Title of Work and its Form: “My Last Attempt to Explain to You What Happened with the Lion Tamer,” short story
Author: Brendan Mathews
Date of Work: 2013
Where the Work Can Be Found: The story made its debut in the Summer 2009 issue of The Cincinnati Review. The piece was subsequently selected for Best American Short Stories 2010 by Heidi Pitlor and Richard Russo.
Bonus: Here is a writing lesson Mr. Mathews published on the Ploughshares blog. Here is an interview Mr. Mathews gave to Port. Here is what Ann Graham thought of the story.
Element of Craft We’re Stealing: Point of View
Mr. Mathews employs an interesting point of view in this story. The tale is told by a first-person narrator to an interlocutor: a trapeze artist. He addresses her as “you,” and tries to give his side of the story, explaining why things didn’t end up so well for the man who acts as the lion tamer for the circus that also employs both of you. The narrator, a clown, is in love (or at least is infatuated) with the trapeze artist. He begins his explanation at the beginning. He was attracted to her because of her skill under the big top and, yes, her beautiful face and body. Alas, the lion tamer won her affections and the clown responds by turning his routine into a dumb show intended to mock the lion tamer. As is the case with all love stories, there are unanticipated twists and turns, and no one ends up happy. (Sorry…I’m a pessimist at heart.)
First, I’m going to point out that Mr. Mathews borrowed from Hamlet, whether he knew it or not. The narrator’s jealousy leads him to strike back in a manner unique to his situation. He plans to perform a parody of the lion tamer’s underwhelming act using Scottie terriers instead of giant cats. The narrator expects the audience to release great peals of laughter as they mock his romantic rival. Now, it doesn’t work out that way in the story, but Mr. Mathews gets a great deal of mileage out of describing the image. We’ve all resented those who stand in the way of the man or woman we love (or think we love), and wouldn’t it be great to enlist a couple thousand people in your campaign to make the rival feel terrible about themselves?
How did Mr. Mathews borrow from Hamlet? Well, Hamlet makes the same kind of plan. The traveling players follow the prince’s script, acting out the way in which Claudius killed Hamlet, Sr. This dumb show is the confirmation Hamlet needs; when Claudius reacts, Hamlet knows his father’s ghost was right and that he must get going with the whole revenge thing…in two more acts. So what should we steal from Mr. Mathews? (In addition to borrowing from the Bard?) I love that the author creates such a powerful image in the reader’s mind and then subverts it. The powerful visual in the short story drives the plot, just as the dumb show propels the narrative in Hamlet.
The point of view that Mr. Mathews chose makes a big difference in the story. I love that the clown is telling the story to the trapeze artist. Why? Because he loves her. People are (usually) more likely to be honest with someone they love. Further, these are some very raw emotions. He knows that she doesn’t love him back, but still has some hope that she will begin to see something special in him. He doesn’t want her to hate him because of what happened.
The point of view is possibly most powerful just before the climax of the story. If you’re a longtime reader of GWS, you may already know where I’m going with this. There’s a gut-punch moment when the clown makes the mistake of telling the object of his affection how he feels:
“Say something funny,” you said, your eyes like jewels in the lamplight.
“I love you” tumbled out of me, the words pushing their way into the open like clowns from a car.
“That’s not funny,” you said, and your eyes snapped shut like I had slapped you.
And you were right. It wasn’t funny-it was hilarious. Coming from me, it was absolutely ridiculous.
As time crawled from one second to the next, your head ticked from side to side and a slow-motion no, and I could feel the pressure of all the things I’d left unsaid mounting in my head. If I had been a cartoon, steam would have shot from my ears.
The clown is going to describe this moment differently depending on who is listening to him. How would things be different if he were talking to a group of men? Well, he might tell the story in such a manner that he comes off as less emotionally vulnerable. What if he’s telling his possible future children how he felt about the trapeze artist? He might take on a more didactic tone. Alas, the clown is talking to a woman he loves who will never love him back, a woman he unintentionally hurt. Is there any better way to attack this particular story?
What Should We Steal?
- Allow your powerful visuals to drive the narrative. Making your reader chuckle or sigh with a powerful visual concept is great. A far harder and more powerful trick is to make that concept drive the plot, as well.
- Enhance your first person narrator’s honesty (or dishonesty) by unspooling the story to the appropriate interlocutor. I don’t think I’m alone in saying that I’m going to be much more honest when telling the story to a friend than the waitress who asked why I was getting breakfast at three in the morning on Christmas Eve while wearing the Elton John Donald Duck suit.
2009, Best American 2010, Brendan Mathews, My Last Attempt to Explain to You What Happened with the Lion Tamer, Point of View, The Cincinnati Review
Title of Work and its Form: The short films hosted on wafflepwn’s YouTube channel
Date of Work: 2009 - present
Where the Work Can Be Found: The films can be found on the wafflepwn YouTube channel.
Element of Craft We’re Stealing: Structure
It all started with concerned parents who shut off the World of Warcraft account when their son, Stephen, needed to be disciplined. Stephen did not take the punishment with very much grace:
Nor did Stephen appreciate the car his parents gave him for his sixteenth birthday:
And Stephen certainly did not endure the pain of his first tattoo with much grace:
Over the course of two dozen videos, Stephen has demonstrated his lack of impulse control, his adolescent sexual confusion and his inability to understand the effect his behavior has on others. Why are these videos something more than simple digital artifacts of sibling rivalry? The creators (ostensibly Stephen and his brother Jack) have actually constructed effective short films that trade on classic themes.
First, let’s look at the structure. Jack is very good at releasing the exposition the audience needs and he does so in a graceful manner. Here’s an example. Jack begins “Greatest freak out ever 4” by staring into the camera and stating,
Okay, my parents aren’t home and Stephen’s playing my Dad’s guitar, so I’m going to mess with him a little, okay?
This is all the setup we need. What are the compelling points of drama involved in the film?
- Sibling rivalry. Even if you don’t have a brother or sister, you understand that siblings enjoy messing with each other.
- Your parents’ stuff. You didn’t mess with your parents’ stuff, did you? Probably not. And especially not a guitar, something that can be expensive to replace.
- The adolescent interest in playing guitar. This is where garage bands come from. Young people enjoy making music…and playing guitar is a traditional way to facilitate conversations with prospective boyfriends or girlfriends.
So Jack tells Stephen he sucks, knowing that Stephen will scream and yell and eventually do something stupid. Jack and Stephen are big fans of Freytag’s Pyramid, even if they don’t know it. Stephen’s rage gets bigger and bigger until he finally destroys his father’s guitar Pete Townshend-style. There’s even a fitting denouement: Stephen walks away, having demonstrated his manhood and unwillingness to endure teasing from his brother.
In case you’ve forgotten, here is Freytag’s Pyramid:
Freytag would also smile upon “How the Stephen Stole Christmas:”
Jack releases the exposition: he has hidden all of Stephen’s presents on Christmas morning. If you know Stephen, you know this will not end well. There are peaks. Stephen opens the present Jack got him. Stephen realizes there are no presents for him under the tree. There’s TENSION…how will Stephen react? Through the course of seven minutes and thirty-nine seconds, Jack and Stephen fulfill all of the obligations of story, including characterization, a beginning, middle and end, a climax and a resolution. Even though the young gentlemen are making “silly” YouTube videos, they are still telling stories in the time-honored traditions that have worked since the dawn of man.
I am often asked how long a story or a play should be. I often suspect that the person asking the question is hoping for a cut-and-dried answer, that I will tell them, for example, that their ten-page play must be ten pages long. No more and no less. Unfortunately, the real answer is both simpler and more complicated:
A story must be as long as it demands and deserves.
I know. That sounds like a zen koan or something, doesn’t it? There are plenty of beautiful and perfect two-page stories. There are just as many beautiful and perfect 800-page novels. What makes the difference? Some plots are more complicated and require more page space for the author to accomplish his or her desired effect. The wafflepwn plots are very simple:
- “Stephen cleans up the kitchen.”
- “Stephen gets a visit from the police when he breaks my Mom’s TV.”
- “Stephen learns how to swim.”
These are not wildly grand ideas. Les Miserables needed to be incredibly long, but you can tell the story of how Stephen reacts when he sees a cat in less than two minutes. Yes, you can consider all of the wafflepwn videos collectively and end up with a whole with more meaning than its parts. But Jack and Stephen never let a bit go on too long. In this way, they remind me of Holland/Dozier/Holland and Smokey Robinson and all of the other great Motown songwriters. Those writers got your toe tapping, gave you a thrill and then ended the song. No down time. No digressions. Beginning, middle, end and out. Can you honestly tell me there is any down time in a song such as “ABC?”
What Should We Steal?
- Adhere to traditional story structure, even if you’re working in a non-traditional medium. The methods by which stories are told change over time. The nature of the most effective stories do not.
- Make your story as long or as short as it needs to be. I’m not happy about it either, but word count guidelines only apply to what editors want to read. They shouldn’t affect the length of your story in the least. (They just determine where you send your work.)
2009, Greatest Freakout Ever, Motown, NOOOOOOOO!, Stephen, Tosh.0, wafflepwn
Title of Work and its Form: “Someone Ought to Tell Her There’s Nowhere to Go,” short story
Author: Danielle Evans (on Twitter @daniellevalore)
Date of Work: 2009
Where the Work Can Be Found: The short story made its debut in Issue 9 of A Public Space, one of the top literary journals around. It was subsequently selected by Richard Russo and Heidi Pitlor for Best American Short Stories 2010 and can be found in that anthology.
Bonuses: Here is an interview Ms. Evans did with PEN. Here is a profile of the author from the Washington Post. Here is what writer Karen Carlson thought of the story.
Element of Craft We’re Stealing: Juxtaposition
Georgie is a soldier in love with Lanae, a woman he’s known since he was a child. Unfortunately, their romance is star-crossed. As the first line makes clear,
Georgie knew before he left that Lanae would be fucking Kenny by the time he got back to Virginia.
Georgie is indeed back from his service in the Middle East and Lanae is indeed living with Kenny, who is the manager of a KFC. Georgie seems to have a little PTSD and has trouble getting his own life going, so he assumes the role of babysitter for Lanae’s kid, Esther. Caring for Esther also addresses Georgie’s other big internal conflict: the death and pain he saw visited upon children in theater. Georgie takes Esther to one of those little kid boutique stores and invites the kid to enter a contest for tickets to a concert held by Hannah Montana-esque singer. Esther pretends (kinda believes?) that Georgie is her father and wins the contest with her video about how glad she is that her Daddy is home from war. She wins the contest, of course. Then the press discovers the lie; Georgie is labeled a monster by the press and Lanae shuts him out of whatever quasi-family they created.
I really liked this story a great deal. One of the biggest reasons is that Ms. Evans played with an unexpected conflict. The first couple pages describe Georgie’s deepl affection for Lanae, a woman he’s known just about his whole life. I was excited for the inevitable fight (physical or otherwise) between the Army Man and the Chicken Man. Instead, Ms. Evans took the story in a far more interesting direction by focusing on the relationship between Georgie, Esther and the two girls he remembers from Iraq. (Certainly not a romantic love triangle, but a triangle nonetheless.) Men fight over women all the time, but entering a contest for High School Musical tickets under a “fraudulent” pretense is going to get you some big-time attention. A lesser writer (myself, for example), might have spent twenty pages on Georgie’s resentment of Kenny, but Ms. Evans spends that time on a much more interesting relationship between the living and the dead.
Ms. Evans also does a fascinating job of putting Georgie into two similar situations whose differences illuminate the man’s character:
- Iraq: Georgie’s job is to protect civilians, especially little girls. He gives them candy and tries to calm them and inspire hope in them in some way. He acts as a kind of father to these sometimes fatherless children.
- Home: Georgie’s job is to care for Esther, a little girl. He gives her presents and treats and tries to be a positive force in her life. He acts as a kind of father to a young woman who doesn’t have one.
This juxtaposition creates some sad subtext. Georgie always tries to do the right thing and tries to help people, but he ends up failing, no matter what. How will your characters react when you pluck them from their current situation and force them to deal with similar stressors in a different setting?
What Should We Steal?
- Play with the unexpected conflicts between your characters. We’ve all read (and written) stories about two men fighting over a woman. Instead, make this tension latent in favor of a different conflict related to the characters.
- Shuttle your character between similar situations to illuminate his or her character. What will your creations reveal when they face two different situations that have a lot of similar qualities?
2009, A Public Space, Best American 2010, Danielle Evans, Juxtaposition
Title of Work and its Form: “Summer Contours,” poem
Author: Allison Davis
Date of Work: 2009
Where the Work Can Be Found: The poem was published in the December 2009 issue of Prick of the Spindle and can be found here.
Bonuses: The VERY cool poetry analysis blog A Retail Life After the MFA took a look at Ms. Davis’s poem, “Beautiful, The Dead End.” The poem can be found here. Kent State University Press released her chapbook Poppy Seeds.
Element of Craft We’re Stealing: Motifs
Ms. Davis’s poem is told from the perspective of a man immersed in a rural area as summer weighs heavy on the land and its people. The poem leaves a great deal to the interpretation of the reader. It seems to me that the solitude is getting to be a bit much for the man who may be putting his own state of mind onto the crickets, who chirp: “come to me,/ stay, fuck me, fuck off.”
One of the things I like most about the poem is the way Ms. Davis made use of a recurring motif. Language and its elements play an important role in the piece:
- “a wet-ink alphabet”
- the man reads the paper on the patio
- there are “subtitles” in the grass
- shadows “shake like insects across the headlines”
Language and reading are complicated cognitive concepts that kick up different feelings for us all. Whether we read voraciously or not at all, we have a relationship with the printed word and we all understand the underlying concepts. (The alphabet, an older person reading one of those giant paper things with news on them…) By repeatedly evoking the idea of communication and news, Ms. Davis trains the reader to understand that she’s including important messages in the poem’s images. Readers are invited to divine the meaning of headlines-What does this mean for the price of gas? How will people recover from the latest trauma?-and they are invited to figure out why the man is looking at his wife’s angles and what it means that the neckties are handing still. (And why the ties are “blacker than a killer’s shoes.”)
Using a motif in a work such as this also aids in comprehension. The poem is a little bit abstract; it requires a little bit of effort on the part of the reader. (What are the subtitles? Why that one-sentence stanza about the yellow blood? What’s the yellow blood?) The repetition of the language and reading concepts offers the reader a point of entry into the poem.
Ms. Davis also plays with sounds in an interesting manner. Remember-poetry is meant to be spoken and heard! Read that second stanza aloud. Look at the first two lines of that stanza:
at eye-level. A man reads
the paper on the patio. He goes to close the windows
If you didn’t read it aloud, you might not have noticed those four long O sounds in a row. Isn’t this how a long summer day feels? It flows as though it will never end. Interestingly, Ms. Davis uses the word “stops” in the next line, breaking the streak by employing a short O sound.
I’m guessing that most people encounter poetry in written form, but making additional use of the sense of hearing doubles your opportunities to “play” and to pack your work with fun possibilities for the reader.
What Should We Steal?
- Employ a motif to offer your reader a way into more abstract works. Feel free to bring your reader to the summit of a mountain of your creation…just make sure you provide them with a base camp.
- Remember that poetry is an aural medium as well as a visual one. Why not appeal to as many parts of the reader’s brain as possible?
2009, Allison Davis, Motifs, Ohio State, Prick of the Spindle
Title of Work and its Form: Stuffed, graphic novel
Author: Written by Glenn Eichler. Art by Nick Bertozzi (on Twitter @NickBertozzi.)
Date of Work: 2009
Where the Work Can Be Found: The book was published by First Second and can be found at great bookstores everywhere. If you’re in Reno, Nevada, ask the fine people at Sundance Bookstore to get the book for you if they don’t already have it. (You’ll also enjoy their frequent poetry readings and other events.)
Bonuses: Here is an interview Mr. Eichler did in which he discussed Daria. Here is an article in which Mr. Eichler describes how he came up with the idea for Stuffed. Mr. Eichler currently writes for The Colbert Report; watch it on Comedy Central if you have cable.
Here is a very cool video in which Mr. Bertozzi introduces himself, sketches a self-portrait and shows off the comic books he created as a child. Writers will appreciate the video, but it’s a must-watch for cartoonists and artists.
Element of Craft We’re Stealing: Dealing with Controversial Issues
I’m mildly jealous of Mr. Bertozzi because my artistic ability tops out at stick figures. I have tremendous healthy jealousy for Mr. Eichler because he wrote for Beavis & Butthead, co-created Daria and now works on The Colbert Report. In 2009, the two gentlemen collaborated to create Stuffed, a graphic novel about Timothy Johnson, a health care administrator whose father dies, leaving him, among other items, the items in the “museum,” a collection of oddities. The most notable of these items, of course, is a stuffed human being. The “Bloodthirsty Savage,” as his father called it decades earlier, caused a lot of trauma in Timothy’s childhood. Whenever he misbehaved, his father would say that the Savage would “cut him into pieces” to be thrown into a cooking pot. Timothy can’t bear to have this preserved human being thrown away, so he takes it home, determined to figure out the proper way to deal with the man. The matter is very complicated; Timothy’s hippie brother is a fan of trepanation, making it hard to reason with the guy. Even worse, international diplomacy is such that neither Kenya nor Tanzania will repatriate the body. It’s not giving too much away to say that the situation is resolved; Timothy works very closely with Dr. Bright, a curator at the museum he originally hoped might take the body.
It bears mentioning that Mr. Eichler is an admitted literary thief. (The good kind.) In one of the bonus pieces above, Mr. Eichler explains that he got the idea for Stuffed when he
read a story in The New York Times a while ago about a Spanish museum that nixed an African country’s request to return a stuffed human skin to its motherland.
A very sad real-life story can often become a worthwhile fictional story, even one with as much comedy as Stuffed. Yes, we’re talking about a stuffed human being. Is it okay to insert such an object into a comedy? I contend that the dark humor of the piece is strengthened by the VERY HIGH STAKES involved. Both comedy and tragedy require us to CARE about what is going on and to whom. The humor in the book is never really directed at the man who is eventually called the “Warrior.”
While Timothy is scared of the Warrior (thanks, in part, to his father), the whole point of the book is that Timothy and Dr. Bright are jumping through many hoops to try and give the man the dignified burial he deserves. The humor isn’t directed at the dead man. Timothy drives through the streets with a stuffed African man in his back seat; we laugh at onlookers shooting him angry looks. (How are they supposed to know that Timothy is trying to right a wrong?) There is humor in the racial tension in the book. Both Dr. Bright and Timothy are good people, and the hippie brother adds some tension with his somewhat less-than-enlightened views. Mr. Eichler wrenches comedy and drama out of the situation as he talks through big issues. Isn’t this how life works? Different kinds of people actually have contact with each other and come out on the other side with a new understanding.
Let’s face it: if everyone agreed on every big issue, life would be super boring. Mr. Eichler is smart enough to have Dr. Bright’s wife disagree with him slightly. After the hippie brother acts in an unpleasant manner, Dr. Bright goes home to talk with his wife. If Dr. and the Missus agreed wholeheartedly, the scene would be boring. Fortunately, there are meaty issues to discuss. Mrs. Bright points out that the field of anthropology was used to justify racism in the past. Dr. Bright (who has an advanced degree in the subject) defends the field. Mrs. Field points out that her husband changed his name from “Hussein” to “Howard” instead of something more explicitly African. Dr. Bright explains that he didn’t want to be associated with Saddam and that their child is named Jamal. While the arguments over race and colonialism in the book are heated, the characters treat each other like human beings.
Most importantly, these discussions are not boring. There are plenty of works about BIG ISSUES that are super duper boring. (I won’t name any, but I’m thinking of at least one.) Your characters should not be treated like clashing ideologies. Mr. Eichler makes the right choice; each of the characters remains a real person who simply has strong convictions.
I can’t end this essay without pointing out a little something that we can steal from Mr. Bertozzi’s art. I love the section near the end when Dr. Bright makes an impassioned speech about why it is so important to bury the Warrior in Africa. The speech is beautifully written, but it’s clear that Mr. Bertozzi understood this was a crucial moment in the story. He breaks format; instead of planting comic book boxes on the page, he set Dr. Bright on one side of a double-page spread and allowed himself to draw/paint three beautiful images of the African savannah and its starry sky. Mr. Bertozzi understood that this was one of his showcase moments in the piece and allowed himself to demonstrate his skills. The same principle applies to opera singers who know when their big aria is about to begin. To ballplayers who step to the plate one run down in the bottom of the ninth with a runner in scoring position. A writer must understand the parts of his or her work that are most important and give them a little more TLC; those moments allow you to really show off what you can do!
What Should We Steal?
- Equip your comedy with the same high stakes as you give your tragedy. Great comedy, just like great drama, is born of personal pain and must have consequences.
- Ensure that your discussions of BIG ISSUES are also entertaining, either dramatic or comedic. Arguments are had between people, not ideologies.
- Indulge yourself in your showcase moments. Put extra attention and care into the most crucial parts of your work.
2009, Dealing with Controversial Issues, Glenn Eichler, Graphic Novel, Nick Bertozzi
Title of Work and its Form: “My Brother in Christ,” short story
Author: Mary Miller (on Twitter @MaryUMiller)
Date of Work: 2009
Where the Work Can Be Found: The story made its debut with the title “Go Fish” in the online extension of the AWESOME journal Barrelhouse. As of this writing, the story is no longer online while the Barrelhouse folks reorganize their online component. The story was included in Ms. Miller’s very cool short story collection. Big World is available from the kind people at Hobart.
Bonuses: Here is an interview The Rumpus conducted with Ms. Miller. Here is a short story Ms. Miller published on Tin House‘s excellent blog. Here is another short story Ms. Miller placed with Pindeldyboz.
Element of Craft We’re Stealing: Characterization
Dana’s brother is in a bar band and she brings a friend along to see him play. After the performance Dana and her friend follow the party back to a hotel. Jeremy, the charismatic lead singer, is a bit of a jerk, but Dana sees some vulnerability in him and they share a moment of physical and emotional intimacy.
As you can tell from the summary, the story is deceptively simple, but I promise there’s a lot more to it. The third-person omniscient narrator establishes the situation quickly and builds the emotional foundation of the characters with equal speed. One of the many things I love about the story is that Ms. Miller writes about one of the less-examined milieus in human experience. In this case: the time when a regionally popular band is setting up for a gig and when it goes to a no-tell motel to “celebrate.” By passing up the flashier options-writing about the SHOW! or the day when the record executive SIGNS THEM!-Ms. Miller is better able to examine the psychology of some interesting people. They’re behaving as they normally would in their “natural habitat.” The stellar writer and teacher Lee K. Abbott has pointed out on several occasions how few stories take place at work, even though that’s where people spend so much of our time. If you can say nothing else about this fine story, you can say that it may be the first time you met these kinds of characters in this kind of place.
One of the things I love most about the story is how much Ms. Miller TELLS YOU without actually coming out and saying it. Poor Dana is somewhat breaking out of her prolonged adolescence and may be tiring of the life she has lived. After the show,
everyone, except Dana, is drunk or high. Dana used to sleep around and drink until she blacked out, but she’s trying to be better. She’s started going to church on Sundays and in bet at night she repeats my body is a temple until the words lose their meaning…And when she’s horny, she tells herself that men are just her brothers in Christ.
Ms. Miller puts words to Dana’s attempt to change her life. Part of this attempt is her effort to control her…romantic willingness. Half a page later, Ms. Miller reintroduces Jeremy, the lead singer of the band: a man who is often unpleasant and vulgar because people have allowed him to act that way for so long. Dana and Jeremy speak as he watches a porn movie on the television. “You probably don’t want to watch that,” he says.
In her head, she’s repeating Jeremy is my brother in Christ.
See what Ms. Miller did? She prepared us to understand what this means: Dana is aroused. Ms. Miller doesn’t even need to really describe how Dana is feeling because she taught us what that phrase means to the woman. Each character has their own way of seeing the world and expressing how they think; giving them their own language can help you accomplish graceful exposition and characterization.
I have the first edition of Big World, so I’m not sure about the extra story in the second, but “My Brother in Christ” is the only story in the collection that is told by a third person narrator. Unless I’m mistaken, all of the other stories are in the first person. There’s nothing wrong with having natural tendencies that express themselves in our work. Whether or not Ms. Miller knew it, she was trying something a little different. Shouldn’t we all do the same? If you notice that all of your stories are about accountants, maybe you write about a circus clown. If all of your poems are in blank verse, write some limericks.
What Should We Steal?
- Tell stories that are set in worlds that are infrequently used in other stories. It’s fun to see a witch or wizard fighting the forces of evil…but what is it like when they have a fender bender?
- Establish your characters’ own languages. Once we learn about your characters and what they think and how they think it, you don’t need to explain things in a manner that could be considered clunky or obvious.
- Identify your natural tendencies so you can experiment on occasion. Trying something new can be interesting for both reader and writer.
2009, Barrelhouse, Big World, characterization, Hobart, Mary Miller
Title of Work and its Form: “Elements of the Wind,” creative nonfiction
Author: Donna Steiner
Date of Work: 2009
Where the Work Can Be Found: The essay made its world debut in the Fall 2009 issue of Fourth Genre: Explorations in Nonfiction. You can pick up a back issue of the journal or find the essay here thanks to Project Muse.
Bonuses: Here is a gorgeous and brief piece what was published in the now-defunct journal Spilt Milk. This is a piece called “Orbits” that was published by Connotation Press. Ms. Steiner’s collection Elements is available from Sweet Publications! Ms. Steiner teaches in the Oswego State Creative Writing Department. If you’re in the area, consider taking a class with her!
Element of Craft We’re Stealing: Perspective
In this essay, Donna Steiner turns her considerable powers of perception to understanding the true meaning of something we experience every day: the wind. Ms. Steiner begins by dismissing the reductionism of folks who say things like, “There are two kinds of people: those who love cell phones, and those who hate cell phones.” Ms. Steiner loves the wind and is somewhat puzzled when others don’t. She describes some of the known history of our experience with wind, detailing the Beaufort Wind Scale and reminding the reader about the many names people have given the wind. Ms. Steiner sums up her essay by further deconstructing the false dichotomies that can limit thought; very little about the human experience can be summed up by a simple “either, or” statement.
The genre of “Creative Nonfiction” is not exactly new, but the term is fairly recent and the genre’s conventions are still somewhat in flux. Perhaps I am mistaken, but I get the feeling that some folks labor under misconceptions as to what creative nonfiction really represents. Some folks have told me they think that poetry is “depressed people getting out their bad feelings,” and other folks think that creative nonfiction MUST be memoir, that it MUST be a personal story about something that happened in the writer’s life. In this essay, Ms. Steiner uses creative nonfiction to tell a more important story than to simply describe her feelings about wind. Is the essay “personal” in a way? Sure. Ms. Steiner discovers that many folks don’t share her affection for the wind and this realization leads her to think a great deal about what this part of nature means. Ms. Steiner uses her personal experience as a lens that allows her to consider wind in a new way.
We all have thoughts and do things that others might find strange. Maybe you like going for walks at three in the morning. Perhaps you enjoy shoveling snow. These harmless differences result in unique experiences. Someone who hates shoveling may never have the experience of actually hearing the snow fall. Ms. Steiner loves the wind and the effect it has on people and their surroundings. When you acknowledge your own idiosyncrasies, you are closer to being able to use them to create art.
Approximately halfway through the essay, Ms. Steiner finishes her description of the Beaufort scale and continues thus:
Imagine the magnitude of the accomplishment: naming the wind.
Abroholos, barat, barber, bayamo, borasco, boreas, brickfielder, brisote, Chinook, chubasco, churada, coromell, Diablo, elephanta, ghibli, gregale, haboob, leste, levanter, leveche, maestro, mistral , ostria, pali, pampero, papagayo, shamal, sirocco, squamish, suestado, tramontana, vardar, williwaw, zephyr. Worldwide, others have put name to the wind.
There are two kinds of people. Those who savor the names of the wind like tasting rare fruit on the tongue, and those who skipped the italicized words above once they got the gist of the paragraph.
See what she did? The paragraph with all of the italicized non-English words can overwhelm some readers or invite them to move along to the words they recognize. Ms. Steiner makes use of that tendency to make a point. Some folks are unable to enjoy the simplicity of the wind, just as some folks forego the opportunity to enjoy words for the playfulness of their syllables. Ms. Steiner allows the reader to understand his or her own tendencies and also gently nudges them back to the beginning of the list to enjoy the words. You are the writer; understand that you exert a level of control over the reader.
How does Ms. Steiner end the essay? She returns to the beginning. In a way, the essay is not so much about the wind, but about the willingness to be carried along by circumstance. To explore. To acknowledge the loose ends that are inevitable in our experiences. The structure of the essay mimics the structure of our lives. We start out with simplicity and must confront increasing complexity in order to be truly happy.
What Should We Steal?
- Transform your personal experience into a lens that allows you a deeper look into an important phenomenon. Admit it: you’re still a New Kids on the Block fan. How does this allow you to comment on the Justin Bieber phenomenon?
- Understand the tendencies of the reader and exploit them. You know that, for example, some readers will skip over italicized paragraphs. Turn that into a teaching moment.
- Bookend your work by returning to its beginning. The issues you raise at the beginning of the piece have been simmering in the reader’s mind. When you return to the ideas with which you started, you and your reader examine the ideas from a deepened perspective.
2009, Donna Steiner, Fourth Genre, Oswego State, Perspective
Title of Work and its Form: “All Boy,” short story
Author: Lori Ostlund
Date of Work: 2009
Where the Work Can Be Found: The story made its debut in Volume 30, Issue 3 of New England Review. (One of the best journals out there, of course!) Richard Russo subsequently selected the story for inclusion in Best American Short Stories 2010.
Bonuses: Cool! Here’s a video of Ms. Ostlund reading her story. Check out this NPR story about Mr. Russo’s edition of Best American.
Element of Craft We’re Stealing: Crane Shot Conclusions
Harold is an eleven-year-old boy who is very precocious and reminds me of a Wes Anderson character. The young man loves reading and enjoys “odd” experiences, such as watching his babysitter get her toenails trimmed. There’s a lot of tension in Harold’s home. Harold’s mother and father are always fighting and are keeping a lot of information from the boy. He has divined that his parents no longer have sex (as they must have done at least once) and he causes lots of conflict when he uses the word “fag” at the dinner table and wears a very comfortable sleeping garment that happens to be a very feminine kimono. Harold’s life changes forever when his father reveals that he’s leaving the home to move in with a male friend. Harold is left “longing for the dark safety of the closet.” For Harold, the closet is a literal place of comfort and solitude.
“All Boy” has an interesting structure and an inexorable build. Ms. Ostlund chose a third-person narrator who is very close to Harold, allowing the reader to understand the events through a childlike perspective. The story, we eventually learn, takes place in the Autumn of 1976, a very different time than our own. Back then, boys simply didn’t wear kimonos and using the word “fag” in polite conversation isn’t met with disapproval. (Instead, it’s treated as a “terrible accusation.”) Ms. Ostlund establishes very early that the story confronts the issue of sexual secrecy and the tendency to be reluctant when confronting sexual self-identity.
- Harold’s father doesn’t get mad that the babysitter locked Harold in the closet, but he flips out when he learns that the woman likes to go into his sock drawer.
- Harold’s father doesn’t like to be touched and even his eleven-year-old knows that he doesn’t have sex with his wife.
- Harold’s father flips out when his wife makes an innuendo that clearly points to his lack of interest in women.
- Harold’s father makes a point of meeting the librarian who is kind to Harold.
- Harold’s father “believed that men should be muscular,” and spends lots of time in a weight room “groaning” in a room filled with pictures of muscle men.
Even I picked up on the subtext after a while! Harold lives in a world he doesn’t understand, primarily because he’s eleven and doesn’t have friends or anyone else who will explain adult-type things to him. “All Boy” is about the gradual revealing of intimate secrets. If the story had been told from the perspective of Harold’s mother, Ms. Ostlund would not have been able to release secrets very slowly. This point of view can read as though there’s a scrim between writer and reader, but a slight disconnect makes perfect sense in this case.
Ms. Ostlund ends her story in a very popular way that I will now label THE CRANE SHOT. Think of the end of a film. Many times, a movie will end with a crane shot; the camera pulls back on the characters, allowing them to melt back into the rest of the world. I love the 1994 Bridget Fonda film It Can Happen to You. (You might say I’m quite “fonda” the actress…) At the end of the film, the protagonists have solved all of their problems and are celebrating their love by flying above Central Park in a hot air balloon. Ms. Ostlund (and countless other short story writers—including myself) does the same thing in her story, just in a manner that is suitable to prose.
Harold has just been told his father is moving out to live with a male friend. Harold simply wonders who will protect the home. From that moment, Harold fears he and his mother will be at risk. “Crane Shot” endings are often cast in one beautiful sentence, and Ms. Ostlund’s example in “All Boy” is no exception:
The thought of this filled him with terror, and as he stood there in the driveway watching his father leave, Harold found himself longing for the dark safety of the closet: the familiar smells of wet wool and vacuum cleaner dust; the far-off chatter of Mrs. Norman’s television shows; the line of light marking the bottom of the locked door, a line so thin that it made what lay on the other side seem, after all, like nothing.
Striking, right? Ms. Ostlund’s ending contains most of the elements of a “Crane Shot” conclusion:
- A long, poetic sentence
- A switch from the dramatic present to glimpse the future
- Recall of themes and/or images from the story
- An epiphany for the protagonist; an acknowledgement that life has changed forever
What Should We Steal?
- Inhabit the point of view of an oblivious character to regulate the speed at which you release exposition. An eleven-year-old certainly can’t be expected to understand everything that is going on around them. The gradual reveal of truth to such a character mimics the gradual process by which adults learn about each other.
- Conclude your story with a “Crane Shot.” Now that you’ve zoomed in on a few of the people in your creative universe, offer a glimpse into their future while making a larger statement about humanity.
2009, Best American 2010, Crane Shot Conclusions, Lori Ostlund, New England Review
Title of Work and its Form: “The Stinsons,” an episode of the CBS program How I Met Your Mother
Author: Written by Carter Bays and Craig Thomas, directed by Pamela Fryman
Date of Work: Originally broadcast on March 2, 2009
Where the Work Can Be Found: “The Stinsons” can be found in the Season 4 DVD collection of How I Met Your Mother, viewed instantly on Netflix or seen in syndication.
Elements of Craft We’re Stealing: Characterization and Plot
How I Met Your Mother boasts a simple conceit: Ted Mosby is telling his children how he came to…well…meet their mother. The five extremely attractive friends live in New York City, experiencing life and love and drinking at their favorite bar an awful lot. The show appeals to me because the characters are roughly my age, but they are living the most kickinest lives ever and I am not. The most over-the-top character is Barney Stinson (Neil Patrick Harris), an unrepentant womanizer who has one of those hard-to-describe, high-paying corporate jobs. Through seventy-eight episodes, Barney is shown lying to countless women in an attempt (often successful) to have sex with them. Marriage? That’s an eight-letter four-letter word. Barney would rather make a commitment to a suit than a woman.
“The Stinsons” starts off in the bar with a mystery: why is Barney acting so odd lately? Could Barney Stinson have a girlfriend? The gang decides to follow Barney’s cab to catch Barney in the act.
- Reveal one: Barney traveled so far to meet an elderly woman.
- Reveal two: The woman is his mother, not a committed girlfriend.
- Reveal three: A pretty blond woman comes down the stairs…it’s Barney’s wife.
- Reveal four: A little boy enters and jumps on Barney’s back…it’s Barney’s son.
Why is this awesome? Within three minutes of run time, our entire understanding of Barney is changed. Bays and Thomas are messing with the viewer—in a good way—by challenging the base attributes of the character they established. This could be dangerous? Why isn’t it dangerous? Carter and Bays don’t leave us hanging long.
- Reveal five: Barney explains that he is only pretending to be married because his mother’s greatest wish was for her children to have spouses.
- Reveal six: Barney literally auditioned actresses to play his wife and son.
Almost immediately, all is right with the world. Barney is still selfish and commitment-averse. We learn that Barney slept with the mothers of the children he auditioned to play his son. Barney thinks that the evil blonde Cobra Kai guy is the hero of The Karate Kid. Barney is so bad at normal human interaction that he has literally scripted dinner. Barney doesn’t even want his pretend son to have a catchphrase and threatens to recast the kid.
The episode succeeds for the same reason that people love practical jokes. For a brief moment, we believe that the impossible can happen and that the world is not as we thought it was. In the seconds after the prank is sprung, of course, the shock and disorientation are pleasant because we know they are not permanent.
What Should We Steal?:
- Mess with your audience’s expectations! People tune in to see Barney be Barney. Carter and Bays get a lot of humor out of subverting those expectations. Think about Superman II. What would it be like if Superman weren’t super? (The same principle can be found in Hancock. What if Will Smith-as-a-superhero weren’t like Will Smith as a superhero?)
- Go over the top step by step. If you’ll notice, the information that is “revealed” about Barney gets bigger and bigger.
- Stay true to character…with small changes. A chronic womanizer simply cannot become a monogamous angel overnight. While Barney remains a hound dog, the audience learns that he loves his mother: a small alteration of his personality. It is also perfectly natural for Barney to have family problems; they explain the way he treats women and views commitment.
2009, Carter Bays, characterization, Craig Thomas, How I Met Your Mother, Pamela Fryman, plot, sitcom, Television Program