Tag: 2013 Pushcart

What Can We Steal From James Richardson’s “Vectors 3.1: Aphorisms and Ten Second Essays”?


Title of Work and its Form: “Vectors 3.1: Aphorisms and Ten Second Essays,” poem
Author: James Richardson
Date of Work: 2011
Where the Work Can Be Found: The piece made its premiere in the Spring 2011 issue of Hotel Amerika.  After being awarded a Pushcart Prize, the piece was included in the award’s 2013 anthology.

Bonuses: Here is a pretty comprehensive introduction to Mr. Richardson’s work over at Writing Without Words.  Here is a poem by Mr. Richardson that was included in Garrison Keillor’s The Writer’s Almanac.  

Element of Craft We’re Stealing: Classic Forms

This work is a little difficult to categorize.  (Poem or work of nonfiction?)  Through the course of forty-two aphoristic statements, Mr. Richardson offers interesting and personal advice for living and productive thought.  These statements come from nature and modern life and seemingly whatever the accomplished author wished to communicate.  Appropriately, some of the statements seem somewhat redundant; advice often seems this way.


Even words are beyond words

Mr. Richardson releases the statements in firehose fashion, allowing the reader to wallow in the complicated thoughts.  What is the effect?  I think the unrelenting sparseness forces the reader to select which aphorisms he or she appreciates most.  After all, our parents and other authority figures tell us a million things; how many concise statements really stick with us?

One thing that I’ve learned from teaching is that some folks are unwilling to admit that they don’t know exactly what a word means.  Under most circumstances, this isn’t a big deal.  (Um…if you’re a lawyer, you should really know what a “deposition” is and so on.)  We don’t go to dictionary.com for definitions.  We go to word nerds.  This is what Mr. Richardson means by “aphorism:”

Any principle or precept expressed in few words; a short pithy sentence containing a truth of general import; a maxim.

The aphorism is a classic form; people have been sharing pithy and concise advice for thousands of years.  Why bother continuing to compose such works?  Well, for one thing, we all want to read Mr. Richardson’s spin on the form.  Further, Mr. Richardson is a contemporary writer who inherently has very different experiences from those who lived hundreds or thousands of years ago.  Those who composed the aphorisms in the Christian Bible lived long before the invention of audio recording equipment.  (Obviously.)

Check out aphorism #17:

You try to take it back, but the tape in reverse is unintelligible.

The development of new technologies allows for new metaphors to inhabit classic forms.  If a work of scripture were written today, what would that look like?  What about an epic poem?  A Socratic dialogue?  Would the last form be done in the form of text messaging?

Aphorisms, as Mr. Richardson demonstrates, are very much a form of poetry.  Mr. Richardson only gives himself several words to communicate a big idea.  Isn’t this the work of poetry?  To address huge concepts in as few words as possible?  (You know…the “right” words?)  Isn’t this a principle we can apply to any piece of writing?  A memo, a letter to the gas company, the climax of a short story?  Even though it’s more incumbent upon poets to be concise, writers in all forms can and should borrow this poetic technique.

What Should We Steal?

  • Tackle a classic form with a contemporary mindset.  Shakespeare would have used cell phones in his plays if he were still alive and writing.  (So would Seinfeld, for that matter.)  How might recent developments shape a classic form?
  • Borrow the toolbox of the poet, no matter the form you’re using.  If you’re listening to “Tomorrow Never Knows,” okay, fine; the “dream” is the point.  In a narrative, the dream must simply be another facet of the world and characters you create.

What Can We Steal From Sommer Browning’s “It Isn’t Dead, Just Different”?


Title of Work and its Form: “It Isn’t Dead, Just Different,” poem
Author: Sommer Browning
Date of Work: 2011
Where the Work Can Be Found:  The poem was published by Spork Press and also appears in Either Way I’m Celebrating, her 2011 book.  You can read the work right here!  Why not do so?  The poem was also awarded a Pushcart Prize and is included in the 2013 anthology.

Bonuses:  Cool.  Here are some additional poems by Ms. Browning that appeared in Everyday Genius.  The Academy of American Poets has been nice enough to publish her poem, “The Whistler.” 

Element of Craft We’re Stealing: Patterns

Ms. Browning’s work is a punchy little piece of narrative poetry.  The narrator and her mother enter a rest stop and have some fried chicken immediately after nearly getting into a terrible accident.  Mother and daughter “stopped dead in front of a car on fire./ Careening across four lines of Turnpike.  Backwards.”  A man wearing a hat that says “Flirt” nods at them as they enter the rest stop and during dinner, the women digest the experiencing, realizing that “You’re fucked even if you aren’t fucked.”  Then the ladies resume their trip.

We all love patterns, don’t we?  They make life predictable and eliminate a lot of the stress from our day-to-day confrontations with the world.  Interesting things happen when a pattern is broken or when we notice something “different.”  Not only is our attention captured, but we imbue the attention breaker with more importance.  Look at Ms. Browning’s poem.  All of the stanzas are three lines long…except for the second and fifth.  Why?

Well, it’s easier for me to explain the fifth stanza than the second.  The former is a punchy sentence that reinforces the danger the narrator and her mother just confronted.  Even if the driver of the fiery car manages to right the car’s direction, the woman inside is still in big trouble.  (How did the narrator know the driver was a woman?)  Ms. Browning made a great choice in allowing this sentence to stand alone.  The fifth stanza reinforces the somewhat depressing theme of the poem and allows the reader to pause after considering the potent image of an out-of-control car on fire.

The second stanza consists of only two lines, it seems, because it describes another pattern that is broken.  Generally, the kind of man who wears a “Flirt” hat winks or lets loose catcalls when the narrator and her mother walk by.  This man, in spite of the suggestive hat, does not.  The day is unusual for another reason.

Ms. Browning also made a very good choice in genre.  She could easily have written a short story about two women who share a frightening close call.  Instead, Ms. Browning seems to have wanted to concentrate on the meaning of the experience.  Poems are better suited to short and sweet expressions about the meaning of life.  Short stories are better tools to communicate what happens between characters.  Can you combine elements of multiple genres?  Of course.  It’s all about the proportion you use.  A hot fudge sundae sounds great, doesn’t it?  Not if you add a gallon of hot fudge to a thimbleful of ice cream.

What Should We Steal?

  • Break up patterns to attract attention and to put more meaning into an important facet of your work.   Single-line stanzas mean more when they’re surrounded by three-line stanzas.  A goodbye kiss means more after months of goodnight hugs.
  • Cast your work in poetry when you’re more interested in theme than story.  Each form of writing offers equal opportunity for expression, but emphasizes different elements in different proportions.

What Can We Steal From Diane Seuss’s “Either everything is sexual, or nothing is. Take this flock of poppies”?


Title of Work and its Form:  “Either everything is sexual, or nothing is. Take this flock of poppies,” poem
Author: Diane Seuss (on Twitter: @dlseuss)
Date of Work: 2011
Where the Work Can Be Found:  The poem was originally published in the Fall 2011 issue of Blackbird, a very good journal.  The poem was subsequently awarded a Pushcart Prize and was included in the award’s 2013 anthology.

Bonuses: Ms. Seuss wrote this poem that was published in Poetry Magazine. Cool; here is a profile of Ms. Seuss that appeared in the Kalamazoo Gazette.

Element of Craft We’re Stealing: Guiding Your Reader

Ms. Seuss sets up the central subject of the poem very quickly: “Everything is sexual or nothing is.”  Through the course of the poem, she challenges the reader with a series of dilemmas around the theme.  Either the world is a passionate place drenched in sex and sweat, or it’s the kind of sterile, drab place that you see in monochrome duck-and-cover films.  It seems to me that Ms. Seuss leaves little room for real discussion; the world is indeed a place filled with primal and instinctive joy…so long as you choose to accept this truth.

I loved this poem more by the second after I clicked my gel pen to the ready.  The structure is quite clever and felicitous.  The poem is a series of rhetorical binaries that start out somewhat simple.  After all, logical statements are fairly easy to decode.  Either something is or it isn’t.  Once Ms. Seuss makes her structure clear, she employs much longer sentences with increasingly extreme language and more outlandish metaphors.  It’s very easy to imagine that flowers are sexual.  It takes a little more imagination to imagine cunnilingus as a “ocean salting every alleyway.”  If Ms. Seuss hadn’t freed up some of our brain space by making her structure clear, we may have a more difficult time keeping up with her.

It’s not just the structure that helps the reader understand these increasingly creative and powerful comparisons.  She begins with more concrete examples before she lays down the gauntlet and unleashes the ideas we might otherwise have trouble with.  Here’s a metaphor: Ms. Seuss’s poem is the ladder on the side of a skateboard ramp.  In order for the reader to reach impressive heights and to do impressive mental tricks, he or she must first have a satisfactory way to ascend the ramp.

Remember science class?  You learned about potential and kinetic energy.  A piano suspended in the air possesses a lot of potential energy.  This energy is made kinetic when the piano hits the ground and shatters.  The same concept applies to creative writing.  Look at Ms. Seuss’s final metaphor: the “book of wet matches.”  Those matches have potential energy; they can set a campfire or burn down a house.  The fact that they are wet means that the potential is doused.  What a wonderful way to depict sexual confusion or the sublimation of passion!

What Should We Steal?

  • Train your reader to understand the leaps you are taking.  Once your reader knows, for example, that your poem is a series of binaries, you can experiment with language and be as playful as you like with metaphor.
  • Employ the concrete before you build your way to the abstract.  Imagination is grounded in an understanding of the world you create.  Once the reader knows what your special world is like, you can start altering its gravity.
  • Consider potential and kinetic energy.  Your work should offer a lot of possibilities and capitalize on at least some of them.

What Can We Steal From Jaquira Diaz’s “Section 8”?


Title of Work and its Form: “Section 8,” short story
Author: Jaquira Diaz (On Twitter: @jaquiradiaz)
Date of Work: 2011
Where the Work Can Be Found: The short short story first appeared in the Winter 2011 issue of The Southern Review, a highly prestigious journal that is also a lot of fun.  “Section 8” was subsequently nominated for an won a Pushcart; the story can be found in the 2013 Pushcart anthology.

Element of Craft We’re Stealing: Narrative Restraint

Nena is a young woman who has some problems.  She was sent to juvie for stealing beer and doesn’t exactly have the most attentive parents.  Nena is also coming to grips with her sexuality; she has feelings she doesn’t quite understand for her “homegirl” Boogie.  Nena is also concerned about a strangler who has been targeting “professional, openly gay men.”  (Folks who don’t understand the importance of proper grammar should take note of the extreme importance of that comma!)  Unfortunately, others at Nena’s school believe that Boogie is a lesbian and take the time to spraypaint epithets on her locker.  Nena does nothing.  In the climax of the story, young men spray Boogie with bleach.  This time, Nena confronts them and the assault ends.  The relationship between Nena and Boogie is irrevocably changed.

Ms. Diaz puts a lot of balls in the air.  There’s a killer on the loose, a young woman is learning about her sexuality, there is crazy bullying in her school…all kinds of great story threads are tied together in the story.  As a guy who is pretty focused on the structure of stories, I would ordinarily want to talk about what a writer can steal from the way Ms. Diaz organized her story.  (Each section of the story contributes to the overall narrative, but Ms. Diaz does deal with the dramatic present in an interesting way.)

Instead, I think Ms. Diaz gives us a lot to steal in terms of narrative restraint.  Nena is an outspoken character who doesn’t allow others to push her around.  In narrating her story, however, Nena holds a lot back while still providing the reader with the clues we need to read between the lines.  Halfway through the story, after describing a sweet scene she shared with Boogie, Nena offers a flashback:

The first time had been in juvie.  It was Ethel, a girl from an Opa-locka crew.

Nena is confused about her desires and possibly ashamed and scared of what they mean about her.  Ms. Diaz allows Nena to make her confession (she committed lesbian acts) without making that confession complete.  Yes, this kind of tactic puts a lot of distance between reader and narrative.  Sometimes, that can be a bummer.  In this case, however, it feels perfectly appropriate when you consider the character and her psychology and social situation.  Nena never explicitly describes why the Strangler means so much to her, allowing the reader to come to his or her own conclusion.

And look at how Ms. Diaz has Nena handle the climax of the story.  When the jerks are painting slurs on Boogie’s locker, Nena thinks:

I thought I should hug her, say, “Fuck those assholes.  They don’t even know you.”

But I didn’t.  I didn’t say one word.  Just turned and walked away.

Nena is clearly having complicated thoughts about the incident, but we are not allowed access to them.  The information we DO get is enough for us to understand how the event makes Nena feel.

And look at the calm narration during the climactic fight:

I lunged at him.  Pushed him back as hard and fast as my body would let me.  He took a few steps, tried to steady himself, fell on his ass.  The crowd backed off, but Nestor turned his water gun at me and sprayed.  I didn’t care.  I went directly for him.

Even though the narrator primarily gives us sparse reportage, Ms. Hill has built the emotional stakes enough that we can cheer for Nena as she stands up for Boogie (and for herself.)  There are times during which your narrator should editorialize and should make explicit confessions, but the end of “Section 8” is more powerful because of Ms. Diaz’s restraint.

The ending of the story is also extremely important.  After Nena relates a little bit of what happens in the future, she returns to the dramatic present to tell what happened after the jerks took off with their bleach guns:

She grabbed hold of my shoulders, her eyes narrow.  “Don’t you fucking touch me,” she said, before pushing me back against the bus stop.

That night, right outside of the Section 8 projects, someone set another woman on fire.

Wow…am I right?  The last sentence is a gut punch.  Some might say that it’s extraneous because it doesn’t directly relate to the characters or the moment.  On the other hand, the last sentence brings the story to a new level, connecting the violence committed against Nena and Boogie to the Strangler and beyond.

What Should We Steal?

  • Calculate the proper distance between narrator and reader.  Most teenagers are guarded about their inner truths; concealing information from your reader is appropriate when your narrator would realistically do so.  Establishing a vast narrative distance can also allow you to zoom in for additional effect.
  • Punch your reader in the gut by bringing in the world at large.  After spending several pages immersed in Nena’s perspective, Ms. Diaz offers us a sentence that doesn’t need to have come from her narrator.  The statement is really a rhetorical question that makes a personal story about even larger issues.

What Can We Steal From Brian Doyle’s “The Hawk”?


Title of Work and its Form: “The Hawk,” creative nonfiction
Author: Brian Doyle
Date of Work: 2011
Where the Work Can Be Found:  The piece was first published in the February 2011 issue of The Sun.  (The glossy lit mag, not the supermarket tabloid.)  Go ahead; read the piece right here.  Subsequently, the piece was awarded a Pushcart Prize and was included in the 2013 Pushcart Prize anthology.

Element of Craft We’re Stealing: Inspiration

The titular hawk is a man who, as Mr. Doyle states in the story’s first sentence, “took up residence on my town’s football field, sleeping in a small tent in the northwestern corner, near the copse of cedars.”  The Hawk was, years earlier, a star on that very field who had some success in college and in the “nether reaches of the professional ranks.”  The man tried some business ventures that didn’t succeed and decided to make his home on the very ground where he first tasted glory.  The second half of the piece is Mr. Doyle’s recollection of what The Hawk said to a newspaper reporter who was writing a story about the broken social contract and wanted to use football as a hook.  The Hawk’s statements are appropriately poetic, including one very long, very beautiful sentence about the beauty that still exists in the hearts of all mankind.

If you checked the story out, you notice at first that it’s not very long.  This is not a problem; Mr. Doyle set out to give voice to The Hawk, and he did so.  Make no mistake; whenever we write creative nonfiction, we’re stealing someone else’s life in some way.  Even in a memoir, we are appropriating the lives of others; our friends, our parents and anyone else we may include in the narrative?  What are the responsibilities we have to those people?  Well, that’s up for debate.  The reporter wanted to USE The Hawk to reinforce her point about the way society lets others down.  To her, The Hawk was a character to be pitied, a man who illustrates the mistakes made by our leaders and by individuals themselves.  This is a valid way to go, but Mr. Doyle USED The Hawk to greater effect.  The beginning of the essay is contrived somewhat to evoke pathos.  How could it not?  The guy lives on the football field!  He’s living in the past.  Mr. Doyle makes a great turn, however, granting agency to The Hawk and allowing the man to tell his own story.  You know what?  The Hawk is a pretty deep guy and I’m glad to have met him instead of simply being told what he represents.

And how did Mr. Doyle reconstruct the “quietly amazing things” that The Hawk said?  Well, I don’t know Mr. Doyle, although I’m sure he’s a great guy.  Perhaps Mr. Doyle listened in wonder and then typed out what he remembered when next he was at his desk.  On the other hand, I suspect Mr. Doyle may be the kind of writer who brings a notebook with him as much as possible.  I learned this lesson early.  One day, while waiting for a Greyhound to visit an ex-girlfriend, I overheard the discussion between a man and woman who were clearly very distressed.  “Will we be forgiven for what we did?”  They wondered.  “Don’t you think everyone else will find out our shame?”  They asked.  Boy, do I wish I had had a notebook with me so I could jot down every creepy/awesome line they were trying to write for me.

What Should We Steal?

  • Grant agency to your characters, no matter your genre.  Don’t you deserve to determine the course of our own lives and how we are perceived?  Your characters deserve no less.  If you’re writing nonfiction, consider whether or not you have allowed your characters full citizenship in the work.
  • Bring a notebook with you at all times.  You never know when a great line is going to pop into your head or when you’re going to be stuck in a twenty-minute line at the grocery store in need of something to do.  Even better, you never know when something crazy is going to happen around you that demands to be recorded.

What Can We Steal From Alicia Ostriker’s “April”?


Title of Work and its Form: “April,” poem
Author: Alicia Ostriker
Date of Work: 2011
Where the Work Can Be Found: “April” was originally published in the February issue of Poetry Magazine.  The fine folks at the Poetry Foundation have even published the poem on their web site.  “April” was subsequently awarded a Pushcart Prize and was included in the award’s 2013 anthology.

Element of Craft We’re Stealing: Theme

“April” is a pleasant meditation on the arrival of Spring in New York City.  The theme of rebirth is a constant in literature, and for good reason.  It’s true that “The seasons go round they/ go round and around” and part of the pleasure of life is relaxing into these cycles.

The structure Ms. Ostriker chose for her poem is felicitous because it maximizes the potency of her theme.  What is the structure?  There are three stanzas, each of which focuses on a different kind of organism that responds to Spring: people, nature and dogs.  The reactions to the season are different in each stanza.  Aside from “the old woman” (who has experienced many changes of season), people are awash in optimism and working toward a better world.  In nature, the tulip dances “among her friends/ in their brown bed in the sun/ in the April breeze” and is unfazed that she is not as “powerful” as the trees that cast shadows alongside her.  The dog, of course, loves the gross smells and is gratified by the sounds of the river and traffic.

The reader is prepared to switch perspective from “people” to “nature” because Ms. Ostriker adds a stanza break.  White space, whether it’s in a poem or a short story, indicates to a reader that you are making some sort of substantive change.  You could be switching point of view or jumping through time.  (Those are just a few of your options!)

Another important and meaningful detail about the poem: there is no punctuation at all!  Why is that okay?  The omission of periods and commas create an appropriate feeling in the poem.  Doesn’t Spring wash over you in a warm, relentless breeze?  The poem mimics this effect because Ms. Ostriker provides the reader with a gentle stream of words.

What Should We Steal?

  • Consider your subject from a wide range of perspectives.  “Spring” is a pretty big topic.  Isn’t it interesting to think about what nature “thinks” about it?  Just like Mozart, perform variations on your theme to encounter exciting ideas.
  • Employ punctuation to your benefit…or omit it completely.  Without pauses or full stops, your work may be a tiny bit less formal.  There’s at least one benefit: your reader will stop reading only at line breaks, allowing the words to simply flow through their mind.


What Can We Steal From Erin McGraw’s “Punchline”?


Title of Work and its Form: “Punchline,” short story
Author: Erin McGraw
Date of Work: 2011
Where the Work Can Be Found: The piece is included in the 2013 edition of the Pushcart Prize anthology and was originally published in the Fall 2011 issue of the Kenyon Review.  Looky here!  Erin did a short interview about “Punchline!”

Element of Craft We’re Stealing:
Narrative Structure

Father Phil Castor is having some problems.  His parishioners are driving him a little crazy and he’s not happy with the counsel he is providing.  Worst of all, his mind is wandering during his homilies; he’s improvising, going on a tangent about his long-dead sister and saying things he doesn’t remember when quoted back to him.  Phil, already struggling not to weep at the altar, sees one of his at-risk youth die of a drug overdose.  In short order, Phil’s brother is killed in a hit-and-run.  Phil has been emotionally adrift for a few weeks when two cars collide near his rectory.  Those involved in the crash are perfectly fine.  In fact, they’re annoyed at the police/insurance company hassle they’re going to endure.  Phil returns home, knowing he’s of no use.  He hears a mockingbird sing and is reminded of an appropriate and colorful memory.

All of my writing instructors have discussed narrative structure and each has helped me a great deal.  Erin, however, approached the topic from a different perspective, so we’re going to figure out what we can steal from the structure of her story.

Introductory advice: If possible, get over your bibliophile inclinations and make notes in a story when you are reading it.  Underline, box in the names of characters…whatever will help you gain some insight.

Erin organizes her story thus:

# Number of page inches/pages What the narrative accomplishes:
1 4”/.5 Two expository paragraphs in which McGraw tells the reader about Father Phil and the (minor) sins he has been committing recently.
2 4.75”/.7 No break.  McGraw brings the narrative into the dramatic present, recounting a scene that demonstrates the odd interactions Phil has been having with his parishioners.
3 10”/1.3 No break.  The story is rewound again so the reader can learn about the first time a parishioner repeated to Phil a line he hadn’t remembered saying.  The third-person narrator tells the reader exactly what Phil has been like in the past and how he has changed. Phil laments that he needs to write his sermon.
4 17”/2.5 Section break.  The sermon “wrote itself,” possibly because Father Phil was distracted.  McGraw describes Father Phil’s work week: one of the young people in a church program overdosed and he had to justify the continuance of the program and talk to the police and everything.  There are appointments and rehearsal wedding dinners.  Father Phil buys a “small bottle of Stoli” and is finally able to write; he is overwhelmed by thoughts of the Good Samaritan and the meaning of mercy.  Father Phil finally reflects upon the dead teenager and begins to weep.
5 25.5”/3.75 White space.  Father Phil gets counsel of his own from his brother, Gary, as they watch some Law & Order: SVU.  (A TV show that’s all about judgment and punishment and mercy.  Coincidence?  I think not.)  Father Phil is weary of talk; “that was their job description.”  He talks to the sick and bereaved, emcees a wine auction and understands he’s going to break down.  Another sermon written and performed, Father Phil goes out for a walk and returns to his office only to discover that Gary was struck in a hit-and-run.  Father Phil immediately goes to the hospital and tries to care for his brother, who dies several days later.  Father Phil asks a doctor the kinds of questions that parishioners usually ask him.
6 10.5”/1.1 White space.  Other priests have been covering for Father Phil as he works through his grief.  The bishop has instructed him to go back to work, but Father Phil is not ready.  He has a few drinks and the section break ends on his grief.
7 16”/2.2 White space.  The next day, Father Phil witnesses a traffic accident that occurs very close to the rectory.  The crash looks bad, but both drivers are fine.  (Both of them also seem like jerks.)  In spite of all of the tragedy and sadness and grief, a mockingbird comes by and sings, reminding Father Phil of a joke he shared with his brother and sister.

How can we tell which parts of the story were most important to Erin?  Look at how much page space she devotes to each section.  I found it interesting that Erin doesn’t spend more time in the dramatic present during the scene in which the kid dies in front of Father Phil.  Erin certainly cares about this story beat, but it looks like she cared more about its emotional aftermath.

The longest section by far falls in the middle of the story and describes one of the most critical weeks in Father Phil’s life.  He starts the week wondering about life and how he could best do his job and ends the week mourning the loss of his dear brother and confessor.  The section relentlessly bounces around, mimicking the loss of control that Father Phil is feeling in his life.  Erin allows Father Phil and the reader no break.  (Remember what Gertrude said to Laertes after Ophelia’s death?  “One woe doth tread upon another’s heel,/ So fast they follow.”)

A lot of writers wonder how the heck they are going to orient the reader in the world they create.  Erin used the first 2.5 pages to introduce her character, give almost a page of backstory in the narrative past and then fast-forward to depict the kind of experience that is getting harder for Father Phil.  (Giving counsel and maintaining his own psychological balance.) The lapses and accidental honesty that Father Phil doles out are a harbinger of the sadness to come for him.

Maybe it’s just me, but I spend a lot of time thinking about section breaks and white space and the effect they have on readers.  Erin omitted white space in the first few sections for the same reason that rock bands start their concerts by playing three songs without a break: the reader feels a lot of energy and is drawn into the performance.  I think that the white space in the story represents Erin shifting between weeks.  (Give or take.)  Doesn’t this make sense?  Sunday is prime time for priests, right?  I love the idea that Father Phil would measure his life in this way.

What Should We Steal?

  • Measure the effect of white space and section breaks and when you decide to omit them.  A section break (*       *       *) is a SOMETHING.  The reader’s eye trips over it, understanding that it signifies SOMETHING.  In that nanosecond, the reader pauses and prepares for something new.  White space is an ABSENCE; the reader understands it in a different way.
  • Count lines or sentences or pages to allow you to take stock of the way you subconsciously understand your own work.  It’s often hard to see our own work with fresh eyes; why not use the power of cold, hard statistics to offer yourself a look from a different angle?  Perhaps you are including way too much material about a story beat that isn’t very important to you.  Maybe you’re not devoting enough page space to something that is crucial to your work.  Think of an action movie like Terminator 2.  How would you feel if the climactic scene lasted for ten seconds?  You would feel cheated; that’s why James Cameron keeps you in that foundry for quite some time.

What Can We Steal From Benjamin Percy’s “Writs of Possession”?


Title of Work and its Form: “Writs of Possession,” short story
Author: Benjamin Percy
Date of Work: 2011
Where the Work Can Be Found: The short story was published in the Spring 2011 issue of the Virginia Quarterly Review.  As of this writing, the story can be found here.  The piece was also included in the 2013 edition of the Pushcart Prize anthology.

Element of Craft We’re Stealing: Narrative Structure

The crisis that crippled the housing market wasn’t fun for anyone.  That includes the officials tasked with evicting homeowners in foreclosure and supervising the repossession of property.  Benjamin Percy’s “Writs of Possession” is a story told in nine vignettes, each with a different focal character.  (Aside from the first and ninth sections, that is.  Percy brings the story full circle by returning to Sammy, a woman from the Sheriff’s office.)  Switching through perspectives allows Percy to explore difference facets of the situation in an interesting manner.  Here’s what each vignette is about:

  1. SAMMY – Percy introduces a Sheriff’s deputy who is evicting an old, infirm man who has episodes that make him feel as though he is dying.
  2. JOHN – The poor guy’s marriage is falling apart.  He’s on a thirty-day furlough and is fixing up his house a little to keep his mind off of his problems.
  3. BROTHER AND SISTER – These two young people move from empty home to empty home, squatting (and stealing) until someone notices them.  The homeowner returns, but is so lonely that he asks them to stay.
  4. MR. PETERSON – His house in one of those terrible homeowner association neighborhoods is up for sale for $700,000.  It doesn’t sell, so he tries to get out at $400,000.  The homeowner’s association promptly burns the place to the ground because of their perceived loss of property value.
  5. BRENT – His TV is being repossessed.  Brent wants to pay, but lost his job months ago and simply can’t do so.  He throws a beer bottle into the screen as the men take it away.
  6. LITTLE BOY – Ugh, so sad.  A little boy overhears that he and his mother are “going into foreclosure.”  So he draws a boat to “carry them away to foreclosure.”
  7. AN EMPTY HOME – The home is in one of those neighborhoods that was growing furiously until the builders simply stopped throwing good money after bad.
  8. GERTIE – The old woman was tricked into taking out a reverse mortgage.  The home is being repossessed.  She shoots herself with her dead husband’s gun.
  9. SAMMY – Sammy is about to evict Gertie when she hears a shot and confronts the sad event with muted emotions.

By presenting a number of different slices of different lives, Mr. Percy tells a much larger story than fourteen pages might otherwise contain.  The narrator buzzes around a wide swath of humanity, accomplishing more than if Mr. Percy had stuck with Sammy the whole time.  What a graceful and felicitous way to deal with writing such a big topic!

What Should We Steal?

  • Tell big, complicated stories in a big and complicated way.  No short story could ever truly capture all of the emotions involved in a situation as vast as what happened when the American real estate market crumbled.  Mr. Percy gets very close by considering as many of those emotions as possible and demonstrating how different people deal with them.
  • Handle societal issues by making use of a wide range of people in that society.  Victor Hugo did this in Les Miserables.  Instead of focusing only on the students, Hugo also dealt with paupers and whores and reformed criminals and devout policemen and businessmen.  Mr. Percy measures the human cost of the crisis by introducing the reader to a number of humans who are dealing with it.

What Can We Steal From Kent Russell’s “American Juggalo”?


Title of Work and its Form: “American Juggalo,” creative nonfiction
Author: Kent Russell
Date of Work: 2011
Where the Work Can Be Found: “American Juggalo” was first published in the Fall 2011 issue of the journal N + 1. The piece was subsequently awarded a Pushcart Prize and was included in the 2013 Pushcart anthology.

Element of Craft We’re Stealing: Material

The idea of the piece is actually quite simple: Kent Russell packed up and attended the Gathering of the Juggalos to find out what makes Juggalos tick.  To a lot of people, there are no new horizons, particularly in a country as saturated with media as the United States.  “American Juggalo” takes a look at a subculture with which most people wouldn’t be familiar, particularly most folks who read literary journals.  Juggalos are fans of the Insane Clown Posse (ICP) and the other endeavors undertaken by their label, Psychopathic Records.  The Gatherings are notoriously out of control, with Juggalos fighting and screaming and using all kinds of drugs non-stop.

Russell is NOT a Juggalo, and approached the situation from a scientific perspective.  It wasn’t his intention to become a Juggalo or to chronicle their world from the inside.  He does NOT follow that old adage, “When in Rome.”  Not only does Russell refrain from using illegal drugs, but he refuses entry to Juggalos who are trying to crash in his tent.  (Totally uncool, bro.)  Even though he is approaching the material in a scholarly manner, Russell sees a lot of humanity in the Juggalos.  What do these folks want?  Family.  It’s fair to say that many Juggalos have some sort of disconnect with the rest of the world; why wouldn’t they be drawn so strongly to a group that shares their outlook on society?

What Should We Steal?

  • Approach your subject with empathy and curiosity.  Whether you are writing fiction or nonfiction, your characters should feel like friends or family members to you.  You should want to get to the subject’s heart, ignoring all of the obstacles that may be in the way.  Russell doesn’t particularly enjoy camping out around all of the Juggalos, but he approaches them on a human level nonetheless.  If you’re writing Hannibal Lecter, you need to put aside your distaste for the tastes that Lecter loves.
  • Force yourself into uncomfortable situations and into discussions with new kinds of people.  What can you really write about if you haven’t experienced anything?  Fib your way into getting a VIP pass for The Gathering and drive out to a cornfield in the middle of nowhere.  Take a watercolor class.  Introduce yourself to strangers.  I’ve mentioned Lee K. Abbott before; he was writing a book for which he needed knowledge about guns.  Lee had no knowledge of guns, so he struck up a conversation with his car mechanic, who happened to know a whole lot about guns.  People love talking about themselves and what they love…give them the opportunity!

What Can We Steal From Elizabeth Powell’s “Match.com/Matthew Likes Buttered Toast, Vulnerability…”?


Title of Work and its Form: “Match.com/Matthew Likes Buttered Toast, Vulnerability…”, poem
Author: Elizabeth Powell
Date of Work: 2011
Where the Work Can Be Found: The poem appeared in Issue 9 of New Ohio Review.  Ms. Powell’s poem won a Pushcart Prize and was included the 2013 anthology.

Element of Craft We’re Stealing: Concept

“My love lives in a little tiny box/ Made of pixels and engineering.”  So begins “Match.com,” a poem whose narrator describes action on an online dating site.  If you are starting a relationship with another person on a dating site, doesn’t the other person really “live in a tiny box?”  Don’t they “make” the person when they write them?  The poem ends on something of a sad turn, a reminder that people never really belong to each other.  Do we ever really know one another, or do we simply create an image of people in our heads?

Elizabeth Powell was very shrewd in composing the poem.  What was her smarted idea?  (In my view, at least?)  She knew she was writing about online dating, so she thought about it a lot and decided to show the reader a different side of something they already knew.  Poems are great places for a writer to reconceptualize cultural touchstones.  If you try to show people the dark side of Disney World, for example, in a novel, you have to write a whole bunch of pages and come up with a plot and all of that stuff.  In a poem, however, it’s perfectly acceptable to present some ideas and keep them at the forefront.  Sure, there’s a narrator and a dramatic situation, but these are not as “important” as the work Ms. Powell is doing in making the reader think about human relationships.

By the same principle, if you set your screenplay in a burger joint, you have to work with what you will have around you.  Burgers, grills, vegetables, drive-through microphones, terrible music, salads that don’t sell because burgers taste way better…  Your characters should interact with these objects at some point, right?

What Can We Steal?

  • Employ your title in the service of your story.  Titles don’t have to be a simple reflection on what is happening in your piece.  The title of this poem actually does some big work: it informs the reader immediately that the poem is all about the world of the online personal ad.
  • Brainstorm and make use of the different facets of the phenomenon or object you’re writing about.  “What do you do on a dating site?  You write the other person…you see pictures, but these pictures have been carefully chosen…you’re really inventing the person you want to meet.”  See how this mental process can work?