What Can We Steal from Jen Hirt’s “Glow in the Dark”?
Title of Work and its Form: “Glow in the Dark,” creative nonfiction
Author: Jen Hirt
Date of Work: 2013
Where the Work Can Be Found: The piece debuted in the Winter 2013 issue of Redivider, a very cool journal. The kind people at Redivider have made the essay available as a sample to tempt you to order a copy of the issue. You can view the essay here.
Bonuses: Here is a fun prose poem Ms. Hirt published in the Baltimore Review. Ms. Hirt, I’m quite sure, would be grateful if you swing by her Amazon page. Want to see Ms. Hirt speaking at the Ohioana Book Festival? (The event is always a good time, by the way.)
Element of Craft We’re Stealing: Right Brain/Left Brain
Wow, what a beautiful piece. Ms. Hirt describes a visit she took to a forest near the Bernheim Arboretum, an institution in Kentucky dedicated to connecting people with nature. Ms. Hirt was serving as the writer-in-residence at Bernheim, using her facility with language to spread an important gospel. Ms. Hirt’s tour guide was Mark Gumbert, a chiropterist (bat researcher) who does important work trying to understand the lives of those in-between animals. Bats are somewhere “between.” They’re not quite birds and not quite mice. There’s “a human hand in the wing of the bat,” but the creatures are certainly not primates. Ms Hirt spends the evening capturing bats and watching the signals they use to echolocate obstacles and other bats. At the end of the evening, Mark attaches a small glow stick to a small bat and everyone watches the flight path of the confused “little Leviathan” as it zigzagged across the night sky.
So why did I love this essay? Well, there’s some really pretty writing. Read for yourself to find out; we’ll probably have highlighted many of the same phrases. My favorite part, I think, was the way that Ms. Hirt structured the piece. After explaining what she was up to, she engaged in a linear discussion of the evening in question. Most importantly, she did something that I LOVE when I see in The New Yorker and Harper’s and all of those other great general interest magazines. Ms. Hirt brought in references to a number of literary sources. Bats are not simply animals that frighten many of us on a primal level. They have long been the subject of great writers. Ms. Hirt describes bats in a scientific fashion, but recount’s Aesop’s fable about the bat and the weasel. She reminds us that T.S. Eliot illuminated another side of the animal in “The Waste Land.” Why does this matter? Ms. Hirt uses her right brain and her left brain to help us understand the mysterious world of the bat and what it means to her. (And what it should mean to us.)
Isn’t this the whole point of poetry and prose and any kind of creative writing? A sunset is beautiful (particularly in Oswego, New York). But why is it beautiful? Well, that’s what words do. They try to offer some shape and meaning to experiences and objects that are often hard to describe. Countless writers have tried to define “love.” Such a concept is abstract and can’t be fully explicated with statistics and MRIs alone. Nor can one simply blubber out the words that come to mind when they think of a loved one. Heart and mind must work together. In this case, Ms. Hirt dedicates hers to illuminating the life of a bat. (At one point, Ms. Hirt acknowledges that she and those around her have abandoned reason, consumed with “stupefied wonder.”)
Ms. Hirt concludes the essay with what seems like a good general idea for any essay. How many of us have trouble figuring out where a piece ends? I can’t be the only one. At the conclusion of “Glow in the Dark,” Ms. Hirt makes a guess as to what the experience will mean to her and her future children. (And the last sentence is, of course, striking and beautiful.)
So next time you’re stuck as to how to end a piece? Try to imagine what the events of the story will mean to you in the years to come. (I’m finishing up an essay and may just try this technique myself.)
What Should We Steal?
- Approach your subject from both sides of your brain. Concrete assessment and abstract analysis work together to offer your reader a comprehensive understanding of the subject of your work.
- Conclude a piece by conjecturing what the events will mean to the protagonist(s) in the future. Will you be correct? Who knows? Your guess can still help the reader contextualize the meaning you’ve tried to communicate.