The process-analysis essay is an elementary but essential writing strategy. Most teachers prefer to teach it as the first expository form because all students have had experience giving and following directions and because composition students can use the skills that they have already studied in narration and description to explain the stages in a process. Like the chronology of events and the pattern of details, the stages in a process provide a plan for the process-analysis essay. Indeed, most students suspect that if they write about a process that has established stages—“how to fix a flat tire”—the essay will write itself. Students soon discover that drafting a set of clear and logical directions is not as simple as one would assume.
The chief advantage of teaching the process-analysis essay is that the class can often test written instructions against the process they propose to explain. For example, ask a few students to analyze a common procedure—finding a book in the library or typing a paper on a word processor. If they omit steps, reverse steps, or fail to explain the use of basic tools, your other students should be able to detect such errors, thus demonstrating how defective instructions do not produce the intended results.
Such demonstrations will prepare students to understand the purpose of the information contained in the introduction to this section. Writers must examine their purpose and audience to understand why they are analyzing a process and whom they are analyzing it for. The sample paragraph from Henry Petroski’s “The Book on the Bookshelf” makes a painstaking analysis of the seemingly simple problem of replacing a book on a bookshelf after its space appears to have changed dimensions.
Each essay in this section illustrates the use of these essential strategies. Sara Temple describes the process of purchasing stained glass tools in a way that all readers can follow, offering definitions of terms and the purpose of each step in the process.
Lars Eighner examines the apparently simple task of sorting through a dumpster. But he also uses his analysis to comment on the problems of conservation and waste. Nikki Giovanni focuses on an entirely internal process—how black students can develop the attitude and actions that will help them succeed at predominantly white colleges. Giovanni offers straightforward advice and backs it up with logical rationale.
Julia Alvarez plumbs the depth of a writer’s composing process by exposing the contents of her “curiosidades” file. She shows how the things that catch her notice eventually are transformed into characters or incidents in her fiction and poetry.
Natalie Angier and Serena Nanda provide excellent examples of how process analysis can be used to explain complex sociological processes. Angier controverts the “Flipperophile” notion that dolphins are lovable because they are intelligent by describing the sometimes devious ploys to which they resort in the mating process. Dolphin intelligence, she contends, is like human intelligence in that it can be used for selfish as well as noble purposes. Nanda counteracts the American
notion that romantic love should be the basis for matchmaking by exploring the positive and negative aspects of arranged marriage in India.
Elizabeth Winthrop’s story about simple processes exemplifies the more complex process of maturation. Although her protagonist, Emily, learns to tie fishing flies and pierce her ears, emancipation from an oppressive family situation is her ultimate achievement.
The writing assignments for process analysis encourage students to discover, outline, and test the steps in several kinds of procedures. For example, assignments 1 and 2 ask students to analyze some physical process (how to solve a mechanical or artistic problem) or to complete a personal project (how to compose a research paper). Assignments 3 and 4 invite students to discover, outline, and evaluate specific aspects of the process analyses they have read (Eighner’s assertions about consumption, Nanda’s exploration of arranged marriage). Finally, assignments 5 and 6 ask students to look to the works by Angier and Winthrop as models when they write an analysis of some event that could serve as a cultural metaphor.
LARS EIGHNER “My Daily Dives in the Dumpster”
Eighner’s articulate analysis of Dumpster scavenging demonstrates the complexity and dignity of the process. Himself a homeless scavenger, he rejects the terms “foraging” (because it connotes “gathering nuts and berries”) and “scrounging” (because it sounds too disorderly); the latter, however, he applies to aluminum can “scroungers,” who “lay waste to everything in their path.” Eighner tells frankly of getting a living with the refuse of others, drawing attention to a process that is often ignored, “since most people instinctively look away from scavengers.”
Dumpster scavengers, according to Eighner, comprise “a sound and honorable niche” of society. Scavengers’ ethics, he argues, are sometimes quite admirable. Although he admits that “there are precious few courtesies among scavengers,” he explains that “it is a common practice to set aside surplus items” because what a scavenger “cannot use he leaves in good condition in plain sight” for others to find. In spite of having claimed some Dumpsters as his territory, Eighner offers assurances that he doesn’t have “proprietary feelings” about them, and that he doesn’t mind “direct competition” of “other scavengers.” Recognizing that “many people will find the idea of scavenger ethics too funny for words,” he explains that he does not “go through individual garbage cans” because that process spreads litter and invades the privacy of individuals. Even when huge Dumpsters yield evidence of people’s private lives, such as “bank statements, bills, correspondence, pill bottles, and other sensitive information,” Eighner says, he avoids “trying to draw conclusions about the people who dump” in them. His purpose is to demonstrate that scavengers, who seem to survive on the edge of society, still observe common courtesies.
Eighner hopes that his audience will learn from his experience and become “slightly less wasteful consumer[s] owing to what [he] has learned as a scavenger.” He reveals that “affluent college students . . . throw out many good things” without thinking about their value, such as half jars of peanut butter, blocks of cheese with just spots of mold, and cartons of yogurt that are still good although their expiration dates have passed. Homelessness prevents Eighner from keeping every worthwhile thing he finds in the trash, and that has taught him to “take what [he] can and let the rest go.” His experience has proven that material wealth is transient and inconsequential. Ironically, extreme poverty leads him to identify with the very wealthy, who also have learned that the “gaudy bauble” is overvalued by the “rat-race millions who have confounded their selves with the objects they grasp.”
Although Eighner praises scavenging as “outdoor work” that is “often surprisingly pleasant” and elevates it to “a modern form of self-reliance” in his own estimation, he is also realistic about the hazards of homelessness and scavenging, cautioning that he does “not want to paint too romantic a picture.” He discloses that he gets “dysentery at least once a month,” and admits that “Dumpster living has serious drawbacks as a way of life.”
Probably no one in Eighner’s audience will be persuaded to voluntarily live as a scavenger, although many will have some experience with “rescuing” an interesting item from the trash. Besides the homeless, “employed people will sometimes find something tempting sticking out of a Dumpster or standing beside one.” These people, Eighner notes, are “not all . . . of the Bohemian type” and “are willing to brag that they found this or that piece in the trash.”
Most of Eighner’s analysis, however, concerns what he calls the “professionals,” people who depend upon Dumpster finds for food, clothing, and items to hock or trade. He takes pains to distinguish between scavengers and the “drug addicts and winos” who collect cans because they “must have small amounts of cash,” because his readers probably classify everyone who dives into Dumpsters in the same group. Because few, if any, of his readers have ever been homeless, he draws upon the experiences of home owners, comparing a person “who has a kitchen and a regular supply of groceries [and] has . . . eaten half a sandwich before discovering mold on the bread” with scavengers who examine discarded food carefully before ingesting any of it. He admits warily that he would “naturally prefer to live the comfortable consumer life” that his readers most likely do, but unlike they might be, he is “not heart-broken” at being jobless.
Most of Eighner’s readers would have difficulty eating food that has been in a trash can, so the writer begins his process analysis of the “predictable series of stages that a person goes through in learning to scavenge” at that point. He describes the “disgust and self-loathing” of a “new scavenger,” adding that even hunger cannot make one forget “the stigma of eating garbage.” The second phase of scavenging occurs when a homeless person finds “perfectly good stuff” in a Dumpster; a pair of shoes, “a pocket calculator,” even “pristine ice cream” can help people overcome their shame about taking trash and start looking forward to serendipitous discoveries. This stage develops into an obsession with having things. “All the Dumpster divers [Eighner] has known [have] come to the point of trying to acquire everything” they find in the garbage. The process of becoming a successful scavenger is complete only when Dumpster divers “realize that they must restrict themselves to items of relatively immediate utility.”
A different process is employed in finding and evaluating food in garbage dumps. Eighner practiced a three-step process in choosing to eat discarded pizzas. First, he knew the Dumpsters in his area, particularly the one behind a pizza parlor. Second, he checked that trash receptacle regularly, usually “as soon as the last of the help left.” Third, he answered the question, “Why was this discarded?” by determining that the pizzas were not spoiled, just the result of workers’ inexperience (“made with the wrong topping, baked incorrectly, or refused on delivery for being cold”).
Eighner’s process of scavenging garbage reveals the process by which objects are obtained and discarded in our society. The paper bag filled with birth control supplies and “the torn picture of a young man” that he finds suggests the process of a love affair’s ending. The “teddy bears, shredded wedding albums, despaired-of sales kits . . . diaries, and journals” in the trash all signal the ends of specific processes in unknown people’s lives. Sorting through this “sad” evidence of lives in flux, it is no wonder Eighner feels “sorry” for people caught up in the endless process of trying to buy happiness.
NIKKI GIOVANNI “Campus Racism 101”
Outspoken poet, educator, and activist Nikki Giovanni addresses black students at predominantly white colleges in her book Racism 101. In this excerpt from that text she argues that black students should not use racism as an excuse for abandoning their dreams of a college education, and she offers a formula for success in school. At the heart of her process analysis is an admonition to black students to maintain self-control. She reasons that American blacks will inevitably interact with whites, and “the only question is, will you be in some control of yourself and your actions, or will you be controlled by others?” She advocates self-control on the part of black students as the best method of containing racism and its attendant explosive emotions.
Giovanni reminds black students to remember why they came to college, encouraging them with the promise that “four years of college gives you an opportunity not only to lift yourself but to serve your people effectively.” The alternatives she cites to peacefully discouraging campus racism (low paying jobs, unemployment, military service, and prison) are not personally fulfilling or culturally uplifting. She advises students to see themselves as individuals “worthy of respect, and make everyone else deal with you the same way.”
As a black professor at a predominantly white school, Giovanni offers compelling reasons why blacks should participate in interracial education. Her own reasons for choosing to teach at Virginia Tech range from the mere fact of the school’s existence to a need to minister to its black students—a desire to “not allow white students to go through higher education without interacting with blacks in authoritative positions,” and the recognition that integration is necessary because “predominantly Black colleges cannot accommodate the numbers of Black students who want and need an education.” Her own commitment to succeeding in a predominantly white educational environment is summed up in her definition of tenure: “I have a teaching position for life. . . .”
Although students of all races will find good advice for achieving success in college and dealing with peers of differing backgrounds, Giovanni’s essay is addressed primarily toward black students enrolled in predominantly white colleges. Gradually, her opening paragraph reveals her intended audience, as the examples she toys with become increasingly pointed toward black would-be college dropouts. Her final hypothetical cartoon shows students leaving school because they “want to be white.” In her conclusion, she addresses these students directly, reminding them that education is a private goal; they must not let racism deter them. She cautions her audience against taking “the racial world on [their] shoulders,” reminding them that “your job is not to educate white people; it is to obtain an education.”
Giovanni establishes her straightforward, authoritative tone early in the essay by posing hypothetical questions (such as “Is it difficult to attend a predominantly white college?”) and answering them with wit and surprising candor. Her strategy is to give advice plainly, offering a process analysis of academic achievement for minority students. The steps in her process are arranged chronologically, as well as being prioritized by order of importance. Therefore, she begins with the first, most basic step: “Go to class.” This is necessary to complete the second step (“Meet your professors”), which, in turn, facilitates the following one (“Do assignments on time”), and so on. The last task in her series of steps, “Participate in some campus activity,” is so placed because it should come after academic obligations are met and because it is the least pressing, although still important, of the elements of the process she outlines.
Another strategy Giovanni employs to plainly issue her advice is the modeling of appropriate behaviors through a series of sample questions and answers. Notice that the responses she suggests are informative but not deferential. For instance she suggests that the age-old question, “Why do all the Black people sit together in the dining hall?” simply be turned around, and that Black students ask in return, “Why do all the white students sit together?” Reversing the inference subtly confronts the questioner. Giovanni urges her Black readers to use their visibility in predominantly white schools to educate fellow students and faculty; that is the main course objective in Campus Racism 101.
NATALIE ANGIER “Dolphin Courtship: Brutal, Cunning, and Complex”
Dolphins are the stuffed animals or cartoon characters of the undersea world. As Natalie Angier points out in her essay, “Dolphin Courtship: Brutal, Cunning, and Complex,” they are “universally beloved” for their frolicking, intelligence, and countenances, which are “fixed in what looks like a state of perpetual merriment.” However, dolphin intelligence manifests itself in cunning as well as cute behavior. Angier’s purpose in this process analysis of dolphin pack behavior during mating is to expose the darker side of intellect in animals. Dolphins can behave in ways that are “devious,” “threatening,” and “charmless”; they “gang up” on others and “collude”; they might even “bite,” “slap,” or “slam” the females they “steal.”
Dolphins are prized by humans because of their intelligence. Some people believe that dolphins are more intelligent than human beings, even. Their singing comprises a complex, yet unspecific, language. Their herds are remarkably democratic, and spend most of every day achieving group consensus about decisions. They are “remarkably good natured and friendly,” yet their mating behavior reveals the less desirable uses to which cleverness can be put. Competition among animals, Angier theorizes, facilitates their intellectual capabilities, especially deviousness and cunning. Their proportionately large brains carry the capacity for insidious as well as charming thoughts and actions.
Nearly everyone falls into the category of those who “universally” love dolphins, but Angier is writing for an intellectually curious audience that is not taken in by the “sentimental Flipperophile” mentality that pervades superficial presentations about the charming mammals. Readers of this essay will probably enjoy Angier’s jabs at melodramatic dolphin lovers, those who “believe these creatures are floating Hobbits.” Virtually no one will try to follow the procedure for dolphin mating that Angier describes, since none of her readers probably own dolphins, so her audience is comprised of people who want to increase their fund of general knowledge.
Many of Angier’s readers will have seen “marine mammal shows” and witnessed dolphins performing tricks, obeying commands, even seeming to express love for their human trainers. She counteracts that kind of publicity when she reveals that scientists and dolphin trainers who specialize in observing dolphin behavior sometimes find the creatures “conspicuously charmless.” Throughout the essay, Angier compares dolphins with human beings, another species that has used its intelligence to devious as well as endearing ends. She compares dolphin society with human social constructs, explaining that social conflicts evolve coping mechanisms that demand intelligence. Dolphins, for example, are “opportunistic,” comprising their friendships, gangs, and “buddy-buddy” relationships to fulfill selfish needs and desires. Angier’s female readers may bristle when she reveals that male dolphins enlist the help of one another in the mating process because “a single female cannot be forced to mate by a lone male,” or when she describes female dolphins with their calves as “single mothers.”
The process of dolphin mating strategies is explained twice in Angier’s essay, once as a general overview that establishes the sometimes vicious tone of their behavior, and again in a more systematic way that includes speculation about motives and theories regarding unseen or unknown parts of the process. The procedure is complicated and varies depending upon the willingness of the female to mate and the level of cooperation at any given time in the dolphin community. It starts in the male dolphin’s adolescence, when he becomes close friends with a “buddy” or pair of other young male dolphins who eventually become his allies in the mating ritual. This pack of males may enlist the assistance of another gang to steal a female from a similar group of males. They engage in battle, and intimidating behavior in order to command the obedience of the female. The female may be injured during this stage in the process. The male bonding evidenced here is only temporary, however, as a pack of males may fight against the ones they aided within the week. A variation in the process occurs when the females fight back, on their own or in female packs. After one or more of the males mates with the chosen female, she gives birth and is dismissed from the group and left to rear her calf on her own. In human terms, this seems like rather boorish behavior, but we must remember that these are mammals of the animal kingdom.
There are steps in the process that Angier’s research does not delineate very clearly. She says that dolphin copulation occurs in deep water and is “almost impossible to witness.” It is unclear how male dolphins recognize when a female is ovulating, although some of their behavior seems to indicate curiosity about it. In describing the actual mating of the mammals, Angier says simply, “at some point, the female mates with one or more of the males.” In the dolphin world as well as in human behavior, there are some things about attraction and mating that just can’t be explained scientifically.
JULIA ALVAREZ “Grounds for Fiction”
Showing people how to find ideas to write about is a way of prompting people to begin telling their own stories. An accomplished novelist and poet, Julia Alvarez provides her followers with a window into her own creative process that both satisfies their curiosity about the origins of some of her published works and encourages them to emulate her practices in their own writing. She traces elements in her novels and poems to such stimuli as a letter found in the trash, an article in a medical journal, a question reprinted in an old housekeeping magazine, small-town gossip, newspaper articles, errant facts from nonfiction, and a handwritten memoir from her father. Each of these was kept in her yellow pocket folder labeled “curiosidades,” or curiosities, which are the commonplaces Alvarez has collected. She advises her readers to start similar idea files for themselves and exhorts them to follow Henry James’s advice, “to be someone on whom nothing is lost.” Her message is that life is filled with subjects about which to write, and would-be readers need to be attuned to them.
Alvarez is convinced that everyone’s natural curiosity drives him or her to be a writer. She contradicts the popular wisdom that authors write what they know best by citing the opinion of writer Marcie Hershman, who said, “We write what it is that we need to know.” Alvarez believes that writers are motivated by discovery as well as by “the whole Scheherazade issue” of needing to tell stories. Scheherazade is the heroine of an ancient collection of tales, The Arabian Nights, who marries the vengeful king and stops his pattern of taking and murdering a new wife each day by weaving fascinating tales and withholding their endings until the next day has passed. Alvarez argues that storytelling is a mode of self-preservation, a survival tactic that was denied Adolfo Gonzales when he was committed to an Oregon mental hospital because no one could understand his unique Indian dialect.
Ostensibly prompted by the comments of audience members at public readings who approach Alvarez with ideas for stories they hope she will write, this essay explains to those hopefuls why no one can tell someone else’s stories. Instead, she suggests that her readers who, in the words of poet W. H. Auden, “like hanging around words listening to what they say,” might follow her example and begin compiling a file of potential stories waiting to be told. The essay, then, is largely a set of examples designed to show her listeners and readers how ideas are discovered and nurtured into full-blown texts over time.
Alvarez assumes that her audience is largely made up of active readers. Her casual allusions to Wallace Stevens as “a vice president of Hartford Insurance Company” and to the first line of William Carlos Williams’s “The Red Wheel Barrow” show that she presumes that her audience is well read. She also supposes that they are familiar with a fair number of her own works, quoting snatches from poems that her audience might recall in total or mentioning the Mirabal sisters, who fought against Dominican Republic dictator Rafael Leonidas Trujillo and were brutally assassinated by his henchmen in 1960. Their story is the basis for Alvarez’s book In the Time of Butterflies.
Ironically, Alvarez writes a very brief paragraph to outline the “hours and weeks and months and years” she spends writing a piece of fiction. Even for an accomplished and prolific writer such as Alvarez, the process by which text is composed remains a “mystery (or madness).” She has set herself a difficult task: to describe a process that can’t be observed or logically broken down into prescriptive steps. Its final stage must be performed by someone else: a lawyer who checks to see if anything she has written is libelous, or a family member who sees shades of himself or herself in one of her characters.
Alvarez focuses instead on the tangible parts of a writer’s task: the scraps of paper in her yellow folder, “most of which have been in [her] folder for years.” She describes some of the artifacts that suggest to her “the seed of a plot that might turn into a novel or a query that might needle an essay out . . . . ,” but she cannot say how she determined that each had “an aura” about it, or how she was attracted to that idea or story and not another. In retrospect she can describe the process by which certain artifacts wove their way into her work. An angry letter rescued from someone else’s garbage provides the voice of her character Marie Beaudry. An Indiana housewife’s trepidation at cutting yard goods married itself with the love of words to become Alvarez’s poem “Naming the Fabrics.” A long-held fascination and desire to write about the Mirabal sisters took root when her father described meeting one of the last men to see the sisters alive. In an irony as inexplicable as composition itself, the spark from her father’s letter ignited Alvarez’s mind to produce the book that she wrote nine years later.
SERENA NANDA “Arranging a Marriage in India”
A common theme in process-analysis essays that provide information is that the process in question is much more intricate than it first appears. That is true of “Arranging a Marriage in India,” as Serena Nanda learns that what she “had thought would be an easy matter [turns] out to be quite complicated.” Initially, she assumed that she could efficiently help her friend find a perfect mate for her eligible son during her year’s stay in India. When Nanda returns to the United States, her friend seems “no further along in finding a suitable match for her son,” although Nanda has learned a great deal about the complexity of arranging a marriage. She also learns to be patient with the Indian way of choosing a mate, and that effort pays off two years later when she succeeds in finding a wife for her friend’s son.
Before having the opportunity to discuss arranged marriage with single, young Indians, Nanda considered the practice “oppressive.” However, Sita, an eligible Indian bride, convinces the American author that the practice is not as unreasonable as it might seem. Nanda discloses her “second thoughts on the matter.” Because brides become part of their husbands’ households, it is essential that the whole family find a mate who will fit comfortably into their lifestyle. The essay presents Sita’s arguments that the wisdom and experience of her parents are valuable in choosing a mate, that arranged marriage allows young people to focus on personal development rather than on achieving popularity with the opposite sex, and that arranged marriage provides a newly married couple with the excitement of learning about one another—all factors which contribute to the low divorce rate in India. In her essay’s postscript, however, Nanda also describes more sinister reasons for the infrequency of divorce among Indians: social stigmatism and “dowry deaths.” This process analysis is designed to curb the knee-jerk response that romantic Westerners often exhibit toward the concept of arranged marriage.
An American anthropologist writing for American readers, Nanda asks the kinds of questions a Westerner would pose about her subject. For example, she assumes that arranged marriage might mean that Indian women “don’t . . . care who [they marry]” or that they are missing the fun of dating. Sita’s calm responses demonstrate that these are not concerns shared by her Indian counterparts. Nanda herself acknowledges that her research embodied “more curiosity than tact,” and she writes about delicate issues that Indians would almost certainly not discuss with an audience of strangers. Indians probably would avoid talking about this subject among themselves as frankly as Nanda presents it. The author is an investigator conducting cross-cultural research to enlighten her compatriots.
Throughout the process of finding a mate for her friend’s son, Nanda makes the sorts of mistakes that a Westerner would. She is impatient with the exacting and critical role of her friend, and she is quick to assume that a proposed match is a good one without considering all of its ramifications. For instance, she does not understand the liabilities of the boy’s former military career or his short stature and dark skin. Nanda must keep “pressing for . . . explanation[s]” when her friend rejects potential brides. One comes from a family with so many daughters that they might not be able to afford an elegant wedding, and the potential bride’s married older sister also wants to visit home too much. Another young woman is well educated but too independent-minded to fit into the family; she takes the bus out and about Bombay on her own, and she is of a slightly higher social caste, which may cause problems in the future. The last rejected candidate is “fat and wears glasses.” None of these attributes is likely to be a serious liability to a sincere American suitor, so Nanda takes pains to explain why each situation results in a failure to make the match.
Nanda’s essay chronicles the exacting and sometimes tedious task of arranging a marriage. Happily, it concludes in the wedding of her friend’s son, but it demonstrates that many considerations are involved between the time that parents decide to seek a mate for their child and the surrender of a daughter to her husband’s family. The steps of the process are illustrated through narratives of failed and successful matches. The importance of issues that are foreign to Nanda’s American readers, such as caste and dowry, is demonstrated through stories of failed matchmaking attempts. The essay’s postscript, which describes the abuse some Indian women face when the match has been uneven, emphasizes the weight of matchmaking decisions.
Comparing an unfamiliar concept with a well-known one is a good way to help readers understand new information, and Nanda presents the unfamiliar Indian rituals alongside American customs. Her discussions with Sita in the essay’s opening counteract American prejudice against arranged marriage by making it appear more reasonable and successful than dating many potential mates or marrying for romantic love. It is not until the essay’s postscript, when the audience has had a chance to see how a well-arranged marriage can work, that Nanda exposes the dark side of the Indian tradition. Following an “accident” or “suicide,” the boy’s family might crank up the whole process again to try to choose a more “suitable” bride for themselves.
ELIZABETH WINTHROP “The Golden Darters”
Elizabeth Winthrop’s short story “The Golden Darters” deals with many processes. Although it deals overtly with the process of tying fishing flies and obliquely with the processes of smoking, leg shaving, and ear piercing, it is mostly concerned with the processes of maturation and emancipation. It is about an adolescent girl’s efforts to free herself from an irascible, dominant, quick-tempered father.
Emily, the story’s narrator, describes herself as “a cautious, secretive child,” who “could not bear to have people watch [her] doing things.” Such a temperament is alien to her “large, thick-boned” father, a man with “sweeping gestures, a robust laugh, and a sudden terrifying temper.” The father sets up his fly-tying operation in a corner of their summer cottage living room, working in full view of his wife, two sons, and timid daughter. He naps on the lawn “for all the swimmers and boaters to see,” although this behavior embarrasses his retiring wife.
When her father insists that Emily, who is allowed to closely observe the patriarch at his hobby because she doesn’t “bounce” as her brothers would, receive instruction in the delicate art of fly tying, she is reluctant. Emily is shy and afraid of arousing her father’s anger, but most importantly, she does not share in his enthusiasm for fly tying and, ultimately, luring “a rainbow trout out of his quiet pool.” Differences between father and daughter are further emphasized by the opposite effects the process of fly tying has on the two characters. The father is tying flies to relax and pass the time needed to mend his back following surgery. Emily, conversely, finds her father’s hobby tedious with little opportunity to rest her “aching spine against the chair.”
At first, Emily finds it difficult to escape her father’s insistence that she join him in his new-found hobby. However, by the end of July, when her young friends have arrived at their lake-side homes, she is beginning to separate herself from her family’s expectations. The twelve-year-old narrator consents to having her ears pierced, even though her mother has forbidden it until she is college-aged. When the shy Emily acts boldly, wearing as earrings the golden darters she has tied with her father and pulling her hair up so that the adapted fishing lures make her look “free and different and dangerous,” she has escaped her parents’ control. Her mother objects that the earrings make her “look cheap,” and her disappointed father remarks distastefully, “that is not the purpose for which the flies were intended.” However, when Emily’s father turns off the light, so that she “couldn’t see his face anymore,” readers sense a small victory for the story’s struggling protagonist.
Everyone struggles with defining his or her own identity as separate from parents and family, and in that respect, most readers will readily understand Emily’s plight. Winthrop paints the family in her story with broad strokes, making it essentially like many households in America. The father is overbearing; the mother, although she tries to defend her daughter from her husband’s demands, is often absent, leaving the room whenever a potentially tense situation arises. The energetic brothers seem relieved that their father prefers to control their sister with his attention. In short, they are an average middle-class family, straight out of twentieth-century middle America.
Winthrop uses a comparison between a familiar and an unfamiliar object when she tells readers that the fly-tying instruction manual “read like a cookbook,” saying “things like, ‘Cut off a bunch of yellowtail.’” She also describes the “golden darter,” the fly that takes on new significance at the story’s end, explaining that it is “a big flashy fly, the kind that imitates a small fish as it moves underwater.” While her readers are likely to be familiar with family dynamics and the emancipation process, they are less apt to know about fly tying.
What passes at first for attention to the process of fly tying in Winthrop’s story is, in fact, the careful creation of the picture of Emily’s father. He has forbidden the maid from coming near his fly-tying station, he self-centeredly announces “the completion of” each “latest project to the family,” and the narrator finds it unlikely that her father would use “thread and bobbins,” needles, and feathers—the “tools normally associated with woman’s work.” As details of the father, his hobby, and its elements ranged upon his work table accrue throughout the story, readers are prepared to fully imagine the story’s final scene involving the anxious mother, the disapproving father amid his trappings, and the bouncy daughter.
The two processes overtly described in the story, tying fishing flies and piercing ears, are described with comparable attention to detail. The author seems to assume that her audience would not be entirely familiar with either procedure. Readers learn that one begins tying a fly by clamping a clean hook in a vice, adding feathers, wrapping thread about the body and cementing a head in place. Securing the slippery feathers to the tiny hook is the most precarious of these steps, and it is the point in the process where Emily makes mistakes. Similarly, Winthrop tells her audience the major steps in ear piercing: numbing the ear lobes with ice cubes, sterilizing a needle, stabbing it through the lobe, inserting stud earrings, twisting them and swabbing the wound with alcohol to avoid (or to treat, in Emily’s case) infection. Ironically, the most difficult steps in each process involve using sewing needles for other than their strictly intended purpose.