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On the “Speedy Narrative”

By Jeff Gundy


Teaching an advanced nonfiction course this spring, I assigned Anne Lamott’s Traveling Mercies. Just about everybody loved the book, for a number of reasons—the vivid writing, the sense of detail, the humor and frankness of her account of her gradual coming to faith.

As I tried to understand how she achieved these effects, it occurred to me that often Lamott writes in a mode that is not quite either “scene” or “summary,” but has characteristics of both. As she looks back over her life, Lamott typically includes sparing but specific details even when she is moving quite rapidly over fair stretches of time. She comes briefly to rest on especially crucial moments, but moves on without developing anything like a full-blown scene.

Here’s one very brief example (Lamott is writing about a time shortly after her abortion, when she senses a presence in her room that she is convinced is Jesus):

This experience spooked me badly, but I thought it was just an apparition, born of fear and self-loathing and booze and loss of blood. But then everywhere I went, I had the feeling that a little cat was following me, wanting me to reach down and pick it up, wanting me to open the door and let it in. But I knew what would happen: you let a cat in one time, give it a little milk, and then it stays forever. So I tried to stay one step ahead of it, slamming my houseboat door when I entered or left. (50)

I suggested to the class that we might use the term “speedy narrative” to describe this mode, and that we might try to adapt it to our own uses as well. A good part of Lamott’s charm and strength as a writer, I think, lies in her sense of pacing—at once rapid and seemingly relaxed—and the “speedy narrative” technique might help us to imitate that sense of pace in our own work.

Legendary college basketball coach John Wooden was fond of the motto, “Be quick, but don’t hurry.” I think this is good advice for writing as well as basketball, and it seems another way to get at what Lamott is about with the speedy narrative. The main risk of summary, after all, is that it can go dull through too much abstraction and generalization. Inversely, a main risk of scene is that it can go dull through too many specifics and get bogged down in too many non-essential details. The speedy narrative, then, may be a way of navigating between those risks by constantly pushing against them on both sides.

My exploration of this mode, which has not been exhaustive, suggests that it has two main principles: keep the summary linked firmly to details and concrete language, and keep the scenes as snappy and brief as possible. The result is writing with a lot of zip and zing, capable of reaching over broad stretches of time without lapsing into blandness (“My high school years were happy ones” or getting lost in the aimless recording of whatever we happen to remember (“Sherri had a pair of blue plaid slacks that she wore every Monday, and a denim jumper that she wore on Tuesdays.”)

Let me hasten to add that this mode is not the solution to every writing situation nor the perfect answer as to how every essay should be shaped. There are plenty of times and places for the summary drawn in broad strokes, for the leisurely digression, for the extended and crisply developed scene. I offer the speedy narrative only as one more way of working, one more provisional solution. These days those are about the only kind of solutions I am good for.

To end with another example, here is a brief section from one of my essays that I think qualifies as a speedy narrative of sorts:

I’ve lived my life in safe places, not at risk except for boredom and its associated disorders. The farm was safe, my room upstairs with Gregg, the light kitchen where we ate, its maple cupboards my dad built and the plastic table we still fold our clothes on. I have no tales of terror at home, no drunken parents, a bully or two but not such big deals really.

The dangers were from beyond, the ones that scared me: the Russians, the fallout from our own tests though we heard nothing about that until much later. God leaning down to decide whether I was worth saving.

Under the hot comforters my mother had stitched, below the leaky upstairs windows, I felt entirely safe from everything I could see and utterly exposed to everything I couldn’t. The Russians were crazy, they didn’t care if they died, they didn’t want supermarkets or Jesus, all they wanted was to rule the planet whether it glowed like a briquette or not. And Jesus would never want anybody this willful and impolite to his teachers, anybody this sullen and recalcitrant in his secret heart, anybody so stuck on saying the wrong thing too loud at the wrong time. . .

 


 

Jeff Gundy has published seven books of prose and poetry, most recently Walker in the Fog (prose) and Deerflies (poems), winner of the Editions Prize and the Nancy Dasher Award. He teaches at Bluffton University in Ohio.

 

photo by Dinty W. Moore/ art by Duchamp