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

Amy Tan’s The Joy Luck Club

by Rhonda Browning White

            There’s a children’s game in which a sentence is passed via whisper from one child to another through the room until the last child repeats the sentence aloud. Of course, the sentence has changed. Point of view in a story works much like that whispered sentence: a story changes depending on who repeats it. Each of us—and each of our characters—has her own frame of reference, her own set of parameters, her own way of seeing the world in which we live. Thus, each of has a unique point of view.

Perhaps there is no better examination of a character’s point of view (POV) than to let that character tell the story as he sees it, as he lived it, through first-person viewpoint. Amy Tan tells the story of eight Chinese-American women (four mothers and four daughters) living in America, through each woman’s POV in The Joy Luck Club, and while this may seem a distracted and sprawling way to relate the story, instead readers are given deep and varied perspectives of what it means to be an American through the eyes of these women. Readers gain intimate insight into the workings of the mind of each woman, and we are intellectually involved in each narrator’s thoughts and actions, puzzling through her life as she lives it, ultimately piecing together the whole story from eight viewpoints.

A crucial element for telling a story through multiple first-person points of view is voice. Tan succeeds by layering the cadence of each character’s voice with the dialect and language of her time and birthplace. For example, when daughter Waverly Jong relates her mother’s anger at her for staying out too late and causing her to worry, she tells us, “Standing there waiting for my punishment, I heard my mother speak in a dry voice. ‘We not concerning this girl. This girl not have concerning for us’ (100).” Here we see that Waverly is Americanized enough to speak and think in grammatically correct American English, but her mother still carries the rhythms and dialect of her Chinese culture.

Through first-person point of view, we experience the difference in thought and opinion of these two cultures—American and Chinese—and how the two sometimes clash, but other times mesh with such beauty as to provide striking clarity that would otherwise remain clouded without the perspective of multiple points of view. Character Ying-Ying St. Clair, a mother who suffered a mental break following a late-pregnancy miscarriage, expresses her numbness to the pain in first-person voice in a way that would be impossible were the story told by an omniscient narrator: “I did not lose myself all at once. I rubbed out my face over the years washing away my pain, the same way carvings on stone are worn down by water” (67). Even though Ying-Ying is reporting her past, the experience is immediately convincing, because we feel her numbness to grief and pain through first-person point of view.

Through her use of first-person POV, Tan’s characters have the freedom to explore their thoughts, sometimes digressing, sometimes reflecting, but always coming back to the present moment, so that as readers, we experience the closeness of single consciousness with the character. We understand the character. We achieve new perspective. We are enlightened. There is no greater gift a writer can offer a reader.

 

WORK CITED

Tan, Amy. The Joy Luck Club. NY: Putnam, 1991. Print.

 

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.

Direct and Indirect Characterization in Our Kind

by Rhonda Browning White

Kate Walbert’s novel-in-stories Our Kind relates the lives of a group of aging, country-clubbing grandmothers, each of whom lives alone following divorce. These women each have empty-nest syndrome and each is a woman scorned. They live in close proximity to one another, share many of the same interests and are close in age. Despite all these commonalities, each is depicted differently from the others. There are no cookie-cutter characters in this story, though many situations and issues that link them. While there are several ways to fully develop and present a character, Walbert uses both direct and indirect methods that provide distinct contrast between each of these women.

What do I mean by “direct and indirect methods”? Let me explain. Indirect method can be described as telling: an author describes the character’s desires, ethics, motivation and feelings. It works as summary in order to condense a lot of important information into a few lines or paragraphs. A character can also be described using indirect method through the eyes of another character.

Walbert uses this indirect technique in describing Esther: “We had never understood her. Rich as Croesus, she drove a Dodge and compared prices at the Safeway. Her husband, Walter, had died years ago, but she still referred to him as if he had run downtown for milk and would be back any minute. She allowed her hair to gray, her nails to go ragged . . . she kept chameleons on her living room draperies and would often arrive at parties with paint on her hands” (6). We see Esther through someone else’s eyes, indirectly. As readers, we can choose whether or not to believe the narrator.

Direct methods include speech, action, appearance and thought. Appearance, of course, is crucial to developing characters and their personalities. We think differently of a woman in a Dior business suit than we do of one in a dirty, sagging bathrobe. Speech, however, is Walbert’s forte in directly presenting her characters. Her character Canoe comes across as no-nonsense, forthright, sometimes abrupt to the point of flirting with rudeness, and we know this through her dialogue. Likewise, character Barbara is a peacemaker, unwilling to ruffle feathers. In a scene where the two women are watching their pre-teen daughters decorate floppy hats at a birthday party, these difference are clear through their dialogue. Here, Canoe talks about the idea she had for her daughter’s hat-decorating party—an idea her daughter detested: “ ‘I told her in her teen years she can do what she pleases,’ Canoe is saying . . . ‘When I was her age, I would have given my right arm for this party. The shower inspiration story was bullshit. I was trying to rally the troops’” (147). Barbara’s response to her daughter Megan’s unhappiness with the party is much different: “‘Excellent,’ Barbara says of Megan’s work, then she squints up at us. ‘Megan just needed encouragement,’ she says” (150). We see distinct differences in not only the speech patterns, but in the personalities of these two women through their dialogue. This is an example of the direct method of character presentation.

Consider this exercise for developing characters: Put each of your characters in a room together, and have them describe an object on the table. Start a conversation between them. How does each character’s distinct personality surface as they uniquely describe, perhaps even argue over, the object’s traits? What is illuminated about your character that you didn’t know until now? Did you use the direct method, or the indirect method of characterization? Share comments about your results!

Works Cited

Walbert, Kate. Our Kind: A Novel. New York: Scribner, 2005. 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.

Just Breathe

by Rhonda Browning White

In the chapter titled “Paragraphs” in Francine Prose’s Reading Like a Writer: A Guide for People Who Love Books and for Those Who Want to Write Them , she suggests that some paragraphs can “be understood as a sort of literary respiration . . . Inhale at the beginning of the paragraph, exhale at the end. Inhale at the start of the next” (Prose 66). “The drama,” she tells us, “peaks in the center of the paragraph” (Prose 71).

I’ve thought of this often since reading Prose’s book, and when I come across a paragraph that really grabs me in a story, I examine it carefully, and I’ve discovered in many cases that the paragraph indeed has that feeling of a literary respiration.

For example, Richard Ford’s short story “Optimists” from his collection titled Rock Springs contains a paragraph that I feel concisely offers the first-sentence inhalation and last-sentence exhalation experience that Prose discussed. Ford writes,

The most important things of your life can change so suddenly, so unrecoverably, that you can forget even the most important of them and their connections, you are so taken up by the chanciness of all that’s happened and by all that could and will happen next. I now no longer remember the exact year of my father’s birth, or how old he was when I last saw him, or even when that last time took place. When you’re young, these things seem unforgettable and at the heart of everything. But they slide away and are gone when you are not so young (Ford 187).

This inhalation and exhalation of a paragraph is also found in Katherine Anne Porter’s short fiction titled “Pale Horse, Pale Rider” found in the collection by the same name. The selection that follows also serves as fine example of how to end a paragraph with what Prose calls “greater weight than what appears in the middle” (Prose 76).

He really did look, Miranda thought, like a fine healthy apple this morning. One time or another in their talking, he had boasted that he had never had a pain in his life that he could remember. Instead of being horrified at this monster, she approved of his monstrous uniqueness. As for herself, she had had too many pains to mention, so she did not mention them. After working for three years on a morning newspaper she had an illusion of maturity and experience; but it was fatigue merely, she decided, from keeping what she had been brought up to believe were unnatural hours, eating casually at dirty little restaurants, drinking bad coffee all night, and smoking too much. When she said something of her way of living to Adam, he studied her face a few seconds as if he had never seen it before, and said in a forthright way, “Why, it hasn’t hurt you a bit, I think you’re beautiful,” and left her dangling there, wondering if he had thought she wished to be praised. She did wish to be praised, but not at that moment. Adam kept unwholesome hours, too, or had in the ten days they had known each other, staying awake until on o’clock to take her out for supper; he smoked also continually, though if she did not stop him he was apt to explain to her exactly what smoking did to the lungs. “But,” he said, “does it matter so much if you’re going to war, anyway?” (Porter 156-7).

Just when we are lulled by this rhythmic list of Miranda’s and Adam’s busy activities, Adam’s declarative question leaves us breathless with its weight. The pressure the characters face of trying to fit so many experiences into time shortened by both illness and the fatal risk of war are impressed upon the reader by the ticking-clock rhythm of the paragraph, as well as the jarring mental alarm sounded in its final sentence.

Do the paragraphs you write breathe? Consider beginning an important  paragraph with a sentence that sets up the reader or foreshadows a crucial moment to come (inhalation), then ending it with a sentence that takes away the readers breath (exhalation). Perhaps it’s the technique you need to breathe new life into an airless story.

 

Works Cited

Ford, Richard. Rock Springs: Stories. New York: Vintage, 1988. Print.

Porter, Katherine Anne. Pale Horse, Pale Rider. San Diego: Harcourt Brace, 1990. Print.

Prose, Francine. Reading like a Writer: A Guide for People Who Love Books and for Those Who Want to Write Them. New York: Harper Perennial, 2007. Print.

Contributor News-Rhonda Browning White

Contributor Rhonda Browning White has a post on Ploughshare’s Writing Lessons blog where she writes about her experience as a student in Converse College‘s low-residency MFA program

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.

Tools and Rules for the Short Story Writer

by

Rhonda Browning White

If you have chosen to be a writer, you’ve selected a career path that requires lifelong learning. While it’s crucial to critically read literature in the genre in which you write, it’s also important to study texts on the craft of writing. Rick DeMarinis’s The Art & Craft of the Short Story is one of the few texts I’ve found dealing specifically with problems unique to short story writing. Some of the advice in this book is universal to writing in general, however it is particularly applicable to abbreviated stories. DeMarinis both begins and ends his book with a chilling confession: “I don’t know how to write a short story” (4, 224). Frightening though his beginning and ending statements may be (in between them is couched over two hundred pages of solid advice and direct examples), they are somehow freeing. Sure, there are rules to follow when writing short stories, but those rules serve as guidelines, not as binding strictures that force writers into a cookie-cutter formula of limited creativity. It also helps us realize that, whether we’re beginning writers or advanced writers with plenty of publications under our belts, we all face doubts and mysteries as we apply our minds to the first blank page of story writing.

DeMarinis gives fine advice regarding short story endings–a topic not often found in craft books. “No one can help you here. An ending takes an act of inspiration” (40). He goes on to say that he’s talking to himself, of course, but he admits that the last lines of the story are the hardest to get right. He asserts that, “Closure in short story writing has a similar function to closure in poetry. . . . the ending of a poem is like a ski jump. There’s the long accelerating downhill glide, and then, whoosh, you are thrown ballistically into space” (40). Such a wonderful analogy! Of course the text provides firm advice and instruction for both open-ended and closed-ended stories, but it is helpful to understand that DeMarinis–a well-respected writer of powerful short stories–still wrestles with many of the same elements of story that new writers often face.

DeMarinis’s text offers also an excellent chapter on “Description and Imagery” (188-207) in which he challenges short story writers to cast aside stock images, working instead to make an imaginative effort at creating new images that will involve the reader in the creative effort. The reader can then see a familiar setting or situation with new eyes.

One of the best things about this text is that it not only addresses common writing issues in the often-difficult parameters of short story writing, but that it provides direct examples from the short stories of masters like Hemingway, Chekhov, Welty and Faulker, as well as both successes and failures from DeMarinis’s own work.

Throughout the text, Demarinis makes it clear that the so-called rules of writing can and often should be broken. Realizing that these rules can actually be used as tools not only provides us with a means to build vivid, lasting short stories, but it offers freedom to experiment, to grow as we create.

Work Cited

DeMarinis, Rick. The Art & Craft of the Short Story. Cincinnati: Story Press, 2000. Print.