What Can We Steal From Jacqueline Kirkpatrick’s “Disconnected”?

Title of Work and its Form: “Disconnected,” creative nonfiction
Author: Jacqueline Kirkpatrick
Date of Work: 2013
Where the Work Can Be Found:  The piece debuted in Issue 8 of Mason’s Road, a cool online journal produced by Fairfield University’s MFA in Creative Writing Program.  You can read the piece here.

Bonuses:  My Google search for more material from Ms. Kirkpatrick seems to indicate that she’s a frequent participant in public readings.  Good on her!  We should all endeavor to share our work in these venues.  (Maybe I’m just thinking about myself.)  Here is a brief interview Ms. Kirkpatrick gave in support of her MFA program at The College of Saint Rose.  Here is one of Ms. Kirkpatrick’s poems.

Element of Craft We’re Stealing: Cool Conceits

Discussion:
Like many essays, this piece is split into sections; the vignettes combine to reveal a deeper truth about Ms. Kirkpatrick and her life.  The author begins with blunt sadness: “At five I was abandoned on a doorstep in a trailer park just outside of Albany.”  We receive further revelations, each tied to a digit from the phone number of Ms. Kirkpatrick’s childhood home.  “Seven” is part of the phone number and has some significance to her; she has the number tattooed on her ankle, she was her adoptive mother’s seventh child.  Nine?  She has moved that many times since the age of twenty-two.  In the end, of course, she puts everything together and offers some insight as to what the phone number means to her.

If you read a lot of my GWS, I think you’ll find that I often find myself focusing on the structure of a piece.  In this case, Ms. Kirkpatrick has found a cool “hook” for her story: a phone number.  Sure, it’s just seven digits (without the area code), but the number has a great deal of meaning.  You likely remember your childhood phone number.  Why?  That number represents safety.  If anything went wrong, those are the digits you punched into a pay phone.  You may even remember a phone number from a commercial jingle.  Like any other snippet of music that has been burned into our souls, we may remember the moment we first heard the song and how we were feeling.

If you watch daytime TV, you have probably seen this commercial:

It will be a while before you forget the phone number, won’t it?  If you’ll recall, Tommy Tutone had a big hit in the 1980s with the Alex Call and Jim Keller song “867-5309/Jenny.”

What does the phone number really represent?  Well, ask your parents if you’re not sure.  I don’t want to be the one who tells you.  Ms. Kirkpatrick, as I pointed out, builds her piece around the phone number.  Whether or not the serendipity is contrived, it’s meaningful that each digit of that important number relates to her life in some way.

I think that structure is a particularly important element of creative nonfiction because we may or may not be describing life experiences that are very unique.  Sure, the heartbreaks I’ve experienced are different from those in your past, but they boil down to a lot of the same emotions.  Ms. Kirkpatrick and I seem to have…difficult childhood situations in common.  (Not that I’m complaining; mine could surely have been worse.)  I’ve certainly read a lot of literature about people whose childhoods had problems…I’m even hoping to finish a book about a character who is going through one.  As Ms. Kirkpatrick points out with her structure, the experience alone is not what is most important; it’s how we tell the story.  The author has chosen a felicitous and accessible structure that allows her to tell a big story in small sections that combine to mean more than the sum of their parts.

Why does “Disconnected” remind me a little bit of John Cheever’s “Reunion?”  Well, both are about childhood, of course, but look at the similarity in the sentences each writer crafts.  Both of the stories feature lines that are short and calm and declarative, even though they are packed with emotion.  Compare:

“Reunion”:

We went out of the station and up a side street to a restaurant.  It was still early, and the place was empty.  The bartender was quarrelling with a delivery boy, and there was one very old waiter in a red coat down by the kitchen door.  We sat down, and my father hailed the waiter in a loud voice.

“Disconnected”:

Seven is my favorite number. I had the number seven tattooed on my ankle. It was my seventh tattoo. I married my seventh lover. The woman who adopted me had six children—I was her seventh. I was born on July 7.

Why is this sentence structure a significant choice?  Both pieces are packed with emotion already; neither author needs to do much to evoke a reaction in a reader.  Longer sentences packed with more pathos would detract from the reader’s experience.  We wouldn’t be experiencing a story; we would be providing free therapy.  The writers of these pieces don’t want us to be their confessors.  They want us to be their audience.

What Should We Steal?

  • Emphasize storytelling over the story when necessary.  The leanest story can be captivating if it’s told properly and the world’s most complicated story can be boring if the writer fumbles the ball.
  • Allow the situation and characters to dictate the emotion in a piece, not the sentences themselves.  The reader’s sympathy should be earned with strong use of craft.

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