What Can We Steal from Anthony Doerr’s “Two Nights”?

Title of Work and its Form: “Two Nights,” creative nonfiction
Author: Anthony Doerr
Date of Work: 2010
Where the Work Can Be Found:  The essay made its debut in the Winter/Spring 2010 issue of the excellent journal Fugue.  The piece was subsequently awarded a Pushcart Prize and was included in the 2013 anthology.

Bonuses:  Ooh, here‘s a cool interview Mr. Doerr did for Fugue.  And here‘s what he said to Granta.  (Mr. Doerr has conversations with all of the coolest people!)

Element of Craft We’re Stealing: Narrative Structure

Discussion:

Mr. Doerr lives in Idaho and spent two nights camping in some of the more remote parts of the state.  (Which, as he points out, is pretty much the whole state.)  The experience inspired Mr. Doerr to think about the history of the beautiful state and the connection between the scenery and the people who shaped its past and will continue to shape it in the future.

The structure of the piece is stellar.  (And not just because he mentions the sky that “travels through a long spectrum of purples.)  How is the piece built?

  • Introduction in which he orients the reader.  He’s going into the mountains of central Idaho alone.  It’s very beautiful.
  • He describes what Idaho is like for those who have never had the pleasure of going there.  You can hear the sound of rain falling on a pond before heading back three minutes into town to deal with the methamphetamine crisis and waiting an hour to eat at The Cheesecake Factory.
  • Mr. Doerr describes the distant history of Idaho.  Folks have been living there for 12,000 years.  The Tukudeka were the last of the Native Americans to survive the arrival of Americans.
  • More recent history; how Idaho (and the lives of the natives) were shaped by Americans.
  • Mr. Doerr does his best to understand the people who were so unpleasant to the Native Americans.
  • A critical story: The Tukudeka make their last stand in 1879, trying to evade and defeat the American forces.
  • 128 years later, Mr. Doerr is camped in a place near that site.  He thinks about conquest and the inevitability that the hunter eventually becomes the hunted.  No matter how big and important we think we are, we’re all part of a bigger world and part of a bigger universe in turn.  He considers the future of a region that is subject to relentless change and reminds the reader that Idaho is modern in places, but also allows a visitor to live in the past.

Look what Mr. Doerr does!  Not only does he offer an engaging travelogue, but he gives you an entertaining and important history lesson.  In this way, Mr. Doerr engages the central dilemma of writing (and especially nonfiction writing).  It’s not inherently a big deal that Mr. Doerr went camping.  Most of us have gone camping.  The gentleman knew how to make his fairly commonplace experience a fascinating one.  One way that he makes the story so special is by offering his unique personal viewpoint on the experience.  (And he lays down some incredibly beautiful sentences along the way.)  Anyone can write an account of camping in Idaho, but Anthony Doerr is the only person in the world who could have written THIS account.

Mr. Doerr’s structure also addresses the central question of “So what?”  “Who cares?” Well, Mr. Doerr makes you care.  The Idaho in this story is not simply a flyover state.  It’s a living, breathing organism that has hosted a great deal of fascinating history.  The narrator of “Two Nights” acknowledges how tiny he is the big scheme of things.  (And also discusses the danger of failing to understand one’s proper place in the universe’s hierarchy.)  The narrator thinks about himself a little at the beginning, but turns his attention to larger issues.  When he returns to himself at the end, the reader shares his perspective.

What Should We Steal?

  • Transform a commonplace experience into something special.  We’ve all experienced heartbreak.  What sets apart the heartbreak in your story?
  • Inform the reader why he or she should care about reading your work.  When a rock climber walks past a cliff, he or she will think, “Should I climb this one?”  Give your reader a reason to spend time with your piece.

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