Assay: My Favorite Essay to Teach
I had so many contenders for “favorite essay to teach,” but I chose one that never gets shaved off of my syllabi. Though the author, Spencer Wise, is a good friend, I truly do love teaching this piece.
Click here for the link to Wise’s essay, which won Narrative Magazine’s Nonfiction Contest.
Here’s my take on it, and click here for the original piece on Assay’s dynamite blog.
Lisa Nikolidakis on Spencer Wise’s “The Second-Worst Rug My Father’s Ever Seen”
One question that we investigate in my Creative Nonfiction course is how do we take that funny anecdote we tell at parties and turn it into compelling memoir? Spencer Wise’s “The Second-Worst Rug My Father’s Ever Seen,” which won Narrative Magazine’s 2013 Fall Contest, is a perfect model. Wise could easily have on his hands an essay that is only about the time he almost flunked out of school and his dad bailed him out, but I’m not sure any of us would care much. Instead, he gives us heart: a father-son story, one about what’s expected of us and why we sometimes fail. Almost flunking out of school is plot—and it isn’t enough—but wrestling with identity and figuring out how he fits into his family is what moves this essay from local anecdote to one that touches those memorable, universal nerves.
Most students love this essay, but each semester at least one doesn’t. When asked why, the answer has been the same: he’s spoiled. In some ways, the student is right; Wise is on the cusp of not graduating from his fancy prep school when his father, a factory owner, rescues him. And he saves him again when Wise in college. It’s the second time that pushes a student into dislike territory, but this is a teachable moment: if we only read for plot, we might not respect his choices, but once we figure out that this essay is really about how families become codependent on one another, that narrow view suddenly broadens and allows for both a portrait of Wise’s vulnerability and a great writing prompt: What behaviors do we engage in with our families that outsiders might not understand?
Wise takes cues from fiction in crafting scenes and setting up the essay. He writes, “When I told my father that his good Jewish son and the future vice president of his shoe-manufacturing company was signing up for a floor loom weaving class, he said over the phone, ‘All my life I worked so you could be the best at arts and crafts?’” He starts close to the end: we have character and conflict from the opening line.
Wise’s voice is funny from the outset, particularly in how well he captures his father’s nuanced, Yiddish speech. I ask students if they like the father, and everyone does; he’s very funny. But then we look at him in isolation—we try to imagine that we don’t know the rest of the story. Wise writes, “Sometimes he would nod off in his chair beside me, but as soon as he stopped hearing the swish of the shuttle through the warp and the soft thump of the beater and the clack of the treadles, he’d snap up in his chair, rub his eyes, and yell: ‘Work, goddammit. Work!’” Later the father says, ““Shovel it down your throat and get back to work. There’s no time for lounging.” When taken out of context, this character suddenly sounds harsh, almost abusive, which yields terrific discussion on the work we must do to make a potentially unlikeable character loveable.
Finally, on a language-level, Wise’s prose is gorgeous; sometimes it’s lyrical, letting us get lost in long, fluid sentences. In other spaces, he punctuates a paragraph with a sentence so poignant, so true, that it resonates loudly. His attention to detail throughout the piece is impressive, but the closing paragraph is a tutorial on how to get out of an essay. Instead of wrapping up with a moral, as many students try to, he instead gives us a short scene that ultimately shows how inextricably tied to one another these men will remain. Wise writes, “And then, right as I was about to make my move, steal out of the room, he reached back and lay his arm over my chest, as if he knew I wanted to get away. Leave for good. And it’s true. Part of me wants to run. The other part wants to stay in that motel room until the paint peels off the walls.” In the end, both image and language are his outs, and they work effectively.