What Can We Steal From Heather Kirn Lanier’s “Teach For America in the Terrordome”?


Title of Work and its Form:  “Teach For America in the Terrordome,” creative nonfiction
Author: Heather Kirn Lanier (on Twitter @heatherklanier)
Date of Work: 2012
Where the Work Can Be Found: Ms. Lanier published an excerpt from her book Teaching in the Terrordome in Utne Reader.  The piece can be found here.  If you don’t already have the book, perhaps you would like to purchase the tome from Amazon or a local independent bookstore.

Bonuses: Here is an interview Ms. Lanier granted to the Baltimore Sun.  Ms. Lanier is also an excellent poet.  You can find links to many of her poems here.  Ms. Lanier published a heartrending piece in Salon that you will enjoy.

Element of Craft We’re Stealing: Dialogue

“Never drive west of MLK.”  The piece begins with several warnings offered to the author as to how she can remain safe in West Baltimore.  Ms. Lanier was about to begin her tenure as an instructor in the Teach for America program; she hoped to “level the playing field” for economically disadvantaged students.  In this excerpt (part of the first chapter of the book), Ms. Lanier describes her initial feelings about the school in which she taught and the colleagues already on staff.  The piece concludes with her interview with an administrator who inadvertently informs Ms. Lanier what her time in the Terrordome will be like.

Ms. Lanier’s writing is special because her prose manages to be poetic and compelling while maintaining clarity.  Her skill allows her to break the conventional rules of prose without confusing the reader.  Look what she does with the description of the “character” of Ms. Brown, the administrator whose unconventional interview begins Ms. Lanier’s teaching career:

Ms. Brown nodded. “You know,” she said, “Baltimore has an excellent transportation system. You needn’t always rely, on the car as a vehicle.” The syllables of Ms. Brown’s words were meticulously modulated and well-pronounced, and she paused mid-sentence as though she were dic­tating. “Have any of you, taken the bus? From time to time, a person might make use, of the Baltimore Bus System, which runs reliably, between all areas of the city.” She seemed to take great pains to avoid the ums and ahs of everyday speech. There was something unnaturally perfect about it.

The first time I read the piece, my eye got hung up on that oddly placed comma.  For that brief instant, I wondered whether that bit of punctuation was a simple mistake.  The following sentence, of course, offers a perfectly appropriate explanation for why Ms. Lanier made her “mistake.”  You can’t break TOO many rules, or prose breaks down into a meaningless balderdash of words.  On the other hand, slipping that comma into odd places allows the reader to hear Ms. Brown’s voice in his or her head.

What are some other ways to use prose to affect the sound of a character’s voice?

  • Capitalize words that he or she EMPHASIZES.
  • Employ run-on sentences to reinforce that a character may be boring or confusing.
  • Use ellipses…to indicate if a character has…William Shatner voice.

Here’s another example of the interesting relationship between the look of prose and the sound that the words should create in your head.  Who can forget the “sorority girl e-mail?”  If you haven’t heard of this amazing piece of pop culture flotsam, here’s Pophangover’s summary: “One of the executive board members of [a] Sorority emailed out an expletive-ridden letter to the entire chapter, bitching out the sorority sisters because of their BORING and AWKWARD behavior during Greek Week.”  Actress Alison Haislip did a reading of the e-mail that will curdle your blood.  Focus on Ms. Haislip’s reading of the letter at around 1:40.

Now look at the text of the original:

First of all, you SHOULDN’T be post gaming at other frats, I don’t give a FUCK if your boyfriend is in it, if your brother is in it, or if your entire family is in that frat. YOU DON’T GO. YOU. DON’T. GO. And you ESPECIALLY do fucking NOT convince other girls to leave with you.

The woman who wrote the original e-mail has employed many of the techniques that I pointed out.  “YOU” and “DON’T” and “GO” are typically not sentences…but wouldn’t you agree that they ARE sentences in this case?  The author broke the rules and created a very strong tone, certainly strong enough to guide Ms. Haislip’s performance of the monologue.

I think that detail occupies an interesting place in creative nonfiction, particularly when compared with fiction.  In a short story, the writer relies upon the reader to fill in detail in some way.  Yes, a fiction writer must provide specifics, but the world that the story occupies is partly the reader’s creation.  Can a writer describe every car on the road?  Should a writer describe the dress of every character to make an appearance?  Probably not.  When it comes to creative nonfiction, however, the author is explicitly trying to distill reality out of experience instead of creating reality out of imagination.

The first page or so of the excerpt focuses upon Ms. Lanier’s drive into West Baltimore.  (This technique is a shrewd move in itself; the author has established the setting immediately, and has done so through the eyes of a “fish out of water.”)  Early on, Ms. Lanier writes:

At a traffic light at North Warwick, an old black man crosses in front of me. With his back bent forward, he makes shaky, pained steps across the road. I smile when I read his stretched out, threadbare T-shirt. Walk to Win, it says.

Now, this is not the essay in which I discuss how much fabrication people think should be allowed in creative writing.  (That’s coming up soon.)  So I’m going to take the description at face value.  I love that the old man’s shirt says, “Walk to Win” and I love that Ms. Lanier has remembered such a small and interesting detail.  Inclusion of this bit of detail makes the man more than just set dressing.  Yes, the man is elderly and has a little trouble crossing the street.  Perhaps the gentleman is wearing the shirt as a reminder to himself.  Perhaps he wishes to inform others that his infirmity is not a dire setback in his life.  Who knows?  But the fact that Ms. Lanier includes the detail allows us to speculate and makes the world of the story (a real world in this case) appear much more vibrant.

What Should We Steal?
  • Mold your sentences to reflect the sound of the character’s voice.  People are unique not just for the words they say, but how they say them. 
  • Allow minor details to accomplish major work.  While you can’t go crazy with detail, do remember that small personal choices can have a big impact on a reader’s perception of a character.



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