Pushcart XLIII: Brian Doyle, “The Wonder of the Look on her Face” (nonfiction) from Creative Nonfiction #62

I was in an old wooden church recently, way up in the north country, and by chance I got to talking to a girl who told me she was almost nine years old. The way she said it, you could hear the opening capital letters on the words Almost and Nine. She had many questions for me. Did I know the end of my stories before I wrote them? Did my stories come to me in dreams? Her stories came to her in dreams. Did the talking crow in one of my books go to crow school? Where did crows have their schools? Did the crow’s friends talk, too? Did they have jokes that only crows know? Did I write with a typewriter like her grandfather? Did I use a computer? If you write on a computer, do the words have electricity in them? Is it too easy to write on a computer? Do you write better if you write slower? She wrote with a pencil. She was about to start writing her third book. Her first book was about bears, and her second book was about her grandfather’s fishing boat.

Complete story available online at Creative Nonfiction

This encounter with a child, told in one breathless paragraph, seems almost to be stream-of-consciousness – a one-and-a-half page embodiment of the “it’s more fun if you don’t know where you’re going” idea – but I see three main sections. We are introduced to the girl through her ideas and questions about writing (and the memorable emphasis conveyed by italics), then Doyle tells her some of his ideas about writing – not how to do it, but what is most fun for him – and then the closing section ends with his impromptu gift of a pen (“it might have a very good book in it”), received by her with an ineffable quality of wonder.

Doyle, Canadian author of several books of essays, short stories, and YA lit, has been a frequent occupant of Pushcart pages; this is my third encounter with him. He died in 2017. This essay, published in the “Joy”themed issue of Creative Nonfiction, makes a nice epitaph: a gift to all of us for our own writing, to discover our own joy, whether or not we know what will happen.

Pushcart XLII: Brian Doyle, “Memorial Day” (non-fiction) from The Sun, June 2016

Art by Stan Fellows

Art by Stan Fellows

We are at a parade. It is Memorial Day. I am sitting on the curb in front of the church with my brother, reserving our family’s spot…. Our dad will not walk in the parade wearing his uniform. He declines politely every year when he is asked. He says he no longer has his uniform. He says he does not know where it went, although we think he does know where it went. He says he wore it only because the job had to be done, and now that the war is over, there is no reason to have a uniform. He says uniforms are dangerous statements, if you think about it. He says uniforms can easily confer false authority, and encourage hollow bravado, and augment unfortunate inclinations, and exacerbate violent predilections. This is how he talks.

Complete story available online at The Sun

A snapshot out of the past, perhaps the 50s, with Dad a WWII vet. It’s a short essay, nicely written in a style appropriate for a child’s-eye filter. Kids hear things they don’t quite yet understand. But they observe. It’s a good premise for an essay, a way to comment without commenting, an observation that’s really a commentary, that lets the reader observe and draw her own conclusions from those observations.

And what the kid sees here is, he sees Dad being reserved about his own service. He sees him only applauding when the firefighters go by. I’m not sure I get the subtext any better than the kid does; maybe it’s because the veterans are now out of harm’s way but the firefighters still have to show up at the next three-alarmer? Or maybe he remembers some darkness from the war. We all think of WWII as the “good war”, played by the rule book (doesn’t it strike anyone else as strange that there are rules for war?). But we also know that maybe that wasn’t precisely the case.

This is my second encounter with an essay by Brian Doyle. The first, “The Hawk” from Pushcart 2013, was similar: short, observational, emotional in an understated, indirect way. It’s a style that works quite well for him.

Pushcart 2013: Brian Doyle, “The Hawk” (non-fiction) from The Sun, February 2011

Recently a man took up residence on my town’s football field, sleeping in a small tent in the northwestern corner, near the copse of cedars. He had been a terrific football player some years ago for our high school… Then he had entered into several business ventures, but these had not gone so well, and he had married and had children, but that had not gone so well either, and finally he’d taken up residence on the football field, because, he said, that was where things had gone well, and he sort of needed to get balanced again, and there was something about the field that was working for him, as far as he could tell.

Pressed for time? Then this is the essay for you – at less than 700 words, it just barely spills over a single page. And it’s available online. I’m always getting little mailers from The Sun though I have no idea how I ended up on their mailing list – they’re one of the sweetest little magazines around.

I was just getting into the whole “even if your life is falling apart you can appreciate what’s truly important” vibe when it struck me there was a far deeper chord in this for me. Yes, it’s a story about a man whose life has deteriorated, who’s living in a football field, who’s helped out by the town because, well, he’s a person and he deserves it. All fine Sun stuff. Stuff that would have Mitt Romney babbling about responsibility and borrowing money from your parents to go to college if you have to.

But it’s also a story about listening, and hearing what’s being said, instead of listening for confirmation of what you want to be true:

The reporter from the paper came by, he said. She wanted to write a story about the failure of the American dream and the collapse of the social contract, and she was just melting to use football as a metaphor for something or other, and I know she was just trying to do her job, but I kept telling her things that didn’t fit what she wanted…

That brought me up short. Maybe I was doing the same thing, fitting the essay into a mold, deciding it was one of “those” heartwarming stories that isn’t really my cup of tea, but gee, I could get with it for a page and a little bit. It’s so easy to categorize something, then ignore what doesn’t fit so you can file it away neatly.

Maybe I wasn’t reading what was on the page at all.

I think I should watch that in the future.