Lynn Kilpatrick on JoAnn Beard’s “The Fourth State of Matter”

Lynn KilpatrickLynn Kilpatrick’s essay “(we interrupt this life for what some people might call ‘vacation’)” is forthcoming in The Ocean State Review. Her essays have been published in Creative Nonfiction, Brevity, and Ninth Letter. Her collection of stories, In the House, was published by FC2. She teaches at Salt Lake Community College.

I wish I could remember the first time I read JoAnn Beard’s “The Fourth State of Matter.” It might actually have been when it was originally published, June 24, 1996 in The New Yorker. What I do remember is being immediately taken with the voice of the piece, which is at once knowing, aware of the writer’s perspective of hindsight, and unknowing, returning, as much as possible, to the innocence of the time before the event.

The part that grabs me first is on that first page:

The Milky Way is a long smear on the sky, like something erased on a
blackboard. Over the neighbor’s house, Mars flashes white, then red, then
white again. Jupiter is hidden among the anonymous blinks and glitterings.
It has a moon with sulfur-spewing volcanoes and a beautiful name: Io. I learned it at work, from the group of men who surround me there. Space physicists, guys who spend days on end with their heads poked through the fabric of the sky, listening to the sounds of the universe. Guys whose own lives are ticking like alarm clocks getting ready to go off, although none of us are aware of it yet.

What I love here is how, unbeknownst to the first-time reader, she gathers the pieces of her essay together. The essay begins with her dog, then she introduces the squirrels, slyly, and then the big piece, which at first seems like just a bit of description, just some window dressing: the night sky, the men she works with; then suddenly, the hint, their lives “ticking” away, how blissfully unaware they all are, just then.

I teach this essay to my students, both in creative writing and in literature, so that they might understand how meaning is made, and, perhaps more importantly, how writers and readers arrive at meaning.

Did Beard, nearing the end of her essay, intend to return to the squirrels, writing “Silence. No matter how much you miss them. They never come back once they’re gone”? As a writer, I’d say no. She didn’t set out to write that, but when she got to that point in the essay, that’s where she was, it’s what happened. She followed the threads of her essay, the clues she so clearly laid out in the beginning, and they led her to this conclusion.

For my creative writing students I also want to stress the craft of construction. No, she didn’t plan on writing that line, but then she did. So then what?

The most important details I want my students to notice are in the careful stitching together of the three narrative strands of this essay: her dying dog, her ruined marriage, and the death of her co-workers. Workplace shootings are so commonplace now that readers might fear the essay will veer uncontrollably into melodrama or sentimentality. Combine the shooting with the death of a dog and divorce, and the essay seems almost destined to be overwhelmed by the elements of all three events. How does the essay avoid this, I ask my students. How do we prevent our essays from being overwhelmed by sentimentality?

The answer, Beard shows us, is balance. The workplace shooting takes place in the context of her life with her dog and husband. The story of her dog and husband take place in the context of the shooting. All three events are important. The craft of this essay emerges in the balance of these events.

But how do we take these different events, my students ask, and make one essay? We look at Beard’s essay for a model. We notice how threads from one story, the blackboard at work, for example, show up in other stories (the simile “like something erased from a blackboard”). How it all comes together in the end, her friends gathered at her house, her dog, the inevitable knock at the door that will bring the husband, the return to the dark night sky of the opening scene.

Whether I’m teaching this essay in an Introduction to Creative Writing course, or a Non-Fiction Writing course, or Introduction to Literature, my students and I always come back to language. Why this word instead of another? Why this image to conclude? How does she get the word “plasma” to resonate across the entire essay?

As Beard’s essay closes, the essay demonstrates to us how to construct just such an essay, how to establish the essay as “a place of stillness where the particles of dust stop spinning.” In the case of this essay, the distinct parts come into equilibrium, where each can be understood in relation to the other, where the whole achieves more than the sum of its parts.

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