Title of Work and its Form: “Lawrence Welk is Dead,” creative nonfiction
Author: Georgia Kreiger
Date of Work: 2012
Where the Work Can Be Found: The piece first appeared in May 2012’s Issue 20 of Front Porch, a cool journal out of Texas State University’s MFA program. You can read Ms. Kreiger’s work here.
Bonuses: Here are two poems Ms. Kreiger published in 2River. Here is another piece of Ms. Kreiger’s creative nonfiction that appeared in Hippocampus Magazine. Here is a fun poem Ms. Kreiger placed in The Cobalt Review. Oh, how cool. Ms. Kreiger was featured in the Saturday Poetry Series of As It Ought to Be, a very good site.
Element of Craft We’re Stealing: Narrative Structure
Ms. Kreiger’s piece centers upon a phone call she shared with her elderly mother. (Perhaps the call in question is a composite of many; who knows?) The mother/daughter relationship is not exactly the strongest between the two. Ms. Kreiger accepts that she is a “bad daughter,” but she’s not wholly to blame. Years of conflict have soured her on “the mother who could never be satisfied, the mother whose demands packed a punch.” Ms. Kreiger’s mother is watching Lawrence Welk and even this choice becomes a source of conflict between the two. Mom dislikes contemporary music and culture; daughter needs something a little zippier in a television program than the champagne orchestra. Climax: Ms. Kreiger realizes that her mother doesn’t quite realize that the program she’s watching is a rerun and that Welk has been dead for several years. (He died in 1992, in case you’re curious.) Ms. Kreiger laments her mother’s continued mental deterioration and guesses she will someday share the condition. At some point, her unpleasant real memories of her mother will be replaced by a pleasant fantasy in which her mother and Lawrence Welk “waltz lightly across a dance floor gazing lightheartedly into each other’s eyes in a world unreachable by cynics.”
So, “Lawrence Welk is Dead” is not a very long piece at all. As a result, Ms. Kreiger must address the opportunities and risks inherent in composing such a piece. (An obligation, of course, that applies to any writer scribbling out any piece.) What are some of the choices Ms. Kreiger must make because she only has several hundred words at her disposal? Well, she can’t exactly do a lot of scenework and can’t fully describe a vast number of scenes. She just doesn’t have time. The point of the piece must be meaningful and important, but can’t exactly be vast or comprehensive. There’s a reason why Les Miserables takes up hundreds of pages and this piece only takes up a couple.
Ms. Kreiger structured her piece in a shrewd and felicitous manner. There’s really only one scene: she calls her mother, who is watching Lawrence Welk on TV. This compact nugget of narrative allows her to comment on her life and relationships in more abstract kinds of ways. Ms. Kreiger seems to be working on a full-length memoir; I’m betting there are TONS of scenes in her manuscript. There are likely lots of extended dialogue scenes and beautifully written paragraphs about places and objects that have had a critical effect upon the woman she has become. This amuse-bouche, however, can’t be as complicated or as comprehensive as a ten-course meal.
Let’s take a look at the general outline of the piece. Ms. Kreiger employs a common and appropriate structure. In the first sentence, she tells us that she’s calling her mother on the phone and we’re guessing the title has something to do with the “news” she mentions. Then there’s a recap of the standard conversations they have: lamentations about rising gas prices, discussions about the new clergyman at the church. With the ordinary stuff out of the way, Ms. Kreiger gets into the talk about Lawrence Welk and the generational differences between the two. This is the conflict in the piece and it builds until Ms. Kreiger points out that her mother has forgotten that Welk died a while ago. She mentioned the memory loss before, but seeing it in the dramatic present allows her to finish the piece with a two-paragraph fantasy that allows her to pull back and offer a wider look at her life and her perspective. Think about the end of a movie. Having overcome the star-crossed beginning of their love affair, the protagonists are in a hot air balloon and are throwing money into Central Park. Ms. Kreiger employs what I call a “crane shot conclusion.” Here’s what it looks like in a movie:
The protagonist of the film seems to get smaller from the reader/viewer’s perspective. More importantly, the main character, with whom we’ve empathized for ninety minutes, seems to melt away into the rest of society. Everyone in the world has their own concerns and needs, right? Ms. Kreiger’s “fantasy” about her mother dancing with Lawrence Welk leads us by the hand from the specific narrative and into a greater truth. See? Simple and classic, but effective.
What Should We Steal?
- Restrain yourself from trying to cram massive and complicated scenes into brief pieces-and try not to devote tons of pages to simple scenes. Don’t be the person at the party who takes half an hour to tell the story of how they bought a non-fat latte and received a latte made with 1%.
- End your piece with a “crane shot conclusion” when appropriate. You’ve told us about one specific situation involving specific human beings…maybe you should wrap things up by departing from strict realism and a strict focus on those human beings.