Tag Archives: New Yorker

An Interview with Sarah Smarsh

13 Aug
Sarah Smarsh is a Kansas native whose essay,

Sarah Smarsh is a Kansas native whose essay, “Pride, Poverty, and Prejudice in Kansas” examines the relationship of political power and poverty.

Sarah Smarsh is a Kansas-born journalist, public speaker and educator. Her writing has appeared in Harper’s, The Believer, Creative Nonfiction, The Guardian, Guernica, and The New Yorker. Her forthcoming book, In the Red, combines memoir, literary reportage, and social analysis to examine the life of poor and working-class Americans as seen through the lens of Smarsh’s own turbulent upbringing in rural Kansas.

To read Smarsh’s New Yorker essay “Poverty, Pride, and Prejudice in Kansas” and an exercise on raising the level of analysis in an essay, click here.

In this interview, Smarsh discusses strategies for beginning essays, the challenge of explaining complex and technical material, and the delicate balance of writing truthfully and respectfully about family.

Michael Noll

I love the way this essay begins, with the story of a vandalized ATM that you encountered in Italy. It’s vivid stuff, but it’s also from 2001 and set in Europe; the essay that follows explains a 2015 Kansas law. This makes me curious how you approached the problem of introducing this essay. It’s about a law, which means you’re tasked with explaining something dry and convoluted. Did you sense that, without some striking imagery at the beginning, readers might not follow you through the details of the law?

Sarah Smarsh

Thank you for the good words.

The essay’s opening isn’t quite what journalists call an “anecdotal lede,” starting with a quick story to humanize an issue and grab the reader’s attention. But while nothing happens in the opening, the image has the tangible components of a real person interacting with an environment in a way that is metaphorically rather than directly tied to the story’s news component. As poets and photographers know, a poignant, true image cuts as deep into the psyche as story. When I was a nonfiction professor I’d do close-reads of essays with students and then have them close their eyes. I’d ask them to picture the contents of the essay, write down the first image that came to mind, and then go around the room reading their answers. Almost every time, most answers were the same; some visual had been most searing for everyone.

The bloody ATM jumped into my mind after I started working on the essay. I’d thought of it a few times in the past fourteen years, but it was deep in my memory files. At first I wasn’t sure why or how it was relevant, but I trusted that if my brain had made the connection, readers’ would too. I researched the political protest that was cause for the ATM’s vandalization, and it turned out to involve the Bank of Rome funding the arms trade. A long leap from welfare allocation in Kansas! In an early draft I referenced that bit of global economic history to demonstrate the power of banks—they control not just poor people’s pocketbooks but international warfare. But what was more relevant to the essay was why the image had stayed with me: my relationship to the ATM as a cold, inhuman middle-man between me and scarce money, as Kansas legislators now stand between poor citizens and their funds.

I could have opened with a modern-day image of a Kansas welfare recipient at an ATM, but I was more interested in digging into the symbol of what these machines represent to us as a culture. (My editor wisely struck from the piece an overwrought description, “robotic foot soldiers for plutocrats,” which I’m happy to exhume here.) One of my favorite things about nonfiction is that one needn’t contrive or strategize real-life metaphors. They materialize on their own, from the actual, if you’re paying attention.

Michael Noll

The details of the law pretty complex: understanding them requires understanding not just the wording of the law but several types of financial transactions: ATM fees and food stamps. Explaining this stuff would seem to require a skill set that is completely different from those used to describe animal guts smeared on an ATM. How did you convey the basic info about the law and the transactions to readers who likely have only casual knowledge of such things?

Sarah Smarsh

Writing what I like to think of as literary nonfiction about wonkish topics takes a lot of work because I myself only have casual knowledge of them before I dig into the research. This essay had about thirty footnotes linking to public documents for the New Yorker’s fact-checkers, and I consider this light work since I didn’t conduct interviews (though I did make a few calls to verify this or that). In that process, one can get hung up in red tape very easily. Having reported on municipalities, laws, cops, public schools and other bureaucracies from hell for many years, I’m confident that some of that confusion is by design; in this piece, for example, I had to consult several state sources to figure out what private financial company holds a contract to administer welfare funds, since its umbrella corporation has factions and subsidiaries legally referred to by different names. Once I have the info, though, I have a pretty easy time describing it. What would I need to know in order to understand the gist? Whatever the answer is for me, it’s the same for the reader. A harder task is knowing where to stop. An earlier version of the ATM piece had a sizable tangent on the rise of electronic debit cards in public assistance programs, along with numbers from other states demonstrating the enormous amount of public money that now ends up as private-bank fees.

You’re right, though, that two different writerly sensibilities are in play with this and many of my essays. I remember attending an Investigative Reporters & Editors conference in New York in 2000 when I had an internship in the news unit of the NBC affiliate there, and being struck by how razor-like the reporters’ minds were in cutting straight to one particular narrative within a story. My brain is more of an artsy-fartsy thing that relishes how everything is connected to everything. I like to juxtapose and suggest expansive ideas rather than directly explain hard facts. Maybe my upbringing is why I can put on a reporter hat all the same. It was not an environment that indulged in daydreaming and philosophizing. “Cut the bullshit and get to the point,” my grandma might say.

Michael Noll

I’m a huge fan of James Baldwin, and so I was happy to see the reference to him later in the essay. I was also surprised. You make a jump from the specifics of the law to a broader discussion of the particular costs of poverty. Did you always know that such a widening of the essay’s frame would happen, or did you stumble upon it during the writing process?

Sarah Smarsh

When an editor asked me to weigh in on the new law, it had already been covered elsewhere. I knew right away that what I could offer that other stories hadn’t was a big-picture understanding of why this abstract discourse about laws and ethics might matter to a woman living in poverty—how a policy plays out at the ground, and even how it feels to be affected. I’m careful to not speak for anyone but myself, but yes, I immediately saw the law as springboard to a broader experience rarely represented first-hand in the media.

Michael Noll

At the end of the essay, you describe your childhood experience of using a free-lunch card in school and how embarrassed you were. You also mention at the beginning of the essay that your family was eligible for welfare but, out of pride, didn’t apply for it. This gets at a tricky part of writing about family and, more broadly, experiences that you share with others. How you do you accurately write about stories that may still evoke strong emotion, even embarrassment, in others while respecting their feelings?

Sarah Smarsh

Sarah Smarsh wrote about the prevalence of poor dental care in impoverished families and the shame it brings in middle-class society.

In her essay, “Poor Teeth,” Sarah Smarsh wrote about the prevalence of poor dental care in impoverished families and the shame it brings in middle-class society.

However simple and factual a statement, so much context often is missing by necessity of length or keeping momentum. My family didn’t apply for benefits out of pride, yes, but probably for a lot of other reasons—lack of information or access and so on. We also managed to be employed in manual and service labor; what if we hadn’t had those skills or the health to perform them? Regardless, we might have made a comparable income—when factoring in income tax—on public assistance, but to us that was unthinkable. When I was writing the story, my grandma confided in me that she had in fact received public benefits in the 1960s. That was long before I was born and Reagan started yapping about “welfare queens,” but it’s still a small piece of my family’s survival story. I then wrote the following, that didn’t make the cut in the final piece:

To suggest that recipients would be able to splurge under such constraints even if they wanted to is to cast every impoverished Kansan as the dastardly welfare queen of lore. This sneer from the capital is not lost on the poor, who in my considerable research would rather have a job with a living wage than a “handout.” Only as I was discussing this story with her did my grandmother—who, like myself and our whole family spent much of her life doing manual labor, juggling at least two jobs and turning clever frugality into a satisfying art form—admit that she briefly went on the dole as a teenage mother with a newborn to feed in the early 1960s, when her abusive husband went AWOL from the Army and their military payments stopped. “I’m ashamed to say it,” she told me. She only took assistance for a few weeks after giving birth; then she fled her husband for another state and went—by grit and by choice—off welfare and onto a factory floor. There, she made enough to pay for rent, baby formula, gas to get to work and a babysitter who lived in her apartment building with padlocks on the doors. With what remained, she calculated, the most filling meal available was a frozen chicken pot pie, and she ate exactly one per day for months—a story I share not to tug heartstrings but to demonstrate the resilience and ingenuity of people so often categorized as “lazy.” Where I’m from, there is no more hurtful word, and to demoralize our poorest citizens, as the new welfare-restrictions does, is not just bad form but bad economic strategy.

Since I was writing about my family as I was growing up, it’s accurate to say my family “didn’t apply,” but there’s a bit more to the story. I accept these limitations of writing as we all must—you will never write the whole story, I used to tell students—but I try to include brushstrokes that suggest whatever nuance I don’t have room to describe at length.

Nuance is often at the heart of a subject’s experience in reading a piece. I’ve been written about only a handful of times, and I know it’s not an easy thing. I always try to put myself in my subjects’ shoes and consider their experience as important as my own—especially when it comes to matters as sensitive as class. But I think there’s a way to go right at the truth, however painful and ugly, and still respect all involved. I try to do that by writing from a place of “we” rather than “me” and “them”—not just in matters of family but politics and all else.

Clear communication with people about the contents and intentions behind a piece of writing goes a long way in softening the experience of being turned into subjects or characters. I messed up on that once as a young writer doing a cover story for an alt-weekly, and though the story was factual, it was unnecessarily traumatic for the subjects (and, thereby, since these things matter to me very much, for me). Sometimes investigative reporting requires sly maneuvering for the sake of revealing corruption or being a “watch dog” for democracy. Even with more personal stories I’d never share a draft for someone to review. But my writing often intersects with vulnerable populations—say, a teacher who could get fired for sharing her opinion or a guy whose small-town banker could turn him down for a loan because he talked to me about his poverty. So I try to be as upfront as possible about what’s going down with a story.

At the most personal level, I tell my family about writing projects that mention them and give them an opportunity to say, “no.” I’m grateful that they never have. They aren’t a crew that’s sitting around offices reading online think pieces, and perhaps I could let publications slip by without their knowledge, but I offer to share them. They don’t always read them, which is perfectly fine, but I want them to know there’s this thing in the world that has appropriated, channeled and hopefully honored their energy. I would never not write something that felt essential to me because someone told me to keep my trap shut. But something that leaves a loved one vulnerable without her blessing will never be essential to me.

Occasionally something I write stings them, and that’s probably inevitable. Last winter I told my grandma that an essay I wrote about dental health as class signifier was on some fancy best-of-the-year lists. She said, “Well, I guess now the whole world knows I have false teeth.”

In this ATM piece, I describe myself as “the first member of my household to finish ninth grade.” My mom told me she was “taken aback” reading this, as she left school after eleventh grade and got her G.E.D. I explained that I was describing my grandparents, with whom I lived permanently from age 11 to 17, though I often spent weekends and summers with my mom. In a family and class where “household” can be complicated, to me that grandparents’ farm unequivocally was my “household,” with a grandpa who quit school after sixth grade to work the family farm and a grandma who left in ninth grade to wait tables. “I know, but people won’t know that,” Mom said. And she’s right; most readers would assume I was talking about my parents.

Furthermore, the sentence, while accurate and succinctly effective in conveying my life experience to readers, does a disservice to my grandparents; in the seventies my grandma got a government grant to attend “business college” and admirably worked her way into the Wichita court system, where she served as a probation officer for many years. Most readers probably picture a very different person when they picture a “high school dropout.” Meanwhile, my mom had her IQ tested when I was a kid, and it’s statistically probable that she’s considerably smarter than the vast majority of New Yorker readers.

Mom, it turns out, didn’t care about the majority of readers. She cared about her close friends, all former co-workers in the real-estate industry, who might click the story from my Facebook page and think she left high school at an earlier grade than she did, or that she’d been a poor student, or that she’d not actually gotten her G.E.D. She’d just been through the most harrowing, near-death cancer battle of her life, so knowing I’d written something she found misleading and painful was brutal. I asked the New Yorker if we could tweak the sentence, but it would’ve required some hullabaloo, potentially including an asterisked explanation of why the change was made. Mom had said not to make a fuss, so I offered to instead provide public clarification somewhere in the future. Thanks for the opportunity to do that here. This is the only time in the course of many thousands of words written about my family that a small quibble has arisen, so I’d like to think we’re doing pretty good.

There’s a famous book by Janet Malcolm about these things, and I got to ask her some questions once in New York. She’s a goddess on earth who rightfully tired of having this line referenced twenty years ago, but I disagree with her provocative opening statement about a journalist’s work being morally indefensible. A blanket statement that journalism is inherently jacked-up strikes me as a dangerous carte blanche for those tempted to use their subjects in callous ways. Welp, regardless of how I conduct myself, journalism is shady, so might as well trot this starving child out for a Pulitzer and then hit the road back to New York! For me the ethical quality of a piece of writing falls along a continuum like any other human action. In my experience, the care you put into it is never lost.

Michael Noll

Here’s a political question: The essay is about a controversial law in Kansas, a state where the governor has introduced all sorts of controversial legislation. He’s now massively unpopular, and yet I’m not sure what will happen in the next election. In the recent past, when Republican governors and candidates have veered too far to the right, Kansans have elected Democrats (Joan Finney and Kathleen Sebelius). But, this is a state that has a long history of political extremism and a Democratic party without any infrastructure. I’m curious how you’d read the state’s political tea leaves. Do you think it will move back toward centrist politics? Or are there enough voters with an extremist conservative ideology to keep pushing the state further to the right?

Sarah Smarsh

Brownback enacted his far-right policies in his first term and managed to get re-elected in a close race. He is uber-conservative for ideological reasons that appeal to some voters, and his very wealthy supporters in Kansas are uber-conservative for fiscal reasons that by most economic estimations hurt voters. That has been a perfect storm for pushing state policies destructively far to the right.

Out on the streets in Kansas, though, as in all places, you’ll find a diverse spectrum of political views not represented by the stories out of our infamous legislature. Historically that sort of divide between people and government leads to an extremely pissed-off populism. Pissed-off populism is what Kansas was founded on, in fact; the state’s early years were all about abolition, women’s rights, workers’ rights.

I’m a good enough student of Kansas and life to know there’s no predicting where state politics will go. But there are many new bipartisan movements and organizations afoot within the state that share a goal of repairing and preserving Kansas’s historically good outcomes in health, education and other public systems. Kansans are switching parties, getting involved in ways they’ve never been. Our former insurance commissioner, elected as a Republican, boldly fought on behalf of the Affordable Care Act in an extremely inhospitable administration. For all their Midwestern reserve, and whether they got themselves into this mess or not, Kansans are pissed off. I’m a fifth-generation Kansas farm kid and can tell you this: My grandpa didn’t blow up very often, but when he did, you’d better run like hell.

August 2015

Michael Noll Michael Noll is the Editor of Read to Write Stories.

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How to Raise the Level of Analysis in an Essay

11 Aug
Sarah Smarsh's essay, "Poverty, Pride, and Prejudice in Kansas," about legislation that would limit the amount that welfare recipients can withdraw from ATM machines appeared in The New Yorker.

Sarah Smarsh’s essay, “Poverty, Pride, and Prejudice in Kansas,” about legislation that would limit the amount that food stamp recipients can withdraw from ATM machines appeared in The New Yorker.

We enjoy a wealth of choices for news and analysis because of online magazines, which is good for readers (more niche writing and unexpected angles) and good for writers (more opportunities for publication). However, the abundance of cultural, political, and social analysis has changed our expectations for analysis. It’s not enough to report the facts or make an insightful point. The best essays make a kind of Malcolm-Gladwell leap that moves from close-frame analysis (what is happening right here, in this specific instance) to the big picture. Many writers attempt this leap but with mixed results. There is an entire genre of essay, for example, that critiques the peculiar, occasionally insightful, occasionally offensive leaps made by New York Times columnist David Brooks.

An example of a truly insightful, carefully considered leap can be found in Sarah Smarsh’s essay “Poverty, Pride, and Prejudice in Kansas.” It was published in The New Yorker where you can read it now.

How the Essay Works

The essay explains a complicated piece of legislation recently signed by Kansas state legislators. The bill would cap ATM withdrawals by welfare recipients to twenty-five dollars a day. Smarsh does a nice job of providing financial and political context for the bill: why it was passed, other restrictions attached to it, and a primer on the complicated relationship between ATM transaction fees and government contracts.  This is the “report the facts” aspect of the essay, and after it’s accomplished, Smarsh makes a leap:

As James Baldwin wrote (and as much research being published during this moment of historic wealth inequality demonstrates), it is expensive to be poor.

The leap is a logical one, from the specifics of ATM use by the poor to other expenses they encounter. But it’s also a political and sociological leap, as Smarsh makes clear in the rest of the passage:

There are the overdraft fees, the maintenance costs of ramshackle houses and cars, the credit-card debt accrued for necessities that low wages don’t cover, the interest paid on loans for college educations. Poverty’s highest costs are often psychological ones, though, borne by the neurochemistry of stress and by sociopolitical values that equate financial failures with moral ones. Laws creating barriers between impoverished families and public assistance intended for food and shelter represent a particular form of contempt for the poor—we’ll help you, these measures suggest, but we won’t trust you with that help. And they are imposed in the pall of hypocrisy and self-interest.

She moves from practical difficulties to psychological ones, putting the bill into a larger context, arguing that it’s only one manifestation of the overwhelming contempt that many Americans have for the poor.

Smarsh supports this shift in argument in two ways. First, she offers a quote from the Washington Post that makes a very similar point. Then, she tells two personal anecdotes, one from her experience working for a Kansas social-service agency and another from her childhood, when her family qualified for free and reduced school lunch. It’s this support (from other writers and from direct experience) that make the leap in analysis work. The biggest complaint about David Brooks’ essays in the Times is that they seem to exist in a vacuum, disconnected from fact or observation. But Smarsh has made a leap that she can tether to reality, and it makes her argument that much more powerful.

The Writing Exercise

Let’s make a leap of analysis in an essay using “Poverty, Pride, and Prejudice in Kansas” by Sarah Smarsh as a model:

  1. Report the facts. No matter the kind of nonfiction, whether it’s a personal essay or reportage, the foundation for the entire piece is hard information. This happened. The facts may not appear in the essay’s first paragraph, as shown by Smarsh’s essay. But they hold the entire structure together. To keep from getting lost in them (which isn’t easy, in personal stories and in complex explanations of financial transactions), summarize the facts in a line or two. The New Yorker actually does this in its photo caption: “In Kansas, a pending cap on A.T.M withdrawals for welfare recipients is the state legislature’s latest exhibition of scorn for low-income residents.” Notice the structure: fact + context. In this case, the context is a kind of philosophy or attitude. But it could be any sort of context. We do this in personal stories all the time: Oh, that’s just how he is. So, quickly summarize your facts and the context that seems most important to understand them.
  2. Make the leap. Context can guide you. We just established that Smarsh’s context is that the legislation is the latest episode in a long history of scorn for the poor in Kansas. So, it makes sense to leap from there: so what if the Kansas legislature doesn’t care about poor people? Smarsh answers that question by telling us something we might not know: the paradoxical truth that it’s expensive to be poor and that these expenses exact a psychological toll. As a result, the legislation actually adds to the stress that poor families bear. You can think about the leap as a kind of direct address to the reader: You might be tempted to think about these initial facts like this, but if you know this, then you’ll see things differently. So, to make the leap, consider the readers’ perspectives, what they’ll likely think. Then, ask yourself what piece of information might disrupt that belief or perspective. Because you’re offering a new way of thinking about the facts, the leap may involve a kind of philosophical shift.
  3. Back up your leap. Don’t be David Brooks, making grand pronouncements without evidence. Once you’ve disrupted the readers’ view of the essay’s facts, prove that the new perspective you’re offering is supported by reality. Use expert quotes, stats, or facts. Use personal experience and anecdotes. Ground the reader’s new way of thinking. Tether it to something hard and heavy so that it doesn’t float away after the readers walk away from the essay.

Good luck.

An Interview with Justin Taylor

6 Aug
Justin Taylor is the author of three books, most recently the story collection Flings.

Justin Taylor is the author of three books, most recently the story collection Flings.

Justin Taylor is the author of the story collection Everything Here Is the Best Thing Ever and the novel The Gospel of Anarchy. He lives in New York City and co-edits the arts journal Agriculture Reader. His most recent book is the story collection, Flings.

To read Taylor’s story “So You’re Just What, Gone?” and an exercise on digging into a scene, click here.

In this interview, Taylor discusses the moral universes of stories, creating bombs and aftershocks in fiction, and his testing process for writing characters’ text messages.

Michael Noll

One of the writer-sayings from workshop is that a story should walk characters through danger doors–situations that put them at risk. This story does a terrific job of that. First, Charity is seated next to a pervy older man on a plane. Then, he gives her his number. Then he invites her to meet him. As empathetic humans, we don’t want Charity to go along with any of this, but as readers, of course, we want her to choose poorly since it makes a better story. Given all of this, I’m curious about how you approached the ending. She has the opportunity to meet Mark but talks herself out of it—with some help from his aggressive behavior. I love this ending, but I’m also curious if, in early drafts, Charity ever met Mark as he asks? How did you know when to put an end to the chain of bad events?

Justin Taylor

I’ve never heard that expression before—“danger doors.” It reminds me of old-school video games, specifically those colored bulbs in the original Metroid or the ante-chamber to the boss room that you’d find in any given Mega Man. Anyway, to answer your question, there are no drafts in which Charity meets up with Mark. To me, the story is about Charity’s inner life, her self-perception, particularly with regard to questions of age and maturity. To me, the major conflict of the story is between the part of her that still feels young—like a daughter, like a child—and the part of her that craves independence, wants to grow up faster. Mark’s intentions are predatory, but he’s not a very effective predator. Charity’s autonomy and safety are never truly put at risk. The public space of the airplane, and later the distance of the phone, conspire to place a concrete limit on the damage that Mark can do, and that’s because the story is far less interested in what he wants from her, than in what she thinks about it. In the moral universe of this story, questionable choices (and/or the mere fact of being an adolescent girl) are not understood as debts to be repaid through suffering. Mark’s impatience and his demands are somewhere between the ravings of a tyrant and the tantrum of a child. To hook up with someone like that would be to cede the very independence she’s been fighting for, and as soon as she sees that, she’s repulsed. That in mind, I wanted to end the story with Charity on her own, to reinforce that this is not a “him and her” story, but just hers—he was just this weird interlude in her life, like a bottle episode on a TV show, where it doesn’t quite connect back to the main arc of the season. That’s how I came back to the aquarium: she’s on her own, and doing exactly what she wants to do. It may be that the most dangerous thing you can do with a teenager is pay her the same respect that you would someone your own age. That, to me, is the main “danger door” the story walks through.

Michael Noll

Justin Taylor's story, "So You're Just What, Gone?" appeared in The New Yorker.

Justin Taylor’s story, “So You’re Just What, Gone?” appeared in The New Yorker.

I’m interested in the pacing of the story. It begins with a long scene aboard the plane that occupies about 1/3 of the story, and in that long scene, we’re introduced to the character and the plot (will Charity call the guy?), but I can also imagine a workshop teacher suggesting that it all get condensed to a paragraph, which sounds right in theory but, of course, would have been terrible advice. How did you keep that scene going without losing tension?

Justin Taylor

You cannot condense those pages into a paragraph. They are, as you have said, 1/3 of the whole story, and therefore are doing 1/3 of the work. That scene establishes Charity’s psychology through her perceptions of the world around her, her relationship with her mother and various other establishing and background details. Maybe most important of all, it builds up mood. When Mark assaults her, that mood is (hopefully) shattered. I wanted his change in tone and behavior to feel like a bomb going off in the story, and then for the rest of the story to sort of reverberate with the aftershocks of that blast.

Michael Noll

The story contains some extended text conversations. Do you approach those any differently than you would spoken dialogue?

Justin Taylor

I tried to write my texts the way most people actually text—the language clipped, the punctuation light or absent—but mostly I wanted to be true to the characters themselves. They should sound less like “a person texting” than like the people who they each actually are. Charity, for example, is a more deliberate texter than Mark is. There are a couple places where he runs two sentences together in a hash of unpunctuated shorthand (“Cmon sumthing to look fwd to ur teasing me bad here”) whereas she bothers herself to put a comma in the middle of “Pajamas I guess, like a shirt”. She also prefers “you” to Mark’s “u,” though at the end of the conversation she adopts his style, possibly because she wants something from him—“Will u send one back?” Originally, I wanted Mark to be borderline incoherent, because I liked the idea that he was this rabid bro falling all over himself, but then I did some test-runs with my own phone’s autocorrect and saw that it tended to save him from the worst of himself. Overall the punctuation is pretty true to an iPhone 5, though I took a few liberties, such as the un-capitalized “I”, which reads like hasty texting but in real life could only be the result of extra effort, because the phone would always fix it for you unless you stopped it from doing so. Also, “Now were talking.” The phone has enough grammar to know that you meant “we’re” in that sentence. Or anyway mine does. But it’s also true that autocorrect learns from usage, so it’s at least plausible that Mark’s phone wouldn’t make that fix. Also—and I know I’m giving away the depth of my own insanity here—I originally had Mark using “2” for “to” but I eventually realized that while 2 is faster on a computer keyboard, on a phone screen it takes several extra touches to get over to the number screen and then to get back. So he wouldn’t do that.

Michael Noll

The story is about a 15-year-old girl’s sexual encounter with a 30-ish man. It’s a story in a similar vein as Lolita, and when that novel was published, a lot of early reviews claimed that the young girl had somehow entrapped or seduced Humbert Humbert. The reviewers were, it seems, reading Lolita as older than she was because of the way she was viewed by the narrator. In your story, did you worry that the reader would somehow forget that Charity, because she’s interacting semi-sexually with an older man, is only 15? Did you build in reminders of her age?

Justin Taylor

I don’t see how you could forget Charity’s age—the story is entirely defined by it. She’s only on this trip in the first place because her mother thought she was too young to stay home alone. Plus there’s her homework, her friends back home, the presence of her mother and grandmother, and Mark’s own word choice with regard to her. Lolita is 12 years old when the novel begins, and is literally kidnapped by a murderer. If she can be said to eventually “seduce” Humbert, it’s only in the sense that a captive figures out how to “seduce” her captor. I think Nabokov himself is very clear about this, even if the critics haven’t always been—most of the book doesn’t make any sense without this element, and the ending certainly doesn’t. Charity’s problems aren’t nearly as grave—she has a lot more power than Lolita, and she’s older. Not “older than her years” (which is what all abusers of children tell themselves—it’s a fantasy of permission) but old enough to understand the world, and the body, she inhabits. To the extent that, as I said before, the story places superlative value on Charity’s capacity for self-determination, it would have to respect her decision to hook up with him just as much as it does her decision not to. She doesn’t cut him off because she suddenly realizes he’s too old for her—that was the main thing that made him attractive in the first place. She cuts him off because he’s a creepy scumbag, which to me is a better reason. Adolescence comes and goes, but a well-tuned creep-detector is something you carry with you through life.

August 2015

Michael Noll Michael Noll is the Editor of Read to Write Stories.

How to Dig Deeper into a Scene

4 Aug
Justin Taylor's story, "So You're Just What, Gone?" appeared in The New Yorker.

Justin Taylor’s story, “So You’re Just What, Gone?” appeared in The New Yorker.

If there’s anything I’ve learned as a writer, it’s that I tend to create a potentially interesting scene and then exit it too quickly. I don’t think I’m alone. Because stories value compression, it’s natural to compress everything, all of the time. But the best moments in a scene don’t always arrive immediately. To reach them, you must dig deeper into the scene to discover what’s inside.

Justin Taylor’s story, “So You’re Just What, Gone?” starts with a long scene that ends with a great, tense, plot-driving moment. It was published in The New Yorker, where you can read it now.

How the Story Works

The story’s opening lines set the scene:

It’s one of those airlines where you get your seat assignment at the gate, and they’re late to Logan and slow to get through security, so the lady at the counter can’t seat Charity and her mom together. Which means five-plus hours of freedom—hallelujah!

Charity is fifteen years old, and so, of course, the story makes her sit next to this guy:

When the guy appears, he’s older, way older—like thirty, maybe. He wears leather sandals and a powder-blue slim-cut dress shirt, untucked and with the sleeves rolled. When he lifts his black backpack up into the overhead compartment, Charity finds herself staring straight into his exposed navel, a bulging outie like a blind gold eye in his belly, which was waxed at some point and is now stubbled, like a face. The top of his boxers peeks up above the waist of what Charity just so happens to recognize as three-hundred-dollar True Religion jeans.

This is the point where it would be tempting to dive directly into conflict and, then, end the scene. But that’s not what Taylor does. He’s got a potentially tense situation, and he milks it.

First, he flirts with her a bit, mildly, but the flirtation ends quickly when he becomes absorbed in a newspaper. Next, Charity falls asleep and wakes to find that she’s been resting her head on the man’s shoulder. Then, they stand up at the same time to use the restroom, and when they return, talk a bit until this moment:

“I’m Mark,” he says. “What’s your name?”

“Charity.”

“Charity. That’s pretty.”

She can feel her cheeks warming. “I don’t know.”

“No, really. It is. You are.”

“O.K. I mean, thank you. Thanks.”

He gives her his number, and then this happens:

He palms her inner thigh and squeezes it, two pumps, the second one a hard one, his wrist digging against the crotch of her jeans.

“Call me when you get bored, Charity,” he says.

To arrive at this moment has taken almost a third of the story. We’re not stunned at this turn of events because it was suggested by their proximity to each other. But, we are creeped out. Taylor has slowly led us to the man’s hand on Charity’s thigh, giving the scene space to steadily make us more uncomfortable. So, how did he do it?

The situation (young girl, older man) presents an obvious narrative arc. Rather than rushing to that ending, Taylor picks a series of moments to depict along the way, inching us closer and closer to the inevitable end. They’re small moments: minor flirtations and incidental physical contact, but because we suspect where this is headed, each moment is charged. That charge is the reason we savor the scene.

The Writing Exercise

Let’s dig into a scene using “So You’re Just What, Gone?” by Justin Taylor as a model:

  1. Identify the situation and a natural narrative arc. This is something you may do after you’ve written a rough draft of the scene, simply because we don’t often know what’s going on until we’re in the thick of it. So, state the situation as clearly and succinctly as possible (teenage girl sat next to pervy man on plane). Then, consider in what direction the scene could naturally move (man hits on girl). The genius of many scenes is not that they do the unexpected but, rather, that the expected thing is so dramatic and tense. In a horror movie, when a character walks into the dark alone, we know what’s going to happen. It’s the wait that thrills us. So, figure out where you’re going with the scene.
  2. Brainstorm points along the arc. What large or small moments might occur before the scene’s end? Taylor’s moments are both large (she falls asleep on the man) and small (he lets her by to use the restroom). What matters is that each encounter builds on the previous one. Richard Ford once said that stories make impossible things possible. In this story, Taylor allows the characters to become comfortable enough with each other that the man’s hand can move to the girl’s thigh. The man wouldn’t do this immediately. Seduction (or at least familiarity) is needed. How can you show the steps required to allow your ending to occur?
  3. Build mini-scenes around each point. Each moment in Taylor’s scene is not long. The moment when Charity awake with her head on the man’s shoulder is only a few paragraphs. Each moment has its own small arc—its own increasing tension. So, in each of your mini-scenes, think about how you can ratchet up the tension, even a little. How can each mini-scene end with more tension than it began?

Good luck.

How to Find a Plot (and Humor) with Repetition

11 Mar
Teddy Wayne's humor piece, "On the Internet, Nobody Knows You're a Human Who's Turned Into a Dog," appeared in the Shouts and Murmers Section of the New Yorker. Wayne is the author of two novels and many fictions like this one.

Teddy Wayne’s story, “On the Internet, Nobody Knows You’re a Human Who’s Turned Into a Dog,” appeared in “Shouts and Murmurs” in The New Yorker. Wayne is the author of two novels, most recently The Love Song of Jonny Valentine.

When working with plot, we tend to think forward: what happens next? But sometimes that’s the wrong question. Occasionally, we should think of plot as if we’re telling knock-knock jokes to a 4-year-old. You finish one, the kid shouts, “Again, again,” and you ask yourself, “How can I possibly tell another?”

Comedy writers understand this question perhaps better than anyone. Repetition is part of the genre. The challenge often becomes about how long the writer can stay with an idea.

Teddy Wayne uses this kind of repetition in his story, “On the Internet, Nobody Knows You’re a Human Who’s Turned Into a Dog.” It appeared in The New Yorker‘s “Shouts and Murmurs” section, where you can read it now.

How the Story Works

When we break the story down by its sections, it’s clear how Wayne is repeating and modifying the same idea. Here is each section, summarized:

  1. States the premise (transformed into a dog) and the medium (Facebook).
  2. Introduces a problem with the medium: People “like” things without reading them, forcing the narrator to restate the fact that he’s turned into a dog.
  3. Introduces another problem with the medium (People expect to laugh at Facebook posts), which causes a problem for the narrator because they be laughing while he starves to death.
  4. Introduces another problem with the medium: Facebook moves on without you.
  5. Introduces another problem with the medium: Facebook attachments are weak, and so people will unfriend you if you ask too much of them.
  6. Begins to accept the limitations of the premise: The narrator’s a dog, and he won’t try to fight it.
  7. Accepts the medium: The narrator posts about non-dog topics.
  8. Fully accepts the premise: The narrator becomes a dog in mind as well as body.
  9. The payoff: The narrator finds a way to make dog life work for him and deactivates his Facebook account.

This summary reveals the clothesline that the funny stuff has been hung from. Without this structure, the writer doesn’t have the space to riff.

So, how does this structure work?

While Wayne seems to be writing about a single idea (dog transformation), he’s actually writing about two ideas: dog transformation and Facebook. It’s the latter that turns out to be the most important. If you reread the piece, you’ll see that the narrator repeats the dog premise over and over without many changes. The dog stays in the house. What changes, then, is his reaction to the limitations and problems posed by Facebook. (This is similar to what Will Ferrell does in his famous Saturday Night Live skit about the man grilling at a backyard party and yelling at his kids to get off the shed. The premise doesn’t change: the kids stay on the shed. What changes is Ferrell’s reaction to the medium: his inability to shout loudly or angrily enough to get his kids’ attention.)

As a result, the story is less about a guy turning into a dog than it is about trying—and failing—to communicate something important via Facebook. The story is funny, though, because it’s about a guy who’s turned into a dog. If it was a cry for help from someone with a more realistic problem, the story might become a tragedy, not a comedy.

The Writing Exercise

Let’s create a structure for a comic story, such as often appears in “Shouts and Murmurs,” that focuses on repetition. We’ll use Teddy Wayne’s story “On the Internet, Nobody Knows You’re a Human Who’s Turned Into a Dog” as a model:

  1. Find a premise. Your character discovers something that needs to be communicated. The premise can be absurd (man turned into a dog) or realistic (kids climbing on a forbidden shed). What’s important is making the need to communicate urgent.
  2. Find a medium. You need a method to communicate: phone, Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat, yelling, cup and string, Morse code, tapping on the prison wall, the “telephone” game of speaking across a chain of people.
  3. Brainstorm the limitations or expectations of the medium. Will Ferrell was limited by the distance between the grill and the shed. Wayne’s dog is limited by the ways that people interact with Facebook. The story’s tension (and humor) are produced by the ways that the medium is ill designed for the premise that must be communicated.
  4. Isolate and challenge those limitations. You can do this in real time (the character tries to communicate but fails) or as a reaction to what happened (character tries again after failing, as Wayne’s dog does). You can introduce new limitations, one after another. Or, you can let the character challenge the same limitation in increasingly strenuous ways (as Ferrell does in his skit). In this case (or, perhaps, both), the tension and humor result from the ways that the attempts to communicate push against ideas of acceptable behavior in the society in which the story takes place.
  5. Undermine or negate the premise. As your character challenges the medium through which he/she is trying to communicate, the tension will rise with each challenge until a logical endpoint appears: the character will ultimately succeed in communicating or fail and suffer the consequences. Once that end presents itself, set it aside. That’s not the ending for you. Instead, you want to surprise the reader. This is often done by undermining the premise. Ferrell wrote many “Get off the shed” skits, and, in most of them, his kids walk up and he realizes that he’s been yelling at the wrong people for no reason. Thus, all of his shouting has accomplished nothing and been for naught—except our entertainment. In Wayne’s story, the dog makes a fortune off of his story and deactivates his Facebook account so that he can get some work done on the film script. Thus, in both examples, what was urgent turns out not to have been so urgent. So, think about your premise: what would make it not urgent? What would make it cease to be a premise? You’ll come up with some obvious answers and some less obvious ones. Play with them to see which is the funniest.

Remember, your goal is to create a structure to riff within. The structure is essential to the humor, but it’s not funny in and of itself. The way that you play within it will be the source of the humor.

Good luck!

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