A Spiral Into Madness

A presentation on Stephen King’s “Suffer the Little Children” by Jessica Horton, Caroline Woods, and Christian Hinojosa

The story begins with Ms. Sidley, a strict lower school teacher. Ms. Sidley is teaching a class and is routinely punishing students for minuscule errors by looking at them with her glasses while turned around. She asks a student named Robert to use the word tomorrow in a sentence. Foreshadowing what will happen later, Robert answers, “Tomorrow something bad will happen.” Ms. Sidley then begins to suspect that Robert knows about her glasses trick. Then, Robert’s face changes for a moment, this makes Ms. Sidley uncomfortable and suspicious of Robert.  Ms. Sidley begins to become very anxious and snaps at all of the children. The tone of the story begins to become increasingly uneasy.

The  middle of the story continues on with the uneasy feeling that was evident in the beginning. There are a lot of little things that build up the creepiness, like when Mrs. Sidley is in the bathroom and hears the little girls giggling and then sees their shadows morph into monsters and when Robert shows his true face. 

After Ms. Sidley takes time off because she nearly got hit by a bus, she comes back to school and is soon confronted by Robert. He tells Ms. Sidley that she wouldn’t believe how many of them there were now, and  no one will believe her either.  

The ending of the story, “Suffer the Little Children” is really the pinnacle of all this build-up of Ms. Sidley’s mental health episode. At the end of the story, Ms. Sidley decides that she must take her brother’s gun to school and kill all the monsters inside her students, thinking that killing the children will actually be murdering the monsters and not harming the children at all. One by one, calling it a “test,” she leads the children to a sound-proof room and shoots them all, even when she realizes (with Robert’s shooting) that she was killing both the child and the monster. I think the gun is symbolic of Ms. Sidley’s change from a stern teacher to a psychotic murderess. By using her brother’s gun, a gun previously used for good things in the past, she is changing the function of the gun from good to bad, but also changing her role from loving instructor to crazy teacher. 

After killing twelve children, Sidley is relieved of a trial and is sent to Juniper Hill, a psychiatric facility in Augusta (wherever Augusta is). At the hospital, she is heavily medicated and sent into intense therapy. 

The final scene is Ms. Sidley in a highly-supervised environment where she will be put with “retarded” children (as King describes them). She is gentle with them and loving, until she reaches a point of disturbance. Suddenly, she requests removal without any tone. They take her from the room with the kids, her psychiatrist bewildered by this. Then, he realizes the monsters inside the children and “never stops looking.”

Jessie’s Analysis:

The short story, “Suffer the Little Children” by Stephen King, is a story of mastery put together with incredible writing. Although some of the specific plot points aren’t always clear, the characters and individual scenes are told brilliantly, making us focus more on that than the exacts.


An aspect of King’s writing in this piece that really stands out to me is the style he used. He used such clever diction to eloquently express each scene, describing it in almost slow motion with tasteful word choice. In fact, there is a scene in the story where Ms. Sidley, a teacher and the main character in the story, goes into the bathroom, to check the paper towels, after being rattled by a little boy in her classroom who can turn into an alien. She overhears two little girls giggling about her in the bathroom, and then hears them “change,” or turn into the same monstrous form. The text states,

The voices changed, no longer girlish, now sexless and soulless, and quite, quite evil. A slow, turgid sound of mindless humor that flowed around the corner to her like sewage. She stared at the hunched shadows and suddenly screamed at them. The scream went on and on, swelling in her head until it attained a pitch of lunacy. And then she fainted.

Wording like

mindless humor that flowed around the corner like sewage


The scream went on and on, swelling in her head until it attained a pitch of lunacy

make the scene tangible, the pain tangible, the atmosphere tangible.

Another aspect of King’s style would be his use of figurative language. Phrases like,

The look wouldn’t leave her mind. It was stuck there, like a tiny string of roast beef between two molars – a small thing, actually, but feeling as big as a cinderblock

give the reader such a vivid description of Ms. Sidley’s emotions. This clip of figurative language is placed in the story when Ms. Sidley was reflecting over a little boy’s dirty look he gave her in class. This simile works so well because everybody, some time or another, has had irritating, residue food wedged between their teeth to the point where they can’t get it out. Soon, this minor annoyance consumes them, just like Robert’s look in class consumed Ms. Sidley. Using this comparison in the context of the story made perfect sense and related the reader to the emotions of the main character.

One last style element King weaves into his piece is preciseness and grittiness, which lead to relatability. One example would be when the story is discussing Ms. Sidley’s instincts:

They knew Miss Sidley’s deadly instincts too well. Miss Sidley could always tell who was chewing gum at the back of the room, who had a beanshooter in his pocket, who wanted to go to the bathroom to trade baseball cards rather than use the facilities.

The specificity gives the reader a clear image and helps us relate more to the precise, gritty details of Ms. Sidley’s instincts. The beanshooter and the baseball cards are all details that remind us of our elementary school days. So, when King drops such details in there, it grapples our attention and we’re loured into this beautiful story, simply because he used specific and realistic details to describe things. Things that don’t seem so fake with his stylistic touch.

Point of View

Geniusly, King wrote in a magnificent point of view, to guide us into Ms. Sidley’s progression to insanity and to show us what was most important about the story–Sidley herself. One point of view technique he used was incorporating Sidley’s thoughts into the text often. One place the writer has done this is, again, when the little girls are in the bathroom gossiping about Sidley, and she believes that they know she is listening. The story states,

Another thought crawled up out of her mind. They knew she was there. Yes. Yes they did. The little bitches knew.

By illustrating the main character’s thoughts, yet so suddenly switching back to an agreeing narrator, we automatically trust Ms. Sidley’s thought process. After all, our narrator is narrating her thoughts and is agreeing with them, so why wouldn’t we trust her? We 90% of the time trust our narrator, and always just a little bit, if not fully for the other 10%. Trusting our narrator, and her faith in Ms. Sidley, produces a complete shocker when she murders the children. We don’t expect that to be done by someone we trust, and yet it is done anyways.

One, small, very specific part of King’s point of view would be one line, a line of Sidley’s thoughts, told through the narrator that instructs us of so much. The line is,

Stop that! she told herself sternly. You’re acting like a skittish girl out of teacher’s college!

This one line sheds light to Sidley’s age, Sidley’s paranoia and in a sense her pride. By using terms like “teachers’ college” we can tell that Ms. Sidley is slightly out of date and still sees things in an old-fashioned lense, using the older jargon. The part that read “skittish girl” really relayed how jittery and unnerved she is by this classroom setting, teeming with alien-children, especially since it implied that this is out of her nature. Also, just by implying that she doesn’t act like a “skittish girl out of teacher’s college” when in her normal state, King already lends us a sniff at her self-satisfaction with her experience in education. She thinks that she is a better teacher than the “skittish girls” who are younger and have just finished university. All these details are very important, fed to us with the nutrients of this one delicious line.


The ending of the story, “Suffer the Little Children” is really the pinnacle of all this build-up of Ms. Sidley’s mental health episode. At the end of the story, Ms. Sidley decides that she must take her brother’s gun to school and kill all the monsters inside her students, thinking that killing the children will actually be murdering the monsters and not harming the children at all. One by one, calling it a “test,” she leads the children to a sound-proof room and shoots them all, even when she realizes (with Robert’s shooting) that she was killing both the child and the monster. I think the gun is symbolic of Ms. Sidley’s change from a stern teacher to a psychotic murderess. By using her brother’s gun, a gun previously used for good things in the past, she is changing the function of the gun from good to bad, but also changing her role from loving instructor to crazy teacher.

After killing twelve children, Sidley is relieved of a trial and is sent to Juniper Hill, a psychiatric facility in Augusta (wherever Augusta is). At the hospital, she is heavily medicated and sent into intense therapy.

The final scene is Ms. Sidley in a highly-supervised environment where she is put with “retarded” children (as King describes them). She is gentle with them and loving, until she reaches a point of disturbance. Suddenly, she requests removal, without any vocal tone. They take her from the room with the kids, her psychiatrist bewildered by this. He takes a look at the children and “never stopped looking.”

Some of this confused me greatly. Were the children actually monsters? What did Sidley and the psychiatrist see? Was it the same thing?

I think part of the charm of this story was that we never figured the answers to the question or the extents of Sidley’s psychosis–was she just seeing the monsters or were they real? Although, maybe for my own writing, I can choose a blurry route or a clear route, not the “somewhere in-between route” that King inflicts on the story. With my writing, I will either put more grounding details in, or pull more out.

What I Can Learn From This Story

In terms of style and point of view, this story has taught me a lot.

Stylistically, I’ve learned how to connect to my reader. Using specific, real-life figurative language and description I can make them understand more of what I’m trying to convey, what my characters are like, and more.

Now, discussing point of view, how to apply that to my writing, I have learned how to manipulate narrators and their voices to focus on a certain part of my story. King used his narrator to focus on Sidly’s process to insanity and to persuade us that she wasn’t too insane, so the murders came at us as a surprise and shocked us the way they should have. I mean, I’ll probably focus on other aspects in my stories, but it’s nice to know how to focus and how to use point of view to accomplish the goal.

Obviously, there are a lot of things in “Suffer the Little Children” that have taught me well and will continuously aid me in developing my own writing.

Class Discussion Questions

Why do you think the author puts in the scene with the other girls in the bathroom near Ms. Sidley? Why not just focus on the class’s students or Robert? Why aren’t those girls murdered too? What effect does the bathroom scene have on the rising action, other than the faint, that could happen in another scene?

Do you think the author intentionally leaves it unclear whether the children are actually monsters or not? And what the psychiatric doctor sees too?

Caroline W’s Analysis:

In the short story “Suffer the Little Children” by Stephen King, there are many factors that work towards the overall quality of the story. He demonstrates many unique traits in his writing that make it sound recognizable and unique. The two main things that I noticed in his writing are the way he describes the passage of time and his descriptive language.

The way he transitions between time periods notable because of how smoothly he does it. He manages to sum up the occurrences of an entire year in a paragraph and still make it feel complete. Even if the amount of words he uses in minimal, he makes every one count towards the overall goal of conveying the message. It still feels like a full scene despite the fact that in was all summarized in one paragraph. When it shows how time has passed since she shot her students, there’s a paragraph that wraps up the year’s contents briefly, but completely. It feels full, but quick.

The description used was very unique and contributed to the eerie mood. The way King describes the actions and the scenery that take place over the course of the story really helps the reader visualize and connect with Ms. Sidley. The lines where she’s describing how Robert’s face morphs into the monster is described in perfect, creepy clarity-

His face suddenly ran together like melting wax, the eyes flattening and spreading like knife-struck egg yolks, nose widening and yawning, mouth disappearing. The head elongated, and the hair was suddenly not hair but straggling, twitching growth.

The subtle things he draws attention to make you feel uneasy as the plot grows. He paints a picture with the wording he uses, and it’s both beautiful and unsettling.


If the story was about a younger teacher instead of an older one, would the story be as creepy?

Why does King add the ending part about the psychiatrist? What does it add to the story?

Christian’s Analysis

The short story “Suffer the Little Children” by Stephen King features a main character protagonist, Ms. Sidley and an antagonist, Robert who each compliment the story.

Ms. Sidley

Ms. Sidley is a schoolteacher who has a cold demeanor, is feared by her students, and suffers from a bad back. One day she is teaching class and a troublesome student named Robert transforms into a terrifying beast. Ms. Sidley thinks she’s hallucinating but soon realizes that it’s all very real. Throughout the story Robert hints that “Something bad will happen.” And that he and “others” are out to get Ms. Sidley. While the meaning of some of his dialogue is unclear it unnerves the teacher.  In the girls’ bathroom Ms. Sidley overhears two children gossiping about her and internally refers to them as “bitches.” This is important to her character because it shows us what kind of attitude she has concerning her students. The next interaction she has with Robert is during detention where he makes vague, Sidious remarks and Ms. Sidley replies with

“Little boys who tell stories go to hell. I know many parents don’t tell their… spawn that.”

Sidley’s character traits are reinforced here as the comment reflects how traditional and unfeeling; she is. We can infer that she did not have children because she refers to them as “spawn.” Robert suddenly changes and Sidley runs out of the room screaming. She is almost ran over by a bus, (which serves as a rising action) and decides to take further precautions. The next day Ms. Sidley brings a gun to school. This action is seen to be a tipping point in her character arc because she has gone from strict, unkind teacher to ruthless killer. She is being driven to her wits end by insane demon children, and is losing her sanity. She kills Robert and is taken to court. Eventually she is put in rehab and is forced to work as a babysitter for retarded children. While taking care of them she “sees something she doesn’t like and looks away.” Hinting at a child turning into a monster. Later that night Ms. Sidley slit her throat with glass.

Ms. Sidley goes through a character arc without changing her major character traits. The only conflict she faces that morphs her is Robert and the rest of the demon children. They make her lose her calmness, sanity and eventually will to live. The falling action seemed positive for Ms. Sidley but alas she begins to see the demons again and decides out of fear or exhaustion that she’d rather die. She is a character than we can all imagine because of popular culture and her drastic measures at the end of the story shock the reader.


Robert is the story’s antagonist. Less is known about him since he is not given a point of view and his expression is unclear at times. His transformation is far faster than Ms. Sidley’s. In the beginning of the story, Robert is introduced as an odd, quiet, student who annoys the teacher. He is asked a question and replies with

“Something bad will happen tomorrow.”

This clearly gets him in trouble. After his comment he is revealed to be a sort of monster/demon child as he physically changes into his true form during class. Ms. Sidley catches him, and he gets a lunch detention. While at detention Robert simply smiles at his captor because he knows inside that he will win their little game. Robert’s motives are unclear but he says

“There are more of us now. Eleven at this school.”

Implying he could hurt Ms. Sidley. After this Robert once again turns into the creature he truly is. As the story does not shed light on what exactly he is, Robert explains to Ms. Sidley that the “real” Robert (monster) is trapped inside of him and wants to come out. After a month she comes back to school and meets Robert at recess where he again indirectly threatens her. This leads to Ms. Sidley bringing her gun to school the next day. The next day Robert is then taken into a room and shot by Ms. Sidley along with 12 other children. In the end he transforms back into a human just as another teacher comes onto the scene. Ms. Sidley is arrested for the murder of her students.

Robert’s character doesn’t change at all during the story. Only his physical appearance, which is described in the text as “alien-like.” Although his deeper motivations are unknown Robert seems to get what he wants in the end as Ms. Sidley is put into a rehabilitation program with retarded children who turn out to be monsters just like him. Robert’s death is avenged when Sidley commits suicide.

Robert is an excellent character because we are intrigued by his mysteriousness and horrified by his secret. His introduction foreshadowed the events of the story and his eerie remarks drove Ms. Sidley into insanity.


The Undertaking of an Artist

Summary Part 1—Pearl

“The Young Painters” by Nicole Krauss starts off with the main character addressing a judge. She is recounting the story of a dinner party she attended at the home of a magnificent dancers home. She admires his home greatly.  She glances inside his room on the way to the bathroom and notices a beautiful painting. Before she leaves she asks the dancer who created it. He tells her it was painted by a childhood friend who was later killed along with his sister by their own mother, who gave them sleeping pills and then drove them out to the woods, setting the car on fire.  On the taxi ride home the main character continues to think about the dancers story.

Summary Part 2—Vera

The narrator uses the story she heard from the dancer in a story she wrote and got published. The narrator also writes a novel about her father’s old age. She knows that he would have strongly disliked it if he’d been alive to read it because it depicts the loss of his prized dignity as he loses capability. It also includes his shortcomings, which he would have disliked too. When interviewed, she denies that it was autobiographical in any way and explains that the writer must have freedom. She has that freedom now, especially since a sizable number of people are buying her books. She believes that the artist must serve their higher artistic calling and maintain artistic freedom, but there is less freedom in one’s personal life. The narrator, several years after having heard the story at the party, runs into the dancer. They catch up on each others’ lives.

Summary Part 3—Emma W

The speaker writes a story about the children who died in their mother’s burning car and publishes it without telling the dancer. She later writes a novel heavily based off of the mistakes and shortcomings of her recently deceased father, and defends writing so cruelly about him by saying that the writer should not be expected to always write an autobiography and should have the creative liberties to write in fiction, morals be damned. The speaker sees the dancer years later one day.

Chronic Tension: the artists obsession with taking stories from other people, even at the cost of demeaning others

Acute Tension: the dinner party where she hears the dancers story

Pearl’s Analysis

Vera’s Analysis: Artistic Purpose/Theme

This story is a reflection on what it means to be a writer, which is, of course, applicable to all of us here. It raises a lot of questions that are important for us to consider as we create. Also discussed in this section is this theme’s impact on the work itself.

The main character in this story is defending herself in a “court,” having been convicted of the crime of stealing other people’s stories. Though she has few qualms about her thievery in the name of devotion to art for most of her career, this changes when she hears a child’s cry at a playground. The cry gnaws at her psyche for some time to come.

And slowly, Your Honor, I began to distrust myself.

This was a genuine moment of humanity that perturbed the narrator. There are a few ways to interpret this; it ties back in with her earlier discussion of potentially having children with S, and it also brings us back to the children burning in the car in the forest. Whatever its significance, it causes her to feel guilty about her thievery.

The narrator is emotionally affected by the story when she first hears it, but as time passes, she seems to be more focused on getting her story about the children published than she is on the human impact of the event she is describing.

…after the story was published I stopped thinking about the mother and her children who burned to death in a car, as if by writing about them I had made them disappear.

She is also unconcerned about the emotional impact this could have on the dancer, who had been childhood friends with the deceased child. Since she is so eager to use this story, she seems to have lost sight of the fact that it took a toll on real people.

In the book written about her father, the narrator uses her writing to paint a demeaning portrait of him, through both a description of his old age and of his personal flaws.

I paraded his faults and my misgivings, the high drama of my young life with him, thinly disguised (mostly by exaggeration) across the pages of that book.

She was able to justify this with the following philosophy-

…the writer serves a higher calling, what one refers to only in art and religion as a vocation, and cannot worry too much about the feelings of those whose lives she borrows from.

She feels a little bit of guilt about this book, but it seems to be negligible as she was defending herself using the aforementioned philosophy.

…a sickening feeling sometimes took hold of me and dumped its blackness before moving on.

However, note that the narrator respects privacy in some cases that are special to her. She never divulges the name of her husband except for the letter s. We don’t even learn her name. She seems to have a bias towards things she has a closer emotional connection with (she seems not to have an extremely close connection with her father, seeing as she attacked his faults in her book). The cry makes her react emotionally, and she rethinks her philosophy and experiences the internal turmoil present at the end of the story. Before this point, the narrator seemed emotionally distant from what she was writing about.

What we can take from this as writers is that we should not be telling other people’s stories in an insensitive way or in order to get revenge. We need to maintain an open hearted, emotional connection to our subjects, as cheesy as that sounds. We should not see other people’s stories as a means to get our work published, as happens in this story, and we shouldn’t use them for shock value. We also need to consider multiple perspectives in our work. All of the factors that caused a situation or person to be the way they are need to be considered if we want to use a story in our work. We also should not use our art to settle scores such as the one that the narrator seemed to have with her father just because doing that is petty and not nice. It’s pretty obvious that that’s bad, but it can be a tempting thing to do for some people.

Another thing to consider is that insensitive writing or writing that was produced to get revenge is generally of lower quality. If there is an emotional detachment from the story, it is probably going to be less affecting. Readers want something that is genuine, and a story written to check off a box on the writer’s resumé is not going to do the trick. Unless a reader mistook your book for a tabloid, they don’t want to read about you getting back at someone in your personal life. Stories written for revenge can turn out self-pitying and righteously angry. Turns of events can become illogical due to the passion involved, and characters can be made one dimensional as they are vilified.

This piece also raises another issue—should we be able to take stories and people to use in our work and to what extent? Writers use elements of real stories in their work all the time. Without a few lines of dialogue overheard at a coffee shop or without that one strangely dressed person on the sidewalk, a lot of stories would not be the same. Our life experience tells us what is plausible and what isn’t. But how much of this is too much? Can there be too much? Do we need permission from the people whose lives we take the stories from? These are questions that different writers will have different answers to, but they are worth considering.

The presence of this theme engages the reader because they are given the opportunity to evaluate the narrator’s actions. Its thought-provoking nature makes it memorable.

This theme also ties together all of the events of the story, which would be disparate without it. There isn’t an obvious connection between the cry, the painting, and the book about her father. In order to compile several events like these into one work, they need to have something in common.

Note that very few details are provided in this story, as discussed in the setting section. There isn’t anything extra to analyze that will distract us from the thematic content. We don’t even get the narrator’s name, and we don’t know a whole lot about her personal life aside from her work other than her dithering desire to have children. The lack of detail also makes this story universal-the narrator could be anyone.

Analysis: Setting

The first setting we see in this story is the dancer’s apartment.

The apartment was small and filled with the dancer’s unusual possessions, things he had been given or had found on the street or during his tireless travels, all arranged with the sense of space, proportion, timing, and grace that made him such a joy to watch onstage.

Specific things in the apartment are not pointed out here, but what is indicated by this description of the setting is the narrator’s mindset—she is making judgements about what she is seeing rather than just seeing the things themselves. Stories are projected onto every object as she imagines the dancer finding each object.

She also puts everything she sees in this apartment through the filter of being a dancer. The placement of a book or a coaster has to have some dance-related significance. The narrator goes on to lament that the dancer is moving normally through his house rather than dancing, indicating that she really wants his home life to be an idyllic dance-related world.

Next, we see the painting that inspires her story.

…in the hall I passed the open door of the dancer’s bedroom. The room was spare, with only a bed and a wooden chair and a little altar with candles set up in one corner. There was a large window facing south, through which lower Manhattan hung suspended in the dark. The walls were blank except for one painting… [in which] several faces emerged, as if from a bog, now and again topped with a hat. The faces on the top half of the paper were upside down…It was a strange piece of work…

The setting here is stark and simple, leaving room for the painting to be the main item. The painting itself is described, but not in extreme detail. The detail provided, however, is strange enough that it catches our attention just as it catches the narrator’s. The image of upside down faces wearing hats emerging from a bog is pretty striking.

The next part of the story is essentially a summary of things that go on in the following years in the narrator’s creative life. The next time we see a concrete setting is when we get to her walk through New York, where she meets the dancer again.

…I was out walking and came to a bookstore near Washington Square Park. Out of habit, I slowed as I reached the window to see whether my book was on display.

She is still very focused on the success of her work at this point. At this point, she sees the dancer and they have a somewhat awkward conversation. Something notable setting-wise that is mentioned here is the AIDS epidemic, which has killed one of the dancer’s close friends. This is yet another thing that has a real human cost and is juxtaposed with the narrator’s detached attitude towards the death and pain she writes about.

Finally, we come to the park.

As I walked, I happened to pass a playground. It was already late in the afternoon, but the small fenced in area was full of the children’s high-pitched activity…I’d always noticed that in the last half hour before dusk the children’s voices seemed to get louder.

This is where the narrator hears the child’s cry that disturbs her to such a great extent. This setting description is not very detailed, though it does include the section about the children’s voices getting louder before dusk. This detail is rooted in sound, which prefaces the cry well. It is also such a specific detail that we can imagine the rest of the playground around it.

The setting descriptors throughout the story are very simple, leaving room for the thematic elements to come forward. Nothing extraneous is there to distract us. What we can take away from this is that, when you have a somewhat complicated theme to convey, you should try to make everything else simple so people can understand everything more easily. If this had been a more detailed story, we would have had a lot more trouble figuring out what the point of all of it was.

Though they use few words, the setting descriptions are still vivid enough that we can imagine where the narrator is. Two good examples of this are the detail about the voices getting louder as dusk approaches and Lower Manhattan hanging suspended in the dark. These are both poetic yet concise, which serves the simplistic approach to setting taken here.

Discussion Questions:

  1. Why did the author make the choice to have the narrator defend themselves in court?
  2. Why did the author choose to have the narrator and nobody else notice the cry?

Emma W’s Analysis

Character Analysis

As writers, to analyze our nameless protagonist in Nicole Krauss’ “The Young Painters” is to invite self-evaluation, to scrutinize our own behaviors as storytellers that have most likely, in one way or another, invoked the lives or actions of real people we have known. Our protagonist has done something I have an extremely hard time believing any of us have never done, that being having incorporated a real person’s story in our written work. The protagonist in “The Young Painters” starts the story at a party, hosted by a dancer who is a loose acquaintance of the protagonist (or at least they are not close friends), which ends with the dancer telling our protagonist a story of two sibling childhood friends who died burning in a car along with their mother who had started it. The story was told completely casually, and it unsettled the protagonist:

It may have been because I had my coat on, and the apartment was warm, but suddenly I began to feel lightheaded.

And it stuck with her:

In the taxi ride home that night, I continued to think about that mother and her children, the wheels of the car softly rolling over the pine needles on the forest floor, the engine cut in a clearing, the pale face of those young painters asleep in the back seat, dirt under their fingernails.

It affected her strongly, and we see that she soon writes a story about the dancer’s childhood friends, but with her own artistic liberties in the addition of small details. And so begins her practice of using other’s stories. She is able to publish the story in a magazine, and doesn’t tell the dancer about it. At this point, she only feels a few moments of guilt that are soon overshadowed by her pride at getting her work published, and slowly the children in the story faded from her mind. Also of note is that she speaks of her failure to have a child. Her failure to even have the chance to be a mother makes her look at this story of a mother burning herself and her children a different way. She missed her chance, but this mother burns her blessing. This screws with the protagonist’s head.

Next she writes about her father after his death. She writes cruelly about him, not only describing his shameful loss of dignity in his final days and stopping there, no,

-I did not stop there, but instead took his illness and his suffering, with all its pungent detail, and finally even his death, as an opportunity to write about his life and, more specifically, about his failings, as both a person and a father, failings whose precise and abundant detail can be ascribed to him alone.

She is absolutely brutal, tearing at his entire life in highly personal detail, and the insult is added to injury because she’s his daughter. And in the lowest moment for her, after she’s stolen a story in probably the harshest way you can imagine, she starts throwing up the defenses. She assures over and over that it’s fiction, she’s a writer and that should come with assumptions that liberties will be taken. She is very defensive about this instance of her using a person’s story, and says to the judge that she’s been talking to the entire time:

In her work, the writer is free of laws. But in her life, Your Honor, she is not free.

And so begins her spiraling. After this, she finds the dancer again years later. She is uneasy, but the dancer is friendly; she finds that he’s taken down the painting, and they part with the dancer gently tapping her cheek. The protagonist initially takes it as friendly, but she begins twisting it in her mind, finding hostility where there was none. She thinks he is belittling her, and thinks this is unfair because of the nature of his telling her the story. On edge, she passes by a playground and hears a terrified child’s scream, but cannot see where it’s coming from. She would hear the child’s scream occasionally when she writes or wakes up, and she soon began to read an undertone of mockery in the scream too; she claims it haunts her.

The twisting of the scream and the dancer’s words and actions all points to a deep guilt that the protagonist feels in light of stealing the burning children story. Interestingly enough, we never know why the protagonist is speaking to a judge and what particularly she is on trial for. We don’t know if maybe the dancer sued her, we literally don’t know. But the judge gives a deep impression that she feels guilty, maybe she’s putting herself on trial in her own mind for the things she did. She’s defensive at first, but it slowly drives her mad. Using the stories of a two burning children and her ashamed defective father incites a guilt in her that messes with her mind more deeply then let’s hope it ever affects any of us.

One of my favorite details though, is that even with all the stealing of stories she’s doing, even with all the exposing of deeply personal stories at that, she never says what her husband’s name is, referring to him as S. She had a lot respect for him.


What did the framework of the protagonist speaking to a judge do to affect her characterization?

Does the writer portray her actions in a negative way or not? How if yes or no?

Plot (rising action) Analysis

The plot is a build-up of increasingly more drastic forms of using other people’s stories, as well as the decline of the protagonist’s mental being and emotional stability. It begins at the dancer’s party, where the dancer casually tells the protagonist the story of two childhood friends of his that died in a burning car lit by their mother. She writes the story and publishes it in a major magazine, only feeling slightly guilty but defending herself by saying that he said the story so casually that she doesn’t think he would mind her using it. This is a pretty low level stealing of a story, and in this point of the plot, she does not feel to guilty about it. There is the slightest tension that the dancer will actually care about her using the story of his dead childhood friends, but our protagonist doesn’t seem to hung up about it, thus the audience doesn’t feel too hung up about it. She then takes a huge step by writing a novel about her father after his death describing in great detail his failings and mistakes.

I did not stop there, but instead took his illness and his suffering, with all its pungent detail, and finally even his death, as an opportunity to write about his life and, more specifically, about his failings, as both a person and a father, failings whose precise and abundant detail can be ascribed to him alone.

This is completely slander. Here she defends herself much more desperately and forwardly. She says a writer is expected to write fiction and take their own creative liberties, that she in no way did something wrong and the book shouldn’t be taken as a biography or her actual feelings about her father. She says that writers shouldn’t even have to think about the feelings of those whose lives she’s borrowed from. The ante has definitely risen. There is a harsh defensiveness here, and the leap from borrowing a story mentioned at a party to exposing her father’s flaws bare and in great detail serves to rise the tension considerably. There’s no turning back. So when she sees the dancer years later, she’s on an edge. The audience is just as on edge as well, we don’t know how the dancer is going to react too her. But he seems nice and friendly, the only hinge being that he says he took the painting down because of a reason he doesn’t give, which adds tension because of the possibility of it being because of our protagonist. He strokes her cheek affectionately and leaves. And this is where the protagonist enters a spiral of mistrust. She grows suspicious of him and his odd gesture, thinking that it was not as genuine as it seemed. She then happens to walk by a playground, where she hears a child’s scream. She cannot identify the location of the child though, implying she imagined it. Her later mention that she sometimes hears the scream when she writes further solidifies her deteriorating mental health, as well as her emotional instability with the phrase

Other times, I’d hear the cry just as I crossed over into wakefulness or departed from sleep, and on those mornings I rose with the feeling of something wound around my neck.

The rising action consists of the transformation from the protagonist using a story that she’d heard casually at a party, to losing her mind over the guilt.


How did the jump from the protagonist writing about a story she’d heard at a party to writing about how sucky her father was built the tension?

How did the climax tie the story together and provide a conclusion to the narrative?

Pearl’s Analysis

Scene vs. Summary:

In The Young Painters Krauss uses scene and summary to convey the passage of time and to focus in on the most important details. The passage and pausing of time are very important to the story for a couple of reasons. The first reason is that it helps add more weight to the final meeting with the dancer.

I read everything you write. Do you? I said, surprised and suddenly agitated. But he smiled again, and it seemed to me that the danger had passed—the story would go unmentioned.

In this instance summary and scene work together to evoke tension and emotion. The
reason summary improves this scene is because it helps explain character motivation. When we first hear this line, we are prepared for the writer to be confronted. To be put in  her place in some shape or form. But we realize that so much time has gone by since her story on the dancer’s past was published that any confrontation on the dancer’s part has been dismissed. The large amount of summary in the middle of this story zooms through years of life that the reader only gets a glimpse at. If this scene had taken place a week after the story was published, then it probably would’ve happened differently. The dancer might have been more vocal, or at least might have addressed what the author did. The fact that in the actual scene the dancer is only able to do this through a vague comment, makes the meeting a lot more powerful. It makes the reader further question the morals of the main character and causes us to be frustrated that she hasn’t learned her lesson after exploiting so many people. Which makes the end more satisfying when she finally does learn a lesson. (even if it was indirectly) The author’s use of summary helps add more gravity to the story they are telling.

The authors use of scene is also very important. The author only picks out a handful of
important moments to put into scene, summarizing the rest. The moment I’ll focus on is the final scene in the story, where the writer is walking after meeting the dancer and hears a child scream in terror.

until a cry rang out, pained and terrified, an agonizing child’s cry that tore into me, as if it were an appeal to me alone. I stopped short and jerked around, sure that I was going to find a mangled child fallen from a terrible height. But there was nothing, only the children running in and out of their circles and games, and no sign of where the cry had come from.

This seems like a small detail. Something that would probably jar the average person but
wouldn’t stick with them the way it stuck with the writer. The fact that the author put that moment into scene shows how significant that moment was to the main character. The child’s scream was described in intense detail, but the aftermath of the event is completely summarized. I believe that the reason the author did this was to only focus on the most important thing. Everything that happened after the scream was a product of that scream, so the scream should be given the most focus. The summary afterwards also conveys that this was a slow process. It took a while for the trauma to sink into her and to cause her to, “distrust herself.”

Acute and Chronic Tension:

The chronic tension is the underlying problem that existed before the story starts. In The
Young Painters the chronic tension is the writer’s obsession with other people’s stories,
which is caused by her selfishness. This seems to be a large character flaw and is probably what led into writing in the first place. She even admits to her obsession stemming from dissatisfaction with her own life.

“All the same, once I got used to this and began examining his many little collections I had the elated, otherworldly feeling I sometimes get when entering the sphere of another’s life, when for a moment changing my banal habits and living like that seems entirely possible, a feeling that always dissolves the next morning, when I wake up to the familiar, unmovable shapes of my own life. “

This is a deep-rooted personal struggle that has obviously plagued her for many years which then led to her obsession. The reason I believe the obsession is the chronic tension and not the dissatisfaction is because most people feel unhappy with their lives at some point but not all of them become as obsessive or cruel. These decisions come from the writer’s selfishness.

The acute tension in the story is the writer discovering the dancer’s painting.

The walls were blank except for one painting that was tacked up with pins, a vibrant picture out of whose many bright, high-spirited strokes several faces emerged, as if from a bog, now and then topped with a hat. The faces on the top half of the paper were upside down, as if the painter had turned the page around or circled it on his or her knees while painting, in order to reach more easily. It was a strange piece of work, unlike the style of the other things the dancer had collected, and I studied it for a minute or two before continuing on to the bathroom.

This is what reveals the writer’s obsession to us. Before maybe we thought she was a bit of a snoop but now we know the truth of her nature. Without her seeing the painting the story never would’ve been set into motion and the chronic tension would’ve never been revealed.

Discussion Questions:

1. Why does the author have the main character tell this story to a judge?

2. How does the author use summary to set the mood of the story?

Shoot for the Stars: Tracking Techniques in “Teen Sniper”

A write up by Maja Neal, Caroline Paden, and Ignatius Lines

Summary of “Teen Sniper” – Maja Neal

In Adam Johnson’s “Teen Sniper,” we follow a fifteen-year-old boy codenamed Blackbird who’s a sniper for his local police department in an almost pseudo-future. The story begins with him killing a man on the job, but not able to ignore the feeling that comes over him just before the shot; that he really knew his victim. Blackbird – or Tim, as is his real name – is shaken by this. He distracts himself by spending time with his fellow employees or walking around with ROMS, the department’s bomb-sniffing robot. Later, he goes to train in martial arts and spars with a girl he’s immediately infatuated with. It turns out that she’s the daughter of the department’s chief communications officer. Tim finds himself thinking about her more and more, and eventually climbs up on a satellite dish to find her house and visit her; however, he drinks cans and cans of an energy drink, and is on a caffeine high and making no sense when he does go to talk to her. The next morning, he wakes up feeling terrible, and remembers pieces of the day before, inferring he must have tangled with SWAT. He goes to the bomb shelter to visit ROMS, who he insulted the day before; but ROMS forgives him and gives him advice about what to do with the girl, Seema. The week after that is rough for Tim. Two of his coworkers and friends quit, and ROMS is killed in a blast. After a new ROMS who looks exactly like the old one arrives, Tim can’t take any more, and runs out of his building, hanging his gun – the one he’s used on dozens of missions – in a random tree and abandoning it. He then goes to visit Seema, and he partly uses the old ROMS’s advice in trying to make up for his freaky behavior the last time he visited her. As the story ends, Tim is walking away from Seema’s house, thinking to himself that he wants her to see the real him.

Chronic tensions: The struggles and mental barriers that affect Tim because of his unusual career

Acute tensions: Tim fighting with ROMS, meeting Seema, and having his worldview changed

Technique Tracking: Caroline

The first technique I tracked was the use of optimistic/casual vocabulary in characterizing Tim. Tim mentions early on that he has trouble with “flash empathy”, or empathizing with his targets too much, and a concerned Lt. Kim is worried that being exposed to such a high-pressure, violent job at such a young age is harmful to Tim’s mental health. As a result, he uses flowers as replacement images for gore. There’s also evidence that Tim is desensitized to his situation at this point—he focuses on an Aladdin movie poster in the first scene, talking more about that than about the hostage situation unfolding before his eyes.

Tim’s inability to connect with other people well may also contribute to this. Tim doesn’t seem fully socially developed, and there are hints that this may be because of his job: “They see my rifle and know I’m a peace officer, that I’m here to help.” Throughout the story, “improving the world” is cited as Tim’s main reason for becoming a police sniper and justification for all of the violence unfolding around him. Whether it’s technology companies beautifying the world with flower displays or making the world safer by joining the force, Tim revels in optimism and positivity—even if it’s just a coping mechanism for killing multiple people as a job. These instances of off-putting or contrasting positive imagery can add to a sense of disconnect in the reader: how can killing as a job be seen in such an upbeat way? How is this so normalized? The reader questions this alongside Tim, and by the end of the story, Tim comes to the same conclusion as the reader: killing this frequently without being able to acknowledge your own empathy is unhealthy. It’s effective characterization, and worldbuilding, in its own respect.

The second technique I tracked was the instances of effective worldbuilding/hints the story is set in the future. Our first hint is the use of a soda brand that currently doesn’t exist, and the second is the fact that a fifteen-year-old is even allowed to work as a police sniper, regardless of ability. As time goes on, it’s clear that in this society, children using guns is not uncommon—in fact, even big companies like Disney sponsor shooting competitions.

The use of brands is also interesting here—obviously, Sony is a technology company, and doesn’t sell hot dogs or have modelling campaigns. Neither does Monsanto. Narrowing in on hints that this is in the future, the AOL conference that apparently ended in a huge loss of life never happened. Laws about sniping in Brazil and Switzerland, the new technology such as ROMS—all are integrated seamlessly into the story, with minimal exposition.

Johnson builds a world around the reader so effortlessly, if not for the obvious fictitiousness of it all, it would feel autobiographical. I want to be able to create an immersive universe as skilfully and as effortlessly as Johnson–I feel like I rely too much on exposition sometimes to create a realistic setting, and it ends up detracting from the story.

Acute Tension: Tim’s fight with ROMS

Chronic Tension: Tim’s struggle with flash empathy

Discussion Questions:

  1. How does the optimistic vocabulary contribute to a sense of unease in the reader?
  2. What effect do you think was intended in the mixing up of brands?


Techniques Tracked:

  • The way in which the author made the protagonist’s mental state deteriorate when he chugged like six energy drinks
  • The “spiraling” of the protagonist’s thoughts in every other part of the story

“Teen Sniper” is about a kid who’s under a lot of stress for reasons like and unlike the ones we ourselves experience – so it’s pretty apparent that his mental state is a little whack. Part of this is because of his almost-dependence on a certain brand of energy drink, and the tendency of his mind to blow up small events and go on spiraling and internal trains of thought. Both of those facts make big appearances in the plot of the story, and I’ll be tracking them both.


No lie, I love this bit of the story. It’s a great example of how to write a character slowly becoming delirious. At this point, our protag, Tim, is high above Palo Alto on a huge satellite dish, scanning the town with the scope of his sniper rifle to find the house of the girl he likes. As he does this, he begins to down cans of a new brand of energy drink, and as he’s almost finished a whole six-pack of them, he spots the girl’s house. He then rappels down the dish and jogs through the neighborhood looking for her. It’s at this point that you can really start to see his brain going off-track, with rambling statements, nonsensical questions, and run-on sentences.

I find myself jogging, and it’s like I’m wearing headphones that only play static. There’s a silver fire hydrant, and for no reason I go up and kick it. I’m running along, turning into her neighborhood, and have you ever taken a good look at your hand, I mean really stared at it?

The energetic and confusing train of thought gets even more rushed as Tim talks to his crush, Seema. In fact, he rambles for such a long time I’m not even going to put that paragraph in this evaluation. He goes on and on, until Seema’s father, a man who works with Tim, tells him to leave. After Tim downs his last energy drink, we cut to him waking up on the lawn of the police station, with next to no idea how he got there.

The point of including those sentences is that they demonstrate so well how to write a delirious character. Start peppering the character’s thoughts with unnecessary details, unrelated phrases, jumps from one topic to another, and heightened awareness of their surroundings.


The whole energy drink scene is only one part of how the author writes Tim’s inner monologues so well. Now I’ll track a huge and effectively done part of Tim’s thoughts; how he can spiral until one thing leads to him thinking of something completely different.

Tim, working as a sniper at a very young age, obviously isn’t in the best mental state. This is maybe part of the reason that he seems to take a small fact and go on and on with it until he has a whole monologue in his head – like what he did with the paragraph where he rambles to Seema while under the influence of all his Buzz drinks. Here’s what I think is one of the best examples of his spiraling.

Then it hits me, this feeling that I really know this guy. In the rinsed color of my video scope, I study the tinselly lines of sweat coming from his brow, the flush of anguish in his skin. In a flash, I see a guy who left his culture and traveled around the world, only to become a hopeless outcast. His words are always a little off, and maybe people make fun of him because he looks different and can’t dress so good. Forget about the girls. It’s, like, because of your job, you have to leave your old friends behind, and then your new friends are always saying things to keep you down. You work side by side with them, and you’re really trying, but it’s like you’re not even there. They never ask you to lunch or anything. Sometimes you eat alone at a restaurant and spot one of them, but they don’t even see you. You overhear them talking about some new movie, and it’s a movie you want to see, and–I stop myself, try to get a grip. Like the L.A.P.D. says, this isn’t real.

The “flash empathy” that Tim has been trying so desperately to avoid hits him hard, and he begins to imagine every little aspect of his target’s life. Note how he gets more and more detailed, especially with how the man is treated; he begins imagining specific scenarios, and obviously connects with the idea of the man and the unfortunate life he imagines the man has.

This happens multiple other times; what I’ve highlighted is when Tim first meets Seema and shortly imagines what Brazil must be like, when he ruminates on what it’s like to be one of the people he shoots, when he’s looking for her on the satellite dish and starts picturing what she’s doing at the moment, and when he imagines what she must be like as a person. All of these scenes are effective at establishing Tim as somebody who tends to blow things out of proportion.

Chronic tensions: The struggles and mental barriers that affect Tim because of his unusual career

Acute tensions: Tim fighting with ROMS, meeting Seema, and having his worldview changed

Discussion Questions:

  • Does the author make clear why Tim might be feeling the way he is now? In other words, does he give a possible explanation for his emotional awkwardness but sudden bouts of flash empathy?
  • What details does Johnson throw in to make Tim’s character obviously that of a teenage boy?


Techniques tracked:

  • Use of slang and “relatable” teen scenarios combined with depressing dystopian concepts that would be viewed as horrifying today
  • Tim’s commitment to the fact that empathy he rightfully feels to people he hurts or stands by as they are hurt is not normal and he should not feel it

It is made very clear in the story that this is not a normal world. Fifteen year olds are allowed to be snipers, torture is seen as fairly normal, and violent attacks happen on a much more frequent basis than normal. Instead of presenting these ideas as dystopian and alien, we are shown them through the lens of Tim, who seems to be very familiar with this world and sees these things as normal. He acts like a normal, hormonal weird angsty teenage boy who just happens to snipe and kill people on the regular. This creates an interesting contrast for the audience, who finds these things disturbing, because it portrays these things to be almost as normal as going to a 9 to 5 job or going to school. In the first scene where he is aiming at the man in the tech building we are shown this by the fact he acts like an angsty hormonal teen by stating to himself that his Lieutenant needs to “like, get of my back already” while he is preparing to heartlessly slaughter a man. Later on he starts to try and approach a girl and make a move on her while he is in the same room as a man being tortured.

It is also made clear that the main character lacks empathy, or when he has it he intentionally tries to snuff it out due to the L.A.P.D. convincing him that this is his brain playing tricks on him. As said before in the first scene he mentions this while aiming at the poor man (who seemed to have not hurt anyone yet) before promptly convincing himself he should not be feeling this and shooting him. In the aforementioned torture scene, he uses air quotes around the word “suspect” almost as if to say the man being tortured was not human, or not innocent in any way. This obviously makes the reader uncomfortable, but also makes us think about the state of things today

Chronic tension: Tim being lonely and depressed because of the combination of his career and peers but not knowing it

Acute tension: Tim having the chance to be friends with someone and have a real social life but nearly floundering it

Discussion questions:

  • How does the dystopian setting contribute to the theme. Is it easily ignorable part of a love story or is it the focal point?
  • Is the main character’s empathy truly real? Or made up?



“How To Become A Writer” Write Up by Sophie Walker

In Lorrie Moore’s story, “How to Become a Writer,” a second-person “you” (though it’s actually not the reader, it’s someone named Francie) tries to be all sorts of things (primarily a movie star) but fails miserably, so when she’s fifteen she tries to write haikus and sonnets and villanelles. She tries to show them to her mother, but she doesn’t believe that Francie can become a writer. Francie tires of counting syllables, so she tries to write fiction. She writes a story about an elderly couple who shoot each other with a malfunctioning rifle, and her English teacher tells her that she is bad with plot. Francie simply blows him off. She is good with kids, so she takes many babysitting jobs and goes to college as a child psychology major. However, when she tries to go to her elective class, birdwatching 101, she ends up in the creative writing classroom due to an error in the computer that made her schedule, and she chooses to stay in this class instead of fixing the problem. She continues to write violent stories about couples who are electrocuted or blown up. Again, she is accused of having a bad sense of plot. She decides to write comedies and dates a very funny man so she can use his comments in her stories. She starts getting in trouble for taking more creative writing courses than child psychology courses. No one likes her work, and she feels dejected. Writing, however, is very important to her, and she even switches majors. Her teacher wants her to be imaginative, so she decides to write a parody of Moby Dick, but her roommate doesn’t like it because, again, there is no real story. Suddenly, her teacher wants her to write pieces based on her own life. She only writes a few words about losing her virginity and can’t write about how her brother lost his leg in Vietnam, but she can write about her parents’ divorce—well, it ends up being a story about an elderly couple blowing up. At a cocktail party, her drunk roommate states that Francie always writes about her dumb boyfriend. Francie insists that she’s interested in syllables—what she so hated counting as a teenager—and everyone finds that ridiculous. Her mother tries to get her into becoming a business executive. Instead, she writes a story about a confused music student that involves exploding violinists. She writes a manuscript, but no one likes it. Francie breaks up with her boyfriend, quits numerous jobs, and dates random people—many of which just see her as a sex object—including one man who constantly straightens his armhair in the same direction, similar to the way Francie’s life constantly points in the same direction: Writing about people blowing up.

I chose to highlight the characterization of Francie and her change throughout the story and the evolution of her writing. They both mirror each other a bit, as the reader learns a lot about Francie through the things she writes and the careers she chooses. Ultimately, her writing, though it changes faces several times, is plotless and mediocre, while her hope and sanity is at first high but eventually falls to meet the goodness of her writing.

At first, Francie tries to write poetry. Her mother doesn’t believe in her, but Francie stays determined, as it is said in the quote,

This is the required pain and suffering. This is only for starters.

Later, Francie moves on to fiction:

Decide to experiment with fiction. Here you don’t have to count syllables.

When her English teacher tells her she has no sense of plot, Francie writes on her paper,

Plots are for dead people, pore-face.

Next up, however, Francie’s career dramatically changes. She branches off from writing altogether and instead tries at babysitting. As it says in the story,

Take all the babysitting jobs you can get. You are great with kids. They love you.

And later,

Apply for college as a child psychology major.

However, later Francie’s career turns again and she ends up back in the creative writing field:

Perhaps your creative writing isn’t that bad. Perhaps it is fate.

Unfortunately, this class does not go well. As her teacher says,

Much of your writing is smooth and energetic. You have, however, a ludicrous notion of plot.

Then Francie’s career changes again—she tries to stick to comedy. However, her writing still has no plot, and Francie’s feeling finally change and she begins to feel down.

You spend too much time slouched and demoralized.

“Why write? Where does writing come from?”

Francie has lost her confidence and is questioning why she even writes. Eventually, she comes up with an idea.

“It will be about monomania and the fish-eat-fish world of life insurance in Rochester, New York. The first line will be, ‘Call me Fishmeal,’ and it will feature a menopausal suburban husband named Richard, who because he is so depressed all the time is called ‘Mopey Dick’ by his witty wife Elaine.” Of course, it is disliked because, again, it has no plot. “You have to think about what is happening. Where is the story here?”

Francie loses even more confidence about her work.

Begin to wonder what you do write about. Or if you have anything to say.

Her mother tries to get her into business, but Francie still likes to write despite it all. She writes about exploding violinists, which her roommate likes only because she used to date a violinist (it can be assumed that that relationship didn’t end too well), and it is even admitted that the story wasn’t a big hit.

In the last few paragraphs, Francie seems to have lost her mind over her writing. As the story says,

Perhaps you are losing your pals, your acquaintances, your balance.

She finally gets a manuscript done, but it’s still not good. Francie compares being a writer to having polio.

Ultimately, Francie’s feelings and career can be summed up in the last line:

…he looks down at his arm hairs and starts to smooth them, all, always, in the same direction.

Francie is essentially the arm hair, being smoothed in the direction of writing, and in the end it doesn’t turn out that great.

In my own writing, I can use this technique of placing two things side-by-side to compare them, such as how Moore essentially compares Francie and her writing. In this story, Francie’s writing doesn’t change but Francie does, as her writing remains plotless but she herself slowly loses her mind in a way. In my own writing, I could do a similar thing, but perhaps they both change in the same way or opposite ways. It serves a form of characterization, to help the reader better understand the character and their arc.

Questions for discussion:

  1. Why do you think the author chose second person point of view? (which I should’ve made this presentation about)
  2. Why do you think Francie was always writing about people, particularly couples, dying and/or blowing up? (which I also should’ve made this presentation about)
  3. Why do you think Francie’s stories still lacked plot despite years of teaching?

“…And The Door Swings Open”: The Style of George Saunders


George Saunders is one of the most stylistically distinct writers out there. His combination of humor and empathy has made him one of the literary writers with the most mass appeal. So, how does he do it? “Everything that I do in fiction is through the language, like the individual sentence,” Saunders clarified at his 2013 Google talk, when asked about dealing with “the flexibility of how we perceive” in his work.

Word by word, sentence by sentence, paragraph by paragraph. Diction, syntax, grammar. Only by trying to replicate his words at the same level can their complexity be fully appreciated–and can we start to understand how the particular arrangement of the words themselves is the source of the reader’s emotional response, as well as the source of the clues that helped Saunders himself discover the story’s natural outcome. Today, we’ll do some word algebra.

This word algebra will help us solve a larger equation–that of character. The writer Steve Almond says “plot is the mechanism by which your protagonist is forced against her deepest fears and desires.” Basically, this means you can generate any plot by asking, what does my character want? (And in nonfiction, you can trace how significant events that have happened are a product of particular individuals’ fears/desires.) So, you start with character. Saunders is a master of representing a character’s thought processes/fantasies, which is a representation of their desires. Desire is the key to character, which then becomes the key to plot. (This goes for any narrative medium, not just fiction.)  Our exercise will be, then, to start with a character’s fantasy and ultimately let that generate the rest of the pieces needed to put together a full story.

So, via the representation of these thought processes/fantasies, a large part of what makes Saunders so distinctive is how close he puts the reader to the character–Saunders is getting intimate. (I do think this is something he does that is much harder to achieve in other narrative media.) He is a master of manipulating psychic distance: where the narrative (and therefore the reader) stands, relative to a character.

In The Art of Fiction, John Gardner offers the following examples to show levels of psychic distance that get increasingly closer to the character:

  1.     It was winter of the year 1853. A large man stepped out of a doorway.
  2.     Henry J. Warburton had never much cared for snowstorms.
  3.     Henry hated snowstorms.
  4.     God how he hated these damn snowstorms.
  5.     Snow. Under your collar, down inside your shoes, freezing and plugging up your miserable soul.

We go from a man, to a full name, to a first name, to a third-person pronoun, to a second-person pronoun. Then there would be first person, which could technically be number 6. But Saunders has actually created what would then be a seventh layer that gets even closer. He does this by dispensing with pronouns altogether, via use of the imperative.

A trademark of Saunders’ style, then, is how firmly it implants the reader in the character’s head. It may be revealing that the first sentence of the opener of his celebrated collection Tenth of December, “Victory Lap,” was added by The New Yorker’s editor:

Three days shy of her fifteenth birthday, Alison Pope paused at the top of the stairs.

The pause in the first sentence gives the reader a nice kind of held breath that subtly builds suspense and sets up the feeling that we and/or the character are on the threshold of something important–which is provided literally in the form of the fifteenth birthday, and figuratively in the form of the story’s upcoming events. “Three days” could also potentially prefigure the three points of view we’ll be getting. That first sentence is somehow both external and internal at the same time. (I knew I was a writer from the way I narrated everything I was doing/seeing/experiencing in my head.) Alison is the one cognizant of the fact that it’s three days shy of her fifteenth birthday–it’s a sentence that seems like telling, but is actually showing us the grand view she takes of herself.

[Start your writing exercise: Present your character externally in a single sentence. Follow the exact sentence structure Saunders uses: A prepositional phrase (with some expository info about the character, that’s also getting across how the character sees him/herself) leading into the character being introduced with full name, in a specific physical context. Really you’ll need to know/learn two things about your character as these sentences and paragraphs progress: what the character wants (i.e., what they would fantasize about) and something they’re literally supposed to be doing at that moment that the fantasy is distracting them from. How can the verb choice achieve a psychic distance that makes us feel closer than the use of the full name should?] [Read some out loud.]

Compare that firs sentence to the followup sentence(s), set off in a separate paragraph:

Say the staircase was marble. Say she descended and all heads turned. Where was {special one}?

[What’s the difference between these sentences and the first one?] The difference between these sentences and the opening one are how far removed we are (or aren’t) from the character’s head. In the first sentence we are seeing the character from the outside, in the next we have moved inside the character’s head. What’s telling is that it was apparently Saunders’ impulse to drop you inside the character’s head immediately, with no outside context. The editor thought the context necessary [what do you guys think?], but Saunders rendition is more true to the life of the character’s experience–we only get to experience things from inside our own heads, after all.

As for the next set of sentences, the internal ones, note how the use of the imperative “Say” at the beginning of the first two cues the reader that we’re getting a fantasy sequence. Some might think that an accurate rendition of a character’s internal fantasy should read “The staircase was marble. She descended and all heads turned,” perhaps with the defense that our fantasies are experienced in the moment as real to us. Whether or not that’s entirely true, that rendition would make the reader think that the character was literally descending a marble staircase, when the character is perfectly aware that that is not what she is literally doing. Hence, the cue is necessary. Note that by the fourth sentence of the paragraph, it is necessary no longer:

Approaching now, bowing slightly, he exclaimed, How can so much grace be contained in one small package?

By itself this reads as someone literally approaching her, but in the context of the first three sentences the reader is easily able to tell it’s part of the fantasy. The next sentence pivots off of what might be deemed a hitch in the fantasy, the character playing off herself. In that fourth sentence (just above) Alison provides the dialogue of the fantasized subject, and in these next sentences she plays out her reaction to that dialogue.

Oops. Had he said small package? And just stood there? Broad princelike face totally bland of expression? Poor thing! Sorry, no way, down he went, he was definitely not {special one}.

[Continue writing exercise: copy Saunders’ second paragraph, the fantasy sequence that begins with “Say that.” Literally start with the “Say that,” then fill in your own words after that with your character’s fantasy sequence. Try to include a bracketed item–this would be the character’s object of desire. The first three sentences establish the object of the fantasy (which, note, will establish a desire that one of the other POV characters will later be shown to fill). The fourth is the fantasized subject’s dialogue/gesture, which the final sentences, themselves constituting almost half of the paragraph.]

Alison fantasizes through a couple of potential suitors who fail to fit the bill before her inner dialog with them reminds her of what she’s literally supposed to be doing–getting her tights from the dryer for her upcoming recital–and makes her realize she’s still at the top of the stairs. Six paragraphs in and our character hasn’t moved a muscle–except in her brain.

The next paragraph continues the fantasy sequence:

What about this guy, behind Mr. Small Package, standing near the home entertainment center? With a thick neck of farmer integrity yet tender ample lips, who, placing one hand on the small of her back, whispered, Dreadfully sorry you had to endure that bit about the small package just now. Let us go stand on the moon. Or, uh, in the moon. In the moonlight.

[Continue writing exercise: The next step in the rising action of the fantasy sequence. Notice (and imitate/copy) the direct contrast to the subject of the first step in the sequence. Start with a question for the first sentence (mentioning the fantasized subject in relation to a prop/object from the literal location the character is in), which then in the next sentence leads into a description that’s technically a sentence fragment, being just a prepositional phrase–so yours should be an extended prepositional phrase that provides a description of a fantasy subject who then gets lines. Now you have to write the fantasized subject’s dialog. Note (and copy) how this dialog reflects the character-who-is-fantasizing’s voice.]

The next paragraph escalates the rising action in the fantasy sequence still further:

Had he said, Let us go stand on the moon? If so, she would have to be like, {eyebrows up}. And if no wry acknowledgment was forthcoming, be like, Uh, I am not exactly dressed for standing on the moon, which, as I understand it, is super-cold?

[Continue writing exercise: In the first sentence, the character repeats something from the fantasized subject’s dialog in the previous paragraph. In the second, the character summarizes his/her own reaction–try to use the brackets to encapsulate the reaction description. The third sentence hypothesizes the fantasized subject’s reaction to the character’s reaction and then describes the character’s reaction to that hypothesized reaction–which includes a fantasized line of dialog quoted for the character, which starts with a statement that then tangents into a question. (So your passage should conclude with the character’s reaction-to-reaction line of dialog that turns into a question.)]

The next paragraph concludes the fantasy sequence and returns the character to what they’re supposed to be doing in “the real world”:

Come on, guys, she couldn’t keep treading gracefully on this marble staircase in her mind forever! That dear old white-hair in the tiara was getting all like, Why are those supposed princes making that darling girl march in place ad nausea? Plus she had a recital tonight and had to go fetch her tights from the dryer.

[Continue writing exercise: In his/her head the character addresses the fantasized subjects as a group, refers to self in third person and reminds subjects (and readers) of what the character is physically literally doing at that moment. That first sentence should be an exclamation! Which should reference the character’s actual location. The second sentence should reference another fantasized entity, previously unseen, who then gets a line of pseudo-dialog: a question about the addressed subjects. The third and final line of the paragraph provides the real-world physical context, the character reminding him/herself of what they’re actually supposed to be doing that this fantasy sequence has been distracting them from.]

I’d like to pause here to point out that this close-third-person stair-pausing bears a resemblance to a story from Saunders’ second story collection Pastoralia called “Winky,” in which the titular character frequently gets distracted from what she’s supposed to be doing by her own thoughts:

For crying out loud! What was she doing? Was she crazy? It was time to get going! Why was she standing in the kitchen thinking?

She dashed up the stairs with a strip of broken molding under her arm and a dirty sock over her shoulder.

Halfway up she paused at a little octagonal window and looked dreamily out, thinking, In a way, we own those trees. Beyond the Thieus’ was the same old gap in the leaning elms showing the same old meadow that would soon be ToyTowne. But for now it still reminded her of the kind of field where Christ with his lap full of flowers had suffered with the little children, which was a scene she wanted them to put on the cover of the singing album about God, which would have a watercolor cover like Shoulder My Burden, which was a book though but anyways it had this patient donkey piled high with crates and behind it this mountain, and the point of that book was that if you take on the worries and cares of others, Lord Jesus will take on your cares and worries, so that was why the patient donkey and why the crates, and why she prided herself on keeping house for Neil-Neil and never asked him for help.

Holy cow, what was she doing standing on the landing! Was she crazy? Today she was rushing!

In Alison’s “Victory Lap” sequence, Saunders breaks through to a new degree of closeness to the character with the use of the imperative. Whereas in the above passage, Winky remains a “she” to the reader, a pronoun that keeps the reader at a sort of arm’s length (“she” is not “me”), the imperative gets rid of pronouns altogether, allowing the reader to feel like they’re actually thinking the character’s thoughts. Picking up where we left off with Alison:

Egads! One found oneself still standing at the top of the stairs.

[Continue writing exercise: An exclamation followed by the character referring to him/herself as “one” and reminding him/herself of where they literally physically are.]

(In both Alison’s and Winky’s thought processes, it’s an external impetus that cues the train of thought–in Alison’s, case the staircase itself, in Winky’s, the meadow she can see out the window from the stairs.)

In “Victory Lap”’s next paragraph, the character finally moves from the stationary position she’s technically been in since the story started. The use of the more encompassing pronoun “one” as opposed to “she” eases us into this paragraph, which switches into the imperative (Alison giving orders to herself) at first, but then backs out a layer to “you” and then “someone” before switching back to the non-pronoun imperative.   

Do the thing where, facing upstairs, hand on railing, you hop down the stairs one at a time, which was getting a lot harder lately, due to, someone’s feet were getting longer every day, seemed like.

[Continue writing exercise: start with an imperative, the character giving an order to him/herself, which conveys the character’s physical action not just via direct order (which would read something much more boring like “Go downstairs”), but by labeling a two-step interaction with a specific physical item in the character’s surroundings–the description should get complex enough to warrant the character referring to him/herself as “you.” The description of the action then needs to transition to some interference with that action that encompasses a physical trait of the character that the character dislikes and thus distances him/herself from by referring to him/herself as “someone.” This “someone” part of the sentence is an opportunity to slip in both expository info about the character and to show how the character feels about him/herself.]

The passage continues from there in the pronoun-less mode:

Pas de chat, pas de chat.

Changement, changement.

Hop over thin metal thingie separating hallway tile from living-room rug.

Curtsy to self in entryway mirror.

[Continue writing exercise: Write four single-sentence paragraphs in a row. The first two may or may not be in a different language, but should be imperatives (orders the character is giving him/herself. The paragraphs, particularly the final two, should convey an evolution in the character’s physical movement–each paragraph, or at least the last two, should identify a change in the character’s immediate location by labeling an object in that immediate location that clearly identifies it.]

Next, the character addresses an offstage character in her head. Then in the following sentence the character refers to herself with the pronoun “we,” as in the royal “we,” as in she’s thinking of herself grandly again, but she’s also in mind of current real-life circumstances–her upcoming recital. She also misuses a word.

Come on, Mom, get here. We do not wish to be castrigated by Ms. Callow again in the wings.

[Continue writing exercise: First sentence a directive to a previously unreferenced third party. The next sentence has the character referring to self as “we” and referencing the thing the character’s supposed to be doing (or something related to it) that the fantasy has been a distraction from–note that this reference must itself be a reference and introduction to a new character.]

Next, the thought of that newly introduced character that the main character has thought of in relation to thinking of the pressing immediate event that would naturally be on her mind leads the main character to think more about that new character outside the context of the pressing event, which then leads into a rapidly expanding train of thought:

Although actually she loved Ms. C. So strict! Also loved the other girls in class. And the girls from school. Loved them. Everyone was so nice. Plus the boys at her school. Plus the teachers at her school. All of them were doing their best. Actually, she loved her whole town. That adorable grocer, spraying his lettuce! Pastor Carol, with her large comfortable butt! The chubby postman, gesticulating with his padded envelopes! It had once been a mill town. Wasn’t that crazy? What did that even mean?

[Continue writing exercise: The first thought, about the newly introduced character outside of the immediately pressing event’s context, should pivot on an “Although”–the character has one thought about that character, but one comes on its heels that contradicts/undermines that thought. The second sentence (not a complete one, note) is a brief exclamation about a particular quality of this new character. The third sentence transitions the thought process outward to something naturally related to this new context for that character that’s been introduced, the context that doesn’t have anything to do with the immediately pressing event. The fourth sentence expands the train of thought to something else peripherally connected. Next sentence emphasizes the feeling and has no subject, which means no pronoun. The next sentence is a complete one offering an explanation for the emphasized feeling. The next sentence is incomplete, shoving something else under the umbrella of the emphasized feeling. The next sentence is still incomplete and shoves still something else under that emphasized-feeling umbrella. The followup to that one is another full-sentence explanation of why the emphasized feeling. The next sentence is a complete one in which the character is referred to with third-person pronoun and expands the emphasized feeling still further. The three sentences following this are all fragments, all exclamations, all presenting new characters (again under the umbrella of explaining the emphasized feeling), all present the characters with either indirect label or proper name; note that the clauses that follow these introductions have a subtle difference: for the first character it’s an action commonly performed, for the second it’s a physical trait, and the third goes back to the commonly performed action. That is, the clause in the second half of the first sentences in this trio should be a [gerund], while the clause in the second half of the second should be a prepositional phrase, while the clause in the second half of the third should return to a [gerund]. Then a statement about the collective community the characters mentioned in the prior sentence trio are a part of, then a question about that statement, and finally, a question about that question.]

The next paragraph subtly introduces a reference to something that will soon become relevant to the plot:

Also she loved her house. Across the creek was the Russian church. So ethnic! That onion dome had loomed in her window since her Pooh footie days. Also loved Gladsong Drive. Every house on Gladsong was a Corona del Mar. That was amazing! If you had a friend on Gladsong, you already knew where everything was in his or her home.

Someone going to that Russian church has seen her around her house and, attracted to her, will soon be knocking on her door with some malevolent intentions.

[Continue writing exercise: The first sentence, a complete one with third-person pronoun, shoves something else under that emphasized feeling umbrella from the previous paragraph. The second sentence describes a physical object/entity in physical relation to that new thing introduced in the first sentence. The object/entity introduced in this sentence will prove to have some significant plot relevance. The third sentence is an exclamation about the entity in the second sentence, the fourth sentence a physical trait of this entity that also invokes a specific memory for the character, manifest in a specifically named object. Next sentence we’re back to an incomplete one shoving something else under the emphasized feeling umbrella. Then an explanation for why it gets under that umbrella. Then an exclamation about that explanation. Then, the last second uses second person in a further explanation for umbrella placement that is also itself an unusual/unexpected sentiment.]

Before the important plot event that this section is all leading to (her receiving the malevolent knock on the door), we pretty much go through a whole nother version of the sequence we’ve already been through, in which the reader apprehends Alison’s movement through the house by the way she orders herself to interact with objects around the house, her happy feeling inducing a new fantasy sequence in which she has an extended dialog with a baby deer and then with the hunter who’s killed the deer’s mother. She then returns to considerations of “{special one}” and of her own specialness, while continuing to interact with her immediate physical environment via making a snack and observing the next-door neighbor boy through the window. Since this is actually the introduction of one of the story’s other POV characters, it would be good to potentially copy this passage:

Egads. Who was this wan figure, visible through the living-room window, trotting up Gladsong Drive? Kyle Boot, palest kid in all the land? Still dressed in his weird cross-country-running toggles?

The passage conveys her feeling about him with the objective correlative: by describing his toggles as “weird” Saunders conveys that Alison really thinks Kyle himself is weird.

[Continue writing exercise: introduce a new character into the POV character’s immediate physical environment–one observed from a distance. The passage, after the first one-word sentence, should pose a question that gets in a physical description of the new character. The next sentence, incomplete, names the new character and offers another snippet of physical description, still in the form of a question. The final sentence is also an incomplete-sentence question that provides a physical prop and conveys the POV character’s feeling about that character via by describing his/her feeling about the aforementioned prop.]

We get two more paragraphs after this that convey more of Alison’s feelings about Kyle and the shared history from which these feelings derive. She continues with making her snack, inducing a dialog with some poor people in her head, which leads her to considering some philosophical issues raised in a recent class discussion of hers, further underscoring Alison’s excessively optimistic worldview and characterization. Finally she’s interrupted by the knock on the door, cueing our first POV switch to the neighbor boy Kyle Boot. (Saunders’ predominant comfort zone is so deep in the character’s head as to almost almost suffocating (which some of us might find the environment of our own heads), which has often led him to incorporate multiple points of view into one story.)

Kyle Boot dashed through the garage, into the living area, where the big clocklike wooden indicator was set at All Out. Other choices included: Mom & Dad Out; Mom Out; Dad Out; Kyle Out; Mom & Kyle Out; Dad & Kyle Out; and All In.

[Continue writing exercise: POV switch time. Start with the character you had your previous POV character observe from a distance, performing the same physical action that POV character was observing. The first sentence should follow the new POV character into a location in which a physical prop is and some trait about that prop is identified. The next sentence explains more about that particular trait of that prop.]

The next paragraph consists entirely of questions:

Why did they even need All In? Wouldn’t they know it when they were All In? Would he like to ask Dad that? Who, in his excellent, totally silent downstairs woodshop, had designed and built the Family Status Indicator?

[Continue writing exercise: the questions pertain to something explained about the prop’s trait in the final sentence of the previous paragraph. The second sentence-question compounds/emphasizes that same question. The third sentence-question invokes a new character. The final sentence-question, incomplete, explicates the new character’s relationship to the trait being interrogated, thereby conveying the POV-character’s feelings toward that new character.]

This POV character sees the next POV character, the man who will try to kidnap Alison:

Holy crap. It was happening. She was marching along all meek like the trooper he’d known she’d be. He’d had her in mind since the baptism of what’s-his-name. Sergei’s kid. At the Russian church. She’d been standing in her yard, her dad or some such taking her picture.

[Continue writing exercise: Switch POVs again, introducing the new character via a concise mental declaration in the character’s voice. The next sentence should intimate that whatever’s going on currently has been long-awaited. The next sentence should show that this character is in fact currently interacting with your initial POV character (can be up to you whether this interaction is threatening or not). The next sentences reveal how and where this POV character first encountered that initial POV character–from a distance.]

At this point you’ve hopefully created three distinct characters whose mental landscapes and desires you’ve started to get a clearer picture of, characters that have interacted, whether directly or indirectly. Follow the trajectories Saunders has helped you start and see where they take you. Copy more of his paragraphs directly, if stuck.


“Butterflies” Write Up by Hannah Wolfe

I feel like many of us take our parents for granted. Even the very idea that the person who is taking care of you and raising you is not of your flesh and blood is a foreign idea to many of us, myself included. That’s part of why Roger Dean Kiser’s “Butterflies” is so interesting; it explores an aspect of childhood that is shrouded by mystery in many ways, and with mystery comes automatic intrigue. There are also a lot of long-winded sentences, which pull us in and don’t let go until we’ve accidentally read an entire page. And by that point, we need to have some kind of conflict resolution, so we read until the end. And even after the end, and even after we know how the story ends, it still grips us, and it still leaves us wanting more.

The sentence structure mentioned above felt very childish to me, but in the sense that it made the voice of the narrator more authentic. It also gives the story a very confused and flustered tone, which is what the narrator felt during this time in his life. He also brings up the house parent and the orphanage a lot. The orphanage is only portrayed as a place where people’s souls go to die, and people who live there become cruel and stone-like. The house parent is only shown as murderous towards the butterflies, which are the only thing the narrator casts in good light. There is no other hand, no concession. This is also characteristic of a young child who lacks the intellectual development to fully understand counterarguments, so it is believable to us that we would see a “biased” view of the institution and its workers. These techniques all help portray Kiser’s ultimate purpose, which is to symbolize the way that orphanages affect the lives of young children. This idea of the ruination of innocence and just general violence against those who cannot defend themselves is enough to drive strong emotions into anyone. This all sums up to a story that is poignant and shocking, and makes us reevaluate the way we view our parents. It serves to remind us that even when we think we are the most hopeless beings on Earth, there is always someone who is suffering worse.

This story had a great ending, one that wasn’t cheesy or melodramatic; it was just heartbreaking. I think writing something that is genuinely sad is very hard to do, because I often feel like the writer is too close to the emotion to know what it feels like to someone who has not experienced it firsthand. Kiser, I felt, did a wonderful job of making us feel empathy for this child who we did not know, who was growing up in conditions many of us have probably not experienced. That, the skill to write something truly tragic, is the main takeaway I have from this story. I also thought that the symbolism in this story was artfully done. It was subtle, and even when he said it outright, is was almost too subtle to catch. I think it’s really important not to be obnoxious to your readers, and heavy handed symbolism is a quick ticket to losing the audience. Kiser, however, teases us with these beautiful images and symbols and refuses to tell us what they mean in an obvious or unimportant way. That’s very admirable to me, and I think that it’s one of the story’s biggest strengths.

This story is structured somewhat chronologically with moments of reflection in the beginning and fifth paragraphs because it is a story about a specific event in the narrator’s life that changed the way he viewed the world. It gives us an idea of what his state of mind was at the time versus what he thinks now, and plants a seed in the back of our mind that asks, “What has crushed this man’s spirit?” while we read. He uses the image of the butterflies resting on his arms and head to show us that both he and the butterflies are spots of innocence in the narrator’s corrupted world, and also uses the image of the butterfly with the broken wing to show that destruction of innocence, be it by the narrator’s mistake or the house parent’s cruel hobby. There is also the powerful image of the boy being pounded over the head with the “butterfly pieces” (which I personally would have used as the title for this piece), which portrays that his innocence will be what does him in.

Ultimately, the narrator represents the orphanage’s destruction of who he was as a person through the death of the butterflies, paralleling their beauty and serenity to his own, and letting the audience know that for both him and the butterflies, the orphanage was a bad place to live.

Hello world!

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Recently, I was at a used bookstore here in Houston purchasing a paperback of Don DeLillo’s Great Jones Street when the intrepid independent bookseller (all indie booksellers are intrepid, and this one, having fled Hurricane Katrina with his voluminous bibliostock in tow, is doubly so) declared emphatically that the novel ultimately didn’t work. It is the bookseller’s conundrum to only be able to discuss a work with someone who has not actually read it yet, since they’re in the process of buying it, so the conversation is inevitably going to be a bit one-sided. Nevertheless, as a writer, this declaration makes me bristle automatically, no matter how true it might prove to be.

This is a blog that aims to “review” creative writing, albeit not in a traditional sense. Generally, though I hate to hate things, I dislike book reviews, which so often seem to need to find something wrong in order to showcase the reviewer’s own intelligence (cough*James Wood*cough). But as a teacher of creative writing, I cannot believe that it is not valuable to formulate written analytical opinions on creative subject matter; the key is to find a balance where the analytical angle fosters the creative rather than strangling it. As I tell my students, when we read creative work, whether published or unpublished, we are not looking for what is “wrong,” but for what it can teach us. Every semester I assign students a presentation on a published work with the goal of identifying (at least) two techniques that writer is using to achieve (or attempt to achieve) a certain emotional effect–it is that model I am attempting to replicate in my posts here. What did we feel? Why did we feel it? I am sharing the moderation of this blog with my students at the High School for the Performing and Visual Arts here in Houston, and their assigned presentation reviews will appear here sporadically, once school starts. This is a discussion forum, not a declaration pedestal from which to exact vengeful vendettas. Blogs are a (theoretically) friendly format, where you don’t have to feel your every word needs to be polished, where you can expel just enough energy to create a palatable presentation without working your words until their meaning disintegrates in front of you.

Reviews, appraisals of the written word, are in the business of assessing whether or not the words “work.” So how does a novel “work”? Well, to return to basic definitions, what constitutes a narrative? Something has to happen. But for a narrative to “work,” the something that happens has to be more specific: what happens cannot be arbitrary, as in: an asteroid strikes the planet and everyone dies. What happens has to be meaningful to a particular character(s), which is another way of saying what happens is that a character changes, or is at least offered the opportunity to (in which case the something happening is the character rejects this choice). At any rate, while I agree a classification can be made about whether a novel/narrative “works” or doesn’t, any reader who deigns to weigh in, no matter how offhanded or considered, has not put anywhere near as much work into this judgment as the writer has into creating the narrative. People who write published reviews usually also work in the genre they’re reviewing, and yet the derisive tone of many seem not to take these difficulties into account. Such reviews of the type that will not appear here, representing the aggressive and passive-aggressive models, respectively, appear here and here. While these writers do provide evidence for the derogatory claims they make, whether Cronin’s intro is “preposterously self-important” or Ishiguro’s approach to memory is a “folly” remain subjective to a degree these reviewers do not, to me at least, adequately acknowledge. So let’s criticize the critics and see how they like it. You, critics, have a tendency to state opinions as fact based on evidence that could be appropriated to support entirely opposing ones (as the simultaneously astute and munificent Zadie Smith does with backlash against EM Forster here). There’s a world of difference between “It works because [x, y, and z]” and “I think it works because [x, y, and z].” It’s important to remember that we’re all thinking here, and some of us think differently.

The subjectivity of reading audiences is far-flung and wide-ranging, as I experienced firsthand yesterday at my office’s monthly book club. The novel under discussion was Adam Johnson’s The Orphan Master’s Son—full disclosure, one of my favorite books by one of my favorite writers. I did not disclose this to the book club, as I could tell as soon as I walked in that the pendulum of opinion was swinging hard the other way. A significant percentage of those there had not managed to finish. “Does it get any better?” someone irritably asked. Another reader offered that the story got better, though the things happening to the people in it definitely did not. To some present, these two interpretations of “better” were effectively the same; troubling or challenging subject matter was not preferred reading. Before the lunch hour was up the conversation had turned to “lighter” reading options (including, if I heard correctly, a series about a cat solving mysteries), like we were a room full of literary fad dieters. Point being, what one reader finds clear another finds confusing, while what’s clear for one reader might cross into heavy-handed for another. Flannery O’Connor believed that people, high school students specifically, struggle with fiction because it contains mystery, and we want answers, not questions. She believed English teachers might be singlehandedly responsible for the face of the bestseller list, since it is at a tender age that an aesthetic appreciation may be imparted—or destroyed. There is the distinction between “good” as entertaining versus painfully life-affirming. For me, for a book to be good, pain has to be part of it—dramatized pain, mind you, not the pain of reading a hundred pages in which nothing meaningful is happening. How writers make their happenings meaningful will be the recurring subject here.

I have not yet gotten around to reading my used copy of Great Jones Street, but I did recently finish DeLillo’s End Zone and must admit my reaction upon doing so was “What the hell was that?” I did not, upon turning the last page, feel a sense of closure, or enlightenment, or sympathy, which, for a writer like DeLillo, could be precisely the point. I did not feel the ethereal content of the conversations between football players remotely resembled realistic dialog—again, likely, part of the point. This I’m willing to concede. I’m still thinking about it.

The power of the written word is that I get to say what I want, but, much like constraints on personal rights and freedoms, I should remain aware of how what I say might infringe negatively on or nullify what others have said. Not to say that I don’t think we should say things that disagree with others. I think that what we say should be geared in a productive rather than detrimental way, because it’s easy to get defensive. Writing is hard. Let’s be generous to those who have been generous enough to share it with us. Even when we confront what we deem failures, what can we learn from the glorious attempt?