Tag Archives: specific details

How to Portray a Relationship with One Well-Chosen Detail

17 Nov
One of the last pieces that Michelle Serros ever published appeared in Huizache, a journal dedicated to Latino Literature.

Michele Serros was a groundbreaking Latina writer from Los Angeles who recently passed away. Her essay, “A Bedtime Story,” appeared in Huizache, a journal dedicated to Latino Literature.

It’s probably not surprising that good writing avoids abstraction. But abstraction doesn’t only mean terms like justice or goodness. For example, take a relationship or a marriage. We talk about these things as if they are as actual and real as, say, a gala apple, but that isn’t quite true. When you see a relationship, you see two people. When the relationship seems to be going well, or when it’s headed south, that judgement is based on various cues that we pick up—and those cues often involve specific behaviors or conversations, not generalizations about the relationship as a whole. As a result, when writing about not-quite-tangible details like a marriage, it’s useful to replace something complex with something simple.

This is exactly what Michelle Serros did in her essay, “A Bedtime Story.” It was published in Huizache, where you can read it now.

How the Essay Works

The essay gets straight to the point, connecting the relationship to something specific:

A week into our marriage, I insisted to my new husband that we buy a new bed, immediately. Two older couples we both highly respected, Happily Married 20 Years and Happily Married 38 1/2 Years, advised us that there wasn’t just one secret in keeping a marriage happy, but rather two: a good refrigerator and a good bed.

This move immediately makes writing about this marriage much easier. For example, rather than Serros trying to describe the dynamics of her marriage, she can show us how she and her husband felt about this most-important part of their marriage. For example, details that might not mean much suddenly become potentially quite meaningful, like this:

As a newly married couple with individual credit card debt, there was no way my husband and I were going to shell out four digits for a so-called good mattress.

Also, rather than showing all the ways that the marriage begins to deteriorate (which might be many and too complex for an essay), Serros is able to use that single detail to convey the entirety of the marriage’s problems:

Six months later, during the summer solstice rotation, the arguing continued.
“Why do you always give me the heavier side?” I complained.
“The heavier side?” my husband smirked. “There isn’t no heavier side. It’s a mattress. It’s the same all around.”
“You’re not even holding up your end!” I accused him.
“I am totally carrying my side. You’re the one letting it drop. God, you’re so antagonistic!”

In case we’re beginning to grow suspicious of the neatness of the bed-as-metaphor, Serros gives us reason not to worry:

My husband and I slowly discovered that even between each solstice we had many non-mattress rotation issues to argue over.

Serros has managed to write about something as complex as a marriage using an image that anyone can easily see.

The Writing Exercise

Let’s replace an abstraction with a specific detail, using “A Bedtime Story” by Michelle Serros as a model:

  1. Identify the abstraction. While it might be something like peace or anger, it’s more likely to be a relationship. After all, it’s what most stories are about: relationships between couples, between parents and kids, between friends. Figure out which relationship is at the center of the story.
  2. Connect an object to that abstraction. It can be something that is generally associated with that type of relationship. Serros uses a bed to portray a marriage. But the object can be anything as long as it’s important to the characters. The most famous works of literature do this. What is at the heart of Bob Cratchit’s conflict with Ebenezer Scrooge? Low pay? Sure. Miserable working conditions? Long hours? Yes. But the object that we remember is the coal that heats the office and that Scrooge rations so heartlessly.
  3. Develop a conflict around the object. If characters disagree generally, how will they disagree over the object? As most of us know, when we’re feeling disagreeable, we don’t need a reason to argue, only an opportunity. The opposite is also true. If we’re in love or full of happiness, we find joy in everything. How the object you’ve chosen bring the characters together or drive them apart?
  4. Show the world around the object. One of the most important lines of Serros’ essay may be the one where she tells us that she and her husband “had many non-mattress rotation issues to argue over.” Let the reader know that you, the writer, are aware of your own trick and that the object you’ve chosen to focus on is, indeed, a good stand-in for the entire relationship.

The goal is to take the characters’ attitudes and personalities—the nature of their relationship—and make those things concrete with a detail or object. This object, then, can focus those characteristics and relationship in order to create conflict.

Good luck.

An Interview with Andrew Malan Milward

20 Aug
Andrew Malan Milward's collection I Was a Revolutionary zeroes in on the complex radicalism of Kansas.

Andrew Malan Milward’s collection I Was a Revolutionary zeroes in on the complex radicalism of Kansas with stories that range from the burning of Lawrence to the assassination of George Tiller.

Andrew Malan Milward, a Lawrence, Kansas native and graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, is the author of the story collection The Agriculture Hall of Fame, which was awarded the Juniper Prize in Fiction by the University of Massachusetts. He has served as the McCreight Fiction Fellow at the University of Wisconsin, a Steinbeck Fellow at San Jose State University, and has received fellowships and awards from the Lannan Foundation, Jentel, and Yaddo. He lives in Hattiesburg, Mississippi, where he teaches at the University of Southern Mississippi’s Center for Writers and is editor-in-chief of Mississippi Review. His most recent book is the story collection I Was a Revolutionary.

To read Milward’s story “I Was a Revolutionary” and an exercise on building plot, click here.

In this interview, Milward discusses using specific cultural references, trusting the reader, and mixing history with present action.

Michael Noll

One of the things I love about the story “I Was a Revolutionary” is that it contains references to things I grew up with. For example, the narrator goes to a bar and drinks a “schooner of Boulevard Wheat,” a beer that I know well. I’m curious, though, whether you ever questioned such specific references. Did you ever consider just having him go out for a beer, rather than a Boulevard Wheat? 

Andrew Malan Milward

Yeah, I know what you mean, and it did give me momentary pause. However, I realized with a story like this that is so interested in examining a specific place, in this case Lawrence, Kansas, it was important to render that place as specifically as possible. So it was important to me to have the protagonist not only drinking Boulevard but to have him doing so in Louise’s and later in the 8th St. Taproom—real bars in downtown Lawrence where I’ve passed many boozy nights—even if most readers won’t have done so themselves. Obviously the story doesn’t depend on the reader knowing these specific references, but it’s a nice little winking fist-bump to those who do.

Michael Noll

The history that you tackle in the book as a whole is fascinating. Of course, I’m a native Kansan, so I love this stuff, but my wife, who’s from Delaware, also became interested in the history when she read the book. So, there seems to be an inherent appeal to the Bleeding Kansas days. But, the stories must still, at some point, give the reader a reason for the history’s presence. How did you approach that problem? Did you start with the history and find a plot to contain it? Or, did you start with a story (adjunct college instructor whose wife leaves him) and build the history into it?

Andrew Malan Milward

Yes, this was a real challenge. I knew that my fictional characters and their predicaments couldn’t just be excuses to introduce the reader to a whole bunch of Kansas history I happen to find fascinating. In certain failed early drafts I did just that. For example, in the early versions of “A Defense of History,” the Assistant’s storyline was slight and underdeveloped because I was basically just using him to try to tell the story of the Populists. This made the story lopsided and I had to find a way to make his story matter as much as the Populists’. This was a macro-level challenge for the whole book. I had to find a way to give my characters the dignity of human complexity. They couldn’t be afterthoughts. I had to make their situations as interesting, dramatic, and relevant as the history I was attempting to limn.

Now as for how I did that, I tried different strategies. Sometimes, as in “O Death,” it was an attempt to mimetically recreate the history, placing my fictional characters right into the drama of the time. And sometimes, as in “The Americanist” or “A Defense of History,” the history is mediated by a character in more contemporary times. A story like “The Burning of Lawrence” does both at once.

Michael Noll

Andrew Malan Milward's collection, I Was a Revolutionary, takes a fresh look at the complex history of Bleeding Kansas and its role leading up to the Civil War and the aftershocks that are still present today.

Andrew Malan Milward’s collection, I Was a Revolutionary, takes a fresh look at the complex history of Bleeding Kansas and its role leading up to the Civil War and the aftershocks that are still present today.

The title story, “I Was a Revolutionary,” contains several unexplained references—to history, to books (What’s the Matter with Kansas), and to the Obama presidential campaign. For example, the story mentions “the Ayers stuff” but doesn’t explain what it is, relying on the reader to know. How did you know to trust the reader to figure it out? 

Andrew Malan Milward

As a writer I always try to respect the reader as much as possible and that involves a lot of trust, because as readers we’ve all had the unpleasant experience of a writer not trusting us and we resent it. Oftentimes this is an unintended consequence of writers with good intentions—they’re trying to invite us into the story and don’t want us to feel confused. But we don’t like to have our hand held because it feels condescending. As readers we like to feel smart and when a writer doesn’t trust us enough to know something or “get” something, when they’re trying too hard to guide us through their work, we react against it. We think, I knew that. You didn’t have to tell me.

And you’re right, the title story has more references than the others because as the final story in the collection it’s working on two levels: it’s no only the story of Paul and his radical past, it’s also the story of all the stories in the collection. It the one that talks about everything that has come before it. A lot of the references in it are to events and people that have been explored in previous stories in the collection (which I why I strongly suggest/hope readers read the stories in the order they have been arranged). However, there are a lot of references to people and events not covered previously in the book. I suppose I’m trusting the reader to either know or maybe be curious enough to look them up. I like to think, however, that the story still holds together even if they don’t.

Michael Noll

Kansas is at an interesting political moment. Its governor, Sam Brownback, has enacted tax cuts that are the dream of every Tea Party member, and, as a result, the state has experienced a revenue shortfall and is struggling to fund basic things like schools and highway construction. Not surprisingly, Brownback has become 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, as you point out in I Was a Revolutionary, this is a state that also has a long history of political extremism. 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?

Andrew Malan Milward

It’s incredibly hard to square Kansas’s warring instincts for progressivism and conservatism. Much of the book was guided by that question: How did such a forward-thinking state that was founded very bloodily to enter the Union as a free state instead of a slave state—inciting what would become the Civil War—arrive at its reactionary present of the Westboro Baptist Church, a militant anti-abortion movement, and the top-down class warfare of the Koch Brothers and Governor Sam Brownback? As the protagonist of the title story tells his students in class one day, “Kansas is and always was a radical state.” I certainly found that to be true. And, you’re right, the present isn’t very pretty—all the risible insanity that makes Kansas look like the meth-lab Winnebago of American democracy. I’m not sure what will happen, but if there’s one thing that Kansas’s history has proved it’s that the state and its inhabitants are capable of dramatic change, which is certainly what’s required right now. Personally, I’m hoping we become as smart and civilized as farmers in Kansas were 125 years ago. Those Populists organized a true grassroots party, the People’s Party, as an alternative to the Republicans and Democrats that at its core was a movement against corporate hegemony. Think about that for a moment: a movement against corporate domination of society in 1890. Incredible. They certainly saw the direction we were heading and they had the courage to try to do something about it.

August 2015

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

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