Gloves Off: Round IV
Hills like white what-the-heck?
A confession regarding Hemingway…
In high school our English teacher, Judy Frasure (shout out, now Judy Caldwell!) sat us down to read Hills Like White Elephants by Hemingway.
As high school sophomores we read the story and tried to discuss it, but no one had any idea what was taking place. A man and a woman are drinking as they wait for a train. The hills looks like white elephants. What is this about? In college, yeah, we found out the man is pressuring the woman to get an abortion. But in Judy Frasure’s class she couldn’t tell us that—not in rural 1978—and we couldn’t recognize it, so as students we were just left with a distaste for Hemingway. Hemingway made us feel stupid. Reading and books were a conspiracy to make us feel ashamed.
This is not how you want your readers to feel. Shamed and hating you. Confused for a moment, maybe, but eventually you want to fill them with the triumph of comprehension. Rosebud is a sled!
Since my White Elephant trauma, clarity has always been the most important element of a story to me. In effect: Can the reader understand the horizontal moment-to-moment action of the scene? Where are we? Who’s there? What are characters doing? No amount of poetry can replace clarity. With that in mind, your first question after presenting your work should be, Did people understand what took place?
If anyone in the workshop is confused, the author can explain what he meant to depict. Sometimes the author is so close to the story that he assumes it’s also clear to the reader. And sometimes the story is vague because the author is ultimately unclear about what’s taking place. Determine which is the case. As the author, are you too close to or too far from the story?
Here I’m addressing three pieces of work because I suspect the authors have thought them out to the finest detail. Which is great. The authors are so deep into their worlds that the worlds dictate the language, and this is ideal.
First up is Now Accepting Remorse by Neil Krolicki.
What I like…
We can always count on Neil to bring the heat. His description of the modern-art crucifix and the baptismal font for waterboarding babies is fresh and spot-on. The voice moves the story forward, but we never settle into a scene. Dialog would help ground us in a moment. As would physical on-the-body details, in particular during sex. It would put us into a specific moment, in particular the odd words about church architecture should be coming from Derek’s mouth as quotes. Paraphrasing works best if it alternates with actual quotes. That way the story benefits from the textures of both. Here we only get the paraphrasing.
“Walking backwards inside, swinging your arms like a spaz, you rattled off the weird old names of the church’s anatomy. My chatty little Jesus-freak, you led me through the narthex, then the nave…”
As mentioned, the swan-diving, stage-diving Jesus works particularly well. We’ve all seen that huge figure hanging above us. Consider that Neil’s created it so well—twice, with two distinct beats—that it becomes the set-up or gun that will resolve the story. After we’ve seen this looming Jesus ready to pounce, it seems wrong to introduce the goo in the confessional booth. On page six, of eight pages, it’s too late to introduce a new element.
Also describing the Stations of the Cross as a how-to guide is pretty brilliant. Consider that a similar stations system might be an organic way to structure the whole story. In doing so the narrator needn’t use fourteen, or present them in linear order. But since they’re introduced, the Stations should remain present in some form. Each of the other girls mentioned could be a “station.”
What I’d like to like more…
The first six pages are easy to follow, and unique. The final three pages confuse me. My impression is that a malevolent black goo compels the narrator to assume a recruiting role. The narrator becomes the new villain, and the story is shown to be a cycle story. One cycle in a long-time repeating series of cycles.
I’m also unclear why the narrator’s gone to a Confessional booth. I support the impulse to create a place for telling the story, but since the narrator has killed Derek, I’m not sure why she’d still seek retribution. It might work better for the narrator to be seeking absolution for the murder.
Second, let’s look at…
The Prison Guard Gives Her Elegy by Allison.
What I like…
With Allison my sense is that she knows this world inside-out, so much so that she assumes we’ll know it also. My take-away is that the narrator is a former prison guard now hiding out in the relative safety of a prison now that the larger world is endangered. The elites of the world have retreated to prisons, and the overall environment is polluted. Exactly what the menace is, I haven’t a clue. I suspect Allison knows every wrinkle and wart, but as her reader I need to see more happen. That said, the prison-as-haven is very smart.
“The headlines of the news sites which still had staff became surreal, war efforts replaced by the tales of burtal mass murders commit(ted) by the world’s topmost biochemists…”
Some moments, “his brain a dying battery,” are so perfectly rendered that they make the more summarized moments seem all the more vague. I’d love to fully grasp this story, and I hope Allison will post more details below.
What I’d like to like more…
Consider that the verbs “is” and “have” depict no physical motion. They just call things into being. Likewise “thought” verbs—maddening, deserve, know, understand, offend—are also abstracts. Unless we can see characters and objects changing size and shape against our retinas there’s no sense of motion and no hope of hypnotizing the reader. Likewise, gerunds seem so general—any “ing” form of a verb: shooting, fighting, sleeping—that they don’t create the specific moments needed to put the reader into a scene. Gerunds are “writerly” writing, and we’re trying to get beyond that.
If you limit your use of is and has, you’ll be forced to define the setting by moving through it. For example, people love video games because players move through them as they would the real world. Imagine how a video game would seem if it were only the scenery and the players had no agency or part to play. Using active verbs and also creating an on-the-body sense of the narrator will pull the reader physically into this new world.
Lastly, let’s look at…
Travel by Erik Knudtson
What I like…
Here I seize on the passages that contain physical verbs. Standing in line. Meeting the woman with the child. Handing the money to the man with one shoe. The language is interesting poetry and reads quickly. For example:
“The cylinder mimics the shade of droplets leaving your forehead.”
But I’m left wondering What cylinder? Is it the glass protecting the tools? The line “foreheads can cry, too,” is wonderful. And I wonder if it shouldn’t be the last line in that passage, because “Learn something new everyday” robs the story of any accumulating emotion. Again, I suspect the writer has a complete vision for the story—the back story, the present plot, the impending suicide?—and is only giving us hints. As someone who loves Amy Hempel’s work, I love a porous story that consists of a laundry list of details.
Erik, please, can you tell me what your full vision is? My gut tells me this is a great story, but I want to understand the writer’s intentions.
What I’d like to like more…
Consider that repetition is important because readers will be hungry to find a pattern. If elements are mentioned, then fail to reoccur… it can frustrate the audience. Again, this goes back to physical verbs. And if the reader can follow something that walks, runs, opens a door, looks for on-coming traffic, the reader will allow for stretches of poetic language. Tom Spanbauer always taught that we could write poetic stuff, but that those sections needed to be kept very short.
I invite all three of today’s writers to post their intentions below. I’d also like to hear how readers interpreted each story. To be honest, I can be a bit obtuse, so if other people understood the work that’s great. Consider me to be your dullest reader, but it would be good to accomodate even the dullest reader.
Thanks to everyone who helped Allan Amato reach his goal. His Kickstarter was a success, and I’ll be looking for a way to award the portrait sitting in the near future. The photo session must be in Los Angeles, but if someone you know and love is there—maybe an author or actor who needs an incredible headshot—you can give your win to your friend or relative as a great gift.