What Can We Steal From Sonja Livingston’s “Something Like Joy”?


Title of Work and its Form: “Something Like Joy,” creative nonfiction
Author: Sonja Livingston (on Twitter @sonjalivingston)
Date of Work: 2013
Where the Work Can Be Found: The essay debuted in the Spring 2013 issue of River Teeth, a great journal of nonfiction edited by Joe Mackall and Dan Lehman.  You can get back issues from those kind folks or you can even purchase issues for the Kindle for a very reasonable price.

Bonuses:  Here is a Bookslut interview with Ms. Livingston about her recent memoir, Ghostbread.  Here is Ms. Livingston’s author page at AGNI Online, complete with links to two of her pieces.  Very cool!  Here is a podcast by FM89.3 WYPL’s Author Interview Program in which she discusses Ghostbread.

Element of Craft We’re Stealing: Narrative Structure

In this essay, Sonja Livingston does her laundry.  Yes, there’s much more to it.  She went to a laundromat far from home, traveling “nearly twenty minutes from the big houses and fine streets” in an attempt to have some solitude and grading time.  The spell of introspection is broken by a woman who may be named Joyelle, a kind woman who works in a nearby school cafeteria.  The small talk begins innocuously enough, but before long, Joyelle asks THE QUESTION: “one that didn’t used to come, or when it did could still be answered with the sort of possibility that let both me and the asker off the hook.”  Ms. Livingston finishes her laundry and leaves, but not before admiring a particularly beautiful Memphis sky.

This piece takes place during Ms. Livingston’s trip to the laundromat and is told in real time.  I really admire work that boasts a solid and logical structure, one that mimics the natural rhythms of life.  Why?  Because we can all relate to these sorts of things.  We’re all bound by time, though many of our characters (real or fictional) are not.  By telling the story of WHAT HAPPENED WHEN I WENT TO THE LAUNDROMAT, Ms. Livingston eases the reader.  We all know what such an afternoon is like.  We’re also allowed to stop wondering about some of the exposition.  We learn very quickly where the protagonist is, what she is doing, and so on.  We’re left with the important question: why.  (Aside from her need to wash her clothes, of course.)

A couple pages in, I was wondering about the “why.”  Thankfully, Ms. Livingston gets right to it.  After the boring small talk is out of the way-How are you today?  What do you do?-Joyelle gets to the important personal stuff, asking Ms. Livingston why she moved to Memphis.  The emotional depth of the conversation increases, of course.  The climax of the piece occurs when Joyelle asks Ms. Livingston if she has any kids.  This question results in a kind of confession.  For most people, children are an inevitability.  The Census Bureau reports, however, that 19.2 percent of American women between the ages of 35 and 44 have no children.  That may sound like a lot, but those who are in any kind of minority are often misunderstood by the majority.  Another example: at least 14% of Americans profess a lack of religious belief.  There are many who have misconceptions about friends and family members who simply don’t believe in a god or gods.

Ms. Livingston gets to a deep emotional truth while describing a scene as mundane as doing laundry.  How?  By recounting a discussion between two people…it’s as simple as that.  Every situation in which we find ourselves offers opportunities for emotional enlightment, so long as we’re open to the possibility.

Look what Ms. Livingston does a few times in the piece.  Before a big moment, she goes into a POETIC INTERJECTION.  The narrative is on pause while the author offers a moment of beautifully phrased reflection.  See?

“No kids?”

“No,” I say.  “Nope.”

It’s odd the way the tender places are not touched so much by those we knows as by strangers sitting in metal chairs while laundry tumbles behind small circles of glass.  Funny how such moments come between talk of old TV shows and spin cycles, while the man in the pickup outside revs his engine, waiting for his girlfriend to switch her load.

“You never wanted any?”  She’s looking straight at me now, silver curls catching the light.

Not only does the paragraph contain pretty phrases, but the poetic interjection is, by definition, the author/narrator/protagonist exerting a lot of control over the reader.  He or she understands what is going on, but is also guided in understanding what the author wants them to think about the situation.

Ms. Livingston’s piece is a powerful reminder: BRING A NOTEBOOK WHEREVER YOU GO!  You never know when you’re going to have a fascinating chance encounter with a waiter that should become a story.

What Should We Steal?

  • Appropriate a natural structure as a vehicle for your abstract and complicated and beautiful idea.  Stories can happen and epiphanies can be experienced during your five-minute wait at Starbucks.
  • Search for the real emotional truth in the otherwise mundane.  We’re happy to read your 5,000-word account of what it was like when you got your latte…if you bring out some great emotional truth and keep us entertained.
  • Employ “poetic interjections” to guide your reader’s analysis.  Your reader may not understand the psychological weight of what is happening in your piece of creative nonfiction.  A poetic interjection can prepare the reader or allow him or her to digest what has happened.