Monday, July 28, 2008

On conclusions and addictive thoughts

I'm working on a series of posts in which I seek new ways to talk to college writers about the nature of introductions and conclusions. Today, a first musing on conclusions.

David Carr recently published in the New York Times this astonishing bit of his new book The Night of the Gun. Carr's piece has from the beginning the advantage of ready-made biographical drama, as it recounts his recovery from addiction to become a successful journalist and father. It surpasses other, superficially similar narratives, however, by adding moments such as this one:

When a woman, any woman, has issues with substances, has kids out of wedlock and ends up struggling as a single parent, she is identified by many names: slut, loser, welfare mom, burden on society. Take those same circumstances and array them over a man, and he becomes a crown prince. See him doing that dad thing and, with a flick of the wrist, the mom thing too! Why is it that the same series of overt acts committed by a male becomes somehow ennobled?

Carr's ability to relate his own story but also step outside it and theorize it--and for all its engaging concreteness of word and image, this is a bit of unabashed theory--gives the reader a quick prompt to consider questions of gender, genre, and narrative structure that reach well beyond the essay's interesting but relatively ordinary musings on the uncertainty of memory. The passage strikes me as an example of what we teachers of writing have in mind when we tell students that an essay's conclusion should add something more, something that teases out the implications of an argument without simply changing the subject.

I feel the difficulty of describing the goals of critical essays using the example of a bit of memoir. If you would like to ponder the translation of similar subject matter into academic prose, have a gander at this review essay covering a number of new books on brain science. Let's ride this post out on a quotation:

Instead of recalling the experiences of both pleasure-filled high and painful withdrawal, the addict's memories may be overwhelmed by the powerful neural connections previously created by the drug. Only if memory is a matter of reconstruction of latent physical traces, not direct recall of past events, Changeux argues, could these kind of drug-induced long-term compulsions occur.


Michael said...

The modern newspaper-genre story ends on a similar note, though of course it's subtler than in a good academic paper. Ideally the final "kicker" quotation turns the story 90 degrees.

People unfamiliar with the newspaper genre often find these conclusions unsatisfying. I wonder if this is because, unlike in an academic paper (more familiar to lots of light news readers), newspaper stories often sprint, fact-laden, toward the finish and then twist into the kicker abruptly instead of drawing the strings together more gracefully.

In any case, you can also see this last-minute twist in lots of Onion articles.

Michael said...

I should add that I'm in favor of even a clumsy kicker at the end of a news piece. It's a useful antidote to the original sin of all journalism: no story can ever tell the whole story.