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Monday

Productive Navel-Gazing in CNF: Some Examples

Until I read Lisa Gill’s “The Neces­sity of Navel-Gaz­ing,” I had never heard the term before. Gill writes, “When per­sonal essays and mem­oir degen­er­ate into self-absorp­tion, ‘navel-gaz­ing’ is the term crit­ics often level.” She then ref­er­ences a foot­noted list called “The ABCs of Navel-Gaz­ing” as she out­li­nes her appli­ca­tion of this tech­nique inside the essay itself. So that what might be regarded as neg­a­tive or stigma, Gill says, can help us fur­ther under­stand and relate to the human con­di­tion. She com­pares writ­ing to sci­ence.

Sci­en­tists never under­es­ti­mate the poten­tial learn­ing oppor­tu­nity that is inher­ent in abnor­mal­ity; med­ical break­throughs often begin with care­ful exam­i­na­tion of the break. Writ­ers who engage in navel-gaz­ing with the same sci­en­tific spirit of risk-tak­ing and inquiry may also glean dis­cov­er­ies of merit.

 

So how can a writ­ten man­i­fes­ta­tion of this term be any bet­ter than the phys­i­cal act itself? As a cre­ative non­fic­tion writer, I often won­der how not to come off as a com­plete nar­cis­sist and the words “Who cares any­way?” forever plague me, sim­i­lar to Tarn Wilson who, in “Go Ahead: Write About Your Par­ents, Again,” laments her own “navel-gaz­ing”:

I resist return­ing again to my par­ents as a topic. I feel repet­i­tive, self-indul­gent, small minded…un-evolved. Even worse, I fear I am impos­ing some­thing unsa­vory on the reader, adding to the dark­ness in the world.

Since we non­fic­tion writ­ers are not world-build­ing but rather writ­ing about what we know, it can
some­times appear that there are no new angles of enlight­en­ment on every­day issues
such as the elderly par­ents or the dys­func­tional fam­ily unit. But Gill, who suf­fers from a dys­func­tion in her body due to mul­ti­ple scle­ro­sis, shares how focus­ing on dys­func­tion can help us to appre­ci­ate the func­tion­ing things that we may take for granted. Wilson also has this to say about decid­ing whether or not to write about her hippy par­ents:

I know that when we write hon­estly and richly about our fam­i­lies, we also write cul­tural history.…And by under­stand­ing the sto­ries we have inherited, we under­stand our­selves better…When we write again about our par­ents, we are not nar­cis­sists: we are adven­tur­ers in the inte­rior of the human cos­mos-we just hap­pen to be explor­ing the clos­est galaxy.

Though the above is just a small excerpt, it illus­trates the redeem­ing qual­i­ties that develop when we con­tinue to write the same story. Almost like re-watch­ing our favorite movie or re-read­ing our favorite book, we open our­selves up to the pos­si­bil­ity of notic­ing some­thing fresh and dif­fer­ent that we may have missed before. If it is hon­est and pure, it is worth telling and re-telling. It is in fact brave to explore the “clos­est galaxy.” For therein lies vul­ner­a­bil­ity and a “cul­tural his­tory” filled with glo­ri­ous mis­takes we can learn from. Nar­cis­sism is fun­da­men­tally the oppo­site. It doesn’t seek out error or flaws to cor­rect. In a self-cen­tered exis­tence there is no one else, there is no imper­fec­tion, only end­less gaz­ing on one’s own reflec­tion for gazing’s sake. No com­plex, engag­ing human con­di­tion can be found in that.

 

Below is an exam­ple from my own work called “My Father’s House.”

It’s the only one on the block with a dilap­i­dated roof and unfin­ished porch. White paint
crack­ling around the win­dows and the miss­ing rail­ing, signs of ille­gal con­trac­tors and lost
hope. Some­how it still stands, third from the left at the inter­sec­tion of Wal­nut and 18th­streets. Widener has made sev­eral offers despite the green foliage my father replaced with a now raggedy grey brick wall my mother protested. If my opin­ion counted for any­thing, I would have done the same.

While the fam­ily struc­ture is some­what uni­ver­sal, what is dif­fer­ent in this exam­ple is how using the descrip­tion of the house façade to par­al­lel the par­ents’ mar­riage adds lay­ers and dimen­sion to what could read as an over­done sub­ject. A house is some­thing most peo­ple have expe­ri­enced, and we come into the world through a set of par­ents. Whether they stay or not is another sub­ject. His­tor­i­cal and fac­tual evi­dence are given with­out a com­plete pity party. If we apply Gill’s “The ABC’s of Navel-Gaz­ing,” we find that what is lack­ing is an open­ing with an absurd or humor­ous image to hook the reader and set tone and an expressed desire. Here is a slight revi­sion.

It’s dejected, the only one on the block with a dilap­i­dated roof and unfin­ished porch. White paint crack­ling around the win­dows and the miss­ing rail­ing, signs of ille­gal con­trac­tors and money thrown to the wind. Some­how it still stands, third from the left at the inter­sec­tion of Wal­nut and 18th­streets. Widener has made sev­eral offers despite the green foliage my father replaced with a now raggedy grey brick wall my mother protested.

Every­one knows that houses don’t have feel­ings, but say­ing “it’s dejected” about an inan­i­mate object–the fam­ily struc­ture or shelter–adds an absurd intro­duc­tion to the reader. The use of the word also relieves the sec­ond sentence’s end­ing with “lost hope”–because that is exactly what dejected means. Attribut­ing char­ac­ter­is­tics and the descrip­tion of the house gives the nec­es­sary back­story with­out being com­pletely melo­dra­matic. Desire is intro­duced but thwarted as we can gather in the last sen­tence where the mother’s protest is ignored. The reader gets the feel­ing that this is not the first nor is it the only time she has been silenced. And by leav­ing off the last pouty sen­tence, the reader is given ade­quate dis­tance from the oth­er­wise uni­ver­sal fam­ily por­trait.

 

Here is another exam­ple, an excerpt from a piece called “You Again,” describ­ing the effect of a men­tally abu­sive rela­tion­ship.

Has any­one seen your mind? Where did you have it last? Did you leave it in the hands of the last lover or the one before? You mis­placed it some­how, along with a mea­sure of your dig­nity and your smile. Remem­ber your smile? It’s the beam your eyes used to dance on. Dance now? No. 

The onslaught of ques­tion­ing gives the reader a feel­ing of being dis­ori­ented. Below is a slight vari­a­tion.

Your mind is miss­ing. Has any­one seen it? Where did you have it last? Did you leave it in the hands of the last or the lover before him? You mis­placed it some­how with a mea­sure of your dig­nity and your smile. Remem­ber your smile, the beam your eyes used to dance on? There’s no occa­sion for danc­ing now.

This pas­sage can be viewed as even more self-indulging than the first one about par­ents, but what sets it apart is the lan­guage being inter­nal­ized with the use of the sec­ond per­son
nar­ra­tive. The reader is inside the mind of the abused vic­tim rather than being told what the vic­tim is think­ing. By switch­ing the point of view, the story becomes more attain­able.

 

So, when employ­ing effec­tive “navel-gaz­ing,” it can’t hurt to refer to “The ABCs of Navel-Gaz­ing” men­tioned by Gill below,or even chang­ing the point of view to sec­ond per­son, which is tricky but could prove to be equally reward­ing. It will be unex­pected and may just mix things up for your reader. 

 

The ABCs of Navel-Gaz­ing

  • Open with an absurd or humor­ous image to hook reader and set tone.
  • Incor­po­rate research and provide nec­es­sary expla­na­tions.
  • Self-impli­cate and doc­u­ment change.
  • Reflect.
  • Inves­ti­gate.
  • Express desire.
  • Inter­act with an author­ity in the field and spec­u­late.
  • Estab­lish cred­i­bil­ity.
  • Share com­mon and poten­tially “uni­ver­sal” expe­ri­ences.
  • State per­sonal con­cerns directly.

 

About the Author
Shamika.jpg




Shamika Byrd is an accom­plished and trav­eled singer and song­writer from Chester, PA. Shamika earned her bach­e­lors degree in music from East­ern Uni­ver­sity and is cur­rently pur­su­ing an MFA in Cre­ative Writ­ing at Rose­mont Col­lege.

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