The unthinkable has happened. Okla Elliott has shuffled off this mortal coil. It is also fair to jettison the euphemism and to point out that he died, but the truth is that he accomplished so much and touched so many in his years that he could only have died in the biological sense.
Okla was one of the most brilliant people I have ever met, though one of the most giving. He devoted so much of his limited time on this planet helping other writers in large ways and small. In the few days since his passing, I have been comforted by reading so many anecdotes from writers he took under his wing at a conference or who received hours of counsel about their manuscript.
I started Great Writers Steal on December 2, 2012 out of the same kind of desire to serve the writing community. Even though he was deservedly a zillion times more successful than I am, he was always happy to help out with my endeavors. This, combined with my love of his work, means that there’s a lot of Okla in GWS.
Here he is on my podcast to talk about his epic novel The Doors You Mark Are Your Own (co-written with Raul Clement):
I featured him in a QuickCraft:
I built upon an argument Okla put forth in an essay about the big MFA debate:
I reviewed his novel for Serving House Journal. He deigned to publish some of my thoughts on As It Ought to Be. You get the point. I am pleased to know that he had affection for me and I certainly returned that affection.
I am very grateful to have known Okla during his all-too-short time on this all-too-often cold and unfeeling planet. Please do yourself a favor and check out his work.
Here‘s a list he compiled of his online publications. (Wow…this is sad. It occurs to me that I need to archive the page, as Okla is no longer around to re-up his web hosting.)
Here is his Amazon page. Here is his Barnes & Noble page. Here is his Kobo page. (We need more than one bookstore on Earth, friends.)
When I was looking for a real writer’s story to reprint in and thereby add value to my collection of essays about the 2012 Best American Short Stories, Okla instantly volunteered one of his own. I’ve changed the price of the book to free; please download and read his story. (You can ignore the bits I wrote.) Download from Amazon here. Download from Kobo here. Download from Barnes & Noble here.
You don’t even need to act on my recommendation. Okla was the best and he earned laurels from the best:
It is somehow unthinkable that life will go on in the face of our loss, but such is the nature of human existence. I was and remain distraught at the news, but Okla (who was as alive as ever mere days ago), would not want us to mourn to excess. He might ask us to remember his kindness, to remember his work, but most of all to remember that those who remain deserve to be treated with human dignity.
This is the first Okla-less sunset. There will be so many more. Let’s keep him in our hearts and minds and forge a world that more closely resembles the one he was trying to build.
My plan for total domination of all media is taking FOREVER. I am making strides, however, by making more videos.
The MFA debate has been raging for a very long time. Should you get one? Should you not? Well, those Okla Elliott offered an interesting new take on the discussion that I thought merited an audio/video discussion:
2014, As It Ought to Be, GWS Video, Okla Elliott
Title of Work and its Form: “The Long Walk Home,” short story
Author: Okla Elliott
Date of Work: 2011
Where the Work Can Be Found: The story first appeared in the Press 53 Spotlight Anthology 2011 and was subsequently published in Elliott’s debut short story collection, From the Crooked Timber. Why not purchase the book directly from the small press that published it: Press 53? Yes, yes. You can also purchase it from Amazon.
Element of Craft We’re Stealing: Tone
War has always been a popular topic in literature because of the way it traffics in extremes. The opposing sides are devout in their belief that they are defending hearth and home. The individuals involved struggle with their desire to live and their reticence to kill. Moments of beauty and grace are entwined with representations of brutal cruelty. The literature of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan has already begun to be written and Okla Elliott has added “The Long Walk Home” to this body of works.
“The Long Walk Home” depicts the homecoming of Reynolds, a soldier who is returning from the Middle East. Reynolds has lost a leg and has a prosthetic replacement. (Elliott provides some interesting details about the leg. Indeed, “most people don’t think of prosthetic legs as having batteries.”) Reynolds gets off the plane and charges his leg. Reynolds waits at baggage claim. Reynolds thinks about his friends, some of whom were not supportive of his enlistment. The narrator moves from the narrative to tell the story of why Reynolds enlisted: he was good with Arabic. Reynolds remembers an old girlfriend and she picks him up and brings him home. He drinks and they engage in a romantic encounter that is tainted somewhat by why I am guessing is PTSD.
What do all of these story beats have in common? They’re all very passive on Reynolds’ part, aren’t they? Isn’t this appropriate? After all, Reynolds was in theater for a long time and was very much out of control what happened in his life. The Army told him what to do and where to go. Insurgents determined he would lose his leg and would witness unspeakable violence. After such trauma, it is fitting that Reynolds would be somewhat passive and lose agency in his own life.
On the final page, Elliott allows Reynolds to emerge from his slumber somewhat. And what unlocks the key? The mingling of sex and violence. What greater influences are there on the psyche of a young adult male? Especially one that has been through so much? The story is beautiful and vital because the reader experiences the psychological change Reynolds is feeling. That change is demonstrated through the contrast between passive and active, between being carried along by life and forging one’s own path and between fighting an enemy because of orders and fighting him because of an inner sense of justice.
One way that Elliott makes the depiction of violence visceral for the reader is in the narration. There’s a very cool turn that occurs a few pages into the story. A man at the airport offers to sell Reynolds a doll. (It’s no coincidence that one of the doll’s eyes is dangling from its socket.) The narrator recounts:
The man’s face reminded Reynolds of a housewife in Qatar whose husband he’d been ordered to detain. She was veiled from head to toe, and all he could see were those eyes, wet with accusation and plea. She thrust money at him, a fistful of coins worth maybe half an American dollar. Her husband struggled in his binds and a soldier brought his book down on the man’s jaw. A tooth splintered and blood dribbled forth.
“All right,” Reynolds said to the man with the Indian doll, pulling out his wallet and handing him the first bill he found.
See what Elliott did? There was no transition between the memory and the present tense, implying that this is the thought process that is happening inside Reynolds all the time. Just like in the story, Reynolds experiences a short episode in the present tense before feeling a memory that is related to the sad drama he witnessed.
Elliott’s story illustrates what may be the great (and necessary) contradiction of the soldier. He or she simply must act according to orders and kill without thinking, willfully tossing away his or her humanity. On the other hand, the soldier must maintain the humanity necessary to defend fellow soldiers to the death and to return home, turning swords into ploughshares.
What Should We Steal?
- Structure your close third-person narrator in a manner that resembles the thoughts of your focal character. Reynolds is haunted by memories of the war and daunted by the prospect of returning to “normal” life. The narrator, therefore, commingles both kinds of thoughts, allowing the reader to experience the character’s psychological conflict.
- Build character and tone through juxtaposition. Think of the friends with whom you haven’t spoken in a while. Are you ever shocked by what they have become and achieved? Wow…Bob was still eating paste in ninth grade and now he’s a chef? The guy who peed on your shoe during gym class and goofed off every single day is now a doctor? The shock comes from the juxtaposition. Reynolds is passive through the whole story and the reader feels an emotional catharsis because he is motivated to some kind of action at the end of the story.
2011, Ohio State, Okla Elliott, tone