J.J. Anselmi’s first book, Heavy: a memoir of Wyoming, BMX, drugs, and heavy fucking music, is forthcoming from Rare Bird in Winter 2015. He holds an MFA in Creative Nonfiction from CSU Fresno, where he also worked as the Assistant Nonfiction Editor of The Normal School. You can check out more of his writing here: jjanselmi.com
In my introduction to creative nonfiction courses, I like to have students think about differences and similarities between CNF essays and more common forms of nonfiction, such as reportage and reality TV. John Jeremiah Sullivan’s essay, “Feet in Smoke,” recounts his brother Worth’s electrocution and recovery, which the 90s reality show, Rescue 911, also covered. So, having students read Sullivan’s essay and then watch the Rescue 911 episode has been a great way to facilitate discussions about what you might get in a creative nonfiction essay that you often don’t in other forms of nonfiction.
The Rescue 911 episode focuses on how Worth got electrocuted—singing into a microphone at band practice—and what his band mates and the paramedics did to save him. Strangely, Worth, his friends, family, and the paramedics all play themselves in the dramatization. Still, the tension of the episode revolves around whether or not Worth will survive. (Unless you’ve read J.J. Sullivan’s essay, you wouldn’t immediately know that Worth is playing himself.)
Once the paramedics get Worth to the hospital, the show moves much faster. As it’s told by Rescue 911, you get the impression that Worth went into a coma and quickly recovered, soon returning to singing and playing guitar in his band, the Moviegoers. But, as John Jeremiah Sullivan tells the story in “Feet in Smoke,” the heart of the experience for him and his family was Worth’s gradual and bizarre recovery, which Rescue 911 glosses over.
Sullivan uses a brief discussion of the Rescue 911 episode to succinctly talk about how Worth was saved before getting into his own angle on the experience—rushing to the hospital, unsure of whether or not his brother would live, and then watching Worth wake up after spending two nights in a coma. When he wakes up, the essay clearly separates itself from Rescue 911’s version of the story, revolving around something entirely different. Sullivan says, “I’ve tried many times over the years to describe for people the person who woke up from that electrified near-death, the one who remained with us for about a month before he went back to the person we’d known and know now.” At this point, instead of wondering whether Worth will recover, you start to wonder exactly how this experience was so strange, and, more importantly, what it might mean.
Avoiding the sentimentality of the Rescue 911 episode, Sullivan makes the experience seem like something from one of Barry Hannah’s absurd short stories. During that month in the hospital, Worth “became a holy fool,” saying things that shift between weirdly poignant and ridiculous. But Sullivan doesn’t use humor as a way to avoid examination. Following the list of bizarre things that Worth said and did while recovering, Sullivan leaps into in-depth reflection about the experience, providing an amazingly clear example of a writer attempting to answer the perpetually looming “So what?” He says,
I can’t imagine anything more hopeful or hilarious than having a seat at the spectacle of my brother’s brain while it reconstructed reality. Like a lot of people, I’d always assumed, in a sort of cut-rate Hobbesian way, that the center of the brain, if you could ever find it, would inevitably be a pretty dark place, that whatever is good or beautiful about being human is a result of our struggles against everything innate, against physical nature. My brother changed my mind about all that. Here was a consciousness reduced to its matter, to a ball of crackling synapses…and it was a good place to be, you might even say a poetic place. He had touched death, or death had touched him, but he seemed to find life no less interesting for having done so.
In the classes in which I’ve taught this essay and shown the Rescue 911 episode, multiple students, when workshopping each other’s writing, said something along the lines of, “I think this essay needs more reflection that talks about what the story means, like “Feet in Smoke.” ” Unlike Rescue 911, Sullivan’s essay reflects about Worth’s electrocution in a way that’s simultaneously personal and universal, which is one of the moves I encourage students to make in their own writing. Although there’s many great pieces of creative nonfiction that mostly stick to the ‘what happened,’ it’s good for beginning writers to know that an essay can invite the reader into the meaning-making process of a specific experience, recreating both the experience and the process of constructing meaning, which Sullivan beautifully executes.