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Many of the traits that make Barbara Ehrenrich an effective writer are on display in the following excerpt from the “Serving in Florida” chapter of her book Nickle and Dimed:
On my first Friday at Hearthside there is a “mandatory meeting for all restaurant employees,” which I attend, eager for insight into our overall marketing strategy and the niche (your basic Ohio cuisine with a tropical twist?) we aim to inhabit. But there is no “we” at this meeting. Phillip, our top manager except for an occasional “consultant” sent out by corporate headquarters, opens it with a sneer: “The break room—it’s disgusting. Butts in the ashtrays, newspapers lying around, crumbs.” This windowless little room, which also houses the time clock for the entire hotel, is where we stash our bags and civilian clothes and take our half-hour meal breaks. But a break room is not a right, he tells us, it can be taken away. We should also know that the lockers in the break room and whatever is in them can be searched at any time. Then comes gossip; there has been gossip; gossip (which seems to mean employees talking among themselves) must stop.
Although this passage is obviously a piece of nonfiction prose rather than a piece of poetry, it nevertheless displays many standard literary techniques, including the following:
- Combinations of assonance and alliteration, as in the phrase “first Friday at Hearthside.”
- Allusions (sometimes mocking allusions) to jargon (as in the references to “marketing strategy” and “niche”).
- Metaphorical or figurative language, as in the reference to a niche “we aim to inhabit.”
- Sarcastic use of quotation marks, as in the reference to a “consultant.”
- Vivid use of spoken words or dialogue, as in Philip’s opening comment. Notice how the dash adds extra emphasis to “it’s disgusting.” Notice how effectively Philip uses a list and a sentence fragment for emphasis in his second statement. It is as if Philip feels no need to use normal sentence structure in addressing his underlings, nor does he speak to them with any courtesy.
- Vivid imagery, as in the reference to a “windowless little room.”
- Vivid verbs, as in the use of “stash.”
- Witty phrasing, as in the reference to “civilian clothes” (implying that the employees are almost a military force when they are working, with all the connotations of inflexible and unquestioning discipline that that idea implies).
- Indirect quotation, as in the sentence that says “he tells us” and also in the sentence that follows it. Rather than quoting Philip directly this time, Ehrenreich now reports his phrasing at second hand.
- Emphatic repetition, as in the three references to “gossip” in the final quoted sentence. The repetition here implies Philip’s obsession with the topic.
- Cleverly sarcastic comments, as in Ehrenreich’s remark that “gossip . . . seems to mean employees talking among themselves.”
In short, Ehrenreich functions here not merely as a journalist or reporter, concerned only with the facts (the who, what, when, where, and why), but also as a literary essayist, who uses many of the standard techniques of creative writing to bring her story to life.
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