“Sea Oak” Write Up by Casey Edeiken

Everything that fuels the off kilter nature of the world:

There was a ton of product placement in this story, which I found to be a little off putting; however, in line with Saunders. The product placement and the words used to describe places and things were so simplistic that it clued me into the average consumerism of the people in this world (i.e. the scene where Min and Jade are actually paying attention to the phone sex commercials). Another thing that clued me into the inherent “off-ness” of the world was the morbidity of all the tv shows. Everything they seemed to watch seemed to be something about unlikely, unfair, or untimely deaths. That was really, actually incredibly off putting because what kind of society actually watches this sort of thing? To me that really clued me in that something not only bad was going to happen (foreshadowing of Bernie), but wholistically just how fucked up society had become within this story.

Theme of “nice guys finish last”:

Okay, so this point is best demonstrated through examples:

  1. Bernie: Bernie lived her whole life as a good person and didn’t get anything; in fact, she was so vehemently optimistic that the people in her life didn’t even appreciate her. They complained that she was too optimistic, but when she came back she was a tyrant who actively realized her life had literally amounted to nothing.
  2. The narrator: He’s stuck in a state of poverty with his idiotic family for whatever reason. His state of poverty cannot be improved by him following the rules of his work (no showing his cock, no kissing people) and he’s uncomfortable with breaking those rules, but it’s only when he begins defying those rules that he’s able to adequately provide for the babies and the girls.
  3. Every minor character that is a horrible person has some sort of great reward for their awful demeanor.
    1. Freddie: He’s a gigantic asshole to the kids, but he lives in a sufficiently better neighborhood. He’s also judgemental about the kids.
    2. Len: He’s a total creep that looks down people’s shirts and wants to sleep with his assistants, but he’s better off than the people that work for him.

Literally every good person in this book ends up in a total state of debacle. It’s almost comical how true to the theme everything in this book is.

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“What We Talk About When We Talk About Love” Write Up by Grace Lytle

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The first lines of Raymond Carver’s story “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love” are already interesting, since they introduce Mel McGinnis, who is talking. He’s a cardiologist, and so “sometimes that gives him the right.” Straight away, we as the readers are left with the questions: Why does being a cardiologist give him the right to speak, and what is he speaking about?

Anyway, for the next couple of pages, the author introduces the other three characters, who are Laura, Terri, and Nick. Terri is Mel’s second wife, whereas Nick and Laura are newly married. The pairs are talking about love, which is something Mel seems to always have on his mind, according to Terri. Mel talks about love like he’s an expert on it, like it’s a concrete thing he can grasp and master. The entire story is Mel talking with the other three, sharing his personal truths about love, and telling stories relating to this.

I find this story interesting for a number of reasons, the first being that it is so realistic and human. I say that about most things I read, and maybe that’s because I prefer to read things that actually have the possibility of happening. The constant concern for Mel’s sobriety in Terri’s voice and Laura’s bewilderment and Nick’s observant tendencies are all very organic, and I find that incredibly interesting. Another reason I enjoy this story so much is because it isn’t a bunch of teenagers sitting around, drinking illegal alcohol and talking about love. The characters are adults, well into their lives and careers, who know a thing or two about love. Mel is very clearly speaking from experience, and Terri is countering with her own experiences. Finally, the last reason I like this story so much is the small bits of setting and characterization details placed here and there in order to transition scenes. For reference, when the group moves outside after toasting to “true love,” the author writes that the characters “grinned at each other like children who had agreed on something forbidden,” which is a brilliant way to describe them. Another detail I admired that shows the passage of time and the setting of the sun is “the sunshine inside the room was different now, changing, getting thinner.” I didn’t know how to describe the look and feel of late afternoon-early evening light before this, but I find this detail to be ridiculously accurate while also sounding really nice.

While reading this story, I felt sad, simply put. Really, I was upset. I was a mixture of intense negative emotions as I read Mel McGinnis talk about love. By the end, they’re all drunk and depressed, and I felt sort of the same way, minus the actual drinking. I think that the reason I felt this was partly due to the author’s writing style, and partly due to Mel’s beliefs on love. I think that he’s exhausted and morose and he conveys that with what he says, in turn projecting those feelings on the reader.

I’m absolutely going to be imitating styles from this story in my own writing. I adore pieces written like this, mostly dialogue and when there are details, they’re so in-depth and accurate and beautiful. I like the phrases I mentioned earlier, but I also really enjoy the first two lines:

MY friend Mel McGinnis was talking. Mel McGinnis is a cardiologist, and sometimes that gives him the right.

This line reminds me of C.S. Lewis’ “There was a boy called Eustace Clarence Scrubb, and he almost deserved it,” which is another one of my favorite lines. I like the simplicity of lines like this, I like that they say exactly what the story is going to be about in two sentences or even less. I find that I usually drag out what I’m trying to say in opening lines, so lines like this are what I’m going to strive for.

“The Little Girl at the Door” Write Up by Bethany Erickson

In “The Little Girl at the Door” by Joe Mackall, the author recalls a memory of his grandchild while threading in personal narrative and self-reflection. In the story there is a grandfather, the narrator, and he is obsessed with protecting his grandchild from a poor child. The family that the child comes from is not very well to do and lives on very little. Their house “screams of too much activity and not enough care.” The narrator personifies the house by saying it screams. He uses this technique to portray to the reader how alive the house is with too many people. The narrator makes it sound like the house itself is a living, breathing thing that bustles with activity. The reader gets an image of this house as being almost a nasty creature. The fact that the family has poor living conditions irks the man. He seems obsessed with their poverty and doesn’t want his grandchild tainted with it. The reader infers from this information that the narrator is a loving man. He cares for his granddaughter and wants what is best for her. But this information is a double-edged sword. We also pick up that he is slightly racist and prejudiced. It’s up for the reader to decide if this makes him a good man or not. Leaving this question up for the reader to decide makes the story feel like a puzzle. The reader has to figure out the man’s character. This makes the reader feel smart and that they are reading for a purpose. At one point in his life the old man was poor. The narrator explains:

The house is unkept and neglected. The whole place reminds me more than a little of where I grew up.

That’s another reason why he’s so fascinated with his neighbor’s situation. The man knows what it’s like to be poor and in their shoes. We trust the narrator because we know he has been in their situation. This is a very bold statement by the author. There is no metaphor or hidden meaning. His views are very clear to the reader and are laid out in a way as to make the reader know the man’s position quite easily. He describes his grandchild as naïve by saying, “Ellie likes everybody.” He states this almost like a reprimand to Ellie. He wants her to not be so naïve. But he expects this of a child. Ellie is a kid. She is pure and hasn’t experienced the harshness of the world like he has. He is protective of her because of her pureness. He even thinks about what boys would do to his grandchild. The narrator explains,

I imagine the little girl and Ellie walking around the neighborhood in a few years, acting bored, smoking cigarettes, being pursued by boys I know all too well, romantic young boys lured by the hum of dusk, boys bruised by a world they don’t understand, boys eager to bruise back.

The reader learns more about this character because of this wild hypothetical he dreams up. He wants his grandchild to live a life that is trouble free. He understands that if she hangs out with the poor child then she will be led down a road of destruction. The narrator experiences inner turmoil. He wants to protect his granddaughter but also realizes that to assume the worst of the poor child is wrong. The narrator states,

I turn from her gaze, holding tight my anger and fear, but mostly my shame, watching my granddaughter and the little girl at the door run smiling through dappled grass.

The narrator realizes his faults. He tried to hide it, is even ashamed of his hatred. The narrator explains,

I watch her through my reflection in the window, and I see us both clearly—someone to love, someone to fear.

The narrator realizes that he is as much to fear as the poor little girl because of his vile hatred. He is likable because he does have good qualities, such as being kind and loving, but his good qualities are tainted by his prejudice. This major juxtaposition of qualities leaves the reader confused. It is up to them to decide if the man is good or not. The author leaves this decision up to the reader to bring the story open to different interpretations. This causes argument about the story, which makes it interesting and exciting.

“Second Language” Write Up by Eva Kramer

One aspect that I found intriguing in Kristine S. Ervin’s “Second Language” was her form. It’s very broken and choppy as far as how it looks on the page. It begins with the first sentence. You aren’t exactly sure how to read it. It isn’t until you finish the entire story that when you go back to the first sentence it makes sense. As well, she doesn’t use normal punctuation to dictate when someone is speaking, etc., you have to infer from the context.

It looks more poetic than the traditional story format of Non-Fiction. However, it works to her advantage. Because of how it’s presented I found the piece incredibly confusing the first time I read it but I wanted to read it again. It drew me in. So I did, I reread it and reread it until it made sense. Each time I read it I found a new aspect I hadn’t considered the first time. That’s what I find powerful about this piece. She weaves meaning where you might not see it upon first look. Like the significance of the detachment from the word “mommy” or “mom”. She only calls her mom “mother”, which her family hates. But it shows how the detachment is easier for her to deal with. Making the death impersonal is how Ervin survives. And she doesn’t blatantly say that. Sometimes subtlety is the better choice for introducing information to the reader.

“The Death of A Government Clerk” Write Up by Ty Gates

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The first paragraph of Anton Chekhov’s “The Death of A Government Clerk” is interesting and unexpected. The language that’s used and the way it’s written gives this casual feeling to it. It almost feels as if the author is just having a conversation with you. It’s an interesting way to set the tone for the story, and I found myself intrigued by the tone the author chose for this story, considering the title. My theory on why the author chose this tone is because it’s strikingly different from what you would expect. The title is foreboding, but the tone is almost joyful and lighthearted. It makes the story sound like a joke.

The plot arc in this story is an odd one. For instance, if we go back to the beginning. The conflict is introduced almost immediately. There is almost no exposition, it just jumps right into the conflict and rising action. I thought the conflict itself was strange. Usually, the conflicts that we would consider “story worthy” are much larger, but this one is pretty much just an awkward moment gone haywire. One thing I thought was odd was how important it was for Ivan to apologize. It was like that was all that mattered in the world. It seems odd, because in our world, one might not even acknowledge that it had happened. I have two ideas. The first is that Ivan will be punished for not apologizing, but when he sees that the general is not in his department, he’s relieved, as if the general can’t touch him for that. The second is that this society is so driven by honor that if Ivan hadn’t apologized, he would be marked. Maybe it is very strict with its rules about when you “splatter” someone. Any theories?

I also think it’s interesting that the author makes almost no effort to tell us anything about Ivan except for the fact that he is sorry for sneezing on the general’s head. It adds to the casual tone and makes the main character seem almost unimportant. Maybe Ivan’s position in the government isn’t important. This would explain the dismissive way the general treats Ivan, as if he’s a lesser member of the government. However, when Ivan realizes that he splattered on the general, he doesn’t explain him as a superior. He doesn’t even show him as an equal. He just is.

The ending is just as striking as the beginning. The way that the author builds up the story makes this accident seem earth-shattering. Ivan tries again and again to apologize to this man, and each time he’s blown off. Every time he gets blown off, Ivan becomes more and more desperate, until the climax when the general tells him to go away. After Ivan has resolved not to write a letter to the general, it ends abruptly. The man goes home and dies. It’s matter of fact and sudden. When the author is talking directly to the reader in the beginning of the piece about the conflict being introduced with “but suddenly,” the reader is lulled into a sense of security. Then the end is the more sudden thing. A sneeze isn’t exactly sudden. You can feel it building up. But the way, or lack of way, that the author explains his death is most definitely sudden.

Something that we can incorporate into our writing is the use of tone to almost play with the reader’s expectations. Using techniques like casually breaking the story to speak to the reader directly can help turn tone in the way the author wants, if done well. It directly sets up a sort of feeling with the story. Along with that, the use of casual language, especially in this piece, can make the story feel like it’s being told word of mouth or even as a joke. I think integrating an acute awareness of our tone and the way we create that can help us steer the story and the reader in the directions we want.

“Miriam” Write Up by Audrey Mills

“Miriam” by Truman Capote (1945)

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Let’s start from the beginning. The first paragraph introduces the character of Mrs. H.T. Miller, and establishes her lonely, mundane life. She seems not to have any particular purpose or direction apart from her routine, and has become a shell. Her routine is all that is left of her. When she decides to go see the movie, she is breaking apart from the routine in a spontaneous act, which sparks the horrifying turn her life takes.

There are many references to snow throughout the story, and I have several theories on what it means. It represents her mental state, falling thicker and thicker as tension and conflict build. It is also similar to Miriam, as they both symbolize loneliness and isolation. Miriam even looks like snow, leading me to believe that they are connected. The story is all about escalation: the snow is building, the tension is building, Miriam’s torturous behavior is building, causing Mrs. Miller’s woes to build.

Miriam can be interpreted in many different ways, and each way changes the meaning of everything in the story. She could be the ghost of Miller’s childhood? A part of Miller that she doesn’t want to see? Is she real at all? Is she a figment of Miller’s imagination as she becomes more senile? Is she a combination of these elements? What we know for sure is that she is a personification of her loneliness. Also, it’s a tiny detail, but her plum coat symbolizes wealth, so it is inferred that everything she asks Mrs. Miller for is not out of need.

Miriam first meets Mrs. Miller by asking, and at the movie theater she seems to be testing her out, seeing if she will be the next good person to move on to. Her requests grow more and more, showing Miller’s growing isolation and declining sanity.

The old man carrying packages that Mrs. Miller sees is the man from her dream, and that is where she recognized him from. He also seems to be Miriam’s former host before Mrs. Miller, the old man that she refers to. Another theory is that he could be Miller’s dead husband. She could be imagining him completely, having perhaps forgotten what her husband looked like, or projecting her husband onto a stranger who is Miriam’s host. This idea is possible, but I do not think it is likely.

The end is a fascinating part of the story, and Miriam hiding in the drawer means that she could or could not be a real person even if the neighbors did not see her. Mrs. Miller is ironically forced to reach out to her neighbors for help, but they cannot find Miriam (in a metaphorical sense, see or understand her loneliness). It points to further tension and conflict, suggesting that Miriam, imaginary or not, will never leave Mrs. Miller until her death.

The author uses several elements in this piece, most noticeably: indirect characterization, symbolism, and mystery. He characterized Miriam and Mrs. Miller mostly by their actions and appearances, to let us know from the outside what was going on beneath the surface. For symbolism, the biggest example is that Miriam and the snow symbolized loneliness and isolation. Capote also incorporated what I am calling mystery, or leaving out overdone explanations or a resolution to let us interpret what is going on for ourselves. We can see Miriam and who she is in a number of ways, and I believe that was his intention, allowing us to figure out a lot of the story for ourselves as well as the meaning or message, which is different for everyone. This ties in to trusting in the intelligence of your reader. We can take these qualities: indirect characterization, symbolism, and mystery, and incorporate them into our own work to create a deeper piece with a more versatile meaning.

“Standing By” Write Up by Allie Elkhadem

David Sedaris is a highly acclaimed humorist who uses his own life as fodder for his story; so, it was no surprise that in “Standing By” Sedaris retells experiences of his at airports with the purpose to entertain people. He is able to achieve humor with by creating a comedic, conversational tone by using vulgarities and including questions. However, Sedaris sole intention was not just to entertain. He also wanted to raise a question about the nature of humans: are humans mostly mean? Sedaris uses a combination of references to politics and history, rhetorical questions, and anecdotes to reveal his question at the end of the essay.

Throughout the piece Sedaris uses an abundance and variety of profanities from “fart” to “mothafocka.” The use of profanities makes the piece feel believable as well as relatable. Most people that have been to airports have endured some type of horrible experience, and most likely there were many other people speaking without filters around them (or they themselves were the initiator). The word choice mirrors the angry, conversational tone overheard at airports. Additionally, profanities add a certain level of both shock value and humor to the piece. One of the funniest moments of the piece was when Sedaris just turned to the old grandmother and said in reference to the shirt with mothafocka “what gets me is that they couldn’t even spell” it right, and he continues saying “I mean, what kind of example is that setting for our young people?”

Additionally, Sedaris includes questions to add initially to the conversational tone (and often humor) but also to add to his conversation about the nature of humans. Many of the questions in the piece are used to make for realistic dialogue. For example, the grandmother simply asks “what?” in one of her pieces of dialogue. Questions are also used as mechanisms for humor, like when the flight attendants explain “crop dusting” through the metaphor of a squished water bottle. Then towards the end of the piece, questions are used to spur the dialogue about the way humans react at airports. He explicitly shares this with the question, “But what if this is who we truly are, and the airport’s just a forum that allows us to be our real selves”? Sedaris wants us to think deeply about the essence of humanity with the anecdotes he has included.

With his references to politics and history, Sedaris furthers his argument about the idea that airports allow for the trueness of humans to be revealed. Without paying attention, it is easy to miss how many references to both politics and history Sedaris weaves into his piece. This gentle weaving allows for the piece to both have the conversational tone while leading up to his final statement about the humanity. Sedaris makes tensions and separates people into “we and they” by bringing up political alignments. Additionally Sedaris makes a more obvious argument about the more “evil” side of people by referencing Hitler. His personal reactions also factor into how we view the situation and the people surrounding him.

From this piece, we can learn the importance of slow release of information. By gradually making references to history and politics while still keeping with the conversational tone, Sedaris is able to both entertain and making people think about the nature of humans. Humor has an important place in writing and the same goes for creative nonfiction; humor allows the author to grab the reader’s attention and is then able to make the reader ponder.