Notes Left Behind

from NOTES LEFT BEHIND: THE LANGUAGE OF SUICIDE

By Alec Wilkinson (The New Yorker, Feb 15th, 1999)

A woman from a town at the other end of the Cape called the police station one afternoon and asked if we would deliver a message to her husband, who was visiting the house they were building for their retirement, the house had no phone. I was in the station when Charles Berrio, another patrolmen, who was known as Chickie, found him. The man had attached a length of yellow nylon cord to a water pipe in the ceiling of the basement and tied the other end around his neck.

Since Chickie had one of the town’s two police cars and the Chief had the other, I asked Lori Kmiec, a dispatcher, who was leaving for the day, if she would take me there, but she said she wouldn’t go near a house with a dead body in it. Someone else took me, I forget who. I walked through the front door. In a chair by a picture window looking over the marsh was an old man sitting with his hands folded in his lap. He paid no attention to me. The man hanging from the rope in the basement had his back to a sliding glass door that framed an inlet of the marsh. His knees were bent, and his feet were touching the cement floor. He had taken his shoes off. The ceiling was so low that there had been no tension to the rope; he had brought about his end simply by letting his body go slack. He could have stood up anytime he lost his nerve. In the shadowy basement, Chickie, his eyes not yet adjusted from the daylight, had walked into the man. Months later, when the subject of the man’s suicide came up, Chickie said that the figure of the hanging man still appeared in his dreams.

The county man arrived and took photographs, and then Chickie applied the blade of a pocketknife to the yellow cord. None of us looked into one another’s eyes as we lowered him. It felt as if we were performing an ancient gesture. The man from the funeral home showed up and poked at the dead man’s swollen neck and said, “I don’t know how I’m going to get that down for an open casket.”

I asked Chickie about the man upstairs. “Guy’s brother,” he said. “Deaf. Never heard a thing.” I stood for a while looking at the piece of rope and the water pipe and the view out the window.

I felt the way I remembered feeling as a child when rising early, I could hear the voices of my parents through the walls of their bedroom—my father’s low and rumbling and my mother’s high, the combination like a piece of music—but I couldn’t make out what they were actually saying, and I had the feeling that the substance of their conversation was important and that if I could understand it I would be in possession of something profound.

TIPS

description  (how much?–the telling detail, not adjectives or adverbs, get the audience to judge) use of motion

introducing characters (suggest singularity and temperament, gesture–body language) 

changing place (and time), begin scene with establishing dialogue or action,

description or inner response that identifies the opposition

dialogue: summary dialogue, indirect dialogue, direct dialogue, hidden

                   dialogue (subtext)

                   Dialogue “do’s and don’ts

                        Do

                        1.         point of view for each character (attitude)

                        2.         impression of natural speech

                        3.         use  structure to shape the sequence of what is said                

                       don’t

                        1.         let characters make long speeches

                        2.         put in dead dialogue

                        3.         write dialogue in which nothing is left unspoken (no subtext)                       

 developing characters:  pick minimum characters to convey scene                

events trigger action, action leads to discovery

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Eight Secrets of Creating and Selling Dynamic Non-Fiction – Part 5

NOTE HOW THESE ARE DONE IN THE CREATIVE NONFICTION PIECE THAT FOLLOWS THEM.

description  (how much?–the telling detail, not adjectives or adverbs, get the audience to judge, use of motion, atmosphere—setting mirroring character, conflict or theme (remember “opposites,” especially between characters and within the central character) 

introducing characters through action (suggest singularity and temperament, gesture–body language) 

dialogueemotional subtext (each character in a scene has an agenda) summary dialogue, indirect dialogue, direct dialogue, hidden dialogue. 

realization–reaction, inner response, ie, emotional beat, not the paragraph is the unit, and its tempo is the changing intensity of your story. 

changing place (and time), begin scene with establishing dialogue or description. 

Dynamic non-fiction is visually Memorable. 

Notes Left Behind: The Language of Suicide 

By Alec Wilkinson (The New Yorker, Feb 15th, 1999) 

    A woman from a town at the other end of the Cape called the police station one afternoon and asked if we would deliver a message to her husband, who was visiting the house they were building for their retirement, the house had no phone. I was in the station when Charles Berrio, another patrolmen, who was known as Chickie, found him. The man had attached a length of yellow nylon cord to a water pipe in the ceiling of the basement and tied the other end around his neck. Since Chickie had one of the town’s two police cars and the Chief had the other, I asked Lori Kmiec, a dispatcher, who was leaving for the day, if she would take me there, but she said she wouldn’t go near a house with a dead body in it. Someone else took me, I forget who. I walked through the front door. In a chair by a picture window looking over the marsh was an old man sitting with his hands folded in his lap. He paid no attention to me. The man hanging from the rope in the basement had his back to a sliding glass door that framed an inlet of the marsh. His knees were bent, and his feet were touching the cement floor. He had taken his shoes off. The ceiling was so low that there had been no tension to the rope; he had brought about his end simply by letting his body go slack. He could have stood up anytime he lost his nerve. In the shadowy basement, Chickie, his eyes not yet adjusted from the daylight, had walked into the man. Months later, when the subject of the man’s suicide came up, Chickie said that the figure of the hanging man still appeared in his dreams.

    The county man arrived and took photographs, and then Chickie applied the blade of a pocketknife to the yellow cord. None of us looked into one another’s eyes as we lowered him. It felt as if we were performing an ancient gesture. The man from the funeral home showed up and poked at the dead man’s swollen neck and said, “I don’t know how I’m going to get that down for an open casket.”

    I asked Chickie about the man upstairs. “Guy’s brother,” he said. “Deaf. Never heard a thing.”

    I stood for a while looking at the piece of rope and the water pipe and the view out the window. I felt the way I remembered feeling as a child when rising early, I could hear the voices of my parents through the walls of their bedroom—my father’s low and rumbling and my mother’s high, the combination like a piece of music—but I couldn’t make out what they were actually saying, and I had the feeling that the substance of their conversation was important and that if I could  understand it I would be in possession of something profound.

SAMPLE MEMOIR – THE STORY ONLY YOU CAN TELL 6

ATT00040CREATING AND FINE TUNING SCENES

                                                Editing My Wife’s Autobiography

                                                I am a saboteur

                                                behind the lines

                                                eliminating adjectives

                                                adverbs and other

                                                old lovers.

                                                            -John Lehman

In the following excerpt look for:

1. description  (how much?–the telling detail, not adjectives or adverbs, get the audience to judge, use of motion, atmosphere—setting mirroring character, conflict or theme (remember “opposites,” especially between characters and within the central character)

2. introducing characters through action (suggest singularity and temperament, gesture–body language)

3. dialogue–emotional subtext (each character in a scene has an agenda) summary dialogue, indirect dialogue, direct dialogue, hidden dialogue

4.   realization–reaction, inner response, ie, emotional beat (Getting Closer) different from expository writing (topic sentence then development), the beat, not the paragraph is the unit, and its tempo is the changing intensity of your story.

5. changing place (and time), begin scene with establishing dialogue or description.

GETTING CLOSER by Frances Metzman (Rosebud #10) 

            I smell the earthy root odor of potatoes boiling on the stove.  Smoke billows upward.  As I lift the heavy pot and drain the water, steam burns my eyes.  My mother’s heavy footsteps thump on the linoleum behind me.  The sound chills my blood.  Turning my head, I see she is only retrieving eggs from the refrigerator.  Although I promise myself not to anticipate the worst, I am jumpy, worried.

            Dumping the potatoes into a mixing bowl, I blink away the sting of heat and add several tablespoons of butter, the sautéed onions and eggs.  I beat it all together with a portable hand mixer.  Adding salt and pepper, I watch as the ingredients are pummeled into a smooth batter.  The odor of melted butter wafts upward.  The filling for the knishes is nearly done, and, so far so good.  No fights that draw blood.

            “You shouldn’t use electric appliances.  The knishes have to be made totally by hand,” my mother says, making a depression in a mound of flour and breaking eggs into it.

            Without the mixer I’d have to stay longer.  I feel my back stiffen.  “This is 1996,” I say.  “Your great-grandmother in Russia would have loved to have one of these.”

            “The woman couldn’t read, and sold bread by the roadside.  They had no electricity.  What would she do with your mixer?”

            I concentrate on a bowl as though I’m inventing a cure for cancer.

            I love knishes, those round, flaky-doughed turnovers filled with pureed potato.  When I had asked my mother to show me how to make them, I’d hoped we’d use the opportunity to declare a truce.  We’ve gotten adept at shouting matches, but in the last year or two I can hardly face her.  I visit as little as possible.  Give it one last chance, I told myself.

            At first, she’d been excited by the prospect; now I see her expression has dulled.  She’s cut me off again.  Why do I feel like an orphan around her?

            My mother excels in the kitchen.  It’s not that she’s nicer, but her obsession with food seems to give her a measure of control over her life.  She commands every utensil within her reach and any hapless human in her way.  Parboiling, braising, steaming, sautéing, roasting and frying are performed like sacred rituals.  I hold out little hope that getting her to initiate me into her hallowed sanctuary will reunite us.  But it’s the last-ditch effort before I turn my back forever.

            A tall large woman, my mother has developed thickening petrified slabs of flesh on her body over the years, kind of like the rings of a cut tree that tell its age.  Yet now she moves like a musical conductor, stewing flour on the board as though bringing a violin section to a crescendo.

            As she rolls the dough flat, each push forward seems calculated.  It’s as though she must duplicate that motion exactly the same distance each time.  I want her to stay in that position since I won’t have to hear the flat slapping, that odd rhythm on the floor that fills me with dread.

            She folds the sheet of dough over her rolling pin and holds it in front of my face.  it is beautiful, evenly translucent and a near-perfect oval.  My sheet of dough has ragged edges and tears in the middle.

            Using the back of a spoon, she runs the filling along a section of dough.  Then she folds the overlapping sides over and seals it by brushing the seams with a beaten egg.  A long puffed tube emerges.  After dipping her hand in a bowl of flour, she cuts off sections with the side of her hand.

            “I cut it this way because the dough sticks together naturally.  Cutting with a knife just makes it fall apart.  You didn’t know that, did you?”

            “No.”  I smack the rolling pin against my palm.  “How the hell would I know that”  You never let me in your precious kitchen.”  And when you give me a recipe, I want to shout out loud, you deliberately forget to tell me the most important ingredient anyway.

            My mother claps her hands together and a cloud of flour dust rises.  “That temper of yours again.  That’s why you’re thirty-five and not married.”

            “Knock it off,” I answer in disgust.  Why can’t I hide my anger?  I feel tired although we’ve only been at it for half an hour.  As I wipe the sweat from my face with a tissue, I

think it’s one hundred degrees inside.  My mother never opens the windows in the summer time.  She prefers to close everything out, even changes of seasons.  I glance at the doors and windows, checking escape routes.

            “I don’t know why you bothered me about cooking.  You don’t eat my food, and you never come for dinner,” my mother mumbles.

            “That’s because your meals are like feeding frenzies.  You’re never satisfied no matter how much I eat.”

            “Everyone loves my cooking but you.  You can never give compliments.”

            When her back is turned, I jab a potato-covered middle finger in the air.  I taste bile at the back of my throat remembering how, as a kid, she forced me to eat every morsel of food put in front of me.  At least those memories keep me thin now.

            Rolling out a new ball of dough, I flip it over the rolling pin, trying to lay the opposite side on the board in one smooth gesture, just like she does.  It slips off, and falls to the floor.  She gives me a wilting look.  Slowly, I pick it up.  My arms ache.

            She’s staring at me.  “You’re just like your father.  You even look like him.”

            “Please, please don’t start that again.  Let’s just have a nice time.  Then we’ll eat the knishes.”

            She’s jumped into bad territory.  My mother dates her unrelenting unhappiness from the time my father left us twenty-five years ago.  That’s when my memories turn ugly, from a mother who asked me how my dad had gone too one who seemed not to recognize me whenever her eyes happened to look my way.

            I fan my face with a towel, recalling my dad’s explanation of why he left my mother for another woman.

            “Your mother, she only gives me food, nothing else.  Nothing for the soul, nothing for the body,” he had grumbled.

            “Sure.  What do you care about me anyway?  Your father left me and so did you.”

            “I have a life, too.”

            “Some life.  Hundreds of dates and no husband.”

            “I think I’d better go,” I say.

            After my father left, my mother talked of suicide.  Day after day I’d rush home from school, watching her closely.  When she went to bed, I’d sit up for hours listening for signs of life.  Only when I heard her toss in bed or heard those heavy, scary footsteps was I able to sleep.  Although she never attempted suicide, she managed to do some pretty destructive things.  I sense her heading in that direction now.

            Untying my apron, I notice flour is streaked all over my hands and shoes.  Stepping behind me, she grabs the apron strings and reties them.  The battle of the apron is on.  The old familiar knot of anger pulls tight.

            “The potatoes need more salt.” 

            “I hesitate, then I pick up the salt shaker.  ” Will you be good if I stay?  I speak softly.

            “Okay,” she says.  “I will.”  She looks remorseful for a moment.  I know she can’t help herself, but I pray for a miracle…

SHORT STORY MAGIC – Part 1

Want to write a short story? Get plenty of rest.
Want to write a short story? Get plenty of rest.

“A short story is something that can be read in an hour and remembered for a lifetime.”—Stephen Vincent Benet

Introduction

   The short story has gone in and out of fashion, but the form itself offers writers a unique opportunity to sharpen their tools. Many of our greatest writers, Hemingway, Faulkner, Fitzgerald and Henry James were masters of the short story (as are contemporary writers, such as Joyce Carol Oats, John Updike, Lorrie Moore and Charles Baxter). There may not be the money in a collection of short stories that there is in a novel or autobiography, but they are a form readily publishable in over 4,000 smaller magazines that can provide leverage for eventually getting a longer work published.

   And there’s another advantage to the short story. A novel or piece of book length nonfiction is a world complete in itself. A short story is more like a spotlight that shines on a crowd of people. We see what is there but also know there are things to the right and the left of the spotlight that we can’t see directly. These are the events with the characters of the short story that happened before it began or that will happen after it the words on the page are over. As writers we have to plant clues for the reader and we depend upon that reader to create what isn’t expressed. It’s this partnering with an audience in the creative process that is invaluable for other types of writing. They depend upon it, but nowhere (except perhaps with poetry) is it more essential than with the short story. The secret of good writing is to get your reader actively involved doing the work for you. Writing short stories shows us how to do that. And a workshop setting with each of us providing feedback is one of the best ways I know to see how well we are doing this. The words are important, but the story takes place beneath the words, in the imagination of the person who reads it.

   I will begin with a series of very brief writing exercises. As we progress we’ll take what we learned from them to the structure of a full piece. This example will provide lessons you can apply to stories you’ve already written or to ones you plan to write. Don’t worry about the content of the exercises or whether or not you write well on demand. The important thing is what you get from doing them. If they trigger some subjects for future work, all the better, but that’s a bonus not necessarily their purpose.

Overview

   If your goal is to grant wishes to your readers, disturb them or transport them, the short story is a great vehicle, but be warned, the good ones seem easier to execute than they are.  

     We’ll begin by looking at the source of story energy (the art of engaging readers) and story design (plot concept and its various forms). Then, while writing individually and working on a story together, we’ll apply techniques of scene, point of view, sequence and discovery. Through a close reading of some contemporary examples, we’ll explore how the use of turning point, emotional dynamics and setups/payoffs to effectively order and link scenes so they build to crisis, climax and, ultimately, revelation for the reader.

   There are two basic types of short story depending upon whether they are driven predominantly by:

1. Character

2. Plot 

Both utilize scenes. The elements within scenes include:

            Dynamics between characters

            Dialogue

            Motivation for each character

            Description

            Actions of each character

            Then there is the relationship of the scenes themselves to the whole:

            Story structure

            Point of View of the narration

              

Discussion

     Scope: How is a short story different from a novel? For the reader? For the writer? 

     The first thing is to accept the fact that if a novel is a landscape, the short story is a close-up. You must choose subjects with narrower scope—such as an event, a moment in time, captured as if by accident.