In addition to looking at a group's methods of entertaining itself, writers frequently look at the way people dress. Only an individual, not a group, can dress, of course, but if the individual is a member of some more-or-less identifiable group, he or she will likely dress like others in that group. In Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, for example, its author, Robert M. Pirsig, and his son Bill are sitting at lunch in Miles City, Montana, when Bill says: "This is a great town, really great. Surprised there were any like this left. I was looking all over this morning. They've got Stockman's bars, high-top boots, silver-dollar belt buckles, Levis, Stetsons, the whole thing... and it's real. It isn't just Chamber of Commerce stuff.. In the bar down the block this morning they just started talking to me like I'd lived here all my life." The author (or Bill) mentions only several articles of clothing, but we are already forming a mental picture of how men dress in Miles City, and we think we know something about their character—a dangerous presumption, of course, but we know enough to await further indications of their true character(s).
In La Place de la Concorde Suisse, John McPhee's book about the important role(s) played by the army and its reserves in Switzerland, he focuses on the realistic, accurate details:
Each wears boots, gaiters, a mountain jacket, and a woolly-earflap Finnish hat, and carries a fusil d'assaut, which can fire twenty-four bullets in eight seconds and, with added onomatopoeia, is also known as a Sturmgewehr. Massy wears hobnailed boots. Most of the other soldiers are younger, and when they came into the army were issued boots with rubber soles— Swiss crosses protruding from the soles in lieu of hobnails.
A group forever changing its mind about how to dress is teenagers. According to Charles Haas in Esquire (June 1985), when any new way to achieve a treat is discovered, its technology is rushed to Westwood, California, which he calls the Silicon Valley of silly delight. In the article. "Tinsel Teens," he describes the teenagers and their latest clothing fad(s):
On a Saturday afternoon the kids start drifting in from all over the city to kick things off with some serious clothes shopping. Boys who can name you every designer in their outfit, from Generra all-cotton jacket down, are heard to swear undying love for the shoes at Leather Bound. The Limited Express, with technopop on the PA, offers Day-Glo sweat-fleece cardigans and other punch-line looks; a few doors down, at the other Limited store, the emphasis is on foreign designs—Firenza, Kenzo. But what is key for the Westwood girl of the moment— even more key than Esprit—is Guess?, a line of sportswear heavy on soft-shaped whites, pastels, and denims. "They'll buy anything Guess?—the label sells," says a seventeen-year-old salesgirl at MGA. "They spend a lot of money, but then, clothes are a lot of money now." The biggest hit garment with the girls is a hugely oversized white jacket with overlapping seams, a jacket so shapeless and enveloping that its wearers look like a sculpture waiting to be unveiled at adulthood.
In addition to Haas's interesting description of the clothes the Westwood teens were into, he uses irony in reporting that boys are heard to swear undying love for certain shoes. He also uses a typographical device to help us hear the teenager's exaggerated voice by italicizing the fact that "the label sells" and "clothes are a lot of money now." Since the writer is now leaving his discussion of clothing fads and going into a discussion of food fads, he winds it up with a piece of humorous irony: They look like sculptures "waiting to be unveiled at adulthood." A perfect metaphor in that we get the image of a teenager's typical posing, as a sculptor's model might, but we also see, through his use of "unveiling," an image of a sculpture hidden until the ceremony in a great, shapeless drape of material, reminding us of how he's just described the shapeless and enveloping white jackets the girls of the moment are probably swearing undying love for—and then he winds up the metaphoric image for us by reminding us quietly that there's hope. These young people will someday shed these cocoons and take wing as full-fledged adults. All of those thoughts are (or may be) triggered in the minds of intelligent, imaginative readers. The metaphor, well done, is a powerful device for the creative nonfiction writer.
We tend to think that the form of creative nonfiction we're talking about is a fairly new phenomenon, but here is an excerpt from an article written for the twenty-fifth anniversary issue of Esquire, an article about the then-recent (1959) death of the teenage idol of the moment, movie actor James Dean. He was killed when his white Porsche Spyder hit head-on a car driven by Donald Turnupseed, devastating America's teenagers.
In the article "The Death of James Dean," the writer used several interesting techniques possibly never used before. He alternated actual newspaper headlines, small sections of the newspaper's text, narrative full of realistic details, and long sections of prose poetry.
TEEN-AGE DANCES SEEN THREATENED BY PARENTS' FAILURE TO COOPERATE MOST OFFENDERS EMULATE ADULTS
James Dean is three years dead but the sinister adolescent still holds the headlines.
James Dean is three years dead; But when they file out of the close darkness and the breathed-out air of the second-run motion picture theatres where they've been seeing James Dean's old films they still line up;
the boys in the jackboots and the leather jackets the boys in the skintight jeans, the boys in broad motorbike belts, before the mirrors in the restroom to look at themselves and see James Dean; the resentful hair, the deep eyes floating in lonesomeness, the bitter beat look, the scorn on the lip
Their pocket combs are out; they tousle up their hair and pat it down just so;
make big eyes at their eyes in the mirror pout their lips in a sneer;
the lost cats in love with themselves, just like James Dean.
The girls flock out dizzy with wanting to run their fingers through his hair, to feel that thwarted maleness; girl-boy almost, but he needs a shave... "Just him and me in the back seat of a car. " Their fathers snort, but sometimes they remember, "Nobody understood me either. I might have amounted to something if the folks had understood."
The older women struggle from their seats wet-eyed with wanting to cuddle, to mother (it's lack of mother love makes delinquents), to smother with little attentions the poor orphan youngster, the motherless, brotherless, sisterless, lone-wolf brat strayed from the pack, the poor mixed-up kid.
The writer of that modern-sounding and most creative nonfiction article? John Dos Passos. We can see his creative turn-of-mind at work here, not to mention his poetic side. The details he singles out, and even the way he breaks up his lines and thoughts, make clear that the writer was fully aware of how the younger generation (not to mention the mothers and fathers) were reacting to this young phenomenon of the moment. As far as I can determine, no one heralded this article at the time as some kind of breakthrough into a new kind of reporting. Perhaps they expected the unusual from this unusually gifted author—we accept creative efforts by men and women already seen as "creative." Had he been a "regular" journalist, I wonder whether more might have been made of this remarkable approach and format. Even today, over forty years later, it seems avant-garde. Esquire thought enough of it to run the article again in its fortieth anniversary issue, in October 1973.
We've seen how creative nonfiction writers get at the heart of groups by writing about their typical daily lives, their entertainments, their dress, and their fads. Let's look now at other dimensions frequently written about: their ornaments, decorations, adornments, architecture, and arts.
As you'll see here and elsewhere, these dimensions include all kinds of things, from furniture to pets. Rex Reed has for many years written interestingly of life in and around Hollywood, succeeding in getting to the heart of the individuals and their society more accurately than many who have attempted the same. In the following paragraph, he opens a piece about Ava Gardner: "Ava: Life in the Afternoon," from his book, Do You Sleep in the Nude?
She stands there, without benefit of filter lens against a room melting under the heat of lemony sofas and lavender walls and cream-and-peppermint-striped movie-star chairs, lost in the middle of that gilt-edge birthday-cake hotel of cupids and cupolas called the Regency. There is no script. No Minelli to adjust the CinemaScope lens. Ice-blue rain beats against the windows and peppers Park Avenue below as Ava Gardner stalks her pink malted-milk cage like an elegant cheetah. She wears a baby-blue cashmere turtleneck sweater pushed up to her Ava elbows and a little plaid mini-skirt and enormous horn-rimmed glasses and she is gloriously, divinely barefoot.
Reed manages, in this one paragraph, to work in details about her ornaments, decorations, adornments, architecture, and, perhaps sub-liminally, something of her artistic taste. From a technical standpoint, we writers should notice how much he accomplished with his hyphened noun coinages. What an excellent shorthand description of the Regency's architecture: "gilt-edge birthday-cake hotel of cupids and cupolas called the Regency." We enjoy the words not only for the visual image they combine to create, we love the alliteration he's achieved through "cake," "cupids," "cupolas," and "called." He could easily have chosen other images, other words, but his ear heard the aural potential in these visual words. The author's creative touch also
76 / writiNg crEativE nonfiction shows up when he refers to the turtleneck sweater pushed up to her "Ava elbows." He uses that idea as a recurrent note throughout the article: " 'Hell, I've been here ten years and I still can't speak the goddam language,' says Ava, dismissing him with a wave of the long porcelain Ava arms____" "The Ava legs dangle limply from the arm of a lavender chair while the Ava neck, pale and tall as a milkwood vase, rises above the room like a Southern landowner inspecting a cotton field____" "'You're looking at me again!' she says shyly, pulling short girlish wisps of hair behind the lobes of her Ava ears." "The Ava eyes brighten to a soft clubhouse green." "She laughs her Ava laugh and the head rolls back and the little blue vein bulges on her neck like a delicate pencil mark."
Seen pulled together like that, the device sounds overly used, but distributed through the article, it surprises us with delight as it pops up unexpectedly. We should take this as a good reminder, nevertheless, that a device like this can easily be overdone, and must be reserved for the appropriate article and audience.
William Least Heat-Moon, in Blue Highways, shows us a completely different segment of society when he describes some of the ornaments and adornments of people living near Danville, Kentucky:
The highway took me through Danville, where I saw a pillared antebellum mansion with a trailer court on the front lawn. Route 127 ran down a long valley of pastures and fields edged by low, rocky bluffs and split by a stream the color of muskmelon. In the distance rose the foothills of the Appalachians, old mountains that once separated the Atlantic from the shallow inland sea now the middle of America. The licks came out of the hills, the fields got smaller, and there were little sawmills cutting hardwoods into pallets, crates, and fenceposts. The houses shrank, and their colors changed to white to pastels to iridescents to no paint at all. The lawns went from Vertagreen bluegrass to thin fescue to hard-packed dirt glinting with fragments of glass, and the lawn ornaments changed from birdbaths to plastic flamingoes and donkeys to broken-down automobiles with raised hoods like tombstones. On the porch stood one-legged wringer washers and ruined sofas, and, by the front doors, washtubs hung like coats of arms.
Let's take a look at Tom Wolfe, the master of describing what he calls "status life," as he shows us how people in certain strata of society have given up the worship of a spiritual god to take up, instead, the worship of art. The following paragraph comes from an essay Wolfe adapted from the 1983 T. S. Eliot Lectures he delivered at England's University of Kent. This is an excerpt of the adaptation as published in Harper's (October 1984), "The Worship of Art: Notes on the New God."
There was a time when well-to-do educated people in America adorned their parlors with crosses, crucifixes, or Stars of David. These were marks not only of faith but of cultivation. Think of the great homes, built before 1940, with chapels. This was a fashionable as well as devout use of space. Today those chapels are used as picture galleries, libraries, copper kitchens, saunas, or high-tech centers. It is perfectly acceptable to use them for the VCR and the Advent. But it would be in bad taste to use them for prayer. Practically no one who cares about appearing cultivated today would display a cross or Star of David in the living room. It would be.. .in bad taste. Today the conventional symbol of devoutness is—but of course!—the Holy Rectangle: the painting. The painting is the religious object we see today in the parlors of the educated classes.
When Tom Wolfe writes about culture, irony drips from the cross and the star alike, but he does paint here a partial picture of one segment of society, one that used to merely collect but now worships works of art. Wolfe goes on in this delightful vein to call the Lincoln Centers and Kennedy Centers of the world the cathedrals of the late twentieth century. When the wealthy of old were in trouble with God, they gave money to support the great cathedrals. When the giant corporations develop an odor today, Wolfe went on to say, they support the arts and Public Broadcasting.
These examples from the extremes of the social spectrum illustrate how a creative nonfiction writer can tell us a great deal about the realities of a group's life simply by selecting details about the things with which people surround themselves. In the following chapter, "The Realities of Individual Lives," we'll explore how so much can be learned about the realities of group life when the writer vividly describes the day-to-day life of one person.
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