Sort of Review: On Being a Rat and Other Observations, by Chila Woychik

The book is propped next to my computer. A charming rat peers over the rumpled paper sign it holds bearing the book’s title: On Being A Rat And Other Observations. In the lower corner, the author’s name, Chila Woychik, is in red against a cheese yellow background. The cover was later changed to a more muted color scheme, no less charming in a ratty way, but I still like the bright original cover best.

Inside the cover, my name is listed with others for editorial assistance as well as for the illustrations; and it’s mentioned in the dedication. This particular book has a brief, handwritten note to me from Chila. When she wrote it, she had no way of knowing she dated it on my parent’s wedding anniversary. This very special book became unintentionally but personally, poignantly special.

I have to admit I was dubious when asked to edit On Being a Rat. I don’t usually read autobiographical works, creative or otherwise. But the first section I saw (and each one thereafter)—WOW! Just WOW! What a rare gem!

One of the things that captivated me most about On Being a Rat was Chila’s willingness to bare her soul, to be utterly transparent and vulnerable in her honesty. Honesty is a rare commodity in this present age; truth and honesty don’t always mean the same thing. Too often, all you see is the public mask— in …Rat, it’s totally “mask off”.

Another thing is the sheer beauty and creativity in the language Chila uses. Nothing obscure or convoluted, nothing so lofty that a reader can’t follow, but nonetheless powerful and thought-provoking even in the flashes of humor. Stark and lovely!

Her imagery is solid and logical even when she makes unexpected comparisons and observations. If one of her poems or lyrical passages were a photograph, the angle may be unusual, the focal point uncommon (or even bizarre); but the image is sharp enough that no one can say, “Well, there’s something on photo paper but I sure can’t tell what it is.” She writes with a razor.

She takes an uncommon genre, the lyric essay, to a new level that’s fierce and friendly, thoughtful and profoundly creative. On Being a Rat is a wonderful treasure to be read and reread with fresh discoveries awaiting the reader each time.

But there’s a bit more about what’s been called “the Rat book” or OBAR. For one thing, it’s shown me that creative nonfiction, the lyrical essay, is not dull autobiography or self-indulgent whining about life. It’s an art form with foundations in essay, memoir, and poetry. Content and structure combine with attention to poetic flow of words and sentences. Fiction writer that I am, I can’t help but feel the prickle of challenge — could I write this personally, this well? I don’t know, but I have doubt. I’m not certain I could override my reluctance to be so vulnerable on the page.  Still, I’m inspired to try.

One other especially delightful thing about OBAR: After the initial straight-through reading, I found I can open it at any section without becoming a context castaway. Treasures abound even on a single page — a unique phrasing, a pinpoint metaphor, an illuminating observation. Some pages are chatty, as though Chila’s sitting across a café table from me. With each chapter I read, I come away thinking This one is my favorite chapter —until I pick the Rat book up again and read something that challenges how I think about writing or nature or… Then I think This one — more favorite than my last favorite. Or reading in a different mood This one’s my favorite today.

OBAR is a masterpiece on multiple levels, worth studying, worth learning from. Section by section, page by page, the whole book has taken its place among my favorites.

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