Tag: Ohio State

What Can We Steal From Janelle DolRayne’s “In the style of Joan Mitchell”?

Title of Work and its Form: “”In the style of Joan Mitchell”,” poem
Author:  Janelle DolRayne
Date of Work: 2014
Where the Work Can Be Found: The poem debuted in the October 2014 issue of inter | rupture.  You can find it here.

Bonuses: Here is an apt poem that was subsequently chosen for Best of the Net 2013Here is a reading list that Ms. DolRayne put together in her capacity as Assistant Art Director for Ohio State’s The Journal.  Want to see the poet read her work?

Element of Craft We’re Stealing: Conceits

Ms. DolRayne offers us a poem with a fun and interesting conceit.  (It bears mentioning that Ms. DolRayne may not have the same idea as I do about her poem…but that’s okay.)  It seemed to me that the poem is a powerful attempt to use poetry to mimic the loose and quietly powerful feel of a folk song.  If you’ll notice, the first few stanzas feature lines that employ the call-and-response technique popular in folk, blues and rock music:

dolrayne folk songYou’ll also notice that the last stanza abandons the conceit, which is perfectly fitting.  The narrator of the poem is now speaking in “unison” or “a cappella.”

First, I’ll give you some examples of the call and response I’m talking about.  Phil Medley and Bert Berns wrote “Twist and Shout,” a song that was covered by a lot of groups, including The Beatles.  You’ll notice that the background vocalists mirror and augment the lead singer.

Steven Page and Ed Robertson wrote “If I Had a Million Dollars.”  As I understand it, Ed had written the bulk of the song, but only had his part of the vocal.  Mr. Page heard the song in progress and added his part.  Mr. Page sometimes simply repeats Mr. Robertson’s part; sometimes he adds to the narrative of the song and takes it in a new direction.

The response doesn’t even have to come from a vocalist.  In George Thoroughgood’s “Bad to the Bone,” the response comes from guitar and saxophone.

I loved Ms. DolRayne’s use of this technique for a number of reasons:

  • Poetry is just a kind of music, right?  Why not make that connection explicit in this way?  Some people think poetry is a fancy-pants thing you read because some teacher told you to.  Those same people love music without realizing poetry does many of the same things.
  • The “call and answer” adds another voice to the poem, even though it’s only being written by one author.  In this way, we’re able to produce a kind of harmony.
  • The images and ideas in the poem are reinforced through repetition and through being conceptualized in a different way.
  • The phrases on each side of the large spaces can be considered poems unto themselves and  these poems are in conversation with each other, aren’t they?

One of the inherent difficulties in writing is bridging the gap between thought and the written word…and trying to figure out how to combine words, space and punctuation in such a way that the reader will understand the thought you had.  Ms. DolRayne literally adds in the pauses that led me to treat her poem like a kind of song.  For the poet, those pauses are spaces between words.  For a singer, those pauses are bits of silence between musical phrases.  Why not take Ms. DolRayne’s idea and try to lay down some prose in the style of a musician?

I think one of the reasons that I identified the call-and-answer conceit in the poem is because the poem was challenging me, inviting me to make sense of it in a way that made me happy.  If you’re near a window, look out at the clouds.  What shapes you do see?  A phenomenon called “pareidolia” forces us to make sense out of “vague or random” stimuli.

Now, that’s not to say that Ms. DolRayne has given us a poem filled with randomness, because she didn’t.  That’s writing craft in a nutshell, folks.  The poet had to work very hard to create a work that clearly communicated her own thoughts while ensuring the piece was open enough to allow the reader to draw his or her own conclusions.

Unfortunately, there’s no easy method by which writers can learn to be simultaneously specific and vague.  That’s just not something you can learn with a step-by-step procedure.  Instead, we just need to read a lot of poems and write a lot of poems and hope that our skills improve to the point where we have the power to turn any trick we like.

What Should We Steal?

  • Think of yourself as a songwriter when you compose.  The conventions of music are not exactly the same as the ones writers use, but we can use their prose equivalents to our advantage.
  • Trigger your reader’s pareidolia.  How can you get your reader to see the plan in what seems like randomness?

The Great Writers Steal Experience: Wendy J. Fox, author of The Seven Stages of Anger


Show Notes:

Enjoy this interview with Wendy J. Fox, author of The Seven Stages of Anger, a short story collection published by Press 53.

Purchase The Seven Stages of Anger:

Find out more about Wendy J. Fox:

Visit the web site of BookBar:

Like the bookstore on Facebook:

Book You Should Buy: Backswing by Aaron Burch

Find out more about Aaron Burch:

Better Know a Buckeye: Allison Davis


Purchase Ms. Davis’s book:

Website: http://www.greatwriterssteal.com
Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/GreatWritersSteal
Twitter: @GreatWritersSte

Music: “BugaBlue,” Live At Blues Alley by U.S. Army Blues is licensed under a Public Domain Mark 1.0 License.


The Great Writers Steal Experience: An Interview with Jac Jemc, author of A Different Bed Every Time

Enjoy this interview with Jac Jemc, author of A Different Bed Every Time, a short story collection published by Dzanc Books.

Purchase A Different Bed Every Time:

Find out more about Jac Jemc:


Show Notes:
Visit the web site of Women & Children First:

Like the bookstore on Facebook:

Book You Should Buy: Fobbit by David Abrams

Buy the book here:


Better Know a Buckeye: Erin McGraw


Purchase Erin’s books:

Website: http://www.greatwriterssteal.com
Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/GreatWritersSteal
Twitter: @GreatWritersSte

Music: “BugaBlue,” Live At Blues Alley by U.S. Army Blues is licensed under a Public Domain Mark 1.0 License.


GWS Video: Laurel Gilbert’s “Cave-In” On the Couch

What Can We Steal From Erin Belieu’s “I Heart Your Dog’s Head”?

Title of Work and its Form: “I Heart Your Dog’s Head,” poem
Author: Erin Belieu (on Twitter @erinbelieu)
Date of Work: 2006
Where the Work Can Be Found: The poem appears in Black Box, Ms. Belieu’s 2006 Copper Canyon Press book.  The Poetry Foundation has made the poem available on its web site.

Bonuses: Check out this great interview the poet gave to Willow Springs.  Ms. Belieu also conducts interviews with poets.  Want to hear Ms. Belieu read her work?  (Sure, you do.)

Element of Craft We’re Stealing: Subject Matter

Poems have to be all dark and depressing, right? Don’t poems have to illuminate the author’s saddest thoughts?  Appropriate subject matter for poems: romantic break-ups, deceased pets and the worst day you ever had…right?

Of course not!  Poems can also be fun and can deal with any subject under the sun–or beyond.  Ms. Belieu’s free verse poem is about her reaction to watching Bill Parcells coach a game on television.  Now, the poet makes it clear she doesn’t care about football, but she understands that football, like everything else, is a chapter in the vast narrative of our society.  After discussing her antipathy for Mr. Parcells, Ms. Belieu reveals her history of not caring about football despite having been born in Nebraska, one of the places where football is a particularly prominent part of the social fabric.  The thought leads her to recall the barking Chihuahuas on her street.  Finally, Ms. Belieu “puts her faith” in reincarnation, hoping that Mr. Parcells is someday “trapped in the body of a teacup poodle” so she can hear his yapping.

I loved that Ms. Belieu wrote a poem about a popular subject.  Too many folks think that poems must be inaccessible and must deal with “fancy-pants” topics…not so!  Football is the same as any other human endeavor; poets have the right to take a look at the sport with the full power of their critical acumen.  I  have done the same on occasi0n, writing poems for my blog on my favorite Ohio State sports site.  (Why do I write poems for a community that is sport-centric?  Well, poetry belongs everywhere and we shouldn’t assume that a “sports fan” doesn’t like what we do.)

The overall point is that we have permission to take on any subject we like.  Football, computers, cars, Kardashians, the latest episode of Hell’s Kitchen…they’re all within our purview as artists.  More importantly, we SHOULD interact with the rest of what is happening in our culture.  Writers are the people who make sense of the world; we chronicle the evolution of the human soul.

Even better, Ms. Belieu doesn’t make the poem solely about football.  Everything that we do means something more than is apparent on the surface, right?  Just before the final stanza, she builds upon her football- and Chihuahua-related discussion.  Why were those lines important?  Well, they led her to think about “what’s wrong with this version of America.”  She engages in cultural criticism, seeming to raise issues regarding the tribalism inherent in sport (Go Bucks!) and perhaps the obligation people feel to like a team just because their parents did.  People like Bill Parcells, who she feels is happy and successful for the wrong reasons, will win the game, in spite of his sins.  (Are you curious as to whether Mr. Parcells won in the game to which Ms. Belieu refers?  Me too.  Well, Mr. Parcells left the Jets in 1999 and returned to coaching with the Cowboys in 2003.  At the time, the Giants and Jets shared Giants Stadium, part of the Meadowlands Sports Complex.  The Cowboys played the Giants in Week 2 of the 2003 season.  The score?  Well, Mr. Parcells and the Cowboys won the game in an overtime thriller, 35-32.)

A writer can’t simply tell a story or provide his or her reader with a bare description of something; it’s our job to explain what that thing means.  That single game is now pretty irrelevant, relegated to the memories of those who attended and to box score statistics.  Thanks to Ms. Belieu’s insight, however, that 2003 game can still have a big effect on us.  After all, we read the poem and it had some impact upon us!

I’ve been wracking my brain as to why Ms. Belieu made a specific choice in the poem.  Approximately halfway through, she writes:

…of breaking a soul. Yes,
there’s the glorification of violence, the weird nexus
knitting the homo, both phobic and erotic,
but also, and worse, my parents in 1971, drunk as
Australian parrots in a bottlebush, screeching…
Look at that middle line.  I love the way she condenses two words that are somewhat long and unwieldy.  Instead of burdening the line with both “homophobic” and “homoerotic,” she is using language in a somewhat playful way and is inviting us to do the same.  As I said, I do wonder why she cast the line that way.  Why not:
knitting the homophobic and homoerotic
Well, as I said, I like the fun use of language.  But why did she use commas when she could have used em-dashes?
knitting the homoboth phobic and erotic
Or parentheses?  After all, that second clause is a parenthetical statement.
knitting the homo (both phobic and erotic)
I’m certainly not criticizing Ms. Belieu’s choice; I’m just trying to understand the effect the choice has so I can use it in my work in the future.  I think that the commas keep the poem flowing more fluidly than parentheses would.  (A parenthetical thought might stop the reader for  a moment.  Didn’t this parenthetical thought stop you just a little?)

The lines that contain that fun sentence benefit from the slipperiness of the comma instead of the businesslike interjection of parentheses.

What Should We Steal?

  • Empower yourself to confront any element of the human experience.  There can and should be poems (and stories) about everything that has an effect on human beings.
  • Add relevance to something that may seem irrelevant.  I’m a big baseball fan and I love my Detroit Tigers.  The Tigers play 162 games a year (not including the playoffs).  It’s hard for me to remember a game a week after it’s played; the ones that endure in my memory are the ones to which I applied a special significance.
  • Contrive your lines with the sounds of the words and phrases in mind.  Even if you’re breaking a grammar rule or two, your higher duty is to communicate your thought to the reader in the most efficient way.

What Can We Steal From M. Hannah Langhoff’s “The Things We Don’t Talk About”?

Title of Work and its Form: “The Things We Don’t Talk About,” short story
Author: M. Hannah Langhoff
Date of Work: 2014
Where the Work Can Be Found: The story made its debut in Relief: A Christian Literary Expression.  You can purchase the issue in print or digital form here.

Bonuses: Here is an excerpt from a piece Ms. Langhoff published in Cicada.

Element of Craft We’re Stealing: Narrative Structure

What a solid story!  Rachel is a fourteen-year-old young woman who has a few problems.  Not the least of which is the jerk boy who knocks her down as he rides his bicycle past her.  This inciting incident results in Rachel taking Tae Kwon Do classes, where Rachel meets Mr. Cassidy, a high school black belt who teaches her how to protect herself.  Rachel’s family is very religious; there is concern as to whether the martial arts lessons are leading her away from her faith.  As you really should expect, Rachel learns about herself and her life in the course of the story’s events.

I guess what I love most about the story is that Ms. Langhoff employs a firm structure that makes her intent clear: she wants to tell you a meaningful story about an interesting character.

Let’s see how closely and gracefully Ms. Langhoff adheres to Freytag’s Pyramid:


Inciting Incident: Rachel gets knocked over by the bully.

Complication resulting from the Inciting Incident: Rachel starts taking Tae Kwon Do.

Complications resulting from previous Complication: Rachel meets Jacob Cassidy, a slightly older teacher at the dojang.  Rachel sees Diane.

Complications resulting from previous Complications: Rachel shares a significant ride home with Jacob.  Diane becomes prominent in her life.

Climax resulting from the Complications that resulted from the Inciting Incident: Rachel encounters the young man who kicked things off in the first place.

Denouement: Rachel’s actions reflect her changed character and self-understanding.  Not only is she living in the “new normal,” but she has become the “new Rachel.”

See how beautifully everything comes together?  Reading the story just FEELS GOOD.

Ms. Langhoff’s third person narrator is also very powerful and efficient.  Check out the very first sentence:

Rachel’s walking along Smith Street, her backpack pleasantly heavy with algebra and sociology and The Call of the Wild, when she hears the buzz of wheels on the sidewalk behind her.

I love the way that the narrator establishes the present tense, the general age of the character, the specter of a threat and the protagonist’s general good-girl attitude.  All in one sentence.  The narrator is also unafraid to do the real work of the narrator; it skips through time and place at will:

The following Sunday is Rachel’s birthday.

And the narrator is also aware of what is happening in the mind of each character:

What Rachel’s mother doesn’t know, because of their silent agreement, is that Rachel is good.

Even if your narrator is not a “real character,” it’s still a powerful consciousness that is crafting your story.  Erin McGraw, a wonderful writer and one of my teachers at Ohio State, reminded me of the narrator’s power with the phrase,

Meanwhile, back at the ranch…

Your narrator can have as much or as little power as is necessary to serve the story you wish to tell.  It may also be beneficial to allow yourself to “separate” from the characters and events by thinking about the narrator as a writing partner over whom you have a lot of control.

Another part of the story that I admire is that Ms. Langhoff doesn’t tell us how to feel.  Like everyone else, I’m saddened when people mistreat each other.  It’s a sad fact of existence.  A lesser writer (such as myself), might have enlisted the narrator in judging the sins of the characters.  Judgment, however, is reserved for the reader.  Ms. Langhoff’s narrator simply recounts events and thoughts, ensuring that the reader feels the power.

The principle is a corollary of “show, don’t tell.”  If we follow Ms. Langhoff’s lead and SHOW the reader what is happening and what people are saying and thinking, then the reader is more likely to have an emotional reaction.  If we’re TOLD how to feel, it’s probably not going to work.

Here’s a strange example.  (Strange examples are more fun than boring ones, of course.)  Remember that father who shot his daughter’s laptop to punish her for saying mean things about him on Facebook?

The father’s rhetorical goal was to make his daughter feel bad for not wanting to do chores and for using naughty words.  How did he choose to get his message across?  With the use of firearms.  It seems to me that TELLING his daughter how to feel–and involving firearms–teaches a kid far different lessons.  For example, “grownups solve their problems with gunplay.”  A heavy-handed third person narrator may not be as effective as one that is a little more hands-off.

What Should We Steal?

  • Scale Freytag’s Pyramid.  Well-structured stories just FEEL RIGHT.
  • Think of your third person narrator as a character with full citizenship in your story.  Your narrator is a conduit, but it’s also a version of you in some way.  Which strings will you, as the puppet master, choose to pull?
  • Leave the analysis for the reader.  Okay, we’re ALL bummed that people are sometimes unpleasant to each other.  Let us decide how we will feel instead of telling us.

Fun afterthought: I’m amused that the father who shot the daughter’s laptop in an attempt to publicly shame her into behaving appropriately is upset at Dr. Phil for attempting to publicly shame him into behaving appropriately.

What Can We Steal From David O’Connell’s “Aneurysm”?

Title of Work and its Form: “Aneurysm,” poem
Author: David O’Connell
Date of Work: 2013
Where the Work Can Be Found:  “Aneurysm” made its debut in issue 4.1 of Unsplendid.  You can find the poem here.

Bonuses:  Mr. O’Connell was the 2013 winner of the Philbrick Poetry Project‘s chapbook competition.  You can purchase his chapbook from the Providence Athenaeum or from Amazon.  Here is Richard Merelman’s review of A Better Way to Fall from Verse Wisconsin Online.  Here is “Redeemer,” a poem Mr. O’Connell published in Boxcar Poetry Review.  Here is “Thaw,” a poem he placed in Rattle.

Element of Craft We’re Stealing: Lineation

Mr. O’Connell’s poem is a fairly straightforward description of a very sad event.  The poem is dedicated to “P.L.,” who lived from 1974 to 2001; we assume that the young man in the poem has died during a very common rite of passage: jumping into a pool from a roof.  Through fourteen lines, Mr. O’Connell communicates the sense of loss he felt and connects it to the kinds of loss that we all share.

The first thing that struck me about the poem is the way Mr. O’Connell prepares us for what the poem will do.  The title?  “Anuerysm.”  The dedication?  “for P.L. 1974-2001.”  What do we learn about the poem from those two elements?

  • Tone: the poem probably won’t be upbeat and carefree.  Aneurysms are scary and unpleasant and we’re all pretty bummed when people die young.
  • Subject matter: we assume we’re going to read an account of the young person’s death.
  • Characterization: Mr. O’Connell is a character in the poem; the title and dedication make him seem like a solemn and respectful person…when it comes to this topic, at least.  I’m sure Mr. O’Connell has a healthy sense of humor with regard to the appropriate subjects.

Mr. O’Connell introduces the poem in such a manner that the reader feels welcomed.  While we all love writing that may be a little more opaque in its meaning, the opening of “Aneurysm” faithfully mimics the approachability of the rest of the text.

I love the way that “Aneurysm” makes use of lineation.  It’s my impression that many beginning writers struggle with that jagged right margin.  Ending a line is pretty easy when you’re writing prose; you just keep writing.  When you’re writing a poem, knowing where to begin again is far more difficult.

Mr. O’Connell demonstrates the power of lineation.  Look at the end of the first stanza:

the chimney. Sixteen, he’s on my roof 

and then not. Cut by glare, his fall 

So P.L. ends that first line on the roof…the reader moves his or her eyes down and to the left…and he’s no longer on the roof.  The eye movement mimics the literal movement of the character in the poem.  That stanza break also forces the reader into a moment of anticipation, even if that anticipation is subconscious.  For that split second, we’re wondering what will come next.  Let’s see how the effect would be ruined if we slapped all of the words onto the same line.

…the chimney. Sixteen, he’s on my roof and then not. Cut by glare, his fall… 

See?  We lose the tension Mr. O’Connell was smart enough to create.

Another great thing about the poem is the way Mr. O’Connell chooses an unanticipated and powerful verb:

the moment he explodes the pool, 

Mr. O’Connell had a number of more conventional options:

  • jumps
  • falls into
  • dives into
  • drops into
  • descends into
  • enters
  • reaches into
  • slips into

Instead, Mr. O’Connell has the protagonist “explode” the pool.  Not only do we get an idea of what the narrator must have looked like upon contact with the water, but we get a better idea of how the pool itself must have appeared.  Even better, “explode” is a pretty heavy duty word, isn’t it?

What Should We Steal?

  • Welcome the reader into the piece.  The title and first lines should communicate the tone, intent and subject matter of the rest of the piece.
  • Compose your lines in such a manner that you create anticipation and reflect the events of your poem.  Lineation is a special instance of cognitive understanding that is shaped by physical movements.
  • Employ unexpected verbs.  A baseball player can “hit” the ball…or he can “knock,” “slap,” “pound,” “slam” or “drive” the ball.


I’m not quite sure where this fits in, but the first line of the poem reminds me of what I guess I think of as “poet meter.”  Is it just me, or do you hear this meter a lot when you go to poetry readings?


It’s not quite iambic pentameter, but it has that sing-songy quality that draws you in.

What Can We Steal From Julie Danho’s “‘?'”?

Title of Work and its Form: “?,” poem
Author: Julie Danho
Date of Work: 2014
Where the Work Can Be Found:  The poem appears in Six Portraits, a chapbook published by Slapering Hol Press, the small press imprint of The Hudson Valley Writers’ Center.  The kind folks at the HVWC have included the poem on the Six Portraits page to show you what you’ll find in the chapbook.

Bonuses: Here is a creative nonfiction essay Ms. Danho published in The SFWP Journal.  Here is a poem Ms. Danho placed in Blackbird.  Here is a poem that was published by Solstice.

Element of Craft We’re Stealing: Punctuation

What a clever and interesting poem!  On the surface, Ms. Danho simply describes the humble question mark in a number of unexpected ways.  The poem is a creative work, so there are, of course, infinite interpretations.  Me?  I think I like the idea of personifying a question.  Just like a person, a question can change your life or bring you joy or simply make you think about life.  

Sure, the comma helps your reader know when there’s a pause or an independent clause.  The full stop splits up sentences and allows your subconscious to digest prose in a felicitous manner.  Punctuation is indeed functional, but why can’t it also serve as the medium through which meaning is transmitted?  Why shouldn’t we USE punctuation in more powerful ways?    


The humble period.  She can stop a sentence in its tracks.  She can be the punch that drives home a confession or an insult.  She can cap off an epiphany or a declaration of love.  She can get together with some of her friends and form

An ellipsis.  A pause between phone call phrases.  A moment of anticipation.  What happens when a question mark gives a bracket a hug?


The ampersand is formed.  (The punctuation mark with several backs?)  Inclusion.  The joining of parent & child.  And I can’t help but point out my twelve-year-old self’s favorite bit of “functuation:”

The interrobang.

The point is that writers, like any craftsperson, should make use of every tool in his or her toolbox.  How can you use punctuation in an unexpected manner that will communicate your intention without leaving your reader behind?  (And let’s all thank Ms. Danho for writing a poem that makes us consider punctuation in this way?)

Another thing I love about the poem is the way Ms. Danho renders the question mark in a logical, top-to-bottom fashion.  The poem begins with a consideration of the mark’s curves and ends on a consideration of the mark’s dot.  I think that this choice might have been especially important because Ms. Danho’s poem does a “weird” thing.  While a reader may not expect to read a work in which a question mark is personified, he or she can certainly relate to looking a person from head to toe and rendering a verdict.  Isn’t this what we do when we see Michelangelo’s David or lay eyes on a blind date for the first time?  (The poem may also be “accessible” because it’s told in first-person…a kind of communication we each experience every day.)

If forced to choose, I think that I would say that the “s” sound is the dominant phoneme in the poem.   Why is this appropriate?  Both the ? and the S are curvy.  I’m not sure if Ms. Danho thought of it in this manner, but we’re her readers…we can do whatever we like.  What happens when we employ alliteration and actually make use of the sounds our letters make?  Great things!

I think it was Bill Cosby…I might be wrong.  But I think it was Bill Cosby who jokingly told parents to give children names that end in vowel sounds.  Why?  Because those names allow you to yell at the kid more effectively.  Think about it.  Your child is late for dinner.  You poke your head out the door and shout: “BRENT!”  That “nt” is hard to shout and the “breh” sound may not communicate your displeasure.  What about “TIME FOR DINNER, JULIEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEE!”  Okay, that sounds much better when shouted.  Good things can happen when we consider the sound of a word with its appearance.

What Should We Steal?

  • Make use of punctuation instead of just using it in the ways proscribed by textbooks.  Punctuation can create meaning instead of simply clarifying meaning.
  • Ensure that your “weird” work offers a handhold to the reader.  Fine.  Spend a thousand words describing an extraterrestrial’s biology.  Maybe you keep it accessible by doing so in the format of a recipe.
  • Match alliteration to the point of your work.  A poem about yelling?  Perhaps you’ll want to pack a lot of open vowel sounds into that piece.

What Can We Steal From Shelley Wong’s “The Fall Forecast”?

Title of Work and its Form: “The Fall Forecast,” poem
Author: Shelley Wong
Date of Work: 2014
Where the Work Can Be Found:  The poem was first published in Issue 57 of The Collagist.  You may read the work here.

Bonuses: Here is “In the Hot-Air Balloon,” a poem Ms. Wong published in Nashville Review.  Here is an interview in which Ms. Wong discusses her poetic aesthetic and philosophy.  Ms. Wong placed her poem “Self-Portrait as Frida Kahlo” in Linebreak.

Element of Craft We’re Stealing: Making Use of Our Interests

In my view, this is a poem in which Ms. Wong considers the fashion world in the context of nature.  Fashion has seasons, the colors change, some elements die while other elements are born.  The other great strength of the poem is the beautiful language that Ms. Wong employs, painting the image in our minds with the use of colors and unexpected words and the occasional divergence from our expectations.

Now, Ms. Wong seems to know more than I do about the world of fashion.  (It’s very easy for a person to be more familiar with fashion than I am.)  Whether or not she is indeed a fashion enthusiast, the poem can teach us an important lesson.  I love Ms. Wong’s comparison between high fashion and the deep beauty of the outdoors.  This connection is probably not one that I would have made on my own,  but it’s nonetheless illuminating.  This is the point of writing–and specifically poetry–to help us think about ourselves and our world in different ways.

While I’m not a fashionista, I am a baseball card…ista.  I know a lot about that field and could apply it to my writing in some way.  I know a little bit about fashion pens and have even done minor repairs to these functional works of art.  I’m very familiar with the Detroit Tigers and with The Howard Stern Show.  And the fascinating and terrifying story of Dianetics and Scientology.  We all have oases of expertise that combine to create our unique worldviews.  This knowledge can be put to powerful use in your work.  What kind of unexpected metaphors can you create by making use of your own special knowledge?

Look at how beautifully Ms. Wong uses the phoneme sounds in the first few lines of the poem:

Each autumn the editors name the leaves
anew: burgundy, emerald, chartreuse,
and bronze. They want women to wear
Europe, gemstone, liqueur exclusively
made by monks, antique metal. 

Now I’m going to make a comparison informed by my interests and passions.  Ms. Wong twists and turns and twirls through different sounds in these lines.  First, the E and A vowel sounds, then W sounds, then M sounds.  What is the feeling you get when you read them aloud?  Well, it reminds me of watching a great running back dance his way through the defensive line into the secondary.  I’m a big fan of Ohio State Buckeye Brandon Saine.  Watch him weave his way around defenders…isn’t that how the poem feels when it’s on your lips and tongue?

The comparison also applies to a basketball player spinning an ankle-breaking path through the opposition:

And whether or not you’re into rap, writers in that genre are often really good at manipulating the syllables in their work in a similarly pleasing manner:

And how could I overlook that Ms. Wong borrowed a line about creative borrowing?

…If the line
looks familiar, consider Chanel, who said,
“Creativity is the act of concealing
your sources.”

What Should We Steal?

  • Capitalize upon your other passions or areas of expertise.  So you’re a brony.  Okay.  You’re probably not hurting anyone, so I say go for it.  What can your status as a card-carrying brony lend to your writing?
  • Arrange the sounds in your poem in such a way that the language can dance.  Creating alliteration in one line is a tricky and rewarding feat.  Tying a number of similar lines together may be more difficult, but adds a powerful momentum and beauty to a poem.
  • Follow the advice of Coco Chanel.  To what extent can any creative work be original?

What Can We Steal From Annie McGreevy’s “Letter to a Young Man in Madrid”?

Title of Work and its Form: “Letter to a Young Man in Madrid,” short story
Author: Annie McGreevy (on Twitter @AnnieMcGreevy)
Date of Work: 2013
Where the Work Can Be Found:  The story made its debut in the Winter 2013 issue of the Portland Review.  The kind folks at the journal request that you buy a copy through Amazon.  (If we’re lucky, the story will be available in a future Annie McGreevy story collection.)

Bonus: Ms. McGreevy was inspired by “Letter to a Young Lady in Paris,” a story written by Julio Cortazar.  The piece appears in Cortazar’s book Blow-Up: And Other Stories.  Don’t you love when readers are engaged?  Here is a fan-made trailer for the story:

Element of Craft We’re Stealing: Grounded Fantasy

This is an epistolary story consisting of several letters written from a young woman to a Spaniard named Manu.  The two had a relationship while she (an American) was abroad, but now the first-person letter writer is back in New Jersey to care for her ailing mother.  So the woman, as I understand it, had an abortion in Spain.  (My understanding of human reproduction is equal to that of a bright five-year-old.)  In the subsequent weeks, however, the narrator has seen some changes in her body.  Eventually, she experiences reverse peristalsis, and a “heavy white liquid rose up violently” through her throat.  Inside the liquid? A baby “no bigger than a cockroach, but thicker.”  The narrator places the baby (named Lolo) in a crocheted sack and carries it around her neck as she goes on about her day.  What follows are a number of beautiful scenes and ideas and phrases…pick up the story for yourself!

Ms. McGreevy makes it clear immediately that something is “wrong” in the story.  The narrator has terrible cramps and her breasts and belly are swelling and she hasn’t had her period in over a month.  Our Spidey-sense is tingling because she mentions a “decision” she and Manu made and a “doctor…”  So we’re guessing that (in the real world) she had an abortion and something may have gone awry.  This information prepares us for the “weirdness” that follows.

The “baby” is the primary conceit of the story, of course.  Look how Ms. McGreevy introduces the child:

When I bent down to scrub the carpet, I noticed something moving.  No bigger than a cockroach, but thicker.  A little thing with a little body and a little face, looking very proud of having been born.  It was a baby.

Your reader is willing to follow you wherever you want to go.  It’s your responsibility as the writer to make sure that you tell the reader what he or she must know in order to keep up with you.  A lesser writer (such as myself) would make the baby a more opaque concept.  This would be a mistake because such a story takes a left turn out of the “normal” world; you have to make sure that the reader understands the new world into which you’re ushering them.  So when Ms. McGreevy tells you, “Okay, check it out.  I know this is a little odd, but my narrator has a mouth-born baby that she’s carrying around in a little basket made of yarn,” we’re happy to go along with her.

Imagine you are Manu.  You open up these letters one by one.  You would, no doubt, have a little trouble understanding what your paramour was talking about.  While Manu probably has a lot of questions, Ms. McGreevy’s narrator answers the basic ones:

Manu, what I’m trying to tell you is that you have a son the size of my smile.

Unusual?  Perhaps.  But neither Manu nor the reader has any questions as to what is happening.  (At least, what the narrator thinks is going on.)  Great works of speculative fiction offer us “crazy” leaps, but are also grounded in the story’s reality.  Look at the works of Madeleine L’Engle.  Yes, she sends her characters through a made-up wrinkle in time, but Ms. L’Engle ensures that the reader understands the differences between the real world and the one she’s created.  Ray Bradbury and Harlan Ellison (two of the writers of speculative fiction who put together beautiful sentences) take you to other planets and to unrecognizable versions of Earth, but they always make sure they’re holding your hand during the journey.

So the narrator thinks there’s a mouth milk baby slung around her neck.  That’s cool, but those of us in the boring “real” world have a lot of questions.  How does Ms. McGreevy establish the distance between the narrator’s world and this “real” world?  She allows the narrator to meet other people.  First, she runs into Mrs. Steele, her eighth-grade teacher.  Think about one of your own teachers; if you had a milk mouth baby around your neck, wouldn’t he or she have some kind of reaction?  The narrator, in her own way, reveals that Mrs. Steele doesn’t react to the baby, leading to questions of debatable relevance:

  • Is the baby really there?
  • Does Mrs. Steele just have really bad eyesight?
  • Is the narrator imagining everything?
  • Does the baby represent something that’s going on in the narrator’s head?

The protagonist also goes to church and sees a priest.  She also has a sweet scene with her mother.  Neither character seems to notice Lolo.  Now, everything is filtered through the narrator’s perspective, so she could simply be unreliable.  But Ms. McGreevy is wise to set her character loose in the real world so we can take a look at a “strange” condition through a much more familiar lens.  Stories can be strange and fantastic; readers simply require a place to stand that allows them an illuminating frame of reference.

This is an epistolary story; one that is made up of several letters.  (Like Frankenstein!)  You’ll notice that Ms. McGreevy doesn’t include the salutation or address or any of the “normal” stuff that we usually include when we write letters.  What is the effect of this choice?  I love that it adds some reasonable confusion with respect to the narrator’s state of mind. Has she really sent the letters? Does Manu really exist? Does Lolo? Including a bunch of dates might make the reader “do too much math.” (No one likes to do math.) And if you’re anything like me, it’s a pain to come up with pretend addresses and to come up with all of the supporting information that one must include if one is writing a fake letter. Instead, Ms. McGreevy simply presents the text and allows the reader to react to the ideas within.

What Should We Steal?

  • Employ crystal clarity when your work contains ideas that are slightly more opaque.  You want me to believe that the woman has a mouth milk baby?  No problem.  Just tell me that’s what’s going on.
  • Reflect the “oddness” in your story through a “normal” viewpoint.  Think about “The Lottery.”  Shirley Jackson presents us with a very “odd” little town; the “lottery” stands out greatly in part because of the banal normalcy of the rest of the town.
  • Experiment with the epistolary form.  If you haven’t written a story or poem in the form of a letter or a series of letters, why not give it a try?  Ms. McGreevy borrowed from a Julio Cortazar story that she admired; why shouldn’t we offer Ms. McGreevy the same courtesy?