Kyle Simonsen on My Favorite Essay to Teach: Susan Orlean’s “Meet the Shaggs”

Susan Orlean begins her essay “Meet the Shaggs” by noting that “depending on whom you ask, the Shaggs were either the best band of all time or the worst.” Unless you are asking my students. Then they are unanimously the worst.

I introduce my students to the band itself before I actually assign Susan Orlean’s essay. First, I play them a bit of the music: a twangy, off-key, discordant cacophony that many visibly react to. I ask them to write a short description of the music after they’ve listened to the song, threatening to play more if they stop writing. Then I show them the cover of the album, the three girls—Betty, Dorothy, and Helen Wiggin—posed on a dark stage with their instruments, and ask them to describe the imagery on the cover. They do so, and then I take volunteers to read their descriptions aloud.

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Some are more vicious than others, but they’re nearly universally disparaging and judgmental. One student called them “a trio of people who are as ill-clad as they are tone deaf,” whose earnest music sounds “like an electrified accordion taking a tumble down an escalator.” Another student wrote, “‘You can never please anybody in this world,’ they sing, which is true in the sense that you can never please anybody while playing them this awful, awful song.”

Then we read “Meet the Shaggs,” and we find that Susan Orlean, as part of her profile of the Shaggs, describes their music very differently. The judgments are still there, but they aren’t Orlean’s; instead, she quotes Frank Zappa and anonymous music critics from the Internet—the latter sounding much like the descriptions by my students. Instead, Orlean’s descriptions are, well, descriptive. She calls the music “winsome but raggedly discordant pop,” nailing down the genre, but also notes some potential influences: “the heptatonic, angular microtones of Chinese ya-yueh court music and the atonal note clusters of Ornette Coleman.” Yet she also manages to be conversational, writing that “something is sort of wrong with the tempo,” and wondering if “they are just a bunch of kids playing badly on cheap, out-of-tune guitars.”

What I like about an exercise like this one is that it focuses in on something essential about becoming a better writer: knowing what’s possible. In getting to compare the descriptions they write—first to each other’s, and then to Orlean’s—students get to see that the way they chose to describe it initially isn’t the only way, and that two very different descriptions can also both ring true.

Some of my savviest students have noted that the judgmental descriptions sometimes say more about the person doing the describing than the object they are describing, leading into discussions about tone, voice, and narrative persona—we know Orlean is smart, knowledgeable, and compassionate not because she tells us these things about herself, but because she demonstrates them in her descriptions of the music and her interactions with the members of the Shaggs as she interviews them for the essay.

Orlean’s knowledge, for instance, is evident in all the ways that she suggests the exhaustive research that informs the piece. She mentions her interview with the town historian from Fremont, New Hampshire, where the Shaggs grew up, and quotes from his book about the town. She hints at numerous interviews and conversations with music critics, local residents who knew the girls, and the Shaggs themselves. And yet all of this research fades into the background of the Shaggs’ origin story—I know this, because I see the sudden realization of the tangible legwork that went into the essay dawn on the faces of students as we comb through it.

The real reason this essay is my favorite one to teach, though, is Orlean’s compassion. I believe one of the greatest gifts of studying creative nonfiction is that it allows us to close the span between our lives and the lives of others, others who may be very different from us, to know them and understand them. This is important in memoir, of course, where the marginalized can tell their story in their own voice, but also in essays like “Meet the Shaggs,” where Orlean sheds light on the loneliness and suffering the Shaggs endured at the hands of their abusive father, telling their story and replacing our reaction of loathing with our capability for understanding—even if I doubt any of my students are listening to the Shaggs on their commutes home.

[Listen to “Philosophy of the World” by The Shaggs here.]

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kyleprofilephotoKyle Simonsen writes, edits, and parents two children from his home in Wahoo, Nebraska. He teaches at the University of Nebraska at Omaha. His writing also appears in Sidebrow, Opium Magazine, and Rain Taxi, among others.

Assay@NFN15: “Music and Writing”

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Thomas Larson, Richard Terrill, Will Jennings, Bob Cowser

Thomas Larson: quotes Danish composer Pederson: “My music has a lot to say, but it’s not about anything.” Larson likes this simultaneous affirmation of yet resistance to meaning. He also quotes the famous line of Pater’s: “All the arts aspire to the condition of music” – and while he’s grappled with this, he disagrees, and thinks music’s representational nature is overstated. He notes that Woolf, writing on Wagner’s music, thought that music’s power of suggestion was due to its lack of specificity – all it can do is emote or move us emotionally. Steven Pinker calls it “auditory cheesecake” and finds it unnecessary to evolutionary development.

Richard Terrill: for Mendelsohn, the ideas expressed by music weren’t too indefinite to put into words, but rather too definite. He describes an aphasia he has while playing jazz – an inability to move between words (speech and/or writing) and jazz improvisation – the two languages are processes that aren’t compatible. Language and music don’t come from the same part of the brain. Musicians have to be in the moment and collaborate/listen to each other – writers have more trouble with this, as do readers. Apart from pure memoir or reportage, nonfiction needs to bounce its experience off something – Terrill thinks that writing about our response to the arts (music) is a way to do this.

Bob Cowser: cites Adorno, who said that the logic of an essay is not necessarily linear, and notes the parallel to music. Cowser approaches this topic laterally – he’s written about his mother’s dementia, and is struck by how music can access memory in dementia patients, just as CNF seeks to. Cowser then read a piece that was part of an NEH project on the folk music revival, about Pete Seeger.

Will Jennings: read an essay that wove together playing harmonica as part of an improv group, Gene Schumacher and NASA’s space geology, music, and the song “Same Moon.”

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Heidi Czerwiec is a poet, essayist, translator, and critic who has recent work appearing inAngle,Able Muse, and The Boiler Journal.  She is the author of Self-Portrait as Bettie Page and the forthcoming A is for A-ke, the Chinese Monster. She teaches at the University of North Dakota, where she is poetry editor for North Dakota Quarterly.