What Can We Steal From Jess Walter’s “Anything Helps”?
Title of Work and its Form: “Anything Helps,” short story
Author: Jess Walter (on Twitter @1JessWalter)
Date of Work: 2011
Where the Work Can Be Found: The story debuted in December 2011’s Issue 39 of McSweeney’s, one of the top journals around. You can purchase a back issue of the journal if you like; they will appreciate it. “Anything Helps” was subsequently chosen for Best American Short Stories 2012 by Heidi Pitlor and Tom Perrotta; you can find the story in the anthology.
Bonuses: Here is what blogger Karen Carlson thought of the story. I love that she points out a slight similarity to “What You Pawn I Will Redeem.” Here is a Daily Beast interview with Mr. Walter. Charles E. May offers some interesting thoughts about the story, as well.
Element of Craft We’re Stealing: Fundamentals
So…Bit has some problems. He’s a homeless alcoholic who lost the mother of his child to an overdose. He was kicked out of a shelter for breaking the rules against drinking, blaspheming and fighting. His son is in foster care and Bit really isn’t allowed to visit much. Bit likes to panhandle on the side of the road and the story gets going when a rich guy gives him a twenty-dollar bill. Bit buys a copy of the last Harry Potter book, hoping to give it to his son, but the foster mother doesn’t approve of magical, mythological stories on a religious basis. In the climax, Bit sees his son; the kid loves him, but there is so much sadness and tension in their relationship. Bit resumes his offramp panhandling and begins reading the book as a way of somehow being close to his son.
Okay, so this story made me think of Saturday Night Live’s Stefon.
As he might say, “This story has EVERYTHING.” Seriously, look at how many traditional elements this story contains:
- Clear protagonist: Bit
- Clear antagonist: Bit (the foster mother?).
- Big stakes: Bit wants to give his son the book.
- Inciting incident: Bit gets the twenty dollars that allows him to buy the Harry Potter book.
- Climax that reflects upon the themes of the story: Bit meets with his son Nate.
- Adherence to the Unity of Time, pretty much: Everything is in present tense, following him through a VERY IMPORTANT DAY™.
- Internal conflict: Alcoholism, lack of ability to get it together.
- External conflict: Strangers will or won’t give him money. Cater kicks him out of the shelter.
- Interesting setting: a homeless shelter, highway offramps.
- Recurrence of title at important points in the story: “Anything helps.”
- Adherence to Freytag’s pyramid: events of increasing importance culminating with a meaningful climax related to theme and a denouement that offers some clue as to how the protagonist has changed as a result of the story’s events.
There’s no official checklist to tell you what should be in your story. And even if there were, I don’t think you can assemble a story in the way you would assemble an engine. But perhaps it will benefit you to look back at your work and do a mental double-check to see if you’ve equipped your piece with enough of the elements that make writing great. (I’m thinking that “Speckle Trout” is another story that is put together incredibly well.)
Mr. Walter also happens to employ a technique that stands out. The dialogue is not in quotation marks. So he’s “broken a rule” there. What he has really done is employ a stylistic choice. Leaving out the quote marks makes it a little “harder” for the reader to understand when a character is talking and what they were saying. After all, those marks are there as a quick prompt to your brain, right? They separate dialogue from everything else. Perhaps Mr. Walter forces the reader to think about and examine the story more carefully.
Perhaps Mr. Walter is thinking of the page in the same way that a painter considers a canvas. Maybe he just liked the way the story would look without all of the quotation marks. Writers have lots of options open to them and a toolbox that overflows. You can move words around on the page, use italics, change fonts, change text color, write in different languages, add graphics…the list is exhausting. You can leave out the quotation marks in order to lend the piece a different feel, but do so judiciously; isn’t your first duty to helping the reader understand your intent? I have seen some cases of quote mark-less writing that is not as clear as “Anything Helps.” Be sure that the reader doesn’t need to wonder what is dialogue and what is not.
Here; I’ll make up an example from a pretend story influenced by the fact that I saw my first episode of Bridezillas the other day.
Johanne led Ed into the tattoo shop and told him to take his shirt off sit down. She said, we’re getting matching tattoos, but you have to be blindfolded.
Ed sat down as Johanne put the handkerchief over his eyes. He asked, what are we getting? I don’t mind another tattoo, but I’m curious. The first one wasn’t so bad, but it was still painful. The artist shaved a spot on his chest.
Don’t you worry, Johanne said, reclining into the other chair as Jim the tattoo artist put the stencil on her inside thigh. You’ll love it.
Jim looked at Johanne, kissing her as he said, We’re going out next week, right? It won’t bother Ed at all.
Fifteen minutes later, Johanne revealed her tattoo: 100% Certifiable. Ed was terrified as Johanne pulled up his shirt, saying I don’t want people to think I’m certifiable.
No, you have something else, she said. Property of Johanne.
Ed saw the brand on his chest and somehow didn’t run screaming and do whatever it took to get away from Johanne.
There are a few places where you could be confused as to whether or not the character is speaking or the narrator. (And you should be confused that the guy really did marry that woman.)
What Should We Steal?
- Look back at your story to see if you’ve hit enough of the marks that make a piece of writing great. When you write an e-mail, don’t you sometimes read it over to make sure that you’ve been clear as to what you want? This is the same principle.
- Diverge from the standard conventions of prose, but do so judiciously. You are an artist, dear writer. Instead of covering a canvas with paint, you do so with words.