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The power of the non-fiction essay


As a college student majoring in English, I am forced to read a wide variety of literature. Everything from global literature (Chinua Achebe, Soyinka, Hosseini) to British literature (Fowles, Murdoch, Greene) to American literature of the 19th century (Thoreau, Twain, Chopin). During my three years in school I've learned to analyze several lengthy novels and short stories that have all had some impact on my educational experience with literature.


This semester I began a class focused on non-fiction. At first I anticipated reading droll works of literature focused on science or technology, but I soon came to find out that the class was much different from what I was anticipating. 


Our professor assigned us two textbooks: The Best American Essays- 2009 compiled by Mary Oliver, and Tell it Slant by Brenda Miller and Suzanne Paola. Each book is filled with pages and pages of personal narratives written by accomplished authors. Authors from Annie Dillard to David Sedaris to Margaret Atwood enlighten us with stories gathered from their lives. 


Creative non-fiction essay writing is something that far transcends any other kind of writing. It has, within itself, the power for an author to look back on one moment of their lives-whether it be people watching in an airport, reading their brother's autopsy report, or watching a solar eclipse- and make it into something meaningful for today. These authors are gifted in their ability to pull us into their story and make us part of it. 


Some of my favorite pieces from these works include:


  • "My Children Explain the Big Issues" by Will Baker (found in Tell it Slant)   Baker's charming essay on random moments with his children is just a few paragraphs long. But in these paragraphs, Baker manages to turn the words and ideas coming out of his children's mouth into deeper, more complex ideas about life. For example, Baker explains how he once climbed a long hill with his 2 year-old daughter Montana, and as he kept offering to help her she continually resisted, claiming she could do it on her own. This section of the essay is cleverly titled "Feminism." In another section called "Fate", Baker describes a moment when his son Cole refused to obey and kept continually yelling at his father  "I had to! I had to!" Baker manages to take small snippets of his children and turn them into deeper, more complex issues. 

  • "The Fine Art of Sighing" by Bernard Cooper (found in Tell it Slant) Cooper's short essay on sighing explores why human beings sigh. Is it because we're bored? Tired? Annoyed? Frustrated? He even touches on the different types of sighs people give off. His mother would sigh as she smoked cigarettes by the kitchen window, his father would sigh at "the coldness of a drink, the softness of a pillow." Cooper even goes as far to speculate the number of people sighing at any given moment in the world. He blends humor with real life examples to touch on a subject many would just as soon as ignore. 

  • "The Drama Bug" by David Sedaris (found in Tell it Slant) Sedaris is an author known for his quick wit and hilarious satire. He often manages to take random moments of his life and spin them into hilarious scenes, almost as if they were something you were watching on a sitcom. In "The Drama Bug" Sedaris details the time during his adolescence when he became obsessed with Shakespeare and acting in Shakespeare's plays. He makes the reader laugh as he describes his teenage self confidently asking his mother "Be there no garments to launder and iron free of turbulence? See ye not the porcelain plates and hearty mugs waiting to be washed clean of evidence?" Sedaris makes fun of his arrogant teenage ways and entertains the reader along the way.

  • "Writer in Winter" by John Updike (found in The Best American Essays-2009) Updike takes a different approach from his previous fiction works to address the time in his life he refers to as "winter." Essentially Updike is addressing his old age, and the recognition of moving into the final years of his life. He reflects on his past years of writing and the advancements in writing since then. It is a moving piece written by an author who has a lifetime worth of work to reflect upon.


 


Next time you're at the bookstore, be sure to check out the non-fiction section. I learned that there is so much more to non-fiction than science and technology. There are life stories just waiting to be read. 

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