Title of Work and its Form: “Last Cookies,” creative nonfiction
Author: Kim Adrian (On Twitter: K_Adrian)
Date of Work: 2013
Where the Work Can Be Found: The story made its debut in New World Writing‘s Winter 2013 issue. You can read the story here.
Bonuses: How interesting! Ms. Adrian wrote an essay about knitting for that same issue. Here is a short story that Ms. Adrian placed in AGNI Online.
Element of Craft We’re Stealing: Point of View
Ms. Adrian’s short short story is told in the second person. “You” are coping with the impending loss of your aunt, a woman “you have always resembled.” You enjoy making her cookies and you realize that you will someday make her “last cookies,” though you don’t know when. Before long, it is too late. As the story ends, your aunt is off of solid food and no longer wants cookies. Instead, she is only interested in finding some measure of peace.
One reason Ms. Adrian’s story succeeds is that she had a great idea and latched onto it. “Last Cookies” is a particularly sad and potent little idea. We start eating cookies when we’re children and we down quite a few of them during the course of our lives. (Some more than others, of course.) But a “last cookie?” It’s a particularly sad concept. In a way, Ms. Adrian is borrowing from the toolbox of a poet, identifying a particularly potent idea and meditating upon it. Ms. Adrian’s story is not very long, so the power of the idea is not diluted.
Ms. Adrian lists “Last Cookies” on her web site under the category of “MEMOIR, LYRIC, and PERSONAL ESSAYS.” The fact that there is literal truth to the story (not just emotional truth) makes the point of view an interesting choice. What could it mean that Ms. Adrian is telling a true and personal story in second person? Well, the second person could make YOU more likely to enjoy what you have and to make some cookies for a loved one right now, while you can. With so much grief and sadness in the world—I guess I’m bummed out today—the second person cuts through the natural tendency to shy away from confronting the grief of others. Perhaps this is really Ms. Adrian’s aunt (if so, my condolences), but she has made the choice to tell you it is YOUR aunt to cut through that defensiveness. There’s another option: perhaps Ms. Adrian’s grief was so overwhelming that she had to put an emotional scrim between herself and the description of her aunt’s decline. Whatever the “correct” answer is, Ms. Adrian’s POV choice inspires a great deal of high-level thought: a worthwhile result.
What Should We Steal?
- Latch onto a powerful central idea or metaphor. The next time you’re jolted awake by a meaningful thought, jot it down and make it the star of your next poem or short story.
- Select the point of view that will invite your reader to think deeply and will you’re your emotional relationship with the material. If you need to switch to the third person to tell your own sad and traumatic story, go ahead. If you have a compelling fictional story in mind, adopt the first person in order to establish a closer relationship between narrator and reader.
2013, Kim Adrian, New World Writing, Second Person
Title of Work and its Form: The Family: The Secret Fundamentalism at the Heart of American Power, nonfiction book
Author: Jeff Sharlet (on Twitter @JeffSharlet)
Date of Work: 2008
Where the Work Can Be Found: The book was a New York Times bestseller and can be found in all fine bookstores.
Bonuses: We must resist the temptation to be jealous, but Mr. Sharlet is pretty much a superstar. Here are some articles he’s written for Harper’s Magazine. Here‘s an interview Mr. Sharlet did with NPR. You will also find an excerpt of The Family on the page. Mr. Sharlet is also a contributing editor for The Revealer, a very cool online publication that is focused on the intersection of media and religion. Here is an interview Mr. Sharlet did with the incomparable Rachel Maddow.
Element of Craft We’re Stealing: Meaningful Journalism
The Family: The Secret Fundamentalism at the Heart of American Power is a must-read for anyone who is interested in politics or religion or what is happening in the United States. (That should be everyone in the country.) The Family was my read-before-bed book a few summers ago, and what value the book offers; it took me the whole summer to read it. (I savored the book.) Mr. Sharlet’s book is ambitious in scope and makes good on each of its goal. Between the covers is the whole story of how fundamentalist Christianity developed and planted itself so strongly in American culture. The book is divided into three sections. The first chronicles Mr. Sharlet’s personal experience with fundamentalist Christians and what it was like to spend time with the “brothers” at Ivanwald. The second painstakingly recounts the origins and development of the philosophy that gave rise to folks like Billy Graham and Doug Coe. Along the way, Mr. Sharlet tells you approximately twelve zillion fascinating anecdotes about these influential men and women.
I try not to get too political here on Great Writers Steal; there are plenty of outlets for editorials and real journalism. (Perhaps my byline will grace them at some point. Stranger things have happened. I’m all ears if anyone wants to share magical incantations that might work.) Instead of telling you what I think about the Family and the group’s politics, I’ll focus on what we can steal from Mr. Sharlet’s writing. And this is the first big point. Mr. Sharlet is a world-class journalist for reasons that may be unexpected to some. REAL journalism is not about presenting all sides of a story; it’s about presenting the truth. Mr. Sharlet is not at all “superbiased” or vindictive in his assessment of the group or its ideology. He is simply describing it in an honest fashion and drawing fair and reasonable conclusions.
Some journalistic outlets (that shall remain nameless) bend over backwards in hopes of presenting “all sides” of a story. Sometimes, a story doesn’t have multiple sides. When folks get together to discuss the Apollo missions, do we have an obligation to invite moon landing deniers to the table? Of course not. If we’re discussing affirmative action, must we see what the Klan thinks? No. It’s not a journalistic sin to have an opinion or to make your subject look bad. It’s only a problem if you are doing so dishonestly. Mr. Sharlet was not interested in doing a “hatchet job” on the group; he simply learned all he could about the movement and its effects and reported what he learned and the experiences he had with the Family and its members.
Mr. Sharlet researched a ton for the book; that much is clear. (I highly suspect, Dear Reader, that you don’t need to be told that it’s important to research when you’re writing…well, anything.) Mr. Sharlet, however, immersed himself in the story and applied an objective viewpoint. Mr. Sharlet had already published his account of life at Ivanwald when folks started reaching out to him. As more and more people with connections to the Family contacted him, Mr. Sharlet saw there was more of the story to tell. Even though he describes several entertaining scenes in which he took part, the book is not ABOUT HIM.
Yes, he received a phone call from “Kate,” a beautiful young woman who said she wanted to meet him because she was a big fan. Before long, Mr. Sharlet got her to admit that she had been sent to spy on him. I love what follows:
We ended up talking for three more hours and drinking a lot of wine. I tried to persuade her that the Family was a secretive, undemocratic organization that aided and abetted dictators. She agreed, only she thought that was a good thing. She said the Family still loved me. I told her about some of the killers the Family had supported. She rallied by pointing out that we’re all sinners, and thus shouldn’t judge those whom God places in authority. “Jeff,” she said, holding my eyes, twisting her wine stem between her fingers, “in your heart, have you ever lusted for a woman? Isn’t that just as bad?”
The description may not be flattering to the Family, but it is honest. Mr. Sharlet may have been a character in the story, but he does not make himself the protagonist. I’m reminded of one of the great pieces of literary nonfiction: Gay Talese’s “Frank Sinatra Has a Cold.” Mr. Talese profiles the great Frank Sinatra in an honest light that is not always flattering and is a participant in the story, though his piece keeps its focus where it belongs. (If you haven’t read the piece, go read it now!)
I’m sure that The Family was not an easy book to write. Many lesser books on the same topic lack the breadth and scope of Mr. Sharlet’s tome. I suppose it’s a matter of opinion, but I would rather write one stellar book than multiple mediocre books. The Family is certainly the former.
What Should We Steal?
- Ignore the sides of the story that deserve no consideration and acknowledge a subject’s blemishes in order to deliver truth to your reader. Like it or not, George Washington and Thomas Jefferson owned slaves. We can all agree they were brilliant and fascinating men, but we can’t pretend they were without flaw. (And we certainly can’t pretend that Jefferson was an advocate of the idea that the Constitution is anything other than secular.)
- Remain an objective outsider, even when you are an involved insider. Being an insider gets you insight; being an outsider allows you to understand and digest the experience.
2008, Ivanwald, Jeff Sharlet, Meaningful Journalism, The Family
Title of Work and its Form: Do Not Interrupt: A Playful Take on the Art of Conversation, creative nonfiction
Author: Stephen Kuusisto
Date of Work: 2010
Where the Work Can Be Found: The book was published by Sterling Publishing and can be found at fine bookstores everywhere. Barnes & Noble will even sell you a Nook version of the book!
Bonuses: Here is Mr. Kuusisto’s blog. Here is an interview with Mr. Kuusisto. This is Mr. Kuusisto’s Poetry Foundation page; read his poem, “Summer at North Farm!”
Element of Craft We’re Stealing: Self-Understanding
This is a slim book of essays in which Mr. Kuusisto considers the most felicitous ways in which people can converse with each other. Through the course of seven short essays, the book references a wide range of thinkers from the past and the present day. Mr. Kuusisto, a gentleman who works in a number of genres, also brings in his own experiences with conversations in which he has participated and some he has overheard. The book concludes with nominations for the inaugural class of the Conversationalist Hall of Fame. (Where is the most appropriate place for such a building?)
I think that the most important choice Mr. Kuusisto makes in the book is to truly interact with the great thinkers he references throughout the volume. The author does not treat Plato and Samuel Johnson as though they are busts on a tall pedestal, but as peers. When we were in high school, it probably didn’t occur to us to engage in a meaningful discussion with the authors we read. And such a discussion is, in some ways, impossible. For example, I could probably have interesting conversations with some of the Justices who sit on the Supreme Court. On the other hand, the Justices know so much more than I do about the Constitution and law that I would have trouble keeping up. Mr. Kuusisto, of course, is a very smart man who has no problem entering into a philosophical fray. The primary point is that he adheres to his own philosophy. Toward the beginning of the book, he points out the “principle of simultaneous elevation.” A great conversation requires all participants to be equals in some way.
Fun personal note: Isn’t it strange how it always seems that references to things come in big bunches? I don’t think I had thought about the Symposium for a decade until I read Do Not Interrupt. A few days later, one of my students showed me an antique copy of the book he had purchased at the library book sale and I was able to more convincingly tell him why he should read the work.
Mr. Kuusisto spends a great deal of the book discussing Plato’s Symposium. (Why not check the book out right here. Hey, politicians: public domain is a beautiful thing!) Plato’s work is a series of speeches between friends in which they discuss the nature of love. I love the way Mr. Kuusisto provides play-by-play for the Symposium. It has been fascinating to watch the way college students confront philosophical works. I remember that I was in their shoes at one point; philosophical texts can be as hard to read as they are intellectually fulfilling! Mr. Kuusisto elevates the reader to his level by breaking the Symposium into bite-sized pieces. He offers excerpts from the work, then a little bit of summary and then his own analysis. Not only does Mr. Kuusisto expand the possible audience for his work, but he also strengthens his relationship with the reader, turning the book into more of a real conversation.
Mr. Kuusisto is a great creative nonfiction writer, so I’m not surprised that he included some interesting personal stories that relate to his themes. At one point, Mr. Kuusisto describes a time during his childhood when a Bible salesman called upon his mother. Now, Mr. Kuusisto’s mother knew a lot more about the Bible than the salesman did, but wasn’t a jerk as she outdid the salesman in conversation. The anecdote demonstrates one of Mr. Kuusisto’s points: “it’s possible to confound your fellow conversant and still remain agreeable.” How did Mr. Kuusisto remember a dialogue that happened decades ago? He’s an introspective gentleman who truly wants to understand himself and why he does what he does and what really happens around him.
What Should We Steal?
- Interact with the all-time greats in your field. Great hitters such as Miguel Cabrera are better understood in the light of folks such as Ty Cobb. (Who, admittedly, probably wouldn’t have been very kind to Miggy.) Statesmen of the future will be best understood in the context of those who came before. You spent decades developing your understanding of literature and of life…make use of that knowledge!
- Divide philosophical works into bite-sized portions. Some readers require a bit of hand-holding to keep up with the conversation, and it’s not always a bad thing to offer them the help.
- Scrutinize yourself as much as you do others. The goal is not just to “think about yourself,” the goal is to understand yourself.
2010, Do Not Interrupt, Self-Understanding, Stephen Kuusisto, Symposium
Title of Work and its Form: “The Other Place,” short story
Author: Mary Gaitskill
Date of Work: 2011
Where the Work Can Be Found: The story made its debut in the February 7, 2011 issue of The New Yorker. Tom Perrotta and Heidi Pitlor subsequently chose the story for Best American Short Stories 2012. You can find the story here.
Bonuses: Very cool. Here is an interview in which Ms. Gaitskill discusses her story. Here is an interesting and review and discussion of the story. Writer Karen Carlson had this to say about the work.
Element of Craft We’re Stealing: Verisimilitude
“The Other Place” is definitely a punch-in-the-gut story. The first-person narrator has a number of problems, the greatest of which is probably the unhealthy way in which violence blends with eroticism in his psyche. His son Doug goes to “the other place,” too; the narrator is both scared for his son and unable to control his poisoned mind. Ms. Gaitskill unspools the story in an interesting manner; detail upon detail is layered in the first several pages. Not much “happens,” but Ms. Gaitskill offers a number of vignettes from the narrator’s life. His mother worked as a high-class prostitute before she was born, he has always had an unhealthy association between sex and violence, he has hitchhiked in the past and fantasized about killing the women who picked him up. In the very potent final scene, the narrator decides to hitchhike again. He is picked up by a woman. Before long, he pulls out a gun and the two argue; he doesn’t want to kill the woman in public, but she is not going to give up too easily and will not beg. He realizes that her hair is really a wig, leading to the decisive moment! Will he shoot a woman who is going through chemotherapy? Will he run away? I don’t want to give away anything. Read the story and find out what happens for yourself.
Ms. Gaitskill’s priorities are in the right place. The narrator judges himself, and Ms. Gaitskill allows him to express his thoughts in an honest manner, no matter how unpleasant they are. The author pointed out that she was inspired to write the story based upon her own fears of violence. It would have been easy for her to make her narrator a stereotypical crazy psychopath, but Ms. Gaitskill makes the better and harder choice to delve deeply into the psychology of the man. The narrator has plenty of redeeming qualities. He seems to have been fairly open with his wife about his proclivities and he is concerned for his son and he seems to be a fairly decent father. He suffered psychological trauma in his childhood and knows that he has problems, even if he doesn’t know how to “cure” himself. Ms. Gaitskill allows us to see the narrator as a vulnerable human being at the same time she is pointing out his unpleasant actions. Aren’t you more interested in a hero or a villain with real pathos? No one is all good or all bad, including the kind of guy who wants to kill random people.
Is it easy to read about a man who confesses to getting erections when he is preparing to do violence against women? No. And that’s the point. While there are real people who could fit into “The Other Place,” the story is a work of fiction. Ms. Gaitskill’s story illuminates one of the inherent contradictions in the composition of fiction. We all strive for verisimilitude in our work and try to make our characters and situations as realistic as possible. On the other hand, the reader will always know that the story just isn’t real and that, as unpleasant as the narrator is, he doesn’t exist. It’s all a matter of degrees of reality, I suppose.
Ordinarily, I think I would be turned off by a story whose dramatic thread isn’t exactly as thick as a Brooklyn Bridge cable. How did Ms. Gaitskill keep me interested? She sprinkled in compelling moments of the dramatic present. I love the visceral description of the stupid pranks the narrator pulled when he was young. I love being there when the narrator’s mother laughed off her sickbed confession of prostitution: “Way to go, Marcy! On your deathbed tell your son you’re a whore and then don’t die!” Even if your story isn’t going to have a traditional narrative thread, you may still want to include elements of traditional narrative to give your reader something to hold onto.
What Should We Steal?
- Allow your characters to be vulnerable and honest. Even Hannibal Lecter is vulnerable at times. It may be hard to get over our antipathy for folks who kill and eat other people, but compelling drama occurs between people, not between stereotypes or cartoonish monsters.
- Understand that your reader is aware of their safety net. How close can you get to transport your reader from their easy chair into your story?
- Fold bits of narrative into stories whose structure may be a little slack. Your primary desire may be to offer the reader a look at a person’s extreme psychology, but that desire must be balanced in some way with the need for narrative.
2011, Best American 2012, Mary Gaitskill, The New Yorker, Verisimilitude
Title of Work and its Form: Reefer Madness, the movie based upon the musical based upon the propaganda film.
Author: Lyrics written by Kevin Murphy. Music composed by Dan Studney (on Twitter: @danstudney). Both wrote the book. The equally talented Andy Fickman (on Twitter: @andyfickman) directed the first productions of the show and the movie musical.
Date of Work: The world premiere was in 1998. The New York premiere was in 2001. Showtime made the stage musical into a movie musical in 2005.
Where the Work Can Be Found: The musical is staged all over the world. The movie is available on DVD. You really should buy it.
Bonuses: Here is the musical’s official site. This is where you go if you would like to buy the right to stage the musical. Guess what? The world-class cast of the film (aside from Kristen Bell) did a live event at Joe’s Pub. I wasn’t there, but some folks who had cameras were there. Look how much fun it was when the whole cast sang “Mary Jane/Mary Lane.”
Element of Craft We’re Stealing: Meaningful Wordplay
Jimmy Harper is a kind young man with a bright future. He likes a girl—Mary Lane—and she likes him, too! What could go wrong? I’ll tell you: reefer. The Lecturer (a mid-century snake oil salesman type) shares the truth with all of the concerned parents in town. There’s a terrible threat out there just waiting to destroy your children and turn them into jazz musicians and trick them into dating outside of their race. This deadly assassin captures Jimmy, who spends all of his time with his dealer. He even begins to ignore Mary Lane, who heads to the drug den to save him…she is soon captured, too. (The role of Ralph, sadly, is the only one I would be able to knock out of the park onstage.) Mary Lane gets shot and Jimmy is framed for the murder and is sentenced to death. President Roosevelt shows up to offer a pardon and a reminder: the government always tells us the truth and always acts in the best interest of its citizens, right? Right?
The show is a lot more complicated than that, but it’s also simpler somehow. I came to love the musical almost by accident. I’m not usually a big fan of drug humor, but something possessed me to look at the reverse of the DVD. I saw Kristen Bell (an actress I admired from Veronica Mars) was in the film, so I gave it a chance. When I popped the DVD into my player, I was immediately hooked. (Kinda like Jimmy!) The musical is not about DRUGS. It’s about important social issues and how the government and other agencies attempt to regulate behavior. It’s also hilarious and a ton of fun. Mr. Murphy, Mr. Studney, Mr. Fickman and the cast all do their jobs at a high level and there really is no more enjoyable way to pass a couple hours. (Mr. Fickman’s direction should not go overlooked; he somehow brings even more joy and laughter out of a script that is already bursting with it. The film looks as though it cost twice as much as it did to make.)
Mr. Murphy and Mr. Studney stole a LOT in the creation of the musical. (The good kind of stealing, of course.) First of all, they stole the plot and title of the original Reefer Madness film. The movie was intended to prevent young people from using marijuana, but was so melodramatic and poorly made and unrealistic that young people started watching it WHILE USING marijuana. Further, all of the statistics that the Lecturer spouts were actual quotes from long-ago anti-drug people. Not only did Mr. Murphy and Mr. Studney get shock value by having The Lecturer repeat some of the horrible things that were said about drug use (lots of sexism and racism and the like), but they also reinforced the film’s message. Several phrases from the song “Romeo and Juliet” are lovingly borrowed from the Bard himself…which is also the point of the song. The public domain and other public-type resources are ripe for literary theft. Further, you have the Fair Use Doctrine on your side. You can steal all you like within the limits of the Doctrine. Reefer Madness is definitely a parody of Tell Your Children and similar anti-drug efforts. Tina Fey got a ton of laughs (and influenced the 2010 election in some way) by stealing and repeating Sarah Palin’s comments verbatim.
I’ve probably confessed to one of my earliest desires: to become a Tin Pan Alley lyricist. (I set myself up for disappointment from the start, as Tin Pan Alley went away decades before I was born.) The rhymes in a Gershwin song or a Rodgers and Hart song or a song from Reefer Madness are awesome for many reasons, not just because they are funny. A rhyme in a musical theater song is a promise. When Reefer Madness’s Jesus sings, “Just say no to marijuana,” he’s promising that he’s going to complete the lyric with a rhyme. What will it be? By the time you figure out your own, Jesus has already told you. (“This comes straight from the Madonna.”) A musical theater rhyme also attracts and retains the audience because they are a playful surprise. We can’t help but be attracted by fun wordplay, even from childhood. Here are some particularly enjoyable rhymes:
The wafers now don’t taste so great
They won’t transubstantiate
Without you near, the gospel choir sounds askew
Jimmy, come back and fill my lonely pew.
A gloomy church that you’re not in
Could lead a girl to mortal sin
Mary Jane, oh, Mary Jane
You’ve conquered me like Charlemagne
Jimmy’s a rube, provincial and dull
Don’t be tricked; he’s strictly quadrilateral.
Satan went and conned ya’
Musn’t touch his evil ganja
Rhymes (and other consequences of structure) also involve other parts of your brain. While you’re enjoying the simple fun of hearing an actor sing “conquered me like Charlemagne,” you’re dipping into another section of your mind to put everything together. It’s a beautiful feeling to empathize with a character while you’re wondering how the heck they found such a great phrase to rhyme with “transubstantiate.” It is easy to tell you to create powerful rhymes. It takes a lot of brainstorming, a vast amount of knowledge already in your brain and, perhaps, a rhyming dictionary.
A smaller observation: I LOVE the structure of the song, “Listen to Jesus, Jimmy.” The song is constructed in such a way that Mr. Murphy and Mr. Studney can simply toss in entertaining couplets that allow Jesus to have a lot of fun and get a lot of laughs. The character of Jesus may not be as strong as the others, but there are also two thousand years of people in Western culture telling us about the guy. (“Don’t let reefer kick your kiester/ I’m the poster boy for Easter.” “I floated down from Heaven when I heard a lamb had strayed./ Look at you here, your brain has turned to marmalade.”)
Fun songs? Check. Lotsa jokes? Check. Subject matter that appeals to young people? Check. Reefer Madness goes the extra step by actually being solid dramatically. (Especially in its own universe.) I love this example from the song, “Lonely Pew.” First of all, I am thinking that Mary Lane is not JUST singing about the empty seating place beside her. At the point in the show when she sings the song, she’s quite repressed and scared and afraid that Jimmy no longer loves her. If this were just a silly drug humor play, Mr. Murphy and Mr. Studney would not have taken the time or effort to make the characters well-rounded. I love the moment in “Lonely Pew” when Mary Lane sings the following:
In a fog or lost at sea,
Or could it be you’re tired of me?
It’s a line of thought I’d rather not pursue
Jimmy, come back and fill my lonely pew.
A simple character that could end up a caricature is given a moment of great depth that is certainly paid off during “Little Mary Sunshine.” (And I LOVE the internal rhyme of “not” and thought.”) Think about Mae, the woman who runs the drug den of sin. She is given a meaningful backstory! (She was a good student until The Stuff.) There is real pathos to the character, particularly when she sings about the way Jack mistreats her. I think the broader point is that Mr. Murphy and Mr. Studney give each and every character a lot of laughs and a few meaningful moments. (The actors in the movie version certainly take advantage of the opportunity.)
A great deal of drama and comedy are derived from shifts in power; a very clear transfer of power occurs during the song, “Little Mary Sunshine.” Reefer fiend Ralph (played to perfection by John Kassir) intends to turn Mary Lane into a Sally-like drug addict and to take advantage of her. He tricks her into trying the reefer and believes that he will soon have her in a compliant state. What’s the allocation of power? Ralph 100%, Mary 0%. The tables are turned on Ralph. The marijuana turns Mary Lane into a nymphomaniac and she begins to force Ralph into bondage games that he didn’t quite want to play. Check out what is one of the most enjoyable scenes in the history of film:
(Weren’t the actors great? I love the versatility that Mr. Kassir and Ms. Bell possess.) This effective technique does a number of things. Mary Lane acquires agency; gaining some control over her life. The audience laughs because the hunter has become the hunted. We also feel a kind of vindication because we likely disapproved of Ralph’s intentions…his own medicine is fed to him and he doesn’t like the taste.
What Should We Steal?
- Pluck what you need from the public domain and government resources. Guess what: you own a lot of space-type pictures. Use them in your play. You paid for the research that went into the drug war in the twentieth century; feel free to steal the conclusions those folks made. (Consult an attorney before you do anything crazy, of course.)
- Craft powerful rhymes in your work. Is it easy to come up with unanticipated rhymes? No. It’s worth the effort; a great lyric can accomplish a great deal more than simply getting the writer a laugh.
- Offer all of your characters a moment in the sun and a real personality. Perhaps this is a good way to think of the principle, particularly when writing fiction and poetry: would an actor be able to use your piece as a kind of script? He or she wouldn’t need to know EVERYTHING about their character, but they would need to know enough to construct enough of a backstory to allow them to give a great performance.
- Emphasize changes in the power relationship between characters to increase drama and earn laughs (if you want them). It’s really the oldest trick in the book. We laugh at a politician who gets a pie in the face because the person loses his or her status in that moment.
Feature Film, Play
1998, Dan Studney, Kevin Murphy, Kristen Bell, Meaningful Wordplay, Reefer Madness
Title of Work and its Form: “Night Swimming, July 4th 2012,” short story
Author: Alex Streiff
Date of Work: 2013
Where the Work Can Be Found: The short short was published in Issue 8.4 of [PANK] Magazine. You can find the story right here.
Bonus: Here is a discussion that Mr. Streiff had with Tory Adkisson in which they discuss creative writing and the changing landscape of publishing. Here are three more short shorts by Mr. Streiff.
Element of Craft We’re Stealing: Pronoun Use
“Night Swimming, July 4th 2012” is a short short story about a man and a woman who go skinny dipping on a beautiful night. There’s heat lightning in the sky and the beauty of their surroundings join with the beauty they find in each other. (And each other’s bodies.) The story is very short, so it’s pretty thin on plot by design. Mr. Streiff seems primarily focused on creating a tone and creating beautiful images for the reader. (And he succeeds, of course.)
There are some kinds of words writers need to be very careful about using: pronouns! How would you feel if you went home and you had the following conversation:
Significant Other: How could you do that?
You: Do what?
Significant Other: All of those things!
You: What things?
Significant Other: Everything you did with all of them.
You: Did with who?
Significant Other: Those people!
You would likely be frustrated because you don’t know what you did wrong and don’t know who was apparently around you at the time. Therefore, we need to be careful when we use words like “it,” and “they,” and “that.” We don’t want to confuse our reader! Mr. Streiff does not confuse us. He begins the story by letting us know that THEY “climb a neighbor’s fence and greedily pull each other’s clothes off as they creep to the steps at the shallow end of the pool.” Mr. Streiff has made a promise by using the word “they.” Fortunately, he informs us a few sentences later: “he” and “she.” Okay. Great. Now we know that it’s a man and woman. The reader may be disoriented if “they” weren’t described for several pages.
Look at the sentences Mr. Streiff is using. Most are very short. They’re very beautiful and very descriptive. Think of the sentences like brushstrokes. This story is a little more expressionist than some other stories. Mr. Streiff is like an artist. He carefully plans which brushstrokes he must make to communicate the meaning and tone he intended. Mr. Streiff does not give a lot of explicit detail about the man and woman and their life together. Instead, he offers small glimpses into their relationship, allowing you to make your own conclusion. The man teases the woman about her prickly legs. “Little cactus girl, he calls her.” Me? I think that this is a sweet indication that they have a playful partnership. You may have a different opinion. Look at this painting by Monet. In a way, the viewer is making the conclusion that the painting depicts a boat on the water during sunset. Couldn’t you make the case that it’s really just a bunch of carefully selected arches and circles?
I will admit to being something of a traditionalist when it comes to literature, particularly when it comes to how writing is formatted on the page. Mr. Streiff kinda sorta “breaks the rules” by failing to start a new paragraph with each line of dialogue. Why is that perfectly fine? This short short is all about creating the feeling of going night swimming in a beautiful and barren place. The conversation between the man and woman is not as important as the feeling that Mr. Streiff creates. By keeping the story confined to one paragraph, Mr. Streiff keeps you under his spell and limits the amount of time you have to “think” about what is happening in the story.
What Should We Steal?
- Employ pronouns carefully. Don’t keep your reader in the dark when it comes to “them” and “it” and other words that may be ambiguous in meaning.
- Apply impressionist principles to your writing. Carefully curated details can imply a great deal of subtext.
- Cast a spell by breaking the rules. Keep all the dialogue in one paragraph if you want your reader to digest it in one burst and break other rules when you can justify doing so.
Title of Work and its Form: “Wyoming,” short story
Author: Terry Dubow
Date of Work: 2012
Where the Work Can Be Found: The story was first published in the Fall 2012 issue of Witness, a very cool journal. You can find the work here.
Bonus: Mr. Dubow is also a teacher. Here is a blog he maintained on his school’s web site.
Element of Craft We’re Stealing: Narrative Structure
Samuel is a soldier who has returned stateside and has embarked on a very sad mission. His Captain is dead and the man’s eighteen-year-old daughter is in his truck. Catherine does not know the whole story about her father’s death and Samuel just doesn’t want to talk about it. The two sad people make their way west, allowing Catherine to avoid the reporters and the general circus that has engulfed her father’s memory. What, exactly, is the problem? Well, I think I’ll leave you to find out for yourself.
The opening section of Mr. Dubow’s story establishes a mystery and adds the hint of a possible threat. First of all, we learn that Samuel has a “child” in the car; while Catherine is not a child, she is certainly young enough that we would think it suspicious that she’s in the car with an older man. I suspect that most writers are like me in wondering if something bad will happen to the younger person. I don’t have any kids, but it still makes me uncomfortable to think about a young, naïve person in a car with a grownup semi-stranger. There’s also a hint of danger to activate this kind of worry: Samuel falls asleep at the wheel and accidentally runs off the road. Will he do so again? What is the significance of the scar on Samuel’s leg? Boy, Mr. Dubow has us concerned and interested. Mr. Dubow does take some time in unraveling the Captain’s story (which is the point, really), but gives the reader enough bread crumbs to keep him or her reading.
In a way, Mr. Dubow set a big challenge before himself. Not only did he have to tell the story of Samuel and Catherine, but he also had to lay in Samuel’s backstory and what happened to him abroad and what he did a broad and why he did it and who he met there and how he interacted with them…sigh. It’s a lot of work. Mr. Dubow chose to break the story into sections in the good, old-fashioned way. He begins in the narrative present, the next section fast-forwards a little, then the following section goes into a flashback when Samuel was with the reporter, then the dramatic present again, only Mr. Dubow weaves in Samuel’s important memories.
Mr. Dubow is following the Doc Brown Doctrine. He is bending the space-time continuum, but not breaking it. By weaving the past into the present, Mr. Dubow is reinforcing the connection between what Samuel went through and why he is on his mission of mercy. Had he gone back and forth too much, the reader might have had difficulty keeping up.
The ending of the story is also significant. The conclusion of your story is only the ending for the reader. Remember: your characters have lives that are lived in the white space that follows. Mr. Dubow does a particularly effective job of fiving the reader hints as to what will happen to these folks in the near-future.
What Should We Steal?
- Manipulate your reader by front-loading mysteries and adding the fear of imminent threat. Promising a mystery also creates the obligation that you will provide the necessary answers!
- Bend the space-time continuum, but don’t break it. You can only layer in so many flashbacks and flash-forwards before your audience gets confused. (I love LOST; it seems like these two bullets also apply to that show!)
- Offer the reader insight into the future that will be shared by your characters. The curtain only goes down in the view of the audience. What happens after the final curtain call?
2012, Narrative Structure, Terry Dubow, Witness
Title of Work and its Form: “Elements of the Wind,” creative nonfiction
Author: Donna Steiner
Date of Work: 2009
Where the Work Can Be Found: The essay made its world debut in the Fall 2009 issue of Fourth Genre: Explorations in Nonfiction. You can pick up a back issue of the journal or find the essay here thanks to Project Muse.
Bonuses: Here is a gorgeous and brief piece what was published in the now-defunct journal Spilt Milk. This is a piece called “Orbits” that was published by Connotation Press. Ms. Steiner’s collection Elements is available from Sweet Publications! Ms. Steiner teaches in the Oswego State Creative Writing Department. If you’re in the area, consider taking a class with her!
Element of Craft We’re Stealing: Perspective
In this essay, Donna Steiner turns her considerable powers of perception to understanding the true meaning of something we experience every day: the wind. Ms. Steiner begins by dismissing the reductionism of folks who say things like, “There are two kinds of people: those who love cell phones, and those who hate cell phones.” Ms. Steiner loves the wind and is somewhat puzzled when others don’t. She describes some of the known history of our experience with wind, detailing the Beaufort Wind Scale and reminding the reader about the many names people have given the wind. Ms. Steiner sums up her essay by further deconstructing the false dichotomies that can limit thought; very little about the human experience can be summed up by a simple “either, or” statement.
The genre of “Creative Nonfiction” is not exactly new, but the term is fairly recent and the genre’s conventions are still somewhat in flux. Perhaps I am mistaken, but I get the feeling that some folks labor under misconceptions as to what creative nonfiction really represents. Some folks have told me they think that poetry is “depressed people getting out their bad feelings,” and other folks think that creative nonfiction MUST be memoir, that it MUST be a personal story about something that happened in the writer’s life. In this essay, Ms. Steiner uses creative nonfiction to tell a more important story than to simply describe her feelings about wind. Is the essay “personal” in a way? Sure. Ms. Steiner discovers that many folks don’t share her affection for the wind and this realization leads her to think a great deal about what this part of nature means. Ms. Steiner uses her personal experience as a lens that allows her to consider wind in a new way.
We all have thoughts and do things that others might find strange. Maybe you like going for walks at three in the morning. Perhaps you enjoy shoveling snow. These harmless differences result in unique experiences. Someone who hates shoveling may never have the experience of actually hearing the snow fall. Ms. Steiner loves the wind and the effect it has on people and their surroundings. When you acknowledge your own idiosyncrasies, you are closer to being able to use them to create art.
Approximately halfway through the essay, Ms. Steiner finishes her description of the Beaufort scale and continues thus:
Imagine the magnitude of the accomplishment: naming the wind.
Abroholos, barat, barber, bayamo, borasco, boreas, brickfielder, brisote, Chinook, chubasco, churada, coromell, Diablo, elephanta, ghibli, gregale, haboob, leste, levanter, leveche, maestro, mistral , ostria, pali, pampero, papagayo, shamal, sirocco, squamish, suestado, tramontana, vardar, williwaw, zephyr. Worldwide, others have put name to the wind.
There are two kinds of people. Those who savor the names of the wind like tasting rare fruit on the tongue, and those who skipped the italicized words above once they got the gist of the paragraph.
See what she did? The paragraph with all of the italicized non-English words can overwhelm some readers or invite them to move along to the words they recognize. Ms. Steiner makes use of that tendency to make a point. Some folks are unable to enjoy the simplicity of the wind, just as some folks forego the opportunity to enjoy words for the playfulness of their syllables. Ms. Steiner allows the reader to understand his or her own tendencies and also gently nudges them back to the beginning of the list to enjoy the words. You are the writer; understand that you exert a level of control over the reader.
How does Ms. Steiner end the essay? She returns to the beginning. In a way, the essay is not so much about the wind, but about the willingness to be carried along by circumstance. To explore. To acknowledge the loose ends that are inevitable in our experiences. The structure of the essay mimics the structure of our lives. We start out with simplicity and must confront increasing complexity in order to be truly happy.
What Should We Steal?
- Transform your personal experience into a lens that allows you a deeper look into an important phenomenon. Admit it: you’re still a New Kids on the Block fan. How does this allow you to comment on the Justin Bieber phenomenon?
- Understand the tendencies of the reader and exploit them. You know that, for example, some readers will skip over italicized paragraphs. Turn that into a teaching moment.
- Bookend your work by returning to its beginning. The issues you raise at the beginning of the piece have been simmering in the reader’s mind. When you return to the ideas with which you started, you and your reader examine the ideas from a deepened perspective.
2009, Donna Steiner, Fourth Genre, Oswego State, Perspective
Title of Work and its Form: “looking through a telescope at the moon on the day neil armstrong died,” poem
Author: Raena Shirali
Date of Work: 2013
Where the Work Can Be Found: The poem appears in Issue 3 of Four Way Review. You can find the poem here. (And you really should go get it. The poem is striking!)
Bonuses: Here is another poem by Ms. Shirali that was published in Fogged Clarity. Here is a brief essay Ms. Shirali wrote about the poetry of Thomas Hardy.
Element of Craft We’re Stealing: Percolation
The narrator takes a trip to the Cincinnati Observatory on the day Neil Armstrong died and attempts to locate the Apollo 11 landing site through the lens of a cool telescope. The narrator doesn’t seem to succeed at finding the landing site, but learns something more important about the moon and perhaps life. I like the poem for several reasons, not the least of which is its subject matter: I LOVE poems about space. (I even wrote a short story and a play about a future spacebound poet.) One of the ideas Ms. Shirali seems to reference is the simultaneous accessibility and obscurity of space and other science-type stuff. Here is a NASA photo of the Apollo 11 landing site that was taken by the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter Camera.
See the little yellow arrow? That’s the part of Eagle that was left behind when the ascent stage blasted Armstrong and Aldrin back up to Columbia. Throughout the poem, Ms. Shirali accomplishes one of the primary goals of poetry: she uses words to describe something that is incredibly beautiful and difficult to understand through the use of one of our senses. Her description is not a rote recitation of detail. Instead, she uses abstract language to try and communicate the feeling of what she sees:
there are two sides to everything
& one is always dark, maria,
…a contradiction, a lie of light
I had never thought of the moon’s surface in such terms. On Earth, there are countless hues of countless colors, but on the Moon, everything can be measured by light and dark. How do we come up with beautiful and succinct ways to describe things? There’s a strange alchemy that happens in the poet’s mind. There’s no step-by-step procedure to crafting striking abstract descriptions. I think it’s a matter of percolation combined with practice at “playing” with words.
How do we let things percolate? Well, it’s a process that is both active and passive. Ms. Shirali no doubt labored over her poem for a long time, jotting down ideas and actively pressing herself to come up with the right words to fit to her ideas. Perhaps she scratched her forehead while scribbling thoughts into Moleskin notebooks and wishing for inspiration to come. This is the active part of percolation. You must simply sit down and put pen to paper.
Then there’s the passive part of percolation. As always, Isaac Asimov had something smart to say. Archimedes, the brilliant mathematician, was charged with figuring out whether the king’s crown was pure gold. Not a difficult task…except Archimedes was not allowed to melt the crown. Archimedes did a lot of active thought in an attempt to confront the problem. Then…one day…he took a bath.
The water in the bath slopped over as Archimedes got in. Did Archimedes notice that at once, or did he sigh, sink back, and paddle his feet awhile before noting the water-slop? I guess the latter. But, whether soon or late, he noticed, and that one fact, added to all the chains of reasoning his brain had been working on during the period of relaxation when it was unhampered by the comparative stupidities (even in Archimedes) of voluntary thought, gave Archimedes his answer in one blinding flash of insight.
Jumping out of the bath, he proceeded to run home at top speed through the streets of Syracuse. He did not bother to put on his clothes. The thought of Archimedes running naked through Syracuse has titillated dozens of generations of youngsters who have heard this story, but I must explain that the ancient Greeks were quite lighthearted in their attitude toward nudity. They thought no more of seeing a naked man on the streets of Syracuse, than we would on the Broadway stage.
And as he ran, Archimedes shouted over and over, “I’ve got it! I’ve got it!” Of course, knowing no English, he was compelled to shout it in Greek, so it came out, “Eureka! Eureka!”
Neurologists can tell you how the process works far better than I can, but the point is that your subconscious will work on the active thought you did in trying to come up with unique and interesting ways to describe what you had in mind.
I also loved the way that Ms. Shirali played with the flow of language in the poem. Look at the first two stanzas. She makes a few interesting choices:
- Alternating long clauses/sentences with short ones. There’s that sinuous line about “two sides to everything,” then “maria.” Another description and then “how dizzying.” Ms. Shirali plays with the flow and asserts some measure of control over the reading of the poem in this way.
- all words in lower-case letters & lots of ampersands. These choices invite you to read without stopping as much as you otherwise would. The ampersands even seem like craters on the page, attracting your eye in the same manner that the craters attracted her attention when she was looking through the telescope.
What Should We Steal?
- Take a step back, allowing your ideas to percolate. Remember that strange alchemy; it can only occur when you’re not focused upon it.
- Diverge from the “rules” to exert control over your reader. When you cast everything in lower-case letters or move the words around on the stage or trade symbols for words, you are affecting the way your reader absorbs and considers your words.
2013, Four Way Review, Ohio State, Percolation, Raena Shirali
Title of Work and its Form: Ed Wood, feature film
Author: Directed by Tim Burton, written by Scott Alexander & Larry Karaszewski
Date of Work: 1994
Where the Work Can Be Found: The film was FINALLY released on DVD and can be purchased through the usual outlets. (Go do that now. The movie is literally awesome.)
Bonuses: Here is Roger Ebert’s review of the film. The film was discussed on a very cool podcast: An Hour With Your Ex. Mr. Burton will reteam with Mr. Alexander and Mr. Karaszewski for his next film. I will be there! And here is a Halloween podcast that features both of the scribes!
Element of Craft We’re Stealing: EVERYTHING
I was an adolescent in 1994 and knew very little about the world or about myself. What I did know is that I loved writing and the creation of art made me happy. I cherish the memory of my father taking me to see Ed Wood in the theater; it’s one of the first times I fell in love with anything. The writers and director tell the story of Edward D. Wood Jr., another man who loved sharing his creativity. Are his films any good? That’s not the point. Ed Wood poured his heart and soul into his work and laid his soul bare for the audience. The film begins as Wood debuts his new play, The Casual Company. The reviews were as bad as the production values. A simple twist of fate: Ed Wood happens to meet and befriend Bela Lugosi, who has a terrible drug problem and needs money. Wood talks his way into directing his first film: a fictionalization of the Christine Jorgensen story. Why must her name be taken off the picture? As producer George Weiss says, “That bitch is asking for the sky.” Glen or Glenda is released…kinda. It loses money. The rest of the film details the creation of Bride of the Atom and Plan 9 From Outer Space, easily two of the worst films ever made. Wood went to extreme lengths to get the movies made: he was baptized by church people who had money, he sweet-talked a meat distributor into giving him money and even gave a plum part to a woman he believed had money. (He was wrong.) When Lugosi dies, Wood wonders how he will finish Plan 9. Why, with a body double, of course! Just as all seems lost and Wood reaches his breaking point, he meets Orson Welles, who speaks with him filmmaker-to-filmmaker. “Is it all worth it?” Wood asks. Welles replies:
“Visions are worth fighting for. Why spend your life making someone else’s dreams?”
Plan 9 is finished, guided by Wood’s creative instincts. Howard Shore’s superlative score swells and the hero has won the day.
Like I said, this is my favorite movie of all time and is objectively one of the best of its era, if not of all time. I understand up front that this essay will fall short of what I want to say about the film. You know what? That’s okay. Ed Wood may not have created any towering works of creative genius, but he created. He wrote novels, directed films, wrote scripts… he produced. Many writers allow the perfect to be the enemy of the good. How many of us are ever going to create a Hamlet or a Superman or a The Godfather or an “Annabel Lee”? Not too many of us, sadly. The important thing is that we feed, honor and collaborate with our muses as much as possible.
Although Wood takes them in stride, he is challenged by numerous obstacles, both internal and external.
||Societal distaste (and worse) for transvestites
|The need to be accepted
||Societal misunderstanding of transvestitism
|The need to be accepted for who he really is
||Inability to “fit in” with the normal Hollywood crowd
|The need to tell the stories dictated by his muse
||The inherent difficulty in getting films financed
|The desire to employ Bela against the need to exploit him
||The inherent difficulty in making a great film (or any great work of art)
||Dolores’s lack of understanding in their romantic relationship
||The difficult task of motivating other people to work in the interest of your work
||Bela’s poor health and advanced age
One of the reasons that the film is so great is that Wood is cast as the successful underdog, even though his movies didn’t turn out very good. You may not be a transvestite, but there are still times when your identity causes problems for you. The audience has someone to root for in Wood, no matter who they are. In constructing the character of Wood, Alexander and Karaszewski follow the advice Polonius gave to his France-bound son:
This above all: to thine own self be true,
And it must follow, as the night the day,
Thou canst not then be false to any man.
Johnny Depp’s interpretation of Ed Wood is so compelling because the massive obstacles don’t stop him from being a dynamic character. Just about every character in the film, in fact, is the same way. Bela keeps working (as though he had a choice) and Wood’s crew overcomes their fatigue to finish their films. The overall point seems to be this: a powerfully dynamic character needs a lot of conflicts to overcome. Hamlet. Harrison Bergeron. Carrie Bradshaw. These are oversized personalities who require oversized obstacles. Who wants to see LeBron James play one-on-one with a five-year-old? (Or Aaron Carter with Shaquille O’Neal?)
Another one of my favorite parts of the film is the whip-smart dialogue. Alexander and Karaszewski demonstrate their ability to write world-class comedy dialogue in the film. (As they did in their previous classic Problem Child. Seriously.) It’s certainly true that the actors are responsible for their stellar line readings. But they wouldn’t have anything to say if Alexander and Karaszewski hadn’t put fingers to keyboard.
Look at one of the first scenes in the film. The cast and crew of The Casual Company are reading the review of their show. Their faces go from excitement to disappointment. Then:
Oh, what does that old queen know? She didn’t even show. Sent her copy boy to do the dirty work. Screw you, Miss Crowley.
Do I really have a face like a horse?
What does “ostentatious” mean?
Hey, it’s not that bad. You can’t concentrate on the negative. Look, he’s got some nice things to say here. “The soldiers’ costumes are very realistic.” That’s positive!
The exchange is so great because it is hilarious, but the lines are also deeply rooted in character. Bunny’s gender is…well, he’s not quite sure. And that’s okay. Dolores is a beautiful young ingénue who later breaks up with Ed because of the perception of others. Paul is an insecure actor who isn’t exactly the best-educated guy around. And Ed is an optimist at heart.
Comedy works best when the punchlines are derived from the characters who deliver them. Why? I think because the audience has lots to go on. Not only are they laughing at the construction of the joke, but another part of their brain is factoring in their established understanding of the character. Even better, you’re using more than one tool from your writer’s toolbox. In this case, Alexander and Karaszewski are getting laughs while establishing character and dropping in exposition.
(I would be remiss if I didn’t give a shoutout to the great transition to the following scene. Wood reassures everyone they’re doing “great work.” A second later, he’s in bed with Dolores. A thunderclap reverberates as he says, “Honey, what if I’m wrong? What if I just don’t got it?” Although an optimist, Wood is a kind of realist.)
Ed Wood is an all-time classic that, to me, represents one of the artistic high-water marks in the careers of those involved. I have no idea if Alexander and Karaszewski were aware of what they were doing, but the character of Ed Wood is a shining example for writers of all kinds and his story (both the true version and the fictional) is an ideal to which we should all aspire.
What Should We Steal?
- Believe in your work and in yourself, no matter what. Should you get cocky about your talent and make risky life decisions? Maybe not. Or maybe you should…
- Match the character’s dynamism to their level of strength and motivation. A story may not be compelling if the dragon is slayed too easily.
- Derive your comedy from your unique characters. Give your reader the context that allows them to know why they should laugh.
- Surround yourself with great people. Remember the timeless wisdom of Ed Wood:
Eddie’s the only fella in town who doesn’t pass judgment on people.
That’s right. If I did, I wouldn’t have any friends.
1994, EVERYTHING, Larry Karaszewski, Pull the String, Scott Alexander, Tim Burton