Title of Work and its Form: “Sotto Voce: Othello, Unplugged,” poem
Author: Tim Seibles
Date of Work: 2012
Where the Work Can Be Found: The poem made its debut in the Fall/Winter 2012 issue of Alaska Quarterly Review, a journal so consistently good that you’re not even angry when they reject you. Denise Duhamel and David Lehman selected the poem for The Best American Poetry 2013.
Bonuses: Mr. Seibles is a highly accomplished poet; why not consider purchasing one (or another) of his books from your local independent bookstore? Here is an interview Mr. Seibles gave while serving as the 2010 Poet-in-Residence at Bucknell University.
Mr. Seibles gave this wonderful TEDx talk about poetry:
Element of Craft We’re Stealing:
Through the course of eleven stanzas, Mr. Seibles offers us a glimpse into the mind of one of Shakespeare’s most intriguing tragic heroes. Othello is ostensibly explaining himself to Iago, but the “brave Moor” is confessing to himself, working through his own guilt in the context of the self-understanding he has gained through the course of the play.
The first thing to mention is that Mr. Seibles engaged in the tried-and-true act of simply playing in the sandbox of another writer. (The Bard of Avon has been dead for nearly 400 years, so there’s certainly no possible ethical conflict.) I love how the poem does double duty. One on hand, it’s a creative work about a deep character whose thoughts help us understand our own. On the other hand, it’s a work of literary criticism. Mr. Seibles offers his interpretation of Othello and his motivations by putting words into his mouth. (Just like Shakespeare did!)
There are so many fantastic opportunities for this kind of poem.
- We certainly got Medea’s thoughts…what was Jason really thinking about her actions?
- Aren’t you curious as to what Liza-Lu (Tess of the D’Urberville’s daughter) thinks about her mother when she has her own child?
- What does Mephastophilis/Mephostophilis say to the NEXT guy?
Mr. Seibles offers us some excellent insight in the note he included with his bio in Best American Poetry. He says,
I wanted the stanza variations to be the visual equivalent of the players: Othello alone, he and Desdemona, the couple, and, of course, the poison triumvirate.
If you re-read the poem with that concept in mind, the conceit seems even cooler. The stanzas have the following number of lines:
1, 2, 3, 1, 2, 3, 2, 1, 2, 1, 1
While the “reliable pattern” breaks down, Mr. Seibles’s concept remains cool and appropriate. Look at the last two stanzas…can’t we all agree that Othello is “alone?” I love what Mr. Seibles did with the stanzas because he is writing in service of his primary duty. Now, Shakespeare wrote in far more definite (and restrictive) forms. The lines of verse were in iambic pentameter. The sonnets had fourteen lines (three quatrains and a couplet). Even though Mr. Seibles fails to follow the rules of any established form, he is careful to make sure that the poem does indeed follow its own internal logic. The number of lines per stanza correlates to the perspective from which it is emerging.
While the lines are not iambic, they still have that kind of iambic pentameter feel:
(You’ll also note that the second line should count as iambic pentameter, not withstanding that final foot.)
Mr. Seibles also points out another way in which he fits the form of the poem to the conceit that inspired him. Check out the eighth stanza:
Yes, I used my fountain pen to mark the space between the first and second words. (And yes, I took the picture with the camera on my cheap media player because it’s all I have.) This extra space is a representation of Mr. Seibles’s desire to let the lines “breathe as we might imagine sad Othello did.” So Mr. Seibles violates the “rules” of composition, but does so for the most beautiful and important reason: in the service of the emotion he wanted to communicate and the story he wanted to tell.
What Should We Steal?
- Put your own stamp on the literary legacy of a classic. Public domain works are just that…they belong to all of us. What do you think the Wicked Witch of the West’s early years were like? (Shoot. That one has already been done.)
- Ensure that your piece follows some kind of form, even if that form is specific to that work alone. All creative works must adhere to internal logic. Citizen Kane is one of the best films ever made, even though it follows its own rules, not those of the conventional three-act structure.
2012, Alaska Quarterly Review, Denise Duhamel, Desdemona, I Never Gave Him Token, Tim Seibles, William Shakespeare
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?
Title of Work and its Form: “To Fall,” creative nonfiction
Author: Meghan McClure
Date of Work: 2014
Where the Work Can Be Found: The piece made its debut in Volume 3, Issue 1 of Pithead Chapel. You can read the piece here.
Bonuses: Here are three poems that Ms. McClure published in Superstition Review. Ms. McClure is the Poetry Editor of A River and Sound Review; why not check out the work she has curated for us?
Element of Craft We’re Stealing: Unexpected Choices
In this piece of flash creative nonfiction, Ms. McClure recounts an experience she had when she was six. She “watched a man fall from a bridge.” Now, that’s certainly a very traumatic experience for a kid. Ms. McClure does the vital work of literature: she employs her intellect to try and find some meaning in the experience. Ms. McClure takes an interesting linguistic approach. What does it mean to “fall?” Why do we use that verb with the noun “love?” “Fall” is a relatively active verb, but the action represents an interregnum between two far more definite states. In the case of the falling man, life and death. Confusion and certainty.
If you’ve been writing for any length of time, you have heard that you should “SHOW, don’t TELL.” In general, this is great advice; the reader wants to be immersed in the story you are telling. “To Fall,” however, represents an example of how powerful “telling” can be. Even though Ms. McClure was rapt as the scene unfolded, she was six and children often don’t have Shawn Spencer-esque powers of perception. Further, her memory has changed the event over the years that stretched between the moment the man fell and the moment Ms. McClure uncapped her pen and began to write.
Ms. McClure made a number of smart choices that addressed the possible pitfalls in telling a story that is, by necessity, a fragment:
- The piece is a short short, which frees her of some obligation to specific detail. Ms. McClure didn’t know the man, didn’t know his story, so all she had was his last moment, the size of narrative that is perfectly appropriate for a 400-word piece.
- Ms. McClure didn’t make up any additional detail; the titular fall is the centerpiece of the story, but serves as a complementary element.
- “To Fall” views the event through a couple interesting intellectual lenses. Ms. McClure does an analysis of the verb “fall” and brings in a literary reference and the story of Vesna Vulović, a woman who fell 33,000 feet without a parachute and survived.
Ms. McClure, you will note, is an accomplished poet. It should come as no surprise that she made the choice to fill this short short with sentences that demonstrate a focus on language instead of narrative. Here’s the first couple lines of “To Fall:”
The stomach falls. We fall in love. We fall apart, asleep, behind, off the wagon, in line, on deaf ears, back on. We fall prey to.
If your primary focus is on narrative and your lines usually reach the right margin, you may wonder what can make prose poetic. There’s no absolute answer, of course, but read those first lines again. Now look at them after I hit “return” a few times and “tab” a few more:
The stomach falls.
We fall in love. We fall apart,
________off the wagon,
____________on deaf ears,
We fall prey to.
It looks like a poem, right? Perhaps the lesson is to understand when a section of our prose requires us to slow down and listen to sounds and to try and craft sentences that feel like poetry.
What Should We Steal?
- Tell, don’t show. I know! It feels strange to write the sentence, but our choices must serve the story we’re trying to tell or the question we are trying to confront.
- Remember that “poetry” can be a prominent element of your prose. A short short, for example, doesn’t allow you to pump out pages of exposition. Instead, we must take advantage of poetry’s ability to distill emotion in the space of strikingly few words.
2014, Meghan McClure, Pithead Chapel, Unexpected Choices
Title of Work and its Form: “The Things We Don’t Talk About,” short story
Author: M. Hannah Langhoff
Date of Work: 2014
Where the Work Can Be Found: The story made its debut in Relief: A Christian Literary Expression. You can purchase the issue in print or digital form here.
Bonuses: Here is an excerpt from a piece Ms. Langhoff published in Cicada.
Element of Craft We’re Stealing: Narrative Structure
What a solid story! Rachel is a fourteen-year-old young woman who has a few problems. Not the least of which is the jerk boy who knocks her down as he rides his bicycle past her. This inciting incident results in Rachel taking Tae Kwon Do classes, where Rachel meets Mr. Cassidy, a high school black belt who teaches her how to protect herself. Rachel’s family is very religious; there is concern as to whether the martial arts lessons are leading her away from her faith. As you really should expect, Rachel learns about herself and her life in the course of the story’s events.
I guess what I love most about the story is that Ms. Langhoff employs a firm structure that makes her intent clear: she wants to tell you a meaningful story about an interesting character.
Let’s see how closely and gracefully Ms. Langhoff adheres to Freytag’s Pyramid:
Inciting Incident: Rachel gets knocked over by the bully.
Complication resulting from the Inciting Incident: Rachel starts taking Tae Kwon Do.
Complications resulting from previous Complication: Rachel meets Jacob Cassidy, a slightly older teacher at the dojang. Rachel sees Diane.
Complications resulting from previous Complications: Rachel shares a significant ride home with Jacob. Diane becomes prominent in her life.
Climax resulting from the Complications that resulted from the Inciting Incident: Rachel encounters the young man who kicked things off in the first place.
Denouement: Rachel’s actions reflect her changed character and self-understanding. Not only is she living in the “new normal,” but she has become the “new Rachel.”
See how beautifully everything comes together? Reading the story just FEELS GOOD.
Ms. Langhoff’s third person narrator is also very powerful and efficient. Check out the very first sentence:
Rachel’s walking along Smith Street, her backpack pleasantly heavy with algebra and sociology and The Call of the Wild, when she hears the buzz of wheels on the sidewalk behind her.
I love the way that the narrator establishes the present tense, the general age of the character, the specter of a threat and the protagonist’s general good-girl attitude. All in one sentence. The narrator is also unafraid to do the real work of the narrator; it skips through time and place at will:
The following Sunday is Rachel’s birthday.
And the narrator is also aware of what is happening in the mind of each character:
What Rachel’s mother doesn’t know, because of their silent agreement, is that Rachel is good.
Even if your narrator is not a “real character,” it’s still a powerful consciousness that is crafting your story. Erin McGraw, a wonderful writer and one of my teachers at Ohio State, reminded me of the narrator’s power with the phrase,
Meanwhile, back at the ranch…
Your narrator can have as much or as little power as is necessary to serve the story you wish to tell. It may also be beneficial to allow yourself to “separate” from the characters and events by thinking about the narrator as a writing partner over whom you have a lot of control.
Another part of the story that I admire is that Ms. Langhoff doesn’t tell us how to feel. Like everyone else, I’m saddened when people mistreat each other. It’s a sad fact of existence. A lesser writer (such as myself), might have enlisted the narrator in judging the sins of the characters. Judgment, however, is reserved for the reader. Ms. Langhoff’s narrator simply recounts events and thoughts, ensuring that the reader feels the power.
The principle is a corollary of “show, don’t tell.” If we follow Ms. Langhoff’s lead and SHOW the reader what is happening and what people are saying and thinking, then the reader is more likely to have an emotional reaction. If we’re TOLD how to feel, it’s probably not going to work.
Here’s a strange example. (Strange examples are more fun than boring ones, of course.) Remember that father who shot his daughter’s laptop to punish her for saying mean things about him on Facebook?
The father’s rhetorical goal was to make his daughter feel bad for not wanting to do chores and for using naughty words. How did he choose to get his message across? With the use of firearms. It seems to me that TELLING his daughter how to feel-and involving firearms-teaches a kid far different lessons. For example, “grownups solve their problems with gunplay.” A heavy-handed third person narrator may not be as effective as one that is a little more hands-off.
What Should We Steal?
- Scale Freytag’s Pyramid. Well-structured stories just FEEL RIGHT.
- Think of your third person narrator as a character with full citizenship in your story. Your narrator is a conduit, but it’s also a version of you in some way. Which strings will you, as the puppet master, choose to pull?
- Leave the analysis for the reader. Okay, we’re ALL bummed that people are sometimes unpleasant to each other. Let us decide how we will feel instead of telling us.
Fun afterthought: I’m amused that the father who shot the daughter’s laptop in an attempt to publicly shame her into behaving appropriately is upset at Dr. Phil for attempting to publicly shame him into behaving appropriately.
2014, M. Hannah Langhoff, Narrative Structure, Ohio State, Relief: A Christian Literary Expression
Title of Work and its Form: “Motoring,” short story
Author: Marcelle Thiébaux (on Twitter @MarcelleThx)
Date of Work: 2014
Where the Work Can Be Found: The piece can be found in the May 2014 issue of decomP, a cool online journal. You can read the story here.
Bonuses: Ms. Thiébaux has done a fantastic job of making it easy for us to check out her work. Her official site is a great example of what we should all be doing. The author offers us some advice in her “free resources” section.
Element of Craft We’re Stealing: Foreign Languages
Ms. Thiébaux’s story achieves a very difficult goal: I remember “Motoring” even though I read it on the same day that I read a T.C. Boyle story that knocked me out. I’m a huge fan of Mr. Boyle’s work; my memory of “Motoring” would have suffered were the story less interesting and cool.
“Motoring” takes place in February 1933. The narrator is a young woman who is working in the American embassy in Nazi Germany. (A fascinating time and place for a story, isn’t it?) Jane attends a big party for the Nazi bigwigs and learns from her friend Gilda that the führer may attend. Jane learns that Gilda has been working in an elite-double-check in case my German is faulty-whoo hoo! I was right-bordello frequented by some powerful men. Jane sees a beautiful Citroën alongside the German automobiles that are filling the exhibit hall. She slithers into the car and…well, why don’t you read the story and allow Ms. Thiébaux to tell you her story?
Ms. Thiébaux has set her story in a place where German surrounds her characters. This creates a problem for people who don’t speak German. (Or for those whose German is rusty at best.) How do you remain true to the language that would be used by the characters without leaving readers behind? If you’ll recall, the film version of The Hunt for Red October notably had the Russian characters begin the film speaking subtitled Russian. Then they simply slip into English. I suppose this is a clever way to get around the problem. We’ve all seen old films and wondered why the Germans were speaking English…often with a British accent. Those who made Red October didn’t want to distract the viewer with subtitles, but tried to mollify the problem I just noted by compromising. (I think it’s successful…it’s all about maintaining the suspension of disbelief.)
Ms. Thiébaux offers enough of a German flavor to add verisimilitude and to maintain the illusion she created. Early in the story, Jane describes her dress:
I compared myself to the willowy models in Kultur und Sport, the illustrated society glossy, Culture and Sport, and decided I looked trim and not too conspicuous.
I did wonder why Ms. Thiébaux offered a graceful translation for two apparent cognates, but I suppose she was making the same “switch” as we find in The Hunt for Red October. The reader would likely have been able to figure out “Kultur und Sport” without too much difficulty, but she seems to be holding out her hand, telling us, “Hey, there’s going to be a little bit of German stuff here. But you can’t blame me, seeing as how the story takes place in Germany in 1933. I promise that I won’t prevent you from reading and enjoying the piece.”
From there, Ms. Thiébaux defines what she needs to and allows the rest to add color.
Toffi’s was the most élite government bordel in Berlin. I knew where it was because one of my girlfriends at the Embassy had pointed out to me Frau Stefany “Toffi” Schmidt’s luxury cathouse villa on Savigny Platz. This was definitely news. The last time I’d seen Gilda was outside our apartment on the night of the Reichstag fire. She was sobbing in the street because the police were hunting for her communist boyfriend.
“Whatever happened to, you know, that kerl, that wild typ you were—” I started to ask.
She hissed in my ear, “Shut up, dummi, he’s dead meat around here.” She drew back and smiled with affection. “Let’s have champagne, sweetie, and not talk about the old days, ja?”
“Bordel” and “dummi” are cognates. “Kerl” and “typ” are German words that many folks would know. Ms. Thiébaux uses the German like spice to add an appropriately Teutonic flavor to the story. I certainly won’t name any names, but there are plenty of pieces in which I have found the non-English content challenging. Instead of reading the story, I was scratching my head, trying to make sense of the two-page dialogue conducted entirely in Sanskrit. (I’m exaggerating.)
Ms. Thiébaux balances the needs of the needs of the reader with her obligation to maintain the illusion of reality in her fiction. That illusion may have been broken had she used some of these beautiful and unwieldy German words:
I also love the way Ms. Thiébaux depicts a very small moment from a time that is packed with drama. Do I love the film Downfall (Der Untergang)? Heck, yeah. It’s all about Hitler’s final days in his bunker:
Do I love the first twenty minutes of Saving Private Ryan? Heck, yeah. Can you imagine what it was like for those men to storm the beach?
But I also love the smaller stories that take place in the shadow of the BIG AND MASSIVE AND SCARY drama setpieces.
Like “Motoring,” Das Leben der Anderen (The Lives of Others) ignores the highest-profile narratives that a writer can tell. Instead of making a film about the most important people in the Stasi or the most important members of the resistance in East Germany, Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck turned his eye on a low-level member of the Stasi and a German playwright. Is “Georg Dreyer” an important man? Sure, but he’s not exactly the most important character in East Germany.
Ms. Thiébaux offers us a plausible and compelling story of a regular person who was witness to the some of the quieter and smaller moments that certainly took place in Nazi Germany. We often forget that what World War II was not just a clash of global superpowers…it was also a clash of hundreds of millions of individuals with their own frames of reference.
What Should We Steal?
- Employ non-English languages in a felicitous manner. You must fulfill your obligations to verisimilitude without ordering your reader to grab an English-to-Farsi dictionary.
- Remember that the smaller stories can be just as compelling as the bigger ones. Do I want to read a cool story about the people who confront the first wave of an alien invasion? Sure. But what about the people far away who realize that the world has changed, though they have not yet been directly affected by the coming storm?
decomP, Foreign Languages, Marcelle Thiébaux, Nazi Germany
Title of Work and its Form: “About to Drop,” short story
Author: Chad Simpson (on Twitter @sadchimpson)
Date of Work: 2004
Where the Work Can Be Found: The story made its debut in the Spring 2004 issue of Sycamore Review. Mr. Simpson has been kind enough to republish the piece on his web site. You can find it here.
Bonus: My, my. Mr. Simpson’s site is fantastic. Here is the page that lists his many publications; check out more of his work! Here is an interview Mr. Simpson did on the Ploughshares blog. This is beyond cool: here’s a “napkin story” Mr. Simpson wrote for Esquire.
Element of Craft We’re Stealing: Epiphanies
Gwen has been dating Lucas for quite some time. Her mother-in-principle, Deb, has been pestering the pair for a grandchild. When the couple refused to oblige, Deb bought a cockatiel and named it Baby. (After the death of Baby, Deb bought Baby Too.) Deb is telling the story as a way to reflect upon the fact that the phases of our lives don’t always end as they wish we would.
I think that what I love most about the story is the way that Mr. Simpson structures the narrative. The story begins with A SIGNIFICANT AND (SOMEWHAT) UNUSUAL EVENT THAT SERVES, IN RETROSPECT AS A KIND OF OMEN. Here’s the opening sentence:
My boyfriend Lucas and I were thirty-seven minutes into the trip when our cat Moonshine Eyes shit in his carrier.
If you’ve taken a long road trip with an animal, you can likely attest that the cat poop isn’t surprising in and of itself. What DOES matter is that Lucas and Gwen were on their way to a significant and unpleasant Thanksgiving weekend.
Mr. Simpson ends the story by placing Gwen in the literal position of narrator; he allows Gwen to describe how Lucas would construct the story of their lives in comparison with her idea. I’ll illustrate the principle with the same kind of example: the ending of a romantic relationship.
THE MOMENT WHEN YOU REALIZED IT WAS OVER: When he or she texted you at midnight, saying, “Thx 4 fun. We R over. Don’t txt me. <3”
THE MOMENT WHEN YOU REALIZED IT WAS OVER…AFTER YOU’VE HAD A COUPLE OF MONTHS TO THINK ABOUT IT: When he or she forgot about your birthday so you went to Applebee’s alone, but you ended up seeing him or her there with a “work friend.”
I suppose that what I’m saying is that I love Gwen’s explicit consideration of the process by which we understand ourselves and our lives. Writers are in the interesting business of thinking about epiphanies in a number of ways. We must consider the following:
- How the epiphany affects the character.
- How to communicate the epiphany to a reader.
- How to demonstrate the before and after of the character in a felicitous manner.
- How OUR OWN self-understanding comes about and how we can communicate changes in self-understanding to most human beings. (We’re all different!)
Okay, so maybe it’s a small thing, but I always wonder about how to include the name of a first-person narrator. You can’t always have your character say,
They call me Jim Gumshoe. I’m a private eye. My name’s on the smoked glass window in the door: Jim Gumshoe’s Private Eye Agency.
I don’t know if I’m the only one who thinks about this, but I like knowing what to call the narrator. (I think I can truly date this desire to grad school. I didn’t want to keep typing synonyms into my critiques: “your protagonist”…”your character”…”the main guy”…”you know, what’s-his-name.”)
Shoehorning the name in can be difficult because we don’t think or say our own names often, do we? Those with whom we converse don’t often say our names either…unless they’re very happy or very angry with us. Let’s see how Mr. Simpson gets Gwen’s name in the text. The name comes near the end of the story:
“Aww, Gwen,” Lucas said. He leaned back in his little-kid desk, and its hinges creaked. “There’s nowhere in the world I’d rather be.”
Does Lucas have a logical reason to say her name? Sure. This is a crucial moment in their lives. What does Mr. Simpson gain or lose by including it where he did? Well, we need to know the narrator’s name if we’re going to write a 900-word craft essay about the story. Why didn’t he simply give us the name along with the rest of the introductory exposition? Withholding the name means that Mr. Simpson does get a little more of a “punch” when he DOES release it.
What Should We Steal?
- Contrive a structure in which characters (and the reader) reflect upon significant life events. What’s the difference between that moment when your character realizes he’s going to get a divorce and when he realizes he SHOULD have gotten a divorce? When should he know? What should the reader think? How do you get the reader to think that?
- Think carefully about how (or whether) you will release the name of your first-person narrator. Naming a character is one of the ten thousand choices you make when writing a story. Have a justification for the choice you make.
2004, Chad Simpson, cockatiels, Epiphanies, Sad Chimpson, Sycamore Review
Title of Work and its Form: “Tedford and the Megalodon,” short story
Author: Jim Shepard (Fan Twitter feed: @JimShepardfan)
Date of Work: 2002
Where the Work Can Be Found: The story made its debut in McSweeney’s Mammoth Treasure of Thrilling Tales, an anthology that began life as issue 10 of McSweeney’s. (One of those publications that I call a “teenage crush” journal because I will love them far more than they’ll ever love me.) Here is the teaser that the McSweeney’s folks posted to tantalize readers. Please purchase the book from your local independent bookstore.
Bonus: Mr. Shepard shared his thoughts about writing with O Magazine. Here is an interview Mr. Shepard gave to Bookslut. Here‘s a very interesting interview Mr. Shepard gave to BOMB Magazine.
Element of Craft We’re Stealing: Structure
Roy Henry Tedford is a 33-year-old explorer. He’s the kind of man who loves humanity and loves culture, but is willing to disconnect himself from everyone else in order to contribute to our understanding of the world. Tedford takes off in search of the Carcharaodon Megalodon, a monster rumored to live in the Antarctic. After stocking up on provisions, Tedford lugs his rifle and lantern and canoe into the Great Unknown and finds what he was looking for…in a number of ways.
I can’t help but begin my analysis by discussing what I believe McSweeney’s Mammoth Treasure of Thrilling Tales represents. If you take a look at Michael Chabon’s introductory editorial comment, you will find an important way forward for our literary world. Mr. Chabon points out that short fiction took an insular turn sometime around the middle of the twentieth century. The short story scene was far more popular and diverse than it is now in many ways. It was possible for “literary” fiction to include “ripping yarns.” Today, the “literary story” seems to guide the critical conversation in many places. In the past, “short fiction” could refer to “any one of the following kinds of stories: the ghost story, the horror story, the detective story; the story of suspense, terror, fantasy, or the macabre; the sea, adventure, spy, war, or historical story; the romance story.”
I love so much of the work in the “mainstream literary scene,” but I worry that insularity explains why so many of the general public are strangers to the contemporary short story. Chabon’s anthology is a wonderful step toward addressing the injustice we may have done to the short story. Just look at the cover of the book…it’s one of those beautiful pulp-style paintings of a lion tamer-type guy fighting a half-man/half-panther! Awesome! Looks like something cool is going to happen in these stories.
The works Chabon chose (and wrote) are indeed as pulse-pounding as they are well-written. Now, I don’t mean to say that people in the “writing community” don’t like genre work. I know I do and I can’t imagine any of my friends dismissing a science fiction story outright. (I have also maintained my dream of being in Asimov’s for twenty years now.) I suppose that what I’m hoping is that we renew our commitment to the “woman on the bus.” We all need to do a better job, somehow, of broadening the audience for contemporary literature.
Mr. Shepard’s story is a fantastic example of work that is both “literary” and entertaining. The gentleman demonstrates a firm grasp of craft while telling a story that is a lot of fun. (Even if it is a little scary.) At its heart, this is an adventure tale. These have been around…well…forever. Robinson Crusoe, The Odyssey, the works of Jack London, Star Trek…these are all timeless because they appeal to the innate human need to simply DISCOVER.
What makes the story “literary” in addition to “fun?” One big reason, I would assert, is the structure of the story. The piece is 17 pages long. The first 8 pages are devoted to developing Tedford’s character. The final 9 pages are centered upon Tedford’s voyage. Why does this structure make a lot of sense? Well, we care about the Megalodon a lot more than we otherwise would because we know what the beast means to Tedford. (Hence the felicitous title.)
Could Mr. Shepard have begun the story in the middle, as Tedford is on the brink of discovery? Sure. But the reader would miss out on a great deal. I can illustrate the principle through the use of movies. Everyone in the world should see the film Idiocracy. In the film, the most average man on the planet is reanimated after 500 years, only to discover that he’s now the smartest person on the planet. As Joe wanders around the city, he learns about the culture of the America into which he’s been thrust:
Why does Joe look uncomfortable while watching the movie Ass? It’s not because he’s offended by seeing a part of the human body. He’s uncomfortable because he hasn’t been drawn into the narrative. When Joe becomes the Prezadent of Uhmerica, he uses his inaugural speech to push a literacy narrative:
“People wrote books and movies. Movies that had stories. So you cared whose ass it was and why it was farting and I believe that time can come again…”
We care about Tedford and his personal quest means something to us. Apply the principle for movies. The Transformers movies? Not so great. Why? Because the characters are puppets that move around between explosions. Lethal Weapon? That’s a fantastic film. Why? Because we care about Riggs and Murtaugh and there are big stakes for both characters.
I also love the way that Mr. Shepard uses tone in the story. Both “halves” of the narrative are in third person, but it felt to me as though Mr. Shepard began the story with diction and a point of view reminiscent of an epic story. Tedford is, in a way, withheld from the audience as the reader begins to understand him and the world he wishes to conquer. The second section seems to shift. Mr. Shepard (and his narrator) dives far deeper into Tedford, slowing down and giving you much more of a moment-by-moment account of his journey.
To keep with the movie theme, I’ll liken the technique to zooming in and out with a camera lens. Once we have the broad strokes, we may find it felicitous to zoom in very closely on the character in the extreme situation.
What Should We Steal?
- Remember that there are millions of potential readers out there who want cool stories. Do I have all of the answers? No. Do I have any answers? Not really. I just wish we could create more new readers than is currently the case.
- Drama should emerge from the characters instead of being thrust upon them. Les Miserables is a classic because the characters are complicated individuals and must deal with unpleasantness, some of which is their own doing. Saw 9: See Saw Run is not a classic because the characters are disposable placeholders.
- Shift tone judiciously. Not only must we skip the boring and unnecessary parts of our characters’ lives, but we must also slow down and show off the moments of beauty and epiphany to which we’ve been building.
2002, Jim Shepard, McSweeney's, Michael Chabon, Structure, tone
Title of Work and its Form: “Aneurysm,” poem
Author: David O’Connell
Date of Work: 2013
Where the Work Can Be Found: “Aneurysm” made its debut in issue 4.1 of Unsplendid. You can find the poem here.
Bonuses: Mr. O’Connell was the 2013 winner of the Philbrick Poetry Project‘s chapbook competition. You can purchase his chapbook from the Providence Athenaeum or from Amazon. Here is Richard Merelman’s review of A Better Way to Fall from Verse Wisconsin Online. Here is “Redeemer,” a poem Mr. O’Connell published in Boxcar Poetry Review. Here is “Thaw,” a poem he placed in Rattle.
Element of Craft We’re Stealing: Lineation
Mr. O’Connell’s poem is a fairly straightforward description of a very sad event. The poem is dedicated to “P.L.,” who lived from 1974 to 2001; we assume that the young man in the poem has died during a very common rite of passage: jumping into a pool from a roof. Through fourteen lines, Mr. O’Connell communicates the sense of loss he felt and connects it to the kinds of loss that we all share.
The first thing that struck me about the poem is the way Mr. O’Connell prepares us for what the poem will do. The title? “Anuerysm.” The dedication? “for P.L. 1974-2001.” What do we learn about the poem from those two elements?
- Tone: the poem probably won’t be upbeat and carefree. Aneurysms are scary and unpleasant and we’re all pretty bummed when people die young.
- Subject matter: we assume we’re going to read an account of the young person’s death.
- Characterization: Mr. O’Connell is a character in the poem; the title and dedication make him seem like a solemn and respectful person…when it comes to this topic, at least. I’m sure Mr. O’Connell has a healthy sense of humor with regard to the appropriate subjects.
Mr. O’Connell introduces the poem in such a manner that the reader feels welcomed. While we all love writing that may be a little more opaque in its meaning, the opening of “Aneurysm” faithfully mimics the approachability of the rest of the text.
I love the way that “Aneurysm” makes use of lineation. It’s my impression that many beginning writers struggle with that jagged right margin. Ending a line is pretty easy when you’re writing prose; you just keep writing. When you’re writing a poem, knowing where to begin again is far more difficult.
Mr. O’Connell demonstrates the power of lineation. Look at the end of the first stanza:
the chimney. Sixteen, he’s on my roof
and then not. Cut by glare, his fall
So P.L. ends that first line on the roof…the reader moves his or her eyes down and to the left…and he’s no longer on the roof. The eye movement mimics the literal movement of the character in the poem. That stanza break also forces the reader into a moment of anticipation, even if that anticipation is subconscious. For that split second, we’re wondering what will come next. Let’s see how the effect would be ruined if we slapped all of the words onto the same line.
…the chimney. Sixteen, he’s on my roof and then not. Cut by glare, his fall…
See? We lose the tension Mr. O’Connell was smart enough to create.
Another great thing about the poem is the way Mr. O’Connell chooses an unanticipated and powerful verb:
the moment he explodes the pool,
Mr. O’Connell had a number of more conventional options:
- falls into
- dives into
- drops into
- descends into
- reaches into
- slips into
Instead, Mr. O’Connell has the protagonist “explode” the pool. Not only do we get an idea of what the narrator must have looked like upon contact with the water, but we get a better idea of how the pool itself must have appeared. Even better, “explode” is a pretty heavy duty word, isn’t it?
What Should We Steal?
- Welcome the reader into the piece. The title and first lines should communicate the tone, intent and subject matter of the rest of the piece.
- Compose your lines in such a manner that you create anticipation and reflect the events of your poem. Lineation is a special instance of cognitive understanding that is shaped by physical movements.
- Employ unexpected verbs. A baseball player can “hit” the ball…or he can “knock,” “slap,” “pound,” “slam” or “drive” the ball.
I’m not quite sure where this fits in, but the first line of the poem reminds me of what I guess I think of as “poet meter.” Is it just me, or do you hear this meter a lot when you go to poetry readings?
It’s not quite iambic pentameter, but it has that sing-songy quality that draws you in.
2013, David O'Connell, Lineation, Ohio State, Unsplendid
Title of Work and its Form: “Orange,” short story
Author: Neil Gaiman (on Twitter @neilhimself)
Date of Work: 2010
Where the Work Can Be Found: The piece debuted in the October 2010 issue of Southwest Airlines Spirit Magazine. The piece was subsequently included in The Best American Nonrequired Reading 2011. (“Orange” can be found in a number of other anthologies, too.) Mr. Gaiman is an absolutely charming storyteller; you can watch him read the story on video:
Bonuses: Here is what StoryADay’s Julie Duffy thought of the story. Here’s a beautiful commentary from Mr. Gaiman in which he reminds us what is truly important: libraries. Here is Mr. Gaiman’s official bookstore.
Element of Craft We’re Stealing: Structure
Jemma Glorfindel Petula Ramsey is a sixteen-year-old woman in a bit of a strange situation. Her younger sister Lilias seems to have received a jar of dye. Before long, Jemma discovers that Lilias, a curious teenager, has smeared the liquid on her skin. Then Lilias started to glow a “pulsating orange” and telling people “she was going to be worshipped like a god.” What happens next? Why don’t you read the story and find out?
One of the reasons that Mr. Gaiman is one of the most successful English-language writers in the world is that his work is at once imaginative and accessible. Yes, this story’s main character is a teenager who literally becomes orange, but the piece is not at all “strange” to a reader who is at all open-minded. How does Mr. Gaiman simultaneously ground the reader while taking him or her on an unexpected ride? To me, the biggest reason is the felicitous structure that Mr. Gaiman chose.
The first lines of the story point out that we’re reading a
CONFIDENTIAL POLICE FILE
and the officer points out that Jemma’s testimony is the
(Third subject’s responses to investigator’s written questionnaire).
Mr. Gaiman appropriated the structure of a police interrogation. How does this help him?
- First person testimony is very easy for all of us to understand. We hear and create first person narratives every single day.
- Police records are, by definition, extremely reliant upon the elucidation of facts and the use of clear prose. The reader is less likely to be confused by any complex or beautiful sentences because these are, by definition, the crisp sentences of a teenager hoping to put facts into the public record.
- Exposition is comparatively easy to release in a police report. Mr. Gaiman doesn’ t have to worry about how he’s going to slip his character names into the story in a graceful fashion. Why? That’s the first question Jemma is asked. Instead of trying to figure out an organic way to communicate Jemma’s age, Mr. Gaiman simply makes it the second question and plops in her age and birthday.
- The form eliminates a lot of the “connecting tissue” that is present in a “traditional” story. “Orange” is a brisk read and the time Mr. Gaiman saves in simply TELLING you, for example, where Jemma has lived can be devoted to the many clever and charming jokes in the story.
With all of that said, I think we can also learn a lot from the inherent ambiguity in the story. The reader doesn’t receive the questions that Jemma is answering. The effect resembles that of an overheard phone conversation. We’ve all been somewhere when a person answers the phone and we hear what the person is saying, but we don’ t know what’s coming through on the other end of the line. So even though Mr. Gaiman ensures that the Lilias narrative is very clear, he allows us to dream by throwing in a little bit of ambiguity:
Until the day I die.
Do we know exactly what the questions are? No. But because the Lilias narrative is so firm, Mr. Gaiman can indulge himself and his reader in a little daydreaming. I have my own idea as to the questions that Jemma is answering and they mean something to me. You may have a completely different interpretation…and that’s wonderful.
I can’t help but point out that Mr. Gaiman and I have had the same little idea. One of my crummy grad school stories centers upon a woman whose adolescence was made more difficult by her father’s silly devotion to his stupid business idea. The father loses his savings and his wife because of his Hot Salad™ restaurant. Mr. Gaiman is similarly playful in “Orange.” Jemma’s mother “invented the Stuffed Muffin™, and started the Stuffed Muffin chain.” If you watch the videos of Mr. Gaiman reading the story, the ™ gets a delightful laugh. What can we steal from this coincidence? I am willing to bet that this kind of coincidence happens all of the time. Why shouldn’t we feel slightly heartened by the fact that we may have the same kinds of ideas that pop into the heads of world-class writers?
What Should We Steal?
- Employ a form that allows you to be both imaginative and accessible. A story about an orange teenager may be a little confusing to some…unless it’s told in a clear and forceful manner.
- Contrive your work in such a manner that your reader wonders about the proper things. Don’t make your reader wonder what is going on. Force your reader to wonder what it all means to them.
- Take heart when you notice similarities between your work and that of very successful writers. Maybe, just maybe, folks like me are on the right track!
Mr. Gaiman happens to be married to Amanda Palmer, a great musician and artist. We should all see Ms. Palmer’s TED talk. In “The Art of Asking,” she glorifies art and beauty in an unexpected manner and describes the kind of world in which we should all have the pleasure of living. At the very least, we should all try to be the kind of audience that Ms. Palmer describes.
2010, Best American Nonrequired Reading 2011, Neil Gaiman, Southwest Airlines Spirit Magazine, Structure
Title of Work and its Form: “?,” poem
Author: Julie Danho
Date of Work: 2014
Where the Work Can Be Found: The poem appears in Six Portraits, a chapbook published by Slapering Hol Press, the small press imprint of The Hudson Valley Writers’ Center. The kind folks at the HVWC have included the poem on the Six Portraits page to show you what you’ll find in the chapbook.
Bonuses: Here is a creative nonfiction essay Ms. Danho published in The SFWP Journal. Here is a poem Ms. Danho placed in Blackbird. Here is a poem that was published by Solstice.
Element of Craft We’re Stealing: Punctuation
What a clever and interesting poem! On the surface, Ms. Danho simply describes the humble question mark in a number of unexpected ways. The poem is a creative work, so there are, of course, infinite interpretations. Me? I think I like the idea of personifying a question. Just like a person, a question can change your life or bring you joy or simply make you think about life.
Sure, the comma helps your reader know when there’s a pause or an independent clause. The full stop splits up sentences and allows your subconscious to digest prose in a felicitous manner. Punctuation is indeed functional, but why can’t it also serve as the medium through which meaning is transmitted? Why shouldn’t we USE punctuation in more powerful ways?
The humble period. She can stop a sentence in its tracks. She can be the punch that drives home a confession or an insult. She can cap off an epiphany or a declaration of love. She can get together with some of her friends and form
An ellipsis. A pause between phone call phrases. A moment of anticipation. What happens when a question mark gives a bracket a hug?
The ampersand is formed. (The punctuation mark with several backs?) Inclusion. The joining of parent & child. And I can’t help but point out my twelve-year-old self’s favorite bit of “functuation:”
The point is that writers, like any craftsperson, should make use of every tool in his or her toolbox. How can you use punctuation in an unexpected manner that will communicate your intention without leaving your reader behind? (And let’s all thank Ms. Danho for writing a poem that makes us consider punctuation in this way?)
Another thing I love about the poem is the way Ms. Danho renders the question mark in a logical, top-to-bottom fashion. The poem begins with a consideration of the mark’s curves and ends on a consideration of the mark’s dot. I think that this choice might have been especially important because Ms. Danho’s poem does a “weird” thing. While a reader may not expect to read a work in which a question mark is personified, he or she can certainly relate to looking a person from head to toe and rendering a verdict. Isn’t this what we do when we see Michelangelo’s David or lay eyes on a blind date for the first time? (The poem may also be “accessible” because it’s told in first-person…a kind of communication we each experience every day.)
If forced to choose, I think that I would say that the “s” sound is the dominant phoneme in the poem. Why is this appropriate? Both the ? and the S are curvy. I’m not sure if Ms. Danho thought of it in this manner, but we’re her readers…we can do whatever we like. What happens when we employ alliteration and actually make use of the sounds our letters make? Great things!
I think it was Bill Cosby…I might be wrong. But I think it was Bill Cosby who jokingly told parents to give children names that end in vowel sounds. Why? Because those names allow you to yell at the kid more effectively. Think about it. Your child is late for dinner. You poke your head out the door and shout: “BRENT!” That “nt” is hard to shout and the “breh” sound may not communicate your displeasure. What about “TIME FOR DINNER, JULIEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEE!” Okay, that sounds much better when shouted. Good things can happen when we consider the sound of a word with its appearance.
What Should We Steal?
- Make use of punctuation instead of just using it in the ways proscribed by textbooks. Punctuation can create meaning instead of simply clarifying meaning.
- Ensure that your “weird” work offers a handhold to the reader. Fine. Spend a thousand words describing an extraterrestrial’s biology. Maybe you keep it accessible by doing so in the format of a recipe.
- Match alliteration to the point of your work. A poem about yelling? Perhaps you’ll want to pack a lot of open vowel sounds into that piece.
2014, Julie Danho, Ohio State, Punctuation, Slapering Hol Press