Tag: Bartleby Snopes

Nathaniel Tower, Bartleby Snopes and Avoiding Cliche the Bill Watterson Way

One of the greatest joys of being part of the writing community is how giving most people are.  Stephen King has written multiple books about writing craft and has given countless lectures, all because he loves the community so much.  James Patterson gives millions of dollars to independent bookstores to ensure they can continue to support writers who don’t sell as many books as, well, James Patterson.  I noticed an interesting and pleasant enough debate that took place and I wanted to share my own thoughts.  (Many people have already done so, but I’m guessing you haven’t read what I’m about to say…)

Bartleby Snopes managing editor Nathaniel Tower wrote a guest post for freeze frame fiction in which he described the cliches that he’s sick of seeing in submissions.  Mr. Tower’s suggestions are fairly conventional and understandable.  Stories that begin or end with a character waking from a dream.  Yawn.  Stories that begin with “light streaming through the window.”  (I was not aware that was a thing.)  Mr. Tower is not being rude; his bio even points out that many of his own published works violate the rules he just laid out.

Laryssa Wirstiuk wrote a response in which she affirmed Mr. Tower’s cheeky caveat.  There are plenty of exceptions to the rule.  For example, Ms. Wirstiuk cites stories such as:

“In September, the Light Changes” by Andrew Holleran (story that begins with streaming light); “Bullet to the Brain” by Tobias Wolff (story with a “death ending”); “People Like That Are The Only People Here: Canonical Babbling in Peed Onk” by Lorrie Moore (sentimental cancer story based on true cancer story)…

What’s the difference between a great story like “Bullet to the Brain” and a terrible, overdone story that confronts the same subject matter?  Say it with me: Storytelling skill.  An understanding of how to break the rules.  World-class facility with language.

Most of us don’t have those qualities, so we should be aware of the dangers about writing a story based on a cliched premise or with cliched characters.  The best way I can think of to illustrate the principle is to take a step back and to return to childhood for a moment.

Ohioan Bill Watterson is the genius behind Calvin and Hobbes, one of the funniest and most touching comic strips ever.  The premise is deceptively simple; Calvin is a precocious little boy who explores the world and its people with Hobbes, his pet tiger.  (A companion who, of course, only comes to life for Calvin.)  Mr. Watterson put a decade’s work into this magnum opus, alternately touching the funny bone and the heart.  He ended the strip in 1995, loathe to allow the quality of his work to flag and secure in the feeling that he had said everything he wanted to say.

After his retirement, Mr. Watterson retreated (even further) into the anonymity that he loves.  I’ve always remembered this well-written story that James Renner placed in the Cleveland Scene.  Mr. Watterson did not abandon creative pursuit in the years after he sent Calvin and Hobbes off on their eternal journey.  Instead, Mr. Watterson experimented in another artistic form:

An industry source who wishes to remain anonymous says Watterson paints oil-on-canvas landscapes, but sets fire to each as soon as it’s finished. Supposedly, he was told that the first 500 paintings an artist creates are just practice.

Isn’t that beautiful and sad at the same time?  If the anonymous source is to be believed–and why not in this case?–then the world has lost many works of art.  Works that would be worth thousands of dollars.  The story is also touching; what matters most?  The creative journey, the putting of brush to canvas.  (Or pen to paper.)

I also tend to think that Mr. Watterson’s impulse is correct.  The first million words you write are just practice.  The first stories, poems and novels are preparatory drudgework that teach you so much of what you need to create work of value.  Writing and painting are exceptional in that they are pursuits from which you need never retire.  Right now, my close, personal friend Miguel Cabrera is the best hitter on the planet.  In thirty years, he’ll be unable to turn on a minor league fastball.  How many people have a realistic hope of constant improvement?  Eternal excellence?

Look at Whitney Houston sing live in 1985.  She’s the best.  The vocal just pours out of her.

Now listen to Whitney Houston sing in 2010.

Granted, there were some additional…issues that were getting in the way of Ms. Houston’s voice, but the world-class talent devolved into a barely competent speak-singer.

Fellow writers?  You and I have a chance of writing some decent lines or sentences the day we die.

I’ve been writing far longer than I should admit, and I think that the cliche stories that Mr. Tower referenced are a rite of passage, particularly for writers who start young.  I wrote my awful version of the “Adam and Eve” science fiction story.  My first novel wasn’t THAT bad, but it was heavily influenced by my love of The X-Files and the partner dynamic between Mulder and Scully.  I’ve definitely written a “death story” or two.

We all learn a lot through mimicry.  Children acquire language skills by emulating what their parents say.  Ballplayers start out in the sandlot pretending they are Justin Verlander staring down a batter in the seventh game of the World Series.  Writers, I suspect, engage in a lot of mimicry as they begin to find their own voices.

I suppose what I am urging is that we think of our cliche stories as practice in the same way Bill Watterson thought of his first few hundred paintings.  We can have a great time creating our cliche stories, just as it’s a lot of fun learning to throw a curveball by whipping the horsehide at imaginary batters.  And perhaps we should think twice before throwing that curveball to a real hitter before it’s ready.

What Can We Steal From Matt Carmichael’s “Buckle Up”?

Title of Work and its Form: “Buckle Up,” short story
Author:  Matt Carmichael (on Twitter @mttcarmichael)
Date of Work: 2014
Where the Work Can Be Found: The story debuted in the September issue of Bartleby Snopes.  You can read the story here.

Bonuses:  Here is a story Mr. Carmichael published in The Adirondack Review.  The gentleman has also done great work as the managing editor of TriQuarterly, a great journal.

Element of Craft We’re Stealing: Settings

Discussion:
This is the story of the lengths to which a parent (a father, in this case) will go to ensure their kids have happy Holidays and believe in the magic the world can possess.  The first person narrator of the story has an important and morbid job: he tallies the traffic deaths for the year so the number can be displayed on the Highway Department’s roadside signs.  The gentleman seems to enjoy his work, as work goes, and he is looking forward to the office holiday party.  Bren, the narrator’s coworker, dresses up like Santa Claus to impress his son Tony, for whom this may be the last believing-in-Santa Christmas.  Saint Nick eats cookies, right?  Well, Santa Bren is offered some treats that contains peanut butter.  Bren is allergic, but eats a cookie anyway, so as not to disappoint Tony.  The ensuing heart attack puts a damper on the party, but the narrator concludes the story by pointing out that he lost the office traffic death pool and that Bren should be fine soon, as “heart attacks heal quick.”

What a morbidly funny story!  Mr. Carmichael ensures that the piece’s structure is quite solid.  The first aspect of the story on which I’d like to focus is that “Buckle Up” takes place in a workplace.  The great Lee K. Abbott once pointed out to those of us who were in his class that there aren’t as many “work” stories as you might think there would be.  After all, people spend more than a third of their lives at or on their way to work.  Why wouldn’t we have a higher proportion of stories in those settings?  Well, Mr. Carmichael makes the setting of the story seem as simultaneously dreary and pregnant with drama as you might expect from your own work experiences.

Let’s play advocatus diaboli for a moment.  What if Mr. Carmichael made the wrong choice; what if he should have told another of the narrator’s stories?  One that was more his own?  The narrator certainly has his own life going on; a decent job, he likes Mountain Dew, he can string together fun sentences…why not send him on his own adventure instead of forcing him to describe what is probably Bren’s story?  Well, Mr. Carmichael can always write more stories about the guy if he wants to do so.  Further, the narrator seemed to be to be fairly passive and maybe even adrift in his own life, anyway.  Why not let that kind of person tell the kind of story with which he’s more comfortable?

Because the author adheres strongly to “traditional” story structure, there’s a defined climax of the story: Poor Santa Bren has eaten a whole peanut butter cookie and is having a bad reaction and a heart attack.  Then:

“Ho, ho, ho,” says Bren. He’s gasping for air. “This Christmas, Santa wants an epinephrine pen.”

He stands up and then keels over onto the floor. Francis yells, “buckle up, people, this is the real deal” and calls 9-1-1. Bren’s wife runs to his desk and ravages through his drawers. She says she thinks he keeps one of those pens at work.

What is Mr. Carmichael doing with the climax of his story?  Why, he has set up a comic setpiece!  Shakespeare did it, giving Will Kempe the fun and funny role of Dogberry in Much Ado About Nothing.  You’ll find the same principle in a ton of comedy films.

John Belushi has less screen time in Animal House than you would have thought.  Ramis, Kenney, Miller and Landis, however, are smart enough to let Belushi dominate the moments of BIG comedy in the film.  For example:

The 40-Year-Old Virgin is a comparatively quiet comedy film…until Steve Carell’s character is given a big comic setpiece:

Mel Brooks allows the whole narrative of Spaceballs to percolate until the big climax of the film, as all of the characters are trying to escape from the Mega Maid.  With all of that storytelling pipe laid, the fantastic Mr. Brooks can let the physical comedy fly:

I guess what I’m saying is that I admire that Mr. Carmichael put a physical comedy setpiece into his short story; that’s not something you see every day.  (But maybe it should be!)  We chuckle as we finish “Buckle Up,” imagining Santa Bren gripping his itchy neck and flailing about as his wife tries to pull back his red pants to expose enough skin for the injection he needs.

What Should We Steal?

  • Set a story or poem at work.  Work may not be your favorite place, but the situations you experience there are pretty universal and audience-friendly.
  • Cast a comic setpiece in prose.  Why can’t a short story be as funny as a Saturday Night Live sketch?