What Can We Steal From Carol Anshaw’s “The Last Speaker of the Language”?

Title of Work and its Form: “The Last Speaker of the Language,” short story
Author: Carol Anshaw (on Twitter @carolanshaw)
Date of Work: 2011
Where the Work Can Be Found: The story made its debut in Fall 2011′s Issue 10 of the New Ohio Review.  The folks at the fine journal have made the story available on their web site.  How kind of them!  The story was subsequently selected for Best American Short Stories 2012.

Bonuses:  Here is what writer Ann Graham thinks of the story.  Karen Carlson weighed in, too.  Here is a Huffington Post discussion between Carol Anshaw and Steven McCauley in which they examine the current state of gay literature.

Element of Craft We’re Stealing: Narrative Structure

Darlyn has problems.  Her mother is an alcoholic with an equally nasty gambling habit.  She is in love with a married woman.  Her job at the Home Depot is a litany of hassles.  In the course of the story, Darlyn fosters her daughter’s love of cooking, tracks down her mother after she escapes to go on a casino trip and persuades her lover to leave her husband.  By the end of the story, Darlyn’s brother (Russ) makes it clear that her joy will be fleeting.  Darlyn doesn’t care.  “It’s just about—even for a day—being this purely happy.  Like, happy to be a carbon-based life form.”

The story is told in vignettes dicated by a third person limited narrator and Ms. Anshaw establishes the tone of the narrator in the first line of the story: “All right.  Here we go.”  Later in the story, the narrator makes himself or herself apparent again: “Darlyn is too in love with this woman.  Christy, this is the woman’s name.”  And a little bit later, Jackie, the alcoholic gambling addict, stumbles her way into a comped casino suite.  She offers her granddaughter some fruit, “Like she’s Lady Bountiful.  Like she’s a nutritionist.”

Why did Ms. Anshaw choose to have a third person narrator offer these thoughts instead of simply giving the piece a first person POV?  I don’t know.  I’ve never met Ms. Anshaw, but I’m sure she’s a very friendly woman.  I can, however, consider the different effects that the different POVs would have.  In a way, the third person limited aligns itself with the reader.  Reader and narrator are both opposed to Jackie’s lifestyle.  We’re both rooting for Darlyn to find happiness.  I’m not exactly thrilled that she broke up a marriage. I’m not sure if the narrator agrees with me, but the description of the confrontation with husband Gary is primarily factual, as though the narrator doesn’t exactly approve, either.  If the story had been written in a first-person point of view, the reader may not have an objective glimpse into Darlyn’s world, as she’s too close to the events of her own life to discuss them objectively.

The third person also helps Ms. Anshaw with the structure of her story.  At first, I thought the story would primarily be about responsible daughter and irresponsible mother.  Instead, there’s an awful lot going on.  That’s why Ms. Anshaw tells the story through a series of vignettes.  The third person narrator can simply end a section and jump forward in time all it wants.  Putting a little distance between the character and reader is a very good idea, considering the scope of the story.  If you tried to tell someone how you got to where you are in all facets of your life, that might take a while.  It might be difficult for you to know what to include and what to leave out.  The third person narrator has a much easier time making these distinctions.  When you structure your story as a series of vignettes, you’re cutting out the fat in the story and you’re forcing yourself to consider what is truly important to your overall narrative. This kind of structure may also help you avoid the tendency to over-explain.

Another smaller note: I also particularly liked the way Ms. Anshaw didn’t treat Darlyn’s homosexuality in a sensationalist manner.  Some less-skillful writers would be tempted to make the revelation a shock, when it isn’t a big deal. (Although it is a necessity for the story to make sense.)  The love affair between Darlyn and Christy is not treated as a “lesbian love affair.”  They’re just two people who want to be together.  The interesting angle is not that Darlyn is into girls.  It’s that she’s in love with someone who kinda should be unavailable to her and that the revelation of the affair will cause a lot of problems.  When Gary the Husband confronts Darlyn, Ms. Antrim makes an honest choice and allows Gary to say things that are politically incorrect.  His wife has just left him for a woman…it’s only natural that he should call the interloper a “blahblah-fuckingfreak-blahblah-lesbohomewrecker.”  Yes, the narrator softens the anger, but it would be disingenuous for a husband to hear he’s being left for a woman to shrug in the interest of diversity and to praise his wife’s bravery in asserting her new sexuality.

What Should We Steal?

  • Consider the relative positions of your reader and your narrator.  Whether or not you’ve thought of it this way, your narrator is a person.  Is it to your benefit to use your narrator as a scrim between your protagonist and your reader?
  • Break down complicated stories into vignette-sized pieces.  Forcing yourself to decide what is important helps you eliminate narrative waste.
  • Allow your characters to be honest, even if what they say and think is sometimes unpleasant.  Even the kindest person will say ugly things if they think it will hurt the person who hurt them.  It’s just natural.

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?