Tag: Material

What Can We Steal From Joseph Millar’s “The Day After Sinatra Married Mia Farrow”?


Title of Work and its Form: “The Day After Sinatra Married Mia Farrow,” poem
Author: Joseph Millar
Date of Work: 2013
Where the Work Can Be Found:  The poem debuted in Volume 80, No. 1 of New Letters, one of the top literary journals out there.  The fine folks at Poetry Daily have been kind enough to republish the poem online.

Bonuses:  Here is Mr. Millar’s Poetry Foundation page.  Here is Mr. Millar’s poem, “American Wedding;” it’s accompanied by an interview about the poem as well as a very interesting discussion.  Poetry is best enjoyed when read aloud, isn’t it?  Well, here is a video of Mr. Millar reading that poem.

Element of Craft We’re Stealing: Material

The poem depicts what happened (or may have happened) on July 20, 1966.  The setting is the “Circle Diner on Kutztown Road.”  (A place that may or may not have existed.)  The first-person narrator is heading out to work at a construction site; Edna the waitress prepares his Thermos with boiling water to help keep the coffee warm all day.  There are mailmen in the side booth, the cook is smoking a cigar that combines with the smoke from the grill to cloud the front window.  An old man serves up a joke about Frank and Mia as the narrator eats pancakes and eggs.  Do the people in the diner have the kind of fabulous, jet-setting life that Frank has?  Nope.  But they’re happy to go to work and happy to be alive where they are.

This poem is cool for a number of reasons.  It’s extremely accessible and I wonder if a poem like this would help some of my poetry-averse students understand that verse doesn’t have to be opaque and abstract.  How does Mr. Millar turn the trick of conjuring up a poem that is both “literary” and “fun?”  Well, the gentleman looks at the lives of “normal” people in comparison to the celebrities everyone talked about in 1966.  If you don’t know who Frank Sinatra is, hie thee to YouTube.

Celebrity culture was certainly in full swing in 1966, though the Internet, I believe, has made these distractions more pervasive.  Sinatra’s marriage to Mia Farrow was a pretty big deal at the time.  After all, she was thirty years younger than the crooner!  We gossip about the same things today, don’t we?

Mr. Millar’s poem turns the camera around.  What was life like for ordinary people on the day that news of the wedding consumed the many Americans who care about such things?  Well, Sinatra and Farrow may have been enjoying their honeymoon in a beautiful place we’ll never see.  Life went on for everyone else.   The narrator went to work.  The cook slathered butter on the grill.  The waitress counted her tips.  I suppose you’re more likely to get a piece into Vanity Fair if you write about the newlyweds, but isn’t there a great deal of value in examining the lives of “ordinary” people?

Everyone remembers November 22, 1963 as THE DAY JOHN F. KENNEDY DIED.  What else happened that day?  Many people far from Dealey Plaza were born and fell in love and died on that day.  What was it like for those folks?

Kristallnacht took place on the 9th and 10th of November, 1938.  There are (quite appropriately) zillions of books and short stories and poems about those terrible events.  It’s hard to avoid feeling doubts about the potential of humanity because of our capability for such violence and discrimination.  What would happen if you train your critical mind on people who weren’t directly involved?

World War I erupted on July 28, 1914.  Although the world would be forever changed by those events, isn’t it worth lending some insight to what happened to people half a world away?  Here’s what happened in Ogden City, Utah that day.  (You really MUST love the Library of Congress and the National Endowment for the Humanities…)

I love the way Mr. Millar lends a sense of suspense to the poem.  There’s a joke in the middle of the poem.  Edna, seemingly interested in making small talk, wonders how Frank is feeling that morning.  We’re certainly happy to follow Mr. Millar wherever he leads us in the poem, but still…we really want to know the punchline that goes with the setup.  (How does Frank feel?  “Tired as hell!”)

Think about when you’re watching Jeopardy!.  I’ll bet that you have trouble switching channels between the time an answer is presented and a contestant offers the correct question.  Why?  You want to solve the little mystery with which you’ve been presented.  Here, want proof?  Tell me this doesn’t drive you crazy:

How many musical acts have sold 250 million or more records?






I’m not telling you the answer.  This is suspense.


What Should We Steal?

  • Capture the lives and feelings of people who may otherwise go without recognition.  The cast of characters in the neighborhood diner may seem anonymous when we’re passing through, but they have hopes and dreams and problems and successes.  Just like Justin Bieber.
  • Add suspense to short works by asking a question that invites an answer.  You don’t need to tell a joke; we’re naturally wired to want both halves of a dilemma.


Fun poetry conundrum: The poem claims that Frank was “20 years her senior.”  I didn’t intend to contradict Mr. Millar, but multiple sources seem to tell me that Frank was indeed “30” years her senior.  What is a reader to do?  I suppose there are two options:

  1. Mr. Millar made an artistic choice to offer the incorrect figure.  I don’t believe a character in the poem makes the goof.  What could it mean that he swapped twenty for thirty?  Well, is there that big a difference between the two figures?  I dunno…probably not.  Mia Farrow was a grownup who could make her own decisions, so what does it really matter?
  2. Mr. Millar simply goofed.  Hey, we’re all human.  Perhaps he shall correct the poem in his next collection.  Or maybe he won’t.  Maybe he likes the effect caused by the mistake.

What do you think?  What’s the proper stance when it comes to changing your interpretation of a work when it has a slight factual goof?  Leave a comment.


What Can We Steal From Angela Pneuman’s “Occupational Hazard”?


Title of Work and its Form: “Occupational Hazard,” short story
Author: Angela Pneuman
Date of Work: 2011
Where the Work Can Be Found:  The story made its premiere in the Spring 2011 issue of Ploughshares as the winner of the Alice Hoffman Prize for Fiction.  (Ploughshares, by the way, is one of the best journals out there.)  The story was subsequently chosen for the 2012 edition of Best American Short Stories.

Element of Craft We’re Stealing: Material

The story begins as Calvin, a worker at a wastewater treatment plant, accidentally steps into some sewage.  This is a great metaphor for the entire story, as poor Calvin seems to have stepped into a few messes.  Calvin likes his coworker Dave Lott, but doesn’t particularly like spending time with the guy.  Jill (Calvin’s wife) wants another child, which is most retrograde to Calvin’s desires.  Life only gets worse when Dave Lott dies from a terrible staph infection—an occupational hazard for wastewater treatment workers, of course.  Calvin and Jill offer Dave’s first wife and his fifteen-year-old daughter a place to stay for the funeral, which is a depressing affair.  To Calvin’s eyes, daughter Jennifer is an odd bird; he takes the young woman to see her Dad’s office.  In an odd and suspenseful scene, Jennifer disappears.  Calvin finds her in a supply closet where they share a fascinating moment of intimacy.  Stasis re-establishes itself after Calvin gets home.  Jill mistakes his existential angst and cry for help for arousal and the reader is left to wonder what will happen to the characters in the future.

The great short story writer Lee K. Abbott once pointed out, correctly, that there aren’t too many stories about the workplace.  Isn’t this odd?  So much of our lives take place in an office or on the work site, but such settings seem to be underrepresented in fiction.  Ms. Pneuman points out in her author’s note that she once worked in a support capacity for wastewater treatment personnel in Indiana.  I certainly believe that she has depicted the sewage plant faithfully; I can imagine the concrete maze of water and the unpleasant stench.  Honestly, why shouldn’t sewage plant workers have their say in fiction?  As writers, one our responsibilities is to explore new worlds and shed light on the fringes of humanity.  After all; who wants to read the same story about the same people over and over again?

It’s very tempting to write about writers or artists or some other job that stands in as a placeholder for “writer.”  (I’ve done it…have you?)  It would be a shame to miss out on all of the great details and good stories that come out of the workplaces we know.  (Even if we don’t love them.)  Most of us have spent time in hourly retail jobs, right?  What are the unique stories of the unique people who fill these positions?

Here’s an example.  One of the latest “dumb things young people do” is “firebombing.”  Crummy people will go through a restaurant drive-thru window and throw stuff on the worker staffing the post.  One jerk took the concept to a new low; he squirted hot sauce in the worker’s eyes.  Here’s a news report about it.

Maybe the video gets your “What would that be like?” going.  What if this wasn’t the worst part of the character’s day?  What if he knew the jerk?  What if the jerk missed and the worker simply had had enough?  What restaurant policies might change after the attack?  We’ll never know unless someone sets a story in a fast food joint.

The climax of the story, it seems to me, is the scene in which Calvin and fifteen-year-old Jennifer…share a moment in the darkened office.  Now, I’m always up for “weirdness.”  Is a story interesting if a character or situation is “just kinda normal?”  The first time I read the story, I definitely picked up on the fact that Ms. Pneuman was putting Calvin and Jennifer together in the narrative.  The instant the young lady arrives, Ms. Pneuman is careful to make it clear that Calvin is thinking about her and is preoccupied.  Without such clues, Ms. Pneuman may not have made the scene of intimacy very realistic.  Anything will make sense, so long as you make it clear that the events make sense in the context of the world you’ve created.

What Should We Steal?

  • Train your focus on the world of work.  Think of how many hours your characters spend in the workplace.  Thirty?  Forty?  Fifty or more?  During that time, your characters are interacting with other people, suffering setbacks and feeling resentment growing in their hearts.  Consider dramatizing these oft-overlooked moments of your characters’ lives.
  • Ensure that your weirdness makes sense in the context of the story.  Think of The Twilight Zone.  (It’s something I do all the time.)  So much crazy stuff happens on that program, but we buy it.  Why?  Because Rod Serling clearly established the rules of The Twilight Zone.  Okay, aliens don’t turn the lights on and off in the real world…but we believe that it can happen in the world Mr. Serling created for us.

What Can We Steal From Robert Olen Butler’s “Titanic Victim Speaks Through Waterbed”?


Title of Work and its Form:Titanic Victim Speaks Through Waterbed,” short story
Author: Robert Olen Butler
Date of Work: 1996
Where the Work Can Be Found: The story originally appeared in the Fall 1996 issue of The Missouri Review and was subsequently reprinted in Tabloid Dreams, a collection of some of Mr. Butler’s short stories.  The Missouri Review has been kind enough to post the story online as part of their “Textbox” effort, described as “an anthology of exemplary fiction, essays and poetry published in The Missouri Review since 1978.”  You will also find questions and writing prompts at that very useful resource.

Element of Craft We’re Stealing: Material

In this story, Mr. Butler confronts one of the questions that has always confronted humanity: “What happens to us when we die?” The titular “Titanic victim” (also the first-person narrator) was one of the upper-class gents. He was educated in fine schools and led, until that darn iceberg, a charmed life. The narrator meets a woman who, apropos of nothing, mentions her support for giving women the vote and a man who slipped small fragments of that fateful iceberg into his drink. Mr. Butler’s narrator glides between past and present. Between brief stories about Titanic’s last hours, the narrator describes his afterlife experience as a spirit tied to some quantity of water. He doesn’t understand where he is. The waterbed, of course, has “no living creatures,” but he can see the shapes thrashing about over him. The story ends with the beginning of the narrator’s new journey, as he transformed from corporeal being to spirit.

The narrator is now a timeless being, being recirculated along with the rest of the water on the planet. How does Mr. Butler maintain narrative momentum? By framing the story around what happens to his human form. After all, this is something his readers can relate to, isn’t it? Even though Mr. Butler wrote a story that is slightly “experimental,” he makes sure the reader has something to hold onto. Even if you’re writing a piece that is a little out of the ordinary, you must still fulfill your obligations to the reader. He or she must be able to understand what is going on and must be able to form some concept as to the point you are trying to get across. Think of it this way. It’s perfectly normal to look at french fries, olives, strawberry yogurt, dog treats and chicken wings and wonder what would happen if you turned those ingredients into a soup. What a fun experiment! But would you really serve that soup on your sibling’s wedding day?

In this story (and the others in Tabloid Dreams), Mr. Butler combines high culture and low culture in a wonderful way. This is true erudition; Mr. Butler is interested in all kinds of people from different walks of life. He recognizes the possibility of great literature and meaning in common topics as well as highfalutin ones. Don’t misunderstand; I simply can’t believe that the Honey Boo Boo show is as powerful a story as that of The Godfather. We are, however, products of contemporary culture and Mr. Butler is mining the material given him by the times.

The real secret to the greatness of the story is that Mr. Butler’s “ghost story” is told with paragraphs that are incredibly beautiful and poetic. Any kind of genre work can be improved if you have worked hard to develop your skills; as Mr. Butler clearly has. Look at the paragraph in which the narrator explains his current state of being:

What is that thrashing about above me now? The creatures of the sea are absent here, though I’m not risen into the air as I have done for some years, over and over, lifted and dispersed into cloud. I’m coalesced in a place that has no living creatures but is large enough that I don’t quite sense its boundaries. Perhaps not too large, since I am not moving except for a faint eddying from the activity above. But at least I am in a place larger than a teacup. I once dwelt in a cup of tea, and on that occasion, I sensed the constraints of the space.

Yeah, yeah. The sentences are beautiful. But Mr. Butler also gets across his exposition, making sure the reader knows what’s going on. Further, he tickles the reader’s brain, encouraging us to wonder: “What would it be like to be someone’s afternoon tea?”

What Should We Steal?

  • Avoid making “experimentation” your top priority.  A writer, as the great Lee K. Abbott says, must do all of the work so the reader can have all of the fun.  It’s perfectly fine to try something new on your reader or to try and show off your creativity.  You must, however, make sure that your piece is a shared journey.
  • Keep an eye out for inspiration in strange places.  We live in interesting times and inspiration is everywhere!  (The preceding statement is true for every time ever.)  Mr. Butler, a Pulitzer Prize-winning, big-time literary lion got a creative charge from the Weekly World News and other kinds of sensational stories.  Why shouldn’t you?
  • Develop your poetic muscles and flex them while fulfilling the other needs of your story.  One of the things that makes a story great is when you are able to do multiple things at once.  For example, a great scene can offer characterization, advance the plot, describe the setting and sound beautiful…all at the same time.

What Can We Steal From Kevin Smith’s Clerks?


Title of Work and its Form: Clerks, feature film
Author: Written and directed by Kevin Smith
Date of Work: 1994
Where the Work Can Be Found: Clerks has been released on DVD. The tenth-anniversary edition includes a ton of bonus features that will be of interest to fans of the film. As of this writing, the film is streaming on Netflix.

Element of Craft We’re Stealing: Material

Kevin Smith was working at the Quick Stop when he decided to sell his comic book collection and max out his credit cards to make Clerks. The story is relatively simple; Dante Hicks is called in to work in the Quick Stop on his day off. He’s not even supposed to be there on the day the film takes place! Dante is in a bit of a rut; his sweet and beautiful girlfriend, Veronica, urges him to go back to school. Instead, Dante seems resigned to a lifetime of jockeying the register and dealing with the crazy customers. Randal Graves is his best friend and works at RST Video next door. The two play hockey on the roof and attend Julie Dwyer’s funeral and even deal with the news that Dante’s ex-girlfriend is engaged to an Asian design major. (Things don’t end well for poor Caitlin Bree…)

Clerks represents Kevin Smith playing to his strengths and getting the most out of everything at his disposal. Smith couldn’t afford a ton of lights and could only film at night, so the script calls for the store’s security doors to be jammed shut. In the days before digital video, cost was a huge roadblock for beginning filmmakers. Mr. Smith made his budget realistic by filming in black-and-white. At the time, Nicolas Cage wasn’t willing to take a role in exchange for a ten-dollar bill handshake. Therefore, Smith cast local actors, some of whom had no experience in front of the camera.

These limitations were actually fortuitous accidents for Mr. Smith. David Klein’s black-and-white cinematography lends a rough, rock-and-roll look to a film that was decidedly NOT a product of the Hollywood studio system. The film is about young people who don’t make that much money and don’t have much going on in their lives…the look of the film fits perfectly. Liev Schreiber, one of our finest actors, would not have fit in the film. Being forced to cast relative amateurs like Brian O’Halloran and Jeff Anderson meant that Mr. Smith got a fresh kind of passion on the screen that most films just don’t have. Having the shutters over the windows through the whole film reinforces the sense of claustrophobia in the protagonist’s life. Dante is scared he’ll never get out, but he doesn’t know how to get out.

Mr. Smith made the most out of everything he did have. When writing his script for the film, he clearly thought about everything that could be done in a convenience store and a video store. He might not have been able to afford a thousand crane shots and to film each dialogue scene with the perpetual spinning you find in a Michael Bay film, but he could give one of his friends the role of a customer who searches for the “perfect dozen” carton of eggs. The building has a roof, of course…Mr. Smith had his characters play their hockey game up there. What does a video clerk need to do from time to time? Order videos. So Randal reads a list of porno movie titles in front of a mother and her two-year-old.

At that point, Mr. Smith was not a highly experienced filmmaker, so he made up for it with loads of passion. He didn’t have a ton of money, so he wrote a script that he could afford to make. Most importantly, he just went out and DID IT. Shouldn’t we all follow his lead?

What Should We Steal?

  • Exploit your setting and your characters. As you’re writing, make a list of everything that you would find in your settings. Let’s say you’re setting a horror movie or book in a hardware store. Wouldn’t you expect to see your characters use a wide range of tools during the story? What if a character happens to be a plumber? Plumbers are generally good with their hands and have a good sense of how to fix things. How could you exploit that in your story?
  • Turn your limitations into advantages. Do you have trouble writing stories that are very, very long? Write an epistolary novel that consists of lots of very short sections. Maybe you’ve only lived in one place your whole life. That’s fine; write the short story that truly captures the feeling of your hometown.

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 Percy Bysshe Shelley’s “Ozymandias”?


Title of Work and its Form: “Ozymandias,” poem
Author: Percy Bysshe Shelley
Date of Work: 1818
Where the Work Can Be Found: The poem is anthologized all over the place.  Thanks to its brevity and inclusion in the public domain, I have also reproduced it below.

Element of Craft We’re Stealing: Material

Text of the Poem:

I met a traveller from an antique land,
Who said—“Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. . . . Near them, on the sand,
Half sunk a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them, and the heart that fed;
And on the pedestal, these words appear:
My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings;
Look on my Works, ye Mighty, and despair!
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal Wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.”

How stressed out do you get when the dishes aren’t done?  Did it really bum you out when your kid hit your car with a Nerf ball and left a microscopic scratch?  Good news!  In twenty years, no one will care.  In fifty years, no one will remember.  In one hundred years, no one will remember anything but your name…if you’re lucky.  Sorry to be such a bummer, but it’s true.  “Ozymandias” is a simple but powerful poem.  The narrator recounts a story he or she heard from someone else about an ancient ruin.  Amidst the broken statuary is a pedestal proclaiming the name and power of the king who once ruled the area.  The statement is a bit impotent, you’ll agree: Ozymandias’ power and kingdom are long, long gone.

Shelley doesn’t try to do too much in the poem.  He has one big, complicated idea to communicate and does so through a powerful example.  We’ve all seen amazing pictures of the Sphinx (if we haven’t been lucky enough to see the Sphinx itself).  Can you believe that the whole face was painted?  As astounding as that sculpture is, we’re really only seeing a ghost of its original grandeur.  The anecdote Shelley tells keys into the kind of image we all know: a Greek temple, the pyramids, those Buddhas of Bamiyan (the ones the Taliban destroyed), Mount Rushmore, the footprints on the Moon.  These great works of man will someday be wiped away by eternity and time.

Why did Shelley choose to make the sonnet an anecdote?   Perhaps some smart Shelley scholar will tell me the real reason, but I think that the poem is that much stronger because the ‘witnessing’ in the poem is not even first-hand.  Ozymandias is not even significant enough for the narrator him or herself to have gone and seen the ruins.  If poor Ozzy is remembered at all, it’s for being a shattered visage that you don’t even bother to see yourself.

What Can We Steal?

  • Challenge your writer friends and let them challenge you, too!  “Ozymandias” was written as a response to a poem written by Shelley’s friend, Horace Smith.  The first sonnet is written on the same subject and was published in The Examiner.  Shelley shrugged his shoulders and thought, “Cool idea, man.  It’s time for a friendly competition.”  (Shelley won the Ozymandias battle.)  Why not trade ideas with a friend?  Why not compose a story or poem or song based upon the same idea they were using?
  • Use the power of brevity.  If your idea is complicated enough, people will want to engage with it, no matter how simply it is stated.