Non-Fiction Prompt #21

March 22, 2016 at 7:17 pm  •  Posted in blog, Contest by

For this exercise, you’ll write a piece of non-fiction in an experimental format: as a list.

In a 2011 issue of Brevity, there appears a very short non-fiction essay by Gretchen Legler, titled “Things That Appear Ugly Or Troubling But Upon Closer Inspection Are Beautiful.” What follows is a list of images from the farm where the writer lives. The writer’s clever choice of titles creates an inherent contrast between ugliness and beauty, inviting tension into the piece. For example, the first item in the list is: “A river in winter with ice floes jammed violently against one another; you can see dark water in between the white and grey floes, sparkling in the sunshine.” In this sentence, there are “troubling” connotations in “jammed violently,” but then there are pleasing connotations in “sparkling in the sunshine.”

Another item later on in the list reads: “The green and blue and red guts of a chicken as you pull them out, like steaming ribbons, on a fall afternoon when you are processing your flock.” One would likely expect chicken guts to be…kind of gross, but the writer uses a surprising description that reveals her perception of the image, as one of beauty.

This piece becomes increasingly personal as the list continues, and while the list describes visually ugly/beautiful things, it also describes things that are beautiful in a larger sense: birth, life, even death. The last item in the list is (spoiler alert):

A pound of red goat burger thawing on the cutting board in the kitchen; it makes you remember the nimble, sweet-faced two-year-old you had named Felix, whom you had butchered. He was your favorite goat and would lean against you when you walked in the pasture repairing the fence.

What intensity! She begins with a hunk of ground meat then tells us the source was her pet, not only a goat but her favourite goat, referred to as a “two-year-old” as though he were a human child, referred to by name, described in a moment of tender affection. This was the goat she had “butchered.” There’s a clash of emotions here, and one might conclude that this is the writer’s personal experience of farm life, filled with ugliness and beauty and slippery births and brutal deaths. What makes it on to this list is entirely subjective–I could write a list with the same title and the items on it would be completely different– and this invites the reader to consider their own criteria for beauty.

Tip: The list technique might work best in a shorter essay, but it could be adaptable to a longer form if some or all items in the list are expanded into a paragraph or more.

Details on EVENT’s 2016 annual Non-Fiction Contest.