How to Write Self-Conscious Prose

7 Apr
Jaime Netzer's story, "How to Die," appeared in Black Warrior Review and was reprinted in LitRagger.

Jaime Netzer’s story, “How to Die,” appeared in Black Warrior Review and was reprinted in Litragger.

It’s been said that every writer secretly wishes to be a musician—on stage, performing before a crowd. The experience is very different from the life of a writer, working alone in a room and being read by people who are far removed in other rooms. Yet the idea of performance has a place in writing. In fact, when it comes to first-person narration, a writer’s voice often becomes a consciously public act. You can see this clearly in Tim O’Brien’s masterpiece, The Things They Carried, in stories like “How to Tell a True War Story,” when the narrator says things like, “This one does it for me. I’ve told it before—many times many versions—but here’s what actually happened.” The narrator is performing for his audience, and the effect is powerful; as a reader, you can feel yourself leaning forward into the prose.

This is the same strategy used (to the same effect) by Jaime Netzer in her story, “How to Die,” which was published recently in Black Warrior Review and reprinted at Litragger, where you can read it now.

How the Story Works

The writer’s performance begins with the title: “How to Die.” It’s a particular kind of title (a How to) that has become almost a genre in itself. Tim O’Brien has written a version, and Lorrie Moore has written several. The genre often employs a second-person narration (You do this, you do that), and even in first-person stories, you tends to pop up a lot. It’s the nature of the story, not unlike when you were assigned to stand in front of a middle school classroom and deliver a demonstration: how to make a peanut butter and jelly sandwich or how to give someone a buzz cut (at least that’s the speech that I gave). It’s a story that’s difficult to tell without directly engaging the audience. That engagement is an inevitable part of the story’s voice, as you can see in the first two paragraphs of “How to Die.”

Everybody knows this, but, die young. I look around at my fellow contestants and start to smirk. I’m only twenty, won’t even be drinking legal for months and months. I can see them peering at me, thinking thoughts they don’t realize are petty and unflattering, thinking, for example, why would little One-Eye want to win her own death?

But they’re here, too. We aren’t any different. Except I have a better story.

In the first sentence, the narrator is speaking directly to us. She doesn’t say “you,” but it’s understood who “die young” refers to. The narrator is also self-conscious in her performance. She’s aware of the effect she is trying to make and is delivering a spiel that feels rehearsed, if not in front of an actual audience, then to herself in her head.

The entire story is about performance. The narrator is auditioning for a reality show in which the contestants are competing to receive a show-assisted suicide at centerfield of Arrowhead Stadium in Kansas City. They “win” by being both sexy and appealing and also miserable enough to want to die. The very nature of this premise requires the characters to put on an act and to think about how best to put on that act. This is why the narrator says things like, “Die sexy,” and “Die while you’re still sharp, smart, with it. Don’t let them pull one over on you.” She is calibrating her performance for the audience but also calibrating her own ideas for how to live, which is the subject of most fiction—how to be in the world.

What Netzer has done, then, is create a narrator who feels compelled to tell her audience how to be in her particular world—in the immediate, reality-show sense and in the broader, 20-year-old-in-America sense. It’s this voice telling us how to be that pulls us into and through the story, not the premise, as outlandish and engaging as it is.

The Writing Exercise

Let’s write narration that tells the reader how to be, using “How to Die” by Jaime Netzer as a model:

  1. Create a narrator with something to say. In real life, we have obsessions that feel the need to explain to people: what it means to grow up in _____ or what it’s like to be _____ or do _____. Sometimes these obsessions center around traumatic or elevated experiences (going to war or encountering racism or sexism), but just as often these obsessions involve nuances that most people probably overlook but which are important to us. For this exercise, try giving your obsession(s) to a narrator. Or, if you’re a born fiction writer, create a character with an obsession that he/she feels compelled to explain. Obsession, of course, can mean something unusual (licking lamp posts) or something quotidian (how to die).
  2. Give the narrator a reason to explain the obsession. Most of us don’t need much of an excuse to talk about the things that preoccupy our minds. But, as an audience, we’re more receptive to those thoughts if there’s some reason for us to listen. This is the difference between wanting to listen to someone rant or lecture and wanting to run away. The reason doesn’t need to be something huge. Mostly, it needs to be dramatic. In Lorrie Moore’s story “How to Be an Other Woman,” the reason we listen is because we can’t help but want to know about affairs. So, rather than wringing your hands over that age-old workshop question, “Why is the narrator telling us this?” instead ask yourself, “What is the story or dramatic action that has prompted the narrator to start talking?” Give your character a story to talk about—not just an obsession to talk about.
  3. Shake the character. In a story like this, the narrative arc takes a toll on the narrative voice. In other words, the narrator has changed by the story’s end and that change is evident in how he or she talks. Often, this means undermining the narrator’s certainty about the world he or she is narrating—making the narrator vulnerable. For all her bluster about how to die and how to appeal to a reality-show audience, the narrator in “How to Die” doesn’t end up quite where she expected, in part because she did not anticipate something essential about her world. When that unanticipated thing arrives, her voice is shaken. So, in your story, find a way to introduce an element that will shake the narrator. If the voice talks as if it knows everything, introduce something that it does not know.

Good luck.

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One Response to “How to Write Self-Conscious Prose”

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. An Interview with Jaime Netzer | Read to Write Stories - April 10, 2015

    […] To read an exercise on writing self-aware prose and Netzer’s story, “How to Die,” click here. […]

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