Dispatches | October 25, 2008

Time to address a seldom discussed but alarmingly common trend I’ve noticed in creative nonfiction submissions — a specific kind of essay I call the Embarrassing Restroom Adventure.  

The details of ERAs vary widely, limited only by the number of ways going to the bathroom can go horribly wrong. Still, almost all ERAs follow the same basic trajectory: narrator enters restroom and gets comfortable; narrator notices that something isn’t quite right (the door won’t lock, the toilet paper’s gone, etc.); someone else shows up and suddenly there’s a big, embarrassing mess; narrator cleans it up, vowing to avoid similar situations in the future.

If one were to bust into the mail room of any literary journal that accepts essays, steal all the submissions, scatter them randomly over a five-acre plot, and stroll back across it blindfolded, guaranteed that person would step in a couple ERAs. I’ve been a reader for three literary journals, TMR included, and I can report that ERAs show up pretty often — about as often as essays about losing a pet or experimenting with sex or illegal drugs, but not quite as often as essays about cheating on a spouse, living with a debilitating illness, or attempting to finally reconcile things with mom or dad.  

The impulse to commit the ERA to paper is easy to understand, but hard to resist. They are stories told to make our close friends laugh, and in that sense they’re practically failsafe. If ERAs were employees in a corporate workplace, they would be low-level sales reps, the funny, jokey kind that bristle with personality and form quick rapports with others — and they’re great at their jobs. So great, in fact, that it will be suggested by others that they be promoted. “That’s a hilarious story, dude,” friends will say of the ERA. “You should totally write it down!” And in a move familiar to anyone who’s ever done corporate work, this promotion will remove the low-level ERA employee from a position where it almost can’t fail and install it in a higher position where it almost can’t succeed. 

In an ERA, the speaker assumes a position where there’s trouble but not danger, where taboo is flirted with but not violated, and where the audience is invited to laugh and sympathize but isn’t called upon to reevaluate or challenge. The subject matter’s universality makes it immediately accessible, so very little setup is required to contextualize the story up front besides where and how long ago it occurred. An ERA provides ample opportunity for the use of awesome literary devices like narrative suspense and colorful exaggeration, which are tricky to pull off in other personal writing endeavors.   

What’s really tricky, though, is making a case for an ERA’s literary value. While the story might be immediately accessible, there are also a lot of readers who will immediately choose not to access it. The purpose — to entertain — could be misinterpreted as an attempt to shock. Humor takes a privileged position, making insight and reflection secondary, and pretty soon the reader questions whether the piece should have been written at all. 

Then there’s the fact that there are so many ERAs floating around, and I admit I’m personally to blame for some of that. My Masters thesis is clogged with ERAs. I dropped an ERA on my creative writing workshop just last year. I can no more explain why I wrote so many — surely was aware I wasn’t breaking new ground — than I can explain why going to the bathroom without incident is hard.  

I still cheer for just about every ERA manuscript I get, and I pass my share of ERAs up the chain. However, take note: No ERA I’ve passed has ever been accepted for publication. Likewise, none of the ERAs I’ve sent out have ever been published.

Therefore, my advice to anyone planning to write an ERA is this:

Make it very good. Make the language captivating and the scenes vivid, but don’t be gross. Don’t let it even approach shock value. Don’t cuss. Make it so funny that it validates its own existence, but not so funny that the humor overshadows whatever insight it arrives at — which, incidentally, had better be more breathtaking than “…and that’s why I’ll make sure and go at my house next time.” Make it somehow touching but not emotionally gooey. Make it bigger than the confines of its situation without allegorically implying that life itself is a toilet.

Most importantly — and I think this goes for all essays — make the engine behind it be powered by something other than just the circumstances, because circumstances can seldom ever be unique, but with some careful thought, accounts of them can.