Michele Morano is the author of Grammar Lessons: Translating a Life in Spain and directs the MA in Writing and Publishing program at DePaul University in Chicago. To see more essays Morano uses in class, check out her Creative Nonfiction Workshop syllabus in our Syllabi Bank.
Narrative time is a tricky thing to negotiate. Both in life and on the page time moves unevenly, bulging here and flattening there, and it takes skill to modulate how the past and future come into the present of a story. Some of my favorite essays to teach offer lessons in just that. David Sedaris’s “Journey Into Night,” for example, takes place on an overnight flight from New York to Paris, where there’s “a brief parody of an evening” followed by a shortened night and the expectation of sunrise soon after. Time is warped from the first sentence.
Sedaris has a seat in first-class, aka Business Elite, a fact that both unsettles and pleases him. But the pleasure is soon dimmed by a grieving Polish man who sits beside him, en route to his mother’s funeral. “His eyes were red and swollen from crying, and his nose, which was large and many-faceted, looked as if it had been roughly carved from wood and not yet sanded smooth.”
The narrator feels empathetic toward this man, recalling the emotions of his own mother’s death and wanting to behave respectfully beside a stranger’s grief. Should he enjoy the baked chicken and ice cream sundae of Business Elite? (He does.) Should he turn on an in-flight movie? (He holds out for a while, hoping the man beside him will fall asleep.) Eventually, though, empathy turns to resentment. “The man was crying again, not loudly but steadily, and I wondered, perhaps unfairly, if he wasn’t overdoing it a bit.”
This uncharitable thought summons the past into the present as Sedaris remembers a schoolmate’s death from leukemia: “The principal made the announcement and I, along with the rest of my friends, fell into a great show of mourning. Group hugs, bouquets laid near the flagpole. I can’t imagine what it would have been like had we actually known her.” This punch line sets up a truth about the connection between loss and identity: “she was gone, and our lives would never be the same: we were people who knew people who died.”
Sedaris lingers in the past a moment longer, recounting how when an real friend died in college, his genuine grief still smacked of showmanship, as if he craved a witness to his suffering. Then we’re back to the present, in which the narrator proves himself a humorously judgmental witness to the Polish man’s grief.
What’s interesting about time in this essay is that, rather than employing flashbacks, Sedaris summarizes past experience so that the narrative focus stays on the internal conflict of the primary scene. Until the end, that is. When the narrator does finally turn on the in-flight movie, he discovers a mediocre comedy that might not have amused him on another occasion but that, in this moment, seems hilarious. “I tried not to laugh,” he writes, “but that’s a losing game if ever there was one. This I learned when I was growing up.”
With that quick transition, “This I learned when I was growing up,” time cracks open. Now we’re in a full scene around the dinner table of the narrator’s youth, where an elderly grandma passes gas, the kids try desperately not to laugh, and the father grows angrier by the second, rapping a snorting David on the head with a serving spoon. The scene is comical, the descriptions nearly cartoonish, but the essay’s final paragraph snaps us back: “Could that really have been forty years ago?”
The narrator’s sudden confusion about time returns us to the airplane where, in a heartbeat, his judgment toward his fellow passenger evaporates and his laughter turns to tears. The accordion of time has expanded and squeezed shut again, flooding both Sedaris and his readers with emotion.
There’s a lot to learn about writing from this essay, but I teach it in part for how it draws the vibrant past into a present that’s in-between, making us aware – as travel often does – of the layered nature of time.
This is the second post in our Monday blog series on “My Favorite Essay to Teach.”
Read David Sedaris’s “Journey Into Night” here.