Coming Fall of 2015-“This Angel On My Chest” A collection of short stories

Leslie Pietrzyk, fiction mentor in Converse College’s MFA program and friend to Why The Writing Works bloggers, made a big announcement at winter residency:

My manuscript of short stories won the 2015 Drue Heinz Literature Prize!  My book, THIS ANGEL ON MY CHEST, will be published in the fall of 2015 by the University of Pittsburgh Press!  Oh, yay!

Read the rest of her post here.

I still miss Leslie’s (and her co-leader Marlin Barton) workshops. 🙂 If you’re interested in learning from this fantastic writer, apply here.

Fifth week roundup

This post is a collection of all the blogs posts since our last roundup.

Starter House–A Ghost Story

Author Interview-Sonja Condit, author of Starter House

The Spice of Backstory in Condit’s Starter House

Cheesecloth Removal: The Poet’s Companion by Kim Addonizio and Dorianne Laux

You Live Where? Strange Settings in Judy Budnitz’s Nice Big American Baby

Lit Mag Roundup

Just Right Love Poem

Slaughter House Five–Not Just Another War Story

All That was Faked Turned Bad: Hemingway and the Gift of Unruly Prose

North of Hope–A Daughter’s Arctic Journey

The Gift of Focused Power in the First Person Point of View

Marking Time

Punctuate Bodies in Rebecca Thrill’s “Punctuation”

Literary Citizen and Why You Should Be One #litcitizen

What Led Zepplin Teaches Me About Writing

The Night Circus

 

 

What Led Zeppelin Teaches Me about Writing

By Matthew McEver

In my second semester of graduate school, my professor returned a short story of mine, inscribed with the epitaph, “Not a story.” I was caught a bit off-guard because I had characters with rich backgrounds as well as setting, dialogue, and premise. Not a story, though.

Among the hats that I wear is that of prose editor—review of manuscripts, short stories. Don’t take what I’m about to say as wisdom being doled out, but as the observations of a fellow struggler. Having written my fair share of stories-that-aren’t stories, I’m quick to recognize one.

When is a story not a story?

A story is not a story when nothing is happening. Your manuscript may have a sense of place, engaging characters, dialogue. Let’s say that your setting is a traveling show and there’s a bearded lady. I’m in. As a reader and a writer, I’m rooting for you. But if I’m a few paragraphs into that story and I can’t grasp the conflict, the dilemma, I’m not sure why I’m here and I lose patience, even resent this burden, because there is great literature that I have yet to read.

My writer-friend, Phil Morris, once said that after at least a few paragraphs, “I need to know what the story is about so that I can start guessing where it all might be headed.” We read stories because we want to see something resolved, and we need to know the nature of the dilemma rather quickly. In songwriting, it’s called a hook—and if you want to hear some examples, listen to Led Zeppelin.

Guitarist Jimmy Page has a knack for reeling in the listener by way of the memorable riff: Whole Lotta Love, Heartbreaker, Immigrant Song. Those songs have recognizable openings that grab me by the throat, which is what I long for in reading the opening of a work of fiction.

Liken the opening sentences of prose to the opening riff of a song. The opening “prose riff” must provide voice, inventory, tone, character, setting, premise. A good opening prose riff can fuel the writing. Be warned, though, that you can fool yourself into believing that a quirky character or premise revealed in a clever opening paragraph is a story. Characters and settings and premises are not stories. They are elements of stories, much like a catchy riff and great guitar tone and thundering drums are elements of a song.

Benjamin Percy’s short story collection, The Language of Elk, features a story called, “The Bearded Lady Says Goodnight.” The first sentence reads, “The bearded lady is dead”—a great opening. What about the rest? Within a few lines, the narrator says, “She was my sweetheart.” At that moment, all sorts of possibilities enter our mind and, as Phil Morris says, we start guessing where this story might be headed. Easily, this story could have been about nothing, weird for its own sake. Percy could have mistaken novelty for story, but he doesn’t.

No matter how vivid the characters or how novel the premise, if nothing is happening then it’s not a story, just like riffs and chords and drums don’t mean it’s a song. (I could drag out many examples of “popular” songs that aren’t songs, but I won’t).

Ultimately, there’s no reason to read such literature or listen to such music because there’s plenty of work out there that is actually about something. Instead of reading a story about nothing, I’ll just grab my collection of Hemingway stories. Instead of wasting my time with hack musicians, I’ll just listen to Zeppelin. Songs that are songs. On vinyl.

 

Make up Your Own Mind: Letting the Reader Write

by Rhonda Browning White

During my MFA days, I kept a journal of important suggestions and bits of advice passed down to me by professors, instructors, visiting writers and my cohorts; epiphanies, ah-ha moments, words to live by, definitely words to write by. I still turn to these one-liners, these brief explanations, these light-bulb statements that point me in the right direction when I feel lost or need inspiration. One such statement came from my mentor, author Robert Olmstead, who said to my workshop peers and me, “It’s not about what you write, it’s what you don’t write. Make the reader do some of the writing. Invoke, invoke, invoke. Make the reader conjoin A and C. Leave out B. Don’t burn words.”

For years, I had spelled out everything for the reader. I wanted her to understand. I wanted to explain. In that moment, I realized that the best fiction—stories I love and re-read, are the stories that allow me to draw my own conclusions. And sometimes, in the re-reading, my opinion and conclusion changes. These stories become, for me, timeless.

Since then, I’ve sought short stories in which the narrative and its elements are not spoon-fed to us, stories where we are allowed to develop a relationship with the characters and draw reflective meaning from their experiences. Here are two examples I’ve found in The Best American Short Stories 2010, which we can examine and learn from to prevent ourselves from burning words.

In her story “All Boy,” Lori Ostlund writes of Harold, a studious and introverted child who is audience to the breakdown of his parents’ marriage (Ostlund 263-78). His father is gay. We know, without being specifically told, that Harold’s mother fears their son may have homosexual tendencies, so she protects him from being ostracized by teachers and classmates by telling them, “I guess Harold’s just all boy” (Ostlund 275). Ostlund never points out these things directly, but lets the reader reach this conclusion and determine for herself if Harold’s mother is in denial of her husband’s and son’s tendencies, or if she’s merely operating in the protective role of mother. Ostlund never tells us until the last paragraphs that Harold’s father is gay. We are allowed to experience this revelation as Harold experienced it; gradually, by applying our own knowledge and societal frames of reference to what is taking place. We experience for ourselves what Harold is thinking and feeling, so much so that at the end of the story, we want to usher him back into the safety of the womb-like closet, where he is protected from the harsh realities of the world.

We suspect from the opening line of Tea Obreht’s “The Laugh” that the darkest part of the story is over. “They were talking about the funeral when the lights went out” (Obreht 246). Still, suspense builds throughout as we learn that Neal, our narrator, feels guilty over some instance that occurred between him and best friend Roland’s late wife, Femi. He loved her, I inferred, though no steamy affair ever made print. Throughout the story, Neal does everything he can to protect Roland; physically, when he follows him into a pack of wildebeests without a loaded gun; and emotionally, when he places heavy sacks of flour into Femi’s empty casket to keep Roland from discovering that hyenas stole her body. Neal came face-to-face with one of these hyenas, though a pane of glass separated them. But the hyenas’ laugh, not their vile golden eyes, was what tormented him. “It was the laugh that made his stomach turn, and they laughed all the time, every night they were there, as if they knew their laugh made him wonder, made him want to come outside to them in the dark, or, otherwise, put a gun in his mouth” (Obreht 257). Yet, when the story ends, it isn’t the hyenas’ laugh that haunts him, it is Femi’s laugh. Again, the reader is left to her own inference, her own conclusion, based on her knowledge—not of hyenas, but of humans and human nature.

It is what we leave out, then, not what we put into a story, that provides the reader with a satisfying, poignant or devastating twist. Leave out the B parts. Let your reader reveal what has been hidden, let him write what is missing.

 Works Cited

Obreht, Tea. “The Laugh.” Russo 246-62.

Ostlund, Lori. “All Boy.” Russo 263-278.

Russo, Richard, ed. Introduction. The Best American Short Stories 2010. New York: Houghton,   2010. Print.

What’s My Name?

by Rhonda Browning White

In Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, Juliet asks, “What’s in a name? That which we call a rose / By any other name would smell as sweet” (II, ii, 1-2).

Sorry, Juliet, I disagree.

In fiction writing, a character’s name is more than a mere identification label—it defines her, sets her apart, reveals something (perhaps something otherwise hidden) about her personality. What would Nabokov’s Lolita be like, if her name were Mildred? Does the new name evoke the image of an innocent, yet stunning, nymphet? Not so much. Of course every word in a story matters, but a character’s name is something that, if well chosen, will cause your readers to remember your character and your story for years, even decades, to come.

Annie Proulx is a master at naming characters. Who doesn’t feel a little thrill when coming across the character names in her short story “Pair a Spurs” from Close Range: Wyoming Stories? Who could expect a man named Car Scrope to amount to anything, or imagine a woman known only as Mrs. Freeze to show warmth and compassion to anyone? (150-86) Of course, she doesn’t.

Flannery O’Connor chose excellent names for her characters, even allowing one character in “Good Country People” to change her name from Joy to Hulga as her personality soured (271-91). Nor can we forget the name of the Bible salesman, Manley Pointer—a phallic name representing a man out to screw everyone he meets, if ever there was one.

Think outside the box when choosing a name for character. Avoid lazy tricks, like naming them after your own family members, or choosing stock names like John and Jane Smith. Leave Jack to his beanstalk, too. Make sure your character’s name is age appropriate. Novice writers often choose a name that his popular now for a character born fifty years ago, and it sounds false.  Also, take care not to give your characters names that sound similar, or that begin with the same letter. A story full of names like Kathy, Kristy, Karen, Sharon and Sherri will drive a reader batty.

When you chose names that are vividly memorable, those names may help link the characters (and thus the story) to the reader with some permanence. Reveal a concealed flaw, or declare an obvious trait when assigning names. Take your time in choosing each moniker, even each nickname. It’s important. Everything is in a name.

 Works Cited

Nabokov, Vladimir. LolitaNew York: Vintage, 1989. Print.

O’Connor, Flannery. The Complete Stories. New York: Farrar, Straux and Giroux, 1971. Print.

Proulx, Annie. Close range: Wyoming stories. New York: Scribner, 1999. Print.

Shakespeare, William. Romeo and Juliet.

A Different Sense of Place: Where a Story Begins and Ends

by

Rhonda Browning White           

Ron Rash’s Burning Bright: Stories is an anthology of short stories set in the Appalachian Mountains of North Carolina; specifically, the Haw River area. This collection of short stories provides an amazing depiction of the heart, soul, fervor and fatalism that is Appalachia. The stories span centuries, but each of them is flavored with the bittersweet of that ancient chain of mountains and the people they’ve birthed. From “Lincolnites” set during the Confederate war, to “Back of Beyond” that might have occurred yesterday (or tomorrow), each of these stories paints a realistic, vivid, heartbreakingly honest image of the North Carolina mountains (Rash193; 19). 

In this collection, Rash brings each of his stories full-circle, ending them by addressing the same problem, topic, or setting with which they began, yet the main character (and perhaps even the reader), has emotionally changed over the course of the story. For example, the first sentence in “The Ascent” reads, “Jared had never been this far before, over Sawmill Ridge and across a creek glazed with ice, then past the triangular metal sign that said SMOKY MOUNTAINS NATIONAL PARK” (Rash 75). In the last paragraph of the story, Jared sits in an inoperable, crashed airplane, awaiting death by hypothermia. He is leaving—life: “Jared looked out the side window and saw the whiteness was not only in front of him but below. He knew then that they had taken off and risen so high that they were enveloped inside a cloud, but still he looked down, waiting for the clouds to clear so he might look for the pickup as it followed the winding road toward Bryson City” (Rash 90). Indeed, Jared has never been that far before.  

Likewise, in the title story “Burning Bright,” Rash begins with, “After the third fire in two weeks, the talk on TV and radio was no longer about careless campers. Not three fires. Nothing short of a miracle that only a few acres had been burned, the park superintendent said, a miracle less like to occur again with each additional rainless day” (Rash 107). In the course of the story, we learn that main character Marcie is in love with a man who she suspects may be the firebug. She isn’t willing to give him up, despite his suspected arson. In the last paragraph, instead of asking him to leave, she curls up in bed alongside him, hoping and praying for a similar, yet different miracle: “She prayed for rain” (Rash 123). Rash’s technique of beginning and ending the story with the same hope (though for different reasons), offers more than just good story closure: it offers the reader a chance to take a breath and question what they’d do—perhaps what they’d pray for—in a similar situation.

Not only are the beginnings and endings of stories crucial, but a direct interrelation, a sense-of-place-journey that ends near where it began, yet with the main character (and the reader) changed, makes for breathtaking fiction.

 Work Cited

Rash, Ron. Burning Bright: Stories. New York: Harper. 2010. Print.

Hook, Line, and compelled to keep reading

post by Cheryl Russell

KnockemstiffSmall-e1305590714336Knockemstiff by Donald Ray Pollack

Donald Ray Pollack’s short story collection Knockemstiff is a collection of linked short stories—tales that are dark and, most of the time, violent. These are people who understand they have no escape from the poverty of southern Ohio—they are people without hope and these stories reflect that hopelessness. This is a difficult book to read, but yet, it’s a book very difficult to put down once you’ve started reading.

Why?

It took me awhile to hit on a reason why this dark book stays with me and why I found myself re-reading it for this post, but the reason is Pollack’s opening sentences. His sentences at the beginnings of his stories are hooks that caught me, and the rest of his writing then reeled me in, no matter how much I wanted to put the book down.

“My father showed me how to hurt a man one August night at the Torch Drive in when I was seven years old” (1) is the first sentence in the first story. Several questions come to mind: what kind of a father shows his seven year old how to hurt another man? And at a drive-in, where the only violence should be kids fighting in the backseat over the last few M&Ms. As the story progress, we find out what kind of a father this man is, and the life-altering (not in a good way) this encounter has on his son.

“Dynamite Hole” starts with “I was coming down off the Mitchell Flats with three arrowheads in my pocket and a dead copperhead hung around my neck like an old woman’s scarf…” (13). While the first part of the sentence isn’t attention grabbing, the dead copperhead snake hanging around the narrator’s neck makes a reader pay attention. The rest of the story involves incest, rape, and murder–repulsing the reader while at the same time compelling the reader to finish the story.

“When the people in town said inbred, what they really meant was lonely” (39), or so the narrator says. Do the townspeople really mean lonely or do they really mean what ‘inbred’ implies? Lonely is one thing—kind of boring—but inbred is something else altogether. The reader is left to draw her own conclusions in “Hair’s Fate.”

Other opening lines that hook the reader:

“Nettie Russell died in the spring, and left her grandson, Todd, an old Ford Fairlane and a Maxwell House coffee jar with two thousand dollars in it, a fair sum of money in 1973” (70) opens “Schott’s Bridge.” What is Todd going to do with the money? At this point in the book, the reader can safely surmise it won’t be anything wise.

“I was staying out around Massieville with my crippled uncle because I was broke and unwanted everywhere else, and I spent most of my days changing his slop bucket and sticking fresh cigarettes in his smoke hole” (110) begins “Bactine.” The rest of the paragraph draws in the reader more firmly.

Strong opening sentences catch the reader’s attention throughout the book. Even though I found myself more than once wanting to put this book down and walk away, I kept reading, drawn in by Pollack’s strong opening sentences. What this writing has shown me is the importance of the hook, drawing your reader in from the first words, compelling her to keep reading, no matter how dark the stories may be.

Excerpt from Knockemstiff
Pollack, Donald Ray. Knockemstiff. New York: Anchor Books. 2009. Print.

Why the repetition works

Why The Repetiton Works
by Cheryl Russell

One of the stories from The Best American Short Stories that I remember is Julie Otsuka‘s short story “Diem Perdidi,” a Latin phrase for “I have lost the day.” It is a phrase the narrator’s mother remembers from her high school Latin–a subject she was so proficient in she was awarded honors at her high school graduation. But now, the narrator’s mother is suffering from memory loss and by repeating the phrases “she remembers” and “she doesn’t remember,” Otsuka is able to draw the reader into the narrator’s grief as losing her mother a bit at a time.

Nearly every sentence in the story starts with one of two phrases: “she remembers” and “she does not remember.” If a sentence doesn’t start with one of these phrases, then it is probably written into the sentence. By using these phrases, Otsuka shows the cruelty of her mother’s disease, as well as it’s progression.

“She remembers” her fifth grade teacher, her mother killing the family’s chickens before this Japanese family was relocated to the desert, and her first love. “She does not remember” the names of those closest to her–her husband, the narrator–what she’s just done, such as pick a flower to put in her hair or eating lunch.

“She remembers” much of her past–in great detail–her father abandoning their family when she was young and her mother scattering salt in the corners of the house after his departure and the daughter who survived only moments after birth.

“She remembers” the names of the people at the grocery store where she currently shops, but “she does not remember” the names of her immediate family.

By repeated use of those two phrases–“she remembers” and “she does not remember,” Otsuka is able draw the reader into the narrator’s grief at her mother’s slow passing. While physically she remains in good shape, the essence of who she is, is fading away. “She remembers” and “she does not remember” serve to point out the slipping away of this woman, contrasting what is known to what is forgotten, and how what is own is continually slipping away, until “she does not remember” will become more frequent than “she remembers.”

The Best American Short Stories 2012
The Best American Short Stories 2012

Otsuka, Julie. “Diem Pardidi.” The Best American Short Stories 2012.” Ed. Tom Perrotta. Series ed. Heidi Pitlor. New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2012. 152-161. Print.