What Can We Steal From Mary Miller’s “My Brother in Christ”?

Title of Work and its Form:  “My Brother in Christ,” short story
Author: Mary Miller (on Twitter @MaryUMiller)
Date of Work: 2009
Where the Work Can Be Found:  The story made its debut with the title “Go Fish” in the online extension of the AWESOME journal Barrelhouse.  As of this writing, the story is no longer online while the Barrelhouse folks reorganize their online component.  The story was included in Ms. Miller’s very cool short story collection.  Big World is available from the kind people at Hobart.

Bonuses: Here is an interview The Rumpus conducted with Ms. Miller.  Here is a short story Ms. Miller published on Tin House‘s excellent blog.  Here is another short story Ms. Miller placed with Pindeldyboz.

Element of Craft We’re Stealing: Characterization

Discussion:
Dana’s brother is in a bar band and she brings a friend along to see him play.  After the performance Dana and her friend follow the party back to a hotel.  Jeremy, the charismatic lead singer, is a bit of a jerk, but Dana sees some vulnerability in him and they share a moment of physical and emotional intimacy.

As you can tell from the summary, the story is deceptively simple, but I promise there’s a lot more to it.  The third-person omniscient narrator establishes the situation quickly and builds the emotional foundation of the characters with equal speed.  One of the many things I love about the story is that Ms. Miller writes about one of the less-examined milieus in human experience.  In this case: the time when a regionally popular band is setting up for a gig and when it goes to a no-tell motel to “celebrate.”  By passing up the flashier options–writing about the SHOW!  or the day when the record executive SIGNS THEM!–Ms. Miller is better able to examine the psychology of some interesting people.  They’re behaving as they normally would in their “natural habitat.”  The stellar writer and teacher Lee K. Abbott has pointed out on several occasions how few stories take place at work, even though that’s where people spend so much of our time.  If you can say nothing else about this fine story, you can say that it may be the first time you met these kinds of characters in this kind of place.

One of the things I love most about the story is how much Ms. Miller TELLS YOU without actually coming out and saying it.  Poor Dana is somewhat breaking out of her prolonged adolescence and may be tiring of the life she has lived.  After the show,

everyone, except Dana, is drunk or high.  Dana used to sleep around and drink until she blacked out, but she’s trying to be better.  She’s started going to church on Sundays and in bet at night she repeats my body is a temple until the words lose their meaning…And when she’s horny, she tells herself that men are just her brothers in Christ.

Ms. Miller puts words to Dana’s attempt to change her life.  Part of this attempt is her effort to control her…romantic willingness.  Half a page later, Ms. Miller reintroduces Jeremy, the lead singer of the band: a man who is often unpleasant and vulgar because people have allowed him to act that way for so long.  Dana and Jeremy speak as he watches a porn movie on the television.  “You probably don’t want to watch that,” he says.

In her head, she’s repeating Jeremy is my brother in Christ.

See what Ms. Miller did?  She prepared us to understand what this means: Dana is aroused.  Ms. Miller doesn’t even need to really describe how Dana is feeling because she taught us what that phrase means to the woman.  Each character has their own way of seeing the world and expressing how they think; giving them their own language can help you accomplish graceful exposition and characterization.

I have the first edition of Big World, so I’m not sure about the extra story in the second, but “My Brother in Christ” is the only story in the collection that is told by a third person narrator.  Unless I’m mistaken, all of the other stories are in the first person.  There’s nothing wrong with having natural tendencies that express themselves in our work.  Whether or not Ms. Miller knew it, she was trying something a little different.  Shouldn’t we all do the same?  If you notice that all of your stories are about accountants, maybe you write about a circus clown.  If all of your poems are in blank verse, write some limericks.

What Should We Steal?

  • Tell stories that are set in worlds that are infrequently used in other stories.  It’s fun to see a witch or wizard fighting the forces of evil…but what is it like when they have a fender bender?
  • Establish your characters’ own languages.  Once we learn about your characters and what they think and how they think it, you don’t need to explain things in a manner that could be considered clunky or obvious.
  • Identify your natural tendencies so you can experiment on occasion.  Trying something new can be interesting for both reader and writer.

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