What Can We Steal From Aaron Burch’s Backswing?

Title of Work and its Form: Backswing, short story collection
Author: Aaron Burch (on Twitter @Aaron__Burch)
Date of Work: 2014
Where the Work Can Be Found: Backswing can be purchased from Queen’s Ferry Press.  Click here.

Bonuses: Mr. Burch is very much a successful writer in his own right, but he is also notable for what he has done as editor of Hobart: another literary journalHere is a story that Mr. Burch published in Storyglossia.  Why not check out How to Predict the Weather, one of Mr. Burch’s previous books?

Element of Craft We’re Stealing: Mythological Underpinnings

Discussion:
Backswing is a cool collection of stories written by a cool storyteller.  There are fourteen stories in the book and each of them has their own unique charm.  It can sometimes be hard to find a table of contents for story collections, so I have compiled one for you:

Story Title

POV
Scout 1st
The Stain 1st (“we”)
Prestidigitation 3rd
Flesh & Blood 3rd
Fire in the Sky 1st
Sacrifice 3rd
Unzipped 3rd
The Apartment 1st
Fair & Square 2nd
Night Terrors 1st
Church Van 3rd…then 1st (“we”)
The Neighbor 3rd
After the Leaving 1st (“we”)
Train Time

1st

One thing that you’ll notice about Mr. Burch’s work is that he often enjoys referring to and playing with mythology.  “After the Leaving” is a retelling of the Noah’s Ark story and Cain and Abel play a big role in “Sacrifice.”  What does Mr. Burch gain by making explicit use of Christian mythology?

  1. Familiarity – I guess I’d wager that most readers are aware of the basics of these stories.  Whether or not one holds the mythology as an article of faith, they’re still part of the shared cultural experience that unites us.
  2. Solid Narrative Foundations – Mythological stories are often fundamentally solid; if they weren’t, they wouldn’t have remained with us for thousands of years.
  3. Power – Mythology is all about the origins of humanity and what makes us human.  These stories answer some of the biggest questions that we can possibly confront!

More importantly, Mr. Burch creates his own parables.  “Church Van” is an interesting story about a man who is coping with the death of his father.  Densmore deals with the loss in an unexpected and thematically appropriate manner: he buys the titular van, a vehicle that had witnessed some of his best childhood memories.  Sounds normal enough, right?  Well, Densmore begins to eat the van, piece by piece.  The turn is accompanied by a POV shift; the narrator exists first alongside Densmore before moving to present the thoughts of the public witnesses to Densmore’s strange act of self-flagellation.

So if you distill the story to its basic elements, “Church Van” is really just a depiction of the power of repentance, a near-universal concept.  Star Wars is a depiction of the battle between good and evil and the struggle we all have to escape the sins planted in us by our parents.  Harry Potter is a depiction of the battle between good and evil and the struggle we all have to understand our own destinies.  The Lord of the Rings is a depiction of the battle between good and evil and the struggle we all have to control our greed.  Wall Street is a depiction of the battle between good and evil and the struggle we all have to control our own greed.

Gee, it’s almost as if these big stories are all pretty much the same and that you can produce something powerful if you think of your work in terms of mythology.

The stories in Backswing have thematic similarities, but Mr. Burch can’t be accused of telling the same story a dozen times.  Not only does he mix up points of view, but he experiments with a wide range of settings, from the fantastic to the familiar.  Perhaps my favorite story in the collection is “Prestidigitation,” a story that I happened to read when it premiered in Barrelhouse.  The female protagonist of the story performs a magic trick for her boyfriend, creating a temporary alternate reality.  (Isn’t that what magic tricks do?)  Compare that story to “Train Time,” a first-person story in which the narrator is creating his own fantasy around the woman who sits beside him on a train.  Mr. Burch also experiments with form a great deal.

“Flesh & Blood” and “Fire in the Sky” and “Scout” are “normal,” “traditional” stories.  What do I mean by “traditional?”  The characters are fairly “normal.”  They certainly do interesting things in their stories, but there’s nothing “experimental” or “challenging” about stories populated by suburban males who enjoy golfing, pick up skateboarding or attend a bachelor party.  I’m certainly not saying that there’s a negative to setting your stories in situations to which many of your readers can relate.  (We all spend time with friends.  We’ve all been the “new kid” in some way.)  What I’m pointing out is that Mr. Burch complements these narratives with far “stranger” ones.  “The Stain” is odd and cool and doesn’t take place in a world we recognize.  “The Apartment” has a distinct Twilight Zone flavor.

I suppose what I’m urging us all to do is to experiment a little bit.  For example, I so liked the conceit of the Aubrey Hirsch piece I wrote about that I am “experimenting” with a piece in a similar vein.  While I can be frustrated by writing that is ALL experimentation, why shouldn’t we push our boundaries a little in the way that Mr. Burch does.  Some stories deserve to be told in a “normal,” “traditional” way and some require us to challenge the reader a little bit with form.  (Mr. Burch, of course, never leaves the audience behind when he tries something different, and neither should you.)

Here’s an interesting corollary lesson.  “The Stain” and “After the Leaving” are two of the more “experimental” stories in the volume.  Both are written in the first person, but the protagonist is “we.”  “Us.”  One of the reasons that the stories aren’t difficult to hang with is that WE are instantly aligned with the narrator by virtue of being included.

Mr. Burch’s first short story collection deserves a lot of attention because the stories are satisfying and the value of the whole is greater than that of its parts.  Writers would do well to pick up a copy because Mr. Burch’s endless imagination and solid use of craft can help them improve their own work.

What Should We Steal?

  • Create stories shaped by the mythology around you.  Even though we’re thousands of years removed from the classical Greeks, we still feel the same deep emotions and still confront the same existential crises.
  • Become adept with traditional and experimental forms.  Stories are like people.  Some don’t like the traditional flowers for their birthday.  Sometimes, you will meet someone who prefers a copy of Mad Magazine.  (Come to think of it, that’s me.)
  • Offer readers a lifeline by writing in the first person “we.”  Perhaps you have a bit of a crazy story or poem in mind.  Uniting reader and narrator can make things a little clearer.

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