On the “Speedy Narrative”
By Jeff Gundy
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):
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:
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