Friday, February 4, 2011

From Davie to Cozumel via Sioux City: Lessons from the Trenches

After three and a half weeks of studying nonfiction, my students and I finally had our first workshop. I’m happy to report it was a success, and full of useful lessons.

The first three pieces workshopped all had a strong sense of place at their center. Yazmin wrote about a trip to Cozumel, Chip wrote about his family’s yearly trek to Sioux City, Iowa for Christmas, and Michael wrote about Davie, a South Florida suburb. Each of these places is pretty challenging, in the sense that they are all laden with expectations. Cozumel, perhaps most of all, is difficult to write about without sounding like a travel brochure. Like all tourist traps, it is a masked place, half real and half fabricated. Sioux City isn’t exactly a Mexican port of call, but Chip’s focus was the road trip there, so he was treading very familiar ground. Similarly, though few people outside of Florida have ever heard of Davie, the topic of American Suburbia is so saturated it’s almost impossible to write about in a compelling way.


My students succeeded by being able to step outside their heads for a moment and look at the places they were writing about with two sets of eyestheirs and someone else’s. Here is the opening paragraph of Yazmin’s piece on Cozumel:

The place seen by many as just another port of call on their ship’s itinerary has a very different and often overlooked side. Beyond the multi-million dollar ship docks, jewelry stores advertising hefty discounts on what they describe as “Mexican gold,” and shops filled not only with authentic Mexican souvenirs labeled “Made in China,” but also cheap tequila and prescription drugs, exists a rather poor city where over 70,000 Mexicans struggle to make ends meet just like many American families do.

Here is the double vision at work: one set of eyes is seeing what one expects of Cozumel, docks and shops, and the other is seeing the real city behind it. The opening works because it quickly discards the familiar, the expected, and offers the reader something new to think about. You keep reading to find out not what is exotic or glamorous about Cozumel (you pretty much had that figured out by the time you boarded the ship), but rather what might be surprisingly familiar.

You also keep reading because of great details like “cheap tequila and prescription drugs.” There’s something seedy and shameful about them that makes it easy to reject the sandy beaches and Margarita-mix visions associated with such places, which is exactly what Yazmin wants us to do.

Cultivating and working this double vision is not as easy as it appears. How can you write road-trip memoir and not despair at the Jack Kerouacs, William Least Heat-Moons, and John Steinbecks that have come before you? At first, Chip struggled:

Driving up Florida, passing into Georgia, through Tennessee, up to Missouri, and ending in Iowa. It is just impossible to explain how beautiful some of the images you see are on that drive.
Aw, Chip. No it isn’t:

Tennessee is like driving through thick hilly forest on a road that is carved into the earth like a winding riving. Stone walls on either side of the road over 50 feet high. Frozen icicles hang on for dear life. The colors within the rocks are stunning. Blues, purples, greens, redscolors you never expect to see from stone.

The key to Chip’s double vision here is the realization, right after giving up on the ability to explain what was so beautiful about the drive, that “blues, purples, greens, reds” are colors you never expect to see from stone. Suddenly, Chip was able to remember what it must have been like to see those colors for the very first time, when all he knew of stone were shades of gray, and the double vision was born. Sometimes the other pair of eyesthe eyes of the readerare your own, your memory eyes. Tap into your own before and after, and you’ll be able to recreate what was unexpectedand therefore interestingfor the reader.

I’ve always been fascinated by American suburban drama. It’s a genre all its own, but, like all obsessions, it can get pretty boring. How many times can you tell me about the white picket fence and the repressed housewife? Much like quirky retellings of A Christmas Carol or vampire stories, suburban drama is so overexposed, it’s going to take some kind of wonderful to make me like it.

Enter Davie:

The town itself has the feel of fresh plastic surgery. As you drive down the main road you
notice the rodeo at first, mostly because of its sharp contrast to the newer fast-food joints
adjacent to its main grounds. A town grown from a farming and livestock community, the
incestuous clash of strip malls and carefully planned agriculture gives the feel of your favorite band that just sold out. In an area of such diverse ethnic backgrounds, the area's lack of originality gives it the feel of a cultural cemetery.

What’s so great about this passage is that Michael’s able to see, simultaneously, how Davie is like every other American suburb and how it’s not. The irony that any place in the US could possibly aspire to the label of “typical suburban town” is not lost on us. The incongruity of rodeos and strip malls, so aptly described as “fresh plastic surgery,” is immediately apparent. Moreover, Davie’s location, so close to the multi-culti, cosmo-capitals of SoFla, makes the contrast even more ironic.

Apart from how this piece plays with our expectations of suburban discourse, what makes it compelling is Michael’s ability to tap into the town’s intentions. The passages above elucidate the point that places are not just static locations devoid of subjectivity. In Michael’s hands, Davie is something like a starlet in a Poison video, leaving the family farm for a silicone and collagen life on the Sunset Strip. Yazmin’s Cozumel is also a painted lady, jangling cheap bracelets and even cheaper booze. Somewhere between these is a Tennessee road riven into tie-dyed rock walls like something out of a James Fenimore Cooper novel.

It’s going to be a good semester.

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