Tag: Best American 2012

What Can We Steal From Mary Gaitskill’s “The Other Place”?

Title of Work and its Form: “The Other Place,” short story
Author: Mary Gaitskill
Date of Work: 2011
Where the Work Can Be Found:  The story made its debut in the February 7, 2011 issue of The New Yorker.  Tom Perrotta and Heidi Pitlor subsequently chose the story for Best American Short Stories 2012.  You can find the story here.

Bonuses:  Very cool.  Here is an interview in which Ms. Gaitskill discusses her story.  Here is an interesting and review and discussion of the story.  Writer Karen Carlson had this to say about the work.

Element of Craft We’re Stealing: Verisimilitude

“The Other Place” is definitely a punch-in-the-gut story.  The first-person narrator has a number of problems, the greatest of which is probably the unhealthy way in which violence blends with eroticism in his psyche.  His son Doug goes to “the other place,” too; the narrator is both scared for his son and unable to control his poisoned mind.  Ms. Gaitskill unspools the story in an interesting manner; detail upon detail is layered in the first several pages.  Not much “happens,” but Ms. Gaitskill offers a number of vignettes from the narrator’s life.  His mother worked as a high-class prostitute before she was born, he has always had an unhealthy association between sex and violence, he has hitchhiked in the past and fantasized about killing the women who picked him up.  In the very potent final scene, the narrator decides to hitchhike again.  He is picked up by a woman.  Before long, he pulls out a gun and the two argue; he doesn’t want to kill the woman in public, but she is not going to give up too easily and will not beg.  He realizes that her hair is really a wig, leading to the decisive moment!  Will he shoot a woman who is going through chemotherapy?  Will he run away?  I don’t want to give away anything.  Read the story and find out what happens for yourself.

Ms. Gaitskill’s priorities are in the right place.  The narrator judges himself, and Ms. Gaitskill allows him to express his thoughts in an honest manner, no matter how unpleasant they are.  The author pointed out that she was inspired to write the story based upon her own fears of violence.  It would have been easy for her to make her narrator a stereotypical crazy psychopath, but Ms. Gaitskill makes the better and harder choice to delve deeply into the psychology of the man.  The narrator has plenty of redeeming qualities.  He seems to have been fairly open with his wife about his proclivities and he is concerned for his son and he seems to be a fairly decent father.  He suffered psychological trauma in his childhood and knows that he has problems, even if he doesn’t know how to “cure” himself.  Ms. Gaitskill allows us to see the narrator as a vulnerable human being at the same time she is pointing out his unpleasant actions.  Aren’t you more interested in a hero or a villain with real pathos?  No one is all good or all bad, including the kind of guy who wants to kill random people.

Is it easy to read about a man who confesses to getting erections when he is preparing to do violence against women?  No.  And that’s the point.  While there are real people who could fit into “The Other Place,” the story is a work of fiction.  Ms. Gaitskill’s story illuminates one of the inherent contradictions in the composition of fiction.  We all strive for verisimilitude in our work and try to make our characters and situations as realistic as possible.  On the other hand, the reader will always know that the story just isn’t real and that, as unpleasant as the narrator is, he doesn’t exist.  It’s all a matter of degrees of reality, I suppose.

Ordinarily, I think I would be turned off by a story whose dramatic thread isn’t exactly as thick as a Brooklyn Bridge cable.  How did Ms. Gaitskill keep me interested?  She sprinkled in compelling moments of the dramatic present.  I love the visceral description of the stupid pranks the narrator pulled when he was young.  I love being there when the narrator’s mother laughed off her sickbed confession of prostitution: “Way to go, Marcy!  On your deathbed tell your son you’re a whore and then don’t die!”  Even if your story isn’t going to have a traditional narrative thread, you may still want to include elements of traditional narrative to give your reader something to hold onto.

What Should We Steal?

  • Allow your characters to be vulnerable and honest.  Even Hannibal Lecter is vulnerable at times.  It may be hard to get over our antipathy for folks who kill and eat other people, but compelling drama occurs between people, not between stereotypes or cartoonish monsters.
  • Understand that your reader is aware of their safety net.  How close can you get to transport your reader from their easy chair into your story?
  • Fold bits of narrative into stories whose structure may be a little slack.  Your primary desire may be to offer the reader a look at a person’s extreme psychology, but that desire must be balanced in some way with the need for narrative.

What Can We Steal From Carol Anshaw’s “The Last Speaker of the Language”?

Title of Work and its Form: “The Last Speaker of the Language,” short story
Author: Carol Anshaw (on Twitter @carolanshaw)
Date of Work: 2011
Where the Work Can Be Found: The story made its debut in Fall 2011’s Issue 10 of the New Ohio Review.  The folks at the fine journal have made the story available on their web site.  How kind of them!  The story was subsequently selected for Best American Short Stories 2012.

Bonuses:  Here is what writer Ann Graham thinks of the story.  Karen Carlson weighed in, too.  Here is a Huffington Post discussion between Carol Anshaw and Steven McCauley in which they examine the current state of gay literature.

Element of Craft We’re Stealing: Narrative Structure

Darlyn has problems.  Her mother is an alcoholic with an equally nasty gambling habit.  She is in love with a married woman.  Her job at the Home Depot is a litany of hassles.  In the course of the story, Darlyn fosters her daughter’s love of cooking, tracks down her mother after she escapes to go on a casino trip and persuades her lover to leave her husband.  By the end of the story, Darlyn’s brother (Russ) makes it clear that her joy will be fleeting.  Darlyn doesn’t care.  “It’s just about—even for a day—being this purely happy.  Like, happy to be a carbon-based life form.”

The story is told in vignettes dicated by a third person limited narrator and Ms. Anshaw establishes the tone of the narrator in the first line of the story: “All right.  Here we go.”  Later in the story, the narrator makes himself or herself apparent again: “Darlyn is too in love with this woman.  Christy, this is the woman’s name.”  And a little bit later, Jackie, the alcoholic gambling addict, stumbles her way into a comped casino suite.  She offers her granddaughter some fruit, “Like she’s Lady Bountiful.  Like she’s a nutritionist.”

Why did Ms. Anshaw choose to have a third person narrator offer these thoughts instead of simply giving the piece a first person POV?  I don’t know.  I’ve never met Ms. Anshaw, but I’m sure she’s a very friendly woman.  I can, however, consider the different effects that the different POVs would have.  In a way, the third person limited aligns itself with the reader.  Reader and narrator are both opposed to Jackie’s lifestyle.  We’re both rooting for Darlyn to find happiness.  I’m not exactly thrilled that she broke up a marriage. I’m not sure if the narrator agrees with me, but the description of the confrontation with husband Gary is primarily factual, as though the narrator doesn’t exactly approve, either.  If the story had been written in a first-person point of view, the reader may not have an objective glimpse into Darlyn’s world, as she’s too close to the events of her own life to discuss them objectively.

The third person also helps Ms. Anshaw with the structure of her story.  At first, I thought the story would primarily be about responsible daughter and irresponsible mother.  Instead, there’s an awful lot going on.  That’s why Ms. Anshaw tells the story through a series of vignettes.  The third person narrator can simply end a section and jump forward in time all it wants.  Putting a little distance between the character and reader is a very good idea, considering the scope of the story.  If you tried to tell someone how you got to where you are in all facets of your life, that might take a while.  It might be difficult for you to know what to include and what to leave out.  The third person narrator has a much easier time making these distinctions.  When you structure your story as a series of vignettes, you’re cutting out the fat in the story and you’re forcing yourself to consider what is truly important to your overall narrative. This kind of structure may also help you avoid the tendency to over-explain.

Another smaller note: I also particularly liked the way Ms. Anshaw didn’t treat Darlyn’s homosexuality in a sensationalist manner.  Some less-skillful writers would be tempted to make the revelation a shock, when it isn’t a big deal. (Although it is a necessity for the story to make sense.)  The love affair between Darlyn and Christy is not treated as a “lesbian love affair.”  They’re just two people who want to be together.  The interesting angle is not that Darlyn is into girls.  It’s that she’s in love with someone who kinda should be unavailable to her and that the revelation of the affair will cause a lot of problems.  When Gary the Husband confronts Darlyn, Ms. Antrim makes an honest choice and allows Gary to say things that are politically incorrect.  His wife has just left him for a woman…it’s only natural that he should call the interloper a “blahblah-fuckingfreak-blahblah-lesbohomewrecker.”  Yes, the narrator softens the anger, but it would be disingenuous for a husband to hear he’s being left for a woman to shrug in the interest of diversity and to praise his wife’s bravery in asserting her new sexuality.

What Should We Steal?

  • Consider the relative positions of your reader and your narrator.  Whether or not you’ve thought of it this way, your narrator is a person.  Is it to your benefit to use your narrator as a scrim between your protagonist and your reader?
  • Break down complicated stories into vignette-sized pieces.  Forcing yourself to decide what is important helps you eliminate narrative waste.
  • Allow your characters to be honest, even if what they say and think is sometimes unpleasant.  Even the kindest person will say ugly things if they think it will hurt the person who hurt them.  It’s just natural.

What Can We Steal from Taylor Antrim’s “Pilgrim Life”?

Title of Work and its Form: “Pilgrim Life,” short story
Author: Taylor Antrim (on Twitter @taylorantrim)
Date of Work: 2011
Where the Work Can Be Found: The story was first presented to the world in the Fall 2011 issue of American Short Fiction, a journal with a storied past and a very bright future.  The piece was subsequently chosen for the 2012 issue of The Best American Short Stories.

Bonuses:  Here is what blogger Karen Carlson thought of the story.  Here‘s a very cool personal essay by Mr. Antrim that describes the encounter that made him feel like a real New Yorker.  Here are some very interesting thoughts about second novels; particularly meaningful because Mr. Antrim was writing his second novel at the time.

Element of Craft We’re Stealing: Narrative Structure

Twenty-three-year-old Lewis just went through a very stressful time in his life.  Not only did his mother’s cancer return, but Lewis felt directionless and didn’t have a very healthy relationship with his semi-girlfriend, Claire.  Perhaps worst of all, Claire committed a hit-and-run while Lewis was in the car.  Lewis investigated, proving that they hadn’t hit a deer, then hopped back in the car and told her to drive away.  The police, of course, were pretty curious as to what happened that night.  “Pilgrim Life” chronicles what happened during that critical time and allows Lewis to describe his ongoing process of growing up.

Mr. Antrim puts a lot of balls in the air.  The story is “about” a lot of things:

  • The strange kind of apathy that exists in folks who are young and insanely talented and rich.
  • A crime story.  What happened during the hit-and-run?  Will Lewis go to jail?  Should he?
  • A relationship between an immature man and a damaged woman who has a lot of problems.
  • Sibling rivalry.

Mr. Antrim tosses all of these conflicts (and more) into a pot and grabs the reader’s attention by inviting questions.  The first invitation is even extended in the opening sentence: “By Thursday, I still hadn’t said word one about the accident.”  Do we feel bad for Lewis? Sure.  But it’s Mr. Antrim’s job to tell a unique story and to depict how his protagonist deals with his complicated situation.

The structure of the story is influenced by the number of stressors on Lewis’s mind.  Aside from the last section, Lewis is telling you about events that happened in the past.  Mr. Antrim cycles through the “mysteries;” after a section about Lewis’s sad relationship with his family, he presents a scene describing Lewis’s sad relationship with the troubled Claire.  By alternating between conflicts, Mr. Antrim keeps each dilemma fresh in the reader’s mind, allowing them to percolate simultaneously.  (This was indeed the way that Lewis experienced this time in his life.)

And what about that ending?  The last section serves as an epilogue to update the reader as to what has happened in the time since the occurrence of the story’s events.  After running through the roster of characters, Mr. Antrim has Lewis (now in Pensacola) make an observation:

Boom-splash.  The pelicans take these kamikaze plunges into the water.  The way they hit, not one should survive—but of course, they all do.  They come up with their beaks full of fish.

The ending seems like a non-sequitur.  I think Mr. Antrim is doing something interesting here.  After a fairly “realistic” story, he makes one grand nod toward a poetic flair.  Could Lewis be the pelican?  Could Claire be one?  His mother?  All of the characters?

What Should We Steal?

  • Torture your poor characters by putting them under a great deal of stress emerging from different sources.  Exceptional characters deserve to be challenged by exceptional situations.  (And if your work is not about something exceptional…that might be a bit of a problem.)
  • Combine your conflicts to keep them on your reader’s mind.  You have a hit-and-run and a troubled woman and a sick mother?  Baby, you got a stew going.
  • Violate the tone and aesthetic you established in your work…when it’s a good idea.  A beautiful and abstract image can stand out if it concludes an otherwise realistic work.

What Can We Steal from Sharon Solwitz’s “Alive”?

Title of Work and its Form: “Alive,” short story
Author: Sharon Solwitz
Date of Work: 2011
Where the Work Can Be Found:  The story appears in the Spring 2011 issue of the Fifth Wednesday Journal.  Heidi Pitlor and Tom Perrotta subsequently chose to include the story in Best American Short Stories 2012.

Bonuses:  Here is a 1997 Chicago Reader article about Ms. Solwitz. Writer Karen Carlson offers some sad and appropriate thoughts about the story.  Much happier news: here‘s a Sharon Solwitz story that was published by the Superstition Review.

Element of Craft We’re Stealing: Point of View

This is not a good time for Dylan.  His older brother Nate is being treated for cancer and his mother is naturally preoccupied with Nate’s condition.  In Dylan’s mind, Nate gets all the attention…everything is determined by what Nate is up for…Nate, Nate, Nate.  Dylan finally gets to have some fun: Mom takes the boys on a ski trip.  There’s even a cute girl in the ski rental hut!  Dylan’s fun seems over when Nate suddenly doesn’t feel well and countless people, including his mother, are tending to the eyebrowless young man who clearly is having some health problems.  What does an adolescent boy do in such a situation?  He takes off and ends up skiing alongside the cute girl.  Dylan, of course, ends up taking a terrible spill.  A group of bystanders surround him and his poor, stressed-out mother gives him some attention.  I can’t advocate Dylan’s methods—the woman doesn’t need more stress—but his plan worked.

One of my tendencies when writing fiction (we should all know our tendencies) is to want to put dialogue into every scene.  The problem with this inclination is that it leads me to neglect all of the other ways in which exposition and dialogue are communicated.  The situation in Ms. Solwitz’s story requires a lot of silent scenes.  Dylan is a teenage boy who often feels alone and is alone.  One of the boy’s problems is that he feels neglected.  He’s going skiing alone…there simply must be lots of non-dialogue scenes.  Ms. Solwitz makes a wise choice in the story’s point of view.  The third-person narrator is very close to Dylan, who isn’t very good at expressing himself or even understanding his own emotions.  Because Ms. Solwitz has deep access to Dylan, she can point out the traditional teenage way of thinking: even the ski poles have it in for him!  It’s “Dylan against Things.”

One of the many things I love about the story is the way the narrator offers the reader an understanding of the complicated family dynamic.  Nate, the sick brother, has a lot on his plate.  Ms. Solwitz does not put Nate on a pedestal simply because he is ill.  Instead, she does something much kinder: she makes the boy seem human.  The kid has flaws and strengths and is not simply a cardboard cutout of a character.  For instance, Nate tries to ease his mother’s fears about skiing because he knows what it means to Dylan.  Nate complains about math and may or may not have lost a race with Dylan on purpose.

Some folks have a tendency to make saints out of humans in their fiction.  Personally, I’d rather be a human than a saint.  (Saints, after all, are dead.)  Super-sympathetic characters are often depicted as flawless and all-knowing and magical.  Think of the wheelchair-bound guest star on a TV drama…they’re there to offer the moral of the story.  Those flat stock characters are also boring.  Think instead of Dave Dravecky.  Mr. Dravecky was a very good major league ballplayer.  In 1988, doctors discovered a tumor in one of the muscles in his pitching arm.  Doctors treated him and removed half of his deltoid muscle.  The gentleman made his way back to the major leagues and won his first start.  Then…in his next start…in what is one of the most painful-to-watch baseball highlights of all time…Mr. Dravecky broke his arm while pitching.  Sadly, the cancer had returned and Mr. Dravecky, a man who was a MAJOR LEAGUE PITCHER suddenly lost his pitching arm.  Mr. Dravecky seems like a very good man and seems to be very happy.  If you met him, do you think he wants you to assume he’s a perfect and flawless and mythological creature?  Nope.  I’m betting he’d admit that he’s just a human being.  Just like your characters, there are times when Mr. Dravecky is short-tempered, there are times when he’s angry for no good reason and there are comments he wishes he could take back.

1987 Topps Tiffany #470 - Dave Dravecky - Courtesy of COMC.com

What Should We Steal?

  • Silence your characters when appropriate and choose a felicitous POV.  Writing a confused  teenager may be hard if you describe him or her in a very limited third person point of view.
  • Imbue your sympathetic characters with less than sympathetic traits.  A child with leukemia should be depicted in an honest manner, even if it’s not always flattering.  A single father with several small children is a real human being with real desires.  We may not want to think about it, but he needs the company of a woman on occasion!

What Can We Steal From Edith Pearlman’s “Honeydew”?

Title of Work and its Form: “Honeydew,” short story
Author: Edith Pearlman
Date of Work: 2011
Where the Work Can Be Found:  The story was published in the September/October 2011 issue of Orion Magazine.

Bonuses:  Here‘s a nice profile of Ms. Pearlman from Hadassah Magazine.  Ooh, and here‘s an interview Ms. Pearlman did with The Millions.  (She offers some wonderful thoughts about the importance of short fiction.)

Element of Craft We’re Stealing: Point of View

Even though Caldicott Academy is a prestigious day school for girls, there’s a lot of complicated adult passion lurking beneath the surface.  Alice Toomey is the headmistress; she’s having an affair with Dr. Knapp, the professor of anatomy.  Dr. Knapp’s daughter, Emily, has an eating disorder and is infatuated with insects.  The Caldicott campus is also home to a ravine that is forbidden to students because of “the suicide [that] had occurred a century earlier.”  Ms. Pearlman’s story meditates on the characters’ infatuations (sex and the female body and insects) before the threads of the story are united in the climactic scene.  Dr. Knapp is sneaking back home after a special moment with Alice.  Emily has climbed down the ravine and is watching her father behave “like a boy.”  A brief epilogue sums up what happens to the characters and restates what may be the story’s primary theme: “Caldicott’s most important rules, even if they weren’t written down, were tolerance and discretion.”

Ms. Pearlman’s story makes particularly interesting use of the third person omniscient point of view.  The narrator has access to the consciousnesses of each of the characters; there are positives and negatives inherent in the choice.  Ms. Pearlman, of course, uses the third person omniscient to get all of the story’s issues and conflicts into play very quickly.  Because the narrator has full access to everyone, it can simply plant all the seeds it desires.  Once the field has been seeded, of course, the writer is able to nurture the plants that have taken root.

The point of view that Ms. Pearlman chose allowed her to make the most impressive move in the story.  The penultimate section of the story details Dr. Knapp’s “walk of shame.” The three primary characters are involved, either as spectators or as participants.  The third person omniscient acts like a hovering camera.  First, Emily sees her father and thinks about what the man’s actions mean.  She compares him, of course, to an insect.  Then the narrator magically slides to Alice’s point of view; we understand why she begins crawling toward Emily and how her attitude toward the girl has changed.  Finally, the camera slides to Richard’s perspective.  Two of the women in his life are in danger and resemble insects in different ways.  The climax of “Honeydew” means more because Ms. Pearlman offers us a great deal of access to the characters during the climax and does so at a crucial time.

What Should We Steal?

  • Plant the seeds of your conflict early and close together.   The third-person omniscient makes it easy for you to get your drama started and to establish your primary thematic imagery.
  • Imagine the narrator is a kind of camera that must follow rules dictated by the point of view.  The third person omniscient narrator can go anywhere and do anything…take advantage of this quality.

What Can We Steal From Roxane Gay’s “North Country”?

Title of Work and its Form: “North Country,” short story
Author: Roxane Gay (On Twitter: @rgay)
Date of Work: 2011
Where the Work Can Be Found:  The story was first published in Issue 12 of Hobart, one of the best lit mags out there.  (Their web site is as awesome as their journal, too.)  Tom Perrotta subsequently selected the story for The Best American Stories 2012.

Bonuses:  Here are some bonus notes on the story that were posted by Hobart.  Cool: here’s a brief interview the Kenyon Review did with Ms. Gay.

Element of Craft We’re Stealing: Motif

Kate is an African-American woman teaching at a college in northern Michigan.  She feels as though she’s the only person of color around and feels lonely for this and a number of other reasons.  Then she meets Magnus, a logger who plays in a band.  Kate begins to open up, slowly but surely.  Not only to the world, but to Magnus.  We learn that Kate suffered from a stillbirth and found the man was cheating on her; how appropriate that Kate should write with such emotional reserve!  She’s working through big, sad issues.  The climax of the story occurs when Magnus overhears Kate tell her family that “he’s no one important.”  Magnus is extremely understanding; Kate is eventually able to open up, admitting she’s “not very nice.”  Magnus seems to disagree, and Kate finally shares her feelings about the stillbirth, indicating that she has reached some kind of emotional catharsis.

Sadly, Kate seems to be stuck in an emotional rut because of the several traumas she endured in her recent history.  How does Ms. Gay communicate Kate’s sense of sad passiveness and her confusion as to what is happening in her life?  By using a motif, of course.  Two of the story’s sections begin with the sentence, “In my lab things make sense.”  Kate is a scientist and clearly loves the black-and-white dichotomy that science presents.  Either something is true or it isn’t.  Unfortunately, human relationships are not that easy.  After Magnus has unwittingly helped Kate understand that she “feels nothing,” the ice has broken.  Ms. Gay begins a subsequent section thus:  “In my lab things make sense but they don’t.”  This is an acknowledgement that Kate is actually feeling something for Magnus, even though she doesn’t understand what is happening inside her.  The sections of the story that take place in the lab represent the fortress that Kate built around herself in the wake of her pain.  Science can be a lonely pursuit, but that’s what Kate wanted at that time in her life.

What does Ms. Gay gain by returning to the same sentence and the same image?  Doing so allows her to make her point about Kate’s psychology without being too explicit about it.  She is SHOWING you that Kate is sad, not telling you.  Motifs are one of the many kinds of patterns that rule our lives; there can be a lot of drama to mine when a person or a fictional character breaks out of that pattern, which is what Ms. Gay is doing.

Ms. Gay is also demonstrating advanced use of another literary device: imagery.  Look: I love science, but you have to admit that many laboratories are cold, sterile places.  (Many of them MUST be sterile, right?)  The chill and solitude of Kate’s lab reflects Kate at that point in her life.  She wants to be alone; she’s looking for some kind of order in her disordered life.  Ms. Gay subverts this image toward the end of the story.  Her hydrologist colleague “corners” Kate in her lab and makes an advance that makes her feel uncomfortable.  She calls Magnus.  Even though he’s “still angry” at her, he puts his feelings aside for the moment, accompanying her to the lab to get her things.  That’s right; the empty lab that Kate has been using to get away from men and everyone else is no longer empty.  Magnus has been allowed into her private space and indeed into her heart.

What Should We Steal?

  • Plant subtext through the use of motifs.  Simple repetition of a phrase can call attention to your intentions without forcing you to call TOO MUCH attention to them.
  • Subvert the imagery in your story to accomplish character development.  We’re attracted to things that are different.  Once you’ve established the way an element of your story operates or looks, you can play with the meaning of the image.

What Can We Steal From Adam Wilson’s “What’s Important Is Feeling”?

Title of Work and its Form:  “What’s Important Is Feeling,” short story
Author: Adam Wilson (on Twitter: @bubblesdepot)
Date of Work: 2011
Where the Work Can Be Found:  The story made its debut in the Winter 2011 issue of The Paris Review.  (Yes, THE The Paris Review.)  The story was subsequently chosen by Tom Perrotta for the 2012 edition of Best American Short StoriesHere‘s an excerpt from the story.

Bonuses: Check out this Electric Literature interview with Mr. Wilson about the author’s book Flatscreen.  Wow!  Mr. Wilson appeared on The Bat Segundo Show and you can hear the program here.

Element of Craft We’re Stealing: Structure and Setting

The first-person narrator is working on the set of a movie.  There’s a lot of down time, a lot of petty squabbling between people and a lot of chiggers.  Before long, Felix arrives.  He wrote the film and is a producer on the project.  Unlike the narrator and his friend Nathaniel, Felix has made a pretty big mark on the film world.  Felix starts annoying the director with his many comments and Felix even has a conflict with the animal wrangler.  (These annoyances are why the narrator is sent off to get Felix some marijuana in hopes of calming him down.)  Production ends and they found a cat that could do as it is told.  The story ends as the narrator and his friends hold an impromptu apartment showing of the film after its DVD release.  Even though he worked on the film, the narrator finds himself more interested in one of the women at the party.  So it goes.

During the first few pages of the story, I was wondering when Mr. Wilson would start to tighten up the central conflict of the story.  Would Nathaniel try to bed the female lead and get into big trouble?  Would the animal wrangler sabotage Felix’s dreams of finding a compliant animal?  Before too long, I realized that I was simply looking for the wrong kind of central conflict.  Although I’ve never been on one, a film set is not usually an exciting place.  There’s a ton of down time; you work with a lot of people, most of them crazy and naturally self-centered.  Mr. Wilson shapes his story in a manner that makes perfect sense.  Gil Broome, the animal wrangler, is a perfect guy to have on a movie set because he has a million cool stories that he can share between setups.  “What’s Important” is structured in somewhat a same way; Mr. Wilson is relating several cool stories that occurred during the making of a film.

What did the story mean to me?  Well, I will tell you.  The narrator and everyone else on the shoot truly cared about storytelling.  Most of them believed in the script and were doing the best they could within their limitations.  Should the reader be disappointed that Mr. Wilson didn’t really tell us too much about the movie they were making?  Nope.  Here’s why.  The point of the story is that the creation of a work of art can be as rewarding as the final product.  Sure, we all want lots of folks to read our plays and short stories, but in a way, we already received a great deal of pleasure just by sitting down and putting pen to paper. (Or fingers to keyboard.)  Don’t you get a thrill when you come up with a particularly powerful phrase or when you’re walking down the street and an appealing conflict pops into your head?

And let’s talk about that Gil Broome.  The animal wrangler stands out in the story because he’s the only character who is willing to tell the bosses that they are crazy.  When Felix instructs him to make sure the cat that will appear in the ending will follow orders to the letter, good ole’ Gil points out that cats can’t read the script and don’t understand English.  The contrast of the Gil character adds a lot of life and humor to the very well-written story.

What Should We Steal?

  • Allow your conflict to emerge naturally from the work’s situation.  A film set is a hurry-up-and-wait environment.  It probably wouldn’t make sense to write a slam-bang narrative with a million story beats about such a place.  (Think of it this way.  Would Michael Bay ever direct: DMV OFFICE: THE MOVIE?)
  • The creation of art is its own reward.  Writing certainly can be a struggle at times.  Never allow yourself to get to the point at which you dislike it too much.  Writing is, fundamentally, creative play.
  • Employ a wild card character to deconstruct your story.  Nearly everyone on a movie set is terrified of offending the director or writer or producer.  Bring in a character who doesn’t care who he offends.

What Can We Steal From Angela Pneuman’s “Occupational Hazard”?

Title of Work and its Form: “Occupational Hazard,” short story
Author: Angela Pneuman
Date of Work: 2011
Where the Work Can Be Found:  The story made its premiere in the Spring 2011 issue of Ploughshares as the winner of the Alice Hoffman Prize for Fiction.  (Ploughshares, by the way, is one of the best journals out there.)  The story was subsequently chosen for the 2012 edition of Best American Short Stories.

Element of Craft We’re Stealing: Material

The story begins as Calvin, a worker at a wastewater treatment plant, accidentally steps into some sewage.  This is a great metaphor for the entire story, as poor Calvin seems to have stepped into a few messes.  Calvin likes his coworker Dave Lott, but doesn’t particularly like spending time with the guy.  Jill (Calvin’s wife) wants another child, which is most retrograde to Calvin’s desires.  Life only gets worse when Dave Lott dies from a terrible staph infection—an occupational hazard for wastewater treatment workers, of course.  Calvin and Jill offer Dave’s first wife and his fifteen-year-old daughter a place to stay for the funeral, which is a depressing affair.  To Calvin’s eyes, daughter Jennifer is an odd bird; he takes the young woman to see her Dad’s office.  In an odd and suspenseful scene, Jennifer disappears.  Calvin finds her in a supply closet where they share a fascinating moment of intimacy.  Stasis re-establishes itself after Calvin gets home.  Jill mistakes his existential angst and cry for help for arousal and the reader is left to wonder what will happen to the characters in the future.

The great short story writer Lee K. Abbott once pointed out, correctly, that there aren’t too many stories about the workplace.  Isn’t this odd?  So much of our lives take place in an office or on the work site, but such settings seem to be underrepresented in fiction.  Ms. Pneuman points out in her author’s note that she once worked in a support capacity for wastewater treatment personnel in Indiana.  I certainly believe that she has depicted the sewage plant faithfully; I can imagine the concrete maze of water and the unpleasant stench.  Honestly, why shouldn’t sewage plant workers have their say in fiction?  As writers, one our responsibilities is to explore new worlds and shed light on the fringes of humanity.  After all; who wants to read the same story about the same people over and over again?

It’s very tempting to write about writers or artists or some other job that stands in as a placeholder for “writer.”  (I’ve done it…have you?)  It would be a shame to miss out on all of the great details and good stories that come out of the workplaces we know.  (Even if we don’t love them.)  Most of us have spent time in hourly retail jobs, right?  What are the unique stories of the unique people who fill these positions?

Here’s an example.  One of the latest “dumb things young people do” is “firebombing.”  Crummy people will go through a restaurant drive-thru window and throw stuff on the worker staffing the post.  One jerk took the concept to a new low; he squirted hot sauce in the worker’s eyes.  Here’s a news report about it.

Maybe the video gets your “What would that be like?” going.  What if this wasn’t the worst part of the character’s day?  What if he knew the jerk?  What if the jerk missed and the worker simply had had enough?  What restaurant policies might change after the attack?  We’ll never know unless someone sets a story in a fast food joint.

The climax of the story, it seems to me, is the scene in which Calvin and fifteen-year-old Jennifer…share a moment in the darkened office.  Now, I’m always up for “weirdness.”  Is a story interesting if a character or situation is “just kinda normal?”  The first time I read the story, I definitely picked up on the fact that Ms. Pneuman was putting Calvin and Jennifer together in the narrative.  The instant the young lady arrives, Ms. Pneuman is careful to make it clear that Calvin is thinking about her and is preoccupied.  Without such clues, Ms. Pneuman may not have made the scene of intimacy very realistic.  Anything will make sense, so long as you make it clear that the events make sense in the context of the world you’ve created.

What Should We Steal?

  • Train your focus on the world of work.  Think of how many hours your characters spend in the workplace.  Thirty?  Forty?  Fifty or more?  During that time, your characters are interacting with other people, suffering setbacks and feeling resentment growing in their hearts.  Consider dramatizing these oft-overlooked moments of your characters’ lives.
  • Ensure that your weirdness makes sense in the context of the story.  Think of The Twilight Zone.  (It’s something I do all the time.)  So much crazy stuff happens on that program, but we buy it.  Why?  Because Rod Serling clearly established the rules of The Twilight Zone.  Okay, aliens don’t turn the lights on and off in the real world…but we believe that it can happen in the world Mr. Serling created for us.

What Can We Steal From Mike Meginnis’s “Navigators”?

Title of Work and its Form: “Navigators,” short story
Author: Mike Meginnis
Date of Work: 2011
Where the Work Can Be Found: The story originally appeared in Issue 12 of Hobart, a stellar literary journal.  It was subsequently chosen for the 2012 edition of The Best American Short Stories.

Element of Craft We’re Stealing: Endings

“Navigators” happens to have personal resonance for me, but the story is well-written enough to appeal to any reader.  The story’s third-person point of view is limited to Joshua, a young man who is living with his increasingly broken father.  Dad is a good guy, but he has been shaken by the dissolution of his relationship with Joshua’s mother.  Father and son have an escape: Legend of Silence, a video game whose heroine, Alicia, takes on significance.  Dad can’t bring himself to make enough money, but he can fill the walls with maps of the LoS game board.  “If we map the whole world,” Dad says.  “We can stop getting lost.  Then we’ll really get cooking.  We’ll be through in a month.”  The gas is shut off, but at least they are helping Alicia make her way through the game.  Then father and son move to a smaller apartment.  The story ends, fittingly, as Joshua and his father finish the game.  Legend of Silence gets pretty deep at the end, and so does “Navigators.”

It quickly becomes clear to the reader that the video game is an allegory for Joshua’s life and that Alicia is a kind of mother figure to the motherless child.  In less skillful hands, this device could dominate the story.  Instead, Mr. Meginnis ensures that the subtext remains, well, sub.  How?  He doesn’t explicitly connect the game to Joshua’s life, opting to describe the game as though it were real.  This is not to say that there are not gut-punch sentences that clearly correlate to poor Joshua.  In the middle of the story, for example, Alicia finds herself in “the chamber of the orange cork.”  Then:

Joshua’s father pressed the B button and Alicia took the cork.  She drew her gun, solemn as pixels can.  She fitted the cork inside the gun, pushing hard until it stuck out only a little—a flare at the end.

“Now it won’t fire?”  said Joshua.

His father shook his head.

“She’s defenseless.”

His father nodded.

Mr. Meginnis has already established that Joshua and his father have some understandable hangups with women.  When father and son are discussing Alicia, they are really discussing Joshua’s mother, both the real version and the one that is breathed to life by her absence.  The author treats his reader like an adult, allowing him or her to decide the true nature of the connection.  (Each reader will fill in the blanks for themselves, informed by their own experiences.)

The structure of “Navigators” is also very well chosen.  At one point, I was Joshua’s age; Mr. Meginnis’s structure mimics the kind of reality I felt.  There was a section of real life…then an interlude dominated by a video game or a book.  More real life…then I was swept away by the music videos that were once played on Music Television.  Mr. Meginnis immerses the reader in the perspective of a young man by structuring his story in the same way his protagonist understands the world.

The ending of the story, of course, explicitly unites the game and the lives of Joshua and his father.  You, dear reader, may have a different opinion, but I find it very hard to end stories.  The conclusion must accomplish a LOT.  You have to wrap up the narrative of the story while offering insight as to what will happen in the white space after the last sentence, you must give the reader a memorable image, you will probably cram in some poetry…and it all must seem natural.

Mr. Meginnis, to borrow a gymnastics term, sticks the landing.  The final section of the story unites the parallel narratives (Joshua’s life and the game), lays bare some of the emotion that father and son have been hiding and leaves the reader believing that the pair understand themselves a little more deeply, placing them on the path to happiness.  The final paragraph mines one of Joshua’s memories of his mother, placing flesh onto the specter she has been through the rest of the story.  Again, Mr. Meginnis allows the reader to vicariously experience catharsis by leaving the “answer” in the subtext.

What Should We Steal?

  • Keep your subtext under the surface.  This is one of the differences between drama and melodrama.  There is real pathos to be mined when you have characters trapped in complicated situations and who don’t quite know how to ease their own pain.  There is usually less pathos when a character walks around screaming about what is bothering them.
  • Avail yourself of allegory glory.  So much of human interaction is done through allegory, even if you’ve never thought of it that way.  Think of a husband and wife fighting over who will take out the trash.  Neither of them truly care who puts the trash can on the curb…they’re really arguing about some deeper, more critical issue.  After all, it’s easier to argue about a tangible bag of trash than some misunderstanding.  Mr. Meginnis draws out characterization and exposition by making Legend of Silence an allegory that parallels his characters’ lives.

Great Moments in Literary Theft: Nathan Englander

The Talented Thief: Nathan Englander
Great Example of Literary Theft: The short story “What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank.”  The story was originally published in The New Yorker and was included in The Best American Short Stories 2012, edited by Tom Perrotta.
The Talented Victim and the Pilfered Work: Raymond Carver and his short story “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love”

Nathan Englander’s short story “What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank” describes an evening shared by two couples.  Debbie and the first-person narrator are secular Jews living in Florida.  Mark and Lauren (aka Yarucham and Shoshanna) are Hasidim, visiting from Israel.  At first, the narrator doesn’t particularly care for the guests—so his wife was Shoshanna’s schoolmate twenty years earlier…big deal—but likes them much more after a few drinks and a little marijuana.  The story ends as the couple plays the “Anne Frank Game” in which the Jews discuss who would  or would not hide and protect them in the face of another Holocaust.

Englander is, like all great writers, an admitted thief.  In his note regarding the conception of the story, he admits that he was thinking about the classic Raymond Carver story “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love.”   The title is an homage, and one that most literary folks would recognize.  Carver’s story is an alcohol-soaked discussion between two couples, just like Englander’s.  Both stories end with a discordant tone, as though all of the characters have understood something dark and sad about the world and themselves.  What does Englander get by borrowing the title?  The connection to an all-time great story brings forth great expectation from the reader, but also inspires (at least in readers like me) great admiration. After all, it takes a lot of guts to willingly put yourself in conversation with a writer like Raymond Carver.

Englander also admits that he stole the idea for the “Anne Frank Game” from his own life.  He and his sister have been playing it “forever.”  As the author points out, the game is both sad and comforting…what must it be like to doubt that a friend would try to save your life.  We all have these kinds of personal details and we must have the courage to plumb our psychological depths for these gifts.  Nonfiction writers steal from their own lives in explicit ways; we all know the things that Tim O’Brien carried while he was in Vietnam.  Fiction writers steal ideas and cloak them in a shield of make-believe.

What Can We Steal?

  • Appropriate titles and situations from other great works.  Yes, yes; you have to make your work your own.  But when you steal a title or a famous line, you’re inviting the reader to compare your piece to the classic in question.  The reader will bring his or her knowledge of the original piece…and this can be a positive or a negative for you.  (I don’t know about you, but I’m intimidated by being compared to the greatest writers ever.)
  • Borrow from the toolboxes owned by writers in other genres.  When writing fiction, feel free to use techniques commonly used by poets.  When you’re writing a screenplay, think about the way a nonfiction writer condensed his or her story in a fortuitous manner.  At the moment, I’m thinking of the film made from Tom Perrotta’s novel Little Children.  It’s not odd for a film to have a narrator, but the narration in the film goes much further than most narrators, becoming a character in the same way that the narrator is a character in a novel.