In my opinion, a life is best lived when one enjoys the best of all fields of creative endeavor. I’m not the world’s biggest fan of rap music, but I enjoy a number of the better rappers. Country music isn’t my bag, but it’s silly not to enjoy some of the great examples of the genre. Writers are particularly charged with having a wide frame of creative reference. Everything under the sun has been done before; no idea that you have will ever represent an example of soil untilled by the human imagination.
So why resist the possibility of influence by great works from the past?
Meghan Trainor certainly doesn’t resist. Now, I’m not exactly in the target demographic for this music. I am, however, unable to turn down bright melodies, good songwriting and compelling performances that are presented by a solid and confident singer. In case you don’t know who she is, you do. She’s the young woman who co-wrote and performed that “All About That Bass” tune you’ve heard a trillion times.
Ms. Trainor is from Cape Cod (lucky!) and unless I’ve been tricked, she’s a natural-born songwriter whose parents introduced her to all kinds of music. Ms. Trainor is also very good at channeling these melodies swirling in her head and turning them into something new. For example, check out Dion’s “Runaround Sue:”
What do you notice? The song begins with a slow introduction of the song’s conceit sung emotionally over angelic-sounding chords. Then the band kicks in and the lead singer discusses the power of love, interrupted on occasion by rhythmic scatting of a sort.
Now listen to Ms. Trainor’s “Dear Future Husband,” co-written with her producer, Kevin Kadish:
Hmm…the song begins with a slow introduction of the song’s conceit sung emotionally over angelic-sounding chords. Then the band kicks in and the lead singer discusses the power of love, interrupted on occasion by rhythmic scatting of a sort. Ms. Trainor borrows all of the elements of 1960s girl group music, 1950s soul, late-model R&B and even some of the Tin Pan Alley vibe to create something new and fun. Most of all, the song is helped by the fact that Ms. Trainor can actually sing. (This is just about my highest compliment! I’ve always been annoyed when a singer who can’t sing makes it big.)
How about a deep track? Here’s a song that Ms. Trainor wrote and performed for an independent album called Only 17:
And a live performance of a song called “Walkashame:”
What are some of the musical elements that Ms. Trainor has in her arsenal?
Walking bass lines
Girl group harmonies
Doo wop harmonies that serve as rhythm
Classic Broadway ways of finishing phrases (particularly in “Walkashame”)
Those great quarter-note piano chords you find in Motown music
Ms. Trainor is exceptionally skilled in the art of creating the musical pastiche, blending elements from different styles to create something interesting and new. What makes pastiche so exciting?
“Bohemian Rhapsody” is so cool because it shows off the abundant talents of everyone in the band. Freddie Mercury builds from operatic recitative to all-out arena rock and back to grandiose orchestral emotion.
Danger Mouse’s Gray Album somehow manages to make Jay-Z’s rap even more hardcore and the Beatles’ proto-heavy metal more rockin’.
I used musical examples to demonstrate my point, but pastiche occurs in all other media. Breaking Bad is awesome, right? I know. Why wouldn’t it be? It’s a gangster story mixed up with a father-son story imbued with more than a little bit of the immigrant narrative. I would contend that Kubrick’s The Shining represents something of a pastiche; it’s a supernatural horror film at heart, but the film is also very much a dark comedy, an addiction narrative and a parenting tutorial. (I’m kissing about that last one.)
Pastiche is so effective for the same reasons that fusion food is so good. American pizza is so different from its Italian forebears; could you really do without New York Style or Chicago Style? When you fold in elements from other genres and styles, you avail yourself of the conventions of the new genre or style. The Shining would still have been great without the dark humor, but it would have been a very different film without the Lloyd scene.
Kubrick empowered himself to use a number of different creative toolboxes, just as Meghan Trainor puts a bunch of musical ideas into a blender and hits the “liquefy” button. Perhaps it’s a strange metaphor, but creating a pastiche ensures the work has greater genetic diversity than a single-genre/single-form work. Aristotle may warn you against mixing tragedy and comedy, but doing so can make the work even more potent.
What are some of your favorite examples of pastiche? When have you employed this technique in your work?
One of the greatest joys of being part of the writing community is how giving most people are. Stephen King has written multiple books about writing craft and has given countless lectures, all because he loves the community so much. James Patterson gives millions of dollars to independent bookstores to ensure they can continue to support writers who don’t sell as many books as, well, James Patterson. I noticed an interesting and pleasant enough debate that took place and I wanted to share my own thoughts. (Many people have already done so, but I’m guessing you haven’t read what I’m about to say…)
Bartleby Snopes managing editor Nathaniel Tower wrote a guest post for freeze frame fiction in which he described the cliches that he’s sick of seeing in submissions. Mr. Tower’s suggestions are fairly conventional and understandable. Stories that begin or end with a character waking from a dream. Yawn. Stories that begin with “light streaming through the window.” (I was not aware that was a thing.) Mr. Tower is not being rude; his bio even points out that many of his own published works violate the rules he just laid out.
Laryssa Wirstiuk wrote a response in which she affirmed Mr. Tower’s cheeky caveat. There are plenty of exceptions to the rule. For example, Ms. Wirstiuk cites stories such as:
“In September, the Light Changes” by Andrew Holleran (story that begins with streaming light); “Bullet to the Brain” by Tobias Wolff (story with a “death ending”); “People Like That Are The Only People Here: Canonical Babbling in Peed Onk” by Lorrie Moore (sentimental cancer story based on true cancer story)…
What’s the difference between a great story like “Bullet to the Brain” and a terrible, overdone story that confronts the same subject matter? Say it with me: Storytelling skill. An understanding of how to break the rules. World-class facility with language.
Most of us don’t have those qualities, so we should be aware of the dangers about writing a story based on a cliched premise or with cliched characters. The best way I can think of to illustrate the principle is to take a step back and to return to childhood for a moment.
Ohioan Bill Watterson is the genius behind Calvin and Hobbes, one of the funniest and most touching comic strips ever. The premise is deceptively simple; Calvin is a precocious little boy who explores the world and its people with Hobbes, his pet tiger. (A companion who, of course, only comes to life for Calvin.) Mr. Watterson put a decade’s work into this magnum opus, alternately touching the funny bone and the heart. He ended the strip in 1995, loathe to allow the quality of his work to flag and secure in the feeling that he had said everything he wanted to say.
After his retirement, Mr. Watterson retreated (even further) into the anonymity that he loves. I’ve always remembered this well-written story that James Renner placed in the Cleveland Scene. Mr. Watterson did not abandon creative pursuit in the years after he sent Calvin and Hobbes off on their eternal journey. Instead, Mr. Watterson experimented in another artistic form:
An industry source who wishes to remain anonymous says Watterson paints oil-on-canvas landscapes, but sets fire to each as soon as it’s finished. Supposedly, he was told that the first 500 paintings an artist creates are just practice.
Isn’t that beautiful and sad at the same time? If the anonymous source is to be believed-and why not in this case?-then the world has lost many works of art. Works that would be worth thousands of dollars. The story is also touching; what matters most? The creative journey, the putting of brush to canvas. (Or pen to paper.)
I also tend to think that Mr. Watterson’s impulse is correct. The first million words you write are just practice. The first stories, poems and novels are preparatory drudgework that teach you so much of what you need to create work of value. Writing and painting are exceptional in that they are pursuits from which you need never retire. Right now, my close, personal friend Miguel Cabrera is the best hitter on the planet. In thirty years, he’ll be unable to turn on a minor league fastball. How many people have a realistic hope of constant improvement? Eternal excellence?
Look at Whitney Houston sing live in 1985. She’s the best. The vocal just pours out of her.
Now listen to Whitney Houston sing in 2010.
Granted, there were some additional…issues that were getting in the way of Ms. Houston’s voice, but the world-class talent devolved into a barely competent speak-singer.
Fellow writers? You and I have a chance of writing some decent lines or sentences the day we die.
I’ve been writing far longer than I should admit, and I think that the cliche stories that Mr. Tower referenced are a rite of passage, particularly for writers who start young. I wrote my awful version of the “Adam and Eve” science fiction story. My first novel wasn’t THAT bad, but it was heavily influenced by my love of The X-Files and the partner dynamic between Mulder and Scully. I’ve definitely written a “death story” or two.
We all learn a lot through mimicry. Children acquire language skills by emulating what their parents say. Ballplayers start out in the sandlot pretending they are Justin Verlander staring down a batter in the seventh game of the World Series. Writers, I suspect, engage in a lot of mimicry as they begin to find their own voices.
I suppose what I am urging is that we think of our cliche stories as practice in the same way Bill Watterson thought of his first few hundred paintings. We can have a great time creating our cliche stories, just as it’s a lot of fun learning to throw a curveball by whipping the horsehide at imaginary batters. And perhaps we should think twice before throwing that curveball to a real hitter before it’s ready.
How do you condense a faithful representation of a man’s life into 182 pages of prose? Don’t we like to think that we’re so complicated that the task is impossible? I suppose that the conceit that drives Everyman is an unreachable goal; how do we explain the thousand sins we commit? How can we share the thousand joys of our lives with strangers?
Mr. Roth, of course, is skillful enough that his ambition doesn’t exceed his ability. Everyman‘s protagonist, unnamed for a reason, was in advertising. I use the past tense because the book starts at his funeral. His older, richer brother Howie helps to shovel dirt onto the protagonist’s coffin. His estranged sons are…sad. His loving daughter Nancy mourns. Maureen, his…nurse shows up. Before long, the funeral is over:
After fifteen pages of funeral, Roth remains in the past tense, and immediately takes the narrative back to the past:
That’s right. Roth’s protagonist takes roughly chronological look back through his life. The hernia surgery he had as a kid. His first marriage, doomed by his first wife. His second marriage, doomed by his selfishness and uncontrollable urges.
To some extent, Everyman defies simple summary and I don’t want to give away too much of the plot. After all, isn’t that the joy of meeting someone new? That you get to gradually get to figure out who they are and have time to reach that full understanding? Everyman succeeds so well in part because Roth uses analepsis (flashback) to deliver the narrative and to give the reader time to absorb each development.
Have you ever gotten home to hear one of your significant other’s stories about his or her day? Perhaps it’s just my experience, but these stories (including my own) tend to be an exposition dump. The storyteller releases an awful lot of who, what, when and where. Of course, we love our significant others and are happy to listen, but the stories we contrive for our work should be easier to absorb. (Especially for those many strangers who read our work and have no context at all!)
Roth’s use of prolepsis allows him to release the narrative in bite-sized drips and drabs. You could say that the book is a set of connected short stories to some extent:
The protagonist’s childhood hernia surgery
The protagonist’s appendectomy in adulthood
The protagonist’s bypass in later life
These “stories” are the bricks from which the story is made and they are held together by mortar that the powerful narrator uses to guide us along. This is the kind of narrator of that Roth needs to employ to keep us on board. After all, he has changed wives between the appendectomy and bypass and many decades have passed. These techniques allow Mr. Roth to focus all of his attention on the important parts of the main character’s life and to illuminate only the important relationships. A far more linear and “traditional” telling of this same story may have put more emphasis on the first wife. It may not be very easy to cram the whole of a man’s life into a stack of papers that is three-quarters of an inch tall, but Mr. Roth’s slippery use of time helps him accomplish this goal.
You have seen this advice before: avoid adverbs whenever possible. Writer’s Digest’s William Noble even turns the dictate into an order, saying, “Don’t Use Adverbs and Adjectives to Prettify Your Prose.” We have adverbs in our toolboxes, however. Just like any tool, we can use them…we must use them in a manner that improves our story in some way.
Mr. Roth uses adverbs in Everyman, of course, and I really admired the effect that some of his adverbs created. Now, adverb use can go wrong…very wrong. For example, here’s an exaggeration of a common mistake that some of us make:
She thought silently to herself mentally and was quite certainly having ideas in her head.
Why are these adverbs problematic? First of all, there are so many of them! Second, they don’t really add anything to our understanding of the sentence. (Can you think to anyone but yourself?)
“Mannerly” is a slightly unexpected adverb. Take a look at a list of synonyms that I found during a search on wordandphrase.info:
We don’t tire of Mr. Roth’s use of adverbs in part because he chooses ones that we don’t see very often. Here’s another example:
Again, these are fairly uncommon words. More importantly, these adverbs are being used to regulate how the reader digests the sentence and its ideas. Isn’t that interesting? Mr. Roth had a lot of options with that very long sentence. Casting the sentence the way he did changes our perception. See?
Had he been aware of the mortal suffering of every man and woman he happened to have known during all his years of professional life, of each one’s painful story of regret and loss and stoicism, of fear and panic and isolation and dread, had he learned of every last thing they had parted with that had once been vitally theirs and of how, systematically, they were being destroyed, he would have had to stay on the phone through the day and into the night, making another hundred calls at least.
…had he learned of every last thing they had parted with that had once vitally been theirs and of how they were systematicallybeing destroyed… (Clause eliminated, allowing the reader to consume the sentence faster.)
…had he learned of every last thing they had parted with that had vitally once been theirs and of how they were being destroyed systematically… (Adverbs now sandwich more of the prose, bookending the thought more completely.)
Mr. Roth’s book succeeds for a number of reasons, not to mention the fact that it’s a very short and powerful read. What are some other books that turn the difficult trick of condensing a man or woman’s life into a comparatively small number of words?
Many thanks to the Library of Congress for their beautiful public domain images:
http://cdn.loc.gov/service/pnp/fsa/8b24000/8b24900/8b24943v.jpg Holstein cow at Casa Grande Valley Farms. Pinal County, Arizona. She yielded 497 pounds of butterfat in 370 days. On test 77 cows of the Casa Grande Farm yielded an average of 386 pounds of butter fat in 365 days. This was the highest in the state for that many cows
http://www.loc.gov/pictures/item/hec2013004924/ Wife of New York department store magnate captures first and second prizes at Washington Horse Show. Mrs. Bernard Gimbel, wife of the New York department store magnate, and her horses Capt. Doane (left) and welcome with with whom she captured first and second prizes in the Ladies Hunters class at the National Capital Horse Show today. Capt. Doane is the $12,000 dollar horse who has been capturing many blue ribbons in eastern horse shows recently
My mother abandoned her family, leaving my broken and broken-hearted father to try his best to care for three young children while working full time. I was nine, my sister was seven and my brother was three. Whatever security and stability I had in my life was gone, all because the woman who bore me decided that she wanted to hitchhike to Texas and to see Tom Petty in concert instead of giving me the parental care I needed. I’ve always felt a smidgen of additional guilt. I was my parents’ first child. Until the day I was born, my father was a free man with a brilliant mind and good humor and great potential. Once I fell into the world, he was trapped with a woman who simply didn’t have it in her to care about anyone but herself.
Few massive changes are instantaneous; my mother’s defection was no different. I’m at the point in my life when my few friends and many acquaintances are getting married and having or caring for children. These mothers and fathers are braiding hair and helping to build snow forts and doing what they can to bring enough money into the home. My mother, on the other hand, did as little as possible to contribute to the home. My father punched out of his factory job at 3 p.m., so that’s when my mother woke up. She’d stretch and yawn and think about doing some work around the house. Some days, of course, were easier than others. I have been told that I once reached into my own diaper and smeared my own feces on the wall because that’s what happens when you leave a little kid in a crib all day while you’re sleeping and listening to Stevie Nicks records.
My mother began spending far more time with her unpleasant friends who lived on a street by the river whose name looked like a phone number. She passed most nights swaying to mid-eighties adult contemporary while the rest of us slept. She was gliding, I assume, on chemical wings. The family home didn’t have any aerators in the faucets because my mother had nicked them for use in her marijuana pipe. The family home didn’t have any flatware sharper than a butter knife because my father was scared one of the pieces would end up in his belly or his throat one day. The family home was a dark place, haunted by tangible fear-when’s the next time she’s going to lose it? Is she going to scream or cry tonight? Both? These are the childhood thoughts I contemplated as I spent hours sawing through my meat with a butter knife.
The statistics vary wildly, but infidelity is certainly a common occurrence. I suppose that sleeping around isn’t an indication of bad parenting by necessity. I do think it’s fair to say that having sex with some dude on the living room sofa while the children are sleeping and your husband’s sitting on the marital bed wondering what the hell he’s going to do is a source of harm to the family. Particularly to the oldest, a boy who, fueled by dozens of Encyclopedia Brown stories, fancied himself a detective. I didn’t know what she and Boomer or Tick-Tock or Grillface or whatever his name was were doing on the sofa, but I did know it was wrong. Wrong enough that I crawled back from the living room and put my arm around my father’s shoulders and told him it would be okay.
The dude who had rolled up on the bike and stayed the night might have been a phase. After my father bought her a Dodge Colt, my mother started a relationship with some man who was incarcerated in a prison far enough away that she put tens of thousands of miles on the car in less than a year. If memory serves, the affair ended when she crashed the car just off John Glenn Boulevard. I remember going with my father to see the totaled car, only a couple minutes away from Angie’s Bullpen, the baseball card store where he and I had bonded years earlier.
My mother’s process of extracting herself from the family took so long that the effects on my mood must have been obvious. My third-grade teacher recommended I speak with the school counselor. We spoke about baseball for a couple minutes before he shut the door on what I needed at that time-literally. The school parade was filing by his door and he shut me away from the friends I wanted, needed to make. I had hoped to find that companionship in Boy Scouts, but my mother pulled me out of that organization because the boys were older. I was as much in love with baseball then as I am now, but I had to stop playing because my father didn’t have the energy to register me for Little League, even though I rode my bike to all of the practices.
After some cutting of the family pictures and some more sobbing and, I imagine, more infidelity, my mother finally left. I finally understood what she was the first time I read The Glass Menagerie with Miss Rowe in 11th grade. My mother was the picture of Tom and Laura Wingfield’s father on the mantle, the focal figure who drives the story and establishes the tone, but never appears. The difference between Mr. Wingfield and my mother is that she never really left. The honorable thing to do would have been to cut all ties with us and to let us heal. Instead, the first year or so of her freedom was marked by drunken midnight calls in which she wept and told me she didn’t abandon us. I remember not being convinced, but I still said, “I know, Mom. I know.” I must have been a good kid; I didn’t want her to feel the massive guilt of what she was: a failure at everything she attempted and a massive source of pain for everyone who depended on her and to whom she had made sacred promises. It seems perfectly logical, therefore, that I’m in my thirties and remain unmarried and childless. While I have done plenty of wrong in my life and committed sins I wish I could take back, I can honestly say that I’ve never been a bad father or husband. I’ve never done the kind of lasting damage that should, but doesn’t, keep her up at night.
Instead of making a clean break, she made her departure as frayed as possible. She moved back into town. Any time my father was reaching some stability and starting to feel okay again, she would show up and she and her boyfriend would take my brother and sister fishing or whatever they did. I was onto her. I was old enough to realize that a person who makes triannual visits isn’t a parent. A woman who gives her kids no money or time is not a mother. She’s a selfless child who only cares about maintaining her personal vital lie. She gets to wake up believing that she is a mother and that she did all she could for her babies.
The last time I was in the same building at the same time as my mother was when I was about sixteen. My father told me the news: my mother had been arrested. A drunk and disorderly? And she needed to be bailed out. After telling my father he had no obligation to the woman who found triannual visits too much of a trial, he asked me to come with him to post bail. I must have been a fairly decent teenager; I still don’t understand women or the intricacies of the human heart, but I did and do understand that my father was looking for someone to support him. So I did.
My mother did damage to my father, my siblings and to me that is at once tangible and incalculable. While I take the bulk of the responsibility for what has largely been a wasted and lonely life, it’s also fair to say that my mother’s many offenses against decency is a substantial contributing factor to the person I am today.
My mother, it seems, is also the reason I don’t care about the manufactured controversy du jour. A comedian made a joke six years ago that you find offensive? I don’t care. No one got hurt. No joke has ever done to any human being what my mother did to my family. A rapper used a word of which you disapprove? I don’t care. No rap song has ever put a single person in the hospital.
We are all offended by words on occasion; that’s perfectly natural. I love John Oliver, but one of his recent Last Week Tonight bits offended me. That’s okay. He and I are in 99% agreement with respect to life. The Duck Dynasty guy recently made some odd and offensive comments about atheists. If I had had a real mother, she would have told me that “sticks and stones will break my bones, but names will never hurt me.”
Being offended is another way of saying that you don’t feel like engaging with a real issue that does tangible, incalculable harm to real human beings. The manufactured outrage culture is symptomatic of cowardice and apathy. It’s very easy for “news” sources to make a brave stance against a naughty word. It’s far more difficult and costly to cover real stories that are actually a problem.
I think I’ve always felt this way. Like everyone else on the planet, I endured some “bullying” as a kid. Both the traditional kind and the redefined version that includes causing any person any discomfort whatsoever. But I’ve never wasted any time or thought thinking that taking offense means that I’m entitled to something. The quality of my work may not reflect the time I’ve put into writing, but I’ve been scribbling stories and poems since before puberty set in. Those who sit at a keyboard or uncap a fountain pen deserve our respect. Unlike those who manufacture outrage, they are trying to add to our culture. Those who write 100-word articles criticizing Trevor Noah, a comedian, for making jokes are manufacturing outrage. Trevor Noah, on the other hand, stands on a stage, all alone but the microphone, and tries to make people laugh. Society needs comedians and truth-tellers, even if they say things that we don’t like on occasion. We do not need manufactured outrage. Whoever combed through Mr. Noah’s 8,000 tweets mining for gold needs to devote that time to meaningful pursuits.
America has serious problems. Families are suffering due to the collapse of the middle class. Gay people still can’t get married in a few states. A maddening minority of police officers are using excessive force and planting drugs on innocent men. Guantanamo Bay is still open. Let’s focus on the people doing tangible harm instead of the people who say things we don’t like, even though it’s far easier to retweet our anger than to seriously address a real source of suffering.
At some point after my mother was no longer in the house whose deed still bears her name, she visited on a Sunday night and was very cross with my father. Married…With Children was on Fox 68. We got a pretty good picture with our rabbit-eared television. My mother folded her arms and told my father, “I don’t want the kids watching that show.”
My father asked why.
“Because,” my mother said. “That show gives the wrong idea about women. The wife is depicted as lazy and is a bad mother. Don’t let them watch it.”
I’ve already introduced you to my mother, so you must see the irony inherent in her objection to the program. No, women are not inherently lazy and most mothers are beautiful and loving people. But she wasn’t. And she was taking the easy way out, criticizing a comedy show for the potential harm that it could do to me instead of confronting the real pain and lasting hurt that she was doing to me. To all of us.
Years from now, Trevor Noah will be a few years into his stint on The Daily Show. He’ll likely be successful and the transition from Jon Stewart will be a dim memory. Still, he’ll check his Twitter mentions and see that someone took seven seconds out of their day to call him a sexist or an anti-Semite.
Every second Sunday in May, people who don’t know her wish the woman who bore me a happy Mother’s Day. Those who see her do the demographic math and assume she’s given birth and lend her some of the reflected glory earned by men and women who are real parents. No one is going to tweet her to remind her of what she did to the people who loved her the most. There will be no protesters outside her place of work imploring her boss to replace her with someone else. People like my mother get away with hurting people because, in part, it’s much easier for all of us to train our flaccid righteous indignation on easy targets. We get social brownie points from our friends for clicking “Like” on a “shared” “article” criticizing a comedian for making jokes. Three seconds of effort earns us a shot of dopamine.
Our problem is simple. We’d rather go after Peg Bundy than those who visit true misery upon us.
Friends, as I pointed out yesterday, many talentless, humorless scolds have decided they need to protect others from words and ideas.
Thankfully, Trevor Noah has been spirited away to Offensive Island, a bit of land in the middle of the Pacific where he can live out his days marooned on a beach, thinking about his free use of free speech. As The Daily Show looks for a new host, I’m wondering who they can select.
Here are some disgusting human beings who are not only unfit for Daily Show hosting duties, but for existing in Western society as a whole. Who else should be shipped directly to Offensive Island, never to return?