I have been slowly working through the essays included in the fifth edition of “The Fourth Genre: Contemporary Writers of/on Creative Nonfiction,” co-edited by Robert Root and Michael Steinberg. It is a popular textbook on the genre, and includes not only a wide variety of personal essays and memoirs, but also short pieces on different aspects of writing creative nonfiction. One of the most interesting sections includes an essay followed by a description by the writer of the process he or she used to complete the piece.
I thought I had read most of this text already, but as I’ve been going through it to find ideas for an upcoming adult education course I’ll be teaching in Lexington, Mass., I have discovered a few essays I missed in previous readings. One of those essays is titled “I Met a Man Who Has Seen the Ivory-Billed Woodpecker and This Is What He Told Me.” It was written by Nancy Lord. I can see why she is Alaska’s current Writer Laureate.
This is such a simple piece in some ways. It is only about two pages long, and the text is separated into nine short segments with the following titles: The Woods, Woodpeckers, Woodpecker!, Eight Seconds, Color, Sound, What He Missed, The Quote, After.
I won’t spoil the essay for you, but I will say this: it’s incredible how a skilled writer can break down an experience and/or thing into different elements, and then make the reader understand that the experience or thing is just so much more than words can describe, so much more than the sum of its parts. The reader has to take a leap where words cannot go. The ending of this essay was so beautiful it almost felt painful to me.
Now it’s true that I am a nature lover and an animal lover, so the subject and content of this piece were almost predestined to be meaningful to me. Still, rarely am I so moved by a piece of writing, especially such a brief, segmented piece of writing.
It’s so inspiring. I can only hope to write like this.