Friday, January 15, 2010

"The Giant Water Bug" and "The Knife"


Once again this year I'm participating in the Essay Reading Challenge. So far I'm off to a good start! I'm teaching a Creative Writing class on Thursday and Friday evenings this term, and it affords me the opportunity to explore those shorter genres I love so much: creative non-fiction, short fiction, poetry, and drama/screenplays.
Right now we're heading into our second evening discussing creative nonfiction. Aside from the token David Sedaris essay ("Us and Them"), I've had my students read two other essays: "The Giant Water Bug," by Annie Dillard and "The Knife," by Richard Selzer
While "The Knife" was a choice to showcase creative non-fiction in general, I'd like to start with Dillard's essay, which is a prime example of "image." It's a very short essay wherein Dillard recounts a walk along the edge of an island in the summertime. She likes to scare the frogs and watch them jump here and there as they realize she's approaching. As she's walking along, she notices one perfect little frog who is not afraid. She kneels down to investigate and the frog seems to disintegrate leaving only a bag of skin behind. It's shortly afterward that she notices the shadow of a water bug, the "giant water bug," swimming away. The giant water bug injects the frog with venom, liquefying its innards, and sucks them out for a hearty meal.
Yuck, I know. However, the writing is great and does its job showcasing "image." A selection:
The spirit vanished from his eyes as if snuffed. His skin emptied and drooped; his very skull seemed to collapse and settle like a kicked tent. He was shrinking before my eyes like a deflating football. I watched the taught, glistening skin on his shoulders ruck and rumple and fall. Soon, part of his skin, formless as a pricked balloon, lay in floating folds like bright scum on top of the water: it was a monstrous and terrifying thing. I gaped bewildered, appalled.
While I enjoyed the writing as a good example of imagery, the essay isn't joining the ranks of my favorites or anything. It was short and lacked any emotional impact that would stick with me for any significant period of time, so I'm not sorry I read it, but it was just "meh."
On the other hand, "The Knife," by Richard Selzer is quite memorable. It starts off this way:
One holds the knife as one holds the bow of a cello or a tulip--by the stem. Not palmed nor gripped nor grasped, but lightly, with the tips of the fingers. The knife is not for pressing. It is for drawing across the field of skin. Like a slender fish, it waits, at the ready, then, go! It darts, followed by a fine wake of red. The flesh parts, falling away to yellow globules of fat. Even now, after so many times, I still marvel at its power--cold, gleaming, silent.
One of my students said, "I thought I was in an episode of 'Dexter.'" That is, he figured this essay would be about a serial killer. Not so--Selzer chronicles his work as a surgeon in this ode to a knife, or scalpel. He includes some really stunning details and wonderful comparisons which are surprising and enlightening. There are many, but I especially liked the idea of holding the scalpel like a bow or a tulip in the opening lines. His writing is sensuous and poetic, and I think my students really appreciated this essay. It's one I'll definitely use in various writing classes from here on out, and I'll sure be re-reading it.
Two down, many more to go! I have tons of new-to-me writers on my plate with this class going on this term, and I'm excitecd to share more with y'all!

4 comments:

  1. I particularly like "The Knife" excerpt, I'll have to look for that.

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  2. Wow. I really liked The Knife excerpt. But, you are right that while the use of imagery is superb in The Giant Water Bug, it is also completely gross. haha

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  3. The Knife excerpt is stunning. I'm sorry that Annie Dillard left you unmoved; she can be quite dispassionate, but she always makes me think. Perhaps it was the angle of vision that made the difference?
    Putting Dr. Selzer on the List. Thank you.

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  4. Sounds like you started off with some great choices - and I liked reading your reaction to them. Thanks for joining the challenge again.

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