I just returned from a quick overnight trip to Iowa City. There are many things I love about this city. Like….
But the real reason I return to Iowa City every summer is the way it inspires my writing. Today I attended a free lecture by Juliet Patterson, “Alternative Fuel Sources: Powering the Non-narrative Essay.” I was interested in the topic since my sermons and writing are typically narrative driven. What other tools might I use to drive an essay or a message?
Patterson encouraged us to capitalize on our organic strengths as writers. She’s not a storyteller. She’s a lyric poet. So she’s more comfortable describing scenes in specific detail and focusing on the cadence of her words than on a particular narrative. The risk of writing like this–writing a lyric essay–is that it can be lifeless is there is no drama, arc or plot. (I can think of a lot of lifeless sermons I’ve heard that fit this description.) You have to build a scaffolding for what you’re writing. Oftentimes that comes through the plot of a narrative, but Patterson suggested other alternatives such as images, a refrain (a repeated line or two to return to throughout the piece to ground the reader), or connecting small, seemingly disparate details, into a larger context of meaning.
To understand this way of driving a piece of prose, it was helpful to read the examples Patterson used in the lecture. Here’s a picture of my notes on two excerpts she discussed.
The first excerpt by Joni Tevis uses the image of water / rain to create drama. The song, “When the Levee Breaks,” provides the structure. Tevis did a lot of research for this piece, which began (we learned) as a lifeless essay. But the more research she did the more details, images, and ideas started to connect which made the piece come alive.
The second excerpt by John D’Agata’s “About a Mountain” really struck me. It uses a refrain, “The life span of” to ground the reader. But what is so stunning about this piece is about how it creates this aura of slippery-ness here. Everything is slippery. Everything slips away. Even the sentences get shorter as the piece progresses. D’Agata intentionally creates this aura of slippery-ness before introducing the subject of the book; nuclear waste. A substance that does not slip away. Ever. This is a stunning piece of prose that doesn’t need a narrative to drive it.
After the lecture I went straight to the bookstore and bought two books highlighted by Patterson, “About a Mountain” by John D’Agata and “Ongoingness: The End of a Diary” by Sarah Manguso that I hope to dig into this summer. Inspiration abounds in Iowa City!