What Can We Steal from Rebecca Barry’s “How to Save a Wounded Bird”?

Title of Work and its Form: “How to Save a Wounded Bird,” short story
Author: Rebecca Barry
Date of Work: 2003
Where the Work Can Be Found:  The story made its debut in Issue 16 of Tin House, a top-notch journal.  The story was later included in Later, at the Bar, Ms. Barry’s excellent “novel in stories.”

Bonuses:  Here is Ms. Barry’s author page at Simon & Schuster.  Here‘s a cool interview Ms. Barry gave to the New York Times‘ Arts Beat.  Here‘s what the folks at The Biblio Blogazine thought of Later, at the Bar.  (Spoiler alert: they loved it.)

Element of Craft We’re Stealing: Tone

Discussion:
Elizabeth Teeter is having a rough go of it.  Her husband recently left her for a man.  Her cat keeps plucking baby birds from their nests.  Her students at the community college are uninspired and apathetic.  Right before a Monday class, Elizabeth finds a baby bird in her cat’s mouth and arranges to take it to a wildlife center right after she teaches.  So her students didn’t do the reading.  At least she got to teach a class with a baby bird on her desk.  Elizabeth makes a deal with the class: they’ll all get out early if someone will give her a ride to the wildlife center.  A young man named Trevor agrees.  The car ride is a little uncomfortable; Elizabeth snaps a little bit, but her loneliness overtakes her.  She doesn’t confess her desire, but she wants to share some (relatively) pure intimacy with the young man.  Instead, Trevor simply continues their errand of mercy.

Many writers great have instincts, but they don’t take their ideas far enough.  How many of us have had a significant other stolen away by a same-sex interloper?  It certainly happens, but it happens infrequently enough that folks might still be attracted to your story because of the idea alone.  A cool idea is seldom enough to make a great story.  Ms. Barry’s story is so cool (in part) because the same-sex affair is simply a part of the situation, a mere facet of Elizabeth’s life.

When you have “crazy” things happen in a story that aren’t quite tethered to plot and character, you’re dealing with melodrama.  That’s not necessarily bad; Trapped in the Closet is so gloriously awesome in part because of its increasingly outlandish and unrealistic plot points.  Compare “How to Save a Wounded Bird” to the first few chapters of Trapped in the Closet.  R. Kelly expects to keep an audience and propel a story along by simply adding a same-sex affair.  We never get a deeper understanding of any of the characters who are involved.  Ms. Barry’s story instead presents a portrait of a woman working through her sadness.  It’s okay to make use of extreme plot points, but they should be a means, not an end.

One of the reasons that Elizabeth is so sad is that everything is seemingly crashing down on her at once.  She’s finding it difficult to see anything but things that reinforce her loneliness and sadness.  Ms. Barry, however, is wise enough to avoid this problem in her story.  There are moments of great humor in an otherwise sad piece.  Elizabeth’s jerky neighbor calls her cat fat and advises her to put a muzzle on the feline.  This annoys Elizabeth, who replies, “If you put a diaper on your dog, he wouldn’t shit in our yard.”  The narrator shrewdly allows Elizabeth to correct herself: “My yard.” There’s a moment of laugh-out-loud humor that makes the story engaging.

There’s another great moment in which Ms. Barry subverts the overall tone of sadness.  Elizabeth is teaching and is annoyed that her students didn’t do the reading she had assigned:

Her students were sitting at their desks, dozing or talking on their cell phones.  Elizabeth shut the door and wrote a pop quiz on the board.

“If you miss one question on this one,” she said, “you will automatically fail.”

“Peep!  Peep!  Peep!” said the bird.

Elizabeth may have trouble agreeing with the idea, but there are good things happening to her.  There is humor to be found in her situation and people around her are still falling in love, even if she’s dealing with the negative effects of trusting someone else.  “How to Save a Wounded Bird” is more meaningful and more life-affirming because Ms. Barry looks at the world through the writer’s wide-angle lens, not Elizabeth’s blinders.

What Should We Steal?

  • Allow extreme plot points to affect your characters, not the other way around.  You shouldn’t think of your protagonist as “some priest who leaves the clergy for a woman who treated him like crap in high school and still does and who is abused by her friends and becomes addicted to crack and must do community service at a dog pound.”  You should think of your characters as people and illustrate the way plot points change their lives.
  • Leaven the primary tone of your story with bits of contrasting tone.  Not only do your readers need a change of pace at times, but alternating tone also lends verisimilitude to your work.

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