As our editorial team prepares for our first contest (The Anne C. Barnhill Prize for Creative Nonfiction), we thought it would be valuable to share thoughts about some essays that “stick.” I love all of our essays, or they wouldn’t be here. But I went over every one thinking about which ones were memorable in that early phase of a first read. I’ve asked our editorial team to do the same, and in the ramp up to our contest submission period we will share our reader experiences with some of our favorite essays.
David McVey’s “On the Wonder of the World” drew me in immediately and made me forget I was reading a submission to Longridge Review. The opening line:
“We teased gravity, suspended above 100 feet of space on the Wonder of the World.”
I needed to know. Who are we? Suspended how? What is the Wonder of the World? Given my proximity to Coney Island and its 150-foot Wonder Wheel and even higher-flying rides, that first line takes on a carnival quality, inviting me to buy a ticket and go just about anywhere.
McVey gives us some answers right away, like the fact that the Wonder of the World is a soaring canal aqueduct, nicknamed as such by locals in his U.K. hometown. “We” are McVey and two childhood buddies, just “normal 9- or 10-year-olds engaged on business I can’t recall now.” The boys are out and about, as children are in the summer when school is off and the whole world—the whole wonder of the world—is waiting.
What follows is a story, relatively brief, shaped the same way the actual event was shaped, as a single thread across a chasm, with some breath-holding along the way. It’s that shape that gets me, the way the essay itself is like a bridge, and with the first line I’ve stepped onto it and know, for certain, I will cross to the other side. This particular shape appeals to me as a writer long attached to the idea that writing essays is a way to get to the other side of a question or a problem. Whether they offer a solution or insight or just another question, essays propel us forward. Even as we sit to read and write, we progress.
McVey’s story is detailed only with what’s most salient, and he playfully alludes to what’s been forgotten:
“I can’t remember who, but someone—possibly even I—said, ‘Why don’t we cross the Wonder outside the railing?’”
Who dared is less important than the fact that all went along with the dare. (I’m reminded of the often-charming way Mary McCarthy admits to things she can and can’t remember in her collection Memories of a Catholic Girlhood.) As such, the essay is restrained rather than plodding, and the story seems simple. Young boys wander, young boys grab at an idea, young boys attempt something dangerous without, in the moment, recognizing the danger. Nothing of consequence happens during the attempt. No one slips. No one is hurt. There is no trauma or tragedy around which to shape a wholly different essay.
But in time, the gravity of what could have happened seeps into McVey’s mind. He writes, “The experience has left its mark.” McVey considers the what-ifs in the same way that I do and the same way I know many others do. He questions, so he has to get to the other side.
My mother-in-law lives on the twenty-fourth floor of an apartment building on Florida’s east coast. While visiting with my own three boys for spring break, I sat with my husband, my mother-in-law, and other relatives on her balcony, sipping wine and munching on crackers and cheese and loving how social the boys were being, how interested they were in talking with us grownups about the evening lights, the drawbridge, the Atlantic horizon. One of my sons was wearing vivid orange pajamas. That night, I had a recurring nightmare that he flipped forward over the balcony railing, his tiny orange figure streaking toward the pavement below.
McVey ends his piece asking himself about a thing that didn’t happen that day on the Wonder. And he answers,
“I don’t know, but right now, I’m off to lie down in a dimly lit room.”
I know that feeling well. In Florida, at three in the morning, I lay in our dimly lit room, staring over the edge of the bed at my orange-clad son, whose air mattress was set up a few feet below. McVey’s essay came back to me then, as it has many times since. My son is lying on air, not concrete. He’s just a few feet below, not 100. He’s ok, I’m ok, McVey and his friends are ok. None of us fell. We’re all here, writing and reading and wondering, but none of us fell, except back to sleep.
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