Short Story

What Can We Steal From Molly Patterson’s “Honors Track”?

Title of Work and its Form: “Honors Track,” short story
Author: Molly Patterson
Date of Work: 2012
Where the Work Can Be Found: The story debuted in the June 2012 issue of The Atlantic.  I’m sure you’ll be able to find it in future best-of anthologies in addition to a future Molly Patterson short story collection.

Element of Craft We’re Stealing: Description

Discussion:
Molly Patterson tells the tale of a group of highly driven high school students who are determined to succeed at any cost.  These are the alpha student, Tracy Flick types who sweat over every fraction of every GPA point.  The group decides to begin cheating on exams, adding the fear of being caught to their vast list of stressors.  I hate to ruin an ending, so I won’t.  (Particularly because I plan on discussing the beginning of the story.  I will say that Patterson makes some interesting choices and that the ending is worthy of further scrutiny.)

Check out the first few lines of the story:

We were sedulous.  We were driven.  Our vocabularies were formidable and constantly expanding.  We knew the chemical elements by number and properties, the names and dates of battles in the world’s greatest wars.

I can’t recall the last time I saw the word “sedulous” and I was pleasantly surprised to see it at the very beginning of a story.  (Sedulous means “diligent” and “persistent,” by the way.)  Is this a bad thing?  A lot of beginning writers, myself included, used big words because, well, it sounded like something a WRITER would say.  Shouldn’t a writer be scared about turning the reader off by using a word that may not be understood by “the woman on the bus?”  In this case, no.  And here’s why: “Sedulous” is not a very commonly used word, but it does sound like an SAT word, the kind of word that Patterson’s characters obsessed over for hours.  In the very first sentence, she tells you a whole lot about this group of acquaintances.  Not only were they sedulous, but they were very smart and they didn’t hide it.  This extreme dedication and extreme intelligence are the primary qualities that led them down the path they chose in the story.

Patterson’s opening paragraph also eases us back into the high school mindset.  When was the last time you thought about the chemical elements and their properties?  High school.  (Hmm…I remember Mr. Powell telling me all about valence electrons.)  When did we last learn about the world’s greatest wars?  High school.  (Mr. Magnarelli taught us all about Chamberlain’s appeasement before World War II.)  Perhaps it’s just me, but I don’t often think about high school; Patterson punches a few buttons that accesses those memories, bringing me closer to the characters.

What Should We Steal?:

  • Understand the potential power that a single word can possess.  The opening sentence would probably not have attracted my attention had it read, “We were diligent and persistent.”  Yes, it is easy to alienate the reader by using “big” words, but a writer must not talk down to his or her audience.  Instead, the writer must use the word that is RIGHT.
  • Use subtle references to gracefully immerse a reader in a setting that is unfamiliar.  Think about the experiences most of us share.  Most of us remember liking a guy or girl who didn’t like us back…we remember taking our road test…we remember times when our parents were disappointed in us.  Small details relating to those experiences can be extremely potent.

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