“The Passenger” Write Up by Eli Johns-Krull

Techniques tracked:

  • Use of concrete details
  • Use of flashbacks/narrative breaks

“The Passenger” by Marisa Silver begins with the narrator, Babe, explaining to the audience some about her life as a taxi driver, including her dispatcher Ruthanne, before it describes how she takes a job from LAX. Next, it explains what her life is like and introduces her mother who lives in a spiritual community, before describing the scene at the airport where she picks up her two passengers, Mr. and Mrs. Chin, who refuse to place their black suitcase in the trunk. It then goes on to talk about the first time Babe’s mother tried to kill herself, explaining that she called Babe to tell her before trying to take her own life with sleeping pills, which she failed to do because she threw up. Next, the story describes how Babe drifts off into her memories before she gets stuck in a traffic jam. The story then recounts an incident from when the narrator lived in Cleveland, explaining how the narrator and her mother ate with a man and a girl slightly older than the narrator where she and her mother left after eating, despite the daughter asking why they didn’t pay, to which the mother responds that they did. The story returns to Babe in the traffic jam, where it is revealed that it was caused by a fatal crash. The Chins begin arguing after speaking with a cop, which results in them leaving the car, abandoning their suitcase. Babe drives off, and, after opening the suitcase, discovers a baby that she takes to the hospital, where she is taken away because it is suspected that she mistreated the child. The story breaks off, detailing when her mother attempted to slit her own wrists. The narrative returns to the detention room of the hospital, where a police officer questions Babe, and the opening of the suitcase proves her innocence. The story then retells when Babe helped her mother pack to move to the spiritual community, before concluding with Babe’s thoughts in the hospital parking lot.

The first element I tracked in this story is the way that Silver uses concrete details to build scene and to convey ideas about her characters. One of the examples of this that really stuck out to me is when she describes the guards, saying

Two guards in uniforms stand behind her, their hands casually crossed in front of their stomachs.

At first glance, this seemed like a simple description of a character with a relatively small part in the narrative, but as I continued to think about it, I imagined the character more clearly. With the information that their hands were crossed in front of their stomachs, I got a feeling of honesty and fairness from these cops (the idea that people are less likely to be hiding something if you can see their hands), and because their posture was described as casual, my mind envisioned to guards who were very relaxed and more understanding and kind towards the “criminals” they were responsible for controlling. As I read this story, I realized Silver has a gift for giving the audience the right amount of information so that they can imagine a situation without the descriptions feeling as if they are dragging on. Another example of this is when the traffic outside the washer is described to sound

…like the rubbery sounds you hear underwater.

This conveys to the reader not only the idea of Babe’s detachment from the noise and the hectic environment surrounding her, it also serves to further the idea that is present throughout the story of Babe’s general detachment from her own life, which is further showcased through her thoughts about her job (it’s only what she did for now) and where she lived (every city would be essentially the same).

The second elements I tracked in this story was Silver’s use of flashbacks and narrative breaks. One of the most prominent examples of this is when Babe describes a memory she has from when she and her mother lived in Cleveland, and specifically the time the ate dinner with an unfamiliar man and a girl who is most likely his daughter. This scene introduces a character that the mother is most likely familiar with but Babe doesn’t know, and its conclusion, the mother saying

“We paid all right.”

introduces the idea that the mother thinks the man is indebted to her. This is tied back into when Babe is helping her mother pack to move to the spiritual community, and the daughter considers these two people to be among those

…she must have dropped along the way.

This idea is very important to me, because the way the mother has been dropping people, combined with the fact that the mother has continually tried to remove herself from her daughter’s life (and life in general) really tie into the idea of the last paragraph, specifically the quote

…she thought her baby would do better without her…

because it seems as if Babe has stopped speaking about the baby and is instead thinking about her mother’s own attempts to give Babe a better life, despite the cost to the mother. The mother is trying to help her daughter find paradise, even though it causes her suffering, and almost resulted in her death on several occasions.

I think that I will take the idea of providing enough information to create a visual or a sensory feeling in the reader without it seeming to over descriptive or becoming boring to the reader. Another element of this story I want to be able to imitate in my own writing is to be able to intertwine external information or scenes with a narrative so that they both lead to the same conclusion and ending, making the final lines and the closing scene or climax more powerful. A third element of this story I really enjoyed was the fact it had several small mental reversals that changed the audience’s viewpoint, and that Silver seems almost self-aware of this fact (for example, when the story starts with the narrator describing her nose ring, gives the audience just enough time to begin forming assumptions on her, and then states that the audience’s assumptions are false).

Discussion Questions

  • Do you think the flashbacks were impactful/important to the story? Why (not)?
  • Why did the narrator choose to use selling a child to introduce the idea of giving up a child so they can have a better life?
  • Do you think that the story is about giving up children so they can have a better life? If not, what do you think it’s about?
Advertisements

The Moves Lit Journals Are Looking For Part 4: The New Yorker

Techniques tracked (or nice “moves”):
-sarcasm/humor masking and revealing emotion
-objective correlative
-use of objects 

Had this series started with the publication that was both the most difficult and most desirable to publish in, that publication would have been The New Yorker. For a fiction writer, it’s probably almost impossible to get your unsolicited work picked up from the magazine’s slush pile, but we can still analyze the moves made by what’s supposed to be the best work in the country.

Luke Mogelson reported on the conflict in Syria and and the outbreak of the Ebola virus in Liberia and Sierra Leone for the magazine before publishing his fiction in it. His story “Peacetime,” which appeared in the April 27, 2015 issue, begins with the first-person narrator—referred to only ever by his last name, Papadopoulos—telling us he’s living in “the armory on Lexington Avenue,” where he planned to stay for only a short time, but he keeps putting off reuniting with his wife. He works as a paramedic in between drilling for the National Guard; his ambulance partner Karen wants to be a cop, which bothers him since he steals something on every call they make. He frequently gets drunk with Sergeant Diaz, whom he served in Iraq with, then connects to a bag of saline so he’s not hungover. His unit has recently gotten a new, stricter captain, Finkbiner, who keeps the jawbone of a camel he shot in Iraq on his desk and whom Papadopoulos butts heads with; Finkbiner would not let Papadopoulos live in the armory if he knew about it. Papadopoulos and Karen visit a regular, Mrs. Olenski, who calls once a week for alleged chest pain but is really just lonely after her husband died. Papadopoulos and Karen frequently use the phrase “Don’t cut my leathers,” quoting an injured man’s response to the trauma shears when they needed to cut his pants off after his motorcycle accident; the meaning of the phrase is “elastic,” invoked in annoying or painful situations. Once, Papadopoulos overreached when he stole on a housecall, taking a handwritten note from the nightstand of a guy who’d taken too many of his wife’s painkillers, and the guy’s “sort of” son saw him take it. Soldiers come in to the armory for weekend drill training, and one lets the “Human Patient Simulator” die. Karen passes the civil-service exam and will soon attend the police academy. They get a call for an “emotionally disturbed person” who ran into a couple’s house and slit his throat in front of them, resulting in an absurd amount of blood. Papadopoulos mails a biohazard bag full of “lung butter” to the 9/11 Victims’ Compensation Fund that wanted documentation of a disease he claimed he had. Karen lets on she knows about his klepto problem. When Mrs. Olenski doesn’t call, they eventually go to her house and find that she’s died; Papadopoulos steals her dentures. Then the next drill weekend someone steals Finkbiner’s camel mandible, prompting Finkbiner to get a surveillance camera, meaning Papadopoulos probably won’t be able to live in the armory much longer, which prompts him to finally visit his wife. He discovers she’s moved out; his neighbor tells him it was with another man, months ago. Karen’s getting ready to leave their job, and on one of their last days together, they get a call from the same apartment in the projects where the boy saw Papadopoulos steal the note. After they drop him off at the hospital, Karen realizes their drug box is missing. When they go back to the apartment, the box isn’t there, but Papadopoulos sees a group of boys near the building, who scatter when he approaches, and he chases one he thinks is carrying something. After a long pursuit, he eventually follows a shadow into a building and ends up on the roof, from which he has a view of the city and thinks he can hear someone calling his name.    

The story’s acute tension situation is introduced in the first sentence: Papadopoulos is living in the armory. The chronic tension is introduced in fourth sentence (still in the first paragraph): he’s estranged from his wife. The fact that he has recently—though we don’t know exactly how recently—served overseas is also a big part of his chronic tension, and seems to be the cause of the situation with his wife, which we are told very little about directly. This restraint—both about his time overseas and his wife—is one of the story’s nice “moves.”

The piece is largely structured around a series of calls Papadopoulos makes as a paramedic—these are what we get the most detail about. In the interview he gave to The New Yorker when the story was published, Mogelson, once an EMT and National Guardsman (though he went to Afghanistan as a reporter, not a soldier), comments on this episodic structure:

The story is told episodically—it’s a sort of a “scenes from a life”—instead of strictly sequentially. What effects does that allow you to achieve as a writer, and are there stories that you admire that take that narrative form?

It’s a mode that I definitely borrowed, or stole, from other stories: for instance, “Bettering Myself,” by Ottessa Moshfegh; “Wait Till You See Me Dance,” by Deb Olin Unferth; and “Beverly Home,” by Denis Johnson. Each of these uses concise, evocative scenes to cumulatively express the particular mood of a particular phase of its narrator’s life, while also managing to unfold gripping plots, as if incidentally. There’s a way, too, that they employ the conditional to describe things done habitually during the concerned period of time. The effect is a nostalgic kind of tone that suggests the phase (and whatever temporary circumstances defined it: a job, a relationship, a living arrangement) ends after the action of the story concludes but before the narrator’s present. In the hands of Moshfegh, Unferth, and Johnson, the tone is extremely moving.

The violence of what’s happened on these episodic paramedic calls imbues the story’s title and the repeated line: “It was peacetime, more or less” with much irony. That the descriptions of the violence he sees as a paramedic stand in for, or correlate with, the violence he saw overseas is a nice move that’s also known as the objective correlative. This correlation reinforces that for someone who’s been through war, dealing with its aftermath can be as much of a battle as the original battle itself.

For the reader to connect/correlate these two different realms of violence, peacetime’s and wartime’s, Mogelson does have to make sure the reader knows definitively that Papadopoulos’s time overseas was not spent in anything resembling a cushy post. There are two instances that confirm this. The first is relatively early on, in his description of going to bars with Sergeant Diaz, whose limp helps him get women when Papadopoulos uses it to comment: “‘Fucking Iraq.’” But Diaz didn’t get injured in the heat of battle, as we (but not the women at the bar) learn:

as a squad leader, Diaz contracted a bacterial infection while masturbating in a Port-a-John; how the infection spread up his urethra, into his testicles; how that made him lurch, causing a herniated disk, which resulted in sciatica.

This description presents us with a causal chain of events—a chain with rising action, each event in the chain more extreme than the last—that thematically echoes the larger and subtler causal chain the story is presenting to show us why Papadopoulos is the way he is now. It is the specificity of this description that is utterly convincing. What it might convince us of initially is that his time in Iraq was actually not all that bad, but he immediately undercuts this possible conclusion when he adds his commentary on what he does tell the women:

Instead, I’d say, “We lost a lot of good men over there.” Which happened to be true.

It might seem counterintuitive that his hardly discussing the loss of these men directly for the rest of the piece helps convince us of its truth, but it is emotionally true for the character that he would be avoiding it, which is further emphasized (or shown) by his obviously excessive drinking (which is itself shown rather than told via the details about his using a saline hookup). It’s roughly two-thirds into the story when we get a much more direct reference to what he went through over there, although direct as it is, it’s notably conveyed via the indirectness of parentheses:

At some point, the private from Long Island, the one who’d let Harvey die, asked Sergeant Pavone, “What’s the worst, craziest, most fucked-up thing you ever saw?” And Sergeant Pavone (whose two best friends had been crossing a bridge when an R.P.G. engulfed their Humvee in flames and knocked it into the river—who, after learning that their skin had been charred and their lungs filled with water, had asked me, over and over, with a kind of awe, “Burned and drowned?”) said, “Your mother’s box.”

Here we also see that Papadopoulos is hardly the only one unwilling to talk about what he went through over there directly. We also see that Papadopoulos is not the only one who uses humor/sarcasm as a defense mechanism to avoid talking about it, which we see Papadopoulos do not just in dialog, but in the narration itself:

She was in the driver’s seat, one hand draped on the wheel, the other gloved by a bag of jalapeño Combos. Someday she was going to make a fine detective.

Here he’s not masking his pain about what happened overseas, but his pain that his partner Karen, whom he is obviously fond of, will leave him behind for the police academy. His sarcasm both simultaneously masks and reveals his pain, a very nice move indeed, and one Finkbiner comments on directly when Papadopoulos uses sarcasm with him:

“Papadopoulos,” he said. “What is that?”

“My name,” I said.

“Cute,” Finkbiner said. “So now I know who the joker is. The jackass. The clown.”

We see the objective correlative at work again in the description of the private who lets the “Human Patient Simulator” named Harvey die; death is described, but indirectly:

Sergeant Pavone articulated the elbow hinge and pressed two fingers to Harvey’s wrist, feeling for whatever widget was supposed to throb.

There’s a layer between between real death and his experience of it, representing the layer that exists in his psyche: he is not dealing directly with what he experienced over there, but every experience is an indirect reflection of it; it is all-pervasive for him at the same time he refuses to deal with it.

This story can help us distinguish between the use of objects and the use of the objective correlative, though these will sometimes overlap. We see objects used in the story when Papadopoulos steals them from the residences he visits as a paramedic. By the time he steals Mrs. Olenski’s dentures, he doesn’t have to tell us he stole them:

What was I looking for? I was about to leave when I noticed, there on the nightstand, the dentures soaking in a glass of water.

And that’s all he has to say for us to know what happens next; he does not need to actually describe it. The section ends with that line, and then a new section begins with this one:

Next drill weekend, Finkbiner was on the warpath. Seemed somebody had stolen his mandible.

This is an even more indirect way of telling us he stole something, but we know, or strongly suspect, that Papadopoulos is the one who took it. There’s an interesting similarity between these two adjacently stolen objects, the jawbone and fake teeth—both are pieces of something that was once living, are symbols of death. The theft of the mandible will induce a causal chain that will bring a resolution to the acute tension that we project after the story’s end: in reaction to this theft, Finkbiner will get a surveillance camera, which means he’ll discover Papadopoulos is living in the armory and will kick him out. Papadopoulos’s apparent mode of dealing with his problems—his kleptomania—doesn’t actually help solve his problems, but ostensibly makes them worse, a tragic pattern.

The dentures appear again briefly when a private starts playing with them during training:

The private from Long Island had something in his hand. A set of teeth. The private was clacking them. When I sat up, the private aimed the teeth at me, clacked them, and barked. I must not have looked amused. The laughter stopped; Pavone cleared his throat. “Are they yours, Sergeant?” the private asked.

I lay back down. I went back to sleep.

This is an interesting moment in that the “joker” and “clown” is not amused; he does not use humor or sarcasm as a defense mechanism. (It’s also the first time we learn his rank.) This is getting closer to the end, when his defenses have started to wear down. Much earlier, Karen makes a comment that enables us to see the lonely Mrs. Olenski as an objective correlative for Papadopoulos himself:

Later, in the bus, Karen said, “You think you’re being a good person, but you’re not. What you’re being is afraid. You’re afraid that’s you.”

His lackluster response to the private playing with the dentures would seem to confirm this: he does not answer the question of whether they’re his; rather, the prospect of the question seems to exhaust him. To admit they’re his would be to admit, in effect, that he is Mrs. Olesnki, who died alone trying to distract herself with the television.

We can again see object use and the objective correlative overlapping in the note that the boy sees Papadopoulos steal:

The note was all run-of-the-mill, derivative material. A lot of I love you so much, a lot of I’m so sorry. Still, after that day I carried it with me everywhere.

He does not tell us why he feels the need to carry it with him, but we might infer that it’s because it expresses the emotions he wishes he could to his estranged wife. Object use is extra important in this story to communicate the emotions of a character who is so adamantly trying to distance himself from them. It’s also a nice move that he’s reading this note the moment his attention is called to the fact that he’s missing something important:

I took out my wallet. I felt the note. I rubbed the paper between my thumb and finger. I brought the paper out. I smelled it. I unfolded it. I was just about to read it—I don’t know, I wanted to read it—when Karen, wild-eyed, hopped down from the back of the bus.

“Where’s the drug box?” she said.

That Papadopoulos then has something stolen from him—and not just stolen, but stolen by someone who saw him steal, and whom he was ostensibly stealing from—is the perfect action that this character needs in order to provide his arc some sort of resolution. The sense of closure the object use provides is directly connected to the use of sarcasm in resolving this arc: through all of the violence he has witnessed as a paramedic over the course of the story, he’s kept up his sarcastic shield, until the theft of the drug box:

Not until we were racing back to Ridgedale did the full magnitude of my blunder begin to impress itself on me.

The use of the object crosses into the objective correlative here, with this “blunder” standing in for the bad things he experienced off the page that we don’t get to see—that is, what he experienced overseas. Only now that this bad thing has happened—the theft of the drug box—does the magnitude of the other bad things start to impress itself on him. We can tell because after this point, there’s little sarcasm, except for possibly a reference to what he coughs up in the course of the chase as “beautiful black samples.” But past this point, the narration has achieved a new rawness:

I was so tired.

He’s tired from the immediate chase, but he’s also tired in general from a larger metaphysical chase—what he’s chasing in that sense we’re not exactly sure (nor is he: “What was I looking for?”), but whatever it is, it seems he won’t get it, as symbolized by his losing the object of his pursuit here, the boy who may or may not have the drug box. It seems significant also that what he’s lost are drugs—he’s lost a way to dull his pain. The final image also takes up the objective correlative:

I walked to the edge of the roof. Far away, on the opposite side of the projects, I saw the blue-and-red lights of squad cars, the white beams of flashlights sweeping bushes and dumpsters. Beyond that was the river, a slick of oil in a phosphorescent sea. And beyond that?

When he asks what’s beyond what he can immediately see, he’s really asking what is beyond for him in general, beyond this particular time in his life, his time in the armory. And the answer?

Somewhere someone was calling my name.

This is most likely literally Karen, but the larger answer to his metaphysical question of what’s beyond this immediate point in time for him is that he will have to find his own identity again. One might recall at this point the use of his last name exclusively throughout the piece (as well as Finkbiner’s references to it), but the “name” referred to here could be his first name, that part of himself he seems to have lost.  

The narrative stance here is one that is almost laser-focused on what’s happening in the present. We get a mere two references to his time in Iraq, and zero details about what happened with his wife, zero information about who he was before he was a soldier. This shows rather than tells us the emotional trauma he’s been through, the pain incumbent for him in thinking about anything but what’s going on right now. Unfortunately for him, what’s going on in the present for him doesn’t seem to be much better, capturing the tragic plight of those who’ve come back from war.

-SCR

What’s Your Reality?

Naked and Afraid. Toddlers and Tiaras. Big Brother. Here Comes Honey Boo Boo. My Super Sweet 16. Jersey Shore. Inked. The Bachelor. The Bachelorette. Keeping Up with the Kardashians. The Amazing Race. America’s Next Top Model. 16 and Pregnant. Teen Mom. Say Yes to the Dress. The Real Housewives. The Real World. Shark Tank. The Apprentice. The X Factor. Fear Factor. Fixer Upper. Extreme Makeover: Home Edition. So You Think You Can Dance. Dancing with the Stars. Dance Moms. John & Kate Plus 8. 19 Kids and Counting. America’s Got Talent. American Idol. Top Chef. Master Chef. Food Network Star. Kitchen Nightmares. Cupcake Wars. Chopped. Face Off. The Voice. The Biggest Loser. Intervention. Survivor. Ru Paul’s Drag Race. Pawn Stars. Hoarders. Deadliest Catch. Hell’s Kitchen.

Reality television has technically been around for decades—think Candid Camera or America’s Funniest Home Videos or Cops—but it became a dominant force in viewing around the turn of the millennium, with the trifecta of Survivor, Big Brother, and American Idol. (With the election of Donald Trump, reality television has arguably proven itself one of the most influential forces on the face of the planet.) There have been book-length studies on why this genre is so popular; I will hazard a guess that a predominant reason, in addition to the business incentive of the low cost of not having to pay actors, is our fascination with “real” people, as opposed to mere portrayals of them. Of course, at this point most of us are aware that the majority of “real” people portrayed on reality television shows are, in fact, acting, or at the least, being manipulated or portrayed in a skewed manner via editing. As Rebecca Makkai, describing a current (fake) reality show’s contestants in her fictional piece “The November Story,” puts it:

But now they’re savvier. They like to think they’re in on the production aspect.

And, as per an article on the golden age of reality tv,

Reality television, for lazy media critics and beltway pundits alike, is shorthand pejorative for tawdry and cheap.

I’ll admit to sharing this opinion. The blatant un-realness of reality tv was for a long time the reason I personally couldn’t stand it. But my perspective changed when I came across Sherman Alexie’s flash fiction piece “Idolatry,” in which a young Native American girl is called, after a long wait, to audition before some judges, and, once she does, “the British man” tells her to never sing again. When she protests that many people, including her mother, have told her she’s great, the British man replies simply, “‘They lied.’” The girl rushes back into the green room, into the arms of her mother, and cries. The piece concludes with the line:

In this world, we must love the liars or go unloved.

Of course, most readers will recognize that the girl is auditioning for American Idol and that “the British man” is the notoriously cruel judge Simon Cowell. (How many dream-balloons has this man popped over the years? How many sugary insubstantial pop careers launched?) Alexie’s piece is as pithy and powerful as one of Cowell’s judgments. First, there’s the title, “Idolatry,” addressing at the macro level what we’ve come to worship as a culture: fame, fortune, our face on a screen. At the micro level, we might worship our personal dreams, for many a false idol in the sense of  not being realistically achievable. Then there’s the pun on the title of American Idol itself, a seeming nod to how the show established the entrenched reality-tv sub-genre of competing contestants being judged. But what really pulls the narrative together, what makes it a story rather than a mere set piece, is that final line—the lesson the main character derives from the experience. The girl is put in the difficult position of having no one to appeal to for comfort in this painful moment except someone who helped contribute to the pain of that moment in the first place—her mother. The character has learned multiple lessons at once—not just that she is in fact not a good singer, but that you can’t necessarily take what people say—even—especially—your mother—at face value. This story, then, follows a fairly typical narrative model of building toward the climax of an epiphany (or, in this case, epiphanies). The official definition of “epiphany”: “an experience of sudden and striking realisation.” Another way to put it: it’s a change in your reality. At the beginning of the story, this girl’s reality is that she is a good singer and that her mother is trustworthy and honest with her. By the end of the story, her reality has changed entirely.

Considering your characters’ relationship to their own personal realities—for really, to get philosophical here, there is no all-encompassing objective reality that exists without human brains to filter it—can be helpful in constructing a meaningful narrative arc for your character. Characters undergo changes based on their experiences; by the end of a story, their reality should have somehow, to some degree, shifted. Their reality at the beginning of the story would constitute the chronic tension; the event(s) that will change it is the acute tension.

The audition Alexie describes actually might not have been one ideal for ratings, as viewers might have felt too sorry for the obviously crushed girl. This American Idol audition clip, fairly typical of the bad auditions that viewers seemed to eat up, shares in common with Alexie’s character’s experience that other people told him he was good and that he should audition. But the clip diverges in a major way from Alexie’s when this guy does not, on camera at least, have the epiphany that the girl does. While Randy has been very blunt that “singing ain’t your thing, dawg,” this contestant emerges from his audition thinking—or claiming to think—that he failed not because of his voice, but because of his choice of song. While this maintained delusion ought to theoretically make viewers even sorrier for this contestant, the opposite seems true. He may be delusional, but he hasn’t been crushed, and we find that easier to watch. It doesn’t make as interesting of a story, though, unless we were to follow him to the moment where his delusion is finally popped, and/or explore the possible source of his delusion in the first place. (The life of a Revolutionary-War era tour guide seems rife with dramatic possibility. One also has the feeling that his coworkers’ encouragement to audition might not have originated out of love, as it does in the Alexie.) To an extent, we understand and sympathize with his impulse to shield himself from reality, and by preferring such narratives to Alexie’s, we too are shielding ourselves. But if it’s reality tv’s job to make us feel good about ourselves by looking down on others, it’s (good) fiction’s job to rip away that shield holding reality at bay.

Reality TV shows themselves cling fiercely to their own version of story when it comes to showcasing their contestants and participants. As the aforementioned golden-age article puts it,

Reality TV has learned to resolve its innate flaws with dedicated character development and well-crafted storytelling.

Having an interesting “background story” is what determines the selection of many contestants. What constitutes an interesting story, by reality TV standards? Typically, obstacles and hardship. The bigger the better. If viewers believe you’ve overcome some immense difficulty—or better yet, will overcome that difficulty by competing and ideally winning on the show—then viewers will sympathize and be hooked right in, continuing to watch. The golden-age article provides a typical example of such a story, along with what constitutes a supposed subversion of it:

Survivor winner Adam Klein had the most pat background story. Early in the season, the show revealed that his mother had been diagnosed with Stage 4 lung cancer. The Mortally Sick Family Member is a morbid but familiar story arc of competitive reality television, so Survivor viewers had beats to expect. At some point, to draw sympathy and trust, Klein would tell his allies of his hardship, and provide producers with a dramatic, episode-long throughline. But that moment never came. Instead, Klein revealed his personal battle to one other contestant: his biggest adversary, Jay Starrett.

What’s interesting to probe for the purposes of fiction is digging deeper than these typical trite cliches with their shallow mass appeal. What’s the story behind the story? How might some contestant or participant, knowing what we know so far into reality TV’s heyday about what the audience wants, exaggerate or fabricate parts of his or her own story? Or, conversely, how might producers make them do so? How might the contestant feel about exploiting themselves and letting some tragedy/obstacle define them? What kind of blowback might such an action incur in the outside world when the cameras aren’t rolling? What are the real conflicts surrounding the production of conflict for the camera? What is the camera not showing us?

As Rebecca Makkai’s aforementioned “The November Story” shows, reality tv offers more than just the contestants’ perspectives to explore. Makkai’s piece, which she read an edited-down version of for NPR’s This American Life, is told from the point of view of a producer (for the made-up reality show Starving Artist) whose boss wants her to manipulate two contestants into falling in love (the acute tension) while, in the meantime, her own relationship is falling apart (the chronic tension). While the characterization of the producer-character’s personal relationship is, perhaps intentionally, somewhat lacking, the details about how producers manipulate contestants are intriguing and feel, ironically enough, very real:   

Kenneth is a genius. He lines the five remaining artists up in front of the book shelves where they’ll be judged and then tells them we won’t tape for a few more minutes, when really the cameras are already rolling.

He tells them to stand still for the light guys and then says, “We’re having more digital issues. We’re going to be here pretty late tonight folks.”

And the sleep deprived artists, dehydrated and trying to hold still and awaiting judgment, give the most beautiful looks of disgust and despair. The cameras are getting it all. The editors will splice it in with shots of their work being critiqued or a competitor winning. They always fall for it.

Once Kenneth had one of the camera guys give all the contestants some incomprehensible direction in a thick accent while the other camera guys captured the grimaces of confusion. At the third judgment, he directed Inez to have a loud phone argument with a boyfriend in the corner of the room. That time we had enough snickering and eye rolling to manufacture an entire rivalry between Leo and Gordy. It became one of our best plotlines.

Makkai’s producer’s acute-tension situation of having to manipulate what people will see on the show (filming contestants describing their thoughts about an elimination round as though it’s about to happen when really it’s already happened) causes her to have an epiphany about the chronic-tension situation of her own relationship:

“I’m so excited for the judges to see my work!” cry the artists who’ve just been mocked and upbraided and grilled for two hours. As if, by trying hard enough, they can convince us to love them again.

They remind me of someone.

The character sees that in her relationship, she is behaving like these contestants, trying to earn love that it’s a foregone and definitive conclusion they can’t get.

It’s important to keep in mind that we the viewers are being manipulated every bit as much as the contestants. Really, there are multiple perspectives reality TV can offer a springboard to explore: the contestants’ (as Alexie does), the producers’ (as Makkai does), the judges’, and the viewers’. The episode “Litchfield’s Got Talent” from season 5 of Orange is the New Black nicely characterizes the reality-TV-judge prototypes that one might work to subvert:

– Do you wanna be one of the judges?
– Finally. Someone appreciates me for my biting wit and of course, impeccable taste.

-Oh, see, the thing is, we need one of those, like, just-edging-outta-cool, needs-to-pay-the-mortgage types who can say useful things, but with a tinge of sadness.
-I’m the tell-it-like-it-is judge.
-But I thought I was tell-it-like-it-is and you were gonna be, like, comforting and supportive.

I met a guy on a plane once who said his brother was a producer for one of Bravo’s Real Housewives shows. He told a story about how at one point his brother was ordered to go out and buy a certain kind of cake one of the housewives specifically hated for a party she was throwing. That story might have ended with her flipping a table; I can’t remember (though I could make it up). The point is, it turns out the drama doesn’t come from the contestants as much as the producers. But what kind of conflict does this create for the producers off-screen, as Makkai explores in her story? What’s the conflict behind the manufactured conflict? Being forced to piss someone off is a great acute-tension situation to force a producer’s ongoing chronic-tension issues to a head. Consider the potential for dramatic expansion of this anecdote:

Playwright Annie Baker reveals that she worked as a handler on The Bachelor during some unidentified season when the women were staying at the Roosevelt Hotel in New York. She told Vulture she quit because producers “told me to tell all the girls that they could sleep in, and then the cameras came into the room at five in the morning,” and “they were so upset that I had lied to them inadvertently. So I left. I loved them. … I felt very protective of them.”

This scenario is rife with dramatic and thematic possibilities. Is there something Baker, as a fictionalized character, might need to “wake up” and realize? Does it have to do with another situation in this playwright-producer’s life in which she might have inadvertently lied?

So, a reality-TV-inspired writing exercise could explore a) a potential behind-the-scenes conflict on an established show, or b) a new reality-show concept altogether, or c) a story about someone who’s appeared on a show without referring to their appearance on the show at all, instead showing some other aspect of their life, the underside of the iceberg we only saw the tip of on TV. How about this lady who appeared on Shark Tank peddling “Fat Ass Fudge,” named for the seemingly less-than-affectionate nickname her brother had for her growing up with seven siblings, six of whose names started with D? What about this alleged Hell’s Kitchen elimination round in which one teammate throws another under the bus but then he doesn’t end up being eliminated?

“I didn’t come here to make friends” is an oft-repeated phrase on shows from The Bachelor to Survivor to Ru Paul’s Drag Race. What this phrase essentially means is that contestants on such shows disregard one another’s humanity for the sake of competition. Fiction is about exploring and showcasing humanity. What happens when that humanity is suppressed? What could happen to make such characters have the epiphany that they and their fellow contestants are, in fact, human?

-SCR

The Moves Lit Journals Are Looking For Part 3: One Story

One Story, founded by writers Hannah Tinti and Maribeth Batcha in 2002, is a unique journal in that each issue presents exactly what it sounds like: one story. As such, one might think its acceptance rate is automatically lower than at many other magazines, but the fact that they publish eighteen issues a year mitigates this discrepancy. Their rule is that they never publish the same writer twice. On their website you can find excerpts of current and past stories, editors’ commentary, and Q&As with the authors about their work. You can also find the description of the type of work they’re looking for:

One Story is seeking literary fiction. Because of our format, we can only accept stories between 3,000 and 8,000 words. They can be any style and on any subject as long as they are good. We are looking for stories that leave readers feeling satisfied and are strong enough to stand alone.

Laura Spence-Ash’s “The Remains” appeared in Issue 188, published January 16, 2014. The story explores the discovery of a corpse through a series of different characters’ points of view, characters who share some connection to the deceased, whether peripheral or direct.

The story begins with Sergeant Bill Marshall and his partner responding to a call and discovering a fully decomposed but still clothed skeleton in the foyer of a row house in Queens. The skeleton is wearing a coat that Marshall observes indicates the deceased is a “refined woman.” Examining her books and photos, one picture reminds him of his own wife, and he remembers how he recently went to a lot of trouble to get her a ring that she later wanted to trade for one she liked better. We then jump to Annie Moffatt’s point of view, the next door neighbor of whom we now learn is Mrs. Constantine. She’d thought Mrs. Constantine was gone on a trip, but then eventually started to get suspicious and finally called the cops. Once the corpse is discovered, Annie can’t believe she’s been so close to it this whole time. Watching the cops work, she remembers how she invited Mrs. Constantine to her daughter’s third birthday party, and Mrs. Constantine declined. Annie thinks that she’ll tell her husband she’s pregnant again tonight. Then, we jump to Leila Turani, who works at a tailor. When someone comes in and tells her a body was found that was “the lady who always wore that red beret,” Leila recognizes that it’s Mrs. C, one of their regular customers, who used to be one of her deceased mother’s favorites and whom she noticed hadn’t been in in awhile even though she had clothes to pick up. Mrs. C had brought food and a card when Leila’s mother died; Leila recalls her mother’s death and how she told her she’d take care of her father, which she wishes now she hadn’t. She folds up the clothes Mrs. C left behind. We then jump to Bob MacMillan, Sophia Constantine’s boss at a law office library, who cleaned out her desk a few weeks afters she stopped showing up for work. They often talked about books at lunch, which he immensely enjoyed. When she stopped coming to work, he filed a missing persons report and realized how little he actually knew about her. He hopes she created a new life for herself, remembering how she always took her vacations at the beach and one time when they calculated how far she was able to see on a ferry. When Bob gets the call from the detective that she’s dead, he has a drink and recalls how he never told his wife about her. Finally, we go to Mel Constantine, who divorced Sophie twelve years ago and hadn’t seen her in a long time. He’s returning to the house where he used to live with her to get it ready to sell, and Sergeant Marshall lets him in, warning him the cleaners were unable to get the stain out of hallway floor where she died. He finds her collection of airplane mini bottles, including the one from their honeymoon, which he thinks about before thinking about how they met in high school and reconnected after college. He then goes into the room of the baby they had, Zoë, who would be 22 if she hadn’t died. He’s relieved Sophie’s changed the room, since she left all the baby stuff in it for the eight years after the death before he left. He goes through a box of Zoë’s clothes and finds a tube in it of the baby’s ashes he takes with him. At home that night, he mixes the baby’s ashes with Sophie’s.                 

The story’s chronic tension is that Sophia Constantine has died, as this occurs before the story starts. The acute tension is the fallout/aftermath of her death. The story’s structure is one of its most unique “moves.” We do have a main character, and we are following that character’s trajectory, but in an unusual way, looking at her exclusively through the eyes of others, which means a common narrative model of the acute tension being the main character’s has been upended here; the acute tension is instead spread across several characters. (Sophie does technically have her own chronic and acute tensions once we learn her full story: chronic would be the death of her baby; acute would be how she lived her life after that tragedy.)

The pattern of the order in which we meet these characters is part of the story’s power. Each character we’re introduced to knows the main character, the deceased Sophia Constantine, better than the last. We start with the guy who finds her, a total stranger who doesn’t even know her name; then the next-door neighbor, who knows her as “Mrs. Constantine” and seems to have had exactly one direct interaction with her; then the girl at the tailor’s, who, being more fond of her than the neighbor and having had multiple interactions with her, knows her as “Mrs. C”; then to her boss, who knows her as “Sophia” (and whom he remembers specifically made him call her that when he tried to call her “Sophie”); then to her ex-husband, who knows her as “Sophie.” The use of the names shows us definitively that each of these characters knew her better than the last: no name, Mrs. Constantine, Mrs. C, Sophia, Sophie. Hence, by meeting them in this order, we learn more about her with each point of view shift.  

Part of the pattern of each character we meet is that their reflections on Sophie (or however they know her) provide a springboard into their own lives, giving us a glimpse of their personal vulnerabilities. We learn about the distance between Marshall and his wife, about Annie’s nervousness to tell her husband of her pregnancy, about Leila’s mother’s death, about Bob’s intense feelings for his employee, and about Mel’s new life with his second wife. Getting these glimpses into each of these characters’ lives makes us want to see even more into our main character’s, which, by the time we get to Bob, we’re getting to see more of, until Mel’s section finally reveals the full picture, the key to Sophie’s reserved secrecy that we witnessed in the other sections. But also, the snippets of these characters’ lives that we get which don’t involve Sophia Constantine directly do involve her indirectly–which is to say, thematically. What these snippets reveal are actually things these characters have in common with Sophie–more specifically, with her defining trauma: distance in a marriage (Bill), nervousness about pregnancy (Annie), the death of a party in a mother-daughter relationship (Leila). By our last two sections with Bob and Mel, we’ve progressed from indirect connections to direct, which is how the rising action operates in this nontraditional narrative.

Another nice “move” is the way Spence-Ash integrates the characters’ reflections, how thinking about dead body/Mrs. Constantine/Mrs. C/Sophia/Sophie leads them to think about other things in their lives. Trains of thought are prompted by objects in the external environment, whether the current environment or a remembered one. For Marshall, it’s a photo in Sophie’s house that prompts him to think about his wife. For Annie, recalling the air freshener she used to cover up the smell of decomposition and how her husband always unplugged it gives us a hint to potentially more significant strife in their marriage. For Leila, it’s the physical artifact of Mrs. C’s clothes. For Bob, it’s a photo of sky blending into sea that he found in Sophia’s desk. For Mel, it’s the collection of airplane bottles that leads him to think about their honeymoon.

Spence-Ash slyly lets us know that her nontraditional narrative model is not unprecedented when she refers to a text that Bob and Sophia were reading together: William Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying, in which a family struggles to bury its dead matriarch in the location she desired. Sophia’s comment about this text is actually commentary on the structure of this story:

“Don’t you see?” Sophia had said, her brown eyes meeting his. “Addie is the center. Addie is what makes it all hold together.”

Notably, however, Addie is not already dead when Faulkner’s novel starts, so it’s a bold “move” of Spence-Ash’s to have the main character be dead from the outset. This text also seems a thematically appropriate one for this story in that more than one character wonders how long Sophie might have been lying on the floor of her house by herself before she actually died.

The stain that Sophie’s body left behind is another nice “move” in the story:

“I don’t think they got the stain out in the front hall. Just so you know.”

This stain is a physical manifestation (which is to say, a symbol) of what Sophie’s left behind–of what remains of her. The fact that she’s left a stain shows that the impact of her life has not been entirely erased by her death, which we’re shown throughout the story through the different characters’ memories of her. Hence, the title gains layers of meaning–there are Sophie’s physical remains, emphasized by the stain and the powerful final gesture of Mel’s mixing her remains with their baby’s, then there’s the range of impacts she’s left on others’ lives. Mel’s mixing gesture nicely encapsulates how the story blends Sophie’s physical and ephemeral remains. It’s also a nice move to end with a physical gesture in the story’s present, rather than lingering in memory. This physical gesture, coming at the end, must necessarily provide some form of closure; this gesture is ideal closure for Sophie in particular because there’s been so much emphasis on how alone she was. The story’s most fundamental scenario reinforces her loneliness, since if she hadn’t been so alone she wouldn’t have been a skeleton by the time her body was discovered. By the end we’ve discovered the source of her loneliness–her dead baby. Some writers might have ended the story with this revelation, but Spence-Ash makes another “move” with the physical gesture. At the end of the story, Sophie isn’t alone anymore; she’s literally joined to the one whose departure caused her loneliness in the first place.

But if you’re going to catch an editor’s eye when he/she is reading hundreds of manuscripts, it’s ideal to have a nice “move” in the very beginning, so let’s revisit that opening line: 

Sergeant Bill Marshall was the one who found her white bones in a fetal position, nestled inside a tweed coat and a red woolen hat.

The nice move here is the use of the word “nestled.” This is a word with positive connotations, which places it in stark contrast to the negative connotations of the larger situation: discovering a dead body, one that’s been decomposing for so long, no less. This contrast automatically injects the narrative with tension. It also encapsulates the story’s structure: nestled within this seemingly horrible occurrence is the potential for human connection. Nestled inside Sophie are all the lives she’s touched.

-SCR

The Moves Lit Journals Are Looking For Part 2: The Gettysburg Review

Continuing with “The Moves Lit Journals are Looking For” series, up next: The Gettysburg Review, published by Gettysburg College in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. Established in 1988, GR, which publishes four issues a year, claims that their

most important criterion is high literary quality; we look for writers who can shape language in thoughtful, surprising, and beautiful ways and who have something unique to say, whatever the subject matter or aesthetic approach. We have very eclectic tastes, but are highly selective, publishing only two percent of manuscripts submitted to us annually.

Interestingly, they advise potential submitters to familiarize themselves not with the journal’s content, but with its submission guidelines.

Alice Stinetorf’s “Where the Killdeer Lies” appeared in GR’s 2016 Autumn issue. Perhaps this story’s most impressive features are its use of the omniscient point of view, and the conceit it uses to establish that standpoint, a motif of descriptions of birds and their behavior. (Jonathan Franzen, literary birder extraordinaire, is jealous he’s never had this idea.) This motif is used as a lens to examine the trajectory of a delinquent son and its impact on the marriage of his parents.

At the story’s outset, we’re told that Sandra and Clive Hayworth don’t care about red-bellied woodpeckers or birds of any kind as a prelude to a description of that woodpecker having wings with a pattern resembling a zebra’s. By the end of the first page we have learned, via a description of the sounds different birds make, that the Hayworths are a family in crisis. They’re seeing a therapist to deal with their 19-year-old Zane, whom they still see as the child who used to raise rabbits for the county fair. The counselor wants them to get Zane to sign a contract to agree to certain terms for his behavior. We get exposition about Zane’s sudden falcon-like “swoop” into delinquency when he was brought home by the owner of a store for shoplifting. Through a comparison to a house sparrow who steals, we learn that Zane then progressed from shoplifting to charges for vandalism, drinking, and drugs. The counselor advises the family to do something together, so they return to the same library where Zane saw the flyer about raising rabbits when he was a kid, and this time find a flyer for a birding club. When presented with the behavior contract, Zane signs it without a fuss. Clive and Zane build birdhouses together, reminding Clive of when they used to build rabbit hutches. Later Clive and Sandra work on their therapy worksheets, inadvertently quibbling in the midst of reminiscing about Zane’s childhood. The first time Zane’s rabbits gave birth, the mother killed all the babies in the night and Clive cleaned up the mess before Zane woke up. At a birding meeting, they discuss how the mockingbird’s cry sounds misleadingly like other things. For a month, things seem fine with Zane, who works in a gas station a town over to pay his parents back for his court fees, but then he starts coming home increasingly past curfew; when they finally confront him he claims to be working late. They lie to their counselor that Zane is passing his drug tests when they haven’t actually been testing him. Both Clive and Sandra have seen Zane breaking contract rules without telling the other. Because they erroneously believe their communication with each other has improved, they continue to look the other way when Zane’s claims and activities become increasingly suspicious. Then one day, cops show up at the house with a search warrant, finding drugs and the makings for drugs in the shed where all Zane’s old rabbit stuff is stored. Zane is arrested. Clive and Sandra cancel their counselor appointments, claiming their marriage is better than ever. Clive cleans out the shed while Sandra cleans out Zane’s room. They’ll stay in the house and try the things they were bad at, pretending these things are going well.  

The major way the story’s conflict works is that the primary source of tension seems to be Zane’s delinquency, but this source really reveals the larger source of tension—the marriage—when Sandra and Clive fight over how to deal with Zane’s delinquency, then bond over their shared decision to ignore the signs that the problem is continuing. Stinetorf employs the bird motif by describing birds’ habits when they are similar to what the humans in the story are doing at that point, but she takes this a step further when she starts to contrast myths people believe about certain birds with scientifically established facts about them. This contrast is setting us up for the fact that Zane is lying to his parents, a setup which is underscored by this passage describing the birders’ experience of mockingbirds:

When the man finally saw and heard the bird in tandem, it was not yellow and olive and white. It was gray, slender, with white bars upon its wings. It was a northern mockingbird, Mimus polyglottos, the king of avian deception. The Feathered Friends each have a story along this line. Yellow-billed cuckoo? Scratch that, mockingbird. Louisiana waterthrush? No, mockingbird. A car alarm whooping and blaring and shrieking in the morning hours? Mockingbird.

Another primary aspect of the story developed through the bird motif and underscored by the mockingbird passage is the use of sound, which emphasizes the problematic dichotomy between sound and sight: Zane looks like he’s obeying his parents, but he’s not. Stinetorf establishes tension by showing the reader that Zane is lying while simultaneously showing us the parents’ refusal to acknowledge this lying. The use of omniscience helps further establish this. We know what’s coming, we know Zane is lying, but the tension is raised by this knowledge because we want to know when and how Clive and Sandra’s bubble will be burst.

The bird sounds lead Stinetorf to describe other sounds, which are used to accentuate the main conflict:

The pull chain of the ceiling fan says t-kuh-t-kuh-t-kuh, clicking against the glass light fixture as the dusty blades turn.

This passage is not just pretty but pointless description; it’s then used to heighten the tension when Sandra and Clive start to have a disagreement (it also nicely sums up the dual conflict of Zane’s delinquency and its impact on the marriage):

‘‘And I wasn’t,’’ he counters.

‘‘Well, you had a tone,’’ she says.

T-kuh-t-kuh-t-kuh. Clive feels shut down, pissed off, hurt, but Lauren McCulloch keeps reiterating that learning how to communicate is a matter of trial and error, injuries and healing, and he is shelling out twenty-five dollar copays twice a week to hear these things, money he can’t really avoid to spend on top of all that has been drained into Zane’s criminal fines and court fees and attorney.

Stinetorf likely could have shown us Zane was lying without full-blown omniscience, but in a story where the main conflict concerns a marriage, omniscience is a nice tool to provide both the partners’ perspectives, both when they diverge:

Dance lessons were out because Clive’s sense of rhythm only kicked in when he was refinishing hardwood floors. ‘‘You’ll end up angry and making fun of me,’’ he said. Sandra knew he was right but denied it.

Cooking lessons were out because Sandra hated venturing outside her culinary comfort zone. She liked roasts and pot pies and pork chops as entrees. She liked green beans and mashed potatoes and stewed apples as sides. ‘‘You’ll get embarrassed of me,’’ she said. Clive knew she was right but denied it.

And when they converge:

Clive and Sandra feel they are communicating better than ever, perhaps because neither knows of the luxuries the other is indulging in.

He tells them that his manager needs him to cover some night shifts in coming weeks. Another new hire did not work out so well, and Zane has proven himself dependable. Myth: owls can see in total darkness. Fact: Clive and Sandra have opted for total darkness in this matter. They should drive to the next town over when Zane claims to be working overnights. They should not trust the cash he now gives them without showing them his pay stub.

This is marked as an important moment by the Fact and Myth not applying to birds exclusively anymore, but now crossing over to encompass Clive and Sandra.

Stinetorf is actually employing selective omniscience, as any author, save perhaps Tolstoy, necessarily has to—omniscience by definition means knowing everything, but “everything” is too much for the reader to know. The reader needs to know what’s important. What’s important in this case is the state of the marriage. Hence, we get to know that Clive and Sandra are both looking the other way regarding Zane without the other knowing, but we don’t get to know what Zane is actually doing the nights he comes home late and claims to be working. We don’t need to know, because we intuit: he’s doing cliched delinquent teenager things.

As for the bird motif, it’s important to note that Stinetorf hasn’t chosen birds as a lens/point of comparison arbitrarily, as it might seem from the opening paragraph; birds become relevant to the plot itself when the characters start going to birding meetings. It’s also important to note that omniscience is required to use the bird motif to the extent Stinetorf does. She could have referred only to info about birds that the characters themselves knew or heard, but this would detract from the richness of the comparisons. But upping the ante with the descriptions and exploring a marriage are not the only reasons omniscience is the best choice for this story; as explored through the myth/fact dichotomy, how much one knows or doesn’t know is one of the story’s major themes and plot engines. The story’s sweeping scope of awareness contrasts with and thereby underscores Sandra and Clive’s joint lack of awareness, makes the reader feel it more, rendering it more tragic. It seems perhaps most important to note that the story’s content—delinquent teenager impacts naive parents’ marriage—could potentially be cliched or uninteresting; it seems like a story we’ve heard before. But through the lens of the birds, Stinetorf has provided us an entirely new way of looking at this subject matter. The lesson: it’s not what story you’re telling that matters, but rather how you tell it—or rather, show it.

Of the roughly twenty major passages that use the bird motif, not including minor comparisons like a character bobbing his head like a pigeon, the three passages that invoke the titular killdeer provide a general idea of the transitions Stinetorf uses:

Clive says that surely a literal ink-on-paper contract isn’t necessary. Sandra says that surely Clive doesn’t have his head buried that deep in the sand.

Myth: ostriches bury their heads in the ground when frightened. Fact: the killdeer, Charadrius vociferus, known too as the chattering plover, scratches its shallow nest right into the ground. Technically a shorebird, the killdeer scrapes its nest into Ohio’s golf courses, parking lots, gravel driveways—senseless human milieus far from any shore.

And:

Defending one’s young is a nearly universal instinct. Myth: mother birds will refuse to feed their babies if a human handles them. Fact: when the killdeer’s scraped nest is threatened, the bird feigns a broken wing and dashes away, on foot, to distract would-be predators. The male red-winged blackbird, Agelaius phoeniceus, turns positively Hitchcockian during mating season. It will attack horses. It will attack humans. Conk-a-ree-onk, it will sing, then peck and peck its victim’s flesh until blood renders it a red-beaked blackbird.

In the garage, side by side, Clive and Zane construct birdhouses.

And:

She folded her arms around him, wishing they were bigger, wishing her arms were soft wings that could swallow him whole.

The three-ounce killdeer puffs its chest and charges straight at any half-ton cow that might accidentally trample the nest, screeching kill-deer! kill-deer! killdeer! until the bewildered behemoth changes course. Sandra, upon learning this strategy, thinks it absurd, then perfect. Perfect. She could have paced in circles around the house before the swoop began, around Zane’s car, around his desk at Batavia High, screeching Hay-worth! Hay-worth! Hay-worth!

Meaning: This is my son. Leave him be. Don’t hurt him. Don’t lead him astray.

Out of all the birds mentioned in the story that the title could have been taken from, the killdeer seems to have been chosen for the possible multiple meanings of “lies”: literally lying down, lying in wait, and telling lies.  

The bird-comparison motif is one of the most original craft elements I’ve seen in a long time. It’s not just the motif itself that is impressive, but its execution. This could have been done poorly or felt like a trick for a trick’s sake, but instead it deftly enhances the emotional power of the story. As her descriptions of the rabbits also shows, it’s the specificity and precision of the details that help pull this off: 

He brought home a Best of Breed trophy for his sablepoint mini rex and the Best in Show trophy for his agouti Jersey wooly.

Interestingly, Stinetorf doesn’t end with a bird comparison. Instead, she returns to something non-bird-related mentioned earlier, the things each spouse was so bad at that they avoided lessons/classes/clubs about it, opting instead for birding. At the end, Sandra and Clive get the consolation prize of their improved marriage; they will now try the things they’re bad at that they wouldn’t before, with the troubling question/implication that lying might be an improvement:

She will teach him how to dance, if poorly. He will try to make curry, and she will pretend to enjoy it.

While they weren’t willing to pretend about these things before, they were willing to pretend about Zane, while now that they should have realized they were wrong to pretend about Zane, they’re willing to pretend about these things. The ending then, is bittersweet, as any realistic end should be.

-SCR

The Moves Lit Journals Are Looking For Part 1: Crazyhorse

Many literary magazines’ Submission Guidelines say something about it being a good idea to have actually read that journal instead of sending your work out as “part of a carpet-bombing campaign,” to quote the Chicago Review. But how important is this, really? If a story is objectively good, shouldn’t a good journal want it? How far-ranging can the literary tastes out there be?

In an interview with The Review Review, Crazyhorse’s fiction editor Anthony Varallo was asked what he looks for in a short story. Varallo said that:

I always know I’m reading a good story when I find myself saying “right” or “of course” as I’m reading it.  That, or “nice move.”

In this series of posts, I will evaluate a random selection of stories from journals I myself am currently submitting to, to compare the “moves” they make, starting with Varallo’s Crazyhorse.

Joseph O’Malley’s “Ceci N’est Pas About You” appeared in Crazyhorse Issue 87. The story begins with a guy named Mike abandoning the window he’s graffiti-tagging as sirens approach, only to realize the sirens aren’t for him. Under the moniker “Pipedreamer,” he’s sprayed “Ceci N’est Pas A TAQUERIA” on the window of a bank that has displaced a taqueria. He thinks his “boyfriend” Sander wouldn’t approve of his socially activist-motivated tagging—or his use of the term “boyfriend,” for that matter. He and Sander met at an Occupy Wall Street rally when Mike was checking it out from curiosity and saw Sander leaving the investment firm where he works and asked him out to dinner, during which Mike, a personal trainer who went to art school, learned that Sander is actually a poet who works in finance so he can retire at 30 to write. After they sleep together, Sander makes it clear that they can have sex occasionally but that he’s “happy alone” and needs to “stay focused.” After they have sex a few times, it becomes more passionate, and Mike becomes convinced he can make Sander fall for him. He expects his exploits as Pipedreamer to garner notice and perhaps inspire others to advocate for change. He and Sander finally leave the bedroom to go see a play adaptation of “Bartleby the Scrivener” together, but then Sander remains firm about his inflexible bedtime. Later, Mike gets Sander to talk about his poetry but not to let him read it. We get exposition about Mike’s family’s reticent and then overly accepting reaction to his sexuality. Sander then invites him over on a Friday night, which Mike thinks is a meaningful gesture since they’ve never gotten together weekends, but when Mike suggests staying over, Sander turns him down, saying it’s not about him and intimating he might be sleeping with others. Realizing his own stupidity, Mike lashes out at Sander, and, thinking this will upset him, tells him he’s Pipedreamer—but Sander is completely ignorant of Pipedreamer’s exploits. Mike cries on the subway home and realizes he’s just like the rest of his loud and overly emotive Italian family. A bit later, as a blizzard rolls in, Mike is painting “Ceci n’est pas A WHORE HOUSE?” on the bank window at the base of Sander’s apartment building when the cops pull up and he flees, but in the newly fallen snow he’s easier to track. But he keeps running, his body a perfect machine, feeling free.            

The story begins and ends with Mike fleeing the scene of his spraypainting from the cops, but at the beginning, the cops are not there for him as he initially believes, while at the end, they are. This mirrors Mike’s twin delusions that the story is constructed around: that he can convince Sander to abandon his pre-set plans and fall for him, and that Pipedreamer will become not only noticed but famous enough to inspire actual change:

He knew he’d tell Sander sooner or later that he was Pipedreamer, but it would be better after he was hooked on Mike for sure.  

A big part of what makes the story satisfying is that the collapse of these two different delusions happens in the same scene. First, that of Sander’s feelings for him:

Mike propped a pillow behind him, sat up slowly in bed. “Oh. I guess I hadn’t thought . . .”

“Look, I thought we were clear. We’re both free to do what we need to do, right?”

“Sure,” Mike said. “Right.”

And here is where a fuck buddy manual would have come in handy, complete with helpful chapters.

How to Keep Sex Separate from Emotion

How to Tell the Difference Between a Booty Call and a Date

How to Keep Your Stupid Mouth Shut When You Realize Your Fuck Buddy Fucks Other People and Might Like Them Better Than He Likes You, You Big Dumb Fuck

Which is a nice novel way to relate the emotion of the climactic epiphany, rather than just straight up telling it.

Then, as a result of this epiphany, Mike makes the decision to tell Sander he’s Pipedreamer, an action that then induces the parallel/twin epiphany:

“I have no idea what you’re talking about,” Sander shrugged.

And with Sander’s shrug, Mike recognized the fate of all lonely dreamers: he was famous in his own mind; that was the beginning and the end of it. Mike wanted to smash his superior, unperturbed face, or crush his soul. He spat on Sander’s wood floor.

The conjunction of these epiphanies, once Mike gets a bit of distance from the immediate vicinity in which he has them, then induces yet another epiphany, one about himself as a person:

Before, Mike had thought his family silly when they acted so immoderately, so ungraciously, so unbecomingly, but he saw clearly now that he was one of them and, not knowing what if anything he could or should do about it, he cried a little more.

So O’Malley’s emotional climax occurs when the main character’s overly demonstrative response to being romantically and professionally jilted simultaneously causes an epiphany that he is not better than his Italian family. A lesser story—one that the editors would have rejected—might have ended with the scene of his crying on the subway home. But the narrative escalates a step further when the story ends in a cathartic physical rush after Mike is caught by the cops in the course of taking revenge on his jilter. The cherry on the narrative cake is that as Mike flees, the qualities that caused him to be jilted start to turn into assets. In the action of running, he appreciates his body:

His body was a gorgeous machine of health and vigor.

His body is in large part a product of his profession, which we’ve seen his insecurity about with Sander when he’s self-deprecatingly referred to himself as a “‘Guido meathead’”—describing himself as he thinks Sander sees him. Free of Sander, Mike can appreciate new things about himself.

But Mike feeling free at the end of both Sander and the delusions related to him could also possibly be an objective correlative description for his being freed from certain aspects of himself, like his overly emotional responses to things. Mike has realized he’s like his Italian family, but that doesn’t stop him from then trying to take vengeance on Sander in what is perhaps not the most mature way by spraypainting his building. O’Malley underscore this immaturity by having Mike include a penis and balls in the painting:

In the upper right corner he originally painted an arrow pointing up toward Sander’s apartment, then modified it to look like a big cock with curly blue hairs sprouting from the pink balls. Standing back to get a better look, he saw a swirl of blue and red light flash off the window.

That the dick-and-balls is a modification is interesting in that it could actually signify emotional progress: since he’s trying to hide that the arrow points to Sander’s apartment, balls might actually be slightly more mature than that accusatory arrow. It’s significant that it is this moment where the cops pull up. They’re catching him for the graffiti, but they’re also symbolically catching him for his emotional immaturity. He should know, from the realization he just had, that this probably isn’t the best way to handle things. That epiphany in itself was not enough to cause him to change his actions, but we get the feeling that having to run from the cops might be. He feels good at the end because he’s fleeing from the emotional baggage that induced the need for him to take such vengeance.

The move with the snow used in the concluding line is Joycean:

He ran east toward the river, the stormy pewter sky silvering with morning light, his boots shushing this, this, this through the powder, the blood in his ears singing in high pulses free, free, free, the light flakes of snow shimmying every which way, obeying no silly laws like gravity, loosened from all the rules and freely falling.

Compare this to James Joyce’s last line of “The Dead”:

His soul swooned slowly as he heard the snow falling faintly through the universe and faintly falling, like the descent of their last end, upon all the living and the dead.

“Freely falling” v. “falling faintly.Joyce’s protagonist Gabriel has throughout the piece struggled to hear various things, thus his hearing something as quiet (nay silent) as snow falling now concretely manifests the character’s larger emotional change after having the ironically life-affirming epiphany that he will one day die, which pushes him from internally-oriented to more externally-oriented—a change not dissimilar to the one O’Malley’s Mike goes through.

So then here are the “moves” summed up: Mike suffers from twin delusions that come to a head in the same climactic scene. His realization(s) regarding the true nature of his delusions induce the epiphany that he’s like his family. But this in itself does not cause him to change. When he takes an action indicating this lack of change, external forces (the cops) induce an even larger-scale epiphany that manifests not mentally, as with the prior ones, but physically. This physicality is a form of showing-not-telling that makes the story powerful enough to be published. O’Malley has essentially crafted an epiphany daisy-chain.

It is worth noting that one of the epiphanies in this chain—the third one, that he’s like his family—depends on a section of exposition we get right before the section that segues into the climactic one-ended fight with Sander, that does not itself ever segue into a scene, but then is revisited explicitly in the climactic scene:

So Mike did what everyone in his family did when uncomfortable: he started talking. This came mostly from his mother’s side. They talked before thinking, talked to fill space, talked to figure out what they thought before they actually thought it through thoroughly, sensibly, silently. Their voices rose to the rafters in attempts to clear the air, but more often it fogged everything up as clouds of sound, and hurt, and bad feeling.

It’s also noteworthy how O’Malley uses the objective correlative of the play they see on their “date” to describe the arc of their relationship:

They saw an adaptation of Bartleby the Scrivener, in which Bartleby’s persistent “I would prefer not to” followed a slow, devastating trajectory from comic to tragic.

Sander is Bartleby, saying he would prefer things not get more serious, while Mike’s reaction to this insistence—to treat it so lightly at first so as to not actually believe it–moves from comic to tragic.

Another nice move to heighten the emotional significance of the climactic one-ended fight is a memory that comes back when Mike is listening to Sander talk about his poetry:

Once, travelling alone in Europe, Mike had walked out early one spring morning down a small side street in Rome to see louvered wooden shutters opening out in house after house to let in the air and the light. His heart had stopped briefly as his lungs filled with morning air, his nose with the smells of coffee, baking bread, new buds on trees. He stood still watching the series of houses opening their shutters, and thought, “This is how life should be.” There was something of the swinging open of those Roman shutters that Mike saw in Sander’s face as he spoke.

This is then swiftly and efficiently redeployed in the climactic scene:

Mike watched the shutters close on the tender thing that he’d imagined had once throbbed between them.

Basically, this seems like a publishable story will make editor go “nice move” more than once.

-SCR

Cat’s in the Cradle, or, Plot’s in the Character

As per the writer Steve Almond, “Plot is the mechanism by which your protagonist is forced up against her deepest fears and/or desires.” This would seem to match up with Sigmund Freud’s theory of human nature that we’re all governed by…our subconscious fears and desires. Implicit in Almond’s definition is the tenet that plot originates with character. A character does something because they want something, or because they are afraid of something, and that action causes consequences that snowball and constitute an arc of rising action, action that frequently rises due to the character’s reaction to those consequences.

Ballads are poems and/or songs that tell stories, and in such condensed arcs one can often discern the elements of plot at work. Harry Chapin’s 1974 classic “Cat’s in the Cradle” is a compact model of character-driven plot. The first verse describes the first person narrator’s son being born, but the narrator isn’t around when the baby takes his first steps because he’s always working to pay the bills. When the son learns to talk, he declares “I’m gonna be like you, Dad.”

In the second verse the son is approaching adolescence. His father has given him a ball and he wants to use it to play catch with his father, but the father declines because he is too busy. The son does not seem to begrudge his father’s slight, and still declares that he will be like him. One single exchange represents the dynamic of the son’s entire childhood.

In the third verse the son is now home from college, so manly that the father is proud of him and now wants to spend time with him, but now it’s the son who is too busy. He asks to borrow the father’s car keys, signifying his desire to leave and spend time with people who are not his father. He no longer makes the declaration of likeness to his father that he did in the first two verses. The keys are a heavily symbolic object: the father controls and imparts the means of the son’s escape from the family environment.    

In the fourth and final verse the father is retired and the son is grown with a family of his own. The father calls the son and says he’d like to see him; the son says he’d like to, but his job and own son are keeping him too busy. Though he’s polite about it, the father realizes that the son is just like him.

As for the chorus, it is filled with images of young childhood:

And the cat’s in the cradle and the silver spoon
Little boy blue and the man in the moon
When you coming home, dad?
I don’t know when
But we’ll get together then
You know we’ll have a good time then

Cat’s cradle is a child’s game played with string, while the “silver spoon” is a well-known symbol for being born into wealth; “Little boy blue” is from a nursery rhyme, as is “the man in the moon,” as well as something children sometimes read into the moon’s ridged features. The selection of images that represent a boy and a man respectively is no accident; the juxtaposition of these images in fact encapsulates the entire narrative arc, both of the boy born to the man and the boy becoming that man. The repetition of the promise that they’ll have a good time when they get together reinforces that that time is not going to come; each time the chorus is repeated, the falseness of the words rings a little more clearly. By song’s end they still have not gotten together and had that good time, and the emptiness of the promise is fully realized.

The leaps in time the song makes between verses not only allows the writer to get in the arc of practically an entire life, but reinforces the father’s absence–entire chunks of his son’s life have slipped by without him being there to see it. The gaps in the son’s life that we don’t see shows us what the father doesn’t see, and dramatizes the frequency with which his son registers on his radar–it only occurs to the father to check in with his son periodically. The song’s handling of time also reinforces the nature of memory; at the end, the listener can almost feel the father looking back over his son’s life and honing in on the moments from the previous verses. It is notable that every verse except the first one presents us with a scene, a specific moment in time, while the first is general exposition about the period after the son was born. The handling of time in that first verse sets us up for how the song will handle time: the son is born “just the other day,” but by the end of the verse has already learned to walk and talk. Time flies, as the rest of the song will show. It thus raises the question, what will you do with your time? What will you prioritize?

When the son declares that he’s going to be like his father at the end of the first verse, it registers as admiration. But with the father around so infrequently, the only quality of his that the son can pick up on enough to emulate is his absence. While most fathers might want their son to want to be like them, when this father realizes his son is like him, it’s not a triumph, but a tragedy. The song takes a decisive turn between the second and third verses; in the first two, the son pursues spending time with the father, while in the second two, the father pursues spending time with the son. In both cases, the subject of pursuit does not reciprocate. The irony is that in both cases, the lack of reciprocation is the father’s fault. He chooses not to reciprocate when his son wants to spend time with him; when the son doesn’t reciprocate, we’re able to interpret that he’s doing so because of his father’s earlier lack of reciprocation–had the father reciprocated then, the son might have reciprocated now.

Here then, is the consequence of the main character’s action. The entire plot is a product of this father’s tragic flaw–his prioritization of work over family. In this compact narrative, much is left to the listener to deduce. From the first verse’s reference to “bills to pay,” one might infer that the character is not choosing work over family but rather work for his family. Perhaps this character’s desire that set this plot in motion was his desire to support his family, or, conversely, his fear of not being able to. The song then attains an extra level of irony if his fear of taking care of his family leads directly to him distancing himself from that family. What he does to help the family actually hurts it. No wonder this song’s such a tearjerker.

This song is a great model for a character study, and thus, for plot. Developing a character based on the lessons of this song, one might ask, what does my character prioritize? What is (the most) important to him/her? And then the question is raised, why are those things the most important to this person? The implicit answer is because of the specific events that have happened to him/her. A bottom up rather than top down approach seems best here: instead of starting with the priorities, start with specific events from the different stages of his/her life. This song provides four stages: childhood, adolescence, young adulthood, and mature adulthood. Exploring a scene from each of these different stages can help to isolate the character’s priorities, and thus, what kind of person they are, and thus, what kind of plot they might generate. If the plot is to push the character up against their fears/desires, the plot needs to lead the character into a situation where they have to confront those fears/desires. That is precisely what happens to this character: he needs to realize that prioritizing work over family is not the best way to spend his time, and this is the subtext of the surface realization at the end of the song that his son is like him.

The Simpsonsreinterpretation of the song in their aptly titled episode “Labor Pains” from season 25 works on a couple of different levels that unexpectedly reinforce its character-based plot structure. Played out in an Itchy & Scratchy cartoon, the writers put a literal cat in a cradle when Scratchy shows up as a baby on Itchy’s doorstep. With the song providing the soundtrack, Itchy appears to be overwhelmed with love and does all the things the father in the song doesn’t do–he plays catch with Scratchy, teaches him to drive, takes photos of him with his prom date, and is at his college graduation. At this last he gives Scratchy a graduation gift, which Scratchy opens to reveal a bomb with a lit fuse. This is in accordance with the ongoing gag that Itchy has to kill Scratchy, but it’s also in accordance with the character-driven plot model: the character manifests a flaw early on, lighting the fuse on the figurative bomb that must go off by story’s end, forcing the character to recognize the bomb’s existence and suffer its consequences.

-SCR