Vanessa Blakeslee’s “The Lightness of Absence” and the Beauty of Having the “Wrong” Emotions and Thoughts

There’s a narrative that dictates how one is supposed to feel after a terrible event occurs.  When a family member or acquaintance dies in a car accident, most people feel and act the same way. As Claudius said of the reaction to his brother’s death:

…it us befitted
To bear our hearts in grief and our whole kingdom
To be contracted in one brow of woe

The reality is that everyone is different and will respond to trauma differently.  In her Prime Number essay, “The Lightness of Absence,” Vanessa Blakeslee tells the story of her reaction to the very sad murder of her cousin and describes how her feelings about the matter evolved.

Ms. Blakeslee introduces the death in the first line, taking advantage of the inherent power in such an extreme condition: “When I was twenty, my cousin Cara was murdered by her ex-boyfriend. We were both attending college in Florida at the time.”  All of Ms. Blakeslee’s readers are surely as human as she is, so the release of this exposition earns instant emotion from the reader.

Much more interesting is the way Ms. Blakeslee deals with an emotionally loaded issue in a very calm and methodical manner.  If you haven’t read the piece, do so now, as I’m going to discuss the ending.  (I even linked it twice.)

Ms. Blakeslee certainly mourns the senseless loss of her “childhood best friend,” but she doesn’t give us a standard grief narrative.  Instead, the author confronts a much more unanticipated question and one that invites thought from the reader: “What do you call it when even the weight of loss has disappeared?”

Ms. Blakeslee had a little bit of a problem.  How do you create tension and keep people reading when that “weight of loss,” those emotions that were much stronger years ago, are currently absent?  The solution is simple: you turn the absence of emotion into the story.  

On one hand, I think I would love if the piece were a little bit longer, if we had more of a discussion of the dilemma posed by the end of the piece.  Then again, ending the piece with a dilemma forces the reader to go through their own discomfort with respect to the issue.

  • There are certain events and conditions that don’t evoke as much emotion in me as they might.  Is there something wrong with me?
  • Do people say and do things that makes me treat them differently?  Is this wrong?  When is it wrong?
  • How long should I grieve for those I’ve lost and the bad things that have happened to people I love?  What does it mean to “get over” a misfortune?

Further, the ending of the piece is appropriate to its length.  At 1600 words, Ms. Blakeslee had to avoid some of the more complicated possibilities for the material.  So what could be more appropriate than ending the piece with an ethical quandary?

Nicola Yoon’s EVERYTHING, EVERYTHING and Kinetic Narratives

When I learned about the conceit of Nicola Yoon‘s Everything, Everything, I was engaged as a reader, of course, but the book attracted my interest as a writer.  The novel is a YA book about a young woman who has spent her entire life in a clean room because she is sick.  Madeline has severe combined immunodeficiency and cannot enter the real world or have contact with people who have not been decontaminated, or else she’ll die.  She’s a bubble girl, essentially. Continue Reading

Hey, Jim Pransky, Why’d You Do That in Your Novel THE TENOR WITH THE GOLDEN ARM?

Writers are asked many general questions about their craft.

…”What is your overarching philosophy regarding the inherent power of fiction?”…”What IS–character–to you?”…”What is the position of place in your work?”…

These are great and important questions, but I’m really curious about the little things.  In the “Hey, Why’d You Do That” series, I ask accomplished writers about some of the very small choices they made during the process of composition.

Jim Pransky is an interesting man who has the kind of career to which many of us aspire.  He’s been a baseball scout for many years and is currently with the Colorado Rockies.  When he isn’t identifying talent and evaluating young men for their suitability to make it in The Show, he likes to write books about our great National Pastime.  In addition to writing biographies of overlooked players that deserve attention, Mr. Pransky writes novels that use baseball as their setting. Continue Reading

Wanda E. Brunstetter’s The Amish Cooking Class – The Seekers and Bringing Characters Together for Drama

Hey, everyone.  It’s time to be a little bit jealous of Wanda E. Brunstetter.  But not too jealous; that would be a sin.  Ms. Brunstetter has published a lot of books and has a devoted audience for her Amish inspirational romances.   I know many people aren’t literary omnivores, but I love reading all kinds of books, even though I’m not exactly in the stereotypical demographic for these kinds of novels.  Still, Ms. Brunstetter has a lot to teach us.  More importantly, she writes fun books and fulfills every promise she makes with her books.

Check out this book trailer for the first book in The Amish Cooking Class series: The Seekers.  

The novel is centered upon the farm of Lyle and Heidi Troyer.  They are a proud Amish couple–but not too proud; that would be a sin–who have a beautiful place in Ohio.  Lyle is an auctioneer and Heidi decides to make a little money and to share her gift with others by teaching a weekly cooking class.

I guess I’ll introduce the first lesson here…Ms. Brunstetter very wisely came up with a conceit that allows her to put a bunch of drama-prone characters together.  Think about it.  While Heidi Troyer is a very calm and dignified woman who has most everything figured out, she surrounds herself with people who have far more problems than she does.  Ron is a Vietnam War vet who ends up camped on the Troyer property when his RV breaks down.  Kendra is pregnant and her family has turned her away, not that doing so will stop the baby from arriving.  Eli lost his wife and is looking for companionship.  See?  All of these people have discernible problems and needs.  Guess what?  Ms. Brunstetter allows the characters to grow and change based upon their interactions and their own internal struggles.  (And maybe Heidi has her own problem that needs to be solved…)

We certainly can’t fashion every single one of our stories in this way, but creating a nexus of conflict and drama is a time-tested tactic for teasing trouble out of our characters.  Here are some examples:

  • Cheers, the bar from Cheers, is populated by a number of well-drawn characters who unite in one place.  Each of them have their own problems and needs and the writers wring drama (and comedy) out of having all of these characters in the same place.
  • Rick’s Café Américain from Casablanca is a meeting spot that facilitates conflict.  Everyone goes there.  The Nazis, the French, ridiculously beautiful refugees played by Ingrid Bergman…everyone.  Placing everyone in the same nightclub allows the drama to blossom.  (If you haven’t seen Casablanca, please do so.  It’s for the best.)
  • Eerie, Indiana is the new home of Marshall Teller, a town where all kinds of creepy and cool things happen.  The gents who created the TV show, José Rivera and Karl Schaefer, created a place where weird and wonderful things can happen.  The show could have (and should have) run forever.

Heidi’s Amish cooking class offers Ms. Brunstetter near-inexhaustible opportunities to cycle interesting characters in and out of the orbit of the Troyer kitchen.  This seems to be the plan, as The Seekers is Book One of a series…

This is an Amish inspirational romance-type book, so you know there won’t be any of the flashy kinds of conflict on offer.  The international spy rings, serial killers and terrorist attacks will appear in other kinds of books.  Still, Ms. Brunstetter allows her characters to be unpleasant, particularly in the context of the genre and story.  Ron, the Vietnam vet, repeatedly lies to the Troyers and takes advantage of their hospitality.  He even steals from his hosts.  Kendra made “one little mistake” and got pregnant out of wedlock.  Ms. Brunstetter does not examine these themes in the same manner as writers in other genres might do, but she is still allowing her characters to misbehave and to do things that the Christian characters shouldn’t do.  The principle applies to characters in all genres.  On occasion, I read YA books in which the teenagers are impossibly polite and respectful of the opposite sex.  Not only does this kind of attitude pose problems creating drama, but it’s also not realistic.

Those who write Amish books have a problem that is easily transferable to all other authors who include other languages in their work.  The Amish are generally fluent in Pennsylvania Dutch and the language is a very important part of their culture.  (As it is for every culture.)  Ms. Brunstetter has an obligation to include the language in her dialogue–the characters would use these words!–but she must also ensure that the audience knows what she’s talking about.  Let’s take a look at an example of how the author handles this problem:

brunstetter

See what she does?  She italicizes the word the reader probably won’t know and then defines it in the following line of dialogue.  We were already told that Lyle is married to Heidi, so we know fraa =  wife.  Kichlin = cookies.  There are other ways to handle the problem, but this is one.

I’ve read a few of Ms. Brunstetter’s books, and The Seekers is as fun as the others.  The world that the author creates, this Amish version of Ohio, is everything that her readers want it to be.  It’s simple.  Plain.  People still have conflicts, but they resolve them calmly.  (And with the help of God, as her target readers expect.)

The great strength of this book (and of so many others in the genre) is that the authors make promises to the reader and keep them.  Ms. Brunstetter promises the reader in this case, that they will learn about Amish food, they will see characters solve their problems together and with the help of their religion and that the book will be a calm and unobjectionable read that has a discernible conclusion that wraps everything up.  (Aside, of course, from the story strands that will likely be taken up in subsequent books.)

I don’t know how many Great Writers Steal writers have given the Amish inspirational genre a chance, but they should.  A writer must have a balanced reading diet.

 

The Great Writers Steal Podcast: Serena Chase, author of Intermission

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Visit Ms. Chase’s web site:

http://www.serenachase.com/ Continue Reading

Hey, Matthew Norman, Why’d You Do That in Your Novel Domestic Violets?

Writers are asked many general questions about their craft.

…”What is your overarching philosophy regarding the inherent power of fiction?”…”What IS–character–to you?”…”What is the position of place in your work?”…

These are great and important questions, but I’m really curious about the little things.  In the “Hey, Why’d You Do That” series, I ask accomplished writers about some of the very small choices they made during the process of composition.

Matthew Norman first came to my attention when I saw a Twitter notification about the Lit Hub piece he published in May 2016.  I obviously have a very soft spot in my heart for writers; as a born showman (though not a good performer), there’s little I fear more than taking the stage, only to see no one is watching.  In prose that is hilarious and full of heart, Mr. Norman tells the story of giving a reading to an audience that primarily consisted of chairs, tables and people who were trying to skim half a dozen $100 art books they wouldn’t buy while sipping a $3 coffee. Continue Reading

Ken Levine, Great Literary Citizen, Teacher and Co-Writer of the Frasier Episode “Room Service”: Character Is Everything

If you have laughed while watching TV sometime in the course of the past forty years, you likely know the work of Ken Levine and his writing partner David Isaacs.  Cheers.  Frasier.  Wings.  M*A*S*H.  For the love of Springfield, Mr. Levine created the Capital City Goofball!

Mr. Levine has also spent a great deal of time teaching other writers.  For the past decade, he has been dispensing daily stories and truth on his blog, By Ken Levine.  His podcast Hollywood & Levine, as of this writing, is about to premiere and will, no doubt, be a must-listen. Continue Reading

Serena Chase’s INTERMISSION and Remembering the Old Versions of Ourselves

Faith Prescott is sixteen years old and in love…with musical theater.  Even though her parents and siblings are hard-charging people who have degrees in “real” pursuits, Faith wants to major in theater.  Life gets even more complicated when Faith starts to have feelings for Noah, a powerful performer who, it turns out, is nineteen.  No, the course of true love never did run smooth, and it certainly doesn’t for Faith (soon to use her middle name of Madeleine) and Noah.

I don’t want to ruin any of Serena Chase‘s plot twists, but I’m sure you can guess most of the beats in the story of Intermission.  Girl falls in love with older boy, girl and boy star in The Sound of Music together, girl tries to be just friends with older boy, girl’s mom is not happy about older boy…you get the drift.  Faith/Madeleine, like Liesl Von Trapp, is at that wonderful age where society and your parents treat you like a child, but you have the body, hormones and desires of an adult. Continue Reading

Kate Jarvik Birch’s PERFECTED and Immersing Your Audience In Fascinating Situations

Perfected begins with a delightfully disturbing scene that demonstrates the reader is in the hands of a capable storyteller who has a rip-roaring yarn to share.  Take a look at the first few paragraphs:

perfected1

The conceit of the book is that the protagonist, later named Ella, is a cloned 16-year-old girl who has been sold as a pet after recent legislation has made such things legal.  Though cloned and genetically manipulated, Ella is, of course, a human being with hopes and desires that she discovers and explores through the course of the novel.  (I don’t want to reveal more of the plot than I have to; it’s a fun ride that is surprising in spite of the appropriate parallels that Ms. Birch draws.)

Kate Jarvik Birch plays with very powerful themes and evokes such a cool tone–disturbing but fun–that the reader simply must read on to figure out what happens next.  Perfected is in the same wonderful vein as the 2011 film Sleeping Beauty.

This film, obviously, is not for the young ones!  In the first few minutes, the film plops you into a creepy, strange situation and hooks you.  Can you ask for more from a story?

Perfected is also spiritually related to the 1990 Luc Besson film Nikita, in which a young woman is sent to a finishing school for spies instead of prison.  Nikita must, of course, understand her new life and how her own desires relate to her obligations.  (The film was remade in the United States as Point of No Return, starring the always excellent Bridget Fonda.)

All three of these works are excellent because the storytellers immediately immerse the reader (or viewer) in the protagonist’s very strange world.  None of us will ever be cloned human pets trained in an awful finishing school, but just about everyone is protective of young women.  We get over the shock of the disturbing nature of the story because our empathy meters are turned to eleven as the prospective buyers investigate Ella’s skills and beauty.

Further, Perfected (and the two films I mentioned) release exposition about the world in a fun manner that answers our questions before we ask them.  Ms. Birch must let you know all about Ella’s world: that she essentially has the legal rights of a dog, that she was not taught to speak to children, that she was not taught to read or swim, but she can’t tell you everything all at once.  She must unpeel the onion one layer at a time.  (And the book just might make you cry; there’s no shame in that.)  Essentially, Ms. Birch asks herself the question that all writers must confront: what does the reader need to know, and when must he or she know it?  (Unfortunately, there is no one right answer to the question.  But that would be nice, wouldn’t it?)

Another reason the book is so great is that Ms. Birch clearly loves her protagonist, but subjects her to constant indignity.  This is a variation on the writing truism that you must “murder your darlings.”  In order for there to be a story, Ella must suffer.  She must be treated poorly and subjected to the kind of oppression that no one deserves.  The great thing about this idea is that Ella regains these necessities little by little.  This is the basic structure of a story.  Every good story, anyway.

Ella’s new owner is a congressman, and one of the people who pushed through the legislation that made the “pet” program legal.  The man is also…not the best guy ever.  No one should be surprised that the congressman has more and different interest in his new sixteen-year-old human girl than people have in their rescue Chihuahua.  Perhaps it’s a tangential point, but I found it fascinating that Ms. Birch, it seemed to me, held back in this area.  Don’t get me wrong; the congressman is a creep and a weirdo and a creepy weirdo.  But I wasn’t sure if…how can I say this…he would have the restraint he had.

Any quibbles I have with the book are trifles.  Ms. Birch is brave enough to put her heroine into danger and to let her work her way out and so many interesting things happen to Ella that you can read the book in a single sitting.  (Which I did.)

Agustin Aguilar’s Leonora Come Down and Maintaining Magic and Reality in Magical Realism

Franz Kafka begins The Metamorphosis with a clear and crisp sentence that makes a promise as to what kind of book the reader has opened:

As Gregor Samsa awoke one morning from uneasy dreams he found himself transformed in his bed into a gigantic insect.

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