Using Digression To Enlarge a Story

April 30, 2007
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Using Digression To Enlarge a Story

by Rochelle Jewel Shapiro

May 2007

"The essayist tries to surround something—a subject, a mood. . . "
—Shapiro

In the introduction to The Art of the Personal Essay (Anchor Books, 1995), p. XXXVII, Philip Lopate writes what is true for a lot of creative writing, not just essays.  “The essayist tries to surround something—a subject, a mood, a problematic irritation—by coming at it from all angles, wheeling and diving like a hawk, each seemingly digressive spiral taking us to the heart of the matter.”  Two pages later, he adds that digression “serves both structural and comic functions.” 

"I hear his key turn in the lock when he leaves for work at eight A.M..". . .
—Shapiro

 

Let’s examine this scenario:

A young, reasonably attractive man moves in next door to me.  With acoustics being what they are in modern apartments, I hear his key turn in the lock when he leaves for work at eight A.M.and again when he comes home at six P.M.  After six and on weekends, the only sounds I hear coming through my living room wall and his entire apartment (he’s got a studio) are from his TV.  (He’s an ESPN watcher, but doesn’t cheer when his team scores a point like the neighbor on the other side of me.)  So, I figure this guy is obviously lonely and I, a friendly soul who people easily confide in, have a palm pilot full of numbers of beautiful thirty-something-year-old women desperate to get married.   (Or at least their mothers have told me that they are desperate to get married.  They might actually be thrilled to be single and their mothers are the ones who are desperate to marry them off.)  Still, I wonder who among my palm pilot singles and/or their mothers would jump at this chance.)  And on the very day that I decide—oh, yes, Natalie Marx’s daughter who just had breast implants, no wait—was it dental implants?—anyway, she’d be perfect for this guy, I see him bring home a woman, also reasonably attractive.  And I’m happy for him and glad that I won’t be responsible for the potential horrors of a fix up like Natalie Marx’s last blind date who showed up in an Obi-Wan Kanobi outfit because, in order to interest him in Natalie, her mother lied to the go-between (thank goodness not me) and said, “Oh, yes, my daughter adores Star Wars too.”  But then, going forward, instead of sports announcers shouting narrations on ESPN, my living room is now filled with orgasmic shrieks, even on Saturday afternoons when my two-and a-half-year-old granddaughter is visiting.  “What’s that noise, Gamma?”  “Pigeons, Sweetheart.”  And I am so sorry that I didn’t act sooner in introducing him to Natalie Marx’s daughter who, even though she speaks loudly, might have had the grace to be quiet under other circumstances. 

"One of the chief forms of digression
in this essay is the aside,
a theatrical term. . . "

—Shapiro

One of the chief forms of digression in this essay is the aside, a theatrical term for the part of an actor’s lines supposedly not heard by the other actors on stage and just intended for the audience. Usually, asides are in parentheses such as (thank goodness not me). Sometimes they are set off by double dashes as in “And on the very day that I decide—oh, yes, Natalie Marx’s daughter who just had breast implants, no wait—was it dental implants?“ Sometimes asides are implied by a clause as in the last sentence of the essay. “…even though she speaks loudly…” 

"Asides can be short exclamations such as (Phew!) or they can go on a bit. . . "
—Shapiro

Asides can be short exclamations such as (Phew!) or they can go on a bit as in—“(Or at least their mothers have told me that they are desperate to get married. They might actually be thrilled to be single and their mothers are the ones who are desperate to marry them off.)”

An effect of the aside as well as digression in general is that it enlarges the world of the story. In the aside—(He’s an ESPN watcher, but doesn’t cheer when his team scores a point like the neighbor on the other side of me.)—the reader gets to see more of the environment that the “I” inhabits and lets the reader peek at someone who isn’t, strictly speaking, necessary to the story. We can even have a better look at the life of the lonely guy from the aside “(he’s got a studio).”

"Digression can allow for greater
social commentary than
the bounds of the essay. . ."

—Shapiro

Digression can allow for greater social commentary than the bounds of the essay, giving the writer the opportunity to remark on the plethora of body implants and Star War junkies, and the couch potato’s mania for watching sports on TV.

"The best part of digression is the intimacy between the writer and the reader. . . "
—Shapiro

The best part of digression is the intimacy between the writer and the reader, as if the two of you are in cahoots and free to gossip together. But it also is a kind of intimacy with yourself, daring to not only write what you think, but how you think it. If you’ve ever followed your train of thought in meditation, you’ve seen how the mind jumps from this to that, free associates, brings in things that seem disparate but actually may lead to a greater insight if you let yourself go with it. 

About
Rochelle Jewel Shapiro
Rochelle Jewel Shapiro’s novel, Miriam the Medium, was nominated for the Harold U. Ribelow Award. She’s published essays in NYT (Lives) and Newsweek-My Turn, andd in many anthologies such as It’s a Boy (Seal Press, 2005), The Imperfect Mom (Broadway Books, 2006) About What Was Lost (Plume Books, 2007.) Her poetry, short stories, and essays have appeared in many literary magazines such as The Iowa Review, Negative Capability, Moment, and in many anthologies such as Father (Pocket Books, 2000). The short story from that collection, "The Wild Russian," will be reprinted for educational testing purposes nationwide. She currently teaches "Writing the Personal Essay" at UCLA on-line and is a book critic for Kirkus. She can be reached at http://www.miriamthemedium.com/

 

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