Title of Work and its Form: “Orange,” short story Author: Neil Gaiman (on Twitter @neilhimself) Date of Work: 2010 Where the Work Can Be Found: The piece debuted in the October 2010 issue of Southwest Airlines Spirit Magazine. The piece was subsequently included in The Best American Nonrequired Reading 2011. (“Orange” can be found in a number of other anthologies, too.) Mr. Gaiman is an absolutely charming storyteller; you can watch him read the story on video:
Bonuses: Here is what StoryADay’s Julie Duffy thought of the story. Here’s a beautiful commentary from Mr. Gaiman in which he reminds us what is truly important: libraries. Here is Mr. Gaiman’s official bookstore.
Element of Craft We’re Stealing: Structure
Jemma Glorfindel Petula Ramsey is a sixteen-year-old woman in a bit of a strange situation. Her younger sister Lilias seems to have received a jar of dye. Before long, Jemma discovers that Lilias, a curious teenager, has smeared the liquid on her skin. Then Lilias started to glow a “pulsating orange” and telling people “she was going to be worshipped like a god.” What happens next? Why don’t you read the story and find out?
One of the reasons that Mr. Gaiman is one of the most successful English-language writers in the world is that his work is at once imaginative and accessible. Yes, this story’s main character is a teenager who literally becomes orange, but the piece is not at all “strange” to a reader who is at all open-minded. How does Mr. Gaiman simultaneously ground the reader while taking him or her on an unexpected ride? To me, the biggest reason is the felicitous structure that Mr. Gaiman chose.
The first lines of the story point out that we’re reading a
CONFIDENTIAL POLICE FILE
and the officer points out that Jemma’s testimony is the
(Third subject’s responses to investigator’s written questionnaire).
Mr. Gaiman appropriated the structure of a police interrogation. How does this help him?
First person testimony is very easy for all of us to understand. We hear and create first person narratives every single day.
Police records are, by definition, extremely reliant upon the elucidation of facts and the use of clear prose. The reader is less likely to be confused by any complex or beautiful sentences because these are, by definition, the crisp sentences of a teenager hoping to put facts into the public record.
Exposition is comparatively easy to release in a police report. Mr. Gaiman doesn’ t have to worry about how he’s going to slip his character names into the story in a graceful fashion. Why? That’s the first question Jemma is asked. Instead of trying to figure out an organic way to communicate Jemma’s age, Mr. Gaiman simply makes it the second question and plops in her age and birthday.
The form eliminates a lot of the “connecting tissue” that is present in a “traditional” story. “Orange” is a brisk read and the time Mr. Gaiman saves in simply TELLING you, for example, where Jemma has lived can be devoted to the many clever and charming jokes in the story.
With all of that said, I think we can also learn a lot from the inherent ambiguity in the story. The reader doesn’t receive the questions that Jemma is answering. The effect resembles that of an overheard phone conversation. We’ve all been somewhere when a person answers the phone and we hear what the person is saying, but we don’ t know what’s coming through on the other end of the line. So even though Mr. Gaiman ensures that the Lilias narrative is very clear, he allows us to dream by throwing in a little bit of ambiguity:
Until the day I die.
Do we know exactly what the questions are? No. But because the Lilias narrative is so firm, Mr. Gaiman can indulge himself and his reader in a little daydreaming. I have my own idea as to the questions that Jemma is answering and they mean something to me. You may have a completely different interpretation…and that’s wonderful.
I can’t help but point out that Mr. Gaiman and I have had the same little idea. One of my crummy grad school stories centers upon a woman whose adolescence was made more difficult by her father’s silly devotion to his stupid business idea. The father loses his savings and his wife because of his Hot Salad™ restaurant. Mr. Gaiman is similarly playful in “Orange.” Jemma’s mother “invented the Stuffed Muffin™, and started the Stuffed Muffin chain.” If you watch the videos of Mr. Gaiman reading the story, the ™ gets a delightful laugh. What can we steal from this coincidence? I am willing to bet that this kind of coincidence happens all of the time. Why shouldn’t we feel slightly heartened by the fact that we may have the same kinds of ideas that pop into the heads of world-class writers?
What Should We Steal?
Employ a form that allows you to be both imaginative and accessible. A story about an orange teenager may be a little confusing to some…unless it’s told in a clear and forceful manner.
Contrive your work in such a manner that your reader wonders about the proper things. Don’t make your reader wonder what is going on. Force your reader to wonder what it all means to them.
Take heart when you notice similarities between your work and that of very successful writers. Maybe, just maybe, folks like me are on the right track!
Mr. Gaiman happens to be married to Amanda Palmer, a great musician and artist. We should all see Ms. Palmer’s TED talk. In “The Art of Asking,” she glorifies art and beauty in an unexpected manner and describes the kind of world in which we should all have the pleasure of living. At the very least, we should all try to be the kind of audience that Ms. Palmer describes.
Title of Work and its Form: “CIRCUS CIRCUS,” poem Author: Jason Gray (on Twitter @jasonmgray) Date of Work: 2010 Where the Work Can Be Found: The poem made its debut in As It Ought to Be, a very cool place on the Internet to find meaningful thought and great poetry. The poem can be found here.
Bonuses: Mr. Gray is the co-editor of the journal Unsplendid. Why not take a visit to its online pages? Here is a poem that Mr. Gray originally published in Poetry. Mr. Gray published a book of poems called Photographing Eden.
Element of Craft We’re Stealing: Ambiguity
The poem is a bridge between childhood and adulthood as seen through the prism of the circus. (If you’re a college student who is writing a paper for lit class, be sure to give me credit if you nick the previous sentence.) Mr. Gray describes the flight of the trapeze artists and the lions bounding through flaming hoops under the Big Top, whose shadow paints the surrounding area over the course of the afternoon.
Mr. Gray begins his poem with a word that can be very problematic when used incorrectly: “This.” Words such as these can be a big problem. Why? Because they represent another object, person and idea. Confusing people can be very easy if you overuse words such as: “these,” “they,” “things,” “stuff,” “that” and “there.” Think of it this way. How would you feel if you got home and your significant other asked you
Why did you do that?
Would you know how to reply? Would you be scared? (I would.) Instead, your significant other should be more specific:
What made you eat all of the cream cheese and leave the empty tub in the refrigerator for me to discover this morning when all I wanted was cream cheese on the bagel I toasted?
See, you can work with that. So why aren’t we mad that Mr. Gray begins his poem with that dreaded word? There are a couple reasons.
First of all, “This” could easily refer to the trapeze. Indeed, I’m guessing that was Mr. Gray’s intent. However, this is a poem. The poet’s intent is subordinate to our interpretation of the work. (I’m willing to bet that the gentleman agrees with me.)
Second of all, “This” could refer to the CIRCUS CIRCUS in the title. Why can’t a trapeze be a circus? In this way, the opening sentence is a metaphor. “Life is a cabaret.” “All the world’s a stage.” “The circus is the trapeze a dream might make…”
Third of all, the identity of “This” can be far more open. Who knows? Why can’t the circus really be “life?” A “marriage?” Wouldn’t you agree with me that marriage can be “the trapeze a dream might make?” (At least, that’s what it seems like with marriages on TV; that’s where I get my understanding of matrimonial life.)
We’re not mad at Mr. Gray for opening his page with a slippery word because, in this case, the choice opens up possible interpretations of the work. Such a choice is wonderful in a poem…not so wonderful in a police report.
Here’s another thing I admire about the poem: the shrewd choice of verbs. Let’s isolate a few examples:
“your human failures stacked together”
“freeze the moments”
“you are phase-shifted to some Middle Europe”
“the light betrays“
“klaxon angels that scream at you to wake”
Mr. Gray keeps our attention and crams in additional meaning with his creative use of verbs. Isn’t it fun to think of all of our failures STACKING together? (Geez, I’d have a pretty massive stack in front of me.) Don’t you have a pretty solid mental image of what it would look like to “phase shift” elsewhere in space and time?
The lines would be less powerful with weaker verbs. Compare:
“your human failures put together”
“capture the moments”
“you are moved to some Middle Europe”
“the light is mean“
“klaxon angels that speak loudly at you to wake”
See? The lines are not as compelling. Mr. Gray really knows what he’s doing.
What Should We Steal?
Employ pronouns and words such as “that” and “things” carefully. These words can create ambiguity…sometimes you WANT a slight lack of clarity.
Whip out unexpected verbs. Flypaper your reader to your work by slamming down words they didn’t expect to see.
Title of Work and its Form: “WE’D LOVE YOUR DAUGHTER AS THE NEW FACE OF OUR INFANT CLOTHING LINE,” poem Author: Andrew Brogdon Date of Work: 2010 Where the Work Can Be Found: The poem appears in Issue 10.4 of DIAGRAM, a great online literary journal. Read Mr. Brogdon’s poem here.
Bonus: Mr. Brogdon happens to be a brilliant computer programmer-type guy in addition to being a great poet. As a gift to the writing community, he created Submission Mojo, a free resource that allows you to track where you send your work. Check it out! Here is an article Christopher Higgs wrote about one of Mr. Brogdon’s past ventures, a web site that created poetry out of Internet search results. Here is a poem that Mr. Brogdon published in Pleiades, a great journal.
Element of Craft We’re Stealing: Playfulness
This twenty-one-line poem consists of twenty-one statements from people who are seemingly surrounding a girl who is being made up in preparation for a photo shoot. The make-up artists make comments about the girl’s cuteness, the hairstylist asks the girl to shift her head, the photographer makes adjustments to the lens. Mr. Brogdon’s shrewdest turn comes in the last line:
Face the lights sweetheart look at your mother
A member of the crew (perhaps the photographer) asks the young lady to turn her head in her mother’s direction. Mr. Brogdon hadn’t named the mother before this point; does the mother matter to all of the people who are buzzing around? Does the girl? One could also believe that the last line is spoken by the mother…a woman who is only given voice in the very last line of the poem.
Mr. Brogdon often reminds me of one of my favorite contemporary poets: Denise Duhamel. His stuff is fun and he enjoys referring to popular culture, but he also demonstrates a passion for the music that words can make. After you read the first few lines of “WE’D LOVE YOUR DAUGHTER…,” you discover that each statement is related by the transition between lines. The sentence is not quite over when it cuts, and we never really see the beginning of the subsequent statement.
I was reminded of that old “Miss Suzie” rhyme…thing that little kids do in order to allow themselves to swear without getting in trouble:
The device seems similar, right? What is the effect? Mr. Brogdon creates a breathless atmosphere around the young girl. We read about her in the title and now there are tons of people around her who are telling her that she’s pretty and primping her hair and dolloping makeup on her face.
The best thing about children is that they don’t have the same responsibilities and prejudices that adults have. The world hasn’t yet sucked the joy out of their hearts. Barenaked Ladies made an album for children called Snacktime; one of the songs is based on the classic joke:
Why was Six afraid of Seven? Because Seven ate Nine.
BNL turned the joke into a song and was able to retain the playfulness and joy that is felt the first time a kid hears the joke:
Ladies and gentlemen, we all know that words have power. Martin Luther King, Jr., for example, used soaring oratory to help convince stragglers that we should all treat each other with respect. Some kinds of words have more power than others. Verbs are typically some high-octane words. And why not? They’re all about action! Now, Mr. Brogdon doesn’t begin each line with a verb, but each line DOES begin with a word that has a lot of power. See?
These lines have additional punch because Mr. Brogdon begins them with significant words. Now compare this poem to the work of a far inferior poet. Let’s look at the first words in the lines of one of my poems. I wrote this piece for my favorite Ohio State athletics site, Eleven Warriors.
Isn’t it easy to see which poem has more power and why? If I have any excuse, it’s that my poem is in blank verse, so I had a little less of a choice as to how my lines would begin…but the point stands.
What Should We Steal?
Lift a device used by children. Kids LOVE playing with language; why not put yourself into the same mindset?
Begin your lines with striking words. Even though your readers will think of your poem in terms of sentences on some level, the first words of each line still leave a lasting impression.
Title of Work and its Form: “A Bridge Under Water,” short story Author:Tom Bissell Date of Work: 2010 Where the Work Can Be Found: The story debuted in Issue 71 of Agni, an excellent lit journal. Feel free to order a back issue from those fine folks. You may also access the story through EBSCO; feel free to ask your local librarian how to do so. They love helping people with this kind of stuff.
Bonuses: Here is a New Yorker article about Mr. Bissell’s involvement with video game writing. Here is Karen Carlson’s interesting analysis. (There is indeed a big difference between “liking” a piece and “admiring” it. Here are Ann Graham’s thoughts. Here is the Carol’s Notebook review of the story.
Element of Craft We’re Stealing: Point of View
“He” and “She” are celebrating their recent marriage in Rome. A hearty congratulations to them. He is slightly older than his wife of three days, but may be a little more immature than she. The narrator makes it VERY clear that there is conflict in this union, not the least of which is their religious difference. She wants the child in her belly to be raised Jewish (even though she’s not very faithful) and he is not at all religious. He and she make the Roman rounds, ending up in the city’s biggest synagogue. He isn’t very pleased that the synagogue segregates men and women during services, so he causes a mild scene in protest. She just wants to go with the flow, but he doesn’t allow it; they are escorted out. Hand in hand, this “one story” ends and the characters proceed into the rest of their lives.
This story is particularly notable for its third person narrator. It seemed to me that he or she or it is clearly on the side of the woman. What makes me think so?
In the first paragraph, He is described as a bit of a glutton, “vacuuming up” a plate of pasta, gulping a glass of wine in three swallows and “single-handedly” consuming half a basket of breadsticks. (That last one doesn’t seem so bad. If two people are eating, isn’t it polite for one person to limit himself to half of the table’s supply of breadsticks?)
In the second paragraph, She is described as eating in a very civilized manner and He “put away everything from foie gras to a Wendy’s single with the joyless efficiency of a twelve-year-old.”
In the fourth paragraph, He accidentally clears crumbs from his lips and has shaggy “tinder-dry” brown hair.
So He is immature and has difficulty avoiding gluttony (my favorite of the Seven Deadly Sins). Why does it matter that the narrator seems to be against Him? It’s not a problem, really. I think that the narrator is “sticking up” for Her. There’s a bit of an imbalance of power between the two. He is thirty-four and she twenty-six: two very different ages. She is pregnant and must deal with the impending change in a physical manner that simply escapes Him because of human biology. He’s a lot more outspoken with his disdain for religion; she seems to be working through her own conflicts in a much quieter manner.
When you write in the third person, you must decide how close this voice will be to the characters. Will the narrator have access to everyone’s thoughts or only those of one character? Will the narrator be impartial or take an extremely active role in shaping the reader’s understanding of events? It seemed to me that Bissell (whether consciously or subconsciously) put the narrator in Her corner.
Whether or not you realize it, the white space at the end of your story has meaning. That, after all, is the place where your characters will continue to live their lives. Mr. Bissell has given us a newly wed couple suffering from friction and possible incompatibility as well as a gestating baby. The final sentence of the story is not the end for He and She. So what happens in the future?
Mr. Bissell lays in some clues. Early on, we’re told that She plays Rock, Paper, Scissors a little differently than the rest of us. You can throw Fire, capable of destroying the other three, but you can only throw it once in a lifetime. A page later, He uses his Fire and reminds her, “you’ve still got yours.” Indeed. This is a little bit like Chekhov’s Gun. Her Fire. She’s going to throw it at SOME point in the white space at the end of the story.
With a page to go in the story, Mr. Bissell’s narrator says the following as He and She are being escorted from the synagogue:
At this her husband turned to her in something close to lip-licking panic. Not that he was being forcefully removed from a place of worship-she knew he would tell this story, with certain redactions, for years-but rather at the thought of everything else that had been set in motion here.
So Mr. Bissell isn’t writing a novel here. We don’t know EXACTLY what will happen. But we do know that He will tell this story for a long time and that something has been “set in motion.” What’s the effect of these hints? There’s a lot more weight to the events of “A Bridge Under Water” and the reader brings a lot more to the last sentence of the story.
What Should We Steal?
Empower your narrator to be a character in the story.When you’re gathered around a campfire, the storyteller can’t help but become part of the tale. Why shouldn’t it be the same for the narrator of a short story?
Sprinkle in hints as to what will happen after the story is over. There may be no more typing after the final sentence, but your characters are still walking around and living their lives.
Title of Work and its Form: “ID,” short story Author:Joyce Carol Oates (on Twitter @JoyceCarolOates) Date of Work: 2010 Where the Work Can Be Found: The story made its debut in the March 29, 2010 issue of The New Yorker. The kind folks at that publication have been kind enough to offer the story online for your enjoyment. “ID” was subsequently chosen for Best American 2011 and can be found in that anthology.
Bonuses: Here is what blogger Karen Carlson thought of the story. Here is a cool review and discussion of the story over at Perpetual Folly. Here is a Wall Street Journal article about Ms. Oates and the touching way in which she dealt with losing her husband, one of the thousand natural shocks that flesh is heir to.
Element of Craft We’re Stealing: Perspective
You, kind reader, are witness to one of the worst days of Lisette Mulvey’s life. Thirteen-year-old Lisette had half of a beer before school; these things are easier when you have an absentee father and your mother often takes off for long stretches. The story chronicles a few hours in Lisette’s bad day, but Ms. Oates intertwines flashbacks and exposition with the dramatic present. We learn about Lisette’s crush on a boy and her mother’s poor behavior. Lysette’s mother works in the casinos of Atlantic City and seems to fit in with the seedier part of the AC culture. The officers (one male and one female) show Lisette a body in the morgue; the young woman doesn’t ID the body as her mother. The female officer tells her it’s all right; there are other ways to identify the woman who was found in a drainage ditch. The officers bring her to school, where Lisette tries to fall back into the comfort of her friends.
Ms. Oates is indisputably one of our American literary lionesses and has been at the top of her game for quite some time, with no end in sight. What is one of the million things that I love about her writing, and this story in particular? Ms. Oates produces work that is both of its time and timeless at the same time. In a way, she is like Alfred Hitchcock. No matter that Hitch was working with people from a different generation; he always produced films that felt immediate and spoke to anyone who saw them. Ms. Oates is the same way. You can tell that Ms. Oates has boundless curiosity because she knows how it feels to go to high school in 2010. She understands how a thirteen-year-old girl in 2010 feels about herself and her friends. As I get older and slightly wiser, I realize that I’m losing a little bit of this kind of knowledge. I haven’t gone trick-or-treating in more than twenty years. Could I really remember what it feels like? How to say this…romance has been a stranger for a while. Could I really depict young love with any fidelity? Ms. Oates would have no problem with these situations and emotions because of her deep understanding of humanity.
We’ve all heard that we should “write what we know.” Yes, that is good advice, but if we followed that advice with too much dedication, we would have no science fiction or horror or stories in which the nerdy guy gets the cheerleader. Ms. Oates points out in her author’s note that “ID” was inspired by the untimely death of her husband. A funeral director asked Ms. Oates to identify her husband’s body—she didn’t want to see it again. To my knowledge, Ms. Oates does not have first-hand experience of being a thirteen-year-old young woman tasked with identifying her dead mother. She does, however, KNOW what it is like to face the stark reality that the person you love is dead and to see their body in the morgue. We’re all human, right? It is more important to understand the emotional experiences that you are chronicling than to have first-hand experience on the topic. (Especially if you’re writing fiction, of course.)
When I was in high school, I wrote a lot of “high school” stories; I believe that’s perfectly natural. I certainly see a lot of “dorm stories” when my students turn in their work. (This tendency is perfectly natural, too.) We must remember that we have the license to write about anything we like. What fun would it be if we only write about people who are just like us who live lives just like ours? Boring!
Ms. Oates had a bit of a challenge in the story because she needed to get a lot of exposition into a story that is pretty much in real-time. As I pointed out, the exposition is woven in with the material that is in the dramatic present. Why aren’t these sections a bit of a roadblock? Why don’t they cause the reader’s attention to flag? Ms. Oates builds a ton of suspense into the story.
Why do “they” want to see Lisette’s ID?
“Some older guys had got her high on beer, for a joke.” Will Lisette’s drunkenness get her in trouble or complicate things?
How will J.C. respond to the note that Lisette sent him? Will he break her heart?
Mom doesn’t seem to be a very upstanding citizen. Complications?
Uh oh. Two police officers want to see Lisette.
Will the body turn out to be that of Lisette’s mother?
One reason the story is so very compelling is that the emotional and narrative foundation of the story is sprinkled in with grace and in such a way that Ms. Oates creates mysteries to which we want the answers! These “roadblocks” speed the reader along instead of holding them back.
What Should We Steal?
Devote yourself to observing and trying to understand humanity. One of a writer’s primary duties is to reproduce the human experience on the page with as much fidelity as possible.
Write what you know…within limits. If we followed this advice to the letter, we wouldn’t have any science fiction.
Introduce “mysteries” into your work to make exposition all the more compelling. Your stories should introduce meaningful dilemmas anyway; use them to make your exposition even more of a treat to the reader.
Title of Work and its Form: “Gurov in Manhattan,” short story Author:Ehud Havazelet Date of Work: 2010 Where the Work Can Be Found: The story debuted in Issue 137 of TriQuarterly, one of the top journals on the scene. “Gurov” was subsequently chosen by Geraldine Brooks and Heidi Pitlor for Best American Short Stories 2011 and you can find it in the anthology. The kind people at TriQuarterly have posted the piece for your enjoyment; how nice of them!
Bonuses:Here are blogger Karen Carlson’s thoughts about the story. Here is what Ann Graham thought of it. Here is an interview Mr. Havazelet gave to TriQuarterly in which he discusses this story.
Element of Craft We’re Stealing: Inspiration From the Masters
Sokolov, a fifty-two-year-old lecturer in Russian literature, takes his dog for a walk through the streets of Manhattan. In a way, that’s all this story is about. There is, of course, much more to Mr. Havazelet’s work. Along the way, the third person narrator gives us a deep understanding of Sokolov’s life and recent history. His heartbreaks and hopes and the new understandings that are the result of age and the reflection granted by serious illness. We learn about the dog, Lermontov, a large dog that has far lived longer than expected. Sokolov had a woman who helped him through his illness; she left for a great teaching position. The climax of the story may be when Sokolov locks eyes with a beautiful young waitress. The man understands that he is no longer suitable for women like her. The will never leaves, even as life inevitably changes from offering a wealth of possibilities to only one: cleaning up after your dog.
In his author’s note, Mr. Havazelet informs the reader that “Gurov” was part autobiography and partly borrowed from Anton Chekhov’s story, “The Lady with the Dog.” (You can read Chekhov’s story through the magic of public domain.) There’s so much greatness to be mined in great works of the past! Why not follow Mr. Havazelet’s lead and kinda sorta rewrite a classic work? Could you “rewrite” The Shining? Probably not. The book isn’t very cold and Mr. King, thankfully, is still with us. Look at the way that classic works have served as inspiration for later classic works:
Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard – the story of a wealthy family who lost everything and the struggle to keep them all together.
Arrested Development - the story of a wealthy family who lost everything and the one son who had no choice but to keep them all together.
The Honeymooners – Two lower middle class male friends with get-rich-quick schemes contend with their own misfortune and their loving but doubtful wives.
The Flintstones - Two lower middle class male friends with get-rich-quick schemes contend with their own misfortune and their loving but doubtful wives.
“Pyramus and Thisbe” – a story about young lovers from opposing factions who fall in love and end up dying tragically.
Romeo and Juliet – a story about young lovers from opposing factions who fall in love and end up dying tragically.
Romeo and Juliet – a story about young lovers from opposing factions who fall in love and end up dying tragically.
West Side Story – a story about young lovers from opposing factions who fall in love and end up dying tragically.
Romeo and Juliet – a story about young lovers from opposing factions who fall in love and end up dying tragically.
Titanic – a story about young lovers from opposing factions who fall in love and end up dying tragically.
Maybe you could even consider it a kind of assignment. Do as Shakespeare did; flip through a book of mythology and retell a story that appeals to you.
The story is not a whiz-bang adventure; nor was that likely Mr. Havazelet’s goal. No, “Gurov” has very quiet beats.
INCITING INCIDENT: Gurov takes the dog on a walk.
Then he meets a veterinarian and thinks about life and laments his age.
CLIMAX: Gurov locks eyes with a young waitress on whom Gurov has a little crush. He sees her “youthful misery.” Decades ago, he would have offered up his help and his time, but the encounter forces him to realize that he has nothing to offer her. The world, in a way, has moved on.
I’m definitely not saying that every story must resemble a Michael Bay film. I love that Mr. Havazelet gets such powerful human drama out of moments that are so quiet. An audience requires, above all, something on which to pin their attention. “Gurov” might not be as powerful were it 45,000 words long. Mr. Havazelet wisely keeps the story short so as to keep the focus on Gurov’s internal struggle and to add importance to the otherwise relatively commonplace action.
What Should We Steal?
Appropriate the situation, conflicts or characters of a classic work. Even if you TRIED to steal a Chekhov story too much, the end result will be your own because you’re your own writer. (And none of us are Anton C.!)
Work with personal internal conflict instead of the more obvious external kind. This relatively short short story is powerful because we share time with a complicated man and care deeply about him.
Title of Work and its Form: “Housewifely Arts,” short story Author: Megan Mayhew Bergman (on Twitter @mayhewbergman) Date of Work: 2010 Where the Work Can Be Found: The story was originally published in 2010 by One Story, one of the best journals out there. Their conceit is a lot of fun; you get one story in the mail at a time. The story was subsequently chosen by Heidi Pitlor and Geraldine Brooks for Best American Short Stories 2011. The story also appears in Ms. Bergman’s short story collection, Birds of a Lesser Paradise.
Bonuses:Read the title story from Ms. Bergman’s collection at Narrative Magazine. Here is an interview Ms. Bergman gave to flyway. Here is a talk Ms. Bergman gave that is titled “Fiction as an Agent of Change”:
Element of Craft We’re Stealing: Parallel Narratives
Ms. Bergman’s first-person narrator has problems. She’s a single mother who is missing her own since the woman died. Her son Ike, like all kids, is growing up fast and the narrator laments the kind of man he may become. (The narrator seems not to have the highest opinion of those who possess the ol’ XY.) The only remnant of her mother is Carnie, a parrot who lived with the woman in her final years. In flashbacks, Ms. Bergman depicts Carnie singing Judy Garland and Patsy Cline songs to fill the loneliness of the old woman’s life. The narrator and Ike find the bird in a roadside zoo, but Carnie won’t say a word. After that, mother and son take a detour to visit her childhood home, now moldy and dilapidated. The story ends with a sad flashback: the day the narrator helped her mother move into a home.
Ms. Bergman employs a narrative technique in the story that I want to point out: the parallel narrative. She alternates between flashback scenes that took place between the narrative and her mother and ones in the dramatic present. The two narratives are mirrors that reflect upon each other.
We learn how the narrator and her mother felt about each other and the obstacles that prevented them from reaching understanding.
We learn about the narrator’s need to find some peace with her dead mother and to provide her son with at least the kind of home that she had growing up.
Another element that I found interesting about the story is that Ms. Bergman was NOT building up to the discovery of the bird. I thought this was going to be the interesting, perhaps cathartic end of the tale, but Ms. Bergman introduces Carnie 60% of the way into the story and the scene itself wasn’t very long. The parrot was the BIG THING that the reader was expecting to see. Would the narrator gain some catharsis? Would she hear her mother’s voice?
Instead, the parrot was simply another plot point building up to the material about the contrasting homes. Ms. Bergman did not trick the reader, but it seems that she did understand what was maintaining the reader’s interest. After Carnie’s time in the sun is over, our attention is turned to the story thread involving the homes.
What Should We Steal?
Employ parallel narratives to enhance the significance of two stories. The past affects our understanding of both the dramatic present and past.
Understand what you are setting up for the reader and decide whether you are going to give it to them.You don’t want to do a bait-and-switch, but it’s a good idea to understand the expectations you’ve built so you can subvert them.
Medical History: Born in 2010. Serious Stephen Baldwin infestation. Has been passed around the Evangelical community. As of the time of this appointment, the film can be watched on Netflix Instant. The protagonist of the film is Julie Thompson, a 23-year-old virgin. When her tire goes flat, Mike (a troubled mechanic) stumbles off of his barstool to help her. Mike has some sort of flashback to his evil boss and rapes Julie, who quickly finds out she’s pregnant. Julie goes into labor as Mike goes to jail. Julie starts visiting Mike at the prison, bringing their young son. Yada, yada, yada, Mike’s hard heart is softened by Julie’s goodness and by Jesus. Trailer:
SCRIPT DOCTOR’S INITIAL NOTES:
I’d be violating that whole “don’t bear false witness thing” if I didn’t say that Loving the Bad Man is a sometimes confusing film that has major, major problems. (I think it’s fair to say that those who created the film wouldn’t want me to violate a commandment, right?) What is much more important is that I respond to the film according to some of my own KENmandments.
The First KENmandment: Thou shalt respect the beauty of the artistic impulse.
The men and women responsible for Loving the Bad Man seem to care very deeply about the film. Whether or not the movie is great, they shared a very special experience and worked together to tell a story that mattered to them.
The Second KENmandment: Thou shalt evaluate a work according to its specific goals.
Mr. Engert and his cast and crew seem to want to evangelize their religion and concept of faith to others. I am perfectly willing to believe that Loving the Bad Man successfully touched the hearts of many people.
The Third KENmandment: Thou shalt try not to be a jerk to other artists unless there’s a really good reason to do so.
Mr. Engert has never spit on my car and the film doesn’t endorse any dogmatic positions that may be “problematic.” So why should I lay into the gentleman’s work in an unpleasant manner? We’re all artists and are subject to literary criticism, but it shouldn’t get personal unless there’s a good reason.
First Act Problems
There are some pretty big flaws in the first act of Loving the Bad Man. The characters are extremely simple. Mike the Rapist is bad. His boss is super mean. Julie is good and nice. Mr. Engert does not allow shades of gray into the characterization. Julie is 23 and works in a supermarket. Not that there’s anything wrong with it, but we get no sense of what she intends for the larger scope of her life. She has two good parents…it seems they would probably have worked with her on that before the age of 23. And if not, why not? Mike beats up the mean boss and there are witnesses, but there are no repercussions. Why not?
The turning point of Act One is Julie’s rape. It occurs at the perfect time: 16 minutes in. (In case you didn’t know, “turning point” is a screenwriting term. Look up Syd Field.) Now, including such a sad event in your work can get you a lot of pathos. Any kind of rape story or anything involving harming children certainly makes me Insta-sad. But here’s the problem. We’re only told that poor Julie is raped. I’m certainly not suggesting the filmmakers include a fifty-minute scene of the whole encounter, but the viewer must piece things together from being TOLD, not shown. Here is the worst that we are shown:
Like I said, I don’t need to see a super graphic scene to understand what is happening to Julie. But in a movie whose whole premise depends upon her being impregnated by rape, it seems appropriate to show just a little more. Compare this scene from Loving the Bad Man to the very powerful scene near the beginning of Breaking the Waves in which Emily Watson loses her virginity. It’s just a very tight close-up on the actress’s face. We know exactly what is happening and exactly how the character feels and what the experience means to her.
The next scene depicts the parents finding Julie’s car parked askew on the lawn and Julie is passed out behind some bushes. The filmmakers expect us to believe that a young woman is passed out for several hours in the front yard of a suburban home in full view of the street and no one has said anything? (The Bystander Effect is strong, but not that strong.) Oh, and the father—justifiably furious—drives by the scene of the crime the next day and what was a desolate street with zero traffic is now a bustling thoroughfare.
Immediately after that, Julie has dinner with her family at a picnic table. Her mother emerges from the home, stricken. This happens:
It’s my understanding that it’s wildly illegal for a medical-type-person to disclose this kind of information to a parent, particularly considering the patient is 23. Why did this problem occur? Perhaps because Mr. Engert had to get that information out somehow and a scene in a doctor’s office might have slowed things down; the outside dinner scene also serves to establish the father’s anger at Julie and the kindness of Cole, the “good man” who wants to do mission work and serves as contrast to Mike the Rapist. Oh, and perhaps most importantly, the parents instantly suggest Julie abort the baby and Julie instantly decides not to. Is this the way important decisions are made by real people?
Immediately after this scene, the audience gets this:
…then one minute later, Julie’s having her baby:
That was fast! I love that the birth scene is intercut with the scenes of Mike going to prison (even being examined by the prison doctor), but Mr. Engert is jumping around too much and making us do too much math.
Is the baby premature? I don’t believe the characters say so later.
Did it take three months for a rape victim to determine she is pregnant?
Has the gestation period of human beings changed recently?
As a bachelor in his thirties and a writer, I don’t like doing math and I’m not entirely familiar with all of the ins and outs of human reproduction.
It’s my professional opinion that THIS is where the movie really should begin. This is not a movie about a woman having a baby, so don’t waste half an hour of screen time getting there. It’s intended to be a story about the redemption of an evil man and a triumph of a righteous woman. What exposition was released in Act One that couldn’t be released elsewhere in the story? Not much. As it stands, Mike already has flashbacks of the rape. The father has scenes in Act Two in which he takes his anger out on Julie and the baby. The audience loses nothing if you just lop off those first thirty minutes.
It takes an awful lot of page space and several experiences for Jean Valjean to cast off the anger that is weighing him down. His epiphany is complicated and ongoing. He even needs at least two tune-ups after his incident with Petit Picpus. (Admitting he is Jean Valjean and atoning for casting Fantine away.)
This is not the case in Loving the Bad Man. How do you forgive the man who raped you, took your virginity and impregnated you? Why, you put the baby to sleep, cry a little and then look at the cross on your wall. Then this happens:
After that, you are ready to bring your baby to meet his rapist father and have called “bygones” on what happened. Is forgiveness really that easy? So quick? Even if the viewer can’t imagine bringing the baby to prison to see his father, we want to like Julie and we want to feel for her, but these actions just don’t seem realistic. Epiphanies are not easy.
Unless they begin Act Three, apparently. Do I believe a rapist can feel guilt? Of course. But Mike doesn’t gain catharsis by begging Julie for forgiveness. He doesn’t write a thousand letters of apology to her. His epiphany comes when he reads the Bible passages that Julie marked in the book she gave him. See?
In Les Miserables, atonement was a big struggle for Jean Valjean and resulted in the poor guy repaying everyone possible. When Javert has his own epiphany, he commits suicide out of guilt for what he has done to subvert real justice and because he realizes he has lived in a fantasy world for decades.
The process must be more difficult and uncomfortable for both Julie and Mike. Yes, I understand that Mr. Engert wants to make the Bible and Jesus a big part of it, and that’s fine. But complicated emotions and circumstances require a more complicated depiction. Julie must be more conflicted about meeting with her rapist (instead of appearing excited and joyful to be doing so from the start) and Mike must manifest the weight of his guilt a lot more if we’re really to feel a lot at the end of the film.
A Confusing Title and Some Things Don’t Make Sense
The title Loving the Bad Man implies that Julie loves her rapist, right? I guess I can buy it on a woman-comes-to-forgive-and-moves-on basis. But from the title alone, I thought there was going to be some romance between the two. Is it just me, or would that be a bridge too far? According to the title, who is being told to love and who must be loved? The bad guys in the prison are way worse people than Mike.
At one point, the father has purchased and is installing a car seat. Julie and her mother look on and laugh; he’s bought “the wrong one.” Julie owns a regular sedan; are there child car seats that won’t work in a…you know…a car?
Julie gets kicked out of the house because her father is upset about the “bastard” child. She immediately seems to have found an apartment. Where did she go that night? Do we get enough of the father’s point of view to understand his anger, or is it simply a convenient plot point?
Why does Julie have zero anger or fear or any compunction whatsoever about visiting Mike in the prison? She also instantly assumes Mike will be super jazzed to see her and a baby. I get that Julie is supposed to be a good person, but this doesn’t seem realistic.
I can’t help but point out Stephen Baldwin’s fake tattoos. In case you weren’t aware, “88” is a big thing for white supremacist/neo-Nazi types. The eighth letter in the alphabet is H. “HH” = “Heil Hitler.” (I learned that from the controversy surrounding what’s her name who was with Jesse James.)
I dunno. Change those things a little?
The Unrequited Love Elephant in the Room
Before I retired from pursuing romantic relationships (all my fault, I hasten to point out), I found myself on the unfortunate end of many situations in which my affection was unrequited. Don’t we all have these experiences from time to time? Well, I related strongly to Cole, a too-perfect guy who worked with Julie, ostensibly before she had to quit to have and care for her baby. in the third act, Cole is the manager of the store. After Julie is told at the prison that she can’t visit the man who raped her, she tearfully heads to the store, hoping for Cole to reassure her and show her some kindness.
Poor Julie is breaking down because her family is rebelling against her and life is just getting very, very tough. Cole, of course, is happy to lend her his incredibly absorbent shoulder.
Who’s that on the what now? Julie is lamenting that even her rapist has seemingly turned his back on her. (He’s in the infirmary after being stabbed in the stomach, but the guard wouldn’t tell her that.) I am willing to believe that people are capable of just about anything, but we need to be prepared for this kind of thought.
Here’s my main point, and maybe it’s a personal one. Whether intentionally or not, the film treats Mike the Rapist far more kindly than it does Cole the Grocery Guy.
This is supposed to be a story about Mike’s redemption, but Mr. Engert introduced this thread of the story, too. As one of Mike’s friends points out, families come in all kinds of configurations. Perhaps Cole would adopt the baby and give Julie a four-person family. I kept waiting for Julie to treat Cole with more kindness than Mike, but it never happened. At one point, she mentions that the two are “talking about it” or something, but come on. (And we never see it.) (And the closing title sequence suggests that she and Cole don’t get together.)
If you’re not going to pay off Cole’s narrative, cut him out or eliminate his crush on Julie. I know it’s tough because he facilitates a lot of the redemption stuff with the father, but this is the primary problem of the film. These characters should be real people with real lives that occur off-screen. Instead, it seems that Cole is put into stasis until the story needs him. We shouldn’t ask any big questions in our work that we’re not willing to answer.
The characters in our work should be put ahead of the message we are trying to convey. They are a vehicle toward enhanced understanding. And I don’t want to give away the ending, but let’s just say that reading a letter from a person is not a very satisfying denouement. The final moments of the film should have established the new conditions of everyone’s lives and provided catharsis for the audience.
Title of Work and its Form: The Defense of Thaddeus A. Ledbetter, novel Author: John Gosselink Date of Work: 2010 Where the Work Can Be Found: The book can be found at fine independent bookstores everywhere, including Boise, Idaho’s Rediscovered Books.
Bonuses:Here are some of the humor columns Mr. Gosselink has written for his local paper. Here is a very kind review of the book from A Book and a Hug.
Element of Craft We’re Stealing: Characterization
Thaddeus Ledbetter is a precocious seventh-grader who is as snarky as he is smart. Young Mr. Ledbetter is just trying to help Principal Cooper increase the productivity of students and teachers at his school. How is he repaid? An extended stay in in-school suspension. Does being persecuted keep Thaddeus down? Of course not. Although exiled, the young man compiles a series of documents to demonstrate that he is innocent of any charges that have been unfairly leveled at him.
Yes, this is a “document novel.” Just like the one I’ve written. The Defense contains letters from Thaddeus’s friends and enemies, reports the principal completed to explain his student’s behavior, the minutes from the tenant board in Thaddeus’s building and more. (Yes, he annoys people at home, too.) I love the way the narrative is built in Mr. Gosselink’s book in the same way I love how the narrative develops in my own document novel. Instead of being told what is happening by a narrator, the reader absorbs the documents and puts the story together for him or herself.
Mr. Gosselink’s book is extremely charming. Even though I’m not exactly in the “young adult” demographic, I was taken in by the different voices that Mr. Gosselink employs in each document. I can see that Thaddeus would be quite annoying if I were his teacher, but it’s also clear that the young man is bright and has a great deal of potential. The teachers and the principal acknowledge this in their missives, as well. Mr. Gosselink made a crucial decision in the characterization of the book when he gave Thaddeus a REASON to be so annoying and so dedicated to “helping” others. Thaddeus’s father, an efficiency expert, recently died after a long illness. Why wouldn’t the boy take on some of his father’s attitudes? Why wouldn’t he retreat into the “service” of his pastor (accidentally setting him on fire) and elderly people (accidentally feeding them food that is a choking hazard)?
Good protagonists and antagonists do things for a reason. Think of a bad action movie. You likely don’t really know or care why the bad guy is trying to destroy all of the communications satellites around the planet. The good guy? Maybe their children are in danger. The internal conflicts are likely not very complicated. We love The Defense of Thaddeus A. Ledbetter because it is hilarious and fun, but it means something because it’s really the story of a sad young man and the people who care about him and are trying to shepherd him through a sad time in his life.
What Should We Steal?
Consider writing a work whose story is told through documents instead of by a narrator. Just make sure my document novel gets published first. Okay? =)
Give your audience a justification for why they are the way they are. People don’t do things for no reason and neither should your characters.
Title of Work and its Form:Do Not Interrupt: A Playful Take on the Art of Conversation, creative nonfiction Author:Stephen Kuusisto Date of Work: 2010 Where the Work Can Be Found: The book was published by Sterling Publishing and can be found at fine bookstores everywhere. Barnes & Noble will even sell you a Nook version of the book!
Bonuses: Here is Mr. Kuusisto’s blog. Here is an interview with Mr. Kuusisto. This is Mr. Kuusisto’s Poetry Foundation page; read his poem, “Summer at North Farm!”
Element of Craft We’re Stealing: Self-Understanding
This is a slim book of essays in which Mr. Kuusisto considers the most felicitous ways in which people can converse with each other. Through the course of seven short essays, the book references a wide range of thinkers from the past and the present day. Mr. Kuusisto, a gentleman who works in a number of genres, also brings in his own experiences with conversations in which he has participated and some he has overheard. The book concludes with nominations for the inaugural class of the Conversationalist Hall of Fame. (Where is the most appropriate place for such a building?)
I think that the most important choice Mr. Kuusisto makes in the book is to truly interact with the great thinkers he references throughout the volume. The author does not treat Plato and Samuel Johnson as though they are busts on a tall pedestal, but as peers. When we were in high school, it probably didn’t occur to us to engage in a meaningful discussion with the authors we read. And such a discussion is, in some ways, impossible. For example, I could probably have interesting conversations with some of the Justices who sit on the Supreme Court. On the other hand, the Justices know so much more than I do about the Constitution and law that I would have trouble keeping up. Mr. Kuusisto, of course, is a very smart man who has no problem entering into a philosophical fray. The primary point is that he adheres to his own philosophy. Toward the beginning of the book, he points out the “principle of simultaneous elevation.” A great conversation requires all participants to be equals in some way.
Fun personal note: Isn’t it strange how it always seems that references to things come in big bunches? I don’t think I had thought about the Symposium for a decade until I read Do Not Interrupt. A few days later, one of my students showed me an antique copy of the book he had purchased at the library book sale and I was able to more convincingly tell him why he should read the work.
Mr. Kuusisto spends a great deal of the book discussing Plato’s Symposium. (Why not check the book out right here. Hey, politicians: public domain is a beautiful thing!) Plato’s work is a series of speeches between friends in which they discuss the nature of love. I love the way Mr. Kuusisto provides play-by-play for the Symposium. It has been fascinating to watch the way college students confront philosophical works. I remember that I was in their shoes at one point; philosophical texts can be as hard to read as they are intellectually fulfilling! Mr. Kuusisto elevates the reader to his level by breaking the Symposium into bite-sized pieces. He offers excerpts from the work, then a little bit of summary and then his own analysis. Not only does Mr. Kuusisto expand the possible audience for his work, but he also strengthens his relationship with the reader, turning the book into more of a real conversation.
Mr. Kuusisto is a great creative nonfiction writer, so I’m not surprised that he included some interesting personal stories that relate to his themes. At one point, Mr. Kuusisto describes a time during his childhood when a Bible salesman called upon his mother. Now, Mr. Kuusisto’s mother knew a lot more about the Bible than the salesman did, but wasn’t a jerk as she outdid the salesman in conversation. The anecdote demonstrates one of Mr. Kuusisto’s points: “it’s possible to confound your fellow conversant and still remain agreeable.” How did Mr. Kuusisto remember a dialogue that happened decades ago? He’s an introspective gentleman who truly wants to understand himself and why he does what he does and what really happens around him.
What Should We Steal?
Interact with the all-time greats in your field. Great hitters such as Miguel Cabrera are better understood in the light of folks such as Ty Cobb. (Who, admittedly, probably wouldn’t have been very kind to Miggy.) Statesmen of the future will be best understood in the context of those who came before. You spent decades developing your understanding of literature and of life…make use of that knowledge!
Divide philosophical works into bite-sized portions. Some readers require a bit of hand-holding to keep up with the conversation, and it’s not always a bad thing to offer them the help.
Scrutinize yourself as much as you do others.The goal is not just to “think about yourself,” the goal is to understand yourself.