What Can We Steal From Donna Steiner’s “Elements of the Wind”?
Title of Work and its Form: “Elements of the Wind,” creative nonfiction
Author: Donna Steiner
Date of Work: 2009
Where the Work Can Be Found: The essay made its world debut in the Fall 2009 issue of Fourth Genre: Explorations in Nonfiction. You can pick up a back issue of the journal or find the essay here thanks to Project Muse.
Bonuses: Here is a gorgeous and brief piece what was published in the now-defunct journal Spilt Milk. This is a piece called “Orbits” that was published by Connotation Press. Ms. Steiner’s collection Elements is available from Sweet Publications! Ms. Steiner teaches in the Oswego State Creative Writing Department. If you’re in the area, consider taking a class with her!
Element of Craft We’re Stealing: Perspective
In this essay, Donna Steiner turns her considerable powers of perception to understanding the true meaning of something we experience every day: the wind. Ms. Steiner begins by dismissing the reductionism of folks who say things like, “There are two kinds of people: those who love cell phones, and those who hate cell phones.” Ms. Steiner loves the wind and is somewhat puzzled when others don’t. She describes some of the known history of our experience with wind, detailing the Beaufort Wind Scale and reminding the reader about the many names people have given the wind. Ms. Steiner sums up her essay by further deconstructing the false dichotomies that can limit thought; very little about the human experience can be summed up by a simple “either, or” statement.
The genre of “Creative Nonfiction” is not exactly new, but the term is fairly recent and the genre’s conventions are still somewhat in flux. Perhaps I am mistaken, but I get the feeling that some folks labor under misconceptions as to what creative nonfiction really represents. Some folks have told me they think that poetry is “depressed people getting out their bad feelings,” and other folks think that creative nonfiction MUST be memoir, that it MUST be a personal story about something that happened in the writer’s life. In this essay, Ms. Steiner uses creative nonfiction to tell a more important story than to simply describe her feelings about wind. Is the essay “personal” in a way? Sure. Ms. Steiner discovers that many folks don’t share her affection for the wind and this realization leads her to think a great deal about what this part of nature means. Ms. Steiner uses her personal experience as a lens that allows her to consider wind in a new way.
We all have thoughts and do things that others might find strange. Maybe you like going for walks at three in the morning. Perhaps you enjoy shoveling snow. These harmless differences result in unique experiences. Someone who hates shoveling may never have the experience of actually hearing the snow fall. Ms. Steiner loves the wind and the effect it has on people and their surroundings. When you acknowledge your own idiosyncrasies, you are closer to being able to use them to create art.
Approximately halfway through the essay, Ms. Steiner finishes her description of the Beaufort scale and continues thus:
Imagine the magnitude of the accomplishment: naming the wind.
Abroholos, barat, barber, bayamo, borasco, boreas, brickfielder, brisote, Chinook, chubasco, churada, coromell, Diablo, elephanta, ghibli, gregale, haboob, leste, levanter, leveche, maestro, mistral , ostria, pali, pampero, papagayo, shamal, sirocco, squamish, suestado, tramontana, vardar, williwaw, zephyr. Worldwide, others have put name to the wind.
There are two kinds of people. Those who savor the names of the wind like tasting rare fruit on the tongue, and those who skipped the italicized words above once they got the gist of the paragraph.
See what she did? The paragraph with all of the italicized non-English words can overwhelm some readers or invite them to move along to the words they recognize. Ms. Steiner makes use of that tendency to make a point. Some folks are unable to enjoy the simplicity of the wind, just as some folks forego the opportunity to enjoy words for the playfulness of their syllables. Ms. Steiner allows the reader to understand his or her own tendencies and also gently nudges them back to the beginning of the list to enjoy the words. You are the writer; understand that you exert a level of control over the reader.
How does Ms. Steiner end the essay? She returns to the beginning. In a way, the essay is not so much about the wind, but about the willingness to be carried along by circumstance. To explore. To acknowledge the loose ends that are inevitable in our experiences. The structure of the essay mimics the structure of our lives. We start out with simplicity and must confront increasing complexity in order to be truly happy.
What Should We Steal?
- Transform your personal experience into a lens that allows you a deeper look into an important phenomenon. Admit it: you’re still a New Kids on the Block fan. How does this allow you to comment on the Justin Bieber phenomenon?
- Understand the tendencies of the reader and exploit them. You know that, for example, some readers will skip over italicized paragraphs. Turn that into a teaching moment.
- Bookend your work by returning to its beginning. The issues you raise at the beginning of the piece have been simmering in the reader’s mind. When you return to the ideas with which you started, you and your reader examine the ideas from a deepened perspective.