What Can We Steal From Robert Olen Butler’s “Titanic Victim Speaks Through Waterbed”?

Title of Work and its Form:Titanic Victim Speaks Through Waterbed,” short story
Author: Robert Olen Butler
Date of Work: 1996
Where the Work Can Be Found: The story originally appeared in the Fall 1996 issue of The Missouri Review and was subsequently reprinted in Tabloid Dreams, a collection of some of Mr. Butler’s short stories.  The Missouri Review has been kind enough to post the story online as part of their “Textbox” effort, described as “an anthology of exemplary fiction, essays and poetry published in The Missouri Review since 1978.”  You will also find questions and writing prompts at that very useful resource.

Element of Craft We’re Stealing: Material

Discussion:
In this story, Mr. Butler confronts one of the questions that has always confronted humanity: “What happens to us when we die?” The titular “Titanic victim” (also the first-person narrator) was one of the upper-class gents. He was educated in fine schools and led, until that darn iceberg, a charmed life. The narrator meets a woman who, apropos of nothing, mentions her support for giving women the vote and a man who slipped small fragments of that fateful iceberg into his drink. Mr. Butler’s narrator glides between past and present. Between brief stories about Titanic’s last hours, the narrator describes his afterlife experience as a spirit tied to some quantity of water. He doesn’t understand where he is. The waterbed, of course, has “no living creatures,” but he can see the shapes thrashing about over him. The story ends with the beginning of the narrator’s new journey, as he transformed from corporeal being to spirit.

The narrator is now a timeless being, being recirculated along with the rest of the water on the planet. How does Mr. Butler maintain narrative momentum? By framing the story around what happens to his human form. After all, this is something his readers can relate to, isn’t it? Even though Mr. Butler wrote a story that is slightly “experimental,” he makes sure the reader has something to hold onto. Even if you’re writing a piece that is a little out of the ordinary, you must still fulfill your obligations to the reader. He or she must be able to understand what is going on and must be able to form some concept as to the point you are trying to get across. Think of it this way. It’s perfectly normal to look at french fries, olives, strawberry yogurt, dog treats and chicken wings and wonder what would happen if you turned those ingredients into a soup. What a fun experiment! But would you really serve that soup on your sibling’s wedding day?

In this story (and the others in Tabloid Dreams), Mr. Butler combines high culture and low culture in a wonderful way. This is true erudition; Mr. Butler is interested in all kinds of people from different walks of life. He recognizes the possibility of great literature and meaning in common topics as well as highfalutin ones. Don’t misunderstand; I simply can’t believe that the Honey Boo Boo show is as powerful a story as that of The Godfather. We are, however, products of contemporary culture and Mr. Butler is mining the material given him by the times.

The real secret to the greatness of the story is that Mr. Butler’s “ghost story” is told with paragraphs that are incredibly beautiful and poetic. Any kind of genre work can be improved if you have worked hard to develop your skills; as Mr. Butler clearly has. Look at the paragraph in which the narrator explains his current state of being:

What is that thrashing about above me now? The creatures of the sea are absent here, though I’m not risen into the air as I have done for some years, over and over, lifted and dispersed into cloud. I’m coalesced in a place that has no living creatures but is large enough that I don’t quite sense its boundaries. Perhaps not too large, since I am not moving except for a faint eddying from the activity above. But at least I am in a place larger than a teacup. I once dwelt in a cup of tea, and on that occasion, I sensed the constraints of the space.

Yeah, yeah. The sentences are beautiful. But Mr. Butler also gets across his exposition, making sure the reader knows what’s going on. Further, he tickles the reader’s brain, encouraging us to wonder: “What would it be like to be someone’s afternoon tea?”

What Should We Steal?

  • Avoid making “experimentation” your top priority.  A writer, as the great Lee K. Abbott says, must do all of the work so the reader can have all of the fun.  It’s perfectly fine to try something new on your reader or to try and show off your creativity.  You must, however, make sure that your piece is a shared journey.
  • Keep an eye out for inspiration in strange places.  We live in interesting times and inspiration is everywhere!  (The preceding statement is true for every time ever.)  Mr. Butler, a Pulitzer Prize-winning, big-time literary lion got a creative charge from the Weekly World News and other kinds of sensational stories.  Why shouldn’t you?
  • Develop your poetic muscles and flex them while fulfilling the other needs of your story.  One of the things that makes a story great is when you are able to do multiple things at once.  For example, a great scene can offer characterization, advance the plot, describe the setting and sound beautiful…all at the same time.

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