Friends, every writer has his or her own story and their own unique path to success. As a guy who has been writing seriously for a couple decades and who has immersed himself in the writing world for as long, it’s been a pleasure to learn my craft from writers and work in every genre. I may certainly be incorrect, but I have seen a widening schism between “literary” writers and those who work in genre and other non-“literary” arenas. (What does “literary” mean? Who knows?) We miss out a great deal if we don’t at least dip our toes in the other parts of the storytelling ecosystem. If nothing else, we are missing out because these genres often outsell “literary” work and genre fans are often wonderfully passionate.
I tend not to discriminate; my goal is to be able to enjoy as many stories as I can. That certainly includes the romance genre. I had the pleasure of seeing Wendy S. Marcus give a talk at Oswego State in which she talked about her work and her journey. Ms. Marcus came to writing later in life than I did, but has published far more books than I have and knows a great deal that they don’t (but should) teach in MFA programs. In brief, Ms. Marcus wasn’t a big reader until she picked up a Harlequin romance on a whim and became hooked. After a while, she made that same move every writer has made: she figured she could do better than some of the books she read. So she started putting words down on the page. Once she had built up a support system of critique partners and started sending out her work, she began publishing for Harlequin, Loveswept (Random House) and eventually on her own. Continue Reading
2016, Chasing Amy, Kevin Smith, Oswego State, Romance, Wendy S. Marcus
Title of Work and its Form: The Language of Baklava, creative nonfiction
Author: Diana Abu-Jaber (on Twitter @dabujaber)
Date of Work: 2005
Where the Work Can Be Found: The book was released in hardcover and paperback. You can purchase it online or at your favorite local bookstore. If you live in Oswego, New York, consider buying the book from The River’s End.
Bonuses: Here is a very sweet interview in which Ms. Abu-Jaber discusses cooking for children. Here is a 2004 interview that is very interesting in spite of its age. Here is a Washington Post review of her most recent novel, Birds of Paradise.
Element of Craft We’re Stealing: Narrative Structure
Ms. Abu-Jaber’s book is a particularly pure example of one of the primary uses of literature. As you read The Language of Baklava, you learn all about Jordanian culture and how a second-generation Jordanian American reconciles the two traditions in her own life. More importantly, this kind of literature teaches us that we’re all pretty much the same, no matter where we grew up. Ms. Abu-Jaber tells the story of her childhood in a chronological manner, from the time she was approximately six through her adulthood. Ms. Abu-Jaber spends a great deal of time introducing you to her close relatives and extended family and even describes her own experience living in Jordan. The book is not jam-packed with extreme experiences or heartbreaking trauma. Instead, Ms. Abu-Jaber weaves a comforting tapestry of memory and emotion that truly add up to a meaningful expression of her identity.
The book and its author hold a special place in my heart. Ms. Abu-Jaber attended Oswego State University…just like I did! (Am I the only one who admires the successful writers in whose footsteps I hope to follow?) When I was in grad school, The Language of Baklava was chosen as the Ohio State freshman book, so I had the pleasure of leading a brief discussion with some randomly chosen young people who read the book. While I got the occasional thrill out of recognizing some of the places described in Baklava, you certainly don’t need to know the Central New York area in order to enjoy the book.
Ms. Abu-Jaber begins the book in a felicitous manner. When she was a small child, Ms. Abu-Jaber sat in the audience of The Baron Daemon Show, a local children’s show that aired on Channel 9 in Syracuse. (I happen to have grown up in the Syracuse area, but slightly later than Ms. Abu-Jaber did.) These kinds of programs once dominated Saturday mornings across the country. A local host—a vampire, a clown, a railroad conductor—would entertain a live studio audience of children and kids across the viewing area would join in on the fun from their living rooms. The hosts, of course, would interact with the children in the studio. Well, Baron Daemon (portayed by newsman Mike Price) greeted the children in the audience. Immediately deciding the proper pronunciation of the name was easy for the host when the children were named Bobby Smith or Debbie Anderson. Then the Baron got to Ms. Abu-Jaber and her family: “Farouq, Ibtissam, Jaipur, Matussem.” Upon seeing “Diana” on the name tag, the Baron must have felt relief. Then he “crashed” into Ms. Abu-Jaber’s last name. Not surprisingly, the Baron chose to speak to the author: “Now Diana, tell me, what kind of a last name is that?” Ms. Abu-Jaber laughed as she shouted, “English, you silly!” The one-page anecdote establishes the tone of the book. Ms. Abu-Jaber and her family were and are both American and something else. The host of the show certainly didn’t mean any offense in being unable to work through the Jordanian names, but the incident, especially in retrospect, is a reminder that cultural identity is not as simple a thing as we might think.
Here is the Baron in action, in case you’re curious:
So the opening scene introduces the theme in an entertaining manner. Immediately thereafter, Ms. Abu-Jaber tells the scene of a family picnic in a Central New York park. The reader meets all of the characters and learns about the food, the family conflicts (both internal and external) and allows Ms. Abu-Jaber to insert the first of several recipes that form the backbone of the book’s structure. In the space of a few pages, the author has immersed the reader in the world of Jordanian Americans and in that of her family. (If only it were that easy to be comfortable when you meet a significant other’s family!)
When I first read the book, it didn’t take me long to realize that Ms. Abu-Jaber, well, she is the protagonist of the book and she isn’t. By necessity, this memoir is structured around her memories and her life, but I love that the author, at times, allows herself to be a part of the ensemble instead of the star. This seems like a strange thought, doesn’t it? If you pick up Amanda Knox’s memoir, you darn well better read about how she was arrested for murder in Italy, right? She better be the focal character. Baklava is about family and culture, both institutions that are focused on the intersection between the individual and the whole, so it makes sense to modulate the importance of the author in the narrative.
Let’s talk about those recipes. Each chapter features at least one recipe drawn from Ms. Abu-Jaber’s life. When we experiment with form, we must ask ourselves whether we are serving the overall story. Shouldn’t this be our top priority? While the reader may not rush out to Wegmans to pick up all of the ingredients, the recipes in the book certainly do contribute to the narrative. Food is a fascinating element of culture; people all over the world have pretty much the same ideas about food, but the little differences in climate and population and so on have resulted in culinary diversity. (Every culture has something resembling a dumpling. Every culture combines sweet and savory in different ways.) Ms. Abu-Jaber also ensures that the recipes have a meaningful purpose. For example, Chapter Seven begins with a family party and lots of people are on their way. Therefore, Ms. Abu-Jaber introduces the reader to “Start the Party” hummus, the same food that is likely being prepared in the kitchen. (It’s also interesting to think about hummus as an “ethnic” food; is it just me, or has that changed over the past couple decades? Remember, dear reader, that spaghetti was once considered an “ethnic” food and is now as American as apple pie. Which I suppose is pretty much a tart, the likes of which have been made in Europe for centuries. See how the recipes in the book relate so heavily to its theme?)
What Should We Steal?
- Immerse your reader in your unique world as quickly as you can. Ms. Abu-Jaber hits you with an anecdote that relates to theme (a person straddling two cultures) and introduces the vast cast of characters…all in the first dozen pages.
- Allow yourself to take the back seat, even in your own story. Depending on the scene, you may wonder: is this YOUR STORY, or a story ABOUT YOU?
- Augment stories with tangential elements if they will help you accomplish your goals. Storybooks have pictures for a reason, not just because the pictures are pretty. They make it easier for the young reader to understand the story. Business biographies often have sections filled with photographs. These are not only fun, but they can help you keep the “characters” straight in your head.
2005, Baklava, Diana Abu-Jaber, Narrative Structure, Oswego State
Title of Work and its Form: “Elements of the Wind,” creative nonfiction
Author: Donna Steiner
Date of Work: 2009
Where the Work Can Be Found: The essay made its world debut in the Fall 2009 issue of Fourth Genre: Explorations in Nonfiction. You can pick up a back issue of the journal or find the essay here thanks to Project Muse.
Bonuses: Here is a gorgeous and brief piece what was published in the now-defunct journal Spilt Milk. This is a piece called “Orbits” that was published by Connotation Press. Ms. Steiner’s collection Elements is available from Sweet Publications! Ms. Steiner teaches in the Oswego State Creative Writing Department. If you’re in the area, consider taking a class with her!
Element of Craft We’re Stealing: Perspective
In this essay, Donna Steiner turns her considerable powers of perception to understanding the true meaning of something we experience every day: the wind. Ms. Steiner begins by dismissing the reductionism of folks who say things like, “There are two kinds of people: those who love cell phones, and those who hate cell phones.” Ms. Steiner loves the wind and is somewhat puzzled when others don’t. She describes some of the known history of our experience with wind, detailing the Beaufort Wind Scale and reminding the reader about the many names people have given the wind. Ms. Steiner sums up her essay by further deconstructing the false dichotomies that can limit thought; very little about the human experience can be summed up by a simple “either, or” statement.
The genre of “Creative Nonfiction” is not exactly new, but the term is fairly recent and the genre’s conventions are still somewhat in flux. Perhaps I am mistaken, but I get the feeling that some folks labor under misconceptions as to what creative nonfiction really represents. Some folks have told me they think that poetry is “depressed people getting out their bad feelings,” and other folks think that creative nonfiction MUST be memoir, that it MUST be a personal story about something that happened in the writer’s life. In this essay, Ms. Steiner uses creative nonfiction to tell a more important story than to simply describe her feelings about wind. Is the essay “personal” in a way? Sure. Ms. Steiner discovers that many folks don’t share her affection for the wind and this realization leads her to think a great deal about what this part of nature means. Ms. Steiner uses her personal experience as a lens that allows her to consider wind in a new way.
We all have thoughts and do things that others might find strange. Maybe you like going for walks at three in the morning. Perhaps you enjoy shoveling snow. These harmless differences result in unique experiences. Someone who hates shoveling may never have the experience of actually hearing the snow fall. Ms. Steiner loves the wind and the effect it has on people and their surroundings. When you acknowledge your own idiosyncrasies, you are closer to being able to use them to create art.
Approximately halfway through the essay, Ms. Steiner finishes her description of the Beaufort scale and continues thus:
Imagine the magnitude of the accomplishment: naming the wind.
Abroholos, barat, barber, bayamo, borasco, boreas, brickfielder, brisote, Chinook, chubasco, churada, coromell, Diablo, elephanta, ghibli, gregale, haboob, leste, levanter, leveche, maestro, mistral , ostria, pali, pampero, papagayo, shamal, sirocco, squamish, suestado, tramontana, vardar, williwaw, zephyr. Worldwide, others have put name to the wind.
There are two kinds of people. Those who savor the names of the wind like tasting rare fruit on the tongue, and those who skipped the italicized words above once they got the gist of the paragraph.
See what she did? The paragraph with all of the italicized non-English words can overwhelm some readers or invite them to move along to the words they recognize. Ms. Steiner makes use of that tendency to make a point. Some folks are unable to enjoy the simplicity of the wind, just as some folks forego the opportunity to enjoy words for the playfulness of their syllables. Ms. Steiner allows the reader to understand his or her own tendencies and also gently nudges them back to the beginning of the list to enjoy the words. You are the writer; understand that you exert a level of control over the reader.
How does Ms. Steiner end the essay? She returns to the beginning. In a way, the essay is not so much about the wind, but about the willingness to be carried along by circumstance. To explore. To acknowledge the loose ends that are inevitable in our experiences. The structure of the essay mimics the structure of our lives. We start out with simplicity and must confront increasing complexity in order to be truly happy.
What Should We Steal?
- Transform your personal experience into a lens that allows you a deeper look into an important phenomenon. Admit it: you’re still a New Kids on the Block fan. How does this allow you to comment on the Justin Bieber phenomenon?
- Understand the tendencies of the reader and exploit them. You know that, for example, some readers will skip over italicized paragraphs. Turn that into a teaching moment.
- Bookend your work by returning to its beginning. The issues you raise at the beginning of the piece have been simmering in the reader’s mind. When you return to the ideas with which you started, you and your reader examine the ideas from a deepened perspective.
2009, Donna Steiner, Fourth Genre, Oswego State, Perspective
Title of Work and its Form: “Women in the Kingdom,” short story
Author: Leigh Allison Wilson
Date of Work: 1989
Where the Work Can Be Found: The short story appears in Wind, Ms. Wilson’s second collection of stories. You can always purchase the book or find it at your local library.
Bonuses: Kirkus really liked Wind. The Flannery O’Connor Award for Short Fiction really liked Ms. Wilson’s first collection of stories. Ms. Wilson is the Director of the Creative Writing Program at SUNY Oswego. If you’re in the area, consider taking a class with her!
Element of Craft We’re Stealing: Compelling Narration
Ms. Wilson’s narrator is a woman who is as lonely as she is proud. The woman has just moved to a very cold town on the shores of a big lake, a place that is beautiful, but is dominated by “huge castles in a fog of snow, hundreds of them, thousands, lined along the shore like spun sugar, all of them made of ice.” Why is she in this striking and barren place? A woman named Arnette had betrayed her for a divorced man, choosing the guy over the narrator. So it goes. The narrator lives with a coworker named Amy who has a boyfriend who is sober “till maybe nine o’clock in the morning.” (At least the guy is dedicated to SOMETHING.) The inciting incident of the story occurred three months earlier; two missionary women visited the narrator, asking questions and offering salvation. The traditional power balance between preacher and stranger is flipped; the narrator is eventually the one begging the evangelists to stay. Alas, the narrator’s regrets are not without value; she realizes that she will wait, no matter the cost, for the kind of company that will make her happiest instead of settling for the most comfortable and available company around.
If you ever meet Ms. Wilson, you quickly find that she is very much like her fiction: endlessly interesting, at once relaxed and intellectually curious and possessed of a compelling intensity. “Women in the Kingdom” is not a whiz-bang plotfest. So why is the story so good? There IS a lot happening, just not in the same way that a lot happens in the Transformers movies. The first person narrator is giving you her autobiography, sharing herself in the same pleasant manner as if you were having a cup of sweet tea with her on a front porch. The narrator is twenty-eight years old and worldly enough to understand she is not happy and what can get her there, but not quite old enough to know how to find that missing puzzle piece. The narrator’s diction is laid back and conversational:
- Earlier that day I’d taken a walk down by the lake, nothing you’d plan, just a walk.
- I worked at a department store, had been for a week, loading little boxes of shoes mostly, but I kept an eye on the fashions in the women’s section, knew one kind of material from another, and those two women had coats that couldn’t have been any warmer than cotton pajamas.
- I knew what it meant to be pointed in the right direction, even though half the time the right direction turns out to be a dead end later on down the line. I know that well enough; everyone does.
Ms. Wilson clearly establishes the tone of her narrator early on in the story and matches the narrator to the plot. Some missionaries come and talk about their faith, they pray a little and leave poor Hugo in the car, then they leave. The writer and her protagonist find importance in these “small” events and wrap you up in appealing language. Me? Sadly, I find it hard to relax in this manner. I always want more “stuff” to happen to make sure I maintain the reader’s interest. A confident and skilled writer will hold a reader rapt with another of the tools in his or her writer’s toolbox.
Ms. Wilson’s story posed a very simple problem whose solutions often seem complicated. The narrator simply can’t know the names of the missionary women who come to meet her. The third person omniscient narrator can simply proclaim a character’s name and offer deep characterization in a few sentences. Easy-peasy. The first person is far more restricted…unless the character is psychic, I suppose. How did Ms. Wilson address the problem of differentiating and characterizing the two visitors?
- She gives one red hair and the other black hair. (Neither wears a hat, which is probably a good idea during a lake effect event.) This allows her to call them things like, “the one with the red hair.”
- The black-haired woman is young and the redhead is older. Contrast! One misses her husband and the other doesn’t. Contrast!
- The narrator seems to greatly prefer the black-haired woman; positive characterizations about one of the women in the narration can probably be applied to her.
- After several pages, we get the visitors’ names: Mary Magdalene and Mary Ellen. Uh oh…these are so similar! Well, that’s why Ms. Wilson has the narrator call Mary Magdalene “Maggie.”
The reader may not need a ton of characterization, but they do need something that will help them remember who is who and a little bit about what they’re like.
Another thing I love about the story is the way that the narrator blends the present and the past and the slightly more distant past. During the encounter with the missionaries, the narrator is always thinking about SOMETHING that has influenced where she is in her life. She’s reminded of Arnette or she muses with regard to how unhappy she is and how hard it is to change. And she acknowledges her loneliness and deep need for company at this time in her life. The narrator acknowledges that her life is a tapestry and all of the events of her life, all of her choices, are woven together to plant her in a cold town in a home that isn’t quite a home, instilled with the understanding that the waiting, perhaps, can be paradise.
What Should We Steal?
- Maximize other elements of storytelling when you’ve chosen to de-emphasize others. So you’re not writing a plot-heavy story. That’s fine. Make sure that your characters are interesting. Or your use of language.
- Differentiate characters who are strangers to your first person narrators. When you meet a bunch of people at a conference, you don’t remember everyone’s names. You do, however, characterize these strangers in some (hopefully) memorable way.
- Blend past, present and future to accomplish quick characterization. You can’t learn everything about a person in twenty pages, but you can learn an awful lot if you mention their most important and relevant life experiences and deepest feelings.
1989, Compelling Narration, Leigh Allison Wilson, Oswego State
Title of Work and its Form: Buffalo Soldiers, novel
Author: Robert O’Connor
Date of Work: 1992
Where the Work Can Be Found: The book was published by Vintage and can be purchased at all fine local bookstores, including Oswego, New York’s River’s End Bookstore. Or from Amazon. Or Powell’s. Just buy it.
Bonuses: Why not check out the New York Times review of the book? The novel was also adapted into a film starring Ed Harris and Joaquin Phoenix. Here’s the trailer.
Element of Craft We’re Stealing: Description
Specialist Ray Elwood is an Army man stationed in Germany, but he’s not the kind of soldier you see in the recruiting posters. Elwood uses and sells drugs and works in Colonel Berman’s office, writing letters and helping the colonel write scholarly articles about the art of war. You have to grease a lot of palms and out-think a lot of people if you’re in Elwood’s line of business, and he’s always a step ahead. Even when a new Top arrives. Sergeant Lee doesn’t like Elwood very much; as a former drug user, he can see right through Elwood’s façade. Sergeant Lee also has a beautiful young daughter, Robyn, who has lost most of an arm for reasons I won’t divulge. As you might expect, Elwood’s situation deteriorates through the novel and Elwood has new and greater dragons to slay. The first three-quarters of the book is a page turner; the last quarter is a breathless race to an inevitable conclusion. Re-reading this summary, you might not realize the book is a dark and powerful comedy that is grounded in real human emotion.
Mr. O’Connor happened to be one of my teachers at Oswego State. (To my great honor, he’s currently one of my colleagues in the Creative Writing Department.) One of the many reasons he’s a strong teacher is that he offers customized advice to each student in the service of honoring the student’s literary goals above all. This is a policy that was also held by my great teachers at Ohio State, and a goal I have today in my own teaching. You want to write an experimental thriller starring an anthropomorphic stapler? That is not at all the style of fiction that I personally enjoy, but great. Let’s make this the best killer stapler story we can. You have a sentimental and sincere love story in mind? That’s not my bag, but what can we do to make this the sweetest and least complicated love story possible.
I have no idea how many students do what I did each time I had a new writing teacher: I got one of his or her books or read some of his or her stories. (Or plays.) You may not wish to write a book like Buffalo Soldiers, for example, but you can tell immediately that Mr. O’Connor is a master of description and excellent at maintaining narrative momentum. Understanding his work allows you to ask more specific questions and to interact in a more meaningful manner. It’s also a lot of fun to talk to writers about their work. I remember having a question about one of Erin McGraw’s sentences when I read it…as her student, I was welcome to e-mail her and ask her specific questions about her craft! (Most writing teachers love talking to students, don’cha know.) Think about it in another, less scholarly way. Can it really hurt you if your teacher sees you walking around with a copy of his or her book? (Especially if it’s not from the library!)
Okay. Let’s get to the lessons you can steal specifically from Buffalo Soldiers and not just its author. I have to acknowledge the elephant in the critical room. Many folks have heaped laurels upon Mr. O’Connor because of the way he used the second person in his book. (I may be wrong, but it seems as though this point of view has been used more since the Buffalo Soldiers/Bright Lights, Big City era.)
One of the primary advantages of a second-person POV is that you’re explicitly forcing the reader into sympathizing with your character. Check out the very beginning of the book:
Mr. O’Connor accomplishes a lot with the first two paragraphs:
- The first sentence establishes the second person POV.
- You learn that Ray Elwood (the protagonist) is in the military and is stationed in Germany.
- You learn that Ray is not exactly a happy man.
- You find out that Ray enjoys heroin and is the leader when it comes to helping others use the drug.
- You discover that Stoney is the muscle in the group.
- It’s immediately clear that Ray likes to break the rules and knows how to work around them.
So Mr. O’Connor does indeed help you relate to Ray with the use of the second person POV. More importantly, the POV creates a more visceral understanding of some “extreme” actions. How many of us know what it’s like to cook and shoot heroin? When you read the book, “you” do. I’m wagering that few folks who read this know what it’s like to patronize a German brothel. Well, through the use of the second person, “you” do. The decreased narrative distance between the reader and Ray helps bridge the gap between them and makes some dangerous and exotic plot developments seem a lot more normal. If the book were in the first person, some readers may have been more judgmental of Ray’s actions as Ray tried to explain himself to the reader. In the third-person, the narrator may have seemed very far away from a character who, on some level, just wants others to understand him.
Mr. O’Connor also provides a master class in description. I hate needles…the narration of the drug use scenes made me just as uncomfortable as if I were in a doctor’s office to get a tetanus booster. One of the characters decides to get circumcised; the description made me shift in my chair as I read. Look at the way Mr. O’Connor describes the cooking of heroin, a procedure with which many readers may be unfamiliar:
His sentences are short and relatively simple. There are plenty of complicated and beautiful sentences in the book, but Mr. O’Connor doesn’t employ them here. Mr. O’Connor wows you with his ability to make music with words, but ensures that he is very clear as to what a heroin user does with the cotton balls.
I won’t spoil the ending, but it’s stellar. It’s no surprise that Ray gets himself into some big trouble. Mr. O’Connor sticks the landing, so to speak. The ending addresses all of the conflicts that he has introduced during the course of the book. In the space of a few pages, all of the book’s questions are resolved. Even better, the promise of the character of Ray Elwood is fulfilled.
What Should We Steal?
- Read the work that has been produced by your teachers and be open to all kinds of mentors. On one hand, it may be great for a pure mystery writer to work closely with a teacher who only writes mysteries. On the other hand, lots of great teachers work, teach and/or write in all genres and their primary goal is to help you with your specific story.
- Employ second person to help your reader feel experiences that are alien to them. The second person knocks down some of the barriers between the reader and characters who may be engaged in unusual or unexpected activities.
- Provide lush and simple descriptions for exotic actions. Your reader may not know what it’s like to speed down the Autobahn or to take a tank for a joyride. Ensure that you describe such actions in simple and powerful terms. (You know…if you have access to a tank, I would love to find out what it’s like to go for a joyride in the first person.)
- Concoct a conclusion that connects all of the questions you’ve contrived. The ending of a novel (or a song or short story or nonfiction piece) is like the blossoming of a flower. You have planted and pruned and fertilized…now it’s time to enjoy the logical end of all of your labor.
1992, Description, Oswego State, Robert O'Connor, Second Person