Title of Work and its Form: “Tedford and the Megalodon,” short story
Author: Jim Shepard (Fan Twitter feed: @JimShepardfan)
Date of Work: 2002
Where the Work Can Be Found: The story made its debut in McSweeney’s Mammoth Treasure of Thrilling Tales, an anthology that began life as issue 10 of McSweeney’s. (One of those publications that I call a “teenage crush” journal because I will love them far more than they’ll ever love me.) Here is the teaser that the McSweeney’s folks posted to tantalize readers. Please purchase the book from your local independent bookstore.
Bonus: Mr. Shepard shared his thoughts about writing with O Magazine. Here is an interview Mr. Shepard gave to Bookslut. Here‘s a very interesting interview Mr. Shepard gave to BOMB Magazine.
Element of Craft We’re Stealing: Structure
Roy Henry Tedford is a 33-year-old explorer. He’s the kind of man who loves humanity and loves culture, but is willing to disconnect himself from everyone else in order to contribute to our understanding of the world. Tedford takes off in search of the Carcharaodon Megalodon, a monster rumored to live in the Antarctic. After stocking up on provisions, Tedford lugs his rifle and lantern and canoe into the Great Unknown and finds what he was looking for…in a number of ways.
I can’t help but begin my analysis by discussing what I believe McSweeney’s Mammoth Treasure of Thrilling Tales represents. If you take a look at Michael Chabon’s introductory editorial comment, you will find an important way forward for our literary world. Mr. Chabon points out that short fiction took an insular turn sometime around the middle of the twentieth century. The short story scene was far more popular and diverse than it is now in many ways. It was possible for “literary” fiction to include “ripping yarns.” Today, the “literary story” seems to guide the critical conversation in many places. In the past, “short fiction” could refer to “any one of the following kinds of stories: the ghost story, the horror story, the detective story; the story of suspense, terror, fantasy, or the macabre; the sea, adventure, spy, war, or historical story; the romance story.”
I love so much of the work in the “mainstream literary scene,” but I worry that insularity explains why so many of the general public are strangers to the contemporary short story. Chabon’s anthology is a wonderful step toward addressing the injustice we may have done to the short story. Just look at the cover of the book…it’s one of those beautiful pulp-style paintings of a lion tamer-type guy fighting a half-man/half-panther! Awesome! Looks like something cool is going to happen in these stories.
The works Chabon chose (and wrote) are indeed as pulse-pounding as they are well-written. Now, I don’t mean to say that people in the “writing community” don’t like genre work. I know I do and I can’t imagine any of my friends dismissing a science fiction story outright. (I have also maintained my dream of being in Asimov’s for twenty years now.) I suppose that what I’m hoping is that we renew our commitment to the “woman on the bus.” We all need to do a better job, somehow, of broadening the audience for contemporary literature.
Mr. Shepard’s story is a fantastic example of work that is both “literary” and entertaining. The gentleman demonstrates a firm grasp of craft while telling a story that is a lot of fun. (Even if it is a little scary.) At its heart, this is an adventure tale. These have been around…well…forever. Robinson Crusoe, The Odyssey, the works of Jack London, Star Trek…these are all timeless because they appeal to the innate human need to simply DISCOVER.
What makes the story “literary” in addition to “fun?” One big reason, I would assert, is the structure of the story. The piece is 17 pages long. The first 8 pages are devoted to developing Tedford’s character. The final 9 pages are centered upon Tedford’s voyage. Why does this structure make a lot of sense? Well, we care about the Megalodon a lot more than we otherwise would because we know what the beast means to Tedford. (Hence the felicitous title.)
Could Mr. Shepard have begun the story in the middle, as Tedford is on the brink of discovery? Sure. But the reader would miss out on a great deal. I can illustrate the principle through the use of movies. Everyone in the world should see the film Idiocracy. In the film, the most average man on the planet is reanimated after 500 years, only to discover that he’s now the smartest person on the planet. As Joe wanders around the city, he learns about the culture of the America into which he’s been thrust:
Why does Joe look uncomfortable while watching the movie Ass? It’s not because he’s offended by seeing a part of the human body. He’s uncomfortable because he hasn’t been drawn into the narrative. When Joe becomes the Prezadent of Uhmerica, he uses his inaugural speech to push a literacy narrative:
“People wrote books and movies. Movies that had stories. So you cared whose ass it was and why it was farting and I believe that time can come again…”
We care about Tedford and his personal quest means something to us. Apply the principle for movies. The Transformers movies? Not so great. Why? Because the characters are puppets that move around between explosions. Lethal Weapon? That’s a fantastic film. Why? Because we care about Riggs and Murtaugh and there are big stakes for both characters.
I also love the way that Mr. Shepard uses tone in the story. Both “halves” of the narrative are in third person, but it felt to me as though Mr. Shepard began the story with diction and a point of view reminiscent of an epic story. Tedford is, in a way, withheld from the audience as the reader begins to understand him and the world he wishes to conquer. The second section seems to shift. Mr. Shepard (and his narrator) dives far deeper into Tedford, slowing down and giving you much more of a moment-by-moment account of his journey.
To keep with the movie theme, I’ll liken the technique to zooming in and out with a camera lens. Once we have the broad strokes, we may find it felicitous to zoom in very closely on the character in the extreme situation.
What Should We Steal?
- Remember that there are millions of potential readers out there who want cool stories. Do I have all of the answers? No. Do I have any answers? Not really. I just wish we could create more new readers than is currently the case.
- Drama should emerge from the characters instead of being thrust upon them. Les Miserables is a classic because the characters are complicated individuals and must deal with unpleasantness, some of which is their own doing. Saw 9: See Saw Run is not a classic because the characters are disposable placeholders.
- Shift tone judiciously. Not only must we skip the boring and unnecessary parts of our characters’ lives, but we must also slow down and show off the moments of beauty and epiphany to which we’ve been building.
2002, Jim Shepard, McSweeney's, Michael Chabon, Structure, tone
Title of Work and its Form: “Orange,” short story
Author: Neil Gaiman (on Twitter @neilhimself)
Date of Work: 2010
Where the Work Can Be Found: The piece debuted in the October 2010 issue of Southwest Airlines Spirit Magazine. The piece was subsequently included in The Best American Nonrequired Reading 2011. (“Orange” can be found in a number of other anthologies, too.) Mr. Gaiman is an absolutely charming storyteller; you can watch him read the story on video:
Bonuses: Here is what StoryADay’s Julie Duffy thought of the story. Here’s a beautiful commentary from Mr. Gaiman in which he reminds us what is truly important: libraries. Here is Mr. Gaiman’s official bookstore.
Element of Craft We’re Stealing: Structure
Jemma Glorfindel Petula Ramsey is a sixteen-year-old woman in a bit of a strange situation. Her younger sister Lilias seems to have received a jar of dye. Before long, Jemma discovers that Lilias, a curious teenager, has smeared the liquid on her skin. Then Lilias started to glow a “pulsating orange” and telling people “she was going to be worshipped like a god.” What happens next? Why don’t you read the story and find out?
One of the reasons that Mr. Gaiman is one of the most successful English-language writers in the world is that his work is at once imaginative and accessible. Yes, this story’s main character is a teenager who literally becomes orange, but the piece is not at all “strange” to a reader who is at all open-minded. How does Mr. Gaiman simultaneously ground the reader while taking him or her on an unexpected ride? To me, the biggest reason is the felicitous structure that Mr. Gaiman chose.
The first lines of the story point out that we’re reading a
CONFIDENTIAL POLICE FILE
and the officer points out that Jemma’s testimony is the
(Third subject’s responses to investigator’s written questionnaire).
Mr. Gaiman appropriated the structure of a police interrogation. How does this help him?
- First person testimony is very easy for all of us to understand. We hear and create first person narratives every single day.
- Police records are, by definition, extremely reliant upon the elucidation of facts and the use of clear prose. The reader is less likely to be confused by any complex or beautiful sentences because these are, by definition, the crisp sentences of a teenager hoping to put facts into the public record.
- Exposition is comparatively easy to release in a police report. Mr. Gaiman doesn’ t have to worry about how he’s going to slip his character names into the story in a graceful fashion. Why? That’s the first question Jemma is asked. Instead of trying to figure out an organic way to communicate Jemma’s age, Mr. Gaiman simply makes it the second question and plops in her age and birthday.
- The form eliminates a lot of the “connecting tissue” that is present in a “traditional” story. “Orange” is a brisk read and the time Mr. Gaiman saves in simply TELLING you, for example, where Jemma has lived can be devoted to the many clever and charming jokes in the story.
With all of that said, I think we can also learn a lot from the inherent ambiguity in the story. The reader doesn’t receive the questions that Jemma is answering. The effect resembles that of an overheard phone conversation. We’ve all been somewhere when a person answers the phone and we hear what the person is saying, but we don’ t know what’s coming through on the other end of the line. So even though Mr. Gaiman ensures that the Lilias narrative is very clear, he allows us to dream by throwing in a little bit of ambiguity:
Until the day I die.
Do we know exactly what the questions are? No. But because the Lilias narrative is so firm, Mr. Gaiman can indulge himself and his reader in a little daydreaming. I have my own idea as to the questions that Jemma is answering and they mean something to me. You may have a completely different interpretation…and that’s wonderful.
I can’t help but point out that Mr. Gaiman and I have had the same little idea. One of my crummy grad school stories centers upon a woman whose adolescence was made more difficult by her father’s silly devotion to his stupid business idea. The father loses his savings and his wife because of his Hot Salad™ restaurant. Mr. Gaiman is similarly playful in “Orange.” Jemma’s mother “invented the Stuffed Muffin™, and started the Stuffed Muffin chain.” If you watch the videos of Mr. Gaiman reading the story, the ™ gets a delightful laugh. What can we steal from this coincidence? I am willing to bet that this kind of coincidence happens all of the time. Why shouldn’t we feel slightly heartened by the fact that we may have the same kinds of ideas that pop into the heads of world-class writers?
What Should We Steal?
- Employ a form that allows you to be both imaginative and accessible. A story about an orange teenager may be a little confusing to some…unless it’s told in a clear and forceful manner.
- Contrive your work in such a manner that your reader wonders about the proper things. Don’t make your reader wonder what is going on. Force your reader to wonder what it all means to them.
- Take heart when you notice similarities between your work and that of very successful writers. Maybe, just maybe, folks like me are on the right track!
Mr. Gaiman happens to be married to Amanda Palmer, a great musician and artist. We should all see Ms. Palmer’s TED talk. In “The Art of Asking,” she glorifies art and beauty in an unexpected manner and describes the kind of world in which we should all have the pleasure of living. At the very least, we should all try to be the kind of audience that Ms. Palmer describes.
2010, Best American Nonrequired Reading 2011, Neil Gaiman, Southwest Airlines Spirit Magazine, Structure
Title of Work and its Form: “Head Lock Heart Choke,” poem
Author: Amber Tamblyn
Date of Work: 2012
Where the Work Can Be Found: The poem debuted in July 2012 on InDigest, a very cool “online literary magazine and arts blog focused on creating a dialogue between the arts.” You can read the poem here.
Thanks to the wonder of the Internet, you can even see her read her poem:
Bonuses: Want to book Ms. Tamblyn for a reading? Here is her agency listing. Here is a poem Ms. Tamblyn published on The Nervous Breakdown. Here is a brief but pretty interview with Ms. Tamblyn in which she discusses poetry. Ms. Tamblyn co-founded Write Now Poets, a great organization “dedicated to increasing the audience for poetry through performance, education, publishing and grant-making.”
Element of Craft We’re Stealing: Structure
Ms. Tamblyn says that this is a poem about drinking with Hugh Laurie, so I think I’ve solved the “who is ‘H.L.’?” mystery. The poem is indeed spoken by a narrator and directed toward what could very well be a drinking companion. The poem possesses a conspiratorial tone; the narrator is constantly inviting his or her conspirator to do something new and entertaining. The poem ends with self-realization-it’s not just the poem that is “so drunk”-and the kind of epiphany a person stumbles upon after a long night of drinking.
One of the things I love about the poem is that Ms. Tamblyn adopts and recreates the feeling that you have during a long night out with a good friend. The sentences and lines start out long and complicated and get shorter and are slightly less coherent. Why is this appropriate? When you drink a lot, you end up thinking shorter thoughts that, in retrospect, aren’t as complete as they seemed the night before.
Why is this such a felicitous choice? Even a teetotaler can understand the basic format of a NIGHT SPENT OUT DRINKING WITH A COMPANION. The poem consists of jokes that only a drunk person (or a good poet) could think up or find entertaining. Sexually charged verbs replace the customary ones. After last call, you find an extra shoe under your chair and wonder how the heck it got there. And, of course, you tell your companion how much you love them, your mind loosened by drink.
Appropriating a structure also allows you to cut out some exposition and to ease your reader into your work. Instead of wondering what is happening in the poem or waiting for Ms. Tamblyn to set a scene, you’re relaxing in your own chair beside the narrator at the bar. You’re also making a visceral connection with the reader; the situation of the poem invites the reader to subconsciously recall our own nights of debauchery. For better or worse (depending on what kind of drunk we are), this choice of structure forges an inherent and powerful connection between poet and reader.
If you watch Ms. Tamblyn read her poem, you will find that she seems to have added a subtitle to the poem (in addition to a few new lines). Why did she remove the subtitle “Drinking with Hugh Laurie” for publication? Or why did she add it during her reading? Why did the line “Where did this shoe come from?” become “Whose fuckin’ shoe is this?” Ms. Tamblyn, for whatever reason, did not psychically know I would write this essay and therefore did not write me an e-mail to tell me about the chronology of the poem’s composition. So maybe those lines came from an earlier or later draft. The point I want to make, however, is that Ms. Tamblyn is demonstrating that poetry is ALIVE…or should be. I like to think that Ms. Tamblyn was so into reciting her poem that she was inspired to change her lines. Maybe she prefers the original lines, maybe she prefers the improvisation that may or may not have been nudged into being by whatever was in her glass.
(The other important idea to take from the video is that a poet is a PERFORMER. Even if you don’t consider yourself the best actor or actress, it’s your duty to try and entertain those adoring throngs. Think about it; “Bownbooze” is a word that is meant to be PERFORMED, not read.)
Ms. Tamblyn also uses words in a fun and powerful way. Look in the fifth stanza. The words are “waged.” The drunken friend is urged to “jerk off” rainbows into the enemy’s valley. These are strong and unexpected verbs. Not only does the reader briefly stop to consider the mental images in the lines, but those images are stronger because of the unconventional use of language.
What Should We Steal?
- Appropriate an established form for your work. Take advantage of your reader’s innate understanding of an afternoon spent at the DMV or the tedium of an evening spent in the audience of an elementary school talent show.
- Allow a live reading to influence your work. You may or may not retain changes you make in the heat of the moment, but you can draw in your audience by being playful.
- Blast your reader in the face with powerful verbs and unanticipated choices of words. Zip through your poem or story and nuke the words that are the most out-of-money-in-the-strip-club.
2012, Amber Tamblyn, InDigest, Structure