COFFEE SHOP (Early Morning) – I was supposed to be working on my next young adult novel. Its protagonist was whispering in my ear and I knew what he was about to do. I had just enough caffeine to get my brain going without making my body shake. Fountain pen: uncapped. Journal: open.
Then I thought I might read a little bit more of The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-Banks, a book by E. Lockhart. (Ms. Lockhart is on Twitter @elockhart.) If you haven’t read the book, why not pick up a copy from your local independent bookstore or online?
Frankie Landau-Banks is a clever young woman who attends Alabaster Preparatory Academy, an expensive school in the Northeast. Like all people her age, she is trying to figure out who she is and her place in the world. Her father and sister attended Alabaster, and her freshman year wasn’t that bad…except for her relationship with Porter Welsch, who cheated on her. Frankie starts dating Matthew, a cute senior. All is well until Frankie gets curious and follows Matthew around, only to discover that he is part of Alabaster’s secret society. The dissembling puts a bit of a wedge between them; Frankie wants to be a part of the group! So she makes herself a member in her own way. I don’t want to ruin the whole book. Just go read it. (But don’t start the novel if you have any hopes of finishing your own.)
Ms. Lockhart had a big problem. Her story is packed with secrets all over the place. Frankie has secrets from Matthew and her father and her sister and from Alpha and from the head of the college and her roommate…that’s a lot of information to withhold! Writing the book was made even more complicated by the fact that Ms. Lockhart must figure out how much the reader should know and when they’re allowed to know it…even her narrator must keep secrets. But if the narrator keeps too many secrets, the reader will get bored and will throw the book across the room.
What to do?
Well, one reason I’m not cross with Ms. Lockhart for stealing my writing time is because she demonstrated a very interesting way of condensing a story’s exposition. (In case you don’t know, exposition is what we call the basic information about the protagonist and their setting. Exposition is all of the factual stuff we need to know before we can proceed with the story.)
Want to see a visual example of some graceful exposition? Sure, you do. Take a look at the opening sequence of any Bond movie. (Except for the first one and the last few.) The film starts with the blast of brass instruments and we see James Bond through the barrel of an assassin’s rifle. Without warning, Bond turns and fires and the barrel fills with blood and wobbles; the assassin is dead. See?
What makes this condensed exposition? We learn everything we need to know about Bond in less than a minute. People want to harm Bond. He has a target on his back. But Bond not only knows who is stalking him, but can draw first. And boy, is he a good shot. Even if you know nothing about Bond, you’re ready to go.
Ms. Lockhart, of course, had different problems. Frankie Landau-Banks is not yet as well-known as James Bond. Nor do readers know everything about her world. How to introduce everything the reader needs to get going without pumping out dozens of pages of boring description?
Ms. Lockhart begins the book with Frankie’s confession. Go ahead, check it out. It’s on Ms. Lockhart’s web site. We see lots of references to things we don’t know about. What’s the Night of a Thousand Dogs and the Canned Beet Rebellion? We don’t need to know. If you read the confession, here’s some of the exposition you get:
- The month and year.
- The setting of the book (Alabaster Prep)
- There are going to be “mal-doings” in the book. What does “mal-doings” mean? Frankie seems to like playing with language.
- There is something called the “Loyal Order of the Basset Hounds” at Alabaster.
- The Order did a bunch of things that are probably interesting or there wouldn’t be a book about them.
- Frankie was responsible for a lot of the mis-deeds.
- Porter Welsch seems a bit of a jerk…
Okay, I can’t type them all out–I have my own book to work on–but you get the point. Ms. Lockhart gives the narrator extreme power and allows it to present documentary evidence from the story to give us a handhold. When you read the rest of the book, you’ll see that the narrator does indeed zip around time and between characters and is pretty proactive when it needs to be. The narrator even presents an e-mail exchange or two that Frankie has with another character. We can learn about using the appropriate kind of narration to communicate the current plot point. If pretending to copy/paste e-mails into the book will tell that section of the story in a more efficient and interesting manner than traditional scenework, then so be it.
Ms. Lockhart clearly loves Frankie as much as the reader does. Frankie’s a fun young woman who does interesting things and thinks interesting thoughts. Groovy. But here’s the thing: characters who are always right and who always do and think the right things can be really boring. None of us are fallible, so it wouldn’t make sense for our protagonists to be infallible.
Approximately halfway through the book, Frankie is well into her investigation of the Bassets. She discusses the matter with her sister Zada. (Who is on the phone and a bit distracted.) One the reasons that Frankie is so preoccupied with the Bassets is that she’s not allowed to join because she’s female.
Let’s pause for a second: everyone reading this is a decent person, right? Sure. We can certainly see Frankie’s point. None of us likes to be told that we can’t do something. So when we read Frankie’s side of the story, we agree.
Then we hear sister Zada’s side. Zada points out that all the Bassets do is drink beer and engage in stupid pranks that waste time. She encourages Frankie to start her own group if she wants to be part of a secret society.
Now, it really doesn’t matter which sibling makes the better case. What matters that Ms. Lockhart gave us a good lesson: allow your protagonist, no matter how strong, to be wrong on occasion. Allow others to question his or her beliefs and actions. The world is not a black-and-white place, friends. There are countless shades of gray all around us. A story filled with too many absolutes is not one that can be easily believed.
Think of it this way. You’ve seen The Karate Kid, right? Not the remake, obviously. The good one. Daniel LaRussa is a fish out of water who feels alone…until he meets Mr. Miyagi and begins learning discipline and self-reliance from the martial arts. The ending of the film, of course, takes place at a karate tournament. We’re all rooting for Daniel-san to win! We want him to beat the Cobra Kai jerk! However, if the fight is too easy for Daniel, then we will lose interest. That’s why the Cobra Kai jerk cheats a little bit and hobbles Daniel, making it harder for him to fight.
We are happier when Daniel pulls through because writer Robert Mark Kamen and director John G. Avildsen give Daniel flaws and problems. Like Frankie, Daniel can be a little bit stubborn and judgmental. Neither character always does or says the right thing. We have these lapses, too; they’re what make us human…and isn’t that what we try to do in fiction? We try to create new worlds that feel real and are populated by real people.
So should I be upset that Ms. Lockhart took away some of my valuable writing time? Possibly. But wasn’t it worth it? I got to internalize some important lessons gleaned from her book and I had the pleasure to share them with you.
2008, E. Lockhart, Hyperion, Young Adult
Title of Work and its Form: “Maximum Security,” short story
Author: Michael P. Kardos (on Twitter @michael_kardos)
Date of Work: 2008
Where the Work Can Be Found: The story debuted in the Winter 2008 issue of the Southern Review. “Maximum Security” appears in Mr. Kardos’s 2011 story collection, One Last Good Time. The folks at Press 53 are pretty cool. Why not buy the book from them? The story is also available through the EBSCO database. If you don’t know how those work, your local librarian will be more than pleased to show you.
Bonuses: Here is an interview Mr. Kardos did about his novel, The Three-Day Affair. Here are some very interesting blog posts Mr. Kardos made at The Missouri Review. Here is a short story Mr. Kardos placed with Blackbird in 2007.
Element of Craft We’re Stealing: Narrative Structure
What a great story. Brandon is the first person narrator, a young man who begins by telling the reader about his piano teacher, Rudyard Cross. The gentleman plays the organ and the music calms Brandon’s father, a man still getting over the death of his wife. Cross is also a little flamboyant. He enjoys life and does so with flair. When Brandon begins mimicking some of Cross’s mannerisms—as teenagers sometimes do—his father gets quite upset and cancels Brandon’s lessons. Brandon’s friend Danny joins in, pointing out that people are making fun of him for acting in a stereotypically homosexual manner. The bulk of the narrative recounts the time Brandon goes to a real, honest-to-goodness teenager party. He pays his three dollars for the keg and drinks a couple beers. Amanda Van Sickle kisses him without first obtaining permission to do so; the experience embarrasses and confuses him. The beer starts to get to Brandon and he loosens up a little around people he has never spent time with outside of school. He even steals some beer from a liquor store, which he drinks with some of the kids he thinks are “cool.” Brandon kisses Danny without first obtaining permission to do so and Danny punches him in the gut. Seeking solace, Brandon spends the night in the care of the parents whose house was used for the party. The next morning, Brandon is afraid of what his father will do to him; the story ends on a beautiful note, as Brandon disassociates and imagines safety and the last time he felt whole.
The first thing we must do is examine the structure Mr. Kardos employed for this story. “Maximum Security” features two parts:
- The background about Brandon and his father and their living situation, the information about Rudyard Cross. Brandon is picking up some mannerisms from Cross; his father and friends think he might be gay.
- The night of the party. Nonconsensual kisses, stealing beer and vomiting at a stranger’s house. The morning after, when Brandon is picked up.
We certainly need the first part to understand the second, but look at the number of pages each part occupies. The story occupies, give or take, 15 pages in the Southern Review. The story is split right down the middle; 7.5 pages for “part one” and 7.5 pages for “part two.” Mr. Kardos ensures that sufficient emphasis is placed on the night of the party; this is the dramatic present and this is the event that allows all of the issues of part one to interact, changing Brandon’s life. The story would not have the same impact if the party only lasted for three pages; Mr. Kardos plants the seeds and allows the flowers to blossom.
Mr. Kardos makes a very cool choice in the story. His narrator is somewhat sheltered. He didn’t have a curfew because it was unnecessary. Poor Brandon doesn’t have any “cool” friends and doesn’t hang out anywhere. When he gets in the car with Danny and two other boys, he is impressed by their jackets. Letterman jackets are a powerful symbol in high school, aren’t they? As a music-type nerd, I certainly didn’t have one. The guys who did had far better lives than me; they talked to girls…and the girls even talked back! Brandon is certainly in the same kind of boat. He’s a little “artsier” than most guys and isn’t successful at any of the endeavors that usually indicate social success. It’s perfectly natural that he would attribute some kind of power to the jackets.
Then Mr. Kardos does something beautiful. Brandon has stolen the beer and is trying to endear himself to people who aren’t quite in his social circle. Here’s Brandon making small talk:
We weren’t all friends, and nobody really knew what to say. At one point I asked Darius and Nick what sport they played, and they asked what I meant, and I said the jackets, and then they looked down at the ground, and Nick said trombone, and Darius said clarinet.
Mr. Kardos does two very important things with these two sentences. He depicts Brandon’s discomfort in making conversation and he subverts Brandon’s understanding of the characters. (In addition to the reader’s understanding of them.) EVERY teen feels as though they’re on the outside looking in. The people we think are having the best life ever usually aren’t. The beautiful and kind cheerleader has problems at home; the quarterback just lost his younger brother. (You’ve seen The Breakfast Club, right?) Mr. Kardos gracefully makes his minor characters very vivid, even in a fifteen-page short story.
Danny tells Brandon that his new mannerisms are making him sound “like a real fag” at school. Do many of us recoil from these unpleasant slurs? Of course. Should we use these words in a personal manner with people who may be offended by their use? Probably not. Writers and other creative people, however, are striving toward verisimilitude: the appearance of reality in fiction. In the time period in which Mr. Kardos’s story takes place, teenage boys used the word “fag” with each other. (And many, I’m guessing, still do.)
Imagine that Mr. Kardos had Danny say, “Why are you acting like such a young man who doesn’t conform to traditional gender representations in speech and behavior…not that there’s anything wrong with that?” The line would not ring true and wouldn’t mean anything. If you’re writing about Jackie Robinson, you must acknowledge that the despicable people didn’t heckle him with the term “African American.” The Phelps family and their Westboro Baptist Church don’t say that “Americans who happen to be homosexual” are responsible for natural disasters. I am sure that other folks will disagree, but I believe that it is disrespectful to your audience to pull punches. Mr. Kardos respects his reader; he knows they understand that HE is not saying something horrible. His character uses the naughty term. Mr. Kardos has faith that his reader will get that the story is pro-gay and anti-jerk. Further, if you turn a “naughty” word into an asterisk salad, you’re doing a disservice to the “victim” you’re trying to protect.
Several months ago, I tuned into NPR—I think it was Diane Rehm—to hear a discussion about the pernicious “A word.” Unfortunately, I was a few moments late; I never found out which “A word” they were talking about. I love NPR, but they were treating me like a child that day.
What Should We Steal?
- Count the number of pages you devote to different sections in your work and devote the appropriate page space to each. The most important parts of your work deserve the most page space.
- Employ powerful details to fill out your supporting characters. Just one or two details can go a long way, particularly if they are the right ones.
- Use unpleasant words in the correct manner. Your reader will understand your intent and the experience will be one of mutual respect.
2008, Maximum Security, Michael Kardos, Narrative Structure, Ohio State
Title of Work and its Form: “Proof of God,” short story
Author: Holly Goddard Jones (On Twitter: @goddardjones)
Date of Work: 2008
Where the Work Can Be Found: The story originally appeared in Epoch, one of the most consistently awesome literary journals out there. “Proof of God” was chosen for Best American Mystery Stories 2008 and you can find it in that anthology. The story concludes Ms. Jones’s collection Girl Trouble. You are well advised to buy this stellar book. Why not throw some business to a local independent bookseller? If you’re in the Houston area, The Brazos Bookstore comes highly recommended. (On Twitter @brazosbookstore.) The staff seems nice and Keaton has some cool recommendations. “Proof of God” is also available on its own as an Amazon download, but if you only buy one story, you miss out on the others!
Bonuses: Here is Elaina Richardson’s review of Girl Trouble from O Magazine. Here is what the Emerging Writers Network thought of the story. Here is a beautiful piece of creative nonfiction Ms. Jones wrote that bears the very clear title: “I Was a Teenage Bride.”
Element of Craft We’re Stealing: A Writer’s First Duty
Gosh, what a great story. Simon is one of those rich kids who rule in high school. His father sells shoddy furniture, enough to give Simon a late-model Corvette. Dad is a bit confused when someone slashed the word “FAG” all over the car. “You didn’t do anything to encourage this,” he later asks. Simon is indeed a homosexual, though he isn’t quite comfortable with his own feelings. In college, Simon spends a lot of time with Marty. Marty is a great guy: a good cook and a fun companion. When he learns that Simon is a virgin, Marty decides to help out. The two young men hang out with Felicia, a sweet and fun girl who is a little wary of “hanging out” and smoking pot in her room, but she accedes. Bigger problem: Felicia ends up well and truly out of it, having sex with Marty. Unfortunately, this was Marty’s plan to help Simon lose his virginity. Marty invites Simon to “take his turn.” The scene is excruciating; I think I’ll end summarizing the story at this point. Just read it. (Odd tonal connection with T.C. Boyle’s “Love of My Life?”)
There’s no way around it: Felicia gets raped. Not only is she too out of it to consent or to participate in a reciprocal encounter, but she comes to a little bit and starts shouting for help. Ms. Jones makes a prudent structural choice. The story is a little “long,” but the hanging out/rape scene takes up at least ten pages. Ms. Goddard shrewdly devoted a lot of page space to allow the actions of her characters to be clear. (All the better to empathize, of course!)
Let’s confront the elephant in the room. We’re all saddened by rape. We’re all upset when people are taken advantage of in the extreme manner that serves as Felicia’s fate. Ms. Goddard, however, does not allow her/our innate discomfort and anger with the events to get in the way of her primary duty: to tell a good and interesting story. It would be very easy for the author to fail in her duty and to prioritize judgment of Simon and Marty above her duty to tell a story. (I’ve fallen into this trap myself.) No, even though we’re very disturbed by the events, we must reach these conclusions on our own. At one point, Marty does something with air freshener that is terribly disturbing. Not only do I love this detail (in a story way), but the gut-punch of the moment is more powerful because Ms. Goddard let me reach my own sad conclusion about what happened.
Ms. Goddard also frames the narrative in a very graceful way. You could, in fact, think about this story as “A RECOUNTING OF THE TWO TIMES SIMON’S CAR WAS VANDALIZED.” The two instances have very different causes and emotional impacts. The unspoken but very clear contrast engages the reader and invites them strongly to enter the mind of the character. (Even if we’re not exactly stoked about what he’s up to at times.)
It is very easy to judge “bad” people harshly. Does anyone think Adolf Hitler was a great guy? Of course not. But if we’re going to understand the motivations of a person or character, we must understand them in a complete manner, good and bad. Which teaches us more about the psychology of evil? Just saying that Hitler was evil or trying to figure out if the secret of his Jewish ancestry caused some sort of defensive aggression in his psychology? I’ll take the latter approach, not just because it’s better for storytelling purposes, but because it helps us understand and perhaps prevent bad things in the future. Ms. Goddard allows us access to Simon’s insecurities and his repressed nature. He embraces Marty at one point; a beautiful moment. If Ms. Goddard had only said, “Grr…Simon bad!,” then we would not have a window into why he does what he does. There’s a reason why there are very few 100% evil moustache-twirling villains in movies. Those are not as interesting as bad guys or girls who have a REASON to be bad.
What Should We Steal?
- Leave judgment and expression of emotion to the reader. Do you want a chef to describe how he or she feels about the food you’re eating while you’re eating it? Eating and reading are two experiences that must have their solitary and social sides.
- Frame your story by recounting similar experiences with different implications. Context will lend incidents different meanings.
- Allow ALL of your characters to be vulnerable. Your story should be populated with characters–real approximations of human beings. Not just characters who do bad things because you need some kind of conflict.
2008, A Writer's First Duty, Epoch, Girl Trouble, Holly Goddard Jones, Ohio State
Title of Work and its Form: River of Heaven, novel
Author: Lee Martin (on Twitter @LeeMartinAuthor)
Date of Work: 2009
Where the Work Can Be Found: The book was published by Three Rivers Press and can be found at fine bookstores everywhere and in e-book format. Here‘s a link to Mr. Martin’s “Buy the Book” page.
Bonuses: You really should join Mr. Martin’s Facebook group: The Lee Martin Appreciation Society. Lee frequently uses the page to interact with fans and friends, offering a priceless glimpse into his writing and his process. Here‘s a nonfiction piece that Mr. Martin published in Brevity. Mr. Martin created a music playlist for River of Heaven for the Largehearted Boy blog. Here is a nonfiction piece Mr. Martin published in the Superstition Review.
River of Heaven was also the subject of the very first GWS video. Check it out:
Element of Craft We’re Stealing: EVERYTHING!
Sam Brady is a lifelong bachelor who allowed his homosexuality to keep him lonely. (After reading his story, you understand his complicated relationship with himself.) Sam’s neighbor, Arthur the widower, helps Sam build a ship-shaped doghouse for his dog, Stump. This is the inciting incident that kicks off the events of River of Heaven. Long ago, Sam was friends with Dewey Finn and the shadow of Dewey’s death has cast a pall over the whole of Sam’s life. Throughout the book, the reader learns the truth about what happened on the railroad tracks just before Dewey met his fate. That darn ship-shaped doghouse has a ripple effect in Sam’s life. A young man from the newspaper comes around to do a profile, which attracts the attention of Sam’s estranged brother, Cal. Yes, a family is slowly congealing around a man who went so long without one. Unfortunately, acquiring a family also means that Sam attracts attention from a person or two with whom he would rather not interact. Mr. Martin’s plot unfurls inexorably and with a sense of inevitability. This is a novel about broken people who, at long last, endure the pain necessary to grow and to forgive themselves and to find the happiness they deserve.
Mr. Martin is a world-class writer and teacher, but those who are fortunate enough to have met him have learned something more: Mr. Martin is a very decent man. Sure, I’m betting that he’s shouted some cross words at someone who has cut him off. He’s a human being. But the important thing is that he recognizes the humanity in everyone he meets; sometimes a Herculean task. His characters often have desires that most people would find unpleasant or strange. Instead of dismissing people who are on the margins, Mr. Martin seeks to understand them and represent them faithfully on the page. In River of Heaven, Mr. Martin seeks to understand a man who has spent time in a right-wing militia group. Can those kinds of folks be written as extremist caricatures? Sure, but Mr. Martin makes these characters more complicated and more human than others might have. Mr. Martin is not at all an elderly retired homosexual who never had a long-term romantic relationship, but his willingness to understand others allows him to imagine what Sam has endured.
Further, some writers have a tendency to focus on the same characters and situations and themes. (This was certainly the case for me! I spent many years only writing about unrequited love. Now, I just live it.) You never know what you’re going to get from Mr. Martin, but you know it will be good. A writer will always have common themes. John Irving will always have his bears, wrestling and younger man sleeping with an older woman. Sure. But someone like Mr. Irving explores different situations. Mr. Martin has written great memoir and novels set decades apart about a wide range of characters. I suppose it’s really a matter of personal taste, but isn’t being a writer a little bit like being a performer? What fun would it be to have Whitney Houston’s voice if “I Will Always Love You” is the ONLY SONG YOU EVER SING?
In River of Heaven and his other books, Mr. Martin confronts human problems in a complicated and realistic manner. Let’s say you meet an elderly man who confesses he’s never been in a real romantic relationship. If you ask why, should you be satisfied with a one-word answer? Of course not. There are a lot of complicated issues involved in the situation. For good and bad, those complicated situations require a lot of time and attention. Consider melodrama. Think Trapped in the Closet or a Tyler Perry film or a terrible romantic comedy. Those works often require you to gasp at relatively normal things. Sam reveals that he’s “a closet auntie, a fag, a queer—you know all the words.” Mr. Martin reveals this on page 3. Why? Because simply being homosexual is not a big deal and it’s not really a shock. (In Trapped in the Closet, Mr. Kelly expects the audience to gasp because of the simple fact that a character is gay or is a little person or that a little person who pooped in his pants.) Mr. Martin wrings tremendous drama and feeling from how Sam’s sexual orientation shaped his life.
River of Heaven is very much a “literary” novel, for whatever that means. “Literary” work is like vanilla ice cream: it’s delicious and will please a crowd, but it can be a little pedestrian. Mr. Martin’s book is not at all pedestrian because he has several different threads to keep your attention and they’re each a little bit different.
- What will happen to Maddie, the beautiful young woman whose parents didn’t do a very good job?
- What will happen to Cal? Boyoboy, he shouldn’t have gotten so wrapped up in some kind of bombing plot in some manner I won’t reveal.
- Will Sam make the temporary family he’s accruing permanent?
And most of all…
- What the heck happened to Dewey Finn all those years ago?
There’s a little bit of a crime novel here, a little bit of romance novel, even! And why not? Mr. Martin makes it impossible for you to put down the book because you want to know how these different stories are resolved.
I think that the most valuable lesson in the book comes from the way Mr. Martin releases the megaton of exposition for which he is responsible. I suppose, by and large, Mr. Martin got his shy and defensive narrator to talk by bringing in a cast of other characters who forced him to talk. The unfortunately named Duncan Hines is a young reporter who (in my view) gets more and more dangerous. As a reporter, it’s literally his job to ask questions and pull exposition out of Sam. Brother Cal returns, allowing Sam to remember and describe important events from their youth. Vera, an old family friend is a reminder of those days gone by. Sam was introspective for so long because he had no one else around. Now that he’s surrounded by a family, he can’t help but get his story out. Mr. Martin’s narrator is the kind of guy who likes to keep secrets, which can be a real problem in a first person novel. Thankfully, Sam’s new friends won’t let him button his lips anymore.
No GWS write-up could do justice to what a writer can learn from Mr. Martin. I am forever grateful that I was lucky enough to have worked with him on a fairly close basis. Mr. Martin maintains an extensive teaching schedule, both at Ohio State and elsewhere. If the opportunity to meet him at a signing or to attend one of his workshops presents itself, take advantage!
What Should We Steal?
- Understand as many kinds of people as you can and cast them as the stars of your work. Writing about the same characters and situations all the time is a little bit like eating the same meal every day. Salisbury steak is good, but don’t you want something different once in a while?
- Subvert tendencies toward melodrama by digging deeper into your characters. Character traits are not drama in and of themselves. Drama and comedy arise FROM your characters and what the traits mean about their lives.
- Layer in qualities from other genres to add depth and attract more attention. The Godfather is a gangster movie…but it’s also a romance. The Incredibles is a kid’s movie, but it’s also a sad meditation on our society’s rejection of healthy competition.
- Employ a character’s support network to coax exposition from your protagonist. When in doubt, drop in a confidante! A cast of different characters allows you to fill in what happened, as different characters will care about different things.
2008, EVERYTHING, Lee Martin, Ohio State, River of Heaven
Title of Work and its Form: The Family: The Secret Fundamentalism at the Heart of American Power, nonfiction book
Author: Jeff Sharlet (on Twitter @JeffSharlet)
Date of Work: 2008
Where the Work Can Be Found: The book was a New York Times bestseller and can be found in all fine bookstores.
Bonuses: We must resist the temptation to be jealous, but Mr. Sharlet is pretty much a superstar. Here are some articles he’s written for Harper’s Magazine. Here‘s an interview Mr. Sharlet did with NPR. You will also find an excerpt of The Family on the page. Mr. Sharlet is also a contributing editor for The Revealer, a very cool online publication that is focused on the intersection of media and religion. Here is an interview Mr. Sharlet did with the incomparable Rachel Maddow.
Element of Craft We’re Stealing: Meaningful Journalism
The Family: The Secret Fundamentalism at the Heart of American Power is a must-read for anyone who is interested in politics or religion or what is happening in the United States. (That should be everyone in the country.) The Family was my read-before-bed book a few summers ago, and what value the book offers; it took me the whole summer to read it. (I savored the book.) Mr. Sharlet’s book is ambitious in scope and makes good on each of its goal. Between the covers is the whole story of how fundamentalist Christianity developed and planted itself so strongly in American culture. The book is divided into three sections. The first chronicles Mr. Sharlet’s personal experience with fundamentalist Christians and what it was like to spend time with the “brothers” at Ivanwald. The second painstakingly recounts the origins and development of the philosophy that gave rise to folks like Billy Graham and Doug Coe. Along the way, Mr. Sharlet tells you approximately twelve zillion fascinating anecdotes about these influential men and women.
I try not to get too political here on Great Writers Steal; there are plenty of outlets for editorials and real journalism. (Perhaps my byline will grace them at some point. Stranger things have happened. I’m all ears if anyone wants to share magical incantations that might work.) Instead of telling you what I think about the Family and the group’s politics, I’ll focus on what we can steal from Mr. Sharlet’s writing. And this is the first big point. Mr. Sharlet is a world-class journalist for reasons that may be unexpected to some. REAL journalism is not about presenting all sides of a story; it’s about presenting the truth. Mr. Sharlet is not at all “superbiased” or vindictive in his assessment of the group or its ideology. He is simply describing it in an honest fashion and drawing fair and reasonable conclusions.
Some journalistic outlets (that shall remain nameless) bend over backwards in hopes of presenting “all sides” of a story. Sometimes, a story doesn’t have multiple sides. When folks get together to discuss the Apollo missions, do we have an obligation to invite moon landing deniers to the table? Of course not. If we’re discussing affirmative action, must we see what the Klan thinks? No. It’s not a journalistic sin to have an opinion or to make your subject look bad. It’s only a problem if you are doing so dishonestly. Mr. Sharlet was not interested in doing a “hatchet job” on the group; he simply learned all he could about the movement and its effects and reported what he learned and the experiences he had with the Family and its members.
Mr. Sharlet researched a ton for the book; that much is clear. (I highly suspect, Dear Reader, that you don’t need to be told that it’s important to research when you’re writing…well, anything.) Mr. Sharlet, however, immersed himself in the story and applied an objective viewpoint. Mr. Sharlet had already published his account of life at Ivanwald when folks started reaching out to him. As more and more people with connections to the Family contacted him, Mr. Sharlet saw there was more of the story to tell. Even though he describes several entertaining scenes in which he took part, the book is not ABOUT HIM.
Yes, he received a phone call from “Kate,” a beautiful young woman who said she wanted to meet him because she was a big fan. Before long, Mr. Sharlet got her to admit that she had been sent to spy on him. I love what follows:
We ended up talking for three more hours and drinking a lot of wine. I tried to persuade her that the Family was a secretive, undemocratic organization that aided and abetted dictators. She agreed, only she thought that was a good thing. She said the Family still loved me. I told her about some of the killers the Family had supported. She rallied by pointing out that we’re all sinners, and thus shouldn’t judge those whom God places in authority. “Jeff,” she said, holding my eyes, twisting her wine stem between her fingers, “in your heart, have you ever lusted for a woman? Isn’t that just as bad?”
The description may not be flattering to the Family, but it is honest. Mr. Sharlet may have been a character in the story, but he does not make himself the protagonist. I’m reminded of one of the great pieces of literary nonfiction: Gay Talese’s “Frank Sinatra Has a Cold.” Mr. Talese profiles the great Frank Sinatra in an honest light that is not always flattering and is a participant in the story, though his piece keeps its focus where it belongs. (If you haven’t read the piece, go read it now!)
I’m sure that The Family was not an easy book to write. Many lesser books on the same topic lack the breadth and scope of Mr. Sharlet’s tome. I suppose it’s a matter of opinion, but I would rather write one stellar book than multiple mediocre books. The Family is certainly the former.
What Should We Steal?
- Ignore the sides of the story that deserve no consideration and acknowledge a subject’s blemishes in order to deliver truth to your reader. Like it or not, George Washington and Thomas Jefferson owned slaves. We can all agree they were brilliant and fascinating men, but we can’t pretend they were without flaw. (And we certainly can’t pretend that Jefferson was an advocate of the idea that the Constitution is anything other than secular.)
- Remain an objective outsider, even when you are an involved insider. Being an insider gets you insight; being an outsider allows you to understand and digest the experience.
2008, Ivanwald, Jeff Sharlet, Meaningful Journalism, The Family
Title of Work and its Form: “Cholera, Drowning, and the Firstborn You Wished For,” poem
Author: Michael Schmeltzer
Date of Work: 2008
Where the Work Can Be Found: The poem was published in the July 2008 issue of the Boxcar Poetry Review. You can find it here.
Bonuses: Here are some poems Mr. Schmeltzer had published in the Superstition Review. Here are some more poems Mr. Schmeltzer published in 42opus.
Element of Craft We’re Stealing: Painting With Words
Like its title, “Cholera, Drowning, and the Firstborn You Wished For” is split into three sections. In the first, the narrator describes a prenatal appointment he attended with a woman who was pregnant with his child. In the second, Schmeltzer meditates on the titular cholera; the disease is spread by the same water it leeches from the victim. The third section considers water as a threat and what happens when it is allowed to flow uncontrolled. There’s a brooding intensity in the poem; Mr. Schmeltzer deals with big ideas and employs confident, reserved language to allow the reader to use both intellect and emotion.
Mr. Schmeltzer isn’t using a specific kind of meter in the poem, but he is still thinking very much about the music made by his lines. I love the way that he opens the lines with different iambs (metrical feet).
||Iamb I felt Mr. Schmeltzer used:
|as an answer
Mr. Schmeltzer switches up the rhythm of the lines, which attracts the reader’s attention. When you read an Elizabethan sonnet (all iambic pentameter), the reader doesn’t need to focus on the meter. Simplicity is far less appropriate in a poem like “Cholera, Drowning…” Mr. Schmeltzer makes the wise choice to leave many elements of the poem out of balance. After all, flooding is an imbalance in the water table, cholera is an imbalance in the immune system and so on.
There’s another interesting “imbalance” in the poem. Look what Mr. Schmeltzer does in the last sentence of each section: there’s a deliberate break between the words. (And it looks like the space decreases in size each time.) Is this a mistake? Of course not. Mr. Schmeltzer is altering your understanding of the poem by influencing the way your brain receives it. That gap is only three quarters of an inch wide, but requires the reader to pause for just a moment. This respite allows you that much more time to absorb everything you’ve read in the poem and adds importance to what follows.
And what does follow? “gradually forgotten,” “too much,” “deluge of language.” The three phrases serve as a summation of the poem’s theme. The “key” is made more obvious because Mr. Schmeltzer subtly nudges your subconscious into adding more emphasis to the phrases.
I love Rembrandt for many reasons, but look at the way he uses light to direct your gaze. Look at his painting called “The Nightwatch:” You could look at this painting for hours, especially if you were standing before the actual canvas. Your eyes are likely drawn to the gentleman on the right because he’s bathed in light. Directly parallel is the child, also awash in light. Next, we likely notice the gentleman between the two…see how Remmy is telling you where to look by using shapes and light? Mr. Schmeltzer is also “painting,” only with words.
What Should We Steal?
- Mess with meter to make music and create tone. You can keep your reader’s attention if he or she is always off-balance. Nudging the reader to constantly assess your meter can also reinforce the idea that there are even more complicated thoughts to be mined in your work.
- Paint in the same manner as Rembrandt, only with words. Direct your reader’s subconscious to the most critical parts of your piece.
2008, Boxcar Poetry Review, Michael Schmeltzer, Painting With Words
Title of Work and its Form: “Gravity,” pop song/music video
Author: The song was written and performed by Sara Bareilles (along with other musicians). I can’t find the name of the man or woman who directed the video. Please feel free to tell me who it was.
Date of Work: 2008
Where the Work Can Be Found: The song first appeared on Careful Confessions, Ms. Bareilles’s debut album and was subsequently recorded for her follow-up, Little Voice. You may also listen to the song and watch the video courtesy the Sara Bareilles VEVO page.
Element of Craft We’re Stealing: Narrative Emphasis
Gosh, what a beautiful song. “Gravity” opens in a simple manner: only Ms. Bareilles and her piano. The first line of the lyric introduces the song’s central metaphor: “Something always brings me back to you…” Remember all that stuff you were told in high school physics when you were wondering how to get a date for the prom? All matter in the universe exerts a gravitational force on the other matter that depends on its mass. (Right?) Personally, I assume that Ms. Bareilles is singing to a significant other, but the song can mean whatever you wish it to mean. The narrator of the song knows that the lover is bad news, but can’t help but return to him or her, feeling pulled by an inexplicable force.
One reason the song is so great is that the arrangement spotlights Ms. Bareilles’s world-class voice. Writers of all kinds need to understand their strengths and play to them, just as Ms. Bareilles’s sound engineer knows that he or she needs to boost the level of the boss’s microphone. Hollywood screenwriters do this a lot; there are writers who are known as “character writers;” these folks will be called in to punch up the characters in a script. There are writers who get paid very well to add jokes to scripts. Decide what comes easiest to you and emphasize that facet of your work.
“Gravity” ends with a reprise of the opening of the song, bringing the narrator’s experience full circle. By doing this, Ms. Bareilles brings symmetry to the piece and to the story she’s describing. Ending a short story is always difficult. (Well, it always is for me.) Maybe what you need to do at a story’s end is to return to its beginning.
The music video for “Gravity” is a very powerful piece of filmmaking. The whole thing is done in one shot. The director focuses his or her camera on Ms. Bareilles as she walks through an alley. Now, this would be a good choice on its own. Ms. Bareilles is a compelling performer and there’s something about her face that makes you want to watch her. The real genius takes a few seconds to kick in. Before long, you realize that Ms. Bareilles has started on Earth and is walking through the Solar System. The mural behind her looks like a map and a young child zooms an airplane in front of her. A pickup truck pulls in behind the singer carrying a large inflatable Earth. Before long, Ms. Bareilles is passing Mars, stars and comets are flying by her (carried by extras). The director was incredibly inventive in his or her use of objects; an opened fire hydrant provides the rings of Saturn, bicycle taillights paint parallel lines around the singer as she leaves the gravitational pull of the Sun. Goodness, what a way to make use of the central metaphor of the song! As the video ends, Ms. Bareilles is as alone as she was in the beginning. (There’s that symmetry again.) I’m certainly not an expert with respect to the cost of music videos, but the director found a relatively inexpensive way to pack an emotional wallop; all he or she needed were some flashlights and some flares. The video also allows the song to work its magic on you. Instead of distracting the viewer with countless MTV cuts, the video emphasizes the simple and bare emotion in the song. It can be very easy to get bogged down in all of the “stuff” we put into our work; sometimes it’s best to let our story or our words stand on their own.
What Should We Steal?
- Play to your strengths and showcase your particular talents. Ms. Bareilles is wise to put her voice front and center. What should you emphasize in a piece? Your facility with language? Your propensity with plot?
- Finish your work with symmetry. Human beings are innately attracted to symmetry; we find these patterns in our lives and are attracted to them when looking for a mate. Perhaps your poem, short story or song wants to end the way it began.
- Allow a simple story to stand on its own. A well-cooked steak (fine, or a well-cooked eggplant) is a fine meal unto itself. Maybe your poem or short play doesn’t need a baked potato or a side of creamed corn.
2008, Narrative Emphasis, Sara Bareilles
Title of Work and its Form: The Nine: Inside the Secret World of the Supreme Court, nonfiction
Author: Jeffrey Toobin
Date of Work: 2008
Where the Work Can Be Found: Purchase the book at Powell’s or in your local neighborhood bookstore.
Element of Craft We’re Stealing: Narrative Structure
I’m not quite sure why, but I love reading about the Supreme Court. No matter what you may think of a specific Justice, it’s a fascinating institution that has been the home almost exclusively of brilliant people who both know and love the Constitution on a deep level. The American experiment, in many ways, can be distilled into a list of Supreme Court decisions.
Toobin’s excellent book is a snapshot of the Supreme Court near the end of Chief Justice Rehnquist’s term. (The narrative extends slightly past the Chief’s death.) Toobin’s book achieves three very difficult goals:
- Present an honest biography of the nine Justices in addition to telling the stories of the important supporting players.
- Describe the sometimes complicated legal discussions that surrounded cases such as Bush v. Gore and Hamdan v. Rumsfeld and Planned Parenthood v. Casey.
- Appeal to readers who are not necessarily legal scholars. (That means me.)
Toobin chooses a felicitous structure for the book. Instead of frontloading the book with dozens (if not hundreds) of pages describing the life story of each Justice, he weaves the biographical information into the larger story of the Court’s work. The reader learns that Justice Thomas enjoyed taking his RV around the country and is reminded of the Anita Hill debate, but the exposition doesn’t get in the way.
The narrative shifts through time as necessary, but the Rehnquist Court is still the spine of the book. In order to adequately describe Rehnquist’s ideological evolution, Toobin must first go back in time to tell the story of memos Rehnquist wrote that could be considered…well, kinda sorta racist maybe.
Toobin is somewhat lucky because his book is set in a very important time in American history. The Court has always been a battleground, to be sure. But the Court has been much more visible in the past few decades and has been much more politicized than in the past. (Boy, did it take me a long time to figure out the right qualifiers for that sentence. You get the point.) Confirmation hearings weren’t really a matter of interest until Robert Bork was “borked” and Justice Thomas had that little problem with Anita Hill. The Presidential election of 2000 was the first decided by the Supreme Court and the aftermath of the terrorist attacks of September 11th, 2001 resulted in a series of very important cases.
Even though Supreme Court Justices are often thought to be made of the same stone that makes up the Supreme Court building itself, Toobin treats the history like a story and the Justices like people. It is one thing to think of Justice Harry Blackmun as a white-haired man who wrote a bunch of important decisions. Instead, Toobin goes further, describing the agony the man went through as he tried to produce a version of the opinion for Roe v. Wade that would reflect the Court’s vote without cleaving the country in two. The process by which a President chooses a nominee could be described in a boring manner; Toobin tells it like a real story.
Toobin did his homework, interviewing roughly eleventy trillion people. Because he did his homework, he is able to fill the book with great anecdotes. For example, Justice O’Connor (a proud old-school Republican who began her career in Arizona) loves hearing that her former clerks are pregnant (or that their wives/girlfriends are having a baby). As Toobin writes on page 218:
O’Connor gave T-shirts with the words “Grand Clerks” to the newborn children of all her law clerks; shortly after 2000, she learned that one of her former clerks, a gay man, was adopting a baby with his partner. In her briskly efficient way, O’Connor poked her head into her current clerks’ office, explained the situation, and said, “I should send one of the shirts, right? We think this is a good idea, don’t we? The clerks nodded and the shirt went in the mail.
If you’ll notice, Toobin efficiently points out a facet of O’Connor’s character with the dialogue. Instead of O’Connor saying “I think,” she says, “we.” The quote points out an openness to deliberation.
What Should We Steal?
- Break up big and complicated stories into smaller bites, unified by a central theme. I love Gibbon’s The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, but that book is DENSE. The Nine, by definition, must feature nine miniature biographies, but Toobin weaves between stories about Court cases and stories about the people in order to create suspense. Indeed, we all remember that Justice Rehnquist passed away, but the book still makes it a surprise.
- Treat your characters like real people. Real people have flaws. A character is likely to feel more real if you allow them to confess unpleasant thoughts. Justice Scalia is a fascinating guy; Toobin includes quotes from the man that make him seem both brilliant and petty.
- Choose a meaningful story to tell; one with lots of drama. It would be a little difficult to captivate readers with a description of life at Pearl Harbor in November, 1941. Wouldn’t you agree that the drama is much easier to find if you write about December, 1941?
2008, Jeffrey Toobin, Narrative Structure, The Supreme Court