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A Narrative Scene That Worked

By Robin Sloan

In his Saturday session on personal essays, Victor Merina shared some great tips: Write with authority, but not arrogance; write with emotion but not emotionally.

He also shared a trip -- his cross-country Greyhound bus ride on Sept. 11, 2002, that was the subject of a story for the LA Times.

Victor read us a scene from the story, and I have to tell you, there was a change in the room as he was reading. You can sometimes almost feel attention -- and Victor had ours.

For his audience, Victor's work satisfied a definition of narrative that Chip Scanlan suggested earlier in the day: Sentence by sentence, paragraph by paragraph, it made us want to know what happened next.

Click below to read the scene, and see if you agree.

Robin Sloan works at The Poynter Institute.

From "Taking the pulse of a country on a coast-to-coast Greyhound bus trip," by Victor Merina, published in the Los Angeles Times on Sept. 15, 2002:

Many people keep to themselves, but a few make an impact the moment they step aboard.

That's what happens at a small Arizona town when a tiny teenager in denim shorts and black high-tops steps aboard in the late afternoon. She looks to be alone and barely 16, if that. And when she immediately leans back in her seat, her feet just touch the floor. She struggles to unhook he carrier that holds her 2-month-old baby.

The young mother speaks to no one except her child even though other passengers have scrambled to help her stuff a box of toys in one overhead compartment, her bag in another and the baby's car seat next to someone else's feet. When people offer small talk, she is polite but taciturn, and her neighbors give up. She only has eyes for her baby -- and her Game Boy.

As the baby lies on the seat next to her, the young mother pats his stomach with her left hand while trying to play the game with her right. Eventually, she stops rubbing him altogether and merely coos, keeping her eyes on the tiny screen and using both hands to play her electronic game. After a few minutes, she puts her game down and snuggles her baby. Soon there's a pattern. Snuggle and play. Play and snuggle.

As night falls and the baby starts crying, the young mother's voice becomes less assured and more panicky. The person in front of her -- a newly married woman -- offers a blanket and even a can of formula she has been carrying in her luggage for the nephew she will visit in Oklahoma. The young mother accepts both, but her frustration mounts. She keeps trying to hold her baby and talk to him. She sings, cajoles, feeds him, begs him to sleep and tells him that she loves her baby, that she loves her baby.

It works for a while. But when the baby begins crying even louder, the young mother grows more insistent. Sleeping passengers awaken as the baby wails and the mother's voice becomes even more strident. Her lullabies now sound desperate, and the mother's words and her baby's cries fill the bus until, in the darkness, you hear her outburst of profanity.

Immediately, another voice can be head and an older woman is suddenly standing in the aisle next to the mother. She has walked from her rear sear and explains that she is a grandmother and offers to take the baby. The mother eagerly hands over her son, and soon the crying stops as the grandmother alternately rocks the baby gently and presses him against her. She turns on the reading light and shows the young mother how to hold her baby and what to say to calm him, and then recounts some of her own clumsy experiences as a new mother. For the first time, you can hear a teenager's laugh.

In the next seat, the young woman passenger who gave up her blanket joins them and tells the teenage mother to keep it for her son. "I take care of my nephew, and I want one of those some day," the smiling newlywed says, pointing to the now-sleeping baby.

The weary mother does not smile back. "Maybe you do," she replies. "Maybe you don't."

Posted in memoir & personal essay, scenes, sessions.Personal Essays in Daily Journalism, speakers.Victor Merina, travel on December 12, 2003 at 05:14 PM | Permalink