There’s a narrative that dictates how one is supposed to feel after a terrible event occurs. When a family member or acquaintance dies in a car accident, most people feel and act the same way. As Claudius said of the reaction to his brother’s death:
…it us befitted
To bear our hearts in grief and our whole kingdom
To be contracted in one brow of woe
The reality is that everyone is different and will respond to trauma differently. In her Prime Number essay, “The Lightness of Absence,” Vanessa Blakeslee tells the story of her reaction to the very sad murder of her cousin and describes how her feelings about the matter evolved.
Ms. Blakeslee introduces the death in the first line, taking advantage of the inherent power in such an extreme condition: “When I was twenty, my cousin Cara was murdered by her ex-boyfriend. We were both attending college in Florida at the time.” All of Ms. Blakeslee’s readers are surely as human as she is, so the release of this exposition earns instant emotion from the reader.
Much more interesting is the way Ms. Blakeslee deals with an emotionally loaded issue in a very calm and methodical manner. If you haven’t read the piece, do so now, as I’m going to discuss the ending. (I even linked it twice.)
Ms. Blakeslee certainly mourns the senseless loss of her “childhood best friend,” but she doesn’t give us a standard grief narrative. Instead, the author confronts a much more unanticipated question and one that invites thought from the reader: “What do you call it when even the weight of loss has disappeared?”
Ms. Blakeslee had a little bit of a problem. How do you create tension and keep people reading when that “weight of loss,” those emotions that were much stronger years ago, are currently absent? The solution is simple: you turn the absence of emotion into the story.
On one hand, I think I would love if the piece were a little bit longer, if we had more of a discussion of the dilemma posed by the end of the piece. Then again, ending the piece with a dilemma forces the reader to go through their own discomfort with respect to the issue.
- There are certain events and conditions that don’t evoke as much emotion in me as they might. Is there something wrong with me?
- Do people say and do things that makes me treat them differently? Is this wrong? When is it wrong?
- How long should I grieve for those I’ve lost and the bad things that have happened to people I love? What does it mean to “get over” a misfortune?
Further, the ending of the piece is appropriate to its length. At 1600 words, Ms. Blakeslee had to avoid some of the more complicated possibilities for the material. So what could be more appropriate than ending the piece with an ethical quandary?
Prime Number, Vanessa Blakeslee
Writers are asked many general questions about their craft.
…”What is your overarching philosophy regarding the inherent power of fiction?”…”What IS–character–to you?”…”What is the position of place in your work?”…
These are great and important questions, but I’m really curious about the little things. In the “Hey, Why’d You Do That” series, I ask accomplished writers about some of the very small choices they made during the process of composition.
B.J. Hollars is a highly accomplished and very friendly writer. He has published two books of nonfiction and a collection of stories…that’s what we call range! Mr. Hollars placed an essay called “Blood Feathers” in Issue 53 of Prime Number, a very cool journal. You can read the essay here.
Once you’ve read the essay, you will be able to understand fully the intelligent way in which Mr. Hollars explains why he did what he did in the essay:
1.) The piece is filled with playful, poetic language that is often laugh-out-loud funny. I was a little surprised that you used the phrase “less-than-zest” to describe Harley’s attitude toward life. Did you use that phrase because it rhymes and sounds fun? How come you didn’t use a more conventional one-word adjective?
BJH: Generally I’m a big believer in using one word over two. Brevity, I often joke, is close to Godliness. But I think the phrase “less-than-zest” is more than mere descriptor. Yes, I probably thought it was funny, and sure, I probably liked the rhyme, but I think “less than zest” lightens the tone of the essay.
Here’s the full sentence: “This seemed far too existential a question for the indignant cockatoo, whose apparent disinterest in living rivaled Harley’s own less-than-zest for life.”
I could have written: “…whose apparent disinterest in living rivaled Harley’s suicidal tendencies.”
But I think I wanted to limit the number of times I actually used the term “suicide” (or in this case, “suicidal”). Throughout the essay, I walk a fine line between seriousness and silliness. But I hope the reader will leave the essay realizing the suicide is always serious, even when we’re talking about a parrot.
2) Each section ends with a “button,” a cool sentence that is either funny or meaningful and wraps up that bit of the narrative. How many of these happened naturally? Did you have to go back and punch up any of these buttons?
BJH: That’s kind of you to call them “cool.” A less-kind reader would likely roll her eyes and tell me to knock it off with the melodrama.
I distinctly remember a writing teacher of mine once telling me to knock it off with the buttons, that they diminish in power over time. I think that’s probably true. But I originally wrote this essay to read aloud, and the buttons function quite well in the oral format. I think they serve as signal phrases of transition for the listener, a kind of bridge that brings listeners from one section to the next. I hope that’s true of readers as well.
3) People like animals. I like animals. Your story is about a bunch of animals. When you worked at the pet store, you had to feed the birds; if the syringe was too hot, you could have burned the baby birds’ throats. Were you worried that people might have trouble liking your essay because they were worried about the animals?
BJH: You know, that was never a concern of mine. Rest assured, I’m unlikable for any number of reasons, but my ineptness with the animals wasn’t a character risk I considered. Looking back on that job at the pet store, I can honestly say I made a good-faith effort with those animals, often paying the price in blood. I’d literally come home from work some days and my fingers would look liked bloated pincushions. The hamsters were the worst—the dwarf hamsters, in particular. (Some nights I still wake up flinging dream-induced hamsters from my body).
But I think the reader gets the sense that I’m trying, that I’m giving these creatures my all, even though I likely didn’t possess the expertise required to do right by all those animals. It would be a lie to say that nobody ever died on my watch, but as I note in the essay, they were mostly fish, and the lifespans of fish are always a bit suspect.
If any of the essay’s lines redeem me, I think the redemption starts here: “One after another I’d stick the syringe down their gullets, pressing the mix into their stomachs as their bodies inflated, their bulging eyes fixed skeptically on my own. Each night they reassessed whether I was the bringer of nourishment or the angel of death…”
I tried to be the former, and only on occasion was I the latter. I think readers get that. At least I hope.
4) Your veterinarian has a beautiful and dark sense of humor. The vet informs you as to what “blood feathers” are and gives you a really powerful line: “This bird of yours, he knew what he was doing.” Did you write these things down at the time so you wouldn’t forget them? We all participate in those “Ooh, that was a good one!” moments…how can writers like me use them in the same way you did?
BJH: It’s quite likely I wrote that line down somewhere, but as is usually the case with me, I immediately lost that note. Thankfully, that moment was so dramatic (read: traumatic), that the vet’s words lingered with me.
Of course, I admit that there’s a chance I didn’t get the words out perfectly; that is, perhaps the vet said it slightly differently. At least six years had passed between the event and the first draft, so I made do with the memories that remained. But that line remained quite vividly, it’s hard to forget a line like that. I remember hearing it and thinking, This is all our fault.
5) The piece consists of parallel narratives: your experience working in a pet store is placed against your time with Harley the parrot. How’d you figure out to put the two together? Were you writing them separately and a gust of wind blew the papers together and you liked the result? Was it the plan from the beginning or did it come later on?
BJH: I wish it were as simple as a gust of wind. But in truth, when I first started this piece in 2012, I didn’t know the second half of this essay. I knew I needed to write about Harley, about my family’s experience with him, but the essay didn’t gain traction until I began thinking hard about my time at the pet store as well.
While I wouldn’t have identified this strategic strategy when I first wrote the thing, looking back, it appears as if I tried to suture the two halves of the essay together around the shared theme of good intentions. My father wanted to save that bird, and I wanted to keep my creatures alive. We were both probably a bit out of our leagues, but our intentions—we hoped—would see us through. Yes, there were victims along the way, but we too—in some small way—were victims. Our failures humbled us from trying too hard to save others, and giving up—for us—was heartbreaking.
B.J. Hollars is the author of two books of nonfiction–Thirteen Loops: Race, Violence and the Last Lynching in America and Opening the Doors: The Desegregation of the University of Alabama and the Fight for Civil Rights in Tuscaloosa—as well as a collection of stories, Sightings. His hybrid text, Dispatches from the Drownings: Reporting the Fiction of Nonfiction will be published in the fall of 2014. He is an assistant professor of creative writing at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire.
2014, B.J. Hollars, Prime Number, Why'd You Do That?