What Can We Steal From Alicia Catt’s “Going Down on Polypropylene”?

Title of Work and its Form: “Going Down on Polypropylene,” creative nonfiction
Author: Alicia Catt
Date of Work: 2013
Where the Work Can Be Found: The piece can be found in Volume 2, Issue 9 of Pithead Chapel, a fine online journal.  Go check it out.

Bonuses:  Here is another work of creative nonfiction that Ms. Catt placed in The Citron ReviewHere is a piece from decomP Magazine about trichotillomania. And another piece from Mary: A Journal of New Writing.

Element of Craft We’re Stealing: Point of View

Discussion:
At the age of twelve, Ms. Catt was devoted to the environment and lived in perpetual fear of what the other people would say about her.  Were any of us at our best at twelve?  Ms. Catt was a little overweight and was uninformed and confused about sex.  Based upon that last description, I might have thought this piece was about me.  But there’s another reason: the piece is in second person.  You meet a woman who doesn’t quite belong in small-town Wisconsin who knows a lot about sex.  You blush when she simulates a sexual act with a pudding cup.  You are sad that Carrie gets abused, but you are glad that her presence pushed you onto a higher rung of the social ladder.  Carrie is gone before long and you suffer one more indignity; the soda cans you picked up during a field trip contained ants that crawl around on you during the bus ride back to school.  Ah, adolescence.

So the first thing that I noticed about the story was the point of view.  The piece has been classified as nonfiction, so I was a bit surprised to see that Ms. Catt employed the second person.  After all, this is ostensibly HER story and the events described (pretty much) really happened.  (Depending, of course, how much Ms. Catt agrees with Pam Houston’s thoughts regarding truth in nonfiction.)  What does Ms. Catt gain by taking HER story and putting it onto YOU?

  1. Novelty.  There are second-person memoirs out there, but you don’t see these kinds of works every day.  Readers can be compelled by aberrations from the norm, so Ms. Catt earns attention from her first sentence.  (It becomes her responsibility, of course, to keep that attention and does so with some beautiful sentences and turns of phrase.)
  2. The reader is aligned with the author.  As I’ve pointed out, the second person reduces distance between the narrator and writer; Morgan Freeman is not only talking to you, but he’s telling your story!  Here’s the graphic I made using my hype MS Paint skyllz:nokes second person
  3. The reader has an easier time remembering his or her own adolescence.  It’s been a long time since I was a teenager and I’ve blocked out a lot of the feelings and events I don’t want to remember.  Ms. Catt cuts through that defense mechanism with sentences such as, “But you’re made of oddity.”  Once Ms. Catt puts you in a mental state in which you can remember how you felt as a teenager, her own awkwardness and longing become more potent.

One of the facets of prose that has been a challenge in my own writing is figuring out how best to cast my scenes.  When I was younger, I was often tempted to have my third person narrators go overboard with their DIALOGUE AND DESCRIPTION OF SMALL EVENTS.  In that way, I was failing to make use of the fiction writer’s toolbox.  In a play or screenplay, a writer has no narrator (you know what I mean) and can really only make use of dialogue and action.  Fiction writers can make use of a narrator who simply tells the reader what they need to know and fast-forwards when they need to.

There are no SCENES in “Going Down on Polypropylene,” though there is plenty of scene work.  Consider this scene from Ms. Catt’s piece:

You beg your mother for rides to Econofoods, and burrow through the grocer’s dumpster to recycle every scrap of corrugated cardboard they’ve mistaken for waste. Even when you cut your fingers on sticky, dark things, you keep digging and sorting. You dig and you sort until your mother’s had enough and drags you home.

See how boring that scene would be if it were written as a real scene?

Alicia stood before the grocer’s dumpster, plastic bags on her hands in a futile attempt to prevent her from touching the slimy garbage.  She loved the environment, but the aroma of hot, wet garbage made her sick.

Alicia’s mother was inside and would be done shopping soon.  Alicia had to be quick.  She opened up the clear recycling bag and started grabbing for cardboard.  Sharp edges nipped at her fingers…

See?  Boring.  And not just because I wrote it.  Ms. Catt makes the felicitous choice to tell us enough to imagine the scene without getting bogged down in the boring and unnecessary.

What Should We Steal?

  • Select an unexpected point of view.  Why not a second person memoir?  Why not tell the story of a historical event from a first person point of view?
  • Allow your narrator to describe scenes instead of writing them as scenes.  In prose, the narrator can zip through time, reach into the minds of others and work all kinds of other magic.  Take advantage of these superpowers!

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