What Can We Steal From Sarah Yaw’s “Stepping Down”?

Title of Work and its Form: “Stepping Down,” short story
Author: Sarah Yaw
Date of Work: 2003
Where the Work Can Be Found: The story made its debut in the Summer 2003 issue of Salt Hill, a very cool journal.  Ms. Yaw has been kind enough to let me republish the story.  You will find the story in plain text format here.  You can also download a PDF of the story here.  Her novel The Other Side of the Wall was recently selected by Robin Black as the winner of the 2013 Engine Books Novel Prize.  The book will be released in September 2014 and is definitely worth your time.  You can learn more about the book and its author at sarahyaw.com.

Element of Craft We’re Stealing: Place

Discussion:
Karen’s life is not going the way she thought it would.  She moved away from her beloved New York City and now lives with her mother.  She’s a divorcee and is on a date with a prison guard, one of many who populate Auburn, New York, “a small town docked on a fingery lake in what they call down there way upstate.”  David is a good enough guy, but it seems that Karen is not ready for a relationship.  She’s fresh out of a divorce and a bit adrift in her life, an existence that Karen believes once had weight and purpose, but is now being wasted.  A storm is rolling into Auburn, spoiling the ballgame and the fundraiser that is being held for John, a prison guard “who was a guard before he was eaten by cancer like a wormy apple.”  When we last see Karen, she is filled with envy and sublimated sadness.  Still, there’s the sense that Karen will manage to get some air in her sails and move on.

The reader (at least this one) is struck most by Ms. Yaw’s use of place.  The title itself is a reference to place.  Karen is “stepping down” from Brooklyn to Central New York.  Auburn is a very important part of the story; in a way, the piece could not have taken anywhere else.  To whom do we look when we consider the purpose and meaning of place in fiction?  Why, Eudora Welty, of course:

It is by the nature of itself that fiction is all bound up in the local. The internal reason for that is surely that feelings are bound up in place. The human mind is a mass of associations more poetic even than actual. I say, “The Yorkshire Moors,” and you will say, “Wuthering Heights,” and I have only to murmur, “If Father were only alive-” for you to come back with “We could go to Moscow,” which certainly is not even so. The truth is, fiction depends for its life on place. Location is the crossroads of circumstance, the proving ground of “What happened? Who’s here? Who’s coming?” – and that is the heart’s field.

Auburn is the crossroads of the circumstances depicted in “Stepping Down.”  That town is the only place on Earth where all of the elements can be found: lonely Karen figuring out her life, David the prison guard easing into his own existence, John’s widow, the storm that cancels the fundraiser.  In a marvelous way, everything that has ever happened in the history of the universe has converged so that the story can happen the way it does.

Look at what else Ms. Welty says:

Feelings are bound up in place, and in art, from time to time, place undoubtedly works upon genius.

Think about your hometown.  There’s the supermarket where you had your first job and suffered the first indignities of your professional life.  There’s the wooded area where you kissed your first crush.  The childhood home that served as a crucible for your hopes and fears.  Ms. Yaw and Ms. Welty understand that a story is not an isolated incident that takes place in a vacuum.  Their characters (and yours) have a history, just as the streets where you grew up have been traveled by countless people: some good, some bad.  Lovers and fighters.  Young and old and everything in between.  Understanding the meaning of place in your work can add a sense of continuity that lends it weight.

Look at Ms. Yaw’s second paragraph:

Tonight is their game. Lights blast on popcorn-colored and the fans pour in. Not too many—Auburn is a small town docked on a fingery lake in what they all call down there way upstate—but it’s a good turnout for small-town baseball on a rainy night. Tonight I am here for a first date with David who, like everyone else, is here to honor John who was a guard before he was eaten by cancer like a wormy apple. I met David on a boat out on the lake a month ago when I was thinking about other things.

Ms. Yaw does a lot in this paragraph.  There’s a lot of exposition and graceful description of what the town is like.  The reader learns about the protagonist and her date.  (The antagonist of the piece?)  Most importantly, Ms. Yaw gives Karen an important reason to be at the game, outside of the pedestrian fact that she’s on a date.  The game is a benefit for the dearly departed John.  This element of the story, laid so early, also lends an internal logic to the end of the story.  The benefit is rained out and David looks at the widow John perhaps wondering if he and Karen will end up married.

By making this move, Ms. Yaw ensures that the reader doesn’t see HER hands as those who shape the plot of the story.  Yes, Ms. Yaw was sitting at her typewriter or in front of a notebook and was the one who literally ended the date and brought in the rain.  In the story, however, everything happens as a result of the actions of the characters.  (Um…except for the rain.  But you get the point.)

Let’s also take note with regard to Ms. Yaw’s contribution to the eternal struggle: HOW SHOULD WE USE WHITE SPACE?  The story takes place in real time, but is broken up four times by white space.  I don’t believe that the breaks are motivated by the need to advance in time; it seems as though Ms. Yaw uses the breaks as an opportunity for emotional closure or catharsis.  How appropriate!  Karen is a character who is defined (in this piece) by her need to understand herself; the pauses Ms. Yaw literally puts on the page offer readers the same opportunity.

What Should We Steal?

    • Set your stories in real, authentic places.  Your characters should inhabit real cities and towns that exist in a larger world.  People can’t live in a vacuum…neither can characters.
    • Imbue your work with an internal logic.  A story should not seem as though its events are being put in action by the invisible hand of the author.  Instead, it should seem as though they are acting of their own accord.

 

  • WHITE SPACE USE #24601: Break up the narrative with white space in order to offer the reader and/or your characters time to appreciate the emotions that are developing in the story.

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