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.
Check out Phyllis Beck Katz’s poem, “Choir Boy.” The piece first appeared in the 2014 issue Bloodroot Literary Magazine and is included in Migrations, Ms. Katz’s 2013 Antrim House book. Ms. Katz is also kind enough to offer the poem for free on her web site. The poem can be found here and is accompanied by a picture of her father, the titular choir boy.
Sure, you might want to know Ms. Katz’s thoughts about how poetry can shape the life of an open-minded reader. I wanna know why she did some of the little things in the story. Ms. Katz was kind enough to answer some of my questions about her work:
1) I often employ blank verse in my own poetry, as I love “Marlowe’s mighty line.” I scanned “Choir Boy” with interest. The first two lines are clearly in iambic pentameter. The third line is iambic aside from the missing unstressed syllable in the first iamb. (This pattern is repeated in the poem’s next three lines, as well.)
It would’ve been really easy to start line 3 with “a” and preserve the meter. Ms. Katz, why’d you choose to omit the unstressed syllable in the first iambs of those lines?
PBK: I, too, often write in blank verse, but I am not wedded to a perfect rendering of a pentameter line. In fact, I like to vary the pattern because I think it makes the line more interesting.
2) The first stanza consists of two triplets. (Three times two equals six, so there are six lines.) The second stanza consists of eleven lines that features hints of iambic pentameter, but seems to have less of a formal structure than the first.
How’d you decide to make two stanzas of such different lengths and why do they have such different structures?
PBK: The length of my stanzas is a conscious choice. The first stanza is about my father as a boy. The second about how his increasing dementia gradually destroyed him: both his sweetness and his anger slowly disappeared. The poem is more about his old age than his childhood years.
3) You dedicate the poem to your father. (Which we find very sweet.) Seeing those words, “for my father,” however, might make us think that the poem HAS to be about your Dad, even though it could be about any male figure we love and don’t quite understand.
How come you didn’t leave the identity of the “choir boy” more ambiguous?
PBK: Many poets write specifically about their mothers or fathers, but achieve universality in so doing. For example, in Ellen Bryant Voigt’s most recent book Headwaters, she has a poem entitled “My Mother.” This poem is most emphatically not just about her own mother. Neither is mine just about my father. As for the dedication in my poem “for my father” I wanted the poem to be about him and I wanted my readers to know it was also about so many others with growing dementia. There is no sentimentality here; my father has been dead for twenty-six years.
[EDITOR: As of this writing, Ms. Voigt’s poem can be found on Poetry Daily. You can find out more about Headwaters here.]
4) The word “intruders” seems very significant in the poem. “Intruders” implies a sense of violation by people/objects/entities/feelings that don’t belong where they are.
Why’d you use the word “intruders” where you did? Why not “encroacher,” “usurper,” “invader,” “unwanted visitors,” “unpleasant in-laws,” “telemarketers” or any other word that would mean kinda the same thing? What about “intruders” seemed right to you?
PBK: I think I’ve answered that. My father really did feel threatened, believed that there was someone in his room who would hurt him. We had to cover his mirror so he could not see his own reflection. “Intruder” still seems just the right word to me. I am mindful of Dylan Thomas’s “Do not go gentle into that good night,” of how he wants to equate his father with the wise, good, wild, and grave men who, however frail, will “rage, rage against the dying of the light.”
Thomas’s poem is about his father but it is directed towards all who are “at the close of day.”
From the Antrim House page for Migrations: Phyllis Beck Katz’s poems have appeared in many journals and two anthologies. She is co-author with Charbra Adams Jestin of Ovid: Amores, Metamorphoses—Selections, and co-translator of M. Cecilia Gaposchkin’s Blessed Louis, the Most Glorious of Kings: Texts Relating to the Cult of Saint Louis of France. She received her B.A. in English from Wellesley College, her M.A. in Greek from UCLA, and her PhD in Classics from Columbia University. She has taught English and Classics at the University of Illinois, Chicago Circle, City University of New York, SUNY Purchase, the College of New Rochelle, and Miss Porter’s School. Since 1993 she has taught at Dartmouth College, offering undergraduate classes in the Classics Department and in the Women’s and Gender Studies Program. She has also taught classes in poetry, cultural studies, and gender issues as part of the Master of Arts in Liberal Studies Program at Dartmouth. She and her husband, Arnold, have four children and eight grandchildren.
2014, Antrim House, Bloodroot Literary Magazine, Phyllis Beck Katz, Why'd You Do That?
Title of Work and its Form: “Reading Fast and Slow,” nonfiction
Author: Jessica Love (on Twitter @loveonlanguage)
Date of Work: 2012
Where the Work Can Be Found: The piece made its debut in the Spring 2012 issue of The American Scholar, one of the great magazines that you should be reading. As of this writing, Ms. Love’s piece is available online.
Bonuses: Ms. Love is a blogger for The American Scholar. You can check out her “Psycho Babble” column here. Ms. Love teamed with Abby Walker to write a paper for Language and Speech. If you have strong database searching skills and access, you can find the article here. If you don’t know how to find things in databases, ask your local librarian and he or she will be overjoyed to help you make your way to knowledge. Jenny Cheshire has written a bit of commentary on the paper that may help those of us who wasted our lives by not getting a doctorate in linguistics. (I’m being serious, of course.)
Element of Craft We’re Stealing: Openings
Ms. Love confronts a very important issue in this article: how we read. More importantly, she offers advice as to how we should read. Through the course of the article, she discusses the Slow Reading movement and how the Internet has changed the way we absorb information from what we read. Sure; skimming can give us the basics of an author’s story or a writer’s argument. Reading at a gallop or at a trot, however, runs counter to the simple mechanics of how our brains work. These Internet-friendly methods of “reading” prevent us from engaging a piece on the comprehensive level it may deserve. (I’m proud to say that I remembered Falstaff’s first name; he’s “Sir John,” of course.)
Look how Ms. Love opens her piece. She does something that I…well, I was going to say, “love.” I deeply admire when a nonfiction writer constructs an essay in this manner. A lesser writer may have begin with some blah blah blah about cognition or brain structure or something. Instead, Ms. Love begins her essay with an interesting anecdote that immerses us in her subject: “In 1986, an Italian journalist named Carlo Petrini became so outraged by the sight of a fast-food restaurant near Rome’s Spanish Steps that he ended up spawning a movement.” She goes on to describe the Slow Food movement and how the concept spread to other facets of human endeavor. Other writers may have begun the piece with one of the paragraphs that occurs later in the piece. What does she gain from beginning in this way?
- People love stories. After reading about Mr. Petrini, we are naturally inclined to care about the gentleman’s ideas because we’ve heard a little bit of his story.
- This neurological stuff can be pretty dry. The opening anecdote invites us to overcome our fears. Ms. Love is not going to bore us; she’s just communicating complicated ideas in a simple fashion.
- Ms. Love situates the Slow Reading movement in the current state of our information environment. Today, we can do an Internet search for “what is the theme of the lottery by shirley jackson” and get the information WE THINK our teacher wants. In the past, analyzing a work required much more effort. You had to ask a friend or read Cliffs Notes or…read the story.
- Ms. Love compares reading to eating, uniting these most satisfying of human necessities.
Ms. Love did not originate this structure. Look what happens if I take a look at the most recent issue of The New Yorker:
- Here‘s a review of a new biography of Carl Van Vechten. See how Kelefa Sanneh begins the article in the same way as Ms. Love’s article?
- Here‘s a Sasha Frere-Jones profile of Beck. The same kind of opening.
- Here‘s Rebecca Mead’s profile of Neil deGrasse Tyson. The same kind of opening.
Ms. Love, who happens to be a great friend to creative writers and to cool people in general, offers us a trick we can use to manipulate our readers:
Difficulty slows readers down, and awkward wording is about as difficult as it gets… Once a passage begarnishes itself with odd or obsolete usages and syntactic constructions, we have to work harder to make the text coherent enough for us to move on. Even the most difficult words and constructions get easier with repeated exposure, however. Just as we can, over time, become accustomed to our bartender’s thick Irish brogue, we can adjust to difficult texts by changing our expectations about what we’ll encounter. The first time we read a sentence likeThe boy handed the candy bar drew a picture, it seems odd. But after reading a sentence like The boy driven to school drew a picture, the original isn’t quite as hard to get. Ordinarily, we’d assume that the boy had handed the candy bar to someone else. But because driven clues us in to the sentence’s reduced relative clause (in which the who was is dropped from The boy who was driven), we are able to interpret handed in the correct way. We have, in short, learned how to parse the sentence.
Most of the time, our goal as writers is to produce very clear prose for the reader. What’s the problem with that? As the article points out, readers may become too relaxed and may begin to gallop over your sentences instead of savoring them. You surely understand the concept. How long does it take you to read a Dan Brown novel? Not long; it’s a straightforward adventure made up of fairly straightforward sentences. How long does it take you to read James Joyce? The syntax of Mr. Joyce’s sentences can often be odd, forcing us to actually pay attention to the work.
Some of our scenes and some of our poetic lines should be very, very clear. Most of them, in fact. There are, however, times when it’s a good idea to throw up a “roadblock” or two. Look at suspense writing. I’m always fascinated how writers depict a first-person narrator being sucker punched or struck without warning. The narrative SHOULD be a little “unclear” in these places; the narrator isn’t clear as to what is going on, either.
Made-Up Example 1: I was walking down the street thinking of the dame who had just thrown me out. Some people don’t understand the threat they’re facing; women like her just don’t care. I pinch a nickel in my pocket to buy a Coke when a man sneaks up behind me and hits me with a billy club. I fall down and lose consciousness for a moment.
Made-Up Example 2: I was walking down the street thinking of the dame who had just thrown me out. Some people don’t understand the threat they’re facing; women like her just don’t care. I pinch a nickel in my pocket to buy a Coke.
That’s when the lug who’s been tailing be cracks me in the skull.
It hurts, but only in the second before I pass out.
Made-Up Example 3: I was walking down the street thinking of the dame who had just thrown me out. Some people don’t understand the threat they’re facing; women like her just don’t care. I pinch a nickel in my pocket to buy a Coke–
I hear my skull fracture with the blow. Bread? Why do I smell bread?
Example 1 is very clear, but that may not be appropriate; the poor guy just got clocked in the head. By example 3, I have made the prose harder to understand. Doing so may knock the reader out of a rut that may have been comforting on the rest of the unwritten page, but is inappropriate when something crucial occurs.
What Should We Steal?
- Immerse your reader in a subject that may be complicated or unfamiliar. Sure, you may be starting a massive discussion about astrophysics and all of that, but our complicated universe is best introduced with a story and the assurance that you’re relaxing into the soft and warm grasp of a strong storyteller.
- Craft sentences that are harder to understand when appropriate. Friend, you’re the boss of the page. Slow your reader down if you feel the need or if it will create a helpful effect in your work.
2012, Jessica Love, Ohio State, Openings, The American Scholar
Friends, I love the possibilities granted by the digital world that now surrounds us. I worry, however, that we’re abandoning “old” stuff just because it is old. I had never written with a fountain pen before I picked up one that was cheap but reliable. Writing with a fountain pen was an interesting moment for someone like me; I usually compose longhand. I’ve written at least one (unpublished and terrible) novel with a mechanical pencil on several legal pads. Before I popped a cartridge in the virgin pen for the first time, I wondered how I might properly christen the implement. There are so many great writers out there, but you can’t go wrong with Raymond Carver. So in that spirit, I offer this “fun” “game.” I’ve scribbled the final paragraphs of some Raymond Carver stories onto these old card catalog cards from the library. (Isn’t this a fun way to celebrate the past?) Can you name the stories to which the paragraphs belong?
Notes: Yes, I know the pictures aren’t professional-quality. Readers are more than welcome to pitch in so I can buy a truckload of audio-video equipment. And yes, I know my handwriting leaves something to be desired. It’s not the beauty of the letters…it’s the beauty of the words that matters. Feel free to leave your guesses in the comments! Feel even freer to tell the rest of us what you think we can steal from the stories in question!
PARAGRAPH #2: PARAGRAPH #3: PARAGRAPH #4: PARAGRAPH #5:
Fountain Pen, GWS Coffee Break, Raymond Carver
Title of Work and its Form: “A Voice in the Night,” short story
Author: Steven Millhauser
Date of Work: 2012
Where the Work Can Be Found: The piece made its debut in the December 10, 2012 issue of The New Yorker. As of this writing, the story is available online without a subscription. “A Voice in the Night” was also selected for Best American Short Stories 2013 and is featured in the anthology.
Bonuses: Very cool! Electric Literature has published Mr. Millhauser’s “Cathay” online for your enjoyment. (Presumably with the consent of the author.) Here is an interview Mr. Millhauser gave to Jim Shepard that was published in BOMB. Here is Mr. Milhauser’s Amazon page.
Element of Craft We’re Stealing: Mythological Retellings
This is a story about the fleeting nature of faith. (To me, at least.) It’s crucial to break down the structure. The story makes four trips through this series of perspectives:
I: Samuel. As in Samuel and Eli from the Bible. Each “I” section recounts a little more of the tale.
II: A seven-year-old boy who is growing up in Stratford, Connecticut. He is going through an interesting time in his life; the Sunday school teachers at the Jewish Community Center have told him the story of Samuel and Eli and he wants desperately to hear his own calling.
III: “The Author” is the seven-year-old boy at the age of sixty-eight. He seems to be preoccupied with memories of his youth. His mind and heart are not filled with the stories of the Bible, but with his own. The story ends as “The Author” reflects upon the Muse and the way in which stories can keep us up at night and dominate our lives while giving us something to live for.
Mr. Millhauser engages in an obvious (and perfectly wonderful) form of literary theft. The gentleman appropriated the story of Samuel and Eli from the Old Testament book of Samuel. There is, of course, no problem in retelling a story that has literally been rewritten for thousands of years. In doing so, Mr. Millhauser taps into the feelings the reader has for Judeo-Christian mythology, whatever they may be.
Mr. Millhauser certainly isn’t just stealing from those who conceived and passed down the stories from the Old Testament. The structure of “A Voice in the Night” mimics the relationship that people have with stories. (And mimics even more strongly the relationship religious folks have with their scriptural documents.) Without being too obvious about it, Mr. Millhauser is chronicling “the author’s” lifelong search for truth and his desire to understand what he is “meant” to do and to be.
How can we borrow from Mr. Millhauser’s borrowing of the Bible story? We can pinch a different timeless story. What about the story of the Prodigal Son? (Even though that one always drove me nuts.) Honestly, you can just go right to your copy of Bulfinch’s Mythology, open the book at random and plant your index finger onto a story ripe for adaptation or stealing. And if you don’t have a copy for some reason, you can read the book online.
- What if you blend a contemporary story with the star-crossed love of Pyramus and Thisbe? (Well, Shakespeare already did that, but you can, too.)
- What about crafting a father-son story that is influenced by that of Daedalus and Icarus?
- What could the Elysian Fields be like? (Aside from a great place to play baseball?)
Mr. Millhauser knows that he’s breaking a lot of rules and that his structure could alienate some of his readers. Why doesn’t he lose anyone? Why, because he makes the important parts as obvious as he can. Look at how Mr. Millhauser begins each of the first three sections:
- “The boy Samuel wakes in the dark. Something’s not right. Most commentators agree…” We learn that this section is about Samuel. After we read about “most commentators,” it’s clear that Mr. Millhauser’s narrator is referring to a mythological story of some sort. Even if you don’t know the specific Bible story, you still get the idea.
- “It’s a summer night in Stratford, Connecticut, 1950. The boy, seven years old, lies awake in his bed…” Mr. Millhauser doesn’t mess around. We know he’s jumped around in time and that the main character of the sections labeled “II” will be this boy. We’re not worried about what happened to Samuel; we know we’ll see him again if there’s another “I” section.
- “The Author is sixty-eight years old, in good health, most of his teeth, half his hair, not dead yet, though lately he hasn’t been sleeping well.” Great. It’s clear we’re onto a new protagonist for the “III” sections.
If Mr. Millhauser hadn’t held our hands a little bit, we may have found it difficult to understand the story’s dramatic present. (Such as it is.) When we deviate from the “standard conventions” of storytelling, we risk losing the reader. The more complicated the experiment, the greater the potential for confusion. It’s our responsibility as writers, therefore, to follow Mr. Millhauser’s lead and to provide sizable bread crumbs.
What Should We Steal?
- Make a conscious effort to turn an old story into one that is brand new. Oh, hey, check it out. Here are some more incredible stories just waiting to be stolen.
- Feel free to mess with your reader, so long as you keep the basics clear. The reader should only be disoriented in proper measure.
2012, Best American 2013, Mythological Retellings, Steven Millhauser, The Bible, The New Yorker
Title of Work and its Form: “Buying My Blue Dress,” creative nonfiction
Author: Helen Ruggieri
Date of Work: 2013
Where the Work Can Be Found: The piece made its debut in the Winter 2013 issue of The Citron Review. You can read the work right here.
Bonuses: Here is a poem Ms. Ruggieri published in The Adirondack Review. Here is a brief biography of Ms. Ruggieri. (She really knows her stuff. Folks like me shouldn’t feel bad that we haven’t accomplished as much as she has…we’ll get there.) Why not learn about Ms. Ruggieri’s chapbook at the Mayapple Press web site?
Element of Craft We’re Stealing: Narrative Focus
This first-person piece of creative nonfiction finds Ms. Ruggieri purchasing a blue dress. She considers how the dress came to be; how the frock may have been put together by a Guatemalan woman who is as hard-working as she is poor. While Ms. Ruggieri is in a shop, a “young girl” is caught stealing; the owner of the shop deliberates how to handle the situation. All of this deep thought has added meaning to the dress; Ms. Ruggieri ends the piece with a poetic flourish.
Upon finishing the piece, I was a bit surprised that Ms. Ruggieri left the reader hanging in a way. Whether or not we’ve shoplifted from a dress shop, we’ve all done things for which we hope to be forgiven. The young girl could be in for a lot of hassle if the shop owner calls the police…or she could feel the immense relief that washes over us when we receive mercy from another human being. Ms. Ruggieri doesn’t tell us what happens to the young girl, who becomes the center of an impromptu bit of theater and a part of the history of the blue dress.
Most of the time, leaving the audience hanging can be considered a mistake. Why aren’t we bummed that Ms. Ruggieri doesn’t tell us whether or not the girl catches a larceny charge? I suppose it’s because the omission keeps the focus on the subject of the piece: the dress. While Ms. Ruggieri is the person who is describing the story, the greater focus should remain on the dress and that’s where the focus remains.
Objects have a history and old things may have lived many lives. I’m currently trying to figure out how to get a Parker 51 fountain pen in fresh and working order. Here is a picture of where I am at the moment:
(I know the picture’s crummy; I took it with my inexpensive MP3 player.) I’ve soaked and disassembled the pen, now I’m researching to make sure that I don’t ruin the beautiful object. The pen had a previous owner; if I told this Parker 51’s story, I would focus a little bit less on the people whose lives were shaped by those who held it and a little more on what the pen did. (Who knows? Did it sign a wedding license? Was it used to complete a contract by someone who was buying his or her first home?) Ms. Ruggieri is a participant in the story, but the dress is the star.
We must take a look at the ending of the piece, of course. After four and a half paragraphs of prose, Ms. Ruggieri flexes her strong poetic muscles by finishing the piece in abstract:
Whenever I wear that blue dress, it wavers, the way a flame does in a breeze, and the orange breaks through old window glass –
my reflection wavers,
Ms. Ruggieri switches from prose to poetry and does so in a graceful fashion. How? She signals to us that we’re going to make a switch. What a beautiful metaphor, comparing the flapping of the dress to the flickering of a wind-touched flame. Having tasted some poetry, we don’t mind that she’s broken from prose completely in those last two lines. One of the great blessings of the written word is that you can do ANYTHING. You can send your character through time and space. You can tell the story of a pen or a dress, all with a few keystrokes. A writer’s obligation, however, is to do what he or she can to make sure the reader understands the twists and turns.
What Should We Steal?
- Maintain focus on the protagonist of your story…even if the protagonist isn’t a human. Don’t make me think about The Velveteen Rabbit. Just don’t.
- Prepare your reader for the flights of fancy they find in your work. Want to switch from poetry to prose? No problem. Ease us into the warm bath water; don’t just throw us in.
2013, Blue Dress, Helen Ruggieri, Narrative Focus, The Citron Review
Title of Work and its Form: “Iconography,” short story
Author: Ayşe Papatya Bucak (on Twitter @TheFreeMFA)
Date of Work: 2012
Where the Work Can Be Found: The story made its debut in the Fall 2012 issue of The Iowa Review, one of the best journals in the field. The piece was subsequently awarded a Pushcart Prize and is included the award’s 2014 anthology. (That’s one of the books we should buy every year!)
Bonuses: Here is what Karen Carlson thought of the story. Here are some interesting reviews Ms. Bucak wrote for her blog. Here is a piece of creative nonfiction Ms. Bucak published in Brevity.
Element of Craft We’re Stealing: Universal Narrative
Ms. Bucak offers us a modern-day parable in which the “Starving Girl” makes a stance against the wrongs of the world. As with much of the story, the Starving Girl’s cause is left ambiguous. The story is told by a shadowy narrator who remains somewhat detached from the tale. (This is an appropriate choice; the focus should be on the young woman.) The Starving Girl has gone on a hunger strike. She’s a college student, so her friends, professors and the school administrators try to get her to eat. She refuses. Her parents arrive from Turkey in an attempt to understand what is happening…and to try and get her to eat. She refuses. What is the Starving Girl’s ultimate fate? Ms. Bucak’s narrator remains true to the title; describing a few possible ways in which the story of this human-turned-symbol may have been resolved.
I hadn’t previously come into contact with this story, but Karen Carlson enjoyed this piece a great deal and asked if I might do an analysis of my own. She’s certainly right that the narrator offers a kind of kaleidoscopic effect, but I’m pleased to say that I had some strong thoughts that were delightfully different and complementary. Ms. Bucak makes herself very clear early on, establishing that the story is about an “icon” in the classical sense. The Oxford English Dictionary is the Official Dictionary of Great Writers Steal. (An endorsement I’m happy to give without compensation.) I am lucky enough to access the online edition of the OED through the college library. I’m willing to bet that your local librarian can help you do the same.
The Starving Girl is, quite literally, a “representation of some sacred personage.” Another more recent definition applies; she’s “a person or thing regarded as a representative symbol, esp. of a culture or movement; a person, institution, etc., considered worthy of admiration or respect.”
The narrator makes it very clear that others have or will be inspired and/or motivated by the Starving Girl. It’s also obvious that the factual details of her life and personality have been lost or obfuscated. (Or created.) This happens ALL THE TIME. We often think of George Washington as a flawless hero who wouldn’t allow himself to become King of America and who never, ever told a lie. (Even though eternal honesty is probably a bad choice for a general.) Abraham Lincoln: a put-upon hero who guided the United States through one of the most difficult times in its history. The gentleman known as Tank Man stood his ground in Tienanmen Square as tanks tried to avoid him, making it clear that he wanted his country to change.
These icons: Washington, Lincoln, Tank Man…each of these icons have been turned into symbols. In some way, they have been stripped of their humanity, allowing them to represent a greater, more important principle. Guess what? They were (or are, as one hopes for Tank Man) real human beings. They ate food. They listened to music. They made love.
So Ms. Bucak has presented a protagonist who is more of an icon than a living, breathing human being in the middle of a story that is more like a parable. What does she gain by making these choices? A parable is effective because it’s a story that teaches a universal lesson. Look at some parables from the Christian Bible. It may seem counterintuitive, but dealing with symbols instead of characters can be an effective method of storytelling because doing so subverts our natural desire to identify and sympathize with characters. We certainly feel bad for Starving Girl, but it’s far easier to make her into a type if we don’t know her name and she isn’t too active in the dramatic present. In this way, Starving Girl can represent ANYONE who has a legitimate beef with people who are in power. Starving Girl is depriving herself to bring attention to…anything you want.
…the terrible situation in Libya.
…the simple inhumanity of anti-gay legislation in places such as Russia or Uganda.
…people who leave their dogs outside all day during incredibly cold weather.
The Starving Girl may not be a full and complete citizen of her story, but this dehumanization allows her to be more meaningful to the rest of us.
Regular readers of the site will note that I’m in a constant battle with how I feel about the omission of quotation marks in dialogue. (See my essay about John Lennon and “You’ve Got to Hide Your Love Away.”) Ms. Bucak omits the quotation marks in this piece.
EXCEPT FOR THE ENDING!
Why use all caps? Because we all know that anomalies and aberrations attract attention and often carry some kind of meaning. Here are the two exceptions:
- In the course of describing one of the Starving Girl’s possible fates, the first-person narrator meets her and asks, “What do you want?”
- In the final “alternate ending,” the Starving Girl’s father begs her to eat for his own sake. She says, “okay,” which Ms. Bucak says “saves him.”
Why is this technique effective? If you have kids, they probably call you some variation on “Mommy” or “Daddy” until they reach a certain age. I would imagine that a parent would notice the first time their children call them something else, right? Maybe it’s their first name, maybe the child had a child of their own and “Mom” becomes “Grandma.”
The narrator’s spoken (and quotation-marked) line feels more significant because it’s the first such line we see. The Starving Girl’s dialogue is more memorable because she only has one line and because it’s hypothetical. Ms. Bucak gets a great deal of mileage out of breaking the rules she’s established in the story.
What Should We Steal?
- Employ the power of the parable to tell universal stories. Big Brother may have been a real person at some point, but he’s much more effective in his role as a nameless representation of those who hold power over Winston.
- Deviate from the rules you’ve established when they will create an interesting desired effect. Don’t use quotation marks in dialogue…until doing so will make particularly important lines stand out.
2012, 2014 Pushcart, Ayşe Papatya Bucak, Quotation Marks, The Iowa Review, Universal Narrative
Title of Work and its Form: “The Differences,” poem
Author: Michael Bazzett
Date of Work: 2013
Where the Work Can Be Found: The poem made its debut in Volume 64, Number 2 of Beloit Poetry Journal. (Winter 2013/Spring 2014.) The kind folks at BPJ have made Mr. Bazzett’s poem available as a taste of what you will find in the whole issue. You can read the work here. (Warning: PDF.)
Bonuses: Here is a brief and cute interview that Mr. Bazzett gave to Hunger Mountain. Here is a poem Mr. Bazzett published in Rattle accompanied with an audiofile of a gentleman reading the poem. (I don’t want to assume the voice belongs to Mr. Bazzett…you know what happens when one assumes.) Here is a Hayden’s Ferry Review spotlight that may teach you a little bit more about the author.
Element of Craft We’re Stealing: Meter
Guess what. There are now children who are born with polyhedral eyes. They have trouble smelling certain kinds of cheeses and have coarse hair on their fingers. Why are you still having difficulty in dealing with these children?
Mr. Bazzett’s poem reminds me, in a way, of a Kevin Brockmeier story. Why? Because the poem’s world is just like the one we know…just a little different. How do we know? Look at the poem’s first word:
Mr. Bazzett doesn’t tell us why some babies have been born differently, but the poem makes it clear that it doesn’t matter. In this way, he puts the focus of the piece where it belongs: on the children and how society treats them. Every writer is working in his or her own version of the real world. Their job is to take us there in an efficient manner. In only two lines, Mr. Bazzett sets up the idea that allows him to examine the frailties of the human psyche.
For further reinforcement of this principle, you may also look to The Twilight Zone. (Something we should do all the time anyway.) Mr. Serling and his fellow writers examined the human condition by taking our world and just turning the kaleidoscope a little.
This is a world just like our own…on the day the Kanamits showed up from outer space.
Henry Bemis is a henpecked bookworm who works in a bank…on the day nuclear holocaust comes to be.
These small-time crooks just robbed a curio shop…and got a camera that can see into the future.
So from the first line of the poem, you’re not wondering how DNA changed…you’re wondering why peopel are treating these children differently from others.
Check out the first line as a whole:
Afterward, the most noteworthy change was children
Notice anything about those first five words? Why, yes. They’re in iambic pentameter. (Yes, I know the unstressed foot of the first iamb has been cut.) What does Mr. Bazzett get out of using “Marlowe’s mighty line?” Perhaps some smarty-pants cognitive scientist can explain it better, but an iambic line just FEELS good for some reason. It feels natural in English speech. The reader approaches the poem with a sense of comfort.
I have the complicated pleasure of teaching a lot of folks who haven’t read a poem since they were forced to read “The Raven” in eighth grade. How are these bright people to approach a work like Mr. Bazzett’s and to understand it as a poem instead of a piece of prose in which the author added a bunch of paragraph breaks? If you read it aloud, the iambic part of the line FEELS good and comforts you, inviting you to read on, even though you may not know how the rest of the poem scans. (You’ll also notice that the next six words of the poem are in iambic, too.)
A reader–particularly a beginning poetry reader–is looking for a handhold to figure out what each particular poem is going to be like. Mr. Bazzett gives them that handhold.
I can’t help but point out my favorite line of the poem, the line that made me want to write about “The Differences.”
With all anomalies there is a desire for elimination.
A thought as true as it is lamentable.
What Should We Steal?
- Communicate what is unique about the world of your story in an efficient manner. Readers don’t need to be told that the sky is blue or that stuff, when dropped, will fall to the Earth at 9.8 meters per second. They DO need to know that this is the timeline in which all of the votes from 2000 were counted.
- Ground the reader in the flow of your poem. You just spent hours playing with sounds and arranging each word where you felt it belonged. Your reader needs a handhold before they can take off on that same wild ride.
2013, Anomalies, Beloit Poetry Journal, Meter, Michael Bazzett
Title of Work and its Form: “Chapter Two,” short story
Author: Antonya Nelson
Date of Work: 2012
Where the Work Can Be Found: The short story was first published in the March 26, 2012 issue of The New Yorker. Subscribers can read the story here. The story was also selected for Best American Short Stories 2013 and can be found in the anthology.
Bonuses: Here is a Q&A in which Ms. Nelson discusses her story. Here is an interview Ms. Nelson granted to The Missouri Review. Here is what Karen Carlson thought of the story. Whoa! Here’s a video of Ms. Nelson reading her story!
Element of Craft We’re Stealing: Narrative Structure
Hil is an alcoholic. Is there any better storyteller than an addict who consumes a substance designed to release inhibitions?Hil is tired of her own life, so she enjoys talking about that of her neighbor, Bergeron Love (great name). Bergeron is a kind of Blanche DuBois character, a little bit older and quite sure about what the world should be like. (And how others are falling short of her standards.) Discussing her neighbor also seems to be a way for Hil to distract from her own issues. Bergeron is certainly an interesting character; she’s always calling the police on other people in the neighborhood or running around naked. As you might expect, her son Allistair isn’t very jazzed about the latter. Sadly, Bergeron Love doesn’t survive the story. After we learn of the death, the reader is told more about how Hil lies at A.A. meetings; she leads a dual life. Outside of meetings, she’s a drinker. In the group, she’s been sober for nearly a year. The last few paragraphs center upon how Hil has contextualized the Bergeron Love story and what she thinks may become of Allistair.
Do I love the idea of using the storytelling tendencies of an addict to facilitate a story? Sure. But what I love most about the opening piece is the way Ms. Nelson slid between the meetings (the dramatic present) and the flashbacks to the events she was describing. The technique gave me the feeling that I was reading a prose version of a TV clip show. What’s a clip show? It’s an episode of a TV program in which the dramatic present is broken up with video taken from earlier episodes of the show. Doing a clip show is a great way to save money–you only need to write and shoot a few minutes of narrative–but they can also be boring. Here’s an example of what I’m talking about. The Dick Van Dyke Show is one of the best in television history. In 2004, the living cast reunited to update all of us as to what the characters have been doing since the show ended. Look what happens after all of the characters get together.
“Hey, Alan. Remember that time Laura told everyone you were bald?”
Doodle-oodle-oo…doodle-oodle-oo… We see the footage in which Laura tries to apologize.
“Hey, Rob. Remember that time you broke your leg skiing after insisting to Laura you’d be fine?”
Doodle-oodle-oo…doodle-oodle-oo… We see the footage in which Rob tries to pretend his body isn’t in massive pain.
Now, I’m not saying that Ms. Nelson is relying upon a creative crutch. (Many TV programs that do clip shows are doing just that.) What I am saying is that I love the way Ms. Nelson mimics the structure of a clip show. Check out the beginning of the story. Hill is in the middle of telling a story:
Tired of telling her own story at A.A., Hil was trying to tell the story of her neighbor. It had been a peculiar week. “So she comes to my house a few nights ago, like around nine, bing-bong, drunk as a skunk, as usual, right in the middle of this show my roommate and I are watching.”
Now look what happens in the next paragraph:
“Looks like somebody’s not getting enough attention,” Hil had murmured as she unlocked the door.
Can you spot it? How Ms. Nelson transitioned between the dramatic present and the “clips” in the clip show? Okay, here’s the answer. Ms. Nelson’s narrator employs a different tense. She goes from the past tense to the past perfect.
Past: Hil was trying to tell the story.
Past Perfect: Hil had murmured…
Switching between the A.A. meeting and the events for which Bergeron was present may have been very confusing in the hands of a lesser writer. (Such as myself.) Instead, Ms. Nelson allows her narrator to switch up the tense, efficiently communicating what was happening and when.
Ms. Nelson is indeed playing with time a lot. One of her big responsibilities in the story is to make sure we know where the characters are and when. Look what Ms. Nelson says halfway through the story when she wants to zip around through the space/time continuum:
On that earlier naked night…
Erin McGraw was one of my world-class and extremely generous teachers at Ohio State. I had already understood the principle subconsciously, but she knocked the point home: fiction is great because you can simply type a phrase such as the one I’ve just spotlighted.
Meanwhile, at the ranch…
Having just set her barn on fire, Alexia arrived at the rock climbing facility with a new sense of purpose…
After eating dinner, Bob and Laura got into their spaceship and parked at Mars (Literally) Bars for dessert.
If a scene is getting boring? End it and start another. If you need your character to travel from Portland, Maine to Portland, Oregon? Not a problem. Yes, your choices need to make sense, but all superpowers must be wielded with discretion.
What Should We Steal?
- Employ different tenses to slide between flashbacks and the dramatic present. Telling people that you’re messing around with the dramatic present doesn’t have to be clunky. Remember, on clip shows, the characters will often stare into the camera and say, “WOW. WE HAVEN’T FOUGHT THIS MUCH SINCE THAT TIME WE GOT LOCKED IN THAT WALK-IN COOLER TOGETHER.” Doodle-oodle-oo…doodle-oodle-oo…
- Assert the fiction writer’s control over space and time. Prose writers can easily fast-forward past the boring parts or simply plop your characters where you want them to go.
2012, Antonya Nelson, Best American 2013, Chapter Two, Narrative Structure, The New Yorker, Time Travel
Title of Work and its Form: “Making Cowboys,” short story
Author: Leesa Cross-Smith (on Twitter @LeesaCrossSmith)
Date of Work: 2013
Where the Work Can Be Found: The short story made its October 2013 debut in Little Fiction. You can view the story here.
Bonuses: Ms. Cross-Smith is very excited about her Mojave River Press book Every Kiss a War. Here is a Literary Orphans interview in which Ms. Cross-Smith discusses her book. Here is a story that Ms. Cross-Smith published in Monkeybicycle.
Element of Craft We’re Stealing: Narrative Presence
The story details the beautiful manner in which a family congeals around newfound love. Charlotte and Wyatt were both single parents whose children were born on nearly the same day. She was in an unsatisfying marriage for ten years, he was married to a woman who seems less than pleasant. Now they are together. We see the tail end of their honeymoon. He buys a cowboy hat and she buys a belt buckle. The newlyweds pick up their children and sit down to (I’m guessing) watch a movie while passing around a big bowl of buttery popcorn.
What struck me most about Ms. Cross-Smith’s story was the specific nature of her third-person narrator. Although this narrator is omniscient, it seemed to me that it was much closer to Charlotte than to Wyatt. Further, this particular narrator has a great deal of personality. Instead of merely reporting thoughts and events, it gets extremely involved in the storytelling and shaping our perception of the characters. Take a look at the fourth paragraph:
“I like when you listen to country music. That’s different,” he said, turning to look at himself in the mirror. She put her chin on his shoulder, told him it looked good. Told him he looked like a real cowboy with it on. A right rootin-tootin six-shootin somethin or other straight out of the wild west. She made her case about how it should’ve been illegal for a guy named Wyatt to have gone almost thirty-five years without owning a cowboy hat. It ain’t right she said.
The line between narrator and character is blurred in the story. Ms. Cross-Smith makes sure we don’t think of the narrator as journalistic and objective by slipping the first italicized sentence into the piece. (I’ve bolded what Ms. Cross-Smith italicized; WordPress doesn’t seem to like playing with the italics in a quote.) This line isn’t spoken. It’s emphasis on the part of the narrator that is buffeted by the preceding sentence, in which the author (through the narrator) made a stylistic choice to omit the subject. The italicized sentence that ends the paragraph IS spoken by the character; Ms. Cross-Smith chooses not to use quotation marks for this bit of dialogue. What does all of this mean? The narrator becomes much more of a part of the narrative. While it may be less “reliable” in terms of factual reporting, the viewpoint through which Ms. Cross-Smith is telling the story has a lot more personality. It’s likable and fun and appropriate for this story, a piece whose conflicts are fairly mild. (Wyatt’s ex may be a little unpleasant, but there don’t seem to be any storm clouds on the horizon unless you’re like me: a depressed misanthrope who doesn’t believe that love can last. But we don’t let our personal philosophies replace those of the author when we’re reading fiction.)
The big lesson is to ensure that you choose and characterize the proper narrator to tell the story. This narrator is fun and personable and sometimes informal…what a great way to tell the story of new love in bloom. Let’s say you’re writing a novel about a Bernie Madoff character…the narrator in “Making Cowboys” is probably not the right choice. (In fiction, of course, nothing is wrong as long as it works and everything is possible.)
I loved the way Charlotte thought about Wyatt in the story. I’m guessing that this is how loving spouses view each other: they see whatever flaws exist in their partners, but have have a great deal respect and high regard for the person to whom they’ve pledged their lives. Ms. Cross-Smith happens upon a concern that I think is relatively new. Early in the story, we learn a little bit about what Charlotte liked about Wyatt in the first place. She loved the way he talked. “Hot damn.” She says. “That voice. That voice.” The next sentence results in a little bit of confusion that arises, I think, from the fact that we now live in a digital world. Here’s what the sentence looks like in the beautifully done layout of Little Fiction:
Which letter do you think Ms. Cross-Smith is spotlighting in this sentence? There were a lot of “Is” (eyes) in the previous italicized sentences, so that’s what I thought Ms. Cross-Smith meant. I definitely think a woman can make the “I” sound pretty. (Southern accent FTW. And English accents. And German accents. Pretty much any accent.)
Look what happens when I put that sentence into Word in its original Arial:
Now check it out if I switch up the font:
Uh oh. Ms. Cross-Smith was pointing out that Charlotte likes when Wyatt says his “Ls” (ells). Did this harm my enjoyment of Ms. Cross-Smith’s sweet story? No. And I certainly don’t think it’s a mistake on her part. I bring my momentary confusion as a warning that we need to think about these kinds of issues. What happens to our stories as they make the transition from our word processing program to their forever homes on the (digital or paper) page?
What Should We Steal?
- Decide where your narrator is on the spectrum between real human and robotic reporter. Your narrator is the conduit through which the reader experiences your story. Is it talking to your reader one-on-one or standing before a podium, telling the tale into a microphone?
- Anticipate confusion that may be introduced by the publishing process. We can’t anticipate everything, but these issues may alter the way our works are perceived in slight ways. Think about a two-page poem; how can we know where the editor will cleave the work into two?
ADDENDUM: The very kind folks at Little Fiction changed the version you will see on the web site after reading this essay, so the note that I’m pointing out is no longer current. I leave the analysis intact so other writers and editors (including myself) will consider this kind of very small issue in the future. If we’re lucky enough to have our work selected and presented, what can change as the work gets translated from our brains, to our fingers, to paper, into digital form and then into another digital form. Many thanks to Little Fiction for their generosity and for understanding that I wasn’t being a big jerkface.
2013, Leesa Cross-Smith, Little Fiction, Narrative Presence
Title of Work and its Form: “Towing and Recovery,” short story
Author: Joe Oestreich (on Twitter @HitlessWonder)
Date of Work: 2011
Where the Work Can Be Found: The short story debuted in Issue 32 of storySouth. You can read the piece here.
Bonuses: Here is the author’s Amazon page. Mr. Oestreich was on NPR. He’s living the Weekend Edition dream! Don’t you love seeing writers talk about their work? Here is an interview Mr. Oestreich gave during the 2013 Ohioana Book Festival:
Element of Craft We’re Stealing: Conflict
Geez, what a great story. Mike Dulaney drives a tow truck and spends his days pulling people out of the snow or cleaning up after accidents on the highway. He loves his wife Lisa, his stepdaughter Kimmie and his twins. The problem? Well, poor Mike has a lot of them. A couple years ago, Mike sorta snapped. After towing a vehicle from the scene of a deadly accident, he was weighed down by confusion and grief. Two young men–football players–were killed in the course of doing something dumb. The kind of thing he did when he was young. Mike drove the wrecker onto the high school football field and left it there. His subsequent job search didn’t result in very much…until he was offered a driving job by Phil, who also happens to be Kimmie’s biological father. Mike hates the guy, but needs the money. Another problem: Kimmie is thirteen. She’s starting to make the same mistakes that he made as a teenager; the same kind of mistakes that resulted in Lisa being pregnant at sixteen with Phil the Jerk’s child. Conflict everywhere! (In addition to beautiful writing.)
So, I love this story for a lot of reasons, but I really love how Mr. Oestreich set up the conflicts in the story. There’s a TON of exposition to release. (I was wondering if the story should be a novel.) Mr. Oestreich needs to communicate:
- How Mike and Lisa became a couple and how he feels about Phil using the sixteen-year-old version of his wife.
- The relationship between Mike and Kimmie. He loves her like a daughter, but blood is somehow thicker than…love.
- What Mike did two years ago to lose his job and why.
- The state of Mike’s marriage and whether or not the two are relating to each other in a healthy manner.
That’s not even all of it. As a result of the sixteen tons of necessary exposition, Mr. Oestreich simply didn’t have the option to describe the protagonist’s situation for two paragraphs before sliding into the dramatic present. So what did he do in the first scene? He introduced parallel conflicts that relate to the others:
- Mike is “waist-deep” under the crashed car he’s clearing from the road. (A reference to the Jeep he left in the middle of the football field.)
- Kimmie is nowhere to be found and Mike and Lisa are concerned. (A preparation for the father/stepfather/daughter “love” triangle that also evokes Mike’s resentment of his boss and, to a lesser extent, his wife.)
What is the effect of this technique? It reminds me of what a classical composer does in a symphony. Beethoven, for example, used the first three movements to layer in references to the themes and harmonies that would come to full flower in the Fourth Movement of his ninth symphony. (Why not listen to the whole thing? It will do you good and restore your faith in humanity.)
Would we love that beautiful fourth movement if we hadn’t just heard the themes in different contexts? Sure. The experience is deeper and more fulfilling, however, if we’re eased into the primary conflicts in the symphony or in the story.
For those of you who didn’t have a great music teacher early on, here’s an example from popular music. Look at how “I Want to Hold Your Hand” begins.
The dum-dum-DUUUMMMM, dum-dum-DUUUMMMM prefigures the the “I get high” figure in the song. This guitar growl is the emotional complication that makes the worksomething more than a boring “I love you” ditty. At first, this guitar part is a simple introduction, but…well…it turns out to represent “the feeling” one has after one “holds the hand” of the person he or she loves. (If you don’t know what I mean, ask your parents to tell you.)
Here’s another example. The Cher Lloyd song “Want U Back” introduces parallel conflict representative of the whole.
The song begins with Ms. Lloyd’s “frustrated grunt.” We hear the sound every four bars throughout. What is this sound? Anger? Well, it sounds like she’s angry about the situation as we hear the verse. Halfway through the song, however, we learn that the frustrated grunt has prepared us for an…alternate representation of what the grunt could mean. (Again, ask your parents.)
Mr. Oestreich is also really, really good at choosing details. Mike is already unhappy that he has to spend time with Phil and he’s clearly feeling the psychic weight of knowing that Kimmie is not his child and that a small part of Lisa will always be HIS. It’s perfectly dramatically appropriate that Kimmie has called her “real” dad to pick her up when Mike arrives to retrieve her. It also makes sense that a writer would allow Mike to see the phone and realize that Phil is ALWAYS AROUND. Mr. Oestreich, however, goes a step further and twists the knife by describing the caller ID on the phone.
Kimmie had countless options. She could have called him “Biological Dad.” “Sperm Donor.” “Father in the Eyes of the Law.” Kimmie labeled him “Daddy Phil.” I dunno if you agree, but I think this choice is as mean as it is perfect. “Daddy” suggests the child that Mike fears is disappearing as Kimmie grows. Having already called him “Mike,” the intimacy suggested by the name definitely explains what Mike does to the phone. (You wonder how Mike is classified on Kimmie’s phone…)
Here’s a small thing that is influenced, as always, by the great Lee K. Abbott. Lee emphasizes the importance of making sure you get the small details right in a story. If you make up a street name in a random real city, a reader who knows that municipality very well may be knocked out of the story as he wonders where the character is on the map. Our job as writers, of course, is to keep the emphasis on the drama. Now, I’m not criticizing Mr. Oestreich here, but I had a personal “drop out” moment that isn’t his fault. Early in the story, he mentions that Mike enjoys taking his family to Tiger Stadium to see the best baseball team ever take the field. Well, I just so happen to be a big Detroit Tiger fan.
In fact, here’s a picture that I took just after Todd Jones closed out the game against the Yankees (ew) on the day my grandfather was buried. (Does that seem weird to you? I don’t think so. I would rather have my friends and family enjoying our shared passions and thinking of me with joy instead of being miserable and mopey. I suppose I’ll find out for sure if I can get make any friends or accumulate family before I die.)
And here’s a picture I took of Tiger Stadium. I had the fortune to be able to spend some time with the old girl at Michigan and Trumbull.
Okay, I’ll get to my point. Mike takes the kids to Tiger Stadium, which became the Tigers’ spiritual home (as opposed to physical home) in 2000. Mike’s twins aren’t that old…the characters use cell phones…Kimmie the thirteen-year-old has a cell phone…Gah! During which year does the story take place?
Now, I don’t think that my unease is Mr. Oestreich’s fault. I’m just pointing out how we can unintentionally alienate a reader.
What Should We Steal?
- Ease the reader into complicated narratives by introducing your character in the middle of a situation that impacts the larger conflict that confronts them. The entire Godfather saga is a little bit complicated if you try to explain the whole thing at once. So begin the movie at the wedding that allows you to introduce all of the characters and their problems. Does the Don genuinely care about Bonasera’s problem with his daughter? Maybe not. But seeing Don Vito’s reaction prepares us to understand how much he loves his family and the lengths to which he will go for them.
- Break your characters’ hearts with tiny details. Dig deep to figure out what will hurt your poor protagonist the most, even down to the name under which his stepdaughter has saved bio-Dad’s cell phone number.
2011, Conflict, Joe Oestreich, Ohio State, storySouth