What Can We Steal From Meghan McClure’s “To Fall”?
Title of Work and its Form: “To Fall,” creative nonfiction
Author: Meghan McClure
Date of Work: 2014
Where the Work Can Be Found: The piece made its debut in Volume 3, Issue 1 of Pithead Chapel. You can read the piece here.
Element of Craft We’re Stealing: Unexpected Choices
In this piece of flash creative nonfiction, Ms. McClure recounts an experience she had when she was six. She “watched a man fall from a bridge.” Now, that’s certainly a very traumatic experience for a kid. Ms. McClure does the vital work of literature: she employs her intellect to try and find some meaning in the experience. Ms. McClure takes an interesting linguistic approach. What does it mean to “fall?” Why do we use that verb with the noun “love?” “Fall” is a relatively active verb, but the action represents an interregnum between two far more definite states. In the case of the falling man, life and death. Confusion and certainty.
If you’ve been writing for any length of time, you have heard that you should “SHOW, don’t TELL.” In general, this is great advice; the reader wants to be immersed in the story you are telling. “To Fall,” however, represents an example of how powerful “telling” can be. Even though Ms. McClure was rapt as the scene unfolded, she was six and children often don’t have Shawn Spencer-esque powers of perception. Further, her memory has changed the event over the years that stretched between the moment the man fell and the moment Ms. McClure uncapped her pen and began to write.
Ms. McClure made a number of smart choices that addressed the possible pitfalls in telling a story that is, by necessity, a fragment:
- The piece is a short short, which frees her of some obligation to specific detail. Ms. McClure didn’t know the man, didn’t know his story, so all she had was his last moment, the size of narrative that is perfectly appropriate for a 400-word piece.
- Ms. McClure didn’t make up any additional detail; the titular fall is the centerpiece of the story, but serves as a complementary element.
- “To Fall” views the event through a couple interesting intellectual lenses. Ms. McClure does an analysis of the verb “fall” and brings in a literary reference and the story of Vesna Vulović, a woman who fell 33,000 feet without a parachute and survived.
Ms. McClure, you will note, is an accomplished poet. It should come as no surprise that she made the choice to fill this short short with sentences that demonstrate a focus on language instead of narrative. Here’s the first couple lines of “To Fall:”
The stomach falls. We fall in love. We fall apart, asleep, behind, off the wagon, in line, on deaf ears, back on. We fall prey to.
If your primary focus is on narrative and your lines usually reach the right margin, you may wonder what can make prose poetic. There’s no absolute answer, of course, but read those first lines again. Now look at them after I hit “return” a few times and “tab” a few more:
The stomach falls.
We fall in love. We fall apart,
________off the wagon,
____________on deaf ears,
We fall prey to.
It looks like a poem, right? Perhaps the lesson is to understand when a section of our prose requires us to slow down and listen to sounds and to try and craft sentences that feel like poetry.
What Should We Steal?
- Tell, don’t show. I know! It feels strange to write the sentence, but our choices must serve the story we’re trying to tell or the question we are trying to confront.
- Remember that “poetry” can be a prominent element of your prose. A short short, for example, doesn’t allow you to pump out pages of exposition. Instead, we must take advantage of poetry’s ability to distill emotion in the space of strikingly few words.