Title of Work and its Form: Backswing, short story collection
Author: Aaron Burch (on Twitter @Aaron__Burch)
Date of Work: 2014
Where the Work Can Be Found: Backswing can be purchased from Queen’s Ferry Press. Click here.
Bonuses: Mr. Burch is very much a successful writer in his own right, but he is also notable for what he has done as editor of Hobart: another literary journal. Here is a story that Mr. Burch published in Storyglossia. Why not check out How to Predict the Weather, one of Mr. Burch’s previous books?
Element of Craft We’re Stealing: Mythological Underpinnings
Backswing is a cool collection of stories written by a cool storyteller. There are fourteen stories in the book and each of them has their own unique charm. It can sometimes be hard to find a table of contents for story collections, so I have compiled one for you:
|Flesh & Blood
|Fire in the Sky
|Fair & Square
||3rd…then 1st (“we”)
|After the Leaving
One thing that you’ll notice about Mr. Burch’s work is that he often enjoys referring to and playing with mythology. “After the Leaving” is a retelling of the Noah’s Ark story and Cain and Abel play a big role in “Sacrifice.” What does Mr. Burch gain by making explicit use of Christian mythology?
- Familiarity – I guess I’d wager that most readers are aware of the basics of these stories. Whether or not one holds the mythology as an article of faith, they’re still part of the shared cultural experience that unites us.
- Solid Narrative Foundations – Mythological stories are often fundamentally solid; if they weren’t, they wouldn’t have remained with us for thousands of years.
- Power – Mythology is all about the origins of humanity and what makes us human. These stories answer some of the biggest questions that we can possibly confront!
More importantly, Mr. Burch creates his own parables. “Church Van” is an interesting story about a man who is coping with the death of his father. Densmore deals with the loss in an unexpected and thematically appropriate manner: he buys the titular van, a vehicle that had witnessed some of his best childhood memories. Sounds normal enough, right? Well, Densmore begins to eat the van, piece by piece. The turn is accompanied by a POV shift; the narrator exists first alongside Densmore before moving to present the thoughts of the public witnesses to Densmore’s strange act of self-flagellation.
So if you distill the story to its basic elements, “Church Van” is really just a depiction of the power of repentance, a near-universal concept. Star Wars is a depiction of the battle between good and evil and the struggle we all have to escape the sins planted in us by our parents. Harry Potter is a depiction of the battle between good and evil and the struggle we all have to understand our own destinies. The Lord of the Rings is a depiction of the battle between good and evil and the struggle we all have to control our greed. Wall Street is a depiction of the battle between good and evil and the struggle we all have to control our own greed.
Gee, it’s almost as if these big stories are all pretty much the same and that you can produce something powerful if you think of your work in terms of mythology.
The stories in Backswing have thematic similarities, but Mr. Burch can’t be accused of telling the same story a dozen times. Not only does he mix up points of view, but he experiments with a wide range of settings, from the fantastic to the familiar. Perhaps my favorite story in the collection is “Prestidigitation,” a story that I happened to read when it premiered in Barrelhouse. The female protagonist of the story performs a magic trick for her boyfriend, creating a temporary alternate reality. (Isn’t that what magic tricks do?) Compare that story to “Train Time,” a first-person story in which the narrator is creating his own fantasy around the woman who sits beside him on a train. Mr. Burch also experiments with form a great deal.
“Flesh & Blood” and “Fire in the Sky” and “Scout” are “normal,” “traditional” stories. What do I mean by “traditional?” The characters are fairly “normal.” They certainly do interesting things in their stories, but there’s nothing “experimental” or “challenging” about stories populated by suburban males who enjoy golfing, pick up skateboarding or attend a bachelor party. I’m certainly not saying that there’s a negative to setting your stories in situations to which many of your readers can relate. (We all spend time with friends. We’ve all been the “new kid” in some way.) What I’m pointing out is that Mr. Burch complements these narratives with far “stranger” ones. “The Stain” is odd and cool and doesn’t take place in a world we recognize. “The Apartment” has a distinct Twilight Zone flavor.
I suppose what I’m urging us all to do is to experiment a little bit. For example, I so liked the conceit of the Aubrey Hirsch piece I wrote about that I am “experimenting” with a piece in a similar vein. While I can be frustrated by writing that is ALL experimentation, why shouldn’t we push our boundaries a little in the way that Mr. Burch does. Some stories deserve to be told in a “normal,” “traditional” way and some require us to challenge the reader a little bit with form. (Mr. Burch, of course, never leaves the audience behind when he tries something different, and neither should you.)
Here’s an interesting corollary lesson. “The Stain” and “After the Leaving” are two of the more “experimental” stories in the volume. Both are written in the first person, but the protagonist is “we.” “Us.” One of the reasons that the stories aren’t difficult to hang with is that WE are instantly aligned with the narrator by virtue of being included.
Mr. Burch’s first short story collection deserves a lot of attention because the stories are satisfying and the value of the whole is greater than that of its parts. Writers would do well to pick up a copy because Mr. Burch’s endless imagination and solid use of craft can help them improve their own work.
What Should We Steal?
- Create stories shaped by the mythology around you. Even though we’re thousands of years removed from the classical Greeks, we still feel the same deep emotions and still confront the same existential crises.
- Become adept with traditional and experimental forms. Stories are like people. Some don’t like the traditional flowers for their birthday. Sometimes, you will meet someone who prefers a copy of Mad Magazine. (Come to think of it, that’s me.)
- Offer readers a lifeline by writing in the first person “we.” Perhaps you have a bit of a crazy story or poem in mind. Uniting reader and narrator can make things a little clearer.
Short Story Collection
2014, Aaron Burch, Backswing, Barrelhouse, Hobart, Mythological Underpinnings, Queen's Ferry Press
Title of Work and its Form: “My Brother in Christ,” short story
Author: Mary Miller (on Twitter @MaryUMiller)
Date of Work: 2009
Where the Work Can Be Found: The story made its debut with the title “Go Fish” in the online extension of the AWESOME journal Barrelhouse. As of this writing, the story is no longer online while the Barrelhouse folks reorganize their online component. The story was included in Ms. Miller’s very cool short story collection. Big World is available from the kind people at Hobart.
Bonuses: Here is an interview The Rumpus conducted with Ms. Miller. Here is a short story Ms. Miller published on Tin House‘s excellent blog. Here is another short story Ms. Miller placed with Pindeldyboz.
Element of Craft We’re Stealing: Characterization
Dana’s brother is in a bar band and she brings a friend along to see him play. After the performance Dana and her friend follow the party back to a hotel. Jeremy, the charismatic lead singer, is a bit of a jerk, but Dana sees some vulnerability in him and they share a moment of physical and emotional intimacy.
As you can tell from the summary, the story is deceptively simple, but I promise there’s a lot more to it. The third-person omniscient narrator establishes the situation quickly and builds the emotional foundation of the characters with equal speed. One of the many things I love about the story is that Ms. Miller writes about one of the less-examined milieus in human experience. In this case: the time when a regionally popular band is setting up for a gig and when it goes to a no-tell motel to “celebrate.” By passing up the flashier options–writing about the SHOW! or the day when the record executive SIGNS THEM!–Ms. Miller is better able to examine the psychology of some interesting people. They’re behaving as they normally would in their “natural habitat.” The stellar writer and teacher Lee K. Abbott has pointed out on several occasions how few stories take place at work, even though that’s where people spend so much of our time. If you can say nothing else about this fine story, you can say that it may be the first time you met these kinds of characters in this kind of place.
One of the things I love most about the story is how much Ms. Miller TELLS YOU without actually coming out and saying it. Poor Dana is somewhat breaking out of her prolonged adolescence and may be tiring of the life she has lived. After the show,
everyone, except Dana, is drunk or high. Dana used to sleep around and drink until she blacked out, but she’s trying to be better. She’s started going to church on Sundays and in bet at night she repeats my body is a temple until the words lose their meaning…And when she’s horny, she tells herself that men are just her brothers in Christ.
Ms. Miller puts words to Dana’s attempt to change her life. Part of this attempt is her effort to control her…romantic willingness. Half a page later, Ms. Miller reintroduces Jeremy, the lead singer of the band: a man who is often unpleasant and vulgar because people have allowed him to act that way for so long. Dana and Jeremy speak as he watches a porn movie on the television. “You probably don’t want to watch that,” he says.
In her head, she’s repeating Jeremy is my brother in Christ.
See what Ms. Miller did? She prepared us to understand what this means: Dana is aroused. Ms. Miller doesn’t even need to really describe how Dana is feeling because she taught us what that phrase means to the woman. Each character has their own way of seeing the world and expressing how they think; giving them their own language can help you accomplish graceful exposition and characterization.
I have the first edition of Big World, so I’m not sure about the extra story in the second, but “My Brother in Christ” is the only story in the collection that is told by a third person narrator. Unless I’m mistaken, all of the other stories are in the first person. There’s nothing wrong with having natural tendencies that express themselves in our work. Whether or not Ms. Miller knew it, she was trying something a little different. Shouldn’t we all do the same? If you notice that all of your stories are about accountants, maybe you write about a circus clown. If all of your poems are in blank verse, write some limericks.
What Should We Steal?
- Tell stories that are set in worlds that are infrequently used in other stories. It’s fun to see a witch or wizard fighting the forces of evil…but what is it like when they have a fender bender?
- Establish your characters’ own languages. Once we learn about your characters and what they think and how they think it, you don’t need to explain things in a manner that could be considered clunky or obvious.
- Identify your natural tendencies so you can experiment on occasion. Trying something new can be interesting for both reader and writer.
2009, Barrelhouse, Big World, characterization, Hobart, Mary Miller
Title of Work and its Form: “Mr. Disappear-o,” short story
Author: Mike Alber (On Twitter: @malber)
Date of Work: 2007
Where the Work Can Be Found: The story first appeared in Quick Fiction 11. The piece can be found on Mr. Alber’s site. See the PDF right here.
Bonuses: Mr. Alber is a very cool guy and that really comes through in his appearance on the TV Writer Podcast. Cool, here’s an online chat he did for fellow TV writers. (Isn’t it awesome how much he likes to share with others?) And here‘s his IMDB page.
Element of Craft We’re Stealing: Narrative Economy
The male narrator, now an adult, is reflecting upon his habit of swallowing objects in hopes of changing the way people feel about him. He swallowed cufflinks to keep his father at home. He downed the objects on his teacher’s desk to amuse his classmates. A girlfriend’s family heirloom went down the hatch because it made him a part of her family. (Admittedly, in a very odd way.) The story ends as the narrator breaks up with the girlfriend, but he carries a reminder of her in his gastrointestinal tract: one of her keys.
The story is very sad, even though it’s very short. How does Mr. Alber pack so much meaning into less than a page of text? He chooses one great central metaphor and doesn’t leave it. The narrator swallows things because he wants the people he loves to be a part of him in a way that is otherwise impossible in his life. (That’s my idea, at least.) Mr. Alber didn’t have a lot of page space with which to work, so every paragraph relates to the idea in some way:
- He swallows a cufflink to keep his father near
- We learn the origin of his swallowing stuff; his peers enjoy the performance
- He swallowed a girlfriend’s heirloom and has his eye on her Maglite
- He met the girlfriend in an appropriate manner: she’s a gastroenterologist
- Flashback: he swallows the items his peers give him
- Dramatic present: he wants to confess his feelings to the girlfriend, but can only express himself in the way to which he has become accustomed.
You should always try to make your images and your characters’ actions as powerful as possible—think Susan Sarandon placing her husband’s picture face-down in Thelma and Louise. The form of the short-short story requires you every element of your story to do as much “work” as possible.
Mr. Alber also exercises one of the fiction writer’s greatest advantages. If you’re writing a play, you need to worry a LOT about scene changes. Can we build a rocketship that we can get onstage after the chocolate factory scene? How can Matthew Broderick sing is “I Want” song and be in a chicken costume two minutes later? How can we let the audience know that six million years have passed between scenes? Fiction writers can simply tell the reader what about the situation has changed.
Meanwhile, back at the ranch…
Boom. No matter what WAS happening, the reader knows that the narrator has brought him or her to the ranch. Mr. Alber does this especially well in the third paragraph of his story. In the second paragraph, the narrator is a child, and then—
Later, I was dating a nervous woman with exquisite breasts.
The reader easily understands that the narrator is referencing events that take place far later than the schoolroom scene. A little kid probably isn’t “dating” and certainly doesn’t have a girlfriend who has “exquisite breasts.” (The ability to zip through time is also very important in a story of this length.) The narrator is also the kind of person who doesn’t have a lot of practice telling his story, making it a natural choice for him to jump around a lot as he tells his tale.
What Should We Steal?
- Concentrate your imagery like Minute Maid concentrates orange juice. The shorter your story is, the more powerful your metaphors must be.
- Assert your right as narrator and slide between locations and time in a felicitous manner. The methods will vary depending on the genre in which you’re writing, but take advantage of the unique ways in which stories can be built in the form you’ve chosen.
2007, Hobart, Mike Alber, Narrative Economy
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.
2011, Best American 2012, Hobart, Motif, Roxane Gay
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.
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.
2011, Best American 2012, Endings, Hobart, Mike Meginnis