Month: December 2012

What Can We Steal From Elizabeth Breese’s “Calamity The Way I Think It”?

Title of Work and its Form: “Calamity The Way I Think It,” poem
Author: Elizabeth Breese
Date of Work: 2011
Where the Work Can Be Found: The poem can be found in Elizabeth Breese’s first book of poetry, The Lonely-Wilds, and was also reprinted by Verse Daily.

Element of Craft We’re Stealing: Use of Language

Discussion:
One of the great things about poetry is the way that the form allows you to be playful with language, casting reality in abstract phrases than can seem random until you think about them.  One of the drawbacks of contemporary poetry is that the form allows you to be playful with language and to cast reality in abstract phrases than can seem random until you think about them.  A lot of students with whom I speak have a lot of trouble with abstract poetry.  The only way to break through this wall?  Practice!

Elizabeth Breese’s “Calamity The Way I Think It” is a very playful poem.  Ms. Breese lets you know immediately that you are going to be taken on a fun ride:  “The radio is a brown jug/ puffing world news over my shoulder.”  Is she really talking about a radio?  Why is the brown jug “puffing”?  Why is the world news going over the narrator’s shoulder?  The poem requires the reader to come up with his or her own interpretation, making it difficult to summarize.  Ms. Breese is doing what I call “painting with words.”  The sentences, phrases, words and syllables were placed in order by the poet, just as a painter arranges colors and shapes.  Are these random phrases?  I would wager that most are not.  Instead of using boring, common language to communicate the idea Ms. Breese had, she paints with words to leave more to the reader’s interpretation.

Think of a great poet—I certainly don’t consider myself one—in the same way a baseball player thinks about his swing.  Can the casual fan look at Miguel Cabrera’s swing and tell him what he’s doing right or wrong?  Not really.  It takes long practice and countless hours of observation to understand all of the moving parts in a swing.

Howard Bryant’s great book Juicing the Game contains a great anecdote that applies to this analysis.  Here’s a brief excerpt from Chapter 17:

Once, a young San Diego Padres center fielder named Mark Kotsay had summoned the nerve to talk to Bonds, asking him about a difficult element of the hitting process that Bonds seemed to do so effortlessly. Kotsay had grown up idolizing Bonds, and it seemed he was on the verge of a memorable moment listening to the master. “It wouldn’t do much good,” Bonds explained somewhat coldly. “I mean, I could tell you what I do, but you’re not me.” It was a line Bonds used frequently.

I like to think that writing instructors are generally a lot warmer than Barry Bonds, but the principle remains valid to some extent.  If you ever meet the kind and generous Ms. Breese at a conference or a reading, feel free to ask her how she does what she does.  You’ll get much more out of her answer, however, the more you have written and the more you have thought about your own work.  By the same token, a ballplayer will get more value out of a session with a hitting coach if he already understands each part of his swing and has watched video of himself ten thousand times.

Whether reading or writing an abstract poem, include handholds for your reader.  Even if you understand nothing else in the poem, you can get a lot out of the line, “a tornado will come/ for everyone who knows/ my love language is non sequiturs.”  If nothing else, can we all relate to this concept?  A non-sequitur is something that is out of place, something that “does not follow.”  It’s sad, but people in romantic relationships often have problems with communication; the narrator understands that her (or his!) inability to communicate will cause serious problems for people she loves.

What Should We Steal?

  • Paint with words.  Consider the effect of each letter you use and its placement on the page.
  • Offer your reader handholds to help them worm their way into your work.  Allow the abstraction in your works to clear for a moment, giving the reader something to cling to.  Whenever I have discussed an abstract poem with a class, I’ve gotten the best results when I start figuring out the easier parts of the piece and working my way up.

What Can We Steal From Kent Russell’s “American Juggalo”?

Title of Work and its Form: “American Juggalo,” creative nonfiction
Author: Kent Russell
Date of Work: 2011
Where the Work Can Be Found: “American Juggalo” was first published in the Fall 2011 issue of the journal N + 1. The piece was subsequently awarded a Pushcart Prize and was included in the 2013 Pushcart anthology.

Element of Craft We’re Stealing: Material

Discussion:
The idea of the piece is actually quite simple: Kent Russell packed up and attended the Gathering of the Juggalos to find out what makes Juggalos tick.  To a lot of people, there are no new horizons, particularly in a country as saturated with media as the United States.  “American Juggalo” takes a look at a subculture with which most people wouldn’t be familiar, particularly most folks who read literary journals.  Juggalos are fans of the Insane Clown Posse (ICP) and the other endeavors undertaken by their label, Psychopathic Records.  The Gatherings are notoriously out of control, with Juggalos fighting and screaming and using all kinds of drugs non-stop.

Russell is NOT a Juggalo, and approached the situation from a scientific perspective.  It wasn’t his intention to become a Juggalo or to chronicle their world from the inside.  He does NOT follow that old adage, “When in Rome.”  Not only does Russell refrain from using illegal drugs, but he refuses entry to Juggalos who are trying to crash in his tent.  (Totally uncool, bro.)  Even though he is approaching the material in a scholarly manner, Russell sees a lot of humanity in the Juggalos.  What do these folks want?  Family.  It’s fair to say that many Juggalos have some sort of disconnect with the rest of the world; why wouldn’t they be drawn so strongly to a group that shares their outlook on society?

What Should We Steal?

  • Approach your subject with empathy and curiosity.  Whether you are writing fiction or nonfiction, your characters should feel like friends or family members to you.  You should want to get to the subject’s heart, ignoring all of the obstacles that may be in the way.  Russell doesn’t particularly enjoy camping out around all of the Juggalos, but he approaches them on a human level nonetheless.  If you’re writing Hannibal Lecter, you need to put aside your distaste for the tastes that Lecter loves.
  • Force yourself into uncomfortable situations and into discussions with new kinds of people.  What can you really write about if you haven’t experienced anything?  Fib your way into getting a VIP pass for The Gathering and drive out to a cornfield in the middle of nowhere.  Take a watercolor class.  Introduce yourself to strangers.  I’ve mentioned Lee K. Abbott before; he was writing a book for which he needed knowledge about guns.  Lee had no knowledge of guns, so he struck up a conversation with his car mechanic, who happened to know a whole lot about guns.  People love talking about themselves and what they love…give them the opportunity!

What Can We Steal from “Doubt,” an episode of the television program Law & Order: SVU?

Title of Work and its Form: “Doubt”, an episode of the television program Law & Order: SVU
Author: Written by Marjorie David & Paul Kolsby, directed by Ted Kotcheff
Date of Work: Originally broadcast November 23, 2004
Where the Work Can Be Found: The episode is on approximately four times a day in syndication and can be found on the program’s Season 6 DVD.  “Doubt” is also currently streaming on Netflix.

Element of Craft We’re Stealing: Creation of Suspense

Discussion:
Don’t even pretend to lie: when you’re not feeling well, you grab a tub of ice cream and sit down on the couch, stuffing your face with Cherry Garcia and your eyeballs with Law & Order.  The program is a spiritual successor to Dragnet, one of the first police procedurals and one of the most realistic.  As you well know, Law & Order: Special Victims Unit sends Detectives Benson and Stabler in search of all kinds of evil sex criminals.

One of the reasons the Law & Order franchise has been so successful is because Dick Wolf and the other producers use the least amount of serialization possible.  The episodes are about the crimes and their resolutions in the justice system.  Sure, we hear about Stabler’s wife on occasion and we wonder when Benson will find the right guy.  Further, every episode can take place in a different world.  Here’s the formula: In this episode, Benson and Stabler immerse themselves in the world of SOME FUN MILIEU  to get justice for VICTIM who has been SEX CRIME.  In this case, the story goes like this:  In this episode, Benson and Stabler immerse themselves in the world of THE UNIVERSITY ART DEPARTMENT to get justice for A YOUNG WOMAN who has been RAPED BY HER PROFESSOR.

The story is not complicated, but David and Kolsby are very shrewd in the way they create suspense in the viewer.  When you watch a crime show such as this, you’re wondering whodunit and looking for clues.  David and Kolsby change your thinking about the he said/she said story every couple minutes.  Look at some of the “story beats” in the show.

  • A student claims she was raped.  (HE’S GUILTY! —we all dislike rape.)
    A professor openly tells the detective the student will blame him.  (HE’S INNOCENT—he’s being open and honest.)
  • The student recoils at being touched.  (HE’S GUILTY—that’s what happens to rape victims.)
  • The professor points out his bruises and claims they were having consensual rough sex.  (HE’S INNOCENT—it’s hard to distinguish between the two and why should he have his life ruined?)
  • The professor’s door open to the detectives, revealing a very young and very pretty girl.  (HE’S GUILTY—he clearly likes girls who are too young!)
  • The little girl is really his loving daughter.  (HE’S INNOCENT—and we feel a little bad for thinking he’s a monster.)

The episode keeps the viewer guessing and humanizes a man who may or may not be a rapist.  By the same token, the episode humanizes a woman who may or may not have falsely accused a man of rape.  These situations are often more complicated than people give them credit for.  Should a rapist’s life be changed by the punishment he (or she) receives?  Of course.  On the other hand, what about the innocents who have suffered this same punishment?  I guess what I’m saying is that I don’t envy the judges and attorneys and officers who deal with these cases.

If you’re going to do a he said/she said, then the man and woman have to say stuff.  This episode accomplishes that exposition in an awesome way.  Instead of having a scene in which Stabler and Benson sit the guy down at a table, the viewer gets his side of the story while he’s stripping down for the medical examiner to pull evidence off of him.  We contemplate the invasion of his privacy while we hear what HE says happened.  These scenes are intercut with the she says.  The woman explains her side of the story while she’s undressing and doing a rape kit for Benson.  Not only is the exposition accomplished in a fast and efficient manner, but the writers are also given yet another opportunity to evoke sympathy and anger.  (They’re manipulating you.  I hope you realized that.)

The best turn occurs at the end.  I’ve presented this episode to my class, and many folks were not pleased.  The foreman of the jury announces that a verdict has been reached.  The piece of paper is handed to the judge.  She reads it.  The foreman gets the paper back and reads: “We, the jury, find the defendant…”

And that’s it.  It doesn’t matter what the jury (by way of the writers) thought.  It matters what you and your family think.  If you watch this episode with others, maybe a discussion will ensue.  What could be better than that?

What Can We Steal?

  • Own your status as a manipulator.  As a writer, it’s your job to lead the reader (or viewer) along.  Fake them out.  Trick them.  How do you do that?  You play with their perception of the story in order to increase the joy in their experience.
  • Compress exposition in interesting ways.  Why have two interrogation scenes when you can have just one.  Even better, you get to set the scenes in a much more dramatic way than officers and suspects on opposite sides of the same table.
  • Respect your audience enough to let them think for themselves.  The ending of “Doubt” mimics real life.  Do you think a jury member ever REALLY knows if he or she is right?  Do defense attorneys know they are sometimes unsure as to their client’s innocence?  Doubt is a part of life, friend.  The argument goes on, in the episode and in the real world.

What Can We Steal From Elizabeth Powell’s “Match.com/Matthew Likes Buttered Toast, Vulnerability…”?

Title of Work and its Form: “Match.com/Matthew Likes Buttered Toast, Vulnerability…”, poem
Author: Elizabeth Powell
Date of Work: 2011
Where the Work Can Be Found: The poem appeared in Issue 9 of New Ohio Review.  Ms. Powell’s poem won a Pushcart Prize and was included the 2013 anthology.

Element of Craft We’re Stealing: Concept

Discussion:
“My love lives in a little tiny box/ Made of pixels and engineering.”  So begins “Match.com,” a poem whose narrator describes action on an online dating site.  If you are starting a relationship with another person on a dating site, doesn’t the other person really “live in a tiny box?”  Don’t they “make” the person when they write them?  The poem ends on something of a sad turn, a reminder that people never really belong to each other.  Do we ever really know one another, or do we simply create an image of people in our heads?

Elizabeth Powell was very shrewd in composing the poem.  What was her smarted idea?  (In my view, at least?)  She knew she was writing about online dating, so she thought about it a lot and decided to show the reader a different side of something they already knew.  Poems are great places for a writer to reconceptualize cultural touchstones.  If you try to show people the dark side of Disney World, for example, in a novel, you have to write a whole bunch of pages and come up with a plot and all of that stuff.  In a poem, however, it’s perfectly acceptable to present some ideas and keep them at the forefront.  Sure, there’s a narrator and a dramatic situation, but these are not as “important” as the work Ms. Powell is doing in making the reader think about human relationships.

By the same principle, if you set your screenplay in a burger joint, you have to work with what you will have around you.  Burgers, grills, vegetables, drive-through microphones, terrible music, salads that don’t sell because burgers taste way better…  Your characters should interact with these objects at some point, right?

What Can We Steal?

  • Employ your title in the service of your story.  Titles don’t have to be a simple reflection on what is happening in your piece.  The title of this poem actually does some big work: it informs the reader immediately that the poem is all about the world of the online personal ad.
  • Brainstorm and make use of the different facets of the phenomenon or object you’re writing about.  “What do you do on a dating site?  You write the other person…you see pictures, but these pictures have been carefully chosen…you’re really inventing the person you want to meet.”  See how this mental process can work?

What Can We Steal From Percy Bysshe Shelley’s “Ozymandias”?

Title of Work and its Form: “Ozymandias,” poem
Author: Percy Bysshe Shelley
Date of Work: 1818
Where the Work Can Be Found: The poem is anthologized all over the place.  Thanks to its brevity and inclusion in the public domain, I have also reproduced it below.

Element of Craft We’re Stealing: Material

Text of the Poem:

“Ozymandias”
I met a traveller from an antique land,
Who said—“Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. . . . Near them, on the sand,
Half sunk a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them, and the heart that fed;
And on the pedestal, these words appear:
My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings;
Look on my Works, ye Mighty, and despair!
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal Wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.”

Discussion:
How stressed out do you get when the dishes aren’t done?  Did it really bum you out when your kid hit your car with a Nerf ball and left a microscopic scratch?  Good news!  In twenty years, no one will care.  In fifty years, no one will remember.  In one hundred years, no one will remember anything but your name…if you’re lucky.  Sorry to be such a bummer, but it’s true.  “Ozymandias” is a simple but powerful poem.  The narrator recounts a story he or she heard from someone else about an ancient ruin.  Amidst the broken statuary is a pedestal proclaiming the name and power of the king who once ruled the area.  The statement is a bit impotent, you’ll agree: Ozymandias’ power and kingdom are long, long gone.

Shelley doesn’t try to do too much in the poem.  He has one big, complicated idea to communicate and does so through a powerful example.  We’ve all seen amazing pictures of the Sphinx (if we haven’t been lucky enough to see the Sphinx itself).  Can you believe that the whole face was painted?  As astounding as that sculpture is, we’re really only seeing a ghost of its original grandeur.  The anecdote Shelley tells keys into the kind of image we all know: a Greek temple, the pyramids, those Buddhas of Bamiyan (the ones the Taliban destroyed), Mount Rushmore, the footprints on the Moon.  These great works of man will someday be wiped away by eternity and time.

Why did Shelley choose to make the sonnet an anecdote?   Perhaps some smart Shelley scholar will tell me the real reason, but I think that the poem is that much stronger because the ‘witnessing’ in the poem is not even first-hand.  Ozymandias is not even significant enough for the narrator him or herself to have gone and seen the ruins.  If poor Ozzy is remembered at all, it’s for being a shattered visage that you don’t even bother to see yourself.

What Can We Steal?

  • Challenge your writer friends and let them challenge you, too!  “Ozymandias” was written as a response to a poem written by Shelley’s friend, Horace Smith.  The first sonnet is written on the same subject and was published in The Examiner.  Shelley shrugged his shoulders and thought, “Cool idea, man.  It’s time for a friendly competition.”  (Shelley won the Ozymandias battle.)  Why not trade ideas with a friend?  Why not compose a story or poem or song based upon the same idea they were using?
  • Use the power of brevity.  If your idea is complicated enough, people will want to engage with it, no matter how simply it is stated.

What Can We Steal From Sylvia Plath’s “Daddy”?

Title of Work and its Form: “Daddy,” poem
Author: Sylvia Plath
Date of Work: 1962
Where the Work Can Be Found: As an American classic, “Daddy” is anthologized all over the place, including complete collections of Plath’s poetry.

Element of Craft We’re Stealing: Authorial Perspective

Discussion:
“Daddy” is a difficult poem for many folks.  Some readers are made uncomfortable by some of the subject matter.  I get it; you’re going to alienate a few people when you write lines like, “Daddy, I have had to kill you” and “A man in black with a Meinkampf look// And a love of the rack and the screw.”  Others find it hard to consider the poem in any context other than the autobiographical.  This isn’t inherently unfair; Plath seems to be explicitly using her life in the poem.  If you’re one of the many readers who have trouble understanding the poem, follow the same advice you got when learning how to drive: take as long as you like, go over it again and memorize the arm signals because they WILL ask you about them.

“Daddy” is indeed a poem from daughter to father.  The first-person narrator clearly loves the man, but the family trauma she believed he caused has forced her to cut emotional ties.   The daughter feels the man was so oppressive and evil that he deserves comparison to the Nazis, a party known for the pride they took in causing pain.  The opposite of love is not hate, as they say, it is indifference.  The poem seems to end with a declaration of the narrator’s emotional freedom and indifference to the man: “Daddy, daddy, you bastard, I’m through.”

Poetry doesn’t HAVE to be about depression or sadness.  It just so happens this is a pretty sad and depressing poem.  Plath brings the emotion to the surface by making the poem an open letter to Daddy.   It’s a little bit like reading someone else’s love letter, isn’t it?  You get to see someone else express their feelings without a filter.  More importantly, these are complicated feelings.  Even after the narrator calls her father a Nazi, labels herself a “Jew,” blames her psychological dissolution on the guy and declares that she has murdered him…she still seems to have some love in her heart.  (I think it’s the repetition of the word “Daddy” that makes me think so.)  The emotion is extreme, but it is not unfocused.  Even in this extreme state, the narrator is able to put together coherent thoughts and sentences.

To whatever extent Plath was writing about her own father, she created a whole world for the poem and rendered it completely.  All too often, autobiographical fiction is only 1% distant from the truth.  When I was a teenager, I would simply use a person’s middle name when writing about them or use some other silly technique that didn’t fictionalize much of anything at all.  Plath gives Daddy a complete backstory, gives her narrator a full psychology and makes sure that her priority is to create a good poem.  (In adolescent writing, you’ll find that the priority is to squeeze out emotion and not really to serve the artistic ideal.  That was my experience, at least, even though I didn’t realize it at the time.)

What Should We Steal?

  • Serve your Muse as well as your heart.  Even though it may be a difficult mission in your first few drafts, try to figure out what kind of piece you’re really trying to write and construct the piece in the service of that goal.  Think about it this way: which will likely produce a better result for an artist?  Painting with an airbrush or with a fire hose?
  • Maintain some kind of distance between yourself and your characters, even if you’re writing an autobiographical piece.   I understand; if you’re writing memoir, then you’re going to have “the truth” on your mind.  The point is to be able to have a little bit of distance.  You need enough distance to allow yourself to write from some level of objectivity.

What Can We Steal From Tennessee Williams’s “A Streetcar Named Desire”?

Title of Work and its Form: A Streetcar Named Desire, play
Author: Tennessee Williams
Date of Work: 1947
Where the Work Can Be Found: Streetcar is revived a great deal.  The last Broadway production was in 2012 and featured a multiracial cast.  You can also find the play in nearly any bookstore.  Here’s an idea: why not go to a local college bookstore and look for a used copy?  You may even buy a bunch of other great books you weren’t expecting to find.

Element of Craft We’re Stealing: Characterization

Discussion:
Thomas Lanier (Tennessee) Williams was one of the most important American playwrights of the twentieth century.  He was even a celebrity.  Can you believe it?  In the not-too-distant past, playwrights received Kardashian levels of attention!  (Well, maybe not that much attention, but you get the idea.)  In A Streetcar Named Desire, a destitute Blanche DuBois shows up at the Elysian Fields to stay with her sister Stella.  Blanche and Stella are Southern belles whose family was a part of the aristocracy.  (Note that I used the past tense.)  Stella loves her “low-class” life and her “low-class” husband, Stanley Kowalski.  Stanley is not happy that Blanche has decided to stay with them and feels that Blanche is undermining his authority.  He also thinks that Blanche owes him money by way of her sister.  (The Napoleonic Code, don’t you know.)  Please don’t just read a full summary of the play; allow the magic of the play to draw you in as Williams creates three of the strongest characters in American theater.

How in the world did Tenn create such complicated characters?  First of all, he gave them time to develop.  (That’s part of why I urge you to simply read the play or to see it in the theater.)  You can’t simply tweet a real character into being…unless you use an awful lot of tweets.  Which would defeat the purpose in the first place.  Think of a mother who loves her child, regardless of the trouble he or she causes.  You need to be that kind of parent to your characters.  Would you visit a random prison inmate?  Probably not; you don’t know him!  And he’s an evil criminal!  No, you wouldn’t spend much time thinking about the guy.   If it’s your child, however, you are much more likely to see the inmate’s humanity, to understand that he has hopes and dreams and fears just like everyone else.

Think of the famous “Stella!” scene.  (That would be Scene Three.) Yes, Stanley just threw a radio out the window.  And he put his friends in the middle of an uncomfortable situation.  And he beat his pregnant wife.  It would be very easy to make Stanley a moustache-twirling villain.  Instead, Tenn gives Stanley a softer, more vulnerable side.  After his friends rush Stanley outside, he is standing on the street, feeling as though he’s lost the world.  With the anger- and alcohol-induced rage receding, he realized that he’s hurt his “baby.”  (Not to mention the literal baby in Stella’s tummy.)  Against Blanche’s wishes, Stella rises as if pulled by a supernatural force and descends the stairs.  Why does she go back to such an unpleasant man?  There are a million reasons!  Stella doesn’t like being beaten, but…she kinda likes it.  And Stanley is weeping because of what he has done.  He “falls to his knees on the steps and presses his face to her belly.”  Mr. Kowalski subjugates himself to his wife and acts like a child.  Isn’t it more satisfying that Williams makes his characters messy and complicated?  (Real people are messy and complicated.)

Williams was also very good at communicated character detail very efficiently.  Only a few seconds into the play, Stanley Kowalski makes his entrance.  Look at what Williams writes:

Stanley (Bellowing): Hey, there!  Stella, Baby!

(Stella comes out on the first floor landing, a gentle young woman, about twenty-five, and of a background obviously quite different from her husband’s.)

Stella (mildly): Don’t holler at me like that.  Hi, Mitch.

Stanley: Catch!

Stella: What?

Stanley: Meat!

(He heaves the package at her.  She cries out in protest but manages to catch it: then she laughs breathlessly.  Her husband and his companion have already started back around the corner.)

Stanley’s first action is a big one.  He throws his wife the meat.  Yes, there are a couple ways of interpreting the action.  Stella tells her husband not to shout at her; he ignores her reprimand.  Like a caveman, Stanley has brought home a big hunk of cow and has given it to his woman to cook.  Stella is amused and titillated by the brutality of what Stanley has done.  And does Stanley care at all about her reaction?  Nope?  And we learn all of this from some rump roast flying through the air.

What Should We Steal?

  • Make your characters messy and complicated.  Admit it: you sometimes don’t understand your own thoughts and actions.  Why should your characters be any different?  Stanley doesn’t understand how much of what he does is motivated by his insecurity and Stella understands that she needs to be saved…but knows she doesn’t want to be.
  • Give your characters meaningful actions.  Stanley tosses dinner to his wife.  Mitch rips the paper lantern from the lamp.  Blanche sneaks a shot of Stella’s booze about twelve seconds before telling her sister she hasn’t had a drop to drink.  These actions pack a lot of characterization into a very short period of time.

What Can We Steal From Gwendolyn Brooks’s “We Real Cool”?

Title of Work and its Form: “We Real Cool,” poem
Author: Gwendolyn Brooks
Date: 1960
Where the Work Can Be Found: The poem has been anthologized a LOT.  You may also find the work in authorized form on the web site of the Academy of American Poets.

Element of Craft We’re Stealing:  Lineation

Discussion:
Many folks are under the impression that poetry must be depressing and must use flowery, ostentatious language.  Poems are like people; no two are alike and they come in all possible shapes and colors and permutations.  “We Real Cool” does not contain any “big” words; in fact, the poem is deliberately written in the vernacular (commonly used language) of those young pool players.  You’ll also notice that all of the words are monosyllabic.  Sure, you could make a case that “real” should be two syllables.  Listen to Gwendolyn Brooks read her poem and you will see that “real” is only one syllable to her and to the characters she’s writing about.

“We Real Cool” is a powerful example of the way that poetry can make music.  The most musical choice that Ms. Brooks makes, it seems to me, is the way she splits up the sentences in her poem.  The poem consists of eight sentences, each beginning with “We.”  Would the sentences have the same kind of melody if each were placed on its own line with no break?  Let’s see what it looks like:

We real cool.

We left school.

We lurk late.

Instead, the first seven lines end in “we.”  This choice creates a great deal of momentum in the reading of the piece.  Instead of sounding like a grocery list, the poem sounds like a song.  If you listen to the reading of the poem, you’ll notice that the “we” sounds a little less important than the words that follow.  Isn’t this where the emphasis belongs?  The pool players lurk and strike and sing.  The reader already identifies them as a group, so we’re much more interested in seeing what the group does.

Think about it this way.  Let’s look at a quote from a movie you should see and think of it as a poem.  In the following line from the 1954 film On the Waterfront (written by Budd Schulberg and directed by Elia Kazan), Terry Molloy (Marlon Brando) is considering testifying against a gang boss.  His brother Charlie, the gangster’s right-hand man, tries to get Terry to forget about testifying.  Terry tells his brother:

“You don’t understand! I coulda had class. I coulda been a contender. I could’ve been somebody, instead of a bum, which is what I am.”

What if the “poem” looked like this on the page:

You don’t understand!

I coulda had class.

I coulda been a contender.

I could’ve been somebody,

instead of a bum,

which is what I am.

Or what if it looked like this?

You

don’t understand!

I

coulda had class.

I

coulda been a contender.

I

could’ve been somebody, instead of a bum, which is what

I

am.

Or even like this?

You don’t understand! I coulda

had class. I coulda been

a contender.

I could’ve been

somebody,

instead of a

bum,

which is what

I am.

See how the meaning and the feeling of the poem can be influenced by the way it looks?  Gwendolyn Brooks shaped “We Real Cool” as though it were a ceramic sculpture; she made the appearance of the poem reflect the way she wanted it to feel.

What Should We Steal?

  • Think about the effect of the shape of your lines.  When someone is reading your poem, their eyes are literally moving left to right and down the page.  When you “chop up” your lines, you’re forcing the reader to consider your words just a little bit more slowly than they might otherwise.  The same technique can be seen in suspenseful stories.  The identity of the killer, for example, may not be buried in the middle of a big, thick paragraph.  Instead, the important “jolt” may be found at the end of a bunch of really short paragraphs.
  • Transfer the music of your poem to the page.  If you really thought about it, you might not be surprised the Gwendolyn Brooks read her poem aloud the way she did.  You’ve undoubtedly heard that you should read your work aloud to yourself during revision…here’s another reason why.  Ask yourself if the words on the page sound the way they do in your head.

What Can We Steal From Christopher Coake’s You Came Back?

Title of Work and its Form: You Came Back, novel
Author: Christopher Coake
Where the Work Can Be Found: At any of the fine independent booksellers in your area.  If they don’t have it in stock, they can likely order it for you.  The novel is also available at Amazon.

Bonus: Mr. Coake makes his home in Nevada.  Here‘s what The Nevada Review thought of the novel!

Element of Craft We’re Stealing:  Narrative Structure

Discussion:
Several years after the death of his young child and the subsequent dissolution of his marriage, Mark Fife thinks he has worked through the trauma and is living a new life.  His relationship with first wife Chloe has reached a happy truce and he’s even going to propose to Allison, his loving and understanding girlfriend.  This peace is shattered in the first line of the book: “Mark Fife was being watched.”  His old life intrudes in the form of Connie Pelham, the new owner of the home he shared with Chloe and Brendan, the son who died as the result of a terrible accident.  Through the course of the book, Mark learns that he has not yet achieved catharsis and that true peace comes not through purging sadness, but by absorbing it.

“Catharsis” is a concept that comes to us from Aristotle; when we read sad stories, we are purging our negative emotions.  We’re also coming to terms with our subconscious fears through the course of witnessing someone else’s nightmare made real.  Although I’ve never been a parent, I’m guessing that those who do have children have a niggling fear—even if it’s in the back of their minds—that something terrible will happen to the offspring they love so dearly.

In his book, Coake makes Mark’s pain frighteningly real by making the misfortune a complicated one.  In lesser stories, the situation and the characters’ reactions to it are far more simplistic.  I’m looking at you, Nicholas Sparks.  Many folks love the catharsis they earn from reading or watching the film version of The Notebook.  And why not?  The story is totally sad.  It’s also terribly simple.  Yes, James Garner’s character is sad because Gena Rowlands’ character is dying of advanced Alzheimer’s and doesn’t remember him.  Sad sad sad.  Why?  Because we all have a fear that the person we love the most will disappear, whether gradually or in one short, sharp shock.  The dramatic problem with these kinds of stories is the lack of depth and complication.  Real life is messy.  Our motivations are seldom clear, even to ourselves.  We tell ourselves the “vital lie” to get through the day—and we usually believe them.  Coake allows us to see the brutal truths of Mark’s situation: he was drinking when Brendan had the accident…his last words to his son were unkind…Brendan, like his father, was not the kind of child who was on the easy track in life…Mark’s lack of self-reflection has put him in a position to cause his new girlfriend great pain.  Coake’s story is powerful because he puts his characters through the same process that we all must endure to be truly whole: an honest assessment of our faults and the harm we do to the people we promise to protect.

The psychological process of closure is often cast in a simple manner.  The character decides what he or she must do to feel better and then does it and then has a happy ending.  Coake chooses the longer (and ultimately more fulfilling) road by eliminating the easy ways out of Mark’s situation.  I don’t want to reveal too much of the narrative, but the book’s jacket and its summary make it clear that Connie Pelham jolts Mark with the claim that Brendan’s ghost is haunting what was once his home.  In a lesser story, the resolution would be simple.  Mark and his ex-wife would simply hire a medium and usher Brendan’s spirit to the next world.  It doesn’t require any spoilers to tell you that Coake throws Mark and Chloe a few curveballs.  This choice lends the book verisimilitude: the appearance and feeling of reality.  Think of a breakup you suffered with a boyfriend, girlfriend or spouse.  The breakup was not caused solely by the fact that you kept leaving wet towels on the bed or because they slept with a fellow sales rep at work.  Unfortunately, there’s a thick web of causes, all of which inexorably led to the terrible split.

What Should We Steal?

  • Give your characters the same complicated psychology and life situations real people have.  Our lives are not dictated by a linear A then B then C then D.  There are countless forces, internal and external, that shape the circuitous paths of our lives.  There are downsides to this approach: you often need to write more and think more deeply about your characters…but is this really a bad thing?
  • Plumb the depths of your own heart to help your reader achieve catharsis.  Writers have a number of responsibilities to the reader and this is one of them.  None of us will ever have complete understanding of self.  However, if we ask the unpleasant questions about ourselves and the people we know, then we’ll develop the greater empathy we need to create powerful characters.
  • Have the courage to avoid simplicity.  You Came Back does not lay out a simple plan for Mark.  As a result of Coake’s hard work, the book is (for lack of a better word) absolutely haunting.

What Can We Steal From Bobcat Goldthwait’s God Bless America?

Title of Work and its Form: God Bless America, feature film
Author: Bobcat Goldthwait (writer and director)
Date of Work: 2011
Where the Work Can Be Found: The film has been released on DVD and may be available on streaming services.

Element of Craft You’re Writing About: Tone

Discussion:
People of my generation know Bobcat Goldthwait as a comedian and as the Police Academy officer with the haggard hair and funny voice. In the 1990s, he reached the pinnacle of human achievement by marrying Nikki Cox. In the past decade, Goldthwait (who is also from the Syracuse area) has become a respected writer and director.  (Seriously, the films are very good!)  God Bless America, like Goldthwait’s other films is as funny as it is dark. Frank is a divorced dad whose daughter hates him as much as she loves her cell phone. He believes he is striking up a sweet romance with his company’s receptionist…only to find that she has reported him for harassment. It is no longer politically correct, after all, to send flowers or lend books to a woman who hasn’t told you to back off. After being fired, Frank learns he has a terminal brain tumor. He can no longer tolerate the incivility and stupidity of American culture and decides to use his remaining time on Earth setting things straight. He starts by killing one of those spoiled reality show brats. Much to his surprise, he takes on a sidekick: a 16-year-old girl who feels the same way about the vapid nature of contemporary American culture. The middle-aged man and teenage girl go on a killing spree that climaxes in a fitting manner.

Like I said, Goldthwait is a Syracuse native. I saw Frank (Joel Murray) walking around a city square while talking to his daughter and…things looked familiar. Lots of cities have a fountain like that, right?  Hmmm…I guess a lot of cities have a reflective pool, I suppose. At last, I realized that the actor really was in Downtown Syracuse heading off to work at the Federal Building. Admittedly, it was pretty cool to see a familiar place on the silver TV screen. Seeing Syracuse wasn’t the problem. What jolted me was the geography of the film. Okay, fine. Frank is in Syracuse. Cool. I love that he worked at “Bank of Onondaga.” Awesome. But then he leaves to begin his killing spree. Was he near Syracuse when he shot the spoiled brat? I would swear that some of the “travel” shots were taken around Syracuse.  Mr. Goldthwait is wielding a double-edged sword.  It’s fun to see locations you recognize, but it can also shake your viewer from the illusion of reality that you’re trying to create.

I go to the movie theater about once a year. Do I hate films? Of course not. I hate the people who go to films. They talk and text and shout and bring their kids to midnight movies…terrible. I particularly hate when people will shout a description of what is happening at the screen: “Hey! That’s The Rock! See? It’s The Rock.” Yes, madam. I know it’s The Rock. We all know it’s The Rock. Goldthwait shrewdly has Frank continue his quest against crudeness and civility in a movie theater. Frank shoots everyone who was being rude. The scene takes on a new meaning after the terrible shooting in the Aurora theater, but try to think of Goldthwait did in a pre-Aurora context. Theatergoers were literally in a theater watching Frank correct the behavior of rude theatergoers. How many people do you think stopped texting when they realized what was happening onscreen and why? Goldthwait used the medium to extract additional meaning out of the scene.

What Should We Steal?:

  • Make sure you establish a real and workable geography for your story. Instead of empathizing with Frank, I was wondering if he was still in Syracuse. The next day he was in Virginia. Then, I don’t know. Don’t make your reader think about maps or math. A writer must somehow figure out how to add local flavor without working against his ultimate goal: to tell a story and send a message.
  • Understand that some people will live in the same place as your characters and will have special knowledge that may exceed yours. Short story master Lee K. Abbott once told my class about a letter he had received from a reader. Lee had mentioned in one of his stories a specific (and quite real) golf tournament that took place during summer in Arizona. The reader politely corrected him; pointing out that the tournament could not take place during that season, if only because of the sweltering temperatures. Lee acknowledged that he failed that particular reader. His goal, of course, was to inspire the gentleman to empathize with the character and to become immersed in the story’s dramatic situation. Instead, the reader was jerked out of the flow of the story, thinking about geography instead of human relationships. We want to do our best to make sure that the reader’s focus remains on the story, not on the outside world.
  • Make full use of your medium and the ways people are inherently consuming the work in question. Shakespeare did this with Hamlet’s play-in-a-play. When Hamlet is lecturing the actors who were portraying actors, he could also have been speaking directly to the actors. (Remember? “Speak the speech I pray you as I pronounced it to you, trippingly on the tongue; but if you mouth it as many of your players do, I had as lief the town-crier spoke my lines.”) Audiences who understand the different meanings of the lines will enjoy the multiple layers.