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Friday, June 22, 2007

where voice resides: the allergy diaries

There are a few essays so well-written that I could use them to teach each element of craft. Jill Christman’s “The Allergy Diaries” is one of these essays.

“The Allergy Diaries” describes Christman’s infant daughter’s anaphylactic reaction to cow's milk and the aftermath of this discovery. That is the situation in the essay. The real story is much bigger, of course. It’s about worry and vigilance and chronic fear. It’s about the ways in which we justify our worrying. (Those of you who know me know I’m a first-class worrier, so of course, I can relate.)

The essay has everything: drama, foreshadowing, humor. It’s no wonder that it was nominated for a Pushcart Prize.

In my class (because I’m generally a more effective teacher when I stay focused), I used the essay to talk about voice. Ah, elusive voice.

I used to obsess about voice. What is it? When am I going to find mine? I imagined, and hoped, that I would be sitting at my computer one day, muddling through some essay when the voice fairy would fly in, wave her glittering magic wand at me, and voilà, I would have my writer’s voice. Alas, this never happened. And of course I realized that I actually had to write my way into my voice. You do not find your voice and then write.

I love what the wonderful writer and teacher Charles Baxter says about voice: “Voice is the way our entire being, not just the self, formulates its thoughts and feelings through syntax, word choice, and stance. Voice, like music, has both tones and overtones…” Baxter says that voice exists at the level of the sentence.

It resides in syntax and sentence structure.

I like to think about voice in two ways: there is the writer’s voice, the thing that makes you open a piece of writing and know who wrote it without looking. In Christman’s writing, her voice resides in her dry humor (which she maintains always, even in the face of disaster). It resides in her off-hand comments—“Go ahead and chuckle.”—and in her honesty.

But voice is also situation specific. Our voices change to reflect the emotional context of a scene. And for me, this is where the real crafting of voice occurs. It exists at the level of the sentence.

In the essay, after Christman and her husband, Mark, attempt to feed their daughter, Ella, a bottle of formula, and she begins to have an anaphylactic reaction, Christman (the writer) does two things: she shifts into the present tense, and her sentences alternate between very short, repetitive ones and long, run-on ones. The present tense heightens the immediacy of a scene, of course. I wrote about this in relation to Penny Wolfson’s “Moonrise.”

The repetition and long, run-on sentences increase speed and re-create panic:

“The next minutes are a blur. Mark picks her up and runs, I turn circles around the house for seconds that seem like hours—time is all fucked up when your baby is gurgling. I scream that we need to call someone. We need to call the doctor. We need someone to tell use what to do. But Mark has Ella in her car seat and somehow the dogs are locked safely in the house and I am beside Ella in the backseat, leaning over her, listening to the gurgle, watching her face, come on baby come on baby come on baby, and Mark is backing up fast.”

The whole hospital scene, until Ella gets a shot of Benadryl, is in the present and then it shifts back to the past tense. So perfect, so crafted.

So, if you are struggling with voice, or are simply interested in a great essay, please check out “The Allergy Diaries.” You will find the same skill in Christman’s memoir, Darkroom: A Family Exposure, which won the Associated Writing Programs Award for Creative Nonfiction in 2002. In this book, Christman explores the intersection of image and memory and, with brutal honesty and humor, navigates tragedy and emerges as a true survivor. The opening chapter of this book has replayed in my mind so many times (a huge compliment), and is—honestly—the reason that our water heater is set low enough for my showers to occasionally turn tepid. Read this book.

And thanks, Jill, for an essay that makes teaching writing easy.

2 comments:

Melissa said...

I love that essay. The problem with reading brilliant prose, though, is the resultant despairing of ever writing such brilliant prose. Sigh.

unfinishedportraitofsam said...

oh, i was so excited to read this. Christman was/is a professor at Ball State University, my alma mater, and she's pretty brilliant. sadly, i never had her in class, though. i put "Darkroom" on my reading list for next semester, finally, and reading this discussion makes me even more excited to get to it. :)
thanks.