Tag Archives: Long Division

How to Let the Story Speak for Itself

30 Jan
Kiese Laymon's collection of essays, "How to Slowly Kill Yourself and Others in America" stunned the writer Roxane Gay "into stillness."

Kiese Laymon’s collection of essays, “How to Slowly Kill Yourself and Others in America,” stunned the writer Roxane Gay “into stillness.”

If you recall anything about your composition classes in high school or college, it may be the requirement that every example be explained or analyzed. As an instructor for these classes, I feel a professional obligation to say that, yes, this is mostly true. But, on the other hand, sometimes the example or story can speak for itself.

Kiese Laymon’s essay, “How to Slowly Kill Yourself and Others in America: A Remembrance,” illustrates not only that some stories do not need to be explained but also that some efforts to explain add a layer that can, at times, falsify the story itself. As Laymon writes, “I wish I could get my Yoda on right now and surmise all this shit into a clean sociopolitical pull-quote that shows supreme knowledge and absolute emotional transformation, but I don’t want to lie.”

The essay is included in the new collection How to Slowly Kill Yourself and Others in America and was originally published at Gawker, where you can read it now.

How the Story Works

The first paragraph of the essay lays out what will follow:

I’ve had guns pulled on me by four people under Central Mississippi skies — once by a white undercover cop, once by a young brother trying to rob me for the leftovers of a weak work-study check, once by my mother and twice by myself. Not sure how or if I’ve helped many folks say yes to life but I’ve definitely aided in few folks dying slowly in America, all without the aid of a gun.

The bulk of the essay is the stories about these four incidents with guns. There is almost no transition between them except a sentence like, “16 months later, I’m 18, three years older than Edward Evans will be when he is shot in the head behind an abandoned home in Jackson” or “I don’t know what’s wrong with him but a few months later, I have a gun.”

This lack of transition and explanation/analysis accomplishes two things:

  1. It lets the stories pile up against one another. To some extent, the point is not that one of these stories happened but that they all happened. The references to similar stories that made the news make it clear that not only did all of these stories happen to one person, they happen to people like him all of the time.
  2. They keep the reader in the moment with the writer as he experiences these stories. Very often, we’re tempted to add a layer of distance, to write, “Long ago, when I was young, these things happened.” While it’s true that by the time we sit down to write about something, we’ve given it years of thought, it’s also the case that the act of reflection can distort or veil the thing we are reflecting upon. This reflection protects the writer against judgement or scorn (a way of saying to the reader, “Yeah, I was part of something that makes you and me uncomfortable, but see how much smarter I am now?). Sometimes it’s important to cut straight to the memory itself.

Instead of trying to write statements that show “supreme knowledge and absolute emotional transformation,” Laymon saves his moments of analysis and explanation for the points in the essay where his thoughts at the time might not be immediately clear. Here is one example:

I pick up my gun and think about my Grandma. I think not only about what she’d feel if I went back out there with a gun. I think about how if Grandma walked out of that room with a gun in hand, she’d use it. No question.

I am her grandson.

In this instance, Laymon is explaining a thought process that led to a decision. What follows—the effects of the decision—speak for themselves. At the end of the piece, Laymon does step away from the stories to reflect a bit, but his reflection actually points us back to the stories. Here’s a typical line:

I want to say and mean that remembering starts not with predictable punditry, or bullshit blogs, or slick art that really ask nothing of us; I want to say that it starts with all of us willing ourselves to remember, tell and accept those complicated, muffled truths of our lives and deaths and the lives and deaths of folks all around us over and over again.

In a way, Laymon is making the same point as Tim O’Brien in The Things They Carried: “A true war story, if truly told, makes the stomach believe.” In this essay, by letting the story speak without added explanation, Laymon is aiming for the stomach as much as the head.

The Writing Exercise

Let’s try structuring an essay so that no big explanations are needed, using “How to Slowly Kill Yourself and Others: A Remembrance” by Kiese Laymon as a model:

  1. Let the stories pile up against one another. This kind of structure works best with an essay about a recurring event. Each successive version emphasizes both the similarities (here we go again) and the variations (this time, however, was different). In order to find your stories, it might be helpful to think of them as leaves on a stem. What is the single line of causation? In Laymon’s essay, it’s the experience of being black in Mississippi. This is vague and simplistic, of course, but it’s also a place to begin. One way to advance such a simple idea is to ask a basic question: “What does it mean to be ______?” Then, choose an image that resonates with you on an emotional level. Laymon chose the image of a gun. The successive stories become different perspectives of that image, filtered through the basic question of meaning. Choose the right stories and the right image, and the meaning will make itself clear.
  2. Keep the reader in the story as you, the writer, experience it again. In other words, tell the story straight, in present tense if necessary. Focus any explanation on moments of decision making. This might require leaving the moment and writing something like, “My whole life, I’d been ______, but now I ______.” The goal is to portray the complex processes that our minds quickly distill to a snap decision: “So, I ______.” The next paragraphs will show the reader the events or actions that proceed from that decision and the consequences of those actions. The consequences can be stated simply. Less is sometimes more, as Laymon writes here:

The young brother keeps looking back to the car, unsure what he’s supposed to do. Shonda and her friends are screaming when he takes the gun off my chest and trots goofily back to the car.

I don’t know what’s wrong with him but a few months later, I have a gun.

Sometimes, no explanation is needed. The image, the story, and the decision are enough.

Good luck!

How to Find the Right Plot for Your Character

28 Jan
Long Division by Kiese Laymon has been compared to the novels of Haruki Murakami and called, by the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, "a little fantasy, a little mystery and a lot hilarious."

Long Division by Kiese Laymon has been compared to the novels of Haruki Murakami and called, by the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, “a little fantasy, a little mystery and a lot hilarious.”

I was talking to a writer the other day who said that, if it was up to her, she’d write nothing but character development. Her characters would talk to each other and occasionally wind up in interesting circumstances, but not much would happen. Her solution was to create a detailed outline—the kind that takes several weeks to create. This is a terrific idea, even if many writers are initially opposed to it. But what if you can’t find the right plot for the outline?

One of the best novels I’ve read lately also has a plot that perfectly fits its narrator. Long Division by Kiese Laymon is one of the competitors in the The Morning News Tournament of Books, and you can read an excerpt from the novel at Gawker.

How the Story Works

Long Division is about a teenager who gets the opportunity to compete in a national competition. Even from that vague description, it’s clear how the plot fits the character. Teenage kids all over America are dreaming about one day competing in the Super Bowl, World Series, or in March Madness. Almost all of our biggest celebrities are athletes; every two years at the Olympics, athletes from sports that exist on the fringe suddenly become the center of our national attention, setting themselves up for a brief moment of fame and corporate sponsorship. But this kind of competition isn’t confined to sports. It turns academic study into contests of knowledge like Jeopardy! and the Scripts National Spelling Bee. Every high school kid who takes the SAT or ACT is given a score and ranked against the other test takers, and those rankings help feed the competition for spots in select universities.

In short, any plot about a contest provides a good story for a teenage character. The trick is to find a contest that taps into the character’s hopes and fears.

In Long Division, Kiese Laymon has created a character named Citoyen (City) Coldson, a teenage African-American boy from Jackson, Mississippi. Keep that description in mind as you read this paragraph about the contest he faces:

“We’d like to welcome you to the fifth annual Can You Use That Word in a Sentence National Competition,” the voice behind the light said. “We’re so proud to be coming to you from historic Jackson, Mississippi. The state of Mississippi has loomed large in the history of civil rights and the English language. Maybe our next John Grisham, Richard Wright, Margaret Walker Alexander, William Faulkner, or Oprah Winfrey is in this contest. The rules of the contest are simple. I will give the contestant a word and he or she will have two minutes to use that word in a dynamic sentence. All three judges must agree upon the correct usage, appropriateness, and dynamism of the sentence. We guarantee you that this year’s contest will be must-see TV.

The passage immediately conflates “civil rights and the English language.” The competition is about word usage rather than spelling because (as stated earlier in the novel) the Scripts Spelling Bee was deemed racially and geographically biased. In this novel, and in this new competition, race is impossible to avoid. In fact, it’s put at the center of the story and televised to the world.

Watch how the first contestant, Coldson’s best friend, handles the word lascivious:

“If lascivious photographs of Amber Rose were found on Mr. White’s office computer,” LaVander began, “then the odds are higher than the poverty rate in the Mississippi Delta that Mr. Jay White would still keep his job at the college his great-great-grandfather founded.”

Coldson gets the next word:

“Your first word, Citoyen, is…‘niggardly.’”

Without uttering a syllable, I ran back to our dressing room and got my brush. “I just think better with this in my hand,” I told the voice when I got back.

“No problem. ‘Niggardly,’ Citoyen.”

“For real? It’s no problem?” I looked out into the white lights hoping somebody would demand they give me another word—not because I didn’t know how to use it, but because it just didn’t seem right that any kid like me should have to use a word like that, not in front of all those white folks.

“Etymology, please?” I asked him.

“From Old Norse nigla.”

Nigla? That’s funny. Am I pronouncing the word right? ‘Nigga’dly.’ Pronunciation, please.”

“Nig-gard-ly,” he said. “Citoyen, you have 30 more seconds.”

The beauty of this moment is that the contest has been made intensely personal for the character. Broadly speaking, its very existence is meant to serve kids like him. So, he’s already in the spotlight, simply because of who he is. The contest becomes acutely personal, though, when he’s given a word that he doesn’t know. He’s set up to look and feel inadequate. Finally, the broader issues of the contest meet the personal aspects because the word has racial overtones due to its similarity to another word. Given the nature of the contest and the character, it’s the perfect word to create tension and suspense and to force the character to act in ways that not only move the plot forward to reveal depth of character.

If you’re wondering what happens next, you can find out here.

The Writing Exercise

Let’s try finding the right plot for a character, using the excerpt from Long Divison by Kiese Laymon as a model:

  1. Choose a general plot vehicle that is appropriate for your character. Describe your character in the vaguest way possible (the way people are described in personal ads or by the police)—40-year-old white male, 16-year-old Hispanic female, middle class mother of three, retired widower living on a pension. What life events does that character typically (or stereotypically) encounter? Common examples that often find their way into stories include contests, marriage, divorce, coming-of-age, starting over, searching for someone (relative, someone to love), caring for elderly parent or child or dog, escaping something bad (war, old friends, neighborhood, family), making the grade, getting the promotion, etc.
  2. Summarize why the plot vehicle is particularly suited (generally speaking) to your character. This is where you begin to tie the plot to a few particulars of character: Getting laid off is particularly painful for a 50-year-old woman because she’s forced to compete for a job with younger people in an age-ist society. Tracking down your birth parents in rural Nevada is particularly difficult for someone who lives in New York and doesn’t have a driver’s license.
  3. Make the plot vehicle acutely personal. This can be done by accentuating the mechanics of the plot. In the excerpt from Long Division, the mechanics of the contest (contestants are given a word to use in a sentence) become accentuated when the character doesn’t know the word. That’s why the novel shows the mechanics of the contest: the back-and-forth between contestant and moderator, the question about etymological origin, the pushing against the rules when City runs to his dressing room to get his brush. Each of these mechanical details about the contest heightens the tension. In my examples, the 50-year-old woman interviewing for a job might be put into a group interview with a room full of recent college graduates. The person tracking down his birth parents in rural Nevada might arrange a ride from a friend-of-a-friend who doesn’t show up, leaving the character stranded.
  4. Connect the personal with the general. The key is to make the plot obstacles reflect or tap into the character’s hopes and fears. In Long Division, the plot taps into City’s complex feelings about race. When he’s given his word, he thinks that “it just didn’t seem right that any kid like me should have to use a word like that, not in front of all those white folks.” For him, it’s one thing to have the limits of his knowledge clearly defined, but it’s another thing entirely to have them defined in front of white people. In my examples, perhaps the 50-year-old job seeker has a college-grad child who wouldn’t fit in with the group interviewers, either. Or maybe the birth-parent seeker feels that he’s  been protected or insulated from certain harsher realities of the world.

As writers, we often resist thinking about character and plot at such a schematic level, but in any story—but especially a novel—this sort of clarity is often required to keep the plot from running out of steam. If you know the mechanics of the plot, you can manipulate them to keep the plot running.

Good luck!

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