What Can We Steal From John Wray’s “How to Be a Man”?

Title of Work and its Form:  “How to Be a Man,” flash fiction
Author: John Wray (on Twitter @John_Wray)
Date of Work: 2013
Where the Work Can Be Found:  The story was published in the June/July issue of Esquire Magazine in their compilation of fiction created around the titular theme.  The “How to Be a Man” series was created in conjunction with Narrative4, an organization dedicated to helping people “all over the world tell their stories in a new and powerful way.”  You can read the story in Esquire or right here (along with more than 100 others) for a small donation.

Bonuses: Here is an interesting New York Magazine profile of Mr. Wray and his novel LowboyHere is an interview Mr. Wray did for the Tottenville ReviewHere is Mr. Wray’s Amazon page, though you should feel free to purchase his books from a local independent bookstore.

Element of Craft We’re Stealing: Thematic Potency

Discussion:
This short short story is a first-person piece told from the perspective of Johnny (possibly a nickname), a young man whose “troubles began” when he “followed a little blond-haired girl into the park.”  Johnny grew up in an upper-class family in the relatively distant past.  (Johnny was a boy “the year electricity was invented.”)  Johnny’s family seems to have noted his mental illness.  They descended upon him as he followed the little girl into the park, dragging him home and chaining him to an anvil.  The experience led Johnny to understand that he turned from boy to man.

Mr. Wray is a prominent novelist, but very clearly made sure that the piece employed a structure that was felicitous for a short short.  The story consists of three paragraphs of approximately equal length.  The story begins with a “hook:” a character follows a young girl around.  This gets our attention…no one likes thinking about little kids in danger.  Mr. Wray’s narrative goes into flashback, but returns to the park in the climax.  The “hook” and the climax must be particularly potent in such a short piece.  In one of Mr. Wray’s novels, he has plenty of time to create empathy for his characters.  This is not the case in flash fiction!

In the second paragraph, after the reader is told, give or take, when the story is taking place, Mr. Wray reveals that Johnny is chained to an anvil.  Upon first read, this fun and strange image confused me.  By the end of the story, of course, the idea makes sense.  For a brief moment, I was disoriented and the confusion caused me to look for an explanation.  These otherwise negative feelings might have turned me off if I were left hanging for three hundred pages.  Like most readers, I am perfectly happy to be a little confused for the time it takes to read three paragraphs.  Even better, you feel a sense of satisfaction when the anvil is paid off at the end.  Catharsis!

What Should We Steal?

  • Boost the “outrageousness” of your images and situations when working in shorter forms.  One of a novel’s great pleasures is that the reader can experience the slow build of an important experience.  Writers who are working on a far shorter piece don’t have that luxury.
  • Confuse the reader a little bit, then pay it off.  A brief moment of orientation can keep your reader going and offer a little bit of catharsis when the mystery is resolved.

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