What Can We Steal From Rachel Luria’s “A State of Feeling”?

Title of Work and its Form: “A State of Feeling,” creative nonfiction
Author: Rachel Luria
Date of Work: 2013
Where the Work Can Be Found:  The piece was published in the Spring 2013 issue of Phoebe.  You can read the piece here.

Bonuses: Ms. Luria was one of the editors of Neil Gaiman and Philosophy; why not check the book out at Powell’s?  Here‘s a PopMatters review of the book.

Element of Craft We’re Stealing: In Medias Res

Discussion:
Ms. Luria was feeling the deep loneliness to which many of us can relate and was hoping to find companionship.  So she went to Dragon*Con, a gathering of folks hoping to celebrate “all things science, science fiction, fantasy, and horror.  (I haven’t been myself, but I’m guessing it could be a lot of fun.)  Ms. Luria was under the impression that she would find her soul mate at the conference, saying, “If I can’t find a man at Dragon*Con, then I am definitely going to die alone.”  Ms. Luria describes her experience in speed dating and how she felt when surrounded by all of the other attendees.  The account is interspersed with vignettes exploring the depth of her loneliness; she went quite some time without being in a relationship and struggled with the internal and external stresses resulting from such a condition.  Near the end of the piece, we learn that Ms. Luria’s loneliness was broken when she met someone online and that her day as a zombie bridesmaid represented a fairly low point in her life whose emotions never truly leave her.

Ms. Luria makes a wise choice in beginning her piece “in medias res.”  (That’s Latin for “in the middle of things.”)  Instead of describing how she registered for Dragon*Con or the boring and commonplace process by which she got to Dragon*Con, she begins with a scene that finds her standing outside of the conference hotel.  Two young men are offering hugs; some “awkward” and other “deluxe.”  Not only is her mid-scene opening a good idea because it immerses us quickly in her narrative, but also because she chose a very good anecdote.  These young men are probably a lot like many video game/comic book nerds.  There are certainly exceptions, but these folks are often socially awkward and aren’t often at the top of the list when women decide who they want to date.  (The popular perception and the way society treats them doesn’t exactly help them in this regard, does it?)

Like the author, these young men are hoping to find a connection…possibly a romantic one.  This opening anecdote primes us perfectly for the overall theme of the piece.  Ms. Luria is lonely and she’s surrounded by people who are also somewhat adrift.  The opening of “A State of Feeling” teaches us two important lessons in one: prose writers may wish to begin in the middle of the drama and they are also well-advised to choose anecdotes that tie strongly into the theme of the overall piece.

“A State of Feeling” has at least one thing in common with Kent Russell’s excellent “American Juggalo.”  Both nonfiction pieces feature stories that are told by someone who is at once part of the group they’re analyzing while maintaining a kind of distance.  Yes, Ms. Luria took place in the Dragon*Con speed dating.  Yes, she talked to a guy who was dressed like Luigi.  She doesn’t, however, bore us with the mundane parts of her time.  Did she go see the Firefly panel?  Maybe.  I’ll bet she ran into an actor who has appeared on Star Trek.  She didn’t tell us about these moments because they didn’t fit the tone that she took.  She’s IN the Dragon*Con world, but not OF it.

Why is this a shrewd choice?  Taking this stance allows her some objectivity.  The distance helps her to contextualize her feelings, both about herself and those around her.  Maintaining this distance can be very difficult, particularly when writing creative nonfiction.  I’ve written a little bit about my somewhat challenging family situation and it’s really easy to slip into pathos when logos and ethos are a better overall fit.  We care that she feels lonely, but we’re not going to understand it unless she can describe it from a writer’s perspective.

What Should We Steal?

  • Begin the narrative in the middle of the story and with a thematically significant anecdote.  Doing so weeds out the boring parts and gets us to care about your characters very quickly.  (This is especially true if YOU are the character!)
  • Describe your personal experiences as a writer, not as the individual who experienced them.  Your humanity will bake the emotion into your writing all by itself; it’s your job to use your rhetorical skills to make us understand what the experience truly meant.

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