Title of Work and its Form: “Lawrence Welk is Dead,” creative nonfiction Author: Georgia Kreiger Date of Work: 2012 Where the Work Can Be Found: The piece first appeared in May 2012’s Issue 20 of Front Porch, a cool journal out of Texas State University’s MFA program. You can read Ms. Kreiger’s work here.
Element of Craft We’re Stealing: Narrative Structure
Ms. Kreiger’s piece centers upon a phone call she shared with her elderly mother. (Perhaps the call in question is a composite of many; who knows?) The mother/daughter relationship is not exactly the strongest between the two. Ms. Kreiger accepts that she is a “bad daughter,” but she’s not wholly to blame. Years of conflict have soured her on “the mother who could never be satisfied, the mother whose demands packed a punch.” Ms. Kreiger’s mother is watching Lawrence Welk and even this choice becomes a source of conflict between the two. Mom dislikes contemporary music and culture; daughter needs something a little zippier in a television program than the champagne orchestra. Climax: Ms. Kreiger realizes that her mother doesn’t quite realize that the program she’s watching is a rerun and that Welk has been dead for several years. (He died in 1992, in case you’re curious.) Ms. Kreiger laments her mother’s continued mental deterioration and guesses she will someday share the condition. At some point, her unpleasant real memories of her mother will be replaced by a pleasant fantasy in which her mother and Lawrence Welk “waltz lightly across a dance floor gazing lightheartedly into each other’s eyes in a world unreachable by cynics.”
So, “Lawrence Welk is Dead” is not a very long piece at all. As a result, Ms. Kreiger must address the opportunities and risks inherent in composing such a piece. (An obligation, of course, that applies to any writer scribbling out any piece.) What are some of the choices Ms. Kreiger must make because she only has several hundred words at her disposal? Well, she can’t exactly do a lot of scenework and can’t fully describe a vast number of scenes. She just doesn’t have time. The point of the piece must be meaningful and important, but can’t exactly be vast or comprehensive. There’s a reason why Les Miserables takes up hundreds of pages and this piece only takes up a couple.
Ms. Kreiger structured her piece in a shrewd and felicitous manner. There’s really only one scene: she calls her mother, who is watching Lawrence Welk on TV. This compact nugget of narrative allows her to comment on her life and relationships in more abstract kinds of ways. Ms. Kreiger seems to be working on a full-length memoir; I’m betting there are TONS of scenes in her manuscript. There are likely lots of extended dialogue scenes and beautifully written paragraphs about places and objects that have had a critical effect upon the woman she has become. This amuse-bouche, however, can’t be as complicated or as comprehensive as a ten-course meal.
Let’s take a look at the general outline of the piece. Ms. Kreiger employs a common and appropriate structure. In the first sentence, she tells us that she’s calling her mother on the phone and we’re guessing the title has something to do with the “news” she mentions. Then there’s a recap of the standard conversations they have: lamentations about rising gas prices, discussions about the new clergyman at the church. With the ordinary stuff out of the way, Ms. Kreiger gets into the talk about Lawrence Welk and the generational differences between the two. This is the conflict in the piece and it builds until Ms. Kreiger points out that her mother has forgotten that Welk died a while ago. She mentioned the memory loss before, but seeing it in the dramatic present allows her to finish the piece with a two-paragraph fantasy that allows her to pull back and offer a wider look at her life and her perspective. Think about the end of a movie. Having overcome the star-crossed beginning of their love affair, the protagonists are in a hot air balloon and are throwing money into Central Park. Ms. Kreiger employs what I call a “crane shot conclusion.” Here’s what it looks like in a movie:
The protagonist of the film seems to get smaller from the reader/viewer’s perspective. More importantly, the main character, with whom we’ve empathized for ninety minutes, seems to melt away into the rest of society. Everyone in the world has their own concerns and needs, right? Ms. Kreiger’s “fantasy” about her mother dancing with Lawrence Welk leads us by the hand from the specific narrative and into a greater truth. See? Simple and classic, but effective.
What Should We Steal?
Restrain yourself from trying to cram massive and complicated scenes into brief pieces–and try not to devote tons of pages to simple scenes. Don’t be the person at the party who takes half an hour to tell the story of how they bought a non-fat latte and received a latte made with 1%.
End your piece with a “crane shot conclusion” when appropriate. You’ve told us about one specific situation involving specific human beings…maybe you should wrap things up by departing from strict realism and a strict focus on those human beings.
Title of Work and its Form: “Referential,” short story Author: Lorrie Moore Date of Work: 2012 Where the Work Can Be Found: The story debuted in the May 28, 2012 issue of The New Yorker. Elizabeth Strout and Heidi Pitlor selected the story to appear in Best American Short Stories 2013.
Bonuses: Here is an interview Ms. Moore did with The Paris Review. Here‘s a brief New Yorker interview in which Ms. Moore discusses “Referential.” Here is what Karen Carlson thought about the story. Here is another interesting discussion about the piece.
Element of Craft We’re Stealing: Inspiration
The female protagonist is a widower whose sixteen-year-old son has some mental health problems. He cuts himself and has been institutionalized. Her boyfriend Pete has been around for a decade, but he’s now as far away from the narrator as the son is. She and Pete visit the son, whose problems only seem worse when added to customary teenage rebellion. During a quiet scene in her home, she and Pete talk around their problems until she fibs: “Someone is phoning here from your apartment.” Pete hightails it, confirming that his affection is alienated. The story ends with another phone call; “she” answers the phone, but no one answers her.
This might be a fairly short story because of its genesis. Ms. Moore borrowed some of the tone and ideas from Vladimir Nabokov’s “Signs and Symbols.” Both pieces are brief and both deal with a couple whose relationship is under stress and with mental illness. Mr. Nabokov and Ms. Moore both end their stories with ringing phones. Ms. Moore certainly didn’t “steal” in an improper manner, of course. She simply thought of “Signs and Symbols” and allowed her muse to dictate a new story while Mr. Nabokov’s work was rattling around in her head.
When Henry Ford built his first cars, he had the automobiles of others in mind as he scribbled down designs. The makers of the first automobiles thought about horse-drawn carriages. The makers of horse-drawn carriages thought about more primitive wheeled vehicles. The point is that we’re all influence by those who came before us. Why follow Ms. Moore’s example with a public domain story that may have slipped out of regular readership?
I love the 1001 Nights. (You should, too.) These stories are very much in the public domain; what would happen if you adapt one of the tales into a modern setting? What does your muse say about the very different ways in which contemporary people solve their romantic problems?
You probably know who Vladimir Nabokov was. What about the writers whose work is no longer given a great deal of critical attention. Read the stories and poems in an ancient issue of The Atlantic Monthly and see what you come up with. If nothing else, you’ll likely be the only person in the world who has interacted with T.R. Sullivan’s “The Whirligig of Fortune.” And check it out! Sullivan stole his ending from one of our favorite writers! (Do you know which one?)
Ms. Moore has a LOT of exposition that she needs to dump in the first couple pages of the story. If we don’t understand the protagonist’s relationship with Pete, we won’t care about the end of the story. If we don’t understand the struggles she has had with her son, we won’t feel the full weight of her situation. What are some of the techniques Ms. Moore employs?
A provocative first sentence:
For the third time in three years,
Uh oh…that’s a problem unless we’re talking about winning the lottery.
Okay, there are multiple characters in this undesirable situation.
talked about what would be a suitable birthday present
The characters must be fairly close; how often have you asked a cabbie what kind of present you should get your significant other?
Okay, exclusion by pronoun. I’ll point out more about this in a moment.
Aaaaand there we go. The son has some kind of serious mental health problem.
Efficient use of pronouns. Ms. Moore indicates the boy’s parentage with the simple use of an unlikely pronoun. It’s “her” deranged son, not “theirs.” A lesser writer (such as myself) may have wasted a whole sentence on this bit of exposition.
Condensing the basics into description. We need to know how old the kid is. An eighteen-year-old in a mental institution carries far different connotations from a five-year-old in the same place. We also want to know how long Pete (the “not the father”) has been around. In the second paragraph, Ms. Moore gives us all of this information in one sentence.
A pushy narrator. Instead of beating around the bush, Ms. Moore simply has her narrator tell you why Pete hasn’t committed to the protagonist:
(He did not blame her son – or did he?)
Employing these and other techniques is particularly important when you’re writing a story as short as “Referential.” Very short stories are harder to write because EVERY LITTLE ELEMENT MUST BE PERFECT. On the other hand, this efficiency makes the story that much more beautiful.
What Should We Steal?
Make a conscious effort to gain inspiration from a classic or forgotten work. Reach outside your comfort zone or familiar bookshelves for new literary soil to till.
Condense your exposition bombs in as many ways as you can manage. We want to spend more time watching your characters interact and less time learning the basics about them.
Title of Work and its Form: “Sugarcane,” short story Author:Derek Palacio Date of Work: 2012 Where the Work Can Be Found: The story debuted in the Spring 2012 issue of The Kenyon Review, one of the top journals around. The excellent story was subsequently chosen for the 2013 edition of The O. Henry Prize anthology.
Bonuses: Mr. Palacio has also published a novella called How to Shake the Other Man. You can learn more about it and purchase a copy at the Nouvella Books web site. Here is a “Sugarcane”-centric interview Mr. Palacio did with the Kenyon Review.
Element of Craft We’re Stealing: Scene Construction
What a fantastic story! Armando is a doctor in Cuba who takes on the son of a prominent sugar plantation manager. Eduardo, unfortunately, “was thick in the hands, and recently he’d proven himself thick in the ears.” The boy doesn’t seem to be good doctor material, no matter how hard Armando tries to teach him anatomy or bedside manner. There is, however, one big benefit to taking Eduardo under his wing: the sugar. Instead of receiving only his cup-a-week ration, Armando has pounds of beautiful sugar left on his doorstep. The relationship between master and apprentice isn’t very smooth. Armando gives his patients placebos when necessary and lies to them when he knows it will make them healthier. In a relentless scene, Armando delivers a baby at risk of perinatal asphyxia while Eduardo interferes. (The boy shocked by the amount of blood involved and offended that Armando screams at the mother to inspire her to push.) Armando doesn’t want the arrangement to end–nor does he want the surreptitious sugar deliveries to end; after all, his ladyfriend Mercedes likes the sweetness she finds in his home. (Both literally and figuratively.) What will happen when the sugar cane fire burns out of control? Read the story and find out.
Mr. Palacio does an awful lot of great stuff in this story. I think one of the things I admire most is the way that he flips between different parts of the protagonist’s life. Mr. Palacio makes Armando into a full and interesting character by alternating between scenes that relate to the doctor’s professional and private lives. A lesser writer (like me!) might have focused only on Armando’s mentorship of Eduardo. After all, that’s the central conflict in the story. Instead, Mr. Palacio devotes page space to scenes that are complicated by Eduardo, even though the young man is nowhere to be found. Armando’s courtship of Mercedes is fast-tracked by the extra sugar he receives and the lovers discuss him during their time together.
Every scene in a work must contribute to the overall narrative in some way. Armando’s love affair fills him out as a character, but also buffets and explains the decision that the good doctor makes at the end of the story. Mr. Palacio ensures that his “tangent” serves some important functions in his story.
Let’s look at that breathless scene in which Armando delivers the baby. There’s an awful lot going on here. Why is this section so cool?
There’s a baby and a pregnant woman involved. We all bring sympathy to situations involving babies and pregnant women. (Except for Ted Bundy, I suppose.) The scene would not have been as captivating if Armando were removing a heavy callus from some dude’s foot.
The power differential between the two characters. Armando is the doctor and knows what he’s doing. Eduardo is the apprentice and knows nothing, but still involves himself in the procedure. The same kind of tension can be felt when you’re on the highway in a blizzard and there’s a backseat driver in the car.
The sentences become short and descriptive. Mr. Palacio dazzles you with some beautiful prose elsewhere in the story, but this suspenseful scene requires a different kind of writing. Although the ideas and emotions are complicated, the prose is not: “The woman tensed again, and Armando looked down to her crotch. The head was beginning to crown. The purple was turning blue.”
A lot of the sentences in the narration begin with their subjects. “The woman…” “Armando squeezed…” “Armando reached…” “Eduardo dropped…” The simple and repetitive structure allows the reader to subconsciously focus on the drama of the situation instead of parsing the prose.
There’s a beginning, middle and end to that specific scene–as well as a natural termination point. The reader knows going in that the scene will end with the birth of the baby and that the child will either be dead or alive. The delivery of the child follows a solid Freytag’s Pyramid…it starts out fairly calm and builds in intensity and ends with the denouement: mother and child are tired and bloody, but both are alive.
The word “scalpel” appears in the same sentence as “perineum.” I’m not a big fan of needles or sharp things.
I’m sure I’m the only person in the world who had this thought about Mr. Palacio’s story: I was reminded of the fantastic Alexander Payne film Sideways (based upon the equally fantastic book by Rex Pickett). In the film, wine is not just a liquid to drink that might increase your happiness or deepen your sadness. Paul Giamatti’s Miles, a failed writer, works wine into the metaphors that rule his life. He’s the pinot grape, capable of beautiful maturity, but only if the right person tends to him and loves him enough. The saddest use of wine-as-metaphor is when Miles, a man who spent the whole movie frustrated when others would not ENJOY wine, guzzles the expensive bottle he was saving for the never-to-be tenth anniversary of his wedding. Instead of swishing small sips of wine around in his mouth to enjoy the mature flavors, he just sits in a booth at a crummy burger joint and gulps in between bites.
“Sugarcane” treats sugar as something that is much more than just a sweet powder. Mr. Palacio works sugar into the relationships between the characters, including the love affair between Armando and Mercedes:
With a spoon she heaped little hills of brown crystal into the liquor until the rum nearly met the rim. She carefully stirred it and then gingerly pulled a soaked mound of sugar out of the glass. It dripped onto the kitchen table, and Mercedes held it up to Armando’s mouth.
Sugar is a sensual connection between people. It’s a thank-you from father to teacher. It’s the method by which a boy earns his way to medical school. It’s a metaphor for the deprivation Cubans experienced under Castro. Mr. Palacio, like Mr. Payne, Mr. Taylor and Mr. Pickett, never allows their central commodities to rule the story. “Sugarcane” is very much about Armando and Eduardo, but Mr. Palacio gracefully describes the meaning of sugarcane in and to their lives.
What Should We Steal?
Illuminate all dimensions of your characters. Yes, the most interesting thing your protagonist does is the bank robbery. But why not show us a little bit of his or her home life to help us understand what leads them to slip the teller a note?
Recognize the scenes of extreme suspense in your work and write them accordingly. Hitchcock changes technique a little bit in the Psycho shower scene. Hugo’s narrator changes a little bit as Fantine dies. We should flex different muscles when our stories require such a change.
Explore the deeper meanings of your story’s central conceit. A story about the son of a sugar plantation manager explores sugar from a number of different angles. A film about wine explores the beauty and sadness of the grape and what the grapes can become.
Title of Work and its Form:Jason Grilli‘s 2007 Topps #61, baseball card Author:Topps Date of Work: 2007 Where the Work Can Be Found: You likely have a baseball/sports card shop in your area. Why not pay them a visit? They will likely have this base card. If you don’t know where you can find your local card shop, look it up here. You can also purchase cards on the Internet, of course. Check Out My Cards/Collectibles is pretty cool. (And they furnished the card images you’ll see in the essay.) I also love Sportlots.com; you can get a lot of base cards for a very reasonable price. Ooh, and don’t forget to visit The Bench. It’s hands-down the best baseball card trading site on the Internet. I’ve met a TON of really cool people there.
Bonuses: Mr. Grilli was on the cover ofSports Illustrated in July 2013! Here is an article about how he and the rest of the Pirates bullpen anchored that team’s great season. Here is Mr. Grilli’s home page. You can also follow him on Twitter. Here are Mr. Grilli’s career stats. In October 2013, Mr. Grilli went onstage with Pearl Jam during a Pittsburgh concert and did, well, everything we would do in the same situation. Check out the Sports Cards Blogroll for some very good writing about the hobby and about sports. A couple of my favorite card blogs are Baseball by the Lettersand The Greatest 21 Days. The former blog follows the authors experience in writing letters to ballplayers. The latter goes card-by-card through a classic minor league set to see what happened to the players during and after their baseball careers.
Element of Craft We’re Stealing: Characterization
Let me guess. You don’t have a 2007 Topps Jason Grilli sitting on your desk. Thanks to Check Out My Cards, this isn’t a problem:
So, some readers may wonder what the heck writers can learn from a baseball card. Sure, there are some words on it, but is a baseball card a work of literature? I would contend that a baseball card performs many, if not all, of the functions of literature. (One of my long-term goals/dreams, in fact, is to write at least one real baseball card. I need to figure out how to make that happen! Black magic? Some kind of Manchurian Candidate deal?)
A baseball card is an attempt to represent a player’s identity. The kind folks at Topps or Upper Deck or Panini or Score or Donruss or Fleer consider what they want the reader to think about the man. Some of the exposition we get is pretty shallow. We learn Mr. Grilli’s birthdate and which arm he uses to throw and where he was born and where he lives. (It just so happens that Mr. Grilli was born near my place of birth and grew up in the same town as I did. More on that later.)
The folks at the card companies very seldom tell the complete stories of the players. Why? First of all, the cards are too small to fit an utterly comprehensive biography. Further, the companies want to maintain a positive tone. This is why you really don’t see the steroids scandal mentioned on any cards and you certainly don’t read anything about the crimes that various players have committed. (Ty Cobb, for example, once beat up a handicapped spectator who had no hands.)
Topps, however, gives the reader the opportunity to figure out some of the true story for themselves. Look at the statistics Mr. Grilli has accumulated in the major leagues.
Year Age Tm Lg W L W-L% ERA G GS GF CG SHO SV IP H R ER HR BB IBB SO HBP BK WP BF ERA+ WHIP H/9 HR/9 BB/9 SO/9 SO/BB Awards
2000 23 FLA NL 1 0 1.000 5.40 1 1 0 0 0 0 6.2 11 4 4 0 2 0 3 2 0 0 35 86 1.950 14.9 0.0 2.7 4.1 1.50
2001 24 FLA NL 2 2 .500 6.08 6 5 1 0 0 0 26.2 30 18 18 6 11 0 17 2 0 0 115 71 1.538 10.1 2.0 3.7 5.7 1.55
If you understand what the numbers mean, they tell a story and add detail to the “characterization” of Mr. Grilli. He made his debut in 2000, only a few years after graduating from college (and my high school). That’s good! I remember being proud of him when he won that game. Mr. Grilli pitched in six games the next year. That’s not necessarily bad…it was only his Age 24 year. Then he was out of the majors for a couple years. How would any of us feel in his situation. He must have been confident, but still worried he wouldn’t be able to get back to the majors. Then he did get back to the show in 2004. Now look at the number of games in which he pitched in Detroit. That’s a lot! The team was emerging from the doldrums (thank goodness) and Mr. Grilli was a reliable reliever for them. After a stop in Colorado and Texas…he was out of the majors for the 2010 season. Again–doubt. (The card doesn’t say so, but that’s when Mr. Grilli suffered an unpleasant knee injury.) Pittsburgh time. Mr. Grilli puts up sub-3.00 ERAs each year. Look at those save totals! In his first year as the Pirates’ official closer, Mr. Grilli was responsible for 33 saves. That’s good!
What do we learn about Mr. Grilli from these raw numbers? Well, he must love baseball. Why else would he struggle for so long and fight through so many setbacks? Lefty relievers have a little bit easier time finding places on a roster; as a righty, Mr. Grilli must have worked that much harder. Now, I don’t know if Mr. Grilli has multiple homes (and why shouldn’t he), but his 2013 Heritage card says that he still lives in Baldwinsville, New York, a beautiful little village just outside of Syracuse:
How does all of this apply to writers? Well, I’ve demonstrated how baseball cards are very good at condensing a LOT of information about a person into a very small space. Even if your characters don’t have “statistics,” think of ways to provide bread crumbs of information that reinforce the identity you’re crafting for them. Favorite foods. Number of years on the job. Number of marriages. Number of colleges they attended before finally finishing. Number of boyfriends or girlfriends over the years. Highest number of simultaneous boyfriends or girlfriends.
Now let’s take a look at the prose on the 2007 Topps. Like I said, I always kept tabs on Mr. Grilli’s career because he was a great pitcher…I loved pitching (until I stopped playing at nine or so). His father is Steve Grilli, a man who pitched for the Tigers in the 1970s…I love the Tigers. Jason Grilli went to my high school…I hoped to be a success, too. (I’m still hoping.) Jason Grilli is having the best years of his career and has become a star, even though he’s on the wrong side of 30…I’m a writer, so age isn’t as big a deal…but I’d still like to get something going sooner rather than later.
The prose offers a pretty obvious lesson. Being such an important part of that great 2006 Tigers team, “helped erase the frustration of years of elbow problems.” Writers and pitchers are quite different, but we all need to emulate Mr. Grilli’s routines. He works out all the time and has a throwing regimen crafted to keep him in shape during the offseason and to keep him fresh at the end of the year. He must watch game footage and study batters to try and understand their weaknesses. During some of Mr. Grilli’s struggles, it must have seemed like the majors were far away, let alone the postseason. (He has a 0.00 ERA in 6.1 total innings.) Like him, we just need to plug away every day so we can be in the right position when we run into a little bit of luck. Mr. Grilli was picked up by the Tigers and the Pirates as those teams were getting better and he was able to contribute because of his regimen.
Now let’s look at the sentences. You’ll notice that they’re all pretty simple. Why might this be the case? Well, this is a baseball card and is intended for an audience of adults (who have money) and of children (who tell their parents how to spend money). Although some sets feature prose that is intended for children, the Topps flagship sets are written for a mixed audience.
Look at the last sentence: “The converted starter limited first-batters-faced to a .170 batting average.” A pronoun would have been just fine in this situation, but the person who wrote the card used a more specific term than “he.” Instead, “he” was described as “the converted starter.” Not only did the writer avoid using another pronoun, but he or she was able to pack more characterization into the small space allotted by the medium. The reader learns from this switch that Mr. Grilli was a starter and is now a reliever. (And that he was really good against the first batters he stared down in each game.)
What Should We Steal?
Offer your reader powerful characterization in the form of “statistics.” What are some small details about your character that are especially potent?
Maintain your daily regimen and keep writing until something good happens. You can’t manufacture “luck.” All you can do is make sure that you have a really cool manuscript ready to go when you happen to sit next to an editor on an airplane.
Title of Work and its Form: “Miss Lora,” short story Author:Junot Diaz Date of Work: 2012 Where the Work Can Be Found: The story debuted in the April 23, 2012 issue of The New Yorker. As of this writing, the story is available for free on the New Yorker web site. You will also find the story in his collection This is How You Lose Her. You will also find the story in the 2013 edition of Best American Short Stories.
Bonuses: Very cool! The Brooklyn Academy of Music commissioned Nathan Gelgud to adapt “Miss Lora” into the form of the graphic novel. You can view it here. Writer and critic Charles May shares some thoughts about “Miss Lora.” You may or may not agree with them, but you should enjoy the discussion. Here are my thoughts about the Junot Diaz story, “Alma.”
Element of Craft We’re Stealing: Exposition
You are a young Dominican man whose brother has recently died. Your girlfriend Paloma is the “only Puerto Rican girl on the earth who wouldn’t give up the ass for any reason.” Why? She doesn’t want to make any “mistakes” that would prevent her from going to college and succeeding in life. That’s why you start sleeping with Miss Lora, a teacher who is so skinny that she “made Iggy Pop look chub.” Miss Lora makes you cheeseburgers and “gets naked like a pro.” Time goes on. Miss Lora gets a better job, you and Paloma go to different colleges. One of your college girlfriends tries to confront Miss Lora for sexually abusing you, but Miss Lora never enters the door. Years later, you try to track Miss Lora down.
Look at what Mr. Diaz does in the first few pages. After establishing that the bulk of the narrative will take place in the past (“Years later,”), Mr. Diaz heaps the pathos onto the reader. The narrator has some kind of interesting sexual affair and his brother is dead and he’s very in love (sexual and otherwise) and his current girlfriend isn’t quite fitting the bill. The first three sections increase in length; Mr. Diaz is doing what I call the “flood and release.” The reader is given some highly emotional content…and then the narrative jumps, providing the reader with time to digest and contextualize the narrator’s unique situation.
At least one of Mr. Diaz’s lines made me stop and consider what he meant. About halfway in, the narrator describes Miss Lora by saying, “She gets naked like a pro.” I could think of at least two meanings for the sentence:
Mr. Diaz could be making use of the “like a pro” idiom.
Mr. Diaz could be referring to people such as prostitutes who do indeed get naked for a living. (I gather that the nudity is a prelude.)
I’m not sure other readers will see ambiguity in the sentence, but the line stuck out to me for whatever reason. I suppose what I’m recommending is that you take a moment to consider something that may not occur to you very much: the literal meaning of idioms. Why do we lightheartedly call a group of judgmental folks a “peanut gallery?” Why have we chosen to point out that congenital complainers are “the squeaky wheels” that “get the grease?” Why does a sale get us “more bang for the buck?” The reader (if fluent in English, of course), absorbs the language as a figure of speech. The real words remain, however. I wonder what linguistics and other really smart people think about this subject. How do the literal and figurative meanings of idioms affect our reading?
Mr. Diaz made a choice in this story that isn’t to my personal taste. I hasten to say that I understand many great writers make this choice…and they’re not necessarily wrong. Mr. Diaz eschews quotation marks in his dialogue. As with any decision, there are costs and benefits. Why do I make the personal choice to use quotation marks? Here are a couple big reasons:
They eliminate confusion as to which sentences are spoken by a character and which are contributed by a narrator. Maybe it’s just me, but I always find ambiguities and spend time trying to figure out which words are which. When I write a story, I want my reader thinking about the characters and situation, not trying to divine what I mean on so basic a level.
They offer a clear distinction between dialogue and non-dialogue scenes. When I see a bunch of quotation marks, I know that the writer is crafting a scene between people instead of offering the narrator free rein.
What Should We Steal?
Imbue your exposition with an ebb and flow. The release of exposition should resemble a pleasant weekend drive. Your foot is sometimes on the gas and sometimes you coast to enjoy the scenery.
Take a moment to consider the literal meaning of idioms. Literal and figurative meanings influence the way we perceive a sentence, don’t they?
Complete a cost/benefit analysis to determine whether or not you want to employ quotation marks. Writing is an artistic pursuit, isn’t it? We should all have some justification for the choices we make.
Title of Work and its Form: “Larissa Shoots the Moon,” short story Author:Teresa Milbrodt (on Twitter @teresa_milbrodt) Date of Work: 2013 Where the Work Can Be Found: “Larissa Shoots the Moon” was first published in Issue 41 of SmokeLong Quarterly, a very cool journal of very short fiction. You can find the story here.
Bonuses: Here is a short story Ms. Milbrodt published in [PANK]. Here is an interview in which Ms. Milbrodt discusses her collection, Bearded Women. Here is a video from Ms. Milbrodt’s YouTube page in which she reads part of another story about Larissa, her outspoken alter ego:
Element of Craft We’re Stealing: Narrative Economy
Seventh-grader Larissa is going to the space museum in Wapakoneta and hopes to meet Neil Armstrong. She also has a crush on a guy named Neil. Unfortunately, Neil gets sick in the bus on the way to the museum. She wants to comfort Neil, but is forced to head into the museum. More disappointment: Neil Armstrong isn’t going to show. The story ends as Larissa compares the journeys of the two Neils. One got sick on a relatively short bus ride and the other was crammed into a capsule smaller than a bus on a trip to the Moon. Larissa is struck by the awe and grandeur of Armstrong’s lunar experience.
Look at Ms. Milbrodt’s first sentence:
In seventh grade my science teacher promised the class we’d go to the space museum in Wapakoneta and meet Neil Armstrong because Armstrong had shared a backyard with our science teacher when he was a little kid and they were still friends.
Phew! Ms. Milbrodt is not messing around! Look at what she establishes in the first sentence:
The first person point of view.
The narrator’s age (seventh grade).
Where the story takes place (somewhere in or near Ohio) and when (at some point after Armstrong took his steps and before the gentleman died).
Hints toward a possible climax (meeting Neil Armstrong).
The sentence may be a little long, but that’s a good thing in this case! The story is so short that Ms. Milbrodt needs to get the exposition out of the way as quickly as possible. This is a piece about a milestone of Larissa’s adolescence, so the author quickly puts the focus on the elements that will allow her to reach that epiphany. In a far longer work, Ms. Milbrodt may have chosen to tell us more about the science teacher or what Larissa thought about Neil, but she only had a few hundred words and had to prioritize. (You’ll also notice that the protagonist’s name itself is released in an efficient manner…it’s in the title!)
I don’t know about you, but my tendency is to do a lot of “scene work” in my stuff. You know, to construct scenes that contain all of the possible elements: dialogue, narration, indication of character movements…all that stuff. If you’ll notice, Ms. Milbrodt doesn’t have a single line of real dialogue in the piece. What is the effect of this choice? Well, it may be harder for the reader to imagine the actual mechanics of the scenes in the piece. On the other hand, the piece benefits greatly because every single bit of the story comes from the protagonist’s perspective. We’re much closer to Larissa because there’s no scrim at all separating her from us.
In the third paragraph of the story, the science teacher “dragged” the kids “away so the bus driver could clean.” Had this bit been cast in a “real” scene, it would have been a drag on the flow of the story:
Mr. Jackson snapped his fingers and pointed to the bus door. “That’s it,” he said. “Out.”
“But Neil doesn’t feel well. Can I take care of him for a while?”
“Sorry,” Mr. Jackson said, leading us out of the bus by the shoulders. “Mr. Allan needs some time to clean up.” The driver passed us as he climbed up the bus stairs, a mop in one hand and a bucket of bleach water in the other.
Even if you write a really cool scene (not that my example was cool), the benefits may not outweigh the costs. Sliding through the narrative in the manner Ms. Milbrodt did also allows you to put emphasis on the most important details and words.
What Should We Steal?
Hit the ground running…and run even faster when you compose short works. The sooner you establish the characters and setting, the sooner you can push toward the climax of your piece.
Allow yourself to write scenes without “scene work.” Scenes should be as lean as possible, particularly in flash fiction.
Bonuses: Ms. Awad is a talented tattoo artist; take a look at some of her work. Here is a poem Ms. Awad published in Rattle. Here is a poem Ms. Awad placed on the Missouri Review web site. Here is an Awad poem that was published in New Republic. (Go ahead; be jealous of Ms. Awad for all of her laurels…I am, too!)
Element of Craft We’re Stealing: Material
Through the course of fourteen sections, Ms. Awad confronts two big narratives:
How she dealt with her parents’ separation and the obligations she felt (and still feels) to both of them.
How she learned the art of tattooing, which she calls, “my inheritance, a trade to keep me afloat should I ever need it.”
The first section begins as Ms. Awad’s mother begins the tattoo lessons and the piece alternates between the parent narrative and the body art lessons. As you might expect, the two threads entwine at points. Ms. Awad tattoos her mother for the first time and is greeted with a less-than-favorable reaction when her father sees the new cedar tree on her forearm. The piece ends with what may be one of Ms. Awad’s most powerful inner truths; getting and receiving tattoos “form patterns. They form maps.” These guideposts lead her to understanding her mother.
Ms. Awad employs a technique that I’m thinking of calling the “flood and release.” Section One of “In the Skin” establishes a TON of pathos. Ms. Awad points out that her mother and father are separated by 445 miles. That there is friction between ex-husband and ex-wife and the protagonist is dealing with the kind of resultant trauma that you might expect. That the parents had been separated for eleven years–since the author was seven. There are lots of balls in the air! Lots of emotion!
Then she “cuts” to the first bit of inside information about tattooing. What’s the effect of such a technique? If you drop a massive bomb in your work and then don’t deal with it for 200 pages, you have a problem. Think about Thanksgiving dinner. If your nephew comes out of the closet as the turkey arrives at the table, most people would be hard-pressed to decide between white meat and dark meat. No matter the reaction to the nephew’s exposition (one of instant love and acceptance, one hopes), a writer mustn’t keep the reader in too much suspense.
Ms. Awad doesn’t keep the reader waiting too long and the effect of the “flood and release” is to allow the reader to contextualize the situation. Ms. Awad also avoids melodrama in this way. We all have boundless empathy for children who have the same problems, so Ms. Awad vents a little bit of steam, reminding the reader that he or she should enjoy the work as a piece of literature.
Creative nonfiction/memoir/personal narratives, whatever you want to call them, are dedicated to finding a way to use the magic of language to communicate something meaningful about ourselves. We’ve all likely endured some kind of trauma, so unless we have suffered some extreme misfortune, our stories may not be compelling on their own. We therefore need to MAKE our individual stories compelling…while telling the truth, of course. Ms. Awad uses her knowledge and experience with tattoos as an entry point to understanding the relationship she had with her parents.
Entry points must be logical, of course. Ms. Awad’s interest in tattoos is a satisfactory complementary issue primarily because her mother’s tattoos meant something to her as a girl and her mother literally taught her the craft. The relationship goes deeper.
Yes, a writer hopes to get under the reader’s skin in a far less literal way than a tattoo artist does. Still, the two crafts are strikingly similar. Writers and artists want to shape you in a meaningful way. They both hope to leave some impression that will last forever. They’re both responding to the human desire to communicate and share their experiences. Is there really that much of a difference between this:
and a cave painting?
We all work with different canvases, but writers and tattoo artists and cave painters alike are bringing themselves in full to their work. How do your non-writing interests shed light on your experiences and choices and the man or woman you’ve become?
What Should We Steal?
Allow the emotion in your piece to ebb and flow. While the emotion and tension in your work should probably build according to Freytag’s Pyramid, you don’t want to reach these peaks like a rocketship soaring into the sky.
Mine your interests and other skills to enhance your creative nonfiction. You’re more than your personal experiences. How, for example, does your love of baseball cards help you tell the story of your turbulent childhood?