gulch, Montana, in 1949. Maclean meticulously replays, rethinks, re-imagines and researches the last thirty minutes of the doomed men’s lives—setting this quest for comprehension against the backdrop of what was known about fire at the time of the disaster and what has been learned in the 38 years afterward. The book brims with historical documentation and scientific data about fire fighting, about burn rates and the effects of wind; it contains maps and photographs, diagrams, transcripts and mathematical equations; and it also draws on his and others’ intimate knowledge of the local landscape, gleaned from lifetimes spent in the Montana woods.

As he writes: “In a modern tragedy you have to look out for the little details rather than big flaws.”

The word “tragedy” should cue us here. Maclean is also drawing on a lifetime of teaching Shakespeare and the Romantic poets, and this is where the poetry comes in. His book is haunted by the search for compassion and understanding about the earth and our place on it. While acting as a factual detective, Maclean is also confronting the problem of identity, which, even as he faces old age and his own mortality, remains unsolved for him—unsolvable for us all.

It is probably not surprising, then, that the book was left unfinished at his death, though it is, most assuredly, complete.

Maclean’s task lay beyond the power of nonfiction facts alone, so he turned to poetic facts, of which the book contains many. Consider, for instance, this passage from the concluding pages, which illustrates how he extends nonfiction fact with poetic fact. About the doomed men running up the steep mountainside from the fire that will consume them, he writes:

The evidence, then, is that at the very end beyond thought and beyond fear and beyond even self-compassion and divine bewilderment there remains some firm intention to continue doing forever and ever what we last hoped to do on earth. By this final act they had come about as close as body and spirit can to establishing a unity of themselves with earth, fire, and perhaps the sky.

This is as far as we are able to accompany them. When the fire struck their bodies, it blew their watches away. The two hands of a recovered watch had melted together at about four minutes to six. For them, that may be taken as the end of time.

If this were not enough, a few sentences later, Maclean writes, in what is the concluding passage of the book:

I, an old man, have written this fire report. Among other things, it was important to me, as an exercise for old age, to enlarge my knowledge and spirit so I could accompany young men whose lives I might have lived on their way to death. I have climbed where they climbed, and in my time I have fought fire and inquired into its nature. In addition, I have lived to get a better understanding of myself and those close to me, many of them now dead. Perhaps it is not odd, at the end of this tragedy where nothing much was left of the elite who came from the sky but courage struggling for oxygen, that I have often found myself thinking of my wife on her brave and lonely way to death.

It is a thematic coda, of course, but at the very end of it something wholly unexpected flares up. Maclean has mentioned his wife only once before, briefly, telling us of her death from lung cancer, and that there is a valley near Mann Gulch named for her. (Another place where fire can make its strange appearance.)

These few details become supreme poetic facts because they allow the nonfiction facts about the nature of fire—and the facts about the smokejumpers’ deaths, the strange solitude of their deaths—to also stand metaphorically for the obscure solitude of Maclean’s grief at his wife’s lonely death. These poetic facts revise our understanding of the book by suddenly multiplying the dimensions of its assumed subject. The nonfiction book of nonfiction facts is called Young Men and Fire. But the poem it also becomes by virtue of that final passage could be called Old Man and Ashes.

Thus, we might assert that creative nonfiction—if we can now think of it as a form of poetry—is the most impure, and thus capacious, of poetic forms because it allows the broadest range of rhythms and “content.” It honors the nonfiction fact, reveres and seeks the clarity of definition that nonfiction fact aspires to, but, like Maclean’s fire, it knows and submits to the earthly reality that, in a moment, a fact of that sort can become quite something else.

 

NOTE

* “Justices Call on Bench’s Bard to Limit His Lyricism:” The New York Times, December 15, 2002, Adam Liptak