Tag: Ploughshares

What Can We Steal From Jennifer Haigh’s “Paramour”?


Title of Work and its Form: “Paramour,” short story
Author: Jennifer Haigh
Date of Work: 2011
Where the Work Can Be Found:  The story made its debut in the Winter 2011-12 issue of Ploughshares, a top-notch lit mag.  (That issue was guest-edited by Alice Hoffman.)  You can order a back issue from the kind folks at Ploughshares or you can find the story through Project Muse.  Editors Tom Perrotta and Heidi Pitlor selected the story for the 2012 edition of the Best American Short Stories anthology.

Bonuses: Karen Carlson trained her critical eye on the story.  Here is an interview Ms. Haigh did about her book, Faith.

Element of Craft We’re Stealing: Sentence Structure

Christine is a college teacher who began her academic life as a writer.  Ivan Borysenko, an attractive older teacher, awakened her interest in playwriting.  At nineteen, Christine spent a lot of time with Ivan and loved thinking about what other people were thinking about her, even though the two never had a “real” affair.  She sat in the nude for him as he made his art.  Fifteen years later, Christine is in New York City to attend a ceremony in tribute to Ivan.  The experience is a bit shocking to her; she’s remembering herself as she was so long ago.  She meets Martin, an assertive man who pursues her rapaciously.  There is, of course, a nice discussion between Christine and Ivan.  His seventeen-year-old daughter Pia intrudes, allowing Christine (and Ms. Haigh) to solidify the parallel between the two characters.  Christine tries to understand herself and her experience with Ivan; how convenient that she can compare her own immaturity to that of Pia.  Is there a Christine/Ivan hookup?  Nope.  She has a passionate evening with Martin.  The next day, Christine learns that Pia’s assumed maturity has brought consequences: the young woman drunk-drove her car into a concrete barrier.  Thanks to seat belts and air bags, she survived.

The structure that Ms. Haigh chose for “Paramour” is very interesting and very solid, but I want to zoom in and look at the way the author constructed her sentences.  As you are no doubt aware, there are countless ways for you to construct your sentences.  Here’s an example from the story of what I call a “backward” sentence:

With her best friend, a boy named Tommy, she had suffered two attempts—one failed, one nominally successful; both awkward and crushingly sad.

Christine is the protagonist of the story; why did Ms. Haigh give Tommy top billing in the sentence?  I think that casting the sentence in this way helps the reader identify that he or she is meeting a new character.  Tommy is indeed important to Christine, so he is important to us, too.  Would the sentence as effectively communicate Christine’s backstory were it cast like this?

Christine had suffered two attempts—one failed, one nominally successful—at lovemaking with her best friend Tommy; both attempts were awkward and crushingly sad.

In the above representation of the sentence, Christine is the star and Tommy may be overlooked.

Here’s a paragraph that is crucial to the story.  Look at the second sentence:

Later she understood how gravely she’d miscalculated.  That with every lover for the rest of her life, Ivan Borysenko would hover in the room.

How is the meaning changed if the sentence were cast this way:

Ivan Borysenko would hover in the room with each lover for the rest of her life.

Or this way:

Ivan Borysenko haunted Christine each time she shared time with another lover.

Or this way:

Every future lover of Christine’s would exist in the shadow of Ivan Borysenko.

Each version of the sentence emphasizes different characters and ideas.  Each is perfectly valid, but you should remain open as to which construction of a sentence best serves your story.

I love the strange, dark turn that the story takes at its end.  In a way, the denouement breaks a rule: the car accident doesn’t happen to the protagonist.  All of the important events crammed into that last paragraph take place while Christine is in bed with her new gentleman friend.  Why is the ending so successful?  I think it’s because it is so jarring.  For nine pages, Ms. Haigh invited the reader to consider the differences between young and old Christine (not the TV show, of course) and invited the reader to join Christine in wondering what her life might be like if things had happened differently.  Pia is a parallel character to Christine, implicitly and explicitly.  The excesses of Pia’s life causes grave consequences; the realization is as sharp for the reader as it is for Christine.  The protagonist has wondered for fifteen years what her life would be like had she fully become “Ivan’s girl.”  And now she knows.

Ms. Haigh is reminding us that action takes place within characters in addition to outside of them.  It’s much easier for folks to tell when one character in engaged in a fistfight with another than it is to describe inner turmoil.  Ending the story with what happened to Pia solidifies the parallel nature of the characters and implies, in a way, Christina really was in the car.

What Should We Steal?

  • Treat your sentences like collections of Lego blocks.  Switch around the elements of your sentences to decide what you want to emphasize.
  • Allow action to take place “offstage” if the effects are meaningful for your characters.  Emotional impact counts as action, too!

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.