What Can We Steal From Lauren Waterman’s “Bad Little Boyfriends”?

Title of Work and its Form: “Bad Little Boyfriends,” short story
Author: Lauren Waterman (on Twitter: @LaurenAWaterman)
Date of Work: 2010
Where the Work Can Be Found:  The story was published by the excellent online journal anderbo.com.  Check it out right here.

Bonuses: Ms. Waterman is a freelance nonfiction writer as well; here‘s a cool article she wrote about why writers shouldn’t write for free and how we’re all harmed by the devaluation of what we do.  Here‘s her profile of Molly Ringwald!

Element of Craft We’re Stealing: Experimentation

Discussion:
“Bad Little Boyfriends” is a short story that is divided into ten sections of varying length.  The first-person narrator relates experiences she has had with both bad boyfriends and mice.  Ms. Waterman’s narrator offers well-chosen details to communicate how she felt as she removed the “dead, deflated little bodies” of the mice from her fifth-floor walk-up and when she walked in on a boyfriend “sprawled out on the couch” with “two plastic bags, almost emptied of white powder” on the floor.  The narrator is speaking of both boyfriends and mice when she concludes the story by wondering if what she really needs is a cat.

Well, folks.  We have ourselves a story that is separated into sections by the author.  Let’s break it down:

  1. Dramatic present – there are mice in the walls.  The narrator compares discarding the mouse bodies to breaking up with boyfriends.
  2. Past – The narrator addresses the ex-boyfriend; they met at a party.
  3. Further back in the past – The narrator describes how she lost her virginity.  She went downstairs for soda and saw a mouse before stuff went down.
  4. Nearly dramatic present – Narrator and boyfriend see birds engaging in avian intercourse.  (Guess what I’m naming my new prog-rock band.)
  5. Back during college days – The narrator works at an ice cream shop and sees a mouse in the apartment she shares with young women who like to party a little.
  6. Recent past – Boyfriend sneaks a flask into movies.  When the narrator tries to drink some of the alcohol to keep him from getting drunk, he just drinks more.
  7. Dramatic present – Explicit connection between bad boyfriends and vermin.  (Gee, thanks!)  Both creatures really like the same things.
  8. Recent past – Narrator discovers boyfriend passed out and surrounded by empty packets of drugs.
  9. Recent past – “So I started with poison.”  Narrator steps up her efforts to kill the mice.  Sad descriptions of dead and dying creaturs.
  10. Dramatic present – The narrator believes she needs a cat, both to chase away the mice and the bad boyfriends.

Ms. Waterman’s story does not possess the “standard” structure of a short story.  (Not that there really is one.)  Instead of beginning at the beginning and unfurling a tale, she put together a series of vignettes that do the same work as a “standard” story once you consider them all together.  The process by which you tell a story by vignettes is the same…but different.

It’s one thing for a critic/web site person to actually jot down the structure of a piece like this.  It’s also something that you should do for your own work.  Once you’re forced to confront the structure of your poem or short story or photo essay, you will better understand the decisions you made.  (And whether or not you wish to make different decisions!)

Let’s think about the difference between “traditional” structure and “experimental” structure through the lens of fine art.  One of my favorite paintings is “Landscape with the Fall of Icarus,” which may or may not have been painted by Pieter Bruegel, but dates to the 1560s.  Here’s the painting:

See?  The painting is fairly conventional and tells a story in a fairly conventional manner.  People are going about their business.  Farmers are farming, an ox is pulling a tiller, sailors are sailing.  Oh, and Icarus just fell to his death at the bottom left of the painting.  The painting “looks like stuff.”

Okay, now check out Jackson Pollock’s “No. 5, 1948:

This is a completely different kind of painting.  Some folks would say that the spatters are random and there was no artistic drive behind the work, but they are mistaken!  Just like Jackson Pollock, you should take the tools of your artistic trade and use them in different ways.  The only real rule is that you need to bring your reader along for the ride.

What Should We Steal?

  • Ensure your madness has a method.  Experiment with structure and language and typography and every other element you can think of, but make sure your reader is able to follow you.
  • Act as critic for your own piece.  At some point, some grad student is going to write about your work.  They’ll take out a yellow legal pad and try to decode the true meaning of your work.  Go through this procedure for your own work.

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