What Can We Steal From David Leavitt’s “The Scruff of the Neck”?

Title of Work and its Form: “The Scruff of the Neck,” short story
Author:  David Leavitt
Date of Work: 2001
Where the Work Can Be Found: The story originally appeared in 2001’s Volume 86 of The Southwest Review, one of those all-time-great journals that will never take any of my work.  (I’ve come to grips with that.)  If you have access to a library, ask your librarian to hook you up with the story through one of their databases.  That’s what librarians do.  That’s what they love.  The story was reprinted in Mr. Leavitt’s collection The Marble Quilt.  Then it was reprinted in Mr. Leavitt’s Collected Stories.  (And what a bargain!)

Bonuses: Here’s an interesting Guardian review of Collected Stories.  (Reviewer Edmund White hypothesizes that “The Scruff of the Neck” may have been influenced by Edith Wharton’s novella, “The Old Maid.”)  Mr. Leavitt composed a poem for Quickmuse; he was given a topic and was limited to 15 minutes of composition time.  Even better, his keystrokes were recorded so you can watch what he did in realtime.  Pretty cool.  Want to see Nath Jones read from Mr. Leavitt’s work?  Sure, you do.

Element of Craft We’re Stealing: Opening Sentences

Discussion:
Rose is an elderly woman who is lucky enough to have a living aunt, Minna, who often asks her for a little help from time to time.  The story begins as Rose enjoys a visit from her sister’s niece, Audrey, a young woman who is interested in building an epidemiology of the family tree.  Before her visit, Audrey asks Rose to dig up birth certificates and any other official documents she can find that will help her writer her thesis.  Rose, of course, obliges her descendant.  Audrey arrives and asks about the family, eventually dropping an implied bombshell.  I don’t want to ruin everything already–Go read the story!  I chose one of Mr. Leavitt’s database-accessible stories for a reason!–but you can rest assured that Rose’s trip to the supermarket to help nonagenarian Minna find her car takes on an added dimension by the end of the story.

Mr. Leavitt introduces the theme of FAMILY in the very first sentence of the story:

Lily’s girl, Audrey, called Rose and asked if she could interview her; she was getting her master’s degree in epidemiology, she said, and for her thesis she wanted to prepare a medical history of the entire family.

The story is about genealogy and its implications; the protagonist’s family tree is made an issue from the very beginning.  We get three generations in one sentence, don’t we?  Rose is the eldest (clearly not the mother), Rose is the second generation and Audrey is the youngest.  What an efficient way to begin the story!

Now, the great Lee K. Abbott offers his students very good advice: the writer does all of the work so the reader can have all of the enjoyment.  Does Mr. Leavitt violate this dictate?  After all, it seems as though he’s forcing you to do a little work by figuring out this family tree.  I would argue that Mr. Leavitt is very much in the clear.  He NEEDS to slip the genealogy into the exposition and it should probably come early.  Mr. Leavitt performs a graceful pirouette by twirling Rose’s relations into the first sentence of the story.  The second sentence is spoken by Audrey during the critical phone call:

“From soup to nuts” was how she put it.  “And since you and Minna are the only ones of the brothers and sisters who are still alive, obviously it’s worth the trip to Florida to talk to you.”

This story is all about Rose decoding her origins and Mr. Leavitt contrives his narrative such that the reader spends the first two sentences aligned with Rose in this pursuit.  The opening of the story immerses us in the narrative and subtly coaxes us into solving the central mystery.  Best of all, we don’t even know that we’re being led along.

And while I’m talking about exposition…

It’s often hard for us to release basic information about our characters, isn’t it?  Well, Mr. Leavitt lucks into a very easy method by which to tell the reader a protagonist’s family tree.  A few pages in, you’ll notice that young Audrey asks for confirmation regarding the names and ages of Rose’s children.  Audrey simply reads off the names and birthdates while Rose interjects a bit of characterizations about each.

Ordinarily, reading this kind of exposition might seem a bit tedious, but Mr. Leavitt folds it nicely into the flow of the narrative.  (I also love that Mr. Leavitt devotes so much attention to hammering the ages of the characters home.  It might otherwise be difficult to really feel that Rose is “old,” but Minna is much older still.)

This section of the story is also notable because Mr. Leavitt largely abandons dialogue tags and description.  Why is this okay?  Because he was so careful to establish the characters and their situation, the dialogue is all we really need to enjoy the story as it progresses.  Speeding up the narrative at this point in the story is also critical because this section contains the story’s “big reveal.”  The reader can devote more of his or her attention to this reveal because there is literally less prose between dramatic beats.

What Should We Steal?

  • Ensure that the reader will only do as much calculation as they must.  Yes, one who reads “The Scruff of the Neck” must figure out Rose’s genealogy.  A reader of Harry Potter must learn a bunch about Hogwarts.  The exposition must be fun, natural and graceful.
  • Find interesting and graceful ways to insert what might otherwise be boring details.  If birthdates, for example, are critical to your story, don’t just dump them into the story in a manner that is disconnected from the narrative.
  • Trim other elements from your story to allow the important facets to shine in critical moments.  Once the stage is properly set, all we really want is the dialogue that advances the story.

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