We all know and love the Best American series. While no reader is going to love EVERY story published in EVERY edition, the Best American books are must-haves for a few reasons:
- The stories are, by and large, really good. Each was selected for its original publication out of thousands of stories. Then Ms. Pitlor winnowed the field down to a hundred or so. Then the guest author shared Ms. Pitlor’s enthusiasm for the piece enough to include it in the volume. The cream rises to the top, right?
- The stories represent a common canon for short story writers. Can every writer read every story out there? Of course not. But we need common cultural touchstones and Best American stories are a good foundation. Let’s say you’re in a workshop and someone has written a story in a diary format; but your colleague is missing the mark. It’s not very effective to say, “Hey, have you read that 1997 story that was in a print journal with a 600-copy print run?” Of course your colleague hasn’t read the story. If we have a common reading list, you can simply refer to the George Saunders story from the 2013 volume.
- The Best American authors have a great track record of being or becoming rock stars. If you look at the lists, Joyce Carol Oates is always there. Alice Munro. Ron Rash. Steven Millhauser. These and others are writers we should all know, if only for technical excellence.
So the Harvard Book Store was kind enough to set up a panel discussion in honor of the 2010 volume of Best American. WGBH, Boston’s excellent PBS station, was kind enough to put the panel on YouTube for our enjoyment:
Who’s on the panel?
One of the many wonders brought about by the Internet is that we ALL now have the ability to enjoy these kinds of presentations. Two decades ago, someone may have transcribed the authors’ comments and the result would be condensed and put into a journal somewhere. Or the exchange would not b e preserved at all. Today, we can continue our education in writing wherever we like! (I don’t have a smartphone, so I can only watch it on a computer, but you get the idea.)
What are some things we can steal from the panel discussion?
Early on, Mr. Russo recounts an exchange in which he was asked what sets the 2010 volume of Best American apart from all others. “The only thing that I could come up with was that I had been reading this wonderful anthology since 1978…the only thing that I could think was different this year was that this was the only year from 1978 that I’ve loved all twenty stories.” Like I said, you’re not going to like EVERY story; and that’s fine. The important thing is that we consider what we can learn from the work.
Mr. Russo points out that he had a bit of a conundrum during his reading process. He’s only published one volume of short stories, so he believed that his mind was “tooled” to the specific needs of the novel. We must bear in mind at all times that each genre and each type of work has a unique set of conventions and should be evaluated on their own terms. A pulp crime novel is probably SUPPOSED to have dialogue that is short, clippy and to-the-point. A literary novel may indeed have long sections devoted to a character’s internal life.
Mr. Mathews claims that he has a problem “starting” works. I think a lot of us can relate. (I know I certainly can.” The solution he proposes? We must stick with our original instincts and trust there there is something in the work that is worthwhile.
The panelists discuss the difference between writing short stories and novels. Mr. Almond describes the architecture of a novel as “not just one flip on a trapeze; it’s a whole bunch of them and they have to build.” He elucidates that he may not be correct; novels he loves, such as Pride and Prejudice, are fairly simple on some level. That book is a love story. I suppose the big lesson is that all kinds of pieces are simultaneously simple and complicated.
Mr. Mathews hits on another important concept: we all must be good literary citizens. How? By reading literary magazines. He points out that his students will sometimes ask him where to send a piece. He will ask the student which journals he or she likes. They will sometimes reply that they don’t read any. No one can read EVERY journal, but we should all read and buy a ton of them. This kind of dedication is the only way to understand what a journal likes.
There’s much more to this meaningful discussion; why not watch it for yourself and describe what you learned in the comments?
Cool and useful quotes:
- Mr. Russo: “Falling in love with a short story is like falling in love with a person. It just defies analysis.”
- Mr. Russo: “The physical world…is a doorway into your characters’ lives…You can’t just listen to them talk. You have to allow them their objects. You have to find out what the important physical objects are in the world of the story.”
- Mr. Almond on overcoming fear: “It still comes down to sitting down and outlasting your doubt.”
- Mr. Russo: “When you’ve been at it a while, you really can polish a turd. And it will shine. But it’s still a turd.”
- Mr. Mathews hinting at the sad state of short stories in American culture and preparing to celebrate that the selection of his story for Best American would bring attention to The Cincinnati Review: “I don’t think I’ve ever been published in a publication with a circulation more than 5,000.”
Best American 2010, Brendan Mathews, GWS Private Lecture, Harvard Book Store, Heidi Pitlor, Steve Almond
Title of Work and its Form: “My Last Attempt to Explain to You What Happened with the Lion Tamer,” short story
Author: Brendan Mathews
Date of Work: 2013
Where the Work Can Be Found: The story made its debut in the Summer 2009 issue of The Cincinnati Review. The piece was subsequently selected for Best American Short Stories 2010 by Heidi Pitlor and Richard Russo.
Bonus: Here is a writing lesson Mr. Mathews published on the Ploughshares blog. Here is an interview Mr. Mathews gave to Port. Here is what Ann Graham thought of the story.
Element of Craft We’re Stealing: Point of View
Mr. Mathews employs an interesting point of view in this story. The tale is told by a first-person narrator to an interlocutor: a trapeze artist. He addresses her as “you,” and tries to give his side of the story, explaining why things didn’t end up so well for the man who acts as the lion tamer for the circus that also employs both of you. The narrator, a clown, is in love (or at least is infatuated) with the trapeze artist. He begins his explanation at the beginning. He was attracted to her because of her skill under the big top and, yes, her beautiful face and body. Alas, the lion tamer won her affections and the clown responds by turning his routine into a dumb show intended to mock the lion tamer. As is the case with all love stories, there are unanticipated twists and turns, and no one ends up happy. (Sorry…I’m a pessimist at heart.)
First, I’m going to point out that Mr. Mathews borrowed from Hamlet, whether he knew it or not. The narrator’s jealousy leads him to strike back in a manner unique to his situation. He plans to perform a parody of the lion tamer’s underwhelming act using Scottie terriers instead of giant cats. The narrator expects the audience to release great peals of laughter as they mock his romantic rival. Now, it doesn’t work out that way in the story, but Mr. Mathews gets a great deal of mileage out of describing the image. We’ve all resented those who stand in the way of the man or woman we love (or think we love), and wouldn’t it be great to enlist a couple thousand people in your campaign to make the rival feel terrible about themselves?
How did Mr. Mathews borrow from Hamlet? Well, Hamlet makes the same kind of plan. The traveling players follow the prince’s script, acting out the way in which Claudius killed Hamlet, Sr. This dumb show is the confirmation Hamlet needs; when Claudius reacts, Hamlet knows his father’s ghost was right and that he must get going with the whole revenge thing…in two more acts. So what should we steal from Mr. Mathews? (In addition to borrowing from the Bard?) I love that the author creates such a powerful image in the reader’s mind and then subverts it. The powerful visual in the short story drives the plot, just as the dumb show propels the narrative in Hamlet.
The point of view that Mr. Mathews chose makes a big difference in the story. I love that the clown is telling the story to the trapeze artist. Why? Because he loves her. People are (usually) more likely to be honest with someone they love. Further, these are some very raw emotions. He knows that she doesn’t love him back, but still has some hope that she will begin to see something special in him. He doesn’t want her to hate him because of what happened.
The point of view is possibly most powerful just before the climax of the story. If you’re a longtime reader of GWS, you may already know where I’m going with this. There’s a gut-punch moment when the clown makes the mistake of telling the object of his affection how he feels:
“Say something funny,” you said, your eyes like jewels in the lamplight.
“I love you” tumbled out of me, the words pushing their way into the open like clowns from a car.
“That’s not funny,” you said, and your eyes snapped shut like I had slapped you.
And you were right. It wasn’t funny–it was hilarious. Coming from me, it was absolutely ridiculous.
As time crawled from one second to the next, your head ticked from side to side and a slow-motion no, and I could feel the pressure of all the things I’d left unsaid mounting in my head. If I had been a cartoon, steam would have shot from my ears.
The clown is going to describe this moment differently depending on who is listening to him. How would things be different if he were talking to a group of men? Well, he might tell the story in such a manner that he comes off as less emotionally vulnerable. What if he’s telling his possible future children how he felt about the trapeze artist? He might take on a more didactic tone. Alas, the clown is talking to a woman he loves who will never love him back, a woman he unintentionally hurt. Is there any better way to attack this particular story?
What Should We Steal?
- Allow your powerful visuals to drive the narrative. Making your reader chuckle or sigh with a powerful visual concept is great. A far harder and more powerful trick is to make that concept drive the plot, as well.
- Enhance your first person narrator’s honesty (or dishonesty) by unspooling the story to the appropriate interlocutor. I don’t think I’m alone in saying that I’m going to be much more honest when telling the story to a friend than the waitress who asked why I was getting breakfast at three in the morning on Christmas Eve while wearing the Elton John Donald Duck suit.
2009, Best American 2010, Brendan Mathews, My Last Attempt to Explain to You What Happened with the Lion Tamer, Point of View, The Cincinnati Review
Title of Work and its Form: “Someone Ought to Tell Her There’s Nowhere to Go,” short story
Author: Danielle Evans (on Twitter @daniellevalore)
Date of Work: 2009
Where the Work Can Be Found: The short story made its debut in Issue 9 of A Public Space, one of the top literary journals around. It was subsequently selected by Richard Russo and Heidi Pitlor for Best American Short Stories 2010 and can be found in that anthology.
Bonuses: Here is an interview Ms. Evans did with PEN. Here is a profile of the author from the Washington Post. Here is what writer Karen Carlson thought of the story.
Element of Craft We’re Stealing: Juxtaposition
Georgie is a soldier in love with Lanae, a woman he’s known since he was a child. Unfortunately, their romance is star-crossed. As the first line makes clear,
Georgie knew before he left that Lanae would be fucking Kenny by the time he got back to Virginia.
Georgie is indeed back from his service in the Middle East and Lanae is indeed living with Kenny, who is the manager of a KFC. Georgie seems to have a little PTSD and has trouble getting his own life going, so he assumes the role of babysitter for Lanae’s kid, Esther. Caring for Esther also addresses Georgie’s other big internal conflict: the death and pain he saw visited upon children in theater. Georgie takes Esther to one of those little kid boutique stores and invites the kid to enter a contest for tickets to a concert held by Hannah Montana-esque singer. Esther pretends (kinda believes?) that Georgie is her father and wins the contest with her video about how glad she is that her Daddy is home from war. She wins the contest, of course. Then the press discovers the lie; Georgie is labeled a monster by the press and Lanae shuts him out of whatever quasi-family they created.
I really liked this story a great deal. One of the biggest reasons is that Ms. Evans played with an unexpected conflict. The first couple pages describe Georgie’s deepl affection for Lanae, a woman he’s known just about his whole life. I was excited for the inevitable fight (physical or otherwise) between the Army Man and the Chicken Man. Instead, Ms. Evans took the story in a far more interesting direction by focusing on the relationship between Georgie, Esther and the two girls he remembers from Iraq. (Certainly not a romantic love triangle, but a triangle nonetheless.) Men fight over women all the time, but entering a contest for High School Musical tickets under a “fraudulent” pretense is going to get you some big-time attention. A lesser writer (myself, for example), might have spent twenty pages on Georgie’s resentment of Kenny, but Ms. Evans spends that time on a much more interesting relationship between the living and the dead.
Ms. Evans also does a fascinating job of putting Georgie into two similar situations whose differences illuminate the man’s character:
- Iraq: Georgie’s job is to protect civilians, especially little girls. He gives them candy and tries to calm them and inspire hope in them in some way. He acts as a kind of father to these sometimes fatherless children.
- Home: Georgie’s job is to care for Esther, a little girl. He gives her presents and treats and tries to be a positive force in her life. He acts as a kind of father to a young woman who doesn’t have one.
This juxtaposition creates some sad subtext. Georgie always tries to do the right thing and tries to help people, but he ends up failing, no matter what. How will your characters react when you pluck them from their current situation and force them to deal with similar stressors in a different setting?
What Should We Steal?
- Play with the unexpected conflicts between your characters. We’ve all read (and written) stories about two men fighting over a woman. Instead, make this tension latent in favor of a different conflict related to the characters.
- Shuttle your character between similar situations to illuminate his or her character. What will your creations reveal when they face two different situations that have a lot of similar qualities?
2009, A Public Space, Best American 2010, Danielle Evans, Juxtaposition
Title of Work and its Form: “A Bridge Under Water,” short story
Author: Tom Bissell
Date of Work: 2010
Where the Work Can Be Found: The story debuted in Issue 71 of Agni, an excellent lit journal. Feel free to order a back issue from those fine folks. You may also access the story through EBSCO; feel free to ask your local librarian how to do so. They love helping people with this kind of stuff.
Bonuses: Here is a New Yorker article about Mr. Bissell’s involvement with video game writing. Here is Karen Carlson’s interesting analysis. (There is indeed a big difference between “liking” a piece and “admiring” it. Here are Ann Graham’s thoughts. Here is the Carol’s Notebook review of the story.
Element of Craft We’re Stealing: Point of View
“He” and “She” are celebrating their recent marriage in Rome. A hearty congratulations to them. He is slightly older than his wife of three days, but may be a little more immature than she. The narrator makes it VERY clear that there is conflict in this union, not the least of which is their religious difference. She wants the child in her belly to be raised Jewish (even though she’s not very faithful) and he is not at all religious. He and she make the Roman rounds, ending up in the city’s biggest synagogue. He isn’t very pleased that the synagogue segregates men and women during services, so he causes a mild scene in protest. She just wants to go with the flow, but he doesn’t allow it; they are escorted out. Hand in hand, this “one story” ends and the characters proceed into the rest of their lives.
This story is particularly notable for its third person narrator. It seemed to me that he or she or it is clearly on the side of the woman. What makes me think so?
- In the first paragraph, He is described as a bit of a glutton, “vacuuming up” a plate of pasta, gulping a glass of wine in three swallows and “single-handedly” consuming half a basket of breadsticks. (That last one doesn’t seem so bad. If two people are eating, isn’t it polite for one person to limit himself to half of the table’s supply of breadsticks?)
- In the second paragraph, She is described as eating in a very civilized manner and He “put away everything from foie gras to a Wendy’s single with the joyless efficiency of a twelve-year-old.”
- In the fourth paragraph, He accidentally clears crumbs from his lips and has shaggy “tinder-dry” brown hair.
So He is immature and has difficulty avoiding gluttony (my favorite of the Seven Deadly Sins). Why does it matter that the narrator seems to be against Him? It’s not a problem, really. I think that the narrator is “sticking up” for Her. There’s a bit of an imbalance of power between the two. He is thirty-four and she twenty-six: two very different ages. She is pregnant and must deal with the impending change in a physical manner that simply escapes Him because of human biology. He’s a lot more outspoken with his disdain for religion; she seems to be working through her own conflicts in a much quieter manner.
When you write in the third person, you must decide how close this voice will be to the characters. Will the narrator have access to everyone’s thoughts or only those of one character? Will the narrator be impartial or take an extremely active role in shaping the reader’s understanding of events? It seemed to me that Bissell (whether consciously or subconsciously) put the narrator in Her corner.
Whether or not you realize it, the white space at the end of your story has meaning. That, after all, is the place where your characters will continue to live their lives. Mr. Bissell has given us a newly wed couple suffering from friction and possible incompatibility as well as a gestating baby. The final sentence of the story is not the end for He and She. So what happens in the future?
Mr. Bissell lays in some clues. Early on, we’re told that She plays Rock, Paper, Scissors a little differently than the rest of us. You can throw Fire, capable of destroying the other three, but you can only throw it once in a lifetime. A page later, He uses his Fire and reminds her, “you’ve still got yours.” Indeed. This is a little bit like Chekhov’s Gun. Her Fire. She’s going to throw it at SOME point in the white space at the end of the story.
With a page to go in the story, Mr. Bissell’s narrator says the following as He and She are being escorted from the synagogue:
At this her husband turned to her in something close to lip-licking panic. Not that he was being forcefully removed from a place of worship–she knew he would tell this story, with certain redactions, for years–but rather at the thought of everything else that had been set in motion here.
So Mr. Bissell isn’t writing a novel here. We don’t know EXACTLY what will happen. But we do know that He will tell this story for a long time and that something has been “set in motion.” What’s the effect of these hints? There’s a lot more weight to the events of “A Bridge Under Water” and the reader brings a lot more to the last sentence of the story.
What Should We Steal?
- Empower your narrator to be a character in the story. When you’re gathered around a campfire, the storyteller can’t help but become part of the tale. Why shouldn’t it be the same for the narrator of a short story?
- Sprinkle in hints as to what will happen after the story is over. There may be no more typing after the final sentence, but your characters are still walking around and living their lives.
2010, Agni, Best American 2010, Point of View, Tom Bissell
Title of Work and its Form: “All Boy,” short story
Author: Lori Ostlund
Date of Work: 2009
Where the Work Can Be Found: The story made its debut in Volume 30, Issue 3 of New England Review. (One of the best journals out there, of course!) Richard Russo subsequently selected the story for inclusion in Best American Short Stories 2010.
Bonuses: Cool! Here’s a video of Ms. Ostlund reading her story. Check out this NPR story about Mr. Russo’s edition of Best American.
Element of Craft We’re Stealing: Crane Shot Conclusions
Harold is an eleven-year-old boy who is very precocious and reminds me of a Wes Anderson character. The young man loves reading and enjoys “odd” experiences, such as watching his babysitter get her toenails trimmed. There’s a lot of tension in Harold’s home. Harold’s mother and father are always fighting and are keeping a lot of information from the boy. He has divined that his parents no longer have sex (as they must have done at least once) and he causes lots of conflict when he uses the word “fag” at the dinner table and wears a very comfortable sleeping garment that happens to be a very feminine kimono. Harold’s life changes forever when his father reveals that he’s leaving the home to move in with a male friend. Harold is left “longing for the dark safety of the closet.” For Harold, the closet is a literal place of comfort and solitude.
“All Boy” has an interesting structure and an inexorable build. Ms. Ostlund chose a third-person narrator who is very close to Harold, allowing the reader to understand the events through a childlike perspective. The story, we eventually learn, takes place in the Autumn of 1976, a very different time than our own. Back then, boys simply didn’t wear kimonos and using the word “fag” in polite conversation isn’t met with disapproval. (Instead, it’s treated as a “terrible accusation.”) Ms. Ostlund establishes very early that the story confronts the issue of sexual secrecy and the tendency to be reluctant when confronting sexual self-identity.
- Harold’s father doesn’t get mad that the babysitter locked Harold in the closet, but he flips out when he learns that the woman likes to go into his sock drawer.
- Harold’s father doesn’t like to be touched and even his eleven-year-old knows that he doesn’t have sex with his wife.
- Harold’s father flips out when his wife makes an innuendo that clearly points to his lack of interest in women.
- Harold’s father makes a point of meeting the librarian who is kind to Harold.
- Harold’s father “believed that men should be muscular,” and spends lots of time in a weight room “groaning” in a room filled with pictures of muscle men.
Even I picked up on the subtext after a while! Harold lives in a world he doesn’t understand, primarily because he’s eleven and doesn’t have friends or anyone else who will explain adult-type things to him. “All Boy” is about the gradual revealing of intimate secrets. If the story had been told from the perspective of Harold’s mother, Ms. Ostlund would not have been able to release secrets very slowly. This point of view can read as though there’s a scrim between writer and reader, but a slight disconnect makes perfect sense in this case.
Ms. Ostlund ends her story in a very popular way that I will now label THE CRANE SHOT. Think of the end of a film. Many times, a movie will end with a crane shot; the camera pulls back on the characters, allowing them to melt back into the rest of the world. I love the 1994 Bridget Fonda film It Can Happen to You. (You might say I’m quite “fonda” the actress…) At the end of the film, the protagonists have solved all of their problems and are celebrating their love by flying above Central Park in a hot air balloon. Ms. Ostlund (and countless other short story writers—including myself) does the same thing in her story, just in a manner that is suitable to prose.
Harold has just been told his father is moving out to live with a male friend. Harold simply wonders who will protect the home. From that moment, Harold fears he and his mother will be at risk. “Crane Shot” endings are often cast in one beautiful sentence, and Ms. Ostlund’s example in “All Boy” is no exception:
The thought of this filled him with terror, and as he stood there in the driveway watching his father leave, Harold found himself longing for the dark safety of the closet: the familiar smells of wet wool and vacuum cleaner dust; the far-off chatter of Mrs. Norman’s television shows; the line of light marking the bottom of the locked door, a line so thin that it made what lay on the other side seem, after all, like nothing.
Striking, right? Ms. Ostlund’s ending contains most of the elements of a “Crane Shot” conclusion:
- A long, poetic sentence
- A switch from the dramatic present to glimpse the future
- Recall of themes and/or images from the story
- An epiphany for the protagonist; an acknowledgement that life has changed forever
What Should We Steal?
- Inhabit the point of view of an oblivious character to regulate the speed at which you release exposition. An eleven-year-old certainly can’t be expected to understand everything that is going on around them. The gradual reveal of truth to such a character mimics the gradual process by which adults learn about each other.
- Conclude your story with a “Crane Shot.” Now that you’ve zoomed in on a few of the people in your creative universe, offer a glimpse into their future while making a larger statement about humanity.
2009, Best American 2010, Crane Shot Conclusions, Lori Ostlund, New England Review
Title of Work and its Form: “Donkey Greedy, Donkey Gets Punched,” short story
Author: Steve Almond
Date of Work: 2009
Where the Work Can Be Found: The story first appeared in Issue 40 of the excellent journal Tin House and was subsequently chosen by Richard Russo for The Best American Short Stories 2010.
Element of Craft We’re Stealing: Multimedia
If you’re new to literary pursuits, you may not have experienced the utterly strange kind of pleasure that I derived from this story. I reviewed Issue 40 of Tin House for NewPages and loved Mr. Almond’s story a LOT. Months and months later, I picked up the 2010 Best American and thought the first story seemed pretty familiar… The book begins with that story I loved from Tin House! Did I have anything at all to do with Mr. Almond’s story or the honors it received? Of course not. But I did feel that strange pleasure; I read a story I knew was great and important people subsequently agreed with me. (It’s like when you see a minor league ballplayer you think is great and the guy goes on to a superstar career in the bigs.)
“Donkey Greedy, Donkey Get Punched” is a philosophical fight between Dr. Raymond Oss, a psychoanalyst, and Gary “Card” Sharpe, “enfant terrible of the World Poker Tour.” Dr. Oss doesn’t tell his new patient that he has a somewhat unhealthy level of interest in poker and a bit too much of the love of gambling that rules Sharpe’s life. Sharpe has many problems and doesn’t deal with them in a healthy way; he doesn’t want to change. He loves his life and the excitement he feels from using his intellect and intuition to win money from people. Their doctor/patient relationship ends with some acrimony. In the climactic scene, Dr. Oss has relapsed and is again playing poker at Artichoke Joe’s when Sharpe (a superstar in the minds of the bushers at the table) strolls in and sees the Good Doctor. What happens next? As they said on Reading Rainbow: “read the book!” (Dum dum dum dum!)
There’s so much we can steal from the story. The first thing we should steal was clear to me when I read the story in Tin House, a journal that is particularly attractive and puts a lot of energy into its graphic design. It can be very difficult to describe a card game. Or a baseball game. Or a soccer match. Well, it’s not that hard to describe a soccer match. Here’s my extremely American-sounding description of the most recent World Cup final:
The guy kicked it to another guy who kicked it to another guy, but he fell down so the guy from the other team kicked the ball, but then the ball was kicked out of bounds. So the guy threw it to another guy who kicked it to another guy, but he fell down so the guy from the other team kicked the ball, but then the ball was kicked out of bounds. So the guy threw it to another guy who kicked it to another guy, but he fell down so the guy from the other team kicked the ball, but then the ball was kicked out of bounds. So the guy threw it to another guy who kicked it to another guy, but he fell down so the guy from the other team kicked the ball, but then the ball was kicked out of bounds. So the guy threw it to another guy who kicked it to another guy, but he fell down so the guy from the other team kicked the ball, but then the ball was kicked out of bounds. Time ran out, but the referee added eight more minutes just because. So the guy threw it to another guy who kicked it to another guy, but he fell down so the guy from the other team kicked the ball, but then the ball was kicked out of bounds. So the guy threw it to another guy who kicked it to another guy, but he fell down so the guy from the other team kicked the ball, but then the ball was kicked out of bounds. Then one of the teams celebrated.
Mr. Almond makes it easy to understand the climactic hand of poker that Dr. Oss and Sharpe play at the end of the story. How? He inserted simple graphics into the story, like so:
A written description would likely be less effective. (Especially if I write it.)
Dr. Oss was dealt the ace of spades and the king of hearts.
There are a number of steps in a hand of hold ‘em…Mr. Almond presents the information in a clear way that just so happens to avoid words.
What else should we steal from Mr. Almond? He populated his story with a protagonist and an antagonist. Dr. Oss wants to help Sharpe to attain mental health and to beat Sharpe in a hand of poker. You better bet that Sharpe tosses down a whole bunch of obstacles to prevent Dr. Oss from achieving those goals.
What Should We Steal?
- Capitalize upon the advantages of visual media when possible. Yes, yes. A picture is worth a thousand words, but you can’t just print out five pictures and staple them together and send them to Tin House. You can, however, make use of the benefits of visual media when possible. Instead of describing a bunch of playing cards, for example, you can include images. There’s an added benefit; folks who play poker will remain in your narrative that much more because they’re seeing the cards in a form to which they’re already accustomed.
- Equip a story with a clear protagonist and a clear antagonist. Your main character should have very clear desires and there should be someone who is always throwing obstacles in the poor guy’s way. Think of a Bond movie. Bond wants to disable a communications satellite and the bad guy wants to keep using the satellite…and to kill Bond, of course.
Best American 2010, Multimedia, Steve Almond, Tin House
Title of Work and its Form: “The Ascent,” short story
Author: Ron Rash
Date of Work: 2009
Where the Work Can Be Found: “The Ascent” first appeared in the Issue 39 of the journal Tin House (Spring 2009). The story was subsequently chosen for the 2010 issue of The Best American Short Stories. You can also read the story in Burning Bright, a 2011 collection of stories written by Mr. Rash. Cool. Here’s an interview with Mr. Rash!
Element of Craft We’re Stealing: Narrative Voice
Jared is a normal fifth grader. He likes a girl named Lyndee Starnes and enjoys long walks in the woods. Jared lives within hiking distance of a crashed plane that hasn’t yet been found by the authorities. Well, Jared finds the plane during one of his hikes. He opens up the door and plucks a diamond ring from the finger of the dead woman inside the plane. After a couple hours of fantasizing about what Lyndee will say upon receiving the ring, Jared’s parents take the ring to “see if it’s real.” Well, Jared’s parents are drug addicts. Jared’s dad tells him an obvious lie: the diamond ring—if you can believe it—was reported stolen by a woman, but here’s a chipped-up bicycle for Christmas, champ! Jared knows the family needs money, so he steals more goodies from the plane. After Mom and Dead head out for more drugs, Jared makes a third trip to the airplane as a blizzard rolls in. The ending, which I don’t want to reveal, is beautiful and fitting.
How do you access the thoughts of a fifth grader? I suppose many parents would tell you that it’s easier than figuring out what the heck a tenth-grader is thinking. Mr. Rash places his third-person narrator pretty close to the consciousness of his protagonist. Jared’s parents are always doing drugs, but it would be a mistake if Mr. Rash allowed the kid to grasp everything. For example:
As soon as he came into the front room, Jared could tell his parents hadn’t been to bed. The first was still going, kindling piled around the hearth. His mother sat where she’d been last night, wearing the same clothes. She was tearing pages out of a magazine one at a time, using scissors to make rages stars she stuck on the walls with tape. His father sat beside her, watching intently.
The glass pipe lay on the coffee table beside four baggies, two with powder still in them. There’d never been more than one before.
A fifth grader probably isn’t going to totally understand all of the slang names for the narcotic in question. He will, however, know that Mom and Dad usually don’t leave so many baggies out. Jared doesn’t know EXACTLY what is wrong with his Mom, but he does grasp the effects of the powder.
The simplicity of most of the sentences also reflects the fifth-grade understanding of Mr. Rash’s narrator. Many of them are short and declarative. Mr. Rash, however, certainly knows his way around a poetic turn of phrase. The last sentence of the story is five lines long and a poem unto itself. The contrast is somewhat shocking to the reader; Mr. Rash has shared seven or eight pages of one kind of sentences with the reader and then presents them with one that is completely different.
What Should We Steal?
- Match your sentences to your character’s level of understanding. The average kid simply can’t understand the world in as complicated manner as the average adult. The narrator must, therefore, report in a way that does seem natural for a child, allowing the reader to draw conclusions.
- Employ contrast to maximize the effect of an idea. I don’t know about you, but I’d be pretty shocked if James Taylor grabbed a baseball bat and bashed out my windshield if I cut him off in a parking lot. Why? His public persona and his music seem so calm and laid-back.
Best American 2010, Narrative Voice, Ron Rash, Tin House