I promised I’d look at creative nonfiction on here, and I’m taking my second story post to do just this. I downloaded “Up the Down Volcano” to my Kindle from the Amazon Singles store (you can download short stories or essays from here for just a buck or two–this one was two dollars). This is an essay by Sloane Crosley, who wrote the excellent book of essays I Was Told There’d be Cake.
In the story, Crosley was sent to Ecuador to travel around and write an essay about it, and she decided that she would climb Cotopaxi, a mountain near Quito. Crosley decides to go to Ecuador without any research or learning the language, as this will make her article hilarious… Well, she also goes to Ecuador without learning about altitude sickness, which greatly affects her.
This could be just a story about suffering and feeling ill-at-ease in foreign surroundings (forgive the pun); instead, Crosley infuses the story with her dynamic wit. E.g.–“The big selling points for adult ski trips, or the ones most regularly paraded out for my unskilled benefit, are hot tubs and mugs of warm liquid. Even for someone as lazy as myself, I am turned off by this gluttony of comfort,” or a line that I find particularly true, “At this point, the abandonment/confinement genre of film is so established in our culture that people who do leave the house without an EpiPen basically deserve what’s coming to them.” This enables her to make the thematic elements of the story a bit more carefully crafted–when and why do we give up on certain tasks or goals, and what does that make us think about ourselves? How do we place ourselves within an overall relationship to nature, and how do we let that guide us (or not)?
What’s striking to me about her style is its simplicity. When she wants to deliver information about Ecuador or the mountain, instead of offering encyclopedic information, she just drops it when it is necessary. We aren’t treated to paragraphs of information, but personal moments that, occasionally, tell us how tall the mountain is or the different symptoms of altitude poisoning. I think that any writer could take this minimalist “info-dump” style from Crosley and use it in his or her own work. Also, Crosley doesn’t embellish her story with a lot of figurative language or allusions–she only drops a few, such as Facebook and the recent film 127 Hours, to let the audience know when the story is situated, and she moves on from there.
After taking a course in story performance/live literature (you know, performances for live story series like “The Moth” or, specifically for the class I took, Chicago’s “2nd Story”), I wonder how Crosley would shorten this story for a performance. We get a fully rendered story in this iteration, but it seems to me that she could make a 5-, 10-, or 20-minute oral version of this story, focusing on specific elements, that might be just as engaging (or even more so) than this printed version. With personal essays, I always wonder why an author includes certain elements, why everything the author uses was important to the story, and how the author determined that.
Overall, I’d give the effectiveness of this essay an 8.5 out of 10. I feel that there are some elements that could have been dropped to make the essay more succinct, but I really enjoyed it.