An Introduction to "Downingtown"

Mike Laws '04, English 171, Brown University, 2003

About two weeks ago, when this piece was roughly thirty-percent complete (I'd written only Part One of what would eventually become a three-part essay), I brought what I'd got so far to another professor of creative nonfiction, the leader of a small writing workshop. She read it over carefully, slowly, smiling here and there, and eventually looking up from the page to tell me two things: One, that she really liked what I'd done with the thing so far, that its beginning was very strong; and, Two, that it reminded her very much of Joan Didion.

Now, for any blossoming writer -- which is, at the moment, how I conceive of myself -- this sort of comparison might be fairly disheartening; for here was a teacher who was lauding my work, who was clearly acknowledging my talent and encouraging its continuance and development -- but who, with that final allusion, seemed to have undercut all that former praise. Very good, she seemed to tell me -- now, maybe you can focus on not sounding so much like someone else.

And yet I rejoiced to hear it. I rejoiced because -- and there was no way that professor could have known this -- sounding like Joan Didion had been, in a sense, my goal all along. Rather than writing another dry, academic analysis of some topic I'd been studying (sage-writing, in this case), I had been ready to try my hand at it, to apply all that I'd learned and internalized to a creative endeavor of my own. I wanted, in other words, to handle an issue (a meaningful issue, an issue that concerned something big, a nationwide phenomenon) using the same strategies a Didion or Wolfe might have used.

And of course, Didion or Wolfe would have employed certain techniques of the writers, the sages, they had so admired: the Ruskins, the Carlyles, the WIldes and Swifts and Thoreaus who initiated the genre. Hence the appearance, in my piece, of the symbolical grotesque -- or, to be more accurate, of several symbolical grotesques (for I feel that both Parts One and Two might be interpreted as such). My initial plan of action -- a plan that had to be called into question, as Part Three will make apparent -- was to present a bit of personal experience (the shocking desertion of my downtown), then to illustrate why what that experience had revealed would be lamentable, and finally to call for change, to express the hope that all that had gone wrong might be reversed, made right again. Like I said, this original, probably facile plan had to be reformulated; and yet the basic shape of the piece did not change. In its completed form, The Death of Downtown is essentially an exercise in experience and interpretation; it is a little, specific, and personal anecdote which will nonetheless shed light on an important contemporary issue.

The specifics, too, are borrowed in large part from the authors we've read this semester. My lists, for example, are straight out of McPhee; I don't think there is a more economical way to establish local color. And while the overall tone of the piece might come from Didion -- as that other professor so astutely pointed out -- the shifts therein I think of as more akin to Annie Dillard's A Pilgrim at Tinker Creek. That is, I have attempted to mix the voice of first-person experience with one of impersonal fact-giving, and again with one of sage-like, generalized interpretation; the voices are layered. Finally, it is no accident that Ruskin is mentioned explicitly in the concluding paragraph of the piece -- it is his sort of interpretation that Part Three makes such great (and hopefully effective) use of. The entire idea that we might glean the spirit of a culture from the architectural style it forges -- or, in this case, from the types of business establishments to which its citizenry flocks -- is more or less stolen from Ruskin's Traffic.

So there is a lot in this piece that comes from sage-writing and its modern-day practitioners: the layering of disparate tones, the style of interpretation, the three-part inverted-funnel structure. I've even made an attempt at the panoramic word-painting techniques perfected by both Ruskin and D.H. Lawrence (see the moving-car scene, in which I describe how my town looks from that vantage point, and also the description of a Wal-Mart interior later on). It is my final hope, then, that while derivative in every sense of the word, my own voice and outlook nonetheless bleed through.

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Last modified 16 December 2003