What Can We Steal From Alex Streiff’s “Night Swimming, July 4th 2012”?

Title of Work and its Form: “Night Swimming, July 4th 2012,” short story
Author: Alex Streiff
Date of Work: 2013
Where the Work Can Be Found: The short short was published in Issue 8.4 of [PANK] Magazine.  You can find the story right here.

Bonus:  Here is a discussion that Mr. Streiff had with Tory Adkisson in which they discuss creative writing and the changing landscape of publishing.  Here are three more short shorts by Mr. Streiff.

Element of Craft We’re Stealing: Pronoun Use

“Night Swimming, July 4th 2012” is a short short story about a man and a woman who go skinny dipping on a beautiful night.  There’s heat lightning in the sky and the beauty of their surroundings join with the beauty they find in each other.  (And each other’s bodies.)   The story is very short, so it’s pretty thin on plot by design.  Mr. Streiff seems primarily focused on creating a tone and creating beautiful images for the reader.  (And he succeeds, of course.)

There are some kinds of words writers need to be very careful about using: pronouns!  How would you feel if you went home and you had the following conversation:

Significant Other: How could you do that?

You: Do what?

Significant Other: All of those things!

You: What things?

Significant Other: Everything you did with all of them.

You: Did with who?

Significant Other: Those people!

You would likely be frustrated because you don’t know what you did wrong and don’t know who was apparently around you at the time.  Therefore, we need to be careful when we use words like “it,” and “they,” and “that.”  We don’t want to confuse our reader!  Mr. Streiff does not confuse us.  He begins the story by letting us know that THEY “climb a neighbor’s fence and greedily pull each other’s clothes off as they creep to the steps at the shallow end of the pool.”  Mr. Streiff has made a promise by using the word “they.”  Fortunately, he informs us a few sentences later: “he” and “she.”  Okay.  Great.  Now we know that it’s a man and woman.  The reader may be disoriented if “they” weren’t described for several pages.

Look at the sentences Mr. Streiff is using.  Most are very short.  They’re very beautiful and very descriptive.  Think of the sentences like brushstrokes.  This story is a little more expressionist than some other stories.  Mr. Streiff is like an artist.  He carefully plans which brushstrokes he must make to communicate the meaning and tone he intended.  Mr. Streiff does not give a lot of explicit detail about the man and woman and their life together.  Instead, he offers small glimpses into their relationship, allowing you to make your own conclusion.  The man teases the woman about her prickly legs.  “Little cactus girl, he calls her.”  Me?  I think that this is a sweet indication that they have a playful partnership.  You may have a different opinion.  Look at this painting by Monet.  In a way, the viewer is making the conclusion that the painting depicts a boat on the water during sunset.  Couldn’t you make the case that it’s really just a bunch of carefully selected arches and circles?

I will admit to being something of a traditionalist when it comes to literature, particularly when it comes to how writing is formatted on the page.  Mr. Streiff kinda sorta “breaks the rules” by failing to start a new paragraph with each line of dialogue.  Why is that perfectly fine?  This short short is all about creating the feeling of going night swimming in a beautiful and barren place.  The conversation between the man and woman is not as important as the feeling that Mr. Streiff creates.  By keeping the story confined to one paragraph, Mr. Streiff keeps you under his spell and limits the amount of time you have to “think” about what is happening in the story.

What Should We Steal?

  • Employ pronouns carefully.  Don’t keep your reader in the dark when it comes to “them” and “it” and other words that may be ambiguous in meaning.
  • Apply impressionist principles to your writing.  Carefully curated details can imply a great deal of subtext.
  • Cast a spell by breaking the rules.  Keep all the dialogue in one paragraph if you want your reader to digest it in one burst and break other rules when you can justify doing so.

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