"Almost Thirty" by Rachel Weaver: A Balancing Act in Narrative Rhythm

By Rebekah Hoffer

April 15, 2020

"Almost Thirty" by Rachel Weaver: 

A Balancing Act in Narrative Rhythm

One of the most important lessons I’ve learned in writing creative nonfiction is that, when in doubt, sometimes the best way to write about a thing is to write about something else entirely. Rachel Weaver uses this technique to great effect in her essay, "Almost Thirty"** (River Teeth, Volume 20, Number 2, Spring 2019)—one of my favorites of the essays I’ve recently read. If you haven’t read it, read it now.

The main narrative of this essay takes place over a short span of time and follows a plot arc that’s about as straightforward as you can get: some friends go skating; the narrator falls through the ice; she manages to climb back out. But of course, the narrator’s physical actions aren’t what this essay is really about. They’re just the framework.

Woven among the scenes of moonlit ice skating are the narrator’s troubled musings about her relationship and the uncertainty of her future. This is what Weaver is really writing about. She begins with moonlight and ends with ice, but in between, “the intense desire to hold onto the life I wanted” (2) shines through crystal-clear in every paragraph. This is true on the micro level as well as the macro; even within individual sentences, Weaver includes both parts of the narrative. “I laced up my cold skates, suddenly wanting only the freedom of the ice” (2). Skates. Freedom. Ice. Wanting. The narrator’s train of thought melds seamlessly with her setting, so that we as readers are led to focus first on one thing and then another as if she’s got a laser pointer in her hand. This is the beauty of the braided essay done well.

Looking closer at Weaver’s writing style, there are other tactics that catch the eye. For one, the stark sparsity of dialogue. There are only three words within quotation marks in this entire essay: “Goddamn it” (1), and “Wait” (2), both spoken by the callous boyfriend, Chad. The absence of dialogue throughout the rest of the piece lends particular emphasis to these two utterances. They break the silence like a snap of ice. After all, the less you use something, formatting or otherwise, the more powerful it becomes. The fact that Chad is the only character allowed to speak is not insignificant, either: in the relationship he and the narrator share, he’s the one who gets to talk, and she’s the one expected to stay quiet.

Another technique that Weaver uses to great effect is sentence length variation—such a simple yet crucial element of good writing. In lists of sentence fragments like, “Loose dirt. A shelf. The jaws of Alaska spitting me back out” (3), Weaver creates a staccato rhythm that imitates the natural human thought process and adds a burst of momentum. Elsewhere, sentences meander on for several clauses: “I hauled and scrabbled with all fours up the unstable shelf, my clothes and skates heavy and pulling, until I was able to stand up, the water now at my shins, the shore ten meters away, the dark hole in the ice gaping in front of me” (3). Weaver wields commas like a sculptor wield a chisel. This carefully chosen cadence of short sentence/long sentence creates an auditory texture that’s just as tasteful when read silently as when read aloud, drawing the reader’s attention where it needs drawn.

The balance of attention between external setting and internal thought process; the balance of dialogue with silence; the balance of shorter and longer sentences. How fitting it is, then, that balancing itself is a main underlying theme of this essay. Balancing on ice skates on fragile river ice; balancing a suffocating relationship with a ferocious desire to stay in small-town Alaska. This essay is beautifully fraught with gravity, and Weaver lives up to her name.

Because of its narrative and grammatical equilibrium, this essay is also easy inspiration for a writing prompt. On your own time or in a classroom setting, write a nonfiction essay or short story in the spirit of Almost Thirty. Choose a setting as memorable and rich in imagery as a moonlit Alaskan river: somewhere adventurous, somewhere dangerous. If you’re writing a personal essay, it should be easy to think of a few wild places you’ve found yourself. If you’re writing this as fiction, get as wacky as you please. The narrator of your essay or story should be focusing on a physical task such as ice skating—and yet, give more space on the page to the narrator’s train of thought than to their actions. Choose something completely unrelated to the task at hand for them to think about. Find ways to tie the task and the unrelated preoccupation together.

Find your balance. Feel the weight of words. Begin to skate, to move, to fly.

 

Rebekah Hoffer is a junior at Ball State University majoring in creative writing and Spanish. She thinks human beings are pretty neat, and she's having fun trying to figure out what it means to be one. She's also currently a student intern at River Teeth

Editor’s Note: Rebekah Hoffer is a fantastic person to have on one’s team, and as far as we can tell, she’s good at practically everything. We’ve been so lucky to have Rebekah working with us in the first year of the River Teeth Learning Lab and you can thank her if you’ve enjoyed a particularly well-turned phrase in our publicity materials or finally been convinced to follow us on TwitterWe’re much relieved Bekah will be returning as a River Teeth intern in Fall 2020.

 

**Check with your library to find out if you have an institutional subscription to Project Muse, and thus, River Teeth’s archives.

Keywords: 20.2
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