Tag: 2003

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.

GWS Reprint: Sarah Yaw’s “Stepping Down”

 This story first appeared in the Summer 2003 issue of Salt Hill.  You can download an attractive PDF of the piece right here.  The copyright, of course, remains with Ms. Yaw and GWS is grateful that she allowed the story to be reproduced here.  Take a look at what we can steal from the story at this link.

Ms. Yaw’s debut novel, You Are Free to Go, will be published by Engine Books in September 2014.  You can visit her site to learn more about the author and her work.

 

Stepping Down

Sarah Yaw

Those of us who know nothing about prison guards know this: they love loose women and treat their wives like criminals, they never talk about their day unless they’re drinking, they beat prisoners instead of kids and they spend their state wage on boats and cars and pools because a paycheck is for enjoying and God knows they kiss the devil’s ass every day to get one. My best friend Beth, whose father is a guard, says there’s only some truth to it.

Tonight is their game. Lights blast on popcorn-colored and the fans pour in. Not too many—Auburn is a small town docked on a fingery lake in what they all call down there way upstate—but it’s a good turnout for small-town baseball on a rainy night. Tonight I am here for a first date with David who, like everyone else, is here to honor John who was a guard before he was eaten by cancer like a wormy apple. I met David on a boat out on the lake a month ago when I was thinking about other things.

When I met David it was a burning sun and the sky was only as open as the hills. According to Beth, I needed a distraction; I was all but dead. I felt that old. At twenty-eight a divorce is like dentures. And Alex’s leaving had left me geriatric, I’m here with David tonight because he asked, but I am sure now that it is a mistake.

“Karen, a prison guard?” Beth said as we smoked on her porch. “That’s a step down.”

For an August night it is cold from rain that fell a couple hours ago. The sky is closing in on us and the crows are making their way through the northern and western skies for their perching along the dark waters of the Owasco River. David has gone off to the concession for dollar drafts. A mentally retarded boy is behind me in brand-new jeans and a new windbreaker and a new baseball hat and he is waving a triangled banner that screams Double Days in blue and yellow as if this were the big time. There is a counselor, a small pasty-faced brown-haired girl with no-nonsense shoes. Someone is fiddling with the back of my hair. It’s flipped and flipped and flipped again and the counselor says, “No Jason, no. Jason, stop that.” I turn around, and Jason holds his twisted fist to his mouth and smiles a naughty smile and she’s apologizing, but I’m not upset I tell her. “It’s perfectly okay.” I say.

***

The tumbling of weather systems overhead doesn’t look good for the game but the rain at least is holding. David is tall and wide. His hair is short and dark now but he looks as though he must have been a flossy-headed baby. He wears small fashionable wire-rimmed glasses and is surprisingly handsome, though not my type, He sits down next to me and hands me a beer and we watch boys in blue shirts push large janitorial brooms in unison as if it were a show. They wipe away water from the tarps that cover the well-kept sod. They even play special sweeping music. The team’s blue boys sweep the entire infield expertly in one pass. When they’re done, they are in a perfect line and in time with the music they all hold the brooms away from their chests with their left arms looking like the final formation in a chorus number. Taking their positions along the tarp’s edge, they roll ably in hopes of bringing the players to the field before the clouds boiling overhead erupt and send us all home. I am entertained but David says he wants the game to start so John’s son Daren can toss the first pitch. The newspaper is here waiting to click and flash a picture and everyone is waiting to remember in silence the man who died not as he died with rickety ribs and a mouth nearly glued shut with thirst, but as the young man we can all admire now that he is dead and above reproach.

David points out John’s wife across the stands. I am jealous of her because my memories of Alex are not so unadulterated. Alex left quickly and at Christmas time.

“Is this your first time to a game?” David asks.

“As an adult,” I say.

“Well things have changed a little I imagine,” he says looking around at the stands. And they have. This is a new stadium, an imitation of an old ballpark.

“Yup, everything,” I say as music turns up turning this into a waiting-to-play party. The guards are gathering in loud standing groups and the wives are seated wrapped in fleece blankets and the children are running in splashy swarms through the stands.

“What?” he says.

“Everything has changed,” I say. He nods in agreement with a story he doesn’t know and sits silently looking out across the misty field. David, I have noticed, widens his gray, blue, green eyes when I’m speaking like he’s listening with them. He repeats what I’ve said and adds little. In my estimation he must not be very smart.

“I guess this is nothing like New York. I bet you miss it,” he says.

“I miss the food and the movies,” I say.

“Food and movies—Auburn’s not so fun after all that.” He leans back and crosses his legs. He leans his elbows on the seats behind him and his chest is broad.

“I missed the lakes when I lived away,” he says.

“Where were you?” I am shocked he’s been anywhere but here.

“Where was I? Tucson. For a girl,” he laughs. “And then she kicked me out so her boyfriend could move in and I came home to my mother’s house. Like you,” he says. “But I lived in the basement.”

I laugh because Beth said on first dates you need to act amused by what they say even if you’re not. And I am not because I am thinking of the day my father came to Brooklyn to bring me home and how my stomach turned and I tasted failure like I had lost the war, like I was retreating and leaving behind spoils. I hate that David thinks he’s anything like me. That he thinks he knows anything about my life.

I do live in my mother’s house—in an apartment above the library in her enormous house. I cook my own meals there and smoke late at night to forget that I used to have plans. But I am nothing like him, I assure myself. At one time my life had weight, it had purpose, it was big and I knew exactly how to be in it. Now, instead of dinner parties and brunching at a long table of coupled-up friends, or a job with children, I exercise and lunch with ladies who take tremendous pity on me and stroke my head. I don’t work. I eat sushi with them and listen to their endless advice: exercise, read books, listen to tapes, write in your journal, take long kind baths. It will all be okay. You’ll meet someone, they say as if it is the sad and inevitable truth. Being single doesn’t last forever, just hope it’s a good one next time, they say this as if we have no control in our desperation over who comes and who goes and who stays. Besides, you’re pretty enough they say.  Blondes don’t stay single.

But I am fair and forgettable. Just like I’ve always been fair and forgettable, like I am in the pictures that line the walls of my mother’s house. The pictures of the know-it-all girl. The predictable and cautious girl. The girl who knew just how things would turn out. When I walk through the dark house on nights when I can’t find Alex I look at her and I miss her.

Beth tells me, “It’s okay to just hide out for a while, but sooner or later you’ve got to get back out there.” That’s why I’m here tonight, not because of any great hopes, but because I am taking her advice like I take the ladies’ advice. I listen to everyone who has ever been alone and I wonder how it is they are all still standing.

***

I smell David as he leans next to me to reach to the ground to pick up his keys that have fallen from his pocket and I know that he is not for me. He smells funny like laundry and soap and there is the smell that is all his and it scares me. He is not right. He is too tall, too thin, too unfamiliar.

Alex who is a musician and who is pretty much always afraid of death and who wakes in the night gripping his chest drenched in sweat from fear is exactly what I’m used to. David who spends his days unarmed, locked in a prison with murderers doing who knows what, who sits next to me straight and still and looks me in the eye without feeling the need to speak while slowly sipping his beer is unacceptable because I crave Alex. I crave him all the time. At night in my dreams we still sleep against another and it’s as if nothing has changed, as if the next thing known will be our waking up on old age as the arm-in-arm couple walking the side-by-side, no-particular-place-to-go-walk. All my will be understood again. Clear. Expected. Guaranteed.

Looking at John’s wife across the stands with her simple brown hair and an old sweatshirt and jeans and white sneakers sitting with her feet wedged on the railing in front of her, knees to her chin and her arm around her boy as she stares into the lights, caught in their greasy smear, I envy her more and more her mourning.

***

French Fries! French Fries! French Fries! yells Jason the retarded boy as he rushes the concessions and tosses his blue Double Days banner to the ground in his dash out of the stands. David makes a big deal about picking it up and presenting it to me as a gift. It makes me uncomfortable and I smile tensely and tell him that it, the banner, reminds me of when I was a teacher. “I taught Kindergarten in a private day school and what l loved most was teaching my students about the shape of things.” I look at the banner. “’Everywhere you can find a triangle, an ellipse, a trapezoid,’ I used to tell them. ‘The world is easier to understand when you can fit it into a cube,’ I always said.”

“You can fit it into a cube? You really believe that?” he asks.

“Well,” I say, shocked. “It helped them learn the shapes. Besides, they need to know how things work. You’re in a prison all day, wouldn’t it be better if everyone played by the rules?”

“Yeah, it would,” he says. “But life doesn’t go like that, you know that by now.” We’re quiet for a moment. I am looking away when he places his hand on the middle of my back and says apologetically, “Go on with your story.” I don’t want to because I am angry that he won’t just sit there amused by me. Who the hell is he, anyway?

Beth did say, “You never know, maybe he’s different, maybe he’ll surprise you.”

“Go on,” he says.

“Well.” I am afraid to tell him how my room was alphabetized, hierarchical, gradated, and clean. “I had glistening evaluations. The students excelled. The parents were always satisfied. The end.”

“Did you quit your job when you came home?”

“Yes,” I lie. The truth is I was fired, but he doesn’t need to know that. Or how my boss told me they were moving towards a more open approach to learning and, in her opinion, I had no knack for it. Or that that was the precise moment when everything changed.

***

Tonight there is always the weather. There is rumbling deeper in the distance. But it is in the North and seems to be far from town. The boys in blue shirts are sweeping the bases and putting down the lines. The gray clouds tumble as though they are amused. The wind is ripping through the trees tossing the crows this way and that and has brought with it the smell of manure. 1t’s from the northern farms that roll flatly out from Canada and like a mantle it covers us.

If I were from somewhere else, I think, a place where it was not known what form love sometimes takes I would never wager on the attraction of opposites. Tonight, the women are shivering in the stands and the men are drinking and they are all not talking. Not with each other, anyway. The women huddle. They complain. They yell, periodically, at their buzzing children. Sometimes they swear. “Fuck this cold in August,” one yells from under a blanket. They never ever look to where their husbands are standing right behind home plate yelling to David to get the hell over here. They laugh because this is a date, make a big deal about how they are going to steal him away. And I am mortified because I am someone’s wife.

Beth said, “Expect a lot of stories about Jewish pedophiles, Nigger kid killers and just plain old white perverts. That is what my father talks about when he drinks.” And David is absorbed into a conversation in which hands are flying and I am imagining the worst sorts of stories.

I sit alone and search for something to consume from my memory of Alex. I look for a last secret sweet kept willfully locked away in my chest. I sift through the bones that are still pure, but I can’t find any.

It was not long after I lost my job that Alex pulled away from me and snapped, He primped. He did sit ups. At dinner with friends he wouldn’t sit. Instead he ate standing as if edging towards the door. We don’t even have sex, he said on Halloween. I am unhappy, he said one month later. Everyday I spend with you makes me feel one day closer to death, he said for Christmas gripping his chest in a midnight sweat. Then he left.

John’s wife is also alone and I wonder why it is the ladies haven’t flocked to her.

I envy her still. Every morning Alex wakes up. Every morning in a small attic apartment in Brooklyn, three blocks from ours, he wakes up with his arm asleep under the head of some other woman. I look up and see David. His flirting eye is on me as the men keep him locked up and I can see he wants out, he’s had enough of their talk; he wants to come back and from here I can see Alex never will.

Jason grabs the back of my shirt and it cuts me in the neck. I laugh but David who has just come back does not. David handles it. He turns to Jason and says, “Hey, buddy, give me five.” It works. Jason laughs and slaps David’s hand over and over and over. It turns out David knows the counselor. They chit and they chat about the intrepid game. David takes my hand and l let him. With it he points Jason’s attention to the sky. Jason makes eerie, Halloween house OOOOOOOOS when he sees the blackness of it. The counselor leans into David and whispers not too quietly that these clouds are proof that there is a God, “That guy was a cheatin’ bastard,” she says about John. “Everybody knows it too,” she says loudly. And I understand why John’s wife is alone and why none of the other wives want to be near her.

The boys in blue shirts roll out the tarp again. “Canceled!” Everyone yells. A loud and angry, “Ahhhh!” explodes from the men, “I told you so,” “I knew it,” they claim.  “On John’s day.  What a shame.  What a Goddamned shame.”  The women Thank Freaking God that they get to go home.

I see David looking over at John’s wife. He is silent but not still. He has taken my hand and wrapped it in his and placed it in his lap and he is huddling over it and tapping each of his legs and says in a terse voice that he’s glad it’s canceled, for her sake. I agree and we watch as she grabs her things and hurries her disappointed boy out of the stadium.

 

Sarah Yaw’s novel The Other Side of the Wall was recently selected by Robin Black as the winner of the 2013 Engine Books Novel Prize. Sarah received an MFA in Fiction from Sarah Lawrence College and is an Assistant Professor at Cayuga Community College, where she does all kinds of cool things. She lives in Auburn, NY with her four-year-old twins, her husband, the photographer Douglas Lloyd, a fish named John, and a couple of neglected houseplants that are doing a lousy job filling the void left by two old, beloved dogs.

What Can We Steal From Sarah Yaw’s “Stepping Down”?

Title of Work and its Form: “Stepping Down,” short story
Author: Sarah Yaw
Date of Work: 2003
Where the Work Can Be Found: The story made its debut in the Summer 2003 issue of Salt Hill, a very cool journal.  Ms. Yaw has been kind enough to let me republish the story.  You will find the story in plain text format here.  You can also download a PDF of the story here.  Her novel The Other Side of the Wall was recently selected by Robin Black as the winner of the 2013 Engine Books Novel Prize.  The book will be released in September 2014 and is definitely worth your time.  You can learn more about the book and its author at sarahyaw.com.

Element of Craft We’re Stealing: Place

Discussion:
Karen’s life is not going the way she thought it would.  She moved away from her beloved New York City and now lives with her mother.  She’s a divorcee and is on a date with a prison guard, one of many who populate Auburn, New York, “a small town docked on a fingery lake in what they call down there way upstate.”  David is a good enough guy, but it seems that Karen is not ready for a relationship.  She’s fresh out of a divorce and a bit adrift in her life, an existence that Karen believes once had weight and purpose, but is now being wasted.  A storm is rolling into Auburn, spoiling the ballgame and the fundraiser that is being held for John, a prison guard “who was a guard before he was eaten by cancer like a wormy apple.”  When we last see Karen, she is filled with envy and sublimated sadness.  Still, there’s the sense that Karen will manage to get some air in her sails and move on.

The reader (at least this one) is struck most by Ms. Yaw’s use of place.  The title itself is a reference to place.  Karen is “stepping down” from Brooklyn to Central New York.  Auburn is a very important part of the story; in a way, the piece could not have taken anywhere else.  To whom do we look when we consider the purpose and meaning of place in fiction?  Why, Eudora Welty, of course:

It is by the nature of itself that fiction is all bound up in the local. The internal reason for that is surely that feelings are bound up in place. The human mind is a mass of associations more poetic even than actual. I say, “The Yorkshire Moors,” and you will say, “Wuthering Heights,” and I have only to murmur, “If Father were only alive-” for you to come back with “We could go to Moscow,” which certainly is not even so. The truth is, fiction depends for its life on place. Location is the crossroads of circumstance, the proving ground of “What happened? Who’s here? Who’s coming?” – and that is the heart’s field.

Auburn is the crossroads of the circumstances depicted in “Stepping Down.”  That town is the only place on Earth where all of the elements can be found: lonely Karen figuring out her life, David the prison guard easing into his own existence, John’s widow, the storm that cancels the fundraiser.  In a marvelous way, everything that has ever happened in the history of the universe has converged so that the story can happen the way it does.

Look at what else Ms. Welty says:

Feelings are bound up in place, and in art, from time to time, place undoubtedly works upon genius.

Think about your hometown.  There’s the supermarket where you had your first job and suffered the first indignities of your professional life.  There’s the wooded area where you kissed your first crush.  The childhood home that served as a crucible for your hopes and fears.  Ms. Yaw and Ms. Welty understand that a story is not an isolated incident that takes place in a vacuum.  Their characters (and yours) have a history, just as the streets where you grew up have been traveled by countless people: some good, some bad.  Lovers and fighters.  Young and old and everything in between.  Understanding the meaning of place in your work can add a sense of continuity that lends it weight.

Look at Ms. Yaw’s second paragraph:

Tonight is their game. Lights blast on popcorn-colored and the fans pour in. Not too many—Auburn is a small town docked on a fingery lake in what they all call down there way upstate—but it’s a good turnout for small-town baseball on a rainy night. Tonight I am here for a first date with David who, like everyone else, is here to honor John who was a guard before he was eaten by cancer like a wormy apple. I met David on a boat out on the lake a month ago when I was thinking about other things.

Ms. Yaw does a lot in this paragraph.  There’s a lot of exposition and graceful description of what the town is like.  The reader learns about the protagonist and her date.  (The antagonist of the piece?)  Most importantly, Ms. Yaw gives Karen an important reason to be at the game, outside of the pedestrian fact that she’s on a date.  The game is a benefit for the dearly departed John.  This element of the story, laid so early, also lends an internal logic to the end of the story.  The benefit is rained out and David looks at the widow John perhaps wondering if he and Karen will end up married.

By making this move, Ms. Yaw ensures that the reader doesn’t see HER hands as those who shape the plot of the story.  Yes, Ms. Yaw was sitting at her typewriter or in front of a notebook and was the one who literally ended the date and brought in the rain.  In the story, however, everything happens as a result of the actions of the characters.  (Um…except for the rain.  But you get the point.)

Let’s also take note with regard to Ms. Yaw’s contribution to the eternal struggle: HOW SHOULD WE USE WHITE SPACE?  The story takes place in real time, but is broken up four times by white space.  I don’t believe that the breaks are motivated by the need to advance in time; it seems as though Ms. Yaw uses the breaks as an opportunity for emotional closure or catharsis.  How appropriate!  Karen is a character who is defined (in this piece) by her need to understand herself; the pauses Ms. Yaw literally puts on the page offer readers the same opportunity.

What Should We Steal?

    • Set your stories in real, authentic places.  Your characters should inhabit real cities and towns that exist in a larger world.  People can’t live in a vacuum…neither can characters.
    • Imbue your work with an internal logic.  A story should not seem as though its events are being put in action by the invisible hand of the author.  Instead, it should seem as though they are acting of their own accord.

 

  • WHITE SPACE USE #24601: Break up the narrative with white space in order to offer the reader and/or your characters time to appreciate the emotions that are developing in the story.

What Can We Steal from Rebecca Barry’s “How to Save a Wounded Bird”?

Title of Work and its Form: “How to Save a Wounded Bird,” short story
Author: Rebecca Barry
Date of Work: 2003
Where the Work Can Be Found:  The story made its debut in Issue 16 of Tin House, a top-notch journal.  The story was later included in Later, at the Bar, Ms. Barry’s excellent “novel in stories.”

Bonuses:  Here is Ms. Barry’s author page at Simon & Schuster.  Here‘s a cool interview Ms. Barry gave to the New York Times‘ Arts Beat.  Here‘s what the folks at The Biblio Blogazine thought of Later, at the Bar.  (Spoiler alert: they loved it.)

Element of Craft We’re Stealing: Tone

Discussion:
Elizabeth Teeter is having a rough go of it.  Her husband recently left her for a man.  Her cat keeps plucking baby birds from their nests.  Her students at the community college are uninspired and apathetic.  Right before a Monday class, Elizabeth finds a baby bird in her cat’s mouth and arranges to take it to a wildlife center right after she teaches.  So her students didn’t do the reading.  At least she got to teach a class with a baby bird on her desk.  Elizabeth makes a deal with the class: they’ll all get out early if someone will give her a ride to the wildlife center.  A young man named Trevor agrees.  The car ride is a little uncomfortable; Elizabeth snaps a little bit, but her loneliness overtakes her.  She doesn’t confess her desire, but she wants to share some (relatively) pure intimacy with the young man.  Instead, Trevor simply continues their errand of mercy.

Many writers great have instincts, but they don’t take their ideas far enough.  How many of us have had a significant other stolen away by a same-sex interloper?  It certainly happens, but it happens infrequently enough that folks might still be attracted to your story because of the idea alone.  A cool idea is seldom enough to make a great story.  Ms. Barry’s story is so cool (in part) because the same-sex affair is simply a part of the situation, a mere facet of Elizabeth’s life.

When you have “crazy” things happen in a story that aren’t quite tethered to plot and character, you’re dealing with melodrama.  That’s not necessarily bad; Trapped in the Closet is so gloriously awesome in part because of its increasingly outlandish and unrealistic plot points.  Compare “How to Save a Wounded Bird” to the first few chapters of Trapped in the Closet.  R. Kelly expects to keep an audience and propel a story along by simply adding a same-sex affair.  We never get a deeper understanding of any of the characters who are involved.  Ms. Barry’s story instead presents a portrait of a woman working through her sadness.  It’s okay to make use of extreme plot points, but they should be a means, not an end.

One of the reasons that Elizabeth is so sad is that everything is seemingly crashing down on her at once.  She’s finding it difficult to see anything but things that reinforce her loneliness and sadness.  Ms. Barry, however, is wise enough to avoid this problem in her story.  There are moments of great humor in an otherwise sad piece.  Elizabeth’s jerky neighbor calls her cat fat and advises her to put a muzzle on the feline.  This annoys Elizabeth, who replies, “If you put a diaper on your dog, he wouldn’t shit in our yard.”  The narrator shrewdly allows Elizabeth to correct herself: “My yard.” There’s a moment of laugh-out-loud humor that makes the story engaging.

There’s another great moment in which Ms. Barry subverts the overall tone of sadness.  Elizabeth is teaching and is annoyed that her students didn’t do the reading she had assigned:

Her students were sitting at their desks, dozing or talking on their cell phones.  Elizabeth shut the door and wrote a pop quiz on the board.

“If you miss one question on this one,” she said, “you will automatically fail.”

“Peep!  Peep!  Peep!” said the bird.

Elizabeth may have trouble agreeing with the idea, but there are good things happening to her.  There is humor to be found in her situation and people around her are still falling in love, even if she’s dealing with the negative effects of trusting someone else.  “How to Save a Wounded Bird” is more meaningful and more life-affirming because Ms. Barry looks at the world through the writer’s wide-angle lens, not Elizabeth’s blinders.

What Should We Steal?

  • Allow extreme plot points to affect your characters, not the other way around.  You shouldn’t think of your protagonist as “some priest who leaves the clergy for a woman who treated him like crap in high school and still does and who is abused by her friends and becomes addicted to crack and must do community service at a dog pound.”  You should think of your characters as people and illustrate the way plot points change their lives.
  • Leaven the primary tone of your story with bits of contrasting tone.  Not only do your readers need a change of pace at times, but alternating tone also lends verisimilitude to your work.

What Can We Steal From Richard Greenberg’s Take Me Out?

Title of Work and its Form: Take Me Out, play
Author: Richard Greenberg
Date of Work: 2003
Where the Work Can Be Found:  The play is performed across the world and the script is available from Dramatists Play Service and in trade paperback.  The prestigious Public Theater shepherded the play through its American debut, first Off-Broadway and then On.

Element of Craft We’re Stealing: Narrative Scope

Discussion:
Mr. Greenberg’s Tony-winning play is based upon a fascinating hypothetical: “What would happen if the best-loved player and the captain of the most popular baseball team came out of the closet?”  Well, some of Darren Lemming’s teammates are not too pleased to be so close to a homosexual.  (Now that they know he is one, that is.)  Shane Mungitt, an outspoken closer, ends act one with some statements that are politically incorrect.  So the Empires are not having a good season.  Not only must the team do their best to win games, they must contend with being at the center of a huge news story and the new pitcher from Japan accidentally kills Darren’s close ballplayer friend with a pitch.  As the play concludes, Darren and his teammates have learned about themselves and about life.

Isn’t it fun to get a rise out of people by telling them shocking news?  Think of the joy a hippie would have felt upon telling his stodgy, square uncle about Watergate.  It’s titillating to consider the “gay angle” of the play on its own, but Mr. Greenberg has put far more drama into his play.  The shock value of a coming out is powerful, but fleeting.  Instead, it’s clear that Mr. Greenberg has much bigger ambitions for the play.  Darren is not a “stereotypical” homosexual (not that there really is one).  He’s a human being.  He loves being a ballplayer, but there’s much more to the character; just as there is more to a person than just being gay or straight.  Mr. Greenberg treats the complicated issues in a complicated manner.  This is a variation on the sage writing advice: show, don’t tell.  Instead of TELLING you that Darren is a complete human being and TELLING you that the Empires’ season was complicated, he SHOWS you these things by trying to capture life in all of its messy glory.

Did you know?

  • A few former Major League Baseball players have publicly disclosed their homosexuality, but Glenn Burke was the only one whose sexuality was known to his teammates.  (This lifelong Tiger fan can’t help but send a shoutout to Billy Bean, former Tiger outfielder and current businessman/motivational speaker.  Bean came out in 1999, serving as a role model to other gay individuals.  This act also helped some straight sports fans understand that it’s not a big deal to have a gay player on the team you love.)
  • John Rocker, Atlanta Braves relief pitcher, made some offensive comments to Sports Illustrated in 1999.  Rocker apologized (many times), but the ensuing public backlash derailed Rocker’s career.
  • Carl Mays, then a star pitcher for the Yankees, was an aggressive hurler with a deceptive submarine movement.  During a 1920 game against the Cleveland Indians, Mays hit Chapman in the head with a pitch, fracturing his skull.  Chapman died in a few hours.

Guess what?  Mr. Greenberg stole all of these ideas and put them into his play.  Each of these real-life cases generated a lot of public controversy; by fictionalizing them, Mr. Greenberg is attracting attention for his play while empowering himself to make his own comments.  Take Me Out is very much Mr. Greenberg’s own composition, but he picked and chose real-life events to use in his play, just as a shopper selects produce in a market.

What Should We Steal?

  • Avoid dealing with big issues in an exaggerated, maudlin fashion.  Is it interesting to consider what the reaction would be if a big-time current ballplayer came out of the closet?  Sure.  Mr. Greenberg has bigger ideas.  Instead of focusing on one part of Darren’s life, he deals with a number of big issues.  Racism, the guilt we can feel after accidents, the pain of unrequited feelings, the strength of friendship…they’re all in the play. A person may buy a ticket because of an intriguing premise, but you’ll earn an audience if you care more about the aftermath of the premise.
  • Appropriate and fictionalize real events.  Think of the last time that your jaw dropped at a news story.  You obviously cared about what happened; why not work the story into your fiction.  Best of all, you can take the elements of the story that you like best and smooth out whatever parts you like least.

What Can We Steal From the Television Program “Reno 911!”?

Title of Work and its Form: Reno 911!, television program
Author: Created by Thomas Lennon, Robert Ben Garant and Kerri Kenney-Silver
Date of Work: 2003 – 2009
Where the Work Can Be Found: The program was originally broadcast on Comedy Central and is currently in syndication.  Each season is available on DVD; as of this writing, Reno 911! can be seen on Netflix.  

Element of Craft We’re Stealing: Characterization

Discussion:
Reno 911! is a COPS-style mockumentary program that chronicles the adventures of the members of the Reno Sheriff’s Department.  Led by Lieutenant James Dangle (Thomas Lennon), the officers are a family of sorts.  A very dysfunctional family.  When Officer Jones (Cedric Yarbrough) loses his job as a jingle singer for High Sierra Carpeting, the group surrounds him and offers heartfelt consolation.  Then there are days like the one when a colleague dies, bequeathing a Jet-Ski to the department; everyone fights to decide who will get it.

Reno 911! is special for several reasons, but chief among them is the brilliant way in which the directors and actors have created such indelible characters.  Lieutenant Dangle is not just “the one in the short shorts.”  Dangle wears the shorts for several reasons; he claims he needs to be able to run like a cheetah, but is really providing the audience with a commentary regarding his sexuality.  Dangle is a man between worlds, simultaneously inhabiting the traditionally masculine world of the police and the freer, less judgmental gay and gay-friendly world.  Trudy Weigel (Kerry Kenney-Silver) is not just a strange woman who loves her cats.  Silver makes sure that we understand Weigel on a deep level.  She’s a woman who has always had trouble being loved because of her…eccentricities.  Deputy Garcia (Carlos Alazraqui) is incredibly repressed and pushes people away because he can’t accept himself or his circumstances.

Great works are often memorable because of their memorable characters.  It would be very easy for the necessarily unbalanced deputies of the Reno Sheriff’s Department to seem like cartoon characters, but they’re not.  Indelible characters are particularly important for successful television shows.  Think about the great sitcoms throughout history: Taxi, Cheers, Arrested Development, The Dick Van Dyke Show, Charles in Charge…each of them is populated with deep, realistic characters.  Further, each line is specific to each character and reflects their unique personalities.

Who but Deputy Junior (Robert Ben Garant) would say something like this during a discussion as to whether or not a man should want to have sex with Weigel?

What the hell kinda woman do you want then? She’s got all the right parts, just the-the… the wiring’s screwy, ya know. It’s like the flippers work and the bumpers work, it’s just the wiring’s screwy and the score’s all wrong.

Who other than Weigel would describe the new British exchange officer thus?

Officer Smiley reminds me of someone from Mary Poppins.  Someone who, for instance, comes riding in on a jalopy and he has whipped ices for all the little children and he says “come along everyone, I have whipped ices!”  And then when they get close enough to him he grabs them and rapes the shit out of them.  Then he tosses them in the back seat and off he goes and then ‘chip chip cheerio.

One reason that the characters are so well-drawn is because the dialogue is mostly improvised.  The writers/producers would dream up a general situation and then the actors would improvise around that situation.  “Jones and Kimball get lost in a parking lot while chasing a perp.”  Okay, great.  We’ll turn on the cameras and let the actors run around and see what magic we can capture.  The producers put together a cast of great improvisers who cared very deeply about their characters.  A novelist, for example, doesn’t have the same luxury.  He or she can, however, be vigilant in considering (and depicting) each character’s reaction to the same events.

What Should We Steal?

  • Allow your characters to have virtues and faults that emerge through good times and bad.  Even the worst people have a good side, hard as it may be to find.  The officers of the Reno Sheriff’s Department are selfish and petty and incompetent, but they also care for each other on some level.  Avoid the temptation to make your characters into caricatures.
  • Ensure that your characters are as unique as the people you meet every day.  Great works are populated by memorable characters.  The people in the worlds you create should, to paraphrase Polonius, be true to themselves.
  • Improvise!  Great ideas must percolate and you never know when they’re going to emerge.  Respect the cool and unexpected thoughts you have, even if they contradict some of the plans you have for your work.  Where will improvisation take you?

What Can We Steal From Christopher Hitchens’s “Mommie Dearest”?

Title of Work and its Form: “Mommie Dearest,” nonfiction…we’re also considering the rest of the Hitchens oeuvre.
Author: Christopher Hitchens
Date of Work: 2003
Where the Work Can Be Found: The article was originally published on SlateHitchens also published a book about Mother Teresa called (somewhat cheekily) The Missionary Position.  In addition to publishing several books and countless articles, Hitchens was a legendary public speaker; many of his speeches and debates can be viewed on YouTube.

Element of Craft We’re Stealing:
Use of Rhetoric

Discussion:
December 12, 2012 is the one-year anniversary of the death of Christopher Hitchens.  You’ll notice I didn’t say that Hitchens “went on to his reward” or that he “passed away” or that he is “in a better place.”  As Hitchens would agree (if he could), his body is currently in some state of decomposition as it slowly returns to the elements from which it came.  Fortunately, Hitchens has achieved the only kind of immortality for which a writer can hope: his ideas live on in his works and in the hearts and minds of those who read them.

I use “Mommie Dearest” in most of my composition classes because it’s a representative example of powerful rhetoric.  Unlike so many “careful” public thinkers, Hitchens was not afraid to honestly say what he believed.  More importantly, he was perfectly prepared to back up his assertions.  One of Hitchens’ most powerful dictums?  “What can be asserted without evidence can be dismissed without evidence.”  Hitchens was well aware that he turned readers off when he would call the woman known as Mother Teresa a “fanatic, a fundamentalist, and a fraud.”  (And that’s not even the worst of it.  He also employed the phrase “thieving Albanian dwarf.”)  If those readers did not go through the rest of his piece, well, he counted it their loss.  As Hitchens pointed out in “Mommie Dearest” and in The Missionary Position, his antipathy was deserved.  Mother Teresa facilitated human suffering, lent her halo to evil men and did what she could to ensure the pro-poverty, anti-woman policies of the Catholic Church continued in India and beyond.

Hitchens was fueled by pathos (emotion) but delighted in logos (reason).  He was opposed to the compulsory genital mutilation of children.  Other folks, such as Rabbi Harold Kushner, see no problem with the circumcision of young boys.  (The circumcision of young women is a different matter for Rabbi Kushner, of course.)  If you wish, watch this exchange. (It gets really good around 4:40.)  Hitchens is clearly quite disturbed that the man beside him is discussing the genital mutilation of young boys in such flippant terms.  Yes, you could say that Hitch was angry.  Does he heave a chair at the rabbi?  No.  Does he direct thoughtless invective at the man?  No.  Instead, Hitchens reasoned with Rabbi Kushner, using the man’s flippancy to prove his ultimate assertion: “Religion makes morally normal people say and do disgusting and wicked things.  You’ve just proved my point for me.”  The exchange clearly made the moderator and other guests uncomfortable, but that’s their problem, isn’t it?  Well-behaved thinkers seldom make history, do they?

Christopher Hitchens was known for the rejoinders he used to attack his ideological opponents.  These “Hitchslaps,” as they came to be called, are intellectual roundhouses.  Vanity Fair, the home of a great deal of Hitchens’s work, created a video collection of some of the best Hitchslaps.

Christopher Hitchens has been dead for a year, but his ideas will long outlast most of us.  No matter what you may feel about his convictions, you must admit that he was never boring.  In dying, he merely joined the pantheon of thinkers he so respected, including Spinoza, Jefferson, Paine and Orwell.

What Should We Steal?

  • Employ ideas like the weapons they are.  Flesh and blood are temporary, but ideas last forever.  Remember that your thoughts are entering a vast marketplace.  Your work must attract an audience in order for you to engage an audience.
  • Consume as many ideas as you can.  Hitchens was a voracious reader; though he wrote no fiction, he had a solid critical grasp of a vast range of work.  He could discuss Euripides as easily as P.G. Wodehouse or David Chase.  His level of erudition is almost unfair; he was able to understand and communicate the thoughts of history’s greatest philosophers, too.