Newwordsmiths' Blog

Craft based Analysis of New Yorker Stories

Spiritual Memoir and Eat, Pray, Love

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In the autumn of 2007, I found myself in Bristol, VT, a town of a mere 4000 people, yet blessed with two organic supermarkets and a vegan microbrew pub. I was there to complete my training in Phoenix Rising Yoga Therapy. After the pre-sunrise yoga classes, we’d spend the afternoons mining our psyches with the intense practices that Phoenix Rising is known for. After these very long and challenging days, I’d try to unwind with a book. For most of the week I read Elizabeth Gilbert’s, “Eat, Pray, Love,” recommended to me by my aunt Beth, who had incidentally been Gilbert’s English teacher. Initially expecting a piece of ‘chick-lit,’ I found myself quickly taken with the book, and I realize in hindsight that the memoir became part of that week’s spiritual practice.

Spiritual memoir is a bizarre animal. It is the revealing of a single person’s soul, one grounded very much in that writer’s own personal history and unique psychological makeup. Yet these memoirs somehow connect with the equally personal experiences of thousands of readers. (In the case of “Eat, Pray, Love,” 7 million readers.) This connection cuts across every possible demographic line, through gender, age, and culture. My own connection with Gilbert’s book was admittedly informed by my being immersed in the deep seeking that was happening at the time of reading. Again, a very personal experience. Which got me interested in the question of what particular element, or more specifically, which particular scene resonated most with readers. In preparation for writing this piece, I referred to both the Internet and the opinion of friends in order to find that part of the book that had the greatest impact on them. And I found that nearly everyone had a different answer.

For some, it was a literary revisit to place that had informed their life in some way. (Not difficult, considering the exotic locales.) For others, it was the identification (or non-identification) with a person who had reassembled a shattered life. And for others still, it was simply a nodding acquaintance with the transcendence that can accompany a good meal or a dynamic round of sex. Yet each person could not only recite a favorite scene of their own, but could do so immediately.

This project was beginning to remind me of the old Buddhist tale where three blind men come upon an elephant, and in touching a different part of the animal’s body, comes to his own individual opinion of what he’s found: a pillar (leg), a tree branch (trunk), or a wall (belly). So what was the common denominator, (the elephant, if you will), between all of those who fell in love with this book? What was the quality that most attracted them to the story?

The answer can be found in the various reviews of the book and in interviews with the author. Review after review mention Gilbert’s honesty about herself, her frankness. When one is truly in touch with the flaws that make up their own humanity, coupled with a willingness to share them in a humorous fashion, others around them can’t help but be attracted. This attraction is further enhanced by Gilbert’s likability, obvious from her skill at crafting prose that at times feels more like a private conversation with a close friend. In every page of “Eat, Pray, Love,” we are shown a woman’s vulnerability and humility, yet it is tempered by self-depreciating wit.

In writing a spiritual memoir, one mustn’t be afraid to engage oneself in this type of honest dialogue. The best approach is to write without any sense of the reader. One is working strictly with one’s own basic material, the probing of which is a sacred journey in itself. And to share what is uncovered requires great courage.

We’ll deal more with this element of honesty with both yourself and with the reader in future posts.

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Written by newwordsmiths

October 6, 2010 at 4:02 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

Point of View: How to pass the baton of perspective in a short story.

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Point of View: How to pass the baton of perspective in a short story.

A Flash Critique of “The Erlking” by Sarah Shun-Ben Bynum

The New Yorker’s 20 under 40 Series

This week I’m going to a tackle a story I’m not actually crazy about, despite the fine craftsmanship the author employs to achieve, a compelling ending.  This is an important lesson, for while we all write, and we all aspire to write something great, there is much that goes into that process, part of it craft, and part of it sensibility. For me, the sensibility of the characters in “The Erlking” felt off, but that does not detract from the author’s ability to handle a variety of craft issues, including what is undoubtedly one of the more difficult ones – alternating points of view in a short story.  This is no small feat, and Ms Bynum added to that the complexity by making one of those points of view a small child.

So first a word on pov (point of view). There are a number of ways to approach this issue, but for this flash critique we’ll focus on third person limited point of view   This pov tends to follow one character around from scene to scene –(She felt something stir inside her, an old anger that she thought she’d long buried) – or in alternating third person point of view, characters trade points of view. Novels often employ the latter – sometimes mixing in first person, and third person pov, as in David Mitchell’s masterpiece Cloud Atlas. When we encounter alternating third person pov in a novel, chapter changes often signal a point of view change.  Sometimes a chapter will be titled something like “Edward” and then the reader hears everything from Edward’s point of view, then it’ll switch to “Bella” and the reader will get her point of view (this of course is not how the first Twilight book manages pov).

This is much more challenging to accomplish in a short story. A writer doesn’t have chapter breaks with titles. Instead, a writer needs to indicate when the point of view has changed, and the writer needs to do it quickly, efficiently, and smoothly – all things Ms. Bynum accomplishes.  So let’s take a look at the variety of tools Bynum employs.  The opening line of the story is a great example of clearly setting point of view:

It is just as Kate hoped (61).

We are firmly in Kate’s (the mother) head.  Stories, where a pov switch does not occur, would perhaps not make such an obvious point of pov in the opening sentence. Bynum does so because the pov changes in this story and this opening firmly establishes that the reader is moving through the world via Kate.  The description of an Elve’s Faire held at a local Waldorf school is infused with her sensibility – her sticker shock at the cost of the stuffed animals (seventeen dollars!). The other thing to note is that all of the scenes we see through her pov are based on Kate’s identity as a mother (we learn nothing of work she may do, of a husband, etc – it is all about being mom). She worries if she is giving her daughter the right education, whether her daughter will fit in, what she can afford for her daughter versus what she wants to give, and more.

This conflict rubs up against her daughter’s own wants (this Flash Critique will not be about conflict but note:  a great way to think about conflict is to see it as two character’s desires butting up against one another).  The conflict, and the pov change that is impending, is introduced in the fourth paragraph of the story

“Ruthie wants to take one home with her, a baby giraffe.”

That could indicate a point of view shift, but it actually doesn’t, as the following paragraph is all observational of Ruthie (seeing her from the outside).  However, that line introduces us to the conflict, and to the idea of another character’s vision of the world.  Here, Bynum is laying the groundwork for a pov switch.  The actual shift comes a few paragraphs later, right after Kate buys the giraffe Ruthie wants. We then shift to Ruthie’s point of view:

She says to Ruthie, “This is a very special thing.  Your one special thing from the Elves’ Faire, O.K.?”

“O.K.,” Ruthie says, looking for the first time at the animal that is now hers. She knows that her mother likes giraffes at the zoo . . . . (61).

This is a great way to shift point of view – and actually common – the use of an object to alter perspective. In this case, it’s the giraffe, and we switch from Kate’s dialogue about it (already a move away from her ‘interior’ consciousness) to Ruthie’s take on it. It’s subtle, but highly effective and allows the reader to become comfortable with the change.  Also note that the last line from Kate (O.K.) becomes the first line for Ruthie.

Bynum also moves us nicely out of Ruthie’s pov a few paragraphs later. The last line of Ruthie’s point of view in this section is:

“Mommy,” Ruthie says, “Is my birthday before Christmas or after?”

“Well, it depends on what you mean by before,” Kate says, unhelpfully.

With that one adverb, unhelpfully, we know we are still in Ruthie’s point of view, but then as we move to the next paragraph, Bynum makes a very subtle change, this time by having the characters touch.

“Holding hands, they leave the elves’ lawn . . . . .Kate guesses that this . . . .” (61)

This is also a great way to alter point of view. Bring the characters into a scene jointly, pan out (as in camera angle) and then move back in via another character’s point of view.

Also note that in this scene Ruthie’s point of view is contained within it.  The reader is not moved via big section breaks, but by subtle machinations of character, objects, and space and the most important thing to note is that point of view is fully under control throughout the story.  Ruthie’s voice and view of the world don’t arise from nowhere.  I challenge you to look at each shift and find the other tools Bynum uses, but I want to come back to the larger implications the pov shift has on the story as a whole (honestly, if I had more space, I could touch on each change).

Over the course of the story, Ruthie’s attention becomes focused on a mysterious character, (an easily believable presence at a Waldorf fare).

“The man is tall and thin, with a cape around his neck that is not black or blue but a color in between, a middle-of-the-night color, and he pushes back the hood on his head and looks at her as if he knows her.”

This is the Erlking, a malevolent being who brings death and he is the harbinger for the ending of the story where the reader is firmly in Ruthie’s point of view.  This is the crux of the story, for we are at the heart of a typical day for this mother and child, one filled with all the minor distractions and misbehaviors, but the mother is unaware of what is going on inside Ruthie’s prescient mind. Ruthie sees the Erlking and feels a pull towards him a pull, the end of the story promises, will result with Ruthie’s death.

The story can be read as a child’s first awareness of death, and a beautifully rendered one that requires that we be in the child’s point of view.  But it is also a reflection on the relationship between mother and child, how fraught it can be with the parental desire to make the right choice when what awaits us all is death; the story also holds a commentary about the desire of a culture (as epitomized in Waldorf) to keep a child safe from the world, and how this safety can be seen as not only psychological, but as a kind of biological imperative, much like Ruthie’s desire to pee. She knows it will happen, the mess and all of it, and yet there is a thrill in the knowledge, a secret, that makes life thrilling.  This is why Bynum opted to alternate pov rather than simply stay wedded to one.  She needed the interplay of perspective to tease out all these themes.

Ultimately, the reader ends the story in Ruthie’s as she is the one who as a seeing, epiphanic, moment. What she sees – her absence from the world, from her mother’s hand, from everything – creates a wonderful dissolution of point of view as well.

So although I don’t feel character worked fully in this story, and that sometimes there were easy, or far too subtle attempts to raise certain character issues, Bynum did an excellent job on the craft level by managing the reader’s experience of character.  Let me know what you think?  Do you differ with my opinion?  Comments on point of view?  And thanks for reading!

Written by newwordsmiths

July 9, 2010 at 7:15 pm

Imagined Audience and your fiction

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Flash Critique of Nicole Krauss’s “The Young Painters”
The New Yorker’s 20 under 40 Series

Let’s look at a piece that just appeared in the New Yorker’s “20 under 40” –Nicole Krauss’s “The Young Painters.” This piece is an excellent craft tutorial for several reasons: Ms. Krauss is an extraordinary wordsmith, she uses craft effectively to raise important questions about the role and responsibilities – if any – of the writer, the reader and the interplay of imagination, mystery and intrigue between the two. How much can we borrow from real life and what are the costs for doing so? This is a very real dilemma and in fact it came up for me in a conversation this weekend, but I want to focus again on craft and how one point of craft helps to put this issue to the fore, but also transforms Nicole Krauss’ story from just a ‘tell all’ to a morality play with no clear defining moral.

One craft technique Ms. Krauss uses to help accomplish this feat is the use of the ‘imagined audience.’ This is a technique that has been employed throughout history in a number of fictions, including by Boccaccio in The Decameron, where the imagined audience is a group of exiles escaping the plague. Many of Chekhov’s stories also use it by using an implied ‘you.’

As an author, it is immensely useful to have an audience in mind, sometimes even a specific reader so we can then write to the assumptions that reader holds. T.S. Eliot, for example, assumes an audience of ‘highly educated’ readers and therefore plants allusions in his poetry that well-read people will be able to identify. So the first suggestion I have is decide on the kinds of knowledge you want your imagined audience to have and then write to those kinds of ‘people.’

However, an audience can become a part of the fiction, as in The Decameron. This technique of placing an audience within the fiction offers an opportunity to complicate the fiction by layering a variety of predetermined relationships between the teller and the tale. In The Decameron the stories revolve around topics of social and institutional decay because the plague is asking everyone to rethink the institutions that supposedly hold society together. These stories can generally be described as either stories that support the moral authority of the social contract, or subvert it. That’s a broad sweeping example, but it provides the basis of the principle.

Let’s look at how Nicole Krauss does this in “The Young Painters.” I’m only going to focus on the four times Ms. Krauss brings her audience to the forefront – the opening sentence, the closing sentence and twice in the middle of the story. Please do note that the appeal to audience is used quite sparingly (a separate lesson) and by the end of the story we are surprised when it appears – and this surprise has great pay off.

“Four or five years after we got married, Your Honor, S. and I were invited to a dinner party at the home of a German dancer, who was then living in New York. (59)

The first sentence does so much, as great first sentences should. It clearly establishes the location (New York) the occasion, (an invitation) and a sense of the narrator’s own personal life (married four or five years beforehand). But it also identifies a very specific audience and by doing so, the terms of the story are elevated from mere ‘story’ to a story with a purpose to explain some complex legal or moral situation. We don’t yet know what that is, hence adding to the mystery (did she kill someone, did someone kill the dancer, is the husband, named only S. the murder, or something worse?). The reader is both properly off balance, and firmly centered in place and with characters and with a broad understanding of ‘why this story is being told.”

“Viewed in a certain light, that is the kind of work I do, Your Honor.” (59)

The next line appears about an eighth of the way through the story and proffers a defense of the act of writing. It follows a description of the process where the author takes someone’s experience, embellishes, replaces, and ultimately re-imagines that experience to create a story. This one line in this one place, ‘thickens the plot.’ The ‘trial’ is not because of a human legal transgression; rather it revolves around some aspect of a particular artistic process. The argument is not fully developed yet, but the inclusion of the imagined audience right after this line is the first indication that the reader is not pursuing facts, as one would in a mystery, but rather is reading about the very act of writing.

“In her work, the writer is free of laws. But in her life, Your Honor, she is not free.” (60)

The narrator then goes on to describe another fiction she created based on the life of her father; a piece of fiction that made her quite famous. This line follows a defense of the writers’ craft as being separate from any kind of moral compass, but then comes the twist. This use of audience is both an opportunity to reject the laws many people want to apply to writers, as well as an opportunity to acknowledge that the laws of the universe are not a part of these writerly laws. This sets up the following scene, where the universal law of coincidence, or even karma, brings our narrator back in contact with the dancer.

To follow this, you’ll have to put up with a short explanation of what happens next. The dancer runs into our narrator, and lets her know that he has read her story about his painting, as well as everything else she’s written. Upon their parting, he lightly touches the narrator on the cheek, smiling slightly, and then departs. He exerts no overt judgment but our narrator, when left alone with the gesture, begins a process of interpretation (an imaginative act itself and one that is tied to the very act of creating pieces of fictions). She finds in the gesture a sense of demeaning criticism she can’t shake. Then, she hears the cry of a child (her first story was about the death of a child), and this makes her begin to doubt herself, and her position on ‘writing.’ This sentiment is expressed in that final line.

“And slowly, Your Honor, I began to distrust myself.” (61)

This line is highly effective because the supposed audience has become a number of things. It is no longer static (and really, what court of law is going to listen to a writers’ confession). It is in point of fact a confession to one’s own ‘Honor.” The term serves as both a substitute for a judge, and in its final iteration, as an expression of an individual’s sense of honor. This distrust the narrator expresses toward the self is also distrust about motivation (notice that the stories are all about children and the story is fronted by the author’s discussion of how she does not have children). In short, the narrator is suddenly aware of the ways in which the ‘moral compass’ and the laws that govern the universe, apply to her and because of this, she’s also suddenly aware that she is not in control even of her fictions to the extent she assumed. We end the story with questions, but rather than vague (who’s on trial for what) they are much more specific – how can writing compromise one’s integrity? How much of the self do we put onto the page despite our belief that we are writing about someone else? Who, ultimately, is this all about?

Written by newwordsmiths

July 2, 2010 at 4:09 pm

Begin at the Begin

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Welcome to NewWordSmiths’ blog & our very first Flash Craft Review! We will be looking at short excerpts of prose (in this case the opening paragraph of The Virgin Suicides by Jeffrey Eugenides) to decipher how the motifs of great writing – life, love, loss, regret and the seemingly elusive quest for meaning – are communicated by the nuts and bolts application of craft.

Every compelling writer has mastered craft to a degree where we, as readers, are often unaware of how each line draws us into the story. Every couple of weeks we will look at prose by great modern and postmodern authors (Roth, Atwood, DeLillo, Palhniuk & others) popular fiction, and memoir (Eat, Love, Pray will be flash reviewed soon) as well as genre pieces (Possibly Twilight and others) to understand what makes these authors’ craft so effective.

Because this is the first blog entry for WordSmiths and because beginnings are so very hard (I struggled with this one!), to honor this occasion, I’d like to take a look at a beginning.  But first, I want to give a word of general caution on beginnings – well more than a word – how about several.

First of all, it’s easy to obsess about beginnings, combing through those first sentences to get them just right long before you’ve written your manuscript. With those first words, you must raise questions for your reader, immerse them in the world you’ve created, and more than anything else, you want to get the momentum going so that the reader is led, much like the proverbial donkey and carrot, through the story.  It’s a tall order and you can spend months trying to get it just right before you’ve even written your story.  Lord knows I’ve done it and it can be a fabulous way to feel as if you are writing while you are in fact wasting time. Resist that urge. It will hold you back from the story that wants to be told.

The second mistake we often make is to begin in ways we find extremely clever, but which in fact do more to confuse the reader than to inspire them.  This would be your Finnegan’s Wake opening, where the reader enters with so many questions they can’t figure out where to turn their attention (In FW it would be, what is this word supposed to be?!).  This can be pulled off by people like Joyce, but as they say, proceed at your own peril.  The antithesis to this is we often begin in tried and true ways “the alarm clock rang and Tim saw, from his crusted over eyes, the cascades of jet black hair that did not belong to Tracy, his overly perky, overly peroxided, blonde wife.”  This is the alarm clock opening, and while it may work, it is a trope, so be wary of it.

My suggestion is to write a functional beginning, a sentence that begins ‘in the middle of the action” and then write your story/book, etc, and then rewrite the beginning to fit the actual fiction you produced.  Trust me, you will feel much more inspired to get that beginning just right when you know what comes after it.

That said, let’s look at how one author pulls off a successful beginning by analyzing one of the most underrated, vibrant, works of fiction written in the last twenty years – The Virgin Suicides by Jeffrey Eugenides. This book tells the story of a group of sisters who commit suicide, but of course it is far more than that – an elegy to the loss of innocence, a testament to the power of suburban oppression, a meditation on the nature of longing, and more.  And this is all set up in the opening scene.

“On the morning the last Lisbon daughter took her turn at suicide – it was Mary this time, and sleeping pills, like Therese – the two paramedics arrived at the house knowing where the knife drawer was, and the gas oven, and the beam in the basement from which it was possible to tie a rope.  They got out of the EMS truck, as usual moving much too slowly in our opinion, and the fat one said under his breath “This ain’t TV, folks, this is how fast we go.”  He was carrying the heavy respirator and the cardiac unit past the bushes that had grown monstrous and over the erupting lawn, tame and immaculate thirteen months earlier when the trouble began.”

The beauty of this opening, from a craft point of view, is that the first sentence clearly communicates that we are in the middle of the ‘action’ while also placing the reader at the start of a new set of actions.  The term ‘the last’ Lisbon daughter and the phrase ‘took her turn at suicide’ both imply that others have come before her.  The narrator/s tells us that the trouble (but what trouble?) began thirteen months earlier. We enter the story with questions.  How many Lisbon girls were there? Why did they all attempt to commit suicide? What happened thirteen months ago?  And how successful is Mary?  The others?  We are awash with questions – however we are not adrift in the world.

This is an important craft point to emphasize. Unless you’re Becket dabbling in his later fictions, you don’t want to lose the reader. So how do you raise questions and not lose the reader?  Eugenides uses solid, descriptive language to anchor us in place.  We have a ‘knife drawer” rather than the much more nebulous ‘knives’ a “gas oven’ a ‘beam’ in the basement, and a ‘fat’ paramedic who “as usual” moved too slowly. And then we have the bushes, ‘monstrous and erupting.”  The physical world grounds the reader in an actual physical space, each object defined in most cases by one very clear adjective (not two or three, but one).

The author also gives us a specific time frame for the start of the action – thirteen months prior.  This grounding lets the questions about the nature of the action in the story sit and wait because the reader is already titillated and now is satisfied (partially) with the visual world unfolding before him or her. In short, the reader is given two different starts – one a set of questions about the suicides, and two– the suburban world of Grosse Pointe, Michigan.   And this is what reading is – an act of seeking information so we can assemble a coherent meaning as well as an act of watching a world we’ve seen but never truly seen rise before us.

Also notice how Eugenides refuses to hide the major action of the story – the suicides. He opens with them, thereby transferring the ‘mystery’ (ie what’s happening) from that physical act to questions about why?  Who is telling us this and why?  What are the results of the suicide attempts?  And why all these sisters?  The bigger issues hover out there while the physical setting and action of the story comes to the fore.  This is one technique, but a very important one, for keeping the reader engaged. Put your reader in a place; don’t withhold information just to withhold it; when you withhold do so with the larger questions of why, who did it, what’s the purpose, etc.  It’s a lot to handle, but you can do it, especially if you know your story.

Interestingly enough, this is our interest at WordSmiths – to let the smaller details be our keys to unlocking the larger implications of our stories. These Flash Craft Reviews are an entrée to conversations with you about the promise of fiction and the dynamics of WordSmithing. Thanks for reading and please, let us know what you think.

Written by newwordsmiths

June 25, 2010 at 3:52 pm

Posted in Novel Review

Hello world!

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Written by newwordsmiths

June 14, 2010 at 10:13 pm

Posted in Uncategorized