Title of Work and its Form: “God,” short story
Author: Benjamin Nugent
Date of Work: 2013
Where the Work Can Be Found: “God” made its debut in Fall 2013’s Issue 206 of The Paris Review, one of the biggest journals around. The story was subsequently chosen for Best American Short Stories 2014 and can be found in the anthology.
Bonuses: Listen to this audio interview Mr. Nugent gave to The Lit Show‘s Ben Mauk in support of his novel, Good Kids. Here is “The Rugby Witch,” a story that was published in The L Magazine. Here is a fun video in which Mr. Nugent discusses the word “nerd:”
Element of Craft We’re Stealing: Audience
The first person narrator is a college student and a member of the Delta Zeta Chi fraternity. The frat’s world has been turned upside down by God. No, not a supernatural being. God is the nickname they have given to Melanie, a young woman who has captured the heart of their leader, Caleb Newtown–also known as “Nutella.” Melanie flexed her literary muscles, penning a poem about Nutella’s problem with premature ejaculation. God’s revelation moves each frat brother’s heart in different ways. Five-Hour nearly manages to have sex with God, but he is prevented from doing so because of a little bit of erectile dysfunction. The story’s climax is the expected one, but Mr. Nugent does a good job of imbuing the story with far more weight than such a piece might otherwise have.
There’s so much to admire about this story, but I’ll begin with the point I was just making. I often mention my preoccupation with “the woman on the bus.” Lee K. Abbott, my stellar teacher at Ohio State, used this idea to describe the kind of audience he has in mind when he writes. I sometimes worry that our literary community has become too insular; that we’re not making as many new readers as are necessary to keep us going. Are we dealing with subject matter that is too esoteric for the mainstream? Are we abandoning plot and other elements that are attractive to a wide audience? We’re competing with TV, film, texting and the Internet, after all. Why can’t more “literary” work be “fun?”
This is a story about romantic attraction and its resultant sexual complications. People are interested in reading about that. This story is funny; I made at least half a dozen smiley faces in my copy. People like laughing. The story is packed with beautiful sentences, but Mr. Nugent keeps the story humming along nicely. I suppose that what I’m saying is that writers of literary fiction should follow Mr. Nugent’s lead and tilt the scales just a little bit more in the direction of entertainment as a priority. Art feeds the heart and mind; perhaps we should make the heart a little more prominent in what we produce.
“God” is a story predicated upon a classic and powerful conceit. For months, the world of Delta Zeta Chi and its members was stable. The brothers cared about each other, everyone admired Nutella and everyone had complementary goals. That was before Melanie/God showed up and turned Delta Zeta Chi upside down. After the young woman writes the poem, the social order and heirarchy of the frat is destabilized. Instead of doing what they can to find their own girlfriends, many of the brothers want to enjoy special time with M/G, as though having sex with her will transfer some of Nutella’s power to them. And the narrator has some very interesting reasons for wanting to have sex with her…
Think of the previous paragraph and replace all of the mentions of the frat with “Camelot.” Wow! It’s pretty much the same story! All is good in Camelot until that darn Lancelot comes around, pretending he’s all moral and high-minded…until Guinevere makes eyes at him. Writers are often interested in building worlds. What happens if you decide to destroy a world instead?
What Should We Steal?
- Lighten up and entertain. Should we go full Kardashian? Of course not. (That’s a gross mental image.) Perhaps we should be just a little more cognizant of the need to attract and keep more readers.
- Begin with a nice, stable subculture and setting…then shake it up. The Republic is doing just fine…until the Senate elects the obvious bad guy to be Emperor. The proverbial marriage is doing just fine…until one partner gets a couple hangup phone calls.
2013, Audience, Benjamin Nugent, Best American Short Stories 2014, The Paris Review
Title of Work and its Form: “La Pulchra Nota,” short story
Author: Molly McNett
Date of Work: 2013
Where the Work Can Be Found: The story debuted in Issue 78 of Image. “La Pulchra Nota” was subsequently chosen for Best American Short Stories 2014.
Bonuses: Check out One Dog Happy, the collection Ms. McNett published through University of Iowa Press. Here is an interview Ms. McNett granted to one of her former students. Here is “Lonesome Road,” a piece of creative nonfiction that Ms. McNett published in Brain, Child. Check out Karen Carlson’s powerful analysis of the story.
Element of Craft We’re Stealing: Historical Fiction
John Fuller is a 29-year-old man who was, as he says, “born in the year of our Lord 1370.” He informs the reader that he has suffered a “grave accident” and no longer has use of his hands. Fuller tells his story with the help of a scribe and does so beautifully. Fuller was born with eyes that cast their gaze askew; his aesthetic misfortune led him to marry the first and seemingly only woman who would have him. Katherine is from a wealthy family and their lives are happy enough until their beloved twins die. As Katherine retreats from Fuller, one of his voice students gives him the attention that he has always craved. Olivia is a small wisp of a young woman who manages to produce “la pulchra nota,” a heavenly sound. She confesses her love, Fuller does a little too much thinking about the young lady and, well, just read the story. It’s a knockout.
I know…I know…there are about eleventy trillion stories that are set in the past and historical fiction is its own genre. I guess that I just don’t recall seeing too many in literary journals…and this is a shame because these kinds of stories are so much fun! In a way, a story like “La Pulchra Nota” turns the reader into a time traveler. What would it be like to stop by a bookstall and to buy a Shakespeare Quarto? What was it like to live during the American Revolution and discover that you are married to a Tory? Did Egyptian slaves have any time for romantic longing during the time they were building the pyramids? (And could love set them free to any extent?)
Ms. McNett is also smart enough to sidestep many of the challenges inherent in the composition of historical fiction. Do you know everything about fourteenth-century England? Me, neither. I’m wondering how well I could even communicate with John Fuller if we met; after all, he grew up in the time of Chaucer. Ms. McNett doesn’t focus too closely on the clothing, language, food, science or customs of her specific time and place. Instead, she keeps our attention on what we share with John Fuller, Katherine and Olivia. Humans still suffer disabilities and disfigurement…we still love our children and mourn their untimely deaths…we still have sexual longing and can be driven to extremes when our needs in that arena are not met.
Ms. McNett’s use of Christian mythology is also a “binding agent.” Whether or not you are an actual Christian, you are no doubt familiar with the worldview that puts stress on the Fuller marriage. You are willing to ignore your curiosity about some of the finer details because you understand what it means when Ms. McNett writes:
- “…divine providence was pleased to take the life of our dear twins…”
- “…every devout man knows the great mercy he shows us in taking a child out of the world.”
- “…it pleased the Lord to take to paradise my father the organist…”
Another facet of the story that I admire is the way Ms. McNett employs the first person. After making it clear that Fuller is disabled, she has her protagonist unspool his life story. In the hands of a lesser writer (someone like me), this story could have been pretty boring. Instead, Ms. McNett focuses on the important, interesting and necessary moments in Fuller’s life. We need to know about his disfigurement and how it happened and about his marriage and how and why everything changed. Ms. McNett doesn’t bog the narrative down by including extended sections about where Fuller bought his food or what his education was like or anything else that would seem superfluous. I love Les Miserables a ton, but you have to admit that some of the sections about the Paris sewer system aren’t quite as necessary as the scenes with Fauchelevent. “La Pulchra Nota” never stops moving and that’s why we love the story. Ms. McNett follows the advice of the great Elmore Leonard, whose tenth rule of writing is:
“I try to leave out the parts that readers skip.”
What Should We Steal?
- Set your story in the distant past. If we learned nothing else from The Twilight Zone, it’s that people are the same all over. Mix things up by dispatching your Muse into centuries gone by.
- Focus on the commonalities we share with old-time characters, not our differences. Our ability to understand and/or relate to a character is more important than knowing what kinds of spice to which the protagonist has access.
- Obey Elmore. Leave out the boring parts.
2013, Best American Short Stories 2014, Historical Fiction, Image, Molly McNett
Title of Work and its Form: “Charity,” short story
Author: Charles Baxter
Date of Work: 2013
Where the Work Can Be Found: The story debuted in Issue 43 of McSweeney’s. Heidi Pitlor and Jennifer Egan chose to include the work in Best American Short Stories 2014.
Bonuses: Karen Carlson always has some interesting thoughts to share, this time about Mr. Baxter’s story. Here is a Midwestern Gothic interview in which Mr. Baxter discusses his connection to the region. Want to see what Mr. Baxter said about his work at St. Francis College?
Element of Craft We’re Stealing: Point of View
When Matty and Harry met, they were Americans living in Africa, doing what they could to help sick people. Harry loved that Matty/Quinn was filled with kindness for the people around him and wasn’t helping out in hopes of making a profit. As the Bard might say, the course of true love never did run smooth. Though they remain boyfriend and boyfriend after returning to the States, Matty ends up living in a friend’s basement, addicted to the painkillers that are his only relief from the pain caused by a sickness even the Mayo Clinic can’t identify. The story is split into two sections; the first describes the dire straits in which Matty finds himself and the second is a first-person account of Harry’s trip to Minneapolis to find and help his boyfriend.
Mr. Baxter tricked me! Ever since grad school, I’ve been in the habit of jotting down the story’s point of view and the names of the important characters. Doing so helps me remember the story the next time it’s brought up and addresses one of my blind spots: I’m REALLY bad at remembering character names. So I started reading “Charity:”
He had fallen into bad trouble. He had worked in Ethiopia for a year…
So I uncapped my fountain pen and wrote: 3RD and eventually QUINN. All was well and good until I reached the next section:
That was as far as I got whenever I tried to compose an account of what happened to Matty Quinn–my boyfriend, my soulmate, my future life…
Uh oh. That’s first person. What’s going on? Well, Mr. Baxter has made a fantastic choice: that’s what’s going on. Even though Harry most certainly asked Matty about what happened in Minneapolis, he was not there for every moment. The story therefore benefits from casting the first section in third person. The narrator (Harry, in this case) is able to immerse the reader in the story much more deeply than if he had to tell the tale from a distance. Further, the first section really does belong to Matty; he’s the protagonist in the events, he’s the focal character…so the story SHOULD be told from his perspective. The second section, on the other hand, is very much Harry’s story. He’s the one who meets up with Black Bird and who does what he can to bring Matty back to life.
If you’re lucky enough to have the Best American volume, you can read the end notes that accompany each story. Mr. Baxter reveals the most fascinating piece of information regarding the genesis of “Charity:”
…I had just written a story called “Chastity,” in which my protagonist, Benny Takemitsu, gets mugged, and I thought, “I wonder who did that?” Whoever did it had to be desperate. Whoever it was, I thought, might be a good soul in the grip of something truly terrible. So I wrote it that way.
Isn’t that cool? Mr. Baxter’s choice offers a couple powerful advantages:
It’s really hard to come up with story ideas, isn’t it? Cherry-picking an event from another of your works can be the inspiration that gets you going on a new story. If you look at any of your stories, you’ll surely see all kinds of avenues ripe for exploration. Hmm…here’s what I’m thinking I could poach from my story, “Something Like a Sin:”
- Who are some of the other people who attend Transformation Baptist? What are they like?
- What else could happen in The Raven, the bar the protagonist frequents?
- What is Pastor Hocking’s family like? When has he failed to live up to his own standards?
- What happened with all of the other women the protagonist mentions?
- Who is in the house when Melody closes the door behind her?
See? If I’m dry for inspiration, looking to my past work can give me a jumpstart.
Mr. Baxter also gains something very important by reusing Benny Takemitsu’s mugging: he’s creating a discernible world. Isn’t it comforting to know that all of the Marvel characters know each other and can sometimes team up, for good or evil? Tying these two stories together makes Mr. Baxter’s Minneapolis seem more like a real place. Creating the mythology is also a good idea in light of the fact that Mr. Baxter is publishing a collection of stories about “virtues and vices:” Chastity, Charity, Refraining From Watching the Next Breaking Bad Episode on Netflix Before Your Spouse Does, and so on. A shared world only strengthens the conceit of the book.
What Should We Steal?
- Tell your story from the most appropriate and interesting point of view. Sure, you may have to break your story into sections and change POV, but that’s okay if it’s done in the service of the story.
- Borrow characters and situations from your other works. Even if it’s just a cameo from another character’s friend, people who read your work will find greater depth in the world you create.
2013, Best American Short Stories 2014, Charles Baxter, McSweeney's, Point of View
Title of Work and its Form: Fish Bites Cop! Stories to Bash Authorities, short story collection
Author: David James Keaton (on Twitter @spiderfrogged)
Date of Work: 2013
Where the Work Can Be Found: I was amused by the playful manner in which Mr. Keaton tells his fans how they can get the book, so I share it here:
If you’re looking to buy it (did I already post these retailers somewhere? oh, well), here’s a link to the Comet Press website, as well as links to Barnes & Noble (for locals), Carmichael’s Bookstore (for locals), Powell’s, Indiebound, and Amazon. I listed those in order of preference. Buy it from the publisher or the real stores first, unless you need it on Kindle. Who knows where that Amazon money goes.
Hey, Fish Bites Cop! has a book trailer!
Bonuses: Here is “Either Way It Ends With A Shovel,” one of my favorite stories from the book.
Want to see Mr. Keaton read his work? Sure, you do:
Element of Craft We’re Stealing:
Mr. Keaton is very clear with regard to the theme of his collection. Each of these stories does indeed involve “authorities.” There are police officers, the captain of a fishing vessel, high school coaches, paramedics…Mr. Keaton may be very focused, but he doesn’t have a one-track mind. Indeed, Fish Bites Cop! is bursting with creativity; the gentleman doesn’t go more than a page or so without turning an underlinable phrase or making some kind of connection that may elude most readers. (Why else do we read, after all?)
Here is the book’s table of contents. (I added the POV and page counts myself, of course.)
||Number of Pages
|Bad Hand Acting
|Life Expectancy In A Trunk (Depends on Traffic)
|Third Bridesmaid From The Right (or Don’t Feed The Shadow Animals)
|Burning Down DJs
|Three Ways Without Water (or The Day Roadkill, Drunk Driving, And The Electric Chair Were Invented)
|Do The Münster Mash
|Either Way It Ends With A Shovel
||1st (directed at silent interlocutor)
|Friction Ridge (or Beguiling The Bard In Three Acts)
|Don’t Waste It Whistling (or Could Shoulda Woulda)
||1st (directed at silent interlocutor)
|Bait Car Bruise
|Three Abortions And A Miscarriage (A Fun “What If?”)
|Doing Everything But Actually Doing It
|The Living Shit (or Mosquito Bites)
|The Ball Pit (or Children Under 5 Eat Free!)
|Nine Cops Killed For A Goldfish Cracker
Mr. Keaton bowls us over with at least one lesson: like him, we should write a lot. Now, I’m sure he has some sort of science fiction-type device that gives him 30 hours a day instead of our 24, but we really have no excuse. I know…I know…you would finish a story, but…
- You have a Great Writers Steal essay to write.
- You’re not in a good mood.
- You don’t have any of your fountain pens with you.
- You’re stressed out about teaching-type stuff.
- You figure no one wants to read anything you write anyway.
- You realize you’re not good enough to do much of anything.
- You’re bummed that your Tigers aren’t playing as well as they should and that Braxton Miller is out for the 2014 season.
- Ooh…there’s an Onion video I haven’t seen before.
There’s only one solution to these very common problems: Just write stuff. Duh. We all know we should just shut up and finish a piece, but that can be hard to do sometimes. But do it anyway. Just look at all of the stuff that Mr. Keaton has published in only a few years. So let’s get back to work, right?
Mr. Keaton also seems to enjoy a technique that reminds me of the work of Lee K. Abbott in some ways. Check out some first sentences from Fish Bites Cop!:
“She was sure one of them was watching her.”
“Before the night ends with me crashing through the woods in a stolen police car, I’ll drive around stuck on one thought.”
“There were sitting down to dinner when the phone rang.”
“I will leave work to get you a cigarette because you’re crying.”
(in italics) “Are you going to bury someone? Or dig someone up?”
What do we notice? The story is well and truly kicked off. Not only do we have plot and character and point of view, but we also have some stakes built into the story. Now, it can be hard to have MASSIVE stakes present in the first sentence, but Mr. Keaton lets you know that SOMETHING COOL WILL HAPPEN and THE EVENTS MEAN SOMETHING TO THE CHARACTERS, SO THEY SHOULD MEAN SOMETHING TO YOU.
Compare to…hmm…what books do I have in front of me:
Aubrey Hirsch’s “Theodore Roosevelt:” “Teddy Roosevelt is almost certain that his daughter, Lee, is a lesbian.” (CHARACTER, POV, PLOT, STAKES)
Elmore Leonard’s “How Carlos Webster Changed His Name to Carl and Became a Famous Oklahoma Lawman:” “Carlos Webster was fifteen years old the time he witnessed the robbery and murder at Deering’s drugstore. (CHARACTER, POV, PLOT, STAKES)
Lee K. Abbott’s “Dreams of Distant Lives:” “The other victim the summer my wife left me was my dreamlife, which, like a mirage, dried up completely the closer we came to the absolute end of us.” (CHARACTER, POV, PLOT, STAKES)
I think these examples are even more potent than the ones I discussed in one of my GWS Videos:
The point is that good things often happen when you supercharge your first sentence and make sure that it contains:
- A hint about the central character that intrigues us or establishes important aspects of his or her personality.
- The establishment of the POV so we’re not subconsciously wondering and we can relax into the narrative.
- Something that immerses us in the eventual plot of the story.
- An indication of the tangible or emotional stakes for the protagonist, or at least an indication that there WILL be BIG STAKES.
Mr. Keaton is particularly good at creating really cool images. For example:
Only a guilty man soaks up enough electricity to power a city block, pulling fishhook after fishhook of Taser wire from his torso, all while cuffing any cop that got too close with fists half the size of Thanksgiving turkeys.
[He’s describing clams.] At first, they’d just be foam trails off the tips of something almost invisible. But when I’d lean down on my elbows, I’d see they were actually creatures that moved like anything else moved when it was exposed. They tried to hide. Looking close, I could see them desperately digging to bury themselves before the next wave. Their time, jelly-like tongues would roll out like party favors, start twitching and shoveling, and then, impossibly, balance the entire structure on one end, then pull themselves down, down and gone.
So how do we pump up our writing with cool images?
I’m not sure if I’ve ever done this before, but let’s put a writer who is worse than Mr. Keaton to THE GWS TEST. Today, we’ll look at the work of a crummy writer and see if his stuff can be improved with this advice.
Our contestant today is…me. Let’s see. One of the stories I’m shopping around is called “Masher Doyle.” Let’s check out the first sentence:
Masher Doyle came into my life at the time I most needed him.
There is a hint about the protagonist…good, good…the first person POV is established…the plot certainly revolves around the relationship between the narrator and Masher Doyle…and there are emotional stakes; the narrator is describing a time that was bad for him. Okay. Not quite Mr. Keaton-worthy, but good enough. Let’s look at one of the crummy images in my story and see if we can’t make it better.
Okay, here’s one:
When my mother sent me to the corner store for milk, she slipped me an extra forty cents so I could buy a pack of baseball cards. Before heading home, I would sit on the curb and slip my dirty thumbnail under the flap, pull it, then flip through my new cards.
What would Mr. Keaton do? He would use powerful verbs and powerful adjectives. Do I? “slipped, extra, buy, sit, slip, dirty, pull, new…” I dunno. Those aren’t the most energetic words around.
Here’s another bit from Mr. Keaton:
It reminded him of a Halloween pumpkin he forgot to carve once as a kid, when he just drew eyes, nose, and a mouth with a black Magic Marker and then forgot about it until New Year’s. When he picked it up, his thumb sunk into its eye as easy as he imagined a real eye would accept its fate, and it collapsed around his grip in a gush of rotten orange and black.
Yeah, see? We all need to use verbs and adjectives that crackle with energy.
What Should We Steal?
- Be prolific. If you’re a writer, you should be writing, right? So get back to it after you click on a few more GWS essays and watch a couple more of my videos.
- Add some nitrous to your first sentence. I haven’t seen any of the Fast and Furious films, but I’m under the impression that nitrous adds big power to a car, just as you should put big power into your sentence.
- Employ energetic verbs and adjectives to create powerful descriptions. Words can excite people as much as ideas.
Short Story Collection
2013, Comet Press, David James Keaton, FISH BITES COP!
Title of Work and its Form: “Directions: Exit This Burning Building,” poem
Author: Alexis Pope (on Twitter @alexisflannery)
Date of Work: 2013
Where the Work Can Be Found: The poem debuted in Issue 17 of Coconut Magazine. You can read the work here. The poem was subsequently reprinted in Bone Matter, the Lettered Streets Press chapbook that Ms. Pope shared with Aubrey Hirsch.
Bonuses: Here is an interview Ms. Pope granted to Vouched Books. Here is a poem Ms. Pope placed in Guernica. I’ve said it a thousand times: poetry is usually best when heard rather than read. Here’s a video of Ms. Pope reading some of her work:
Element of Craft We’re Stealing: Lineation
Well, the meaning of a published poem is determined by the reader, not the poet. I don’t know if Ms. Pope had this in mind, but it seemed to me that “Directions” is a three-section poem about a lover warning another that their relationship may not be a lifetime of wine and roses. Each section features a potent image described in slightly abstract band that keeps the meaning open to interpretation.
One of the reasons I liked this poem is because of the way Ms. Pope plays with the lines. The work in the chapbook is helpful to me (as it may be to you) because Ms. Pope is far more “experimental” than I tend to be. It’s wonderful, isn’t it? If you’re a more “conventional” poet, you can enjoy Ms. Pope’s poem and try to understand how they work in the interest of improving your own work!
Here’s a section of Ms. Pope’s first stanza. (Yes, I was careful to ensure the lineation is the same as in her chapbook; these things can change a little depending on the size of your browser window.)
In the chapbook, the right margins are justified, too. (Darn digital world…) You’ll notice immediately that Ms. Pope has inserted a slash into each of her lines. In case you weren’t aware, a slash is the way you signify a line break in a poem when you can’t reproduce the lines as intended. For example, here’s the first stanza of “Annabel Lee” as it might be quoted under circumstances in which a writer couldn’t reproduce the author’s original lines:
It was many and many a year ago, /In a kingdom by the sea, /That a maiden there lived whom you may know /By the name of Annabel Lee; /And this maiden she lived with no other thought /Than to love and be loved by me.
Ms. Pope could just have hit “return” when she wanted a new line. What does Ms. Pope gain by placing a slash in each of her lines?
- The poem (to my mind) is about the restrictions that we place on ourselves and others in a relationship. Doesn’t a slash make perfect visual sense. That slash is a real barrier to reflect the emotional barrier that may be present.
- The slashes muddy the poem somewhat, allowing (or forcing us) to understand the lines in different ways. Which do we prefer as the first line? “My nose was bleeding this thin way” or “My nose was bleeding this thin way / A napkin arrived in”? Ms. Pope clearly wants to force her reader into a more analytical state of mind.
Here’s number 3 and possibly the most fun thing that Ms. Pope gains with her structure. Take a look at the poem with all of the slashes circled in red:
I blurred the words because I wouldn’t dream of reprinting Ms. Pope’s poem without permission. Further, the shape of the slashes take on a form when you’re not thinking of the words, don’t they?
No, the correlation isn’t perfect, of course. But can you allow your pareidolia go to work? The many slashes in the poem create blank spaces that attract your eyes. The poem seems to contain a slash, doesn’t it?
The form of the poem reflects the subject matter, facilitated at least in part because of the way that Ms. Pope uses the slashes in the lines.
What Should We Steal?
- Consider the internal structure of your lines in addition to the way they affect the whole. A poem may benefit if the reader is invited to play with and rearrange the lines on their own.
- Allow the form of your work to reflect its specific elements and its theme. A poem that is (to me) about resisting some facets of a romantic relationship can contain slashes…and can also suggest one.
2013, Alexis Pope, Aubrey Hirsch, Coconut Magazine, Lineation
Title of Work and its Form: “Aneurysm,” poem
Author: David O’Connell
Date of Work: 2013
Where the Work Can Be Found: “Aneurysm” made its debut in issue 4.1 of Unsplendid. You can find the poem here.
Bonuses: Mr. O’Connell was the 2013 winner of the Philbrick Poetry Project‘s chapbook competition. You can purchase his chapbook from the Providence Athenaeum or from Amazon. Here is Richard Merelman’s review of A Better Way to Fall from Verse Wisconsin Online. Here is “Redeemer,” a poem Mr. O’Connell published in Boxcar Poetry Review. Here is “Thaw,” a poem he placed in Rattle.
Element of Craft We’re Stealing: Lineation
Mr. O’Connell’s poem is a fairly straightforward description of a very sad event. The poem is dedicated to “P.L.,” who lived from 1974 to 2001; we assume that the young man in the poem has died during a very common rite of passage: jumping into a pool from a roof. Through fourteen lines, Mr. O’Connell communicates the sense of loss he felt and connects it to the kinds of loss that we all share.
The first thing that struck me about the poem is the way Mr. O’Connell prepares us for what the poem will do. The title? “Anuerysm.” The dedication? “for P.L. 1974-2001.” What do we learn about the poem from those two elements?
- Tone: the poem probably won’t be upbeat and carefree. Aneurysms are scary and unpleasant and we’re all pretty bummed when people die young.
- Subject matter: we assume we’re going to read an account of the young person’s death.
- Characterization: Mr. O’Connell is a character in the poem; the title and dedication make him seem like a solemn and respectful person…when it comes to this topic, at least. I’m sure Mr. O’Connell has a healthy sense of humor with regard to the appropriate subjects.
Mr. O’Connell introduces the poem in such a manner that the reader feels welcomed. While we all love writing that may be a little more opaque in its meaning, the opening of “Aneurysm” faithfully mimics the approachability of the rest of the text.
I love the way that “Aneurysm” makes use of lineation. It’s my impression that many beginning writers struggle with that jagged right margin. Ending a line is pretty easy when you’re writing prose; you just keep writing. When you’re writing a poem, knowing where to begin again is far more difficult.
Mr. O’Connell demonstrates the power of lineation. Look at the end of the first stanza:
the chimney. Sixteen, he’s on my roof
and then not. Cut by glare, his fall
So P.L. ends that first line on the roof…the reader moves his or her eyes down and to the left…and he’s no longer on the roof. The eye movement mimics the literal movement of the character in the poem. That stanza break also forces the reader into a moment of anticipation, even if that anticipation is subconscious. For that split second, we’re wondering what will come next. Let’s see how the effect would be ruined if we slapped all of the words onto the same line.
…the chimney. Sixteen, he’s on my roof and then not. Cut by glare, his fall…
See? We lose the tension Mr. O’Connell was smart enough to create.
Another great thing about the poem is the way Mr. O’Connell chooses an unanticipated and powerful verb:
the moment he explodes the pool,
Mr. O’Connell had a number of more conventional options:
- falls into
- dives into
- drops into
- descends into
- reaches into
- slips into
Instead, Mr. O’Connell has the protagonist “explode” the pool. Not only do we get an idea of what the narrator must have looked like upon contact with the water, but we get a better idea of how the pool itself must have appeared. Even better, “explode” is a pretty heavy duty word, isn’t it?
What Should We Steal?
- Welcome the reader into the piece. The title and first lines should communicate the tone, intent and subject matter of the rest of the piece.
- Compose your lines in such a manner that you create anticipation and reflect the events of your poem. Lineation is a special instance of cognitive understanding that is shaped by physical movements.
- Employ unexpected verbs. A baseball player can “hit” the ball…or he can “knock,” “slap,” “pound,” “slam” or “drive” the ball.
I’m not quite sure where this fits in, but the first line of the poem reminds me of what I guess I think of as “poet meter.” Is it just me, or do you hear this meter a lot when you go to poetry readings?
It’s not quite iambic pentameter, but it has that sing-songy quality that draws you in.
2013, David O'Connell, Lineation, Ohio State, Unsplendid
Title of Work and its Form: “A State of Feeling,” creative nonfiction
Author: Rachel Luria
Date of Work: 2013
Where the Work Can Be Found: The piece was published in the Spring 2013 issue of Phoebe. You can read the piece here.
Bonuses: Ms. Luria was one of the editors of Neil Gaiman and Philosophy; why not check the book out at Powell’s? Here‘s a PopMatters review of the book.
Element of Craft We’re Stealing: In Medias Res
Ms. Luria was feeling the deep loneliness to which many of us can relate and was hoping to find companionship. So she went to Dragon*Con, a gathering of folks hoping to celebrate “all things science, science fiction, fantasy, and horror. (I haven’t been myself, but I’m guessing it could be a lot of fun.) Ms. Luria was under the impression that she would find her soul mate at the conference, saying, “If I can’t find a man at Dragon*Con, then I am definitely going to die alone.” Ms. Luria describes her experience in speed dating and how she felt when surrounded by all of the other attendees. The account is interspersed with vignettes exploring the depth of her loneliness; she went quite some time without being in a relationship and struggled with the internal and external stresses resulting from such a condition. Near the end of the piece, we learn that Ms. Luria’s loneliness was broken when she met someone online and that her day as a zombie bridesmaid represented a fairly low point in her life whose emotions never truly leave her.
Ms. Luria makes a wise choice in beginning her piece “in medias res.” (That’s Latin for “in the middle of things.”) Instead of describing how she registered for Dragon*Con or the boring and commonplace process by which she got to Dragon*Con, she begins with a scene that finds her standing outside of the conference hotel. Two young men are offering hugs; some “awkward” and other “deluxe.” Not only is her mid-scene opening a good idea because it immerses us quickly in her narrative, but also because she chose a very good anecdote. These young men are probably a lot like many video game/comic book nerds. There are certainly exceptions, but these folks are often socially awkward and aren’t often at the top of the list when women decide who they want to date. (The popular perception and the way society treats them doesn’t exactly help them in this regard, does it?)
Like the author, these young men are hoping to find a connection…possibly a romantic one. This opening anecdote primes us perfectly for the overall theme of the piece. Ms. Luria is lonely and she’s surrounded by people who are also somewhat adrift. The opening of “A State of Feeling” teaches us two important lessons in one: prose writers may wish to begin in the middle of the drama and they are also well-advised to choose anecdotes that tie strongly into the theme of the overall piece.
“A State of Feeling” has at least one thing in common with Kent Russell’s excellent “American Juggalo.” Both nonfiction pieces feature stories that are told by someone who is at once part of the group they’re analyzing while maintaining a kind of distance. Yes, Ms. Luria took place in the Dragon*Con speed dating. Yes, she talked to a guy who was dressed like Luigi. She doesn’t, however, bore us with the mundane parts of her time. Did she go see the Firefly panel? Maybe. I’ll bet she ran into an actor who has appeared on Star Trek. She didn’t tell us about these moments because they didn’t fit the tone that she took. She’s IN the Dragon*Con world, but not OF it.
Why is this a shrewd choice? Taking this stance allows her some objectivity. The distance helps her to contextualize her feelings, both about herself and those around her. Maintaining this distance can be very difficult, particularly when writing creative nonfiction. I’ve written a little bit about my somewhat challenging family situation and it’s really easy to slip into pathos when logos and ethos are a better overall fit. We care that she feels lonely, but we’re not going to understand it unless she can describe it from a writer’s perspective.
What Should We Steal?
- Begin the narrative in the middle of the story and with a thematically significant anecdote. Doing so weeds out the boring parts and gets us to care about your characters very quickly. (This is especially true if YOU are the character!)
- Describe your personal experiences as a writer, not as the individual who experienced them. Your humanity will bake the emotion into your writing all by itself; it’s your job to use your rhetorical skills to make us understand what the experience truly meant.
2013, Dragon*Con, in medias res, Phoebe, Rachel Luria
Title of Work and its Form: “Letter to a Young Man in Madrid,” short story
Author: Annie McGreevy (on Twitter @AnnieMcGreevy)
Date of Work: 2013
Where the Work Can Be Found: The story made its debut in the Winter 2013 issue of the Portland Review. The kind folks at the journal request that you buy a copy through Amazon. (If we’re lucky, the story will be available in a future Annie McGreevy story collection.)
Bonus: Ms. McGreevy was inspired by “Letter to a Young Lady in Paris,” a story written by Julio Cortazar. The piece appears in Cortazar’s book Blow-Up: And Other Stories. Don’t you love when readers are engaged? Here is a fan-made trailer for the story:
Element of Craft We’re Stealing: Grounded Fantasy
This is an epistolary story consisting of several letters written from a young woman to a Spaniard named Manu. The two had a relationship while she (an American) was abroad, but now the first-person letter writer is back in New Jersey to care for her ailing mother. So the woman, as I understand it, had an abortion in Spain. (My understanding of human reproduction is equal to that of a bright five-year-old.) In the subsequent weeks, however, the narrator has seen some changes in her body. Eventually, she experiences reverse peristalsis, and a “heavy white liquid rose up violently” through her throat. Inside the liquid? A baby “no bigger than a cockroach, but thicker.” The narrator places the baby (named Lolo) in a crocheted sack and carries it around her neck as she goes on about her day. What follows are a number of beautiful scenes and ideas and phrases…pick up the story for yourself!
Ms. McGreevy makes it clear immediately that something is “wrong” in the story. The narrator has terrible cramps and her breasts and belly are swelling and she hasn’t had her period in over a month. Our Spidey-sense is tingling because she mentions a “decision” she and Manu made and a “doctor…” So we’re guessing that (in the real world) she had an abortion and something may have gone awry. This information prepares us for the “weirdness” that follows.
The “baby” is the primary conceit of the story, of course. Look how Ms. McGreevy introduces the child:
When I bent down to scrub the carpet, I noticed something moving. No bigger than a cockroach, but thicker. A little thing with a little body and a little face, looking very proud of having been born. It was a baby.
Your reader is willing to follow you wherever you want to go. It’s your responsibility as the writer to make sure that you tell the reader what he or she must know in order to keep up with you. A lesser writer (such as myself) would make the baby a more opaque concept. This would be a mistake because such a story takes a left turn out of the “normal” world; you have to make sure that the reader understands the new world into which you’re ushering them. So when Ms. McGreevy tells you, “Okay, check it out. I know this is a little odd, but my narrator has a mouth-born baby that she’s carrying around in a little basket made of yarn,” we’re happy to go along with her.
Imagine you are Manu. You open up these letters one by one. You would, no doubt, have a little trouble understanding what your paramour was talking about. While Manu probably has a lot of questions, Ms. McGreevy’s narrator answers the basic ones:
Manu, what I’m trying to tell you is that you have a son the size of my smile.
Unusual? Perhaps. But neither Manu nor the reader has any questions as to what is happening. (At least, what the narrator thinks is going on.) Great works of speculative fiction offer us “crazy” leaps, but are also grounded in the story’s reality. Look at the works of Madeleine L’Engle. Yes, she sends her characters through a made-up wrinkle in time, but Ms. L’Engle ensures that the reader understands the differences between the real world and the one she’s created. Ray Bradbury and Harlan Ellison (two of the writers of speculative fiction who put together beautiful sentences) take you to other planets and to unrecognizable versions of Earth, but they always make sure they’re holding your hand during the journey.
So the narrator thinks there’s a mouth milk baby slung around her neck. That’s cool, but those of us in the boring “real” world have a lot of questions. How does Ms. McGreevy establish the distance between the narrator’s world and this “real” world? She allows the narrator to meet other people. First, she runs into Mrs. Steele, her eighth-grade teacher. Think about one of your own teachers; if you had a milk mouth baby around your neck, wouldn’t he or she have some kind of reaction? The narrator, in her own way, reveals that Mrs. Steele doesn’t react to the baby, leading to questions of debatable relevance:
- Is the baby really there?
- Does Mrs. Steele just have really bad eyesight?
- Is the narrator imagining everything?
- Does the baby represent something that’s going on in the narrator’s head?
The protagonist also goes to church and sees a priest. She also has a sweet scene with her mother. Neither character seems to notice Lolo. Now, everything is filtered through the narrator’s perspective, so she could simply be unreliable. But Ms. McGreevy is wise to set her character loose in the real world so we can take a look at a “strange” condition through a much more familiar lens. Stories can be strange and fantastic; readers simply require a place to stand that allows them an illuminating frame of reference.
This is an epistolary story; one that is made up of several letters. (Like Frankenstein!) You’ll notice that Ms. McGreevy doesn’t include the salutation or address or any of the “normal” stuff that we usually include when we write letters. What is the effect of this choice? I love that it adds some reasonable confusion with respect to the narrator’s state of mind. Has she really sent the letters? Does Manu really exist? Does Lolo? Including a bunch of dates might make the reader “do too much math.” (No one likes to do math.) And if you’re anything like me, it’s a pain to come up with pretend addresses and to come up with all of the supporting information that one must include if one is writing a fake letter. Instead, Ms. McGreevy simply presents the text and allows the reader to react to the ideas within.
What Should We Steal?
- Employ crystal clarity when your work contains ideas that are slightly more opaque. You want me to believe that the woman has a mouth milk baby? No problem. Just tell me that’s what’s going on.
- Reflect the “oddness” in your story through a “normal” viewpoint. Think about “The Lottery.” Shirley Jackson presents us with a very “odd” little town; the “lottery” stands out greatly in part because of the banal normalcy of the rest of the town.
- Experiment with the epistolary form. If you haven’t written a story or poem in the form of a letter or a series of letters, why not give it a try? Ms. McGreevy borrowed from a Julio Cortazar story that she admired; why shouldn’t we offer Ms. McGreevy the same courtesy?
2013, Annie McGreevy, Grounded Fantasy, Ohio State, Portland Review
Title of Work and its Form: “Disconnected,” creative nonfiction
Author: Jacqueline Kirkpatrick
Date of Work: 2013
Where the Work Can Be Found: The piece debuted in Issue 8 of Mason’s Road, a cool online journal produced by Fairfield University’s MFA in Creative Writing Program. You can read the piece here.
Bonuses: My Google search for more material from Ms. Kirkpatrick seems to indicate that she’s a frequent participant in public readings. Good on her! We should all endeavor to share our work in these venues. (Maybe I’m just thinking about myself.) Here is a brief interview Ms. Kirkpatrick gave in support of her MFA program at The College of Saint Rose. Here is one of Ms. Kirkpatrick’s poems.
Element of Craft We’re Stealing: Cool Conceits
Like many essays, this piece is split into sections; the vignettes combine to reveal a deeper truth about Ms. Kirkpatrick and her life. The author begins with blunt sadness: “At five I was abandoned on a doorstep in a trailer park just outside of Albany.” We receive further revelations, each tied to a digit from the phone number of Ms. Kirkpatrick’s childhood home. “Seven” is part of the phone number and has some significance to her; she has the number tattooed on her ankle, she was her adoptive mother’s seventh child. Nine? She has moved that many times since the age of twenty-two. In the end, of course, she puts everything together and offers some insight as to what the phone number means to her.
If you read a lot of my GWS, I think you’ll find that I often find myself focusing on the structure of a piece. In this case, Ms. Kirkpatrick has found a cool “hook” for her story: a phone number. Sure, it’s just seven digits (without the area code), but the number has a great deal of meaning. You likely remember your childhood phone number. Why? That number represents safety. If anything went wrong, those are the digits you punched into a pay phone. You may even remember a phone number from a commercial jingle. Like any other snippet of music that has been burned into our souls, we may remember the moment we first heard the song and how we were feeling.
If you watch daytime TV, you have probably seen this commercial:
It will be a while before you forget the phone number, won’t it? If you’ll recall, Tommy Tutone had a big hit in the 1980s with the Alex Call and Jim Keller song “867-5309/Jenny.”
What does the phone number really represent? Well, ask your parents if you’re not sure. I don’t want to be the one who tells you. Ms. Kirkpatrick, as I pointed out, builds her piece around the phone number. Whether or not the serendipity is contrived, it’s meaningful that each digit of that important number relates to her life in some way.
I think that structure is a particularly important element of creative nonfiction because we may or may not be describing life experiences that are very unique. Sure, the heartbreaks I’ve experienced are different from those in your past, but they boil down to a lot of the same emotions. Ms. Kirkpatrick and I seem to have…difficult childhood situations in common. (Not that I’m complaining; mine could surely have been worse.) I’ve certainly read a lot of literature about people whose childhoods had problems…I’m even hoping to finish a book about a character who is going through one. As Ms. Kirkpatrick points out with her structure, the experience alone is not what is most important; it’s how we tell the story. The author has chosen a felicitous and accessible structure that allows her to tell a big story in small sections that combine to mean more than the sum of their parts.
Why does “Disconnected” remind me a little bit of John Cheever’s “Reunion?” Well, both are about childhood, of course, but look at the similarity in the sentences each writer crafts. Both of the stories feature lines that are short and calm and declarative, even though they are packed with emotion. Compare:
We went out of the station and up a side street to a restaurant. It was still early, and the place was empty. The bartender was quarrelling with a delivery boy, and there was one very old waiter in a red coat down by the kitchen door. We sat down, and my father hailed the waiter in a loud voice.
Seven is my favorite number. I had the number seven tattooed on my ankle. It was my seventh tattoo. I married my seventh lover. The woman who adopted me had six children—I was her seventh. I was born on July 7.
Why is this sentence structure a significant choice? Both pieces are packed with emotion already; neither author needs to do much to evoke a reaction in a reader. Longer sentences packed with more pathos would detract from the reader’s experience. We wouldn’t be experiencing a story; we would be providing free therapy. The writers of these pieces don’t want us to be their confessors. They want us to be their audience.
What Should We Steal?
- Emphasize storytelling over the story when necessary. The leanest story can be captivating if it’s told properly and the world’s most complicated story can be boring if the writer fumbles the ball.
- Allow the situation and characters to dictate the emotion in a piece, not the sentences themselves. The reader’s sympathy should be earned with strong use of craft.
"867-5309/Jenny", 2013, Cool Conceits, Jacqueline Kirkpatrick, Mason's Road
Title of Work and its Form: “Buying My Blue Dress,” creative nonfiction
Author: Helen Ruggieri
Date of Work: 2013
Where the Work Can Be Found: The piece made its debut in the Winter 2013 issue of The Citron Review. You can read the work right here.
Bonuses: Here is a poem Ms. Ruggieri published in The Adirondack Review. Here is a brief biography of Ms. Ruggieri. (She really knows her stuff. Folks like me shouldn’t feel bad that we haven’t accomplished as much as she has…we’ll get there.) Why not learn about Ms. Ruggieri’s chapbook at the Mayapple Press web site?
Element of Craft We’re Stealing: Narrative Focus
This first-person piece of creative nonfiction finds Ms. Ruggieri purchasing a blue dress. She considers how the dress came to be; how the frock may have been put together by a Guatemalan woman who is as hard-working as she is poor. While Ms. Ruggieri is in a shop, a “young girl” is caught stealing; the owner of the shop deliberates how to handle the situation. All of this deep thought has added meaning to the dress; Ms. Ruggieri ends the piece with a poetic flourish.
Upon finishing the piece, I was a bit surprised that Ms. Ruggieri left the reader hanging in a way. Whether or not we’ve shoplifted from a dress shop, we’ve all done things for which we hope to be forgiven. The young girl could be in for a lot of hassle if the shop owner calls the police…or she could feel the immense relief that washes over us when we receive mercy from another human being. Ms. Ruggieri doesn’t tell us what happens to the young girl, who becomes the center of an impromptu bit of theater and a part of the history of the blue dress.
Most of the time, leaving the audience hanging can be considered a mistake. Why aren’t we bummed that Ms. Ruggieri doesn’t tell us whether or not the girl catches a larceny charge? I suppose it’s because the omission keeps the focus on the subject of the piece: the dress. While Ms. Ruggieri is the person who is describing the story, the greater focus should remain on the dress and that’s where the focus remains.
Objects have a history and old things may have lived many lives. I’m currently trying to figure out how to get a Parker 51 fountain pen in fresh and working order. Here is a picture of where I am at the moment:
(I know the picture’s crummy; I took it with my inexpensive MP3 player.) I’ve soaked and disassembled the pen, now I’m researching to make sure that I don’t ruin the beautiful object. The pen had a previous owner; if I told this Parker 51’s story, I would focus a little bit less on the people whose lives were shaped by those who held it and a little more on what the pen did. (Who knows? Did it sign a wedding license? Was it used to complete a contract by someone who was buying his or her first home?) Ms. Ruggieri is a participant in the story, but the dress is the star.
We must take a look at the ending of the piece, of course. After four and a half paragraphs of prose, Ms. Ruggieri flexes her strong poetic muscles by finishing the piece in abstract:
Whenever I wear that blue dress, it wavers, the way a flame does in a breeze, and the orange breaks through old window glass –
my reflection wavers,
Ms. Ruggieri switches from prose to poetry and does so in a graceful fashion. How? She signals to us that we’re going to make a switch. What a beautiful metaphor, comparing the flapping of the dress to the flickering of a wind-touched flame. Having tasted some poetry, we don’t mind that she’s broken from prose completely in those last two lines. One of the great blessings of the written word is that you can do ANYTHING. You can send your character through time and space. You can tell the story of a pen or a dress, all with a few keystrokes. A writer’s obligation, however, is to do what he or she can to make sure the reader understands the twists and turns.
What Should We Steal?
- Maintain focus on the protagonist of your story…even if the protagonist isn’t a human. Don’t make me think about The Velveteen Rabbit. Just don’t.
- Prepare your reader for the flights of fancy they find in your work. Want to switch from poetry to prose? No problem. Ease us into the warm bath water; don’t just throw us in.
2013, Blue Dress, Helen Ruggieri, Narrative Focus, The Citron Review