I’ve known Sandi Wisenberg for almost twenty years. All throughout that time, I’ve been an enthusiastic admirer of her powerful, funny, and diverse body of work. She’s one of the most savvy, most versatile writers I’ve read.
In this multi-layered piece on teaching another writer’s work, Sandi demonstrates what a good personal essay should be. And at the same time, she offers us some useful, important, writing advice--beginning in Part One with this suggestion. "There’s that old rule we learned, and that we teach,” Sandi writes “--when you write about something dramatic, use the simplest, most undramatic language. Be quiet”
Which, in the body of this essay, is exactly what she does.
The Certainty of Ambivalence (on Sallie Tisdale’s “We Do Abortions Here: A Nurse's Tale,” Harper's Magazine, October, 1987, 66-70) by S.L. Wisenberg
How do you write an essay about working in an abortion clinic?
There’s that old rule we learned, and that we teach—when you write about something dramatic, use the simplest, most undramatic language. Be quiet.
We do abortions here….
From the very first word, we know that the writer is part of something. Of a group. She is part of a unit. There’s we and there’s us, the readers. It’s obvious whom she’s with.
We do abortions here. It has the ring of rebellion, or am I just imagining it? I imagine the writer standing with her arms folded, at a doorway. And she is not making excuses for the abortions.
There’s a colon, then another quiet assertion: That is all we do.
We’re so used to Planned Parenthood informing us defensively that they do family planning, they provide contraception. They treat stds. But there, where Sallie Tisdale is a nurse, they do abortions and nothing but abortions.
This is all we do.
Can you imagine saying this is language that is calmer, more matter of fact?
There’s another rule, which I tell my students, and you probably do too: If you’re ambivalent about something, write about it. If you already know your opinion, you’ll be strident. Or Manichean, we might say, if we were PhDs. Write about what confounds you, what you’re trying to figure out.
This piece is about mixed emotions, but it’s not about wringing hands over whether abortion and the abortion clinic are necessary. Perhaps there’s a rule three: Ambivalence doesn’t mean that you’re a nervous wreck trying to figure out a large issue in your life and in society. You may have made the large decision, you may be certain that your decision is right, but still have dueling emotions.
She sets up ambivalence in the second sentence, using the singular: There are weary, grim moments when I think I cannot bear another basin of bloody remains, utter another kind phrase of reassurance.
The I. She breaks away, she tells us precisely what makes it difficult—the bloody remains, and the sameness of reassuring, always reassuring, and sounding kind. That is the gist of the essay. She uses the word “basin” three times in the first page of the essay, as it appeared in Harper’s, and xx times throughout, and the synonyms xxx.
But what does she do after those moments? She gets back on the horse. So I leave the procedure room in the back and reach for a new chart.
Like Beckett: You must go on. I can’t go on. I’ll go on.
And though it’s a new chart, she tells us a paragraph or so down, more directly about the sameness she alluded to before, There is a numbing sameness lurking in this job: the same questions, the same answers, even the trembling tone in the voices.
Later she writes about the sameness of human failure, which brings women to the clinic. Two paragraphs below that she talks about failure again: Each abortion is a measure of our failure to protect, to nourish our own.
There’s a harshness there. We think our own troubles and tragedies are unique. They are not. It’s like Walter Benjamin’s Angel of History. We see history as one event after the other. The Angel sees one huge event, never stopping, one catastrophe.
She tells us she enjoys it, most of the time. We laugh a lot here. She’s back to We, after the uneasy and bored and distraught I has wandered off from the united front. It’s nice to be with women all day. I like the sudden, transient bonds…
Nobody loves abortion. Pro-choice advocates, of which I am one, talk about wanting abortions that are safe, legal, and rare. Tisdale uses oxymorons and contrasts to convey the ambivalence at the heart of abortion-providing: It is a sweet brutality we practice here, a stark and loving dispassion. A paragraph later: How can we do this? How can we refuse?
One of the many things that annoy me in this life is that everyone talks about “narrative nonfiction.” Telling stories. Nonfiction that unfolds like a novel. And yet we go around quoting Phillip Lopate on the essay as an exercise in “self-interrogation” and the essay following “a mind at work.” This piece dares to be expository. The first page is about ideas. It is about specifics, too, and aggregate made up of specific experiences with patients.
There are narrative parts of this essay. The paragraph after the page I handed out tells what a first-trimester abortion consists of, and what Tisdale’s part is in the procedure. “I give a woman a small yellow Valium, and when it has begun to relax her, I lead her into the back, into bareness, the stirrups. The doctor reaches into her…” She provides sensory description—a bright light, the rumble of the machine, the white paper that crackles. She writes about her connection with the woman, what she does, what she says, and the sequence ends with another contrast: “the loss is no longer an imagined one. It has come true.”
The next paragraph she writes about sameness again—and the variety. Precisely because this is not a narrative, Tisdale uses repetition to create unity. A straight narrative might have such glue, but doesn’t need it as much because the chronology holds it together.
What moves the essay forward, what Tisdale uses instead of chronology (or maybe you could call it a chronology of rising intensity), are individual stories and details that move more and more into tragic absurdity, and also get you closer and closer to the reality of abortion. In the first category, There’s the 16-year-old who was raped, and who believes that a baby hatches out of an egg in a woman’s stomach. Later there’s the women who asks if she needs to remove her underpants.
Not much further Tisdale writes that she uses the distancing words “tissue” and “contents” and the women ask directly, How big is the baby? Again, contrasts. She admits she fudges a little: she emphasizes the “bulbous shape” of the embryo. The message: It is not yet a person. But she admits next, In the basin (again) “I see an elfin thorax…its pencilline ribs all in parallel rows with tiny knobs of spine rounding upwards. A translucent arm and hand swimming beside.”
What Tisdale is doing in this essay is daring to look at what she does. She tells a teen-ager that she’s not allowed to look at the fetus, but that’s not really true, either. Tisdale knew she really didn’t want to see it.
And then there are the fetus dreams, which “we all” have. “Fetus dreams” is the title of this essay in Tisdale’s recent anthology, Violation. Harper’s stole her first sentence, which I think is a dirty trick. And lazy.
But back to the fetus dreams: “buckets of blood splashed on the walls; trees full of crawling fetuses.”In another dream, she is the creature that is aborted, sucked out, torn. But instead of this identification with the fetus, she continues to believe in abortion. The dream leads her to think about the alternative to legal abortion: knitting needles, coat hangers. She ends that paragraph with more contrasts: “Abortion is the narrowest edge between kindness and cruelty. Done as well as it can be, it is still violence, merciful violence.”
There are other narrative sections—one describing an ultrasound. Another describing an abortion of a five-month-year-old fetus. She focuses on the eerie sounds: clatter, snap, click, sucking, crinkles, low voice.
Near the middle of the piece, she talks about ambivalence, the lack of. Her colleagues don’t have time to as she puts it “chew over ethics.” But generally there is to be no ambivalence.” Because if there was ambivalence, they wouldn’t be able to do what they have decided to do.
And yet, each medical person has her boundaries: one might refuse to do an abortion after a particular week of gestation, or a particular number of repeated abortions. Her own limit is less concrete: “allowing my clients to carry their own burden, shoulder the responsibility themselves. I shoulder the burden of trying not to judge them.”
But even though the fetus may be humanoid, or as she reports later, “like a little kitten,” it is not human: “The fetus,” she says, “ in becoming itself, can ruin others.”
At the very end she uses one sense for the first time, to gain intensity: Smell. “From the sink rises a rich and humid smell, hot, earthy, and moldering. It is the smell of something recently alive beginning to decay.” Again—contrasts.
She ends by clearly looking at ambivalence, and now she is speaking as the I again: or pledging : “Abortion requires… a willingness to live with conflict, fearlessness, and grief…I imagine a world where this won’t be necessary, and then return to the world where it is.”
In other words, she’s a realist.
My late friend John Anderson used to say that anyone is interesting as long as you know what to leave out.
In workshop a student said, exasperated at questions: Are these things they need to know or want to know?
After all, we were discussing someone’s life.
Here’s what Tisdale leaves out:
How long she worked in the clinic.
Why she became a nurse.
Whether she’s had an abortion.
Why she applied for a job as a nurse in the clinic.
How old she is.
Did she really quit to work on a book, as her bio says?
Do we want to know?
Do you need to know?
Can you bear to know?
S.L. Wisenberg wants you to buy her books and hire her to help you with your writing. She's the editor of anotherchicagomagazine.net
Michael Steinberg's Blog--Fourth Genre: The Art and Craft of Creative Nonfiction
#70 The Certainty of Ambivalence (on Sallie Tisdale’s “We Do Abortions Here: A Nurse's Tale” Harper’s Magazine, October, 1987, 66-70) by S. L. Wisenberg