Month: November 2013

What Can We Steal From Ron Rash’s “Speckle Trout”?

Title of Work and its Form: “Speckle Trout,” short story
Author: Ron Rash
Date of Work: 2003
Where the Work Can Be Found: The story made its auspicious debut in the Spring 2003 issue of The Kenyon Review, one of the best journals around.  As of this writing, it seems that JSTOR is offering free access to the story here.  Take advantage!  The story won a well-deserved O. Henry Award in 2005 and was reprinted in that year’s anthology.

Bonuses:  Here is a poem Mr. Rash wrote that is titled “Speckled Trout.”  Here is Mr. Rash’s biography at the Poetry Foundation web site.  Here is a Daily Beast article in which Mr. Rash tells you how he writes.  (Sadly, sipping tea while composing doesn’t get you an instant O. Henry Award.)

Element of Craft We’re Stealing: Narrative Structure

Discussion:
First line: “Lanny came upon the pot plants while fishing Caney Creek.”  The teenager was minding his own business and trying to catch some speckle trout on a beautiful day.  Then he saw the massive pot garden.  “He rubbed a pot leaf between his finger and thumb, and it felt like money to him,” so he stole five plants.  Lanny sells them to a dealer, then has a beer and propositions a woman…he’s going through adolescence in overdrive.  Lanny goes back to the pot farm and steals more plants.  Everything works out.  Lanny goes back a third time…and things don’t really work out.

So I first read this story in a Lee K. Abbott class at Ohio State and it knocked me out.  It still knocks me out.  Mr. Rash is fulfilling the most important of the writer’s responsibilities; when you read the story, you can sense him twirling a chair around and saying, “Have I got a story for you…”  I won’t name any titles, but I can tell when I read some stories that the author has other things on his or her mind.  I guess I just mean that I enjoy a lot of stories in which the author intends to dazzle you with language or to teach you about another culture…but my greatest joys as a reader come from folks including (but not limited to) Joyce Carol Oates or Tom Perrotta or Harlan Ellison or Ron Carlson or Erin McGraw or Ben Fountain.  When I read a story by one of these kinds of writers, I feel as though they’re telling me, very politely, to sit down and to shut up because they have a life-changing yarn to tell me.

Okay, let’s look at the basic structure of the story:

  1. Lanny goes fishing and finds a pot farm.  He takes some.
  2. Lanny goes and steals more pot.
  3. Lanny goes to steal more pot and his leg is caught in a bear trap.  The awesomely named Linwood Toomey’s going to kill Lanny.

What do you notice?  Mr. Rash adheres to the Rule of Threes.  He’s also making use of Freytag’s Pyramid.  Think about the amount of pot Lanny steals (or intends to steal).  It keeps getting bigger.  I’m guessing Mr. Rash didn’t sit down and plot these elements on a chart.  He knows instinctively that three is the right number of trips for Lanny to take to the pot farm and that Lanny’s ambition will grow…until it results in his untimely demise.  These are the natural rhythms of our lives and they just feel right when they are represented faithfully in fiction.

Look at the white-knuckle final two pages of the story.  Poor Lanny has his leg in the bear trap.  Linwood Toomey’s getting ready to “do what needs to be done.”  Mr. Rash uses the word “word” or “words” eight times:

  • “Lanny liked the way Linwood Toomey spoke.  The words were soothing…”
  • “Linwood Toomey’s words had started to blur…”
  • “what he did understand was Linwood Toomey’s words weren’t said…”
  • “to do so would mean having several sentences of words to pull apart from one another…”
  • “He tried to think of a small string of words he might untangle.”
  • “Lanny thought of something he could say in just a few words.”
  • “It seemed to him that Linwood Toomey’s words had soothed…”
  • “Linwood Toomey said something else but each word was like a balloon…”

Mr. Rash leaves the details of the ending (and Lanny’s ending) up to the reader.  Why is it okay that Mr. Rash didn’t include a five-page Quentin Tarantino-esque torture scene?  He didn’t need to.  The repetition of “words” puts so much emphasis on what Toomey says that you know what will happen.  Toomey’s dialogue is calm and cold and unnerving.  The repetition also facilitates the last paragraph of the story.  Lanny experiences the story through speech and silence and his memories of the titular fish.

Mr. Rash’s very cool first line also names the inciting incident of the story.  From there, Mr. Rash’s third person limited narrator describes Lanny’s life and provides all of the necessary exposition.  On the third page of the story, Lanny reaches “where the creek forked” and finds the pot plans.  This distribution of exposition is very elegant.  Why?  Mr. Rash gives us the promise of an inciting incident and pays it off very quickly in a manner that is connected to the events of the first three pages.

Sometimes, writers (including myself) have the inclination to begin a story with a big block of exposition before getting into the narrative.  Now, there are a zillion great stories that begin this way, but such a construction can be problematic.  Here’s one I’m making up:

Bob Johnson was a baker.  He woke at three in the morning–every morning–so he could drag himself to the bakery early enough to sift, mix, shape, proof and bake everything his customers needed.  The divorce took a lot out of him, but the job was keeping him sane.  The early hours tired him out and prevented him from thinking about Diane and what she had said to him the day she left.

What if I begin in the dramatic present?

Bob Johnson, recent divorcee, squeezed the butt of the gun to make sure it was still in his shoulder holster.  He entered the bakery for the last time, anticipating the sweetness of Diane’s confession.

See how the latter example is more compelling?  Instead of wading through the who, what, when, where and why, we’re jazzed; Bob Johnson’s entering the bakery with the intention of shooting SOMEONE.  What’s going to happen?

What Should We Steal?

  • Ensure that the structure of your piece reflects the structure of our lives.  Childhood and adolescence are each a series of increasingly big and meaningful events.  (The apex seems to be the birth of a child…it’s all downhill after that.)  Allow your story to mimic the natural rhythms of our lives.
  • Employ repetition to train your reader.  By repeatedly mentioning “words,” the reader is trained to focus on dialogue.
  • Bind your opening exposition to the narrative with hoops of steel.  The reader shouldn’t have to wait for your “story” to start several pages into your story.

What Can We Steal From Amber Tamblyn’s “Head Lock Heart Choke”?

Title of Work and its Form: “Head Lock Heart Choke,” poem
Author: Amber Tamblyn
Date of Work: 2012
Where the Work Can Be Found: The poem debuted in July 2012 on InDigest, a very cool “online literary magazine and arts blog focused on creating a dialogue between the arts.”  You can read the poem here.

Thanks to the wonder of the Internet, you can even see her read her poem:

Bonuses:  Want to book Ms. Tamblyn for a reading?  Here is her agency listing.  Here is a poem Ms. Tamblyn published on The Nervous Breakdown.  Here is a brief but pretty interview with Ms. Tamblyn in which she discusses poetry.  Ms. Tamblyn co-founded Write Now Poets, a great organization “dedicated to increasing the audience for poetry through performance, education, publishing and grant-making.”

Element of Craft We’re Stealing: Structure

Discussion:
Ms. Tamblyn says that this is a poem about drinking with Hugh Laurie, so I think I’ve solved the “who is ‘H.L.’?” mystery.  The poem is indeed spoken by a narrator and directed toward what could very well be a drinking companion.  The poem possesses a conspiratorial tone; the narrator is constantly inviting his or her conspirator to do something new and entertaining.  The poem ends with self-realization–it’s not just the poem that is “so drunk”–and the kind of epiphany a person stumbles upon after a long night of drinking.

One of the things I love about the poem is that Ms. Tamblyn adopts and recreates the feeling that you have during a long night out with a good friend.  The sentences and lines start out long and complicated and get shorter and are slightly less coherent.  Why is this appropriate?  When you drink a lot, you end up thinking shorter thoughts that, in retrospect, aren’t as complete as they seemed the night before.

Why is this such a felicitous choice?  Even a teetotaler can understand the basic format of a NIGHT SPENT OUT DRINKING WITH A COMPANION.  The poem consists of jokes that only a drunk person (or a good poet) could think up or find entertaining.  Sexually charged verbs replace the customary ones.  After last call, you find an extra shoe under your chair and wonder how the heck it got there.  And, of course, you tell your companion how much you love them, your mind loosened by drink.

Appropriating a structure also allows you to cut out some exposition and to ease your reader into your work.  Instead of wondering what is happening in the poem or waiting for Ms. Tamblyn to set a scene, you’re relaxing in your own chair beside the narrator at the bar.  You’re also making a visceral connection with the reader; the situation of the poem invites the reader to subconsciously recall our own nights of debauchery.  For better or worse (depending on what kind of drunk we are), this choice of structure forges an inherent and powerful connection between poet and reader.

If you watch Ms. Tamblyn read her poem, you will find that she seems to have added a subtitle to the poem (in addition to a few new lines).  Why did she remove the subtitle “Drinking with Hugh Laurie” for publication?  Or why did she add it during her reading? Why did the line “Where did this shoe come from?” become “Whose fuckin’ shoe is this?” Ms. Tamblyn, for whatever reason, did not psychically know I would write this essay and therefore did not write me an e-mail to tell me about the chronology of the poem’s composition.  So maybe those lines came from an earlier or later draft.  The point I want to make, however, is that Ms. Tamblyn is demonstrating that poetry is ALIVE…or should be.  I like to think that Ms. Tamblyn was so into reciting her poem that she was inspired to change her lines. Maybe she prefers the original lines, maybe she prefers the improvisation that may or may not have been nudged into being by whatever was in her glass.

(The other important idea to take from the video is that a poet is a PERFORMER.  Even if you don’t consider yourself the best actor or actress, it’s your duty to try and entertain those adoring throngs.  Think about it; “Bownbooze” is a word that is meant to be PERFORMED, not read.)

Ms. Tamblyn also uses words in a fun and powerful way.  Look in the fifth stanza.  The words are “waged.”  The drunken friend is urged to “jerk off” rainbows into the enemy’s valley.  These are strong and unexpected verbs.  Not only does the reader briefly stop to consider the mental images in the lines, but those images are stronger because of the unconventional use of language.

What Should We Steal?

  • Appropriate an established form for your work.  Take advantage of your reader’s innate understanding of an afternoon spent at the DMV or the tedium of an evening spent in the audience of an elementary school talent show.
  • Allow a live reading to influence your work.  You may or may not retain changes you make in the heat of the moment, but you can draw in your audience by being playful.
  • Blast your reader in the face with powerful verbs and unanticipated choices of words.  Zip through your poem or story and nuke the words that are the most out-of-money-in-the-strip-club.

What Can We Steal From Tory Adkisson’s “Harbingers”?

Title of Work and its Form: “Harbingers,” poem
Author: Tory Adkisson
Date of Work: 2013
Where the Work Can Be Found: The poem made its world debut in Issue 4 of Four Way Review.  You can read the piece here.

Bonus:  Here are some reviews Mr. Adkisson wrote for The RumpusHere is a cool poem Mr. Adkisson placed in Lambda Literary.

Very cool!  Here is a video of Mr. Adkisson reading poetry:

Element of Craft We’re Stealing: Pathos

Discussion:
“Harbingers” is a poem that consists of 24 three-line stanzas whose lines meander across the page (or screen)…and one extra line.  The first person narrator (at least in my view) is talking to a significant other.  Perhaps it’s just because of my own perception of relationships, but it doesn’t seem as if things are going well.  The boyfriend or girlfriend is told:

adkissonThe narrator imagines, it seems, that the two of them are game birds, just waiting “to be savaged.”

I suppose what I admire most about the poem is that Mr. Adkisson demonstrates a very high level of control over words and language.  The jagged lines and fascinating word choices make me think that he’s a surgeon with a scalpel and I’m a construction worker with a sledgehammer.  Aside from that, I love the way that Mr. Adkisson sublimates the poem’s powerful emotion in a practical way.

Most of us have been in a relationship that is or was…suboptimal.  It would be VERY easy to write a poem that is simply a string of expletives intended to shatter your ex’s Vital Lie, to render them broken and sobbing on the floor.  Unfortunately for me, that doesn’t qualify as great literature.  In “Harbingers,” the deep pathos is present, but Mr. Adkisson put complicated meaning ahead of the lower desires we all possess.  If you’re angry at someone, you probably aren’t as eloquent.  Calm and thoughtful reflection is really the only way that you’ll ever get the kind of understanding that lets you characterize troubled lovers as a:

adkisson2Compare the skill demonstrated in Mr. Adkisson’s poem to the lack of skill present in teen angst poetry.  We all wrote TERRIBLE poems when we were sixteen; it’s nothing of which we should be ashamed.  Here’s an excerpt from my favorite example, Devan Daly’s “Fuck You Poem.”  (It’s my understanding that all of the poems on that blog were submitted by the authors, so don’t worry; we’re not laughing AT someone…we’re laughing WITH them.)

devandalyMr. Adkisson demonstrates that we can still write with our hearts, but we should mix in a good part of the head, too.

There are many ways to keep yourself cool when you fight with a significant other.  You can think of all of the names of the players on your favorite baseball team.  You can say the alphabet backwards in your head.  You could even name different varieties of birds.

What kind of poem will result if you spend an hour playing with a list of words used to describe groups of animals?  “A ‘kettle’ of vultures,” you might wonder.  “What does that mean?  A ‘streak’ of tigers?  Fascinating!”

What could happen if you explore the 1882 roster of the Cincinnati Red Stockings?  (That’s the team that soon took the name of the “Cincinnati Reds.”)

What could happen if you pay some close attention to the transcript of the Apollo 11 mission?

What might you write if you immerse yourself in the Telephone Directory Directory?  (If you’ll recall, in old-timey times, people would refer to the first two numbers as letters.  KL5-1234.  Go ahead and steal this idea.  What can you do with these prefixes and the words people assigned to them?)

Okay, so let’s talk about the way Mr. Adkisson arranges the lines on the page (or the screen).  To the layman, it might seem as though he’s just plopping lines around.  A good reader or good poet can see some of the advanced technique involved in the composition of the poem.  Here’s a comparison.  I like tennis, but I don’t understand it on a very complicated level.  When I see the ball come to Chris Evert, I’m just thinking she’ll hit it back over the net, or maybe to the part of the court opposite to the part occupied by Martina.

Chris Evert’s advanced skill and understanding of the game, however, allows her to think about a very precise ball placement, the amount of spin she wants to put on the ball, the speed she wants the ball to have, foot placement that will allow her to most easily move to where she thinks Martina will return the ball…

So what advanced ideas did Mr. Adkisson have in mind while he composed?  I think he was considering the movement of the reader’s eye.  Isn’t a bad relationship like a maze?  Your eyes aren’t moving in regular patterns when you read the poem, trapping you in the same kind of confusion as a bad romantic situation.

And that orphaned last line, of course, has no friends, it seems to me, because the line packs more of a punch on its own.  I suppose it can be intimidating to observe the craft of someone who is REALLY GOOD at something you can’t do very well…ask anyone who is good at anything; you can’t dismiss what you don’t understand.  Instead, you must admit that you have something to learn and, in this case, take out a pen and mark up the poem until you get some ideas.

What Should We Steal?

  • Sublimate emotion when doing so will benefit your work.  Put aside your lower, more primal tendencies in order to free your analytical mind and advanced facility with language.
  • Play with lists and compilations and other kinds of fun documents.  What kind of poem could you write if you think about the top 100 singles of 1984?
  • Study the technique of other great writers and try to emulate what they do.  It’s the same idea that you find in sports; a great hitter must watch a lot of tape to see what great pitchers and writers do.  Then they must allow that information to percolate and become internalized.

What Can We Steal From Karl Taro Greenfeld’s “Horned Men”?

Title of Work and its Form: “Horned Men,” short story
Author: Karl Taro Greenfeld (on Twitter @karltaro)
Date of Work: 2012
Where the Work Can Be Found: The piece debuted in Fall 2012’s Issue 95 of ZYZZYVA, a very cool journal.  Elizabeth Strout and Heidi Pitlor subsequently chose the piece for the 2013 edition of Best American Short Stories.

Bonuses:  Here is what Karen Carlson thought of the story.  Here is a piece Mr. Greenfeld wrote for The Atlantic in which he attempts to cope with the amount of homework his daughter is given.  Here is an interview Mr. Greenfeld gave to TIME Magazine.

Element of Craft We’re Stealing: Social Criticism

Discussion:
The first line of the story has a number of meanings: “Bob was in the dark.”  In a literal sense, Bob is threading coax cable in the dark crawlspace of his new and old home.  Bob also finds himself staring down at his teenage daughter, Becca.  The protagonist had spent years as a mortgage broker, losing his job after the  bubble burst.  Like so many, Bob had left his keys in the extravagant home he shouldn’t have bought; luckily, he was renting out his dead mother’s home.  After Bob kicked out the tenants, he moved his wife and daughter right in.  Becca is old enough to understand the problems Bob helped to cause for countless homeowners and his exiled tenants seem to have put a curse on him, as well.  While in the crawlspace, he found a “small brown clay bust” of a horned man.  There was another in Becca’s room.  The animal kingdom is even against Bob–he is bitten by a giant spider and loses some of the range of movement in his arm.  (If only he could have accessed health care sooner!)  The story ends as Bob dismisses the idea of a curse; he violates his vow by returning to the crawlspace to watch his daughter sleep.

I liked this story a lot.  A number of the stories in the 2013 edition of Best American deal with the aftermath of the 2008 financial collapse; I love that writers are helping us to contextualize and understand what has happened to us and why.  Bob was just a cog at his brokerage firm; he didn’t come up with the terrible loans…it was just his job to sell them.  At one point in the story, Bob testifies at a hearing as to what went on in his firm.  The questions were dry and Bob seems to be operating mechanically as he complies with the attorneys who were questioning him.  Even though he’s just talking about “specific loans and terms” merely recounting “his former pitch, patter, and close,” he’s really talking about the lives that his firm ruined.  The families who lost their homes.  The life savings that were siphoned into the pockets of the firm’s CEO.  Even though he lost his own home, Bob doesn’t really seem to understand the plight of those who were harmed by the collapse of the housing market and the banking system.

One of the great powers of fiction is its ability to help us contextualize our lives and the events that transform society.  Mr. Greenfeld is certainly fulfilling his duty by telling us a specific story about specific characters, but he’s also adding to the body of literature that will help others understand what the financial collapse felt like.  (Another great piece along these lines is Benjamin Percy’s “Writs of Possession.  Read my thoughts about it here.)  What is the balance between being a storyteller and being pedantic?  I think the important decision that Mr. Greenfeld makes is that he leaves all of the analysis up to you.  His narrator could easily have passed judgment on Bob and others like him.  Instead, the author simply presents the situation and allows the reader to make the connections on his or her own.

At the end of the hearing, Bob “shook his head.  He couldn’t remember anything, but he was sorry.  He repeated that as if his apology might make it okay.”  See how Mr. Greenfeld is creating the conditions under which you can be angry instead of TELLING you that you should be angry?  His narrator lights a path; it doesn’t pull you along.

Speaking of narrators, we must all decide whether or not they can see into the future and what the revelations might mean.  Mr. Greenfeld’s narrator, in fact, plays a big role in the end of the story.  Throughout the piece, Bob has spent his crawlspace time staring at his teenage daughter.  Why?  Well, I suppose you can decide for yourself.  Bob resolves to spackle the porthole shut.  Mr. Greenfeld has him head up into the attic with a tub of spackle and a palette knife: “…he slithered along the boards, his [spider-bitten] elbow still sore–it would ache the rest of his days–to the gap above his daughter’s room.”  The scene ends as Bob reassures himself that “this would be the final glimpse.”

After a bit of white space, Mr. Greenfeld gives us four more paragraphs and ends the story with a dismissal of the possibility of a horned man curse.  Then Bob “went back into the house, to the attic, to the crawlspace above his daughter’s room, where he watched her sleep.”

The narrator’s ability to see into the future sets up the big punch at the end of the story.  By mentioning the chronic pain that Bob will feel for the rest of his life, Mr. Greenfeld lulls us into a false sense of security in a way.  For a brief second, we actually believe that Bob will cover up the peephole.  The drama of the story and the pathos of the character, of course, are more meaningful when we are informed that Bob is not the man he thinks he is.

What Should We Steal?

  • Fulfill your duty as a social commentator without forsaking your responsibilities as a storyteller.  Trust your reader to understand the societal comment you’re trying to communicate.
  • Measure the effect of your time traveling narrators.  If you knew that asking out that boyfriend or girlfriend would cause you so much pain, you wouldn’t do it.  Your narrator can make an important difference in the way we understand your characters based upon what they will do in the future.

What Can We Steal From Justin Lawrence Daugherty’s “The Boneyard”?

Title of Work and its Form: “The Boneyard,” short story
Author: Justin Lawrence Daugherty (on Twitter @JDaugherty1081)
Date of Work: 2013
Where the Work Can Be Found: The piece debuted in the May 2013 issue of Knee-Jerk Magazine, a very lively literary journal.  You can read the piece here.

Bonuses:  Consider purchasing Mr. Daugherty’s short story collection, Whatever Don’t Drown Will Always Rise.  Mr. Daugherty is the Managing Editor of Sundog Lit, a cool and lively journal in its own right.  Here is an interview in which Mr. Daugherty describes some of his philosophies about literature.

Element of Craft We’re Stealing: Non-Linear Structure

Discussion:
Aurelio, the “lizard-boy” is not in a very good place.  In search of his pregnant mother, longing to meet his future sister, “the beast” is being pursued by an angry mob of people wielding cleavers and shotguns and gripping “ball-bats and Molotov cocktails.”  Fortunately, the “translucent-skinned man” is there to help.  He kills many of the men in the mob and rescues the lizard-boy, saying, “without love, what are we?”

The first element of the story worth stealing is Mr. Daugherty’s structure.  The piece is explicitly non-linear and the changes in time are labeled before each section thus:

Now:

Three Days Earlier:

Two Days Earlier:

One Day Earlier:

Now:

Now:

Now:

Now:

Now:

Now:

The structure reminds me of what you see in a lot of television programs.  The teaser at the beginning of the program depicts the protagonist of the show in a sticky situation.  The next scene begins with a title on the screen: 72 HOURS EARLIER or the like.  What are some of the benefits of this kind of structure?

  • You get added kick out of the telegraphed climax.  We’re not sure in what context or with whom the translucent-skinned man will share the wish of love…but we want to find out.
  • You assure the audience that there is a big climax coming.  A program such as The Walking Dead will start out with a massive zombie buffet, then zip back in time to describe what led to that exciting scene.  Mr. Daugherty opts for an emotional punch over depicting a cool fight, of course.
  • In this specific case, Mr. Daugherty was able to draw an immediate tight connection between his two primary characters.  How?  The structure puts them so close together even though they were distant “three days earlier.”

Are there inherent risks when you use this kind of structure?  Sure.  In “The Boneyard,” we don’t learn too much about the mob itself and the “translucent-skinned man” remains a bit of a cipher, but that’s okay.  Zipping around in time allows Mr. Daugherty to put the emphasis where it belongs: on the lizard-boy.  (For more adventures in non-linear storytelling, check out my thoughts about Pulp Fiction.)

In a story that is this short, language often plays a more important role than usual.  When you read Mr. Daugherty’s piece, you might notice that he employs repetition to great effect.  Look in the “Two Days Earlier” section.  The author begins many of his sentences with “And,”.  In doing so, Mr. Daugherty evokes the kind of language that is used in mythology.  (To me, anyway.)  Aside from the lizard-boy, doesn’t this sound as though it belongs in a book like the Christian Bible?

And, the beast being alone, the mob gathered in the watchful outside, and they brought cleavers and shotguns, and they gripped ball-bats and Molotov cocktails. And, the mob gasped when they stumbled upon the boneyard–this refuse pile of the lizard-boy’s outgrown bones, the sloughed-off tokens of pain–and how their resolve was steeled. And, the lizard-boy, Aurelio, locked inside the trailer, trying to sleep if only for dreams of his sister, of the mother. And, instead, he dreamed of blood-soaked soil and the snap-cracking of men’s bones and the caving of skulls.

Further, Mr. Daugherty also repeats the “Now:” tag six times at the end of the story.  What’s the effect?  I think it adds to the suspense.  NOW the angry mob is being dispersed…NOW the lizard-boy is tasting freedom…NOW he is rededicated to finding and feeling love.

What Should We Steal?

  • Experiment with a non-linear structure.  Moving around in time makes it easy for you to cut the boring parts out of your story.
  • Employ repetition to enhance the timelessness and significance of the language you use.  Repeating phrases and ideas can slow down the reader and force him or her to live more deeply in your tale.

What Can We Steal From Jeremy Collins’s “When We Were Young and Confederate”?

Title of Work and its Form: “When We Were Young and Confederate,” creative nonfiction
Author: Jeremy Collins
Date of Work: 2012
Where the Work Can Be Found: The piece debuted in Issue 9 of Chautauqua, a beautiful literary journal published by the Chautauqua Institution.  Order the journal here.

Element of Craft We’re Stealing: Candor

Discussion:
This piece is a fascinating kind of confession.  Over the course of thirteen parts, Mr. Collins chronicles his history with the Confederate flag and with racial issues.  Many years ago, Mr. Collins’s great-great-grandfather fought for the South in the Civil War.  The gentleman grew up in Georgia and, like everyone else around him, marveled at the athletic achievements of Herschel Walker.  (We’re reminded that Walker, an African-American, sometimes got to look into the stands to see fans wearing rebel uniforms and to hear bands playing “Dixie.”)  Mr. Collins recounts some of the twentieth-century history of race relations.  Ronald Reagan, like many politicians of the time, both respected African-Americans as friends and employed dog-whistle phrases to court the racist vote.  Mr. Collins points out that history doesn’t always remain in the past; racist ideology continues to motivate some Americans to be unpleasant to others in ways both large and small.

I think what I admire most about this piece is Mr. Collins’s honesty.  The author looks within himself to try and contextualize the anger and hatred that leads people to walk into a church and to shoot several people with a shotgun.  Was Mr. Collins ever that angry?  Of course not.  He does, however, confess to unpleasant feelings inspired by hatred and fear.  Even though the “n-word” wasn’t used in the Collins home, the author admits to thinking it on several occasions.  When a black peer steals his Air Jordans.  When he loses his spot on the basketball team because the African-American players were a little bit faster.

It took a lot of guts for Mr. Collins to confess that the adolescent version of himself felt some racist anger.   The admission was the right decision for a few reasons:

  1. We’ve all had unpleasant thoughts at times, even if we won’t admit it.
  2. Most of us mature during adolescence; aren’t we less likely to have unpleasant thoughts once we reach adulthood?
  3. Mr. Collins told us the truth.  Reaching a new level of understanding between people requires all of us to be honest with ourselves and others.

It’s an eternal dilemma: what makes our stories so special?  Why should anyone care about one life or one experience?  Mr. Collins answers these questions.  Sure, he was just one Caucasian young man growing up in Georgia who was once featured on the local news whooping a rebel yell to the sky.  A young man who once “roared as [Rush] Limbaugh poked holes in blacks, immigrants and women.”  Millions of people have argued in defense of the Southern Confederate heritage and against affirmative action.  Many thousands, I’ll wager, have gotten in Jesse Jackson’s face.  What does Mr. Collins do to make his essay more than just a bunch of anecdotes strung together?

Mr. Collins recognizes that he is telling a story that is much larger than a personal anecdote.  The title of the essay–“When We Were Young and Confederate”–explicitly refers to others.  Although the author discusses these BIG ISSUES in the context of his own understanding of the world, he delves into history and politics in order to try and explain why he and others act and think the way they do.

What Should We Steal?

  • Reveal the unpleasantness that marked your past self.  No one is proud of every single thing they’ve ever said or done.  Allow your reader to relate to you as the flawed and beautiful human being you are.
  • Contextualize your personal story in the larger human experience.  Our lives only represent one data point; how does your life shed light upon the deeper meaning of humanity?

What Can We Steal From Suzanne Rivecca’s “Philanthropy”?

Title of Work and its Form: “Philanthropy,” short story
Author: Suzanne Rivecca
Date of Work: 2012
Where the Work Can Be Found: The story was first published in the Spring 2012 issue of Granta.  (Issue 120.)  Heidi Pitlor and Elizabeth Strout subsequently selected the story for Best American Short Stories 2013.  Ms. Rivecca’s collected yet another laurel when “Philanthropy” was awarded a Pushcart Prize; the piece is included in the award’s 2014 anthology.

Bonuses: Here is an interview Ms. Rivecca gave to The Short Form.  Here is the New York Times review of Ms. Rivecca’s collection, Death is Not an Option.

Element of Craft We’re Stealing: Juxtaposition

Discussion:
Cora works in Capp Street Women’s Services, a place where women who are on drugs can go to get a change of clothing and, one hopes, some help with their addiction.  It’s a big day for Cora; rich and successful author Yvonne Borneo has dropped by.  Cora really wants Borneo’s foundation to donate some money to the facility for women.  Unfortunately, DJ shows up.  A frequent customer, DJ interrupts Ms. Borneo’s visit.  The author helps Cora get some antibiotics and coffee into the young woman.  Cora fears that the episode has ruined her chances of getting any money from the Borneo Foundation…until she gets a dinner invitation from the writer.  The dinner is a tense one; Cora wants to confess that she knew Ms. Borneo’s dead addict daughter from her time in rehab.  Ms. Borneo, unaware of the personal connection, wants to understand why her daughter died and so many similar women live through their addictions.  Cora drops the bomb and the two women share a cathartic moment.

I think that what I admire most about the story is that Ms. Rivecca wastes no time introducing elements of tension into the tale.  In the first few paragraphs, we learn that A RICH AUTHOR IS VISITING A NON-PROFIT FACILITY FOR WOMEN.  Instantly, we understand; the overworked Cora in the first sentence wants money.  There are big stakes!  The more money Ms. Borneo gives, the more young women could be saved.  Before too long, Ms. Rivecca puts another ball in the air: CORA KNEW MS. BORNEO’S DAUGHTER DURING THE TIME BOTH YOUNG WOMEN WERE IN DIRE STRAITS.

Ms. Rivecca’s writing is certainly interesting enough to keep our attention, but the story means more to the reader because she gives the interesting prose additional purpose.  We’re on tenterhooks immediately.  We’re not sure exactly how the conflicts will be resolved, but the questions keep us reading and keep us entertained.  The big stakes also add tension to Yvonne Borneo’s aborted visit to the womens’ center; not only do we want the visit to go well, but we’re hoping that both women can achieve the closure they’re seeking.

Ms. Rivecca makes highly profitable use of a classic technique: juxtaposition of characters.  Placing difference characters side by side illuminates their similarities and differences, a particularly important concept in this story.  Ms. Rivecca gives us a glimpse of Angelica, Ms. Borneo’s daughter, alongside Cora when both were addicts.  She places Cora alongside DJ, juxtaposing a current user with one who kicked the habit.  She compares Cora to Yvonne Borneo; both women help others, but one does so with money and the other is in the trenches.  “Philanthropy” is all about the question that Cora and Ms. Borneo are always asking: “What is the difference between the addicts who fall apart and those who get back on the straight and narrow?”  Ms. Rivecca helps us understand the dilemma by offering two perspectives, allowing the reader to reach their own conclusions.

What Should We Steal?

  • Introduce big-stakes tension immediately.  We don’t need to know EVERYTHING in the first few pages or minutes of the story, but the reader does need a hook on which to hang their attention.
  • Examine your characters through the lenses of your other characters.  The juxtaposition of characters transforms the story’s final image from one in which two women comfort each other to a mother/daughter embrace.

What Can We Steal From Kayleigh Goldsworthy’s “Where the Summer Goes”?

Title of Work and its Form: “Where the Summer Goes,” song
Author: Lyrics and Music by Kayleigh Goldsworthy (on Twitter @kayleighgolds)
Date of Work: 2013
Where the Work Can Be Found:  I am old and don’t do iTunes, but I think you can buy Ms. Goldsworthy’s album Burrower here.  (The song is on the album.)  You can also buy the single of “Where the Summer Goes” here.  You know what?  It’s probably just easier if you go to see one of Ms. Goldsworthy’s gigs and buy the album from her.  The artist was kind enough to put this song on YouTube, as well.  Listen and enjoy:

Bonuses: It’s well within your interest to check out Ms. Goldsworthy’s YouTube page.  You will find a nine-part documentary series about the artist’s life and the recording of Burrower.

Here is a video in which Ms. Goldsworthy performs her song “I Want You Around” (and don’t worry, the sound quality is great):

One of the great joys of being a fan of music is hearing different artists sing some of the same great songs.  Here is a very chill cover of Loretta Lynn’s “You Ain’t Woman Enough”:

Element of Craft We’re Stealing: Tone

Discussion:
This essay will be a lot of fun, friends!  Not only do I get to celebrate, analyze and share great music, but I get to write about one of my personal favorite musicians!

Several years ago, I was driving on 690 in Syracuse, heading home from my copywriting job, wondering if I’d ever achieve all of my goals in writing and in life.  (I’m still a work in progress.)  I flipped through the radio stations and found the FM signal of my old high school.  I heard a really cool song with a solid structure, great harmonies and a circuitous melody that was somehow also simple and graceful. The song was over far too quickly.  I hoped the DJ would announce the artist and song title–no dice.

Who wrote the song and how could I hear it again?  In those olden days, you had to use Google to figure these things out.  I repeated the lyric over and over, hoping it would stick in my Swiss cheese memory: I can’t sleep tonight and I won’t dream again, And I’m waiting for you to stop acting like them… I can’t sleep tonight and I won’t dream again, And I’m waiting for you to stop acting like them…

I popped a few of the phrases into Google, expecting to see results filled with those terrible lyrics sites.

But I saw nothing.

Identifying the song took several minutes of searching because the awesome song that affected me deeply was from a local band!  And it turned out they went to school with my younger brother!  There’s talent all around, friends, and it’s up to all of us to be good literary citizens.  I saw The Scarlet Ending play a bunch of times and bought their albums and even wrote about them for the Syracuse New Times. The band was fronted by sisters Kayleigh and Kaleena Goldsworthy and were notable for their excellent musicianship and great songwriting.  TSE even performed through the USO, playing music for military servicemembers across the globe.

The band is currently on hiatus, but it’s well worth getting their albums or checking them out on YouTube.  Here’s a beautiful performance of their awesome song “Cities by the Ocean”:

After that celebration of the past, let’s celebrate the present and future.

Kayleigh Goldsworthy’s “Where the Summer Goes” is a song that draws inspiration from and builds upon the tradition of American country and folk music.  You can hear the acoustic guitar blending with the banjo, some simple percussion and the persistent, close harmony; a setup that certainly isn’t out of place at any point in American history.  This is music that offers comfort, whether played on a front porch or in the dive bar where you drown your sorrows. Compare the instrumentation and tone to that of some old-timey bluegrass music:

“Where the Summer Goes,” like so much American folk and country music, has an upbeat and hopeful tone that softens the sadness of the narrator’s situation.  She (or he, who knows?) laments the departure of an unfaithful lover (or at least one who won’t commit).  The narrator reaffirms her love for the man, but tells him that she will seek a better and more fulfilling partner.

What can Ms. Goldsworthy teach us?  Quite a bit, actually.  I wish that I could tell you all kinds of advanced music theory stuff we should steal from the song (sorry, Ms. Jacobe), but writers of poetry and prose would do well to steal the way Ms. Goldworthy has made her sad song happy.  As I’ve said before, the reader should have an emotional impact as a result of the characters and situation you construct.  You can’t expect a reader to be sad just because you are.  No, you have to tease those feelings out…you have to earn them.

Here’s an example of a songwriter who put zero scrim between his own feelings and those he wished to express in the song:

We’re laughing at Adam Sandler’s character when he sings the song.  The character, on the other hand, wants us to feel the same sadness and loss that he feels.  “Where the Summer Goes” actually provides catharsis (a purging of negative emotions) for the listener because the sadness is delivered by a narrator (and performer) who is inviting the audience on a mutual journey, not just shouting “BE SAD FOR ME” for three minutes.

I’m fairly sure that Patsy Cline never said “fucking” on one of her albums.  Where does the word “fucking” appear?  Hey…this means I get a chance to break down the structure of the song.  Whoo hoo!

Lyric Notes
INTRODUCTION Instrumental, banjo line establishes this is a bluegrassy tune.
VERSE 1 “Riding by the river…”
VERSE 2 “So these days I stay awake…”
CHORUS “Two rights; well, they’ll never make a wrong…”
VERSE 3 “Still I’m waiting every day…”
CHORUS “’Cause two rights…”
VOCAL SOLO “Oooooo…” Ms. Goldsworthy sings a new melody over the same chords she used for the chorus; this prevents a little repetition and shows off her voice
VERSE 4 “You say you’d rather be alone…” The accompaniment gets far softer, adding dynamic contrast to the song.  As Ms. Goldsworthy sings “it’s your fucking loss,” everything goes back to forte to pound the sentiment home.
CHORUS “’Cause two rights…”

The songwriter put the word “fucking” in the fourth verse.  Now doesn’t that make sense?  Think of it this way: remind yourself of an ex who really mistreated you and hurt your feelings.  You’re not too angry right now.  Let those memories percolate for a few minutes.  Oh yeah, she broke up with you and then wore a rainbow miniskirt to show everyone else the legs you never got to see.  That’s right; he told you that he tucked your sister into bed, but failed to mention that he was in the bed with her.  See?  Now you’re angry.  Now you’re apt to use, as George Carlin put it, “heavy” words.  The judicious use of the “naughty” words may turn off some listeners, but that’s their problem.  The word “fucking” in this song is a magic incantation that undoes the narrator’s emotional dependence on the bad guy.  We hear the chorus for the third time and the narrator finally believes it and has finally broken the spell.

As I said, one thing I love about Ms. Goldsworthy’s songwriting is the way she can create melodies that are both languorous and exciting at the same time.  Upon first listen, you’re not really sure where the line is going…but when it’s over, the line seems perfect and natural.  Unfortunately, I can’t write much about the musical aspect of the music, but I can unpack the structure of the lyric.  Check out the first verse as posted by Ms. Goldsworthy:

Riding by the river, I don’t know where the summer goes
Or why you stayed the night and then you left me all alone
Still, I couldn’t stay away even though you wouldn’t change
Up your mind or your story in the morning

So these days I stay awake through the twilight every day
Take another hit of something just to ease the pain away
But I couldn’t bear to breathe in the dust from when you leave
so I cried and told my heart to just keep beating

Uh oh.  I want to get under the hood of the meter Ms. Goldsworthy uses in the verse.  Let’s look at another table:

LYRIC

METER

Riding by the river, don’t know where the summer goes trochaic septameter
Or why you stayed the night and then you left me all alone trochaic septameter
Still, I couldn’t stay away (ignore “still) two iambs
even pyrrhus
though you wouldn’t change two trochees
Up your mind or your story in the morning iambic pentameter

Maybe all of the songwriter’s verses fit together so beautifully because she’s always changing the rhythm of the lines.  Perhaps the freshness and novelty is what I admired in that song so many years ago.  I love that she alternates between trochees (STRESSED/unstressed) and iambs (unstressed/STRESSED).  You’ll also notice that the song comes together very well because of the complicated rhyme scheme; there’s end rhyme and internal rhyme and the lines of each verse end in “-ing.”  (Not technically a rhyme, but doing so makes the song come together in a satisfying fashion.)

What Should We Steal?

  • Adjust your tone so as not to ENFORCE an emotional state on your reader.  Show your reader what they need in order to feel what you want them to feel, don’t just tell them how they should respond to your work.
  • Build up to the big emotions, the big actions and the “heavy” words.  “Naughty” words are like spice in a pot of chili.  They can make a work more powerful and delicious or they can just burn your mouth.
  • Switch up your sentences, rhythms and meter to keep your audience listening and guessing.  Your reader wants to wonder, but he or she also wants to know that you have a plan in mind once the meandering is done.

GWS Coffee Break: Great Literature and the Film School Thesis Statement Generator

Friends, I think it’s safe to say that we all have two goals with respect to our writing: to entertain and enlighten.  Whether we’re writing Jack & Jill 2: Twin Killing for Adam Sandler or a piece we hope ends up in Best American, stories and poems and screenplays are borne of our greatest hopes and fears.  There’s a message inside us that we simply must communicate.

The reader, of course, is free to decide what he or she thinks you are trying to say.  Sometimes it can be difficult to figure out the deeper meaning behind the work we enjoy…that’s where the Film School Thesis Statement Generator comes in.  Mike Lacher, creator of the hilarious Geocitiesizer, is here to help. Simply pop a film title into the machine and BAM!  You have the big claim you’re looking for.  See?

film school 1
Hmmm…this makes sense. The Spice Girls were fueled by “girl power” and many of their songs featured narrators who challenged traditional gender roles with regard to romantic encounters.
film school 2
Well, the character’s name is “Tony Stark.” There are stark differences between current and traditional concepts of race and a jump cut is a stark transition.
film school 10
In Bonasera’s funeral home, Don Vito examines Sonny’s body and laments, “Look how they massacred my boy.” See? It’s all about the LOOK.
film school 11
“Pre-Oedipal guilt” is certainly one explanation for that movie.
film school 3
I’m certainly not going to argue against the fact that Adam Sandler movies launch salvos in your face.
film school 4
I think that Columbine must have been on James Cameron’s mind a lot during that lengthy shoot.

This Thesis Statement Generator isn’t just for films!  Look what happens when you experiment:

film school 5

film school 7

film school 8

film school 9

Check out the Film School Thesis Statement Generator for yourself!  Why not leave the results in the comments?

What Can We Steal From Brendan Mathews’s “My Last Attempt to Explain to You What Happened with the Lion Tamer”?

Title of Work and its Form: “My Last Attempt to Explain to You What Happened with the Lion Tamer,” short story
Author: Brendan Mathews
Date of Work: 2013
Where the Work Can Be Found: The story made its debut in the Summer 2009 issue of The Cincinnati Review.  The piece was subsequently selected for Best American Short Stories 2010 by Heidi Pitlor and Richard Russo.

Bonus: Here is a writing lesson Mr. Mathews published on the Ploughshares blog.  Here is an interview Mr. Mathews gave to PortHere is what Ann Graham thought of the story.

Element of Craft We’re Stealing: Point of View

Discussion:
Mr. Mathews employs an interesting point of view in this story.  The tale is told by a first-person narrator to an interlocutor: a trapeze artist.  He addresses her as “you,” and tries to give his side of the story, explaining why things didn’t end up so well for the man who acts as the lion tamer for the circus that also employs both of you.  The narrator, a clown, is in love (or at least is infatuated) with the trapeze artist.  He begins his explanation at the beginning.  He was attracted to her because of her skill under the big top and, yes, her beautiful face and body.  Alas, the lion tamer won her affections and the clown responds by turning his routine into a dumb show intended to mock the lion tamer.  As is the case with all love stories, there are unanticipated twists and turns, and no one ends up happy.  (Sorry…I’m a pessimist at heart.)

First, I’m going to point out that Mr. Mathews borrowed from Hamlet, whether he knew it or not.  The narrator’s jealousy leads him to strike back in a manner unique to his situation.  He plans to perform a parody of the lion tamer’s underwhelming act using Scottie terriers instead of giant cats.  The narrator expects the audience to release great peals of laughter as they mock his romantic rival.  Now, it doesn’t work out that way in the story, but Mr. Mathews gets a great deal of mileage out of describing the image.  We’ve all resented those who stand in the way of the man or woman we love (or think we love), and wouldn’t it be great to enlist a couple thousand people in your campaign to make the rival feel terrible about themselves?

How did Mr. Mathews borrow from Hamlet?  Well, Hamlet makes the same kind of plan.  The traveling players follow the prince’s script, acting out the way in which Claudius killed Hamlet, Sr.  This dumb show is the confirmation Hamlet needs; when Claudius reacts, Hamlet knows his father’s ghost was right and that he must get going with the whole revenge thing…in two more acts.  So what should we steal from Mr. Mathews?  (In addition to borrowing from the Bard?)  I love that the author creates such a powerful image in the reader’s mind and then subverts it.  The powerful visual in the short story drives the plot, just as the dumb show propels the narrative in Hamlet.

The point of view that Mr. Mathews chose makes a big difference in the story.  I love that the clown is telling the story to the trapeze artist.  Why?  Because he loves her.  People are (usually) more likely to be honest with someone they love.  Further, these are some very raw emotions.  He knows that she doesn’t love him back, but still has some hope that she will begin to see something special in him.  He doesn’t want her to hate him because of what happened.

The point of view is possibly most powerful just before the climax of the story.  If you’re a longtime reader of GWS, you may already know where I’m going with this.  There’s a gut-punch moment when the clown makes the mistake of telling the object of his affection how he feels:

“Say something funny,” you said, your eyes like jewels in the lamplight.

“I love you” tumbled out of me, the words pushing their way into the open like clowns from a car.

“That’s not funny,” you said, and your eyes snapped shut like I had slapped you.

And you were right.  It wasn’t funny–it was hilarious.  Coming from me, it was absolutely ridiculous.

As time crawled from one second to the next, your head ticked from side to side and a slow-motion no, and I could feel the pressure of all the things I’d left unsaid mounting in my head.  If I had been a cartoon, steam would have shot from my ears.

The clown is going to describe this moment differently depending on who is listening to him.  How would things be different if he were talking to a group of men?  Well, he might tell the story in such a manner that he comes off as less emotionally vulnerable.  What if he’s telling his possible future children how he felt about the trapeze artist?  He might take on a more didactic tone.  Alas, the clown is talking to a woman he loves who will never love him back, a woman he unintentionally hurt.  Is there any better way to attack this particular story?

What Should We Steal?

  • Allow your powerful visuals to drive the narrative.  Making your reader chuckle or sigh with a powerful visual concept is great.  A far harder and more powerful trick is to make that concept drive the plot, as well.
  • Enhance your first person narrator’s honesty (or dishonesty) by unspooling the story to the appropriate interlocutor.  I don’t think I’m alone in saying that I’m going to be much more honest when telling the story to a friend than the waitress who asked why I was getting breakfast at three in the morning on Christmas Eve while wearing the Elton John Donald Duck suit.