Seeing the Links

A web of connections. Photo by Cody Lumpkin

A web of connections. Photo by Cody Lumpkin

Last night, one of my Facebook friends, Cody Lumpkin, posted this photo, an illustration of the “web narrative” of Winesburg, Ohio. His students in ENG 303 at University of Nebraska-Lincoln made connections between the last nine stories, and literally filled the board. He was kind enough to let me post it here.


It made me think of the way that my student Kat Greene used Prezi to illustrate Winesburg.

It also made me think of the chart Jack Black’s character in School of Rock drew on the board to illustrate the history of rock and roll. 


A web of connections and influences

 

 
 

Family Ties: What I Learned from Writing Linked Essays

Since starting grad school in 2010 in Creative Writing at Ball State, I’ve been carving out a niche for myself in the program. I’ve had a flash fiction class with Sean Lovelace, creative nonfiction with Jill Christman, and just completed two courses this Fall 2011: 610 Writing Across the Genres and Cathy Day’s 612 Fiction Writing Workshop.

On the first day of class, with all Prof. Day’s talk of diptychs and triptychs and linked stories, I wondered just how I’d ever be able to write a short story cycle. Most of my essays and fiction have been limited to one premise and 20 pages. How could it be possible to expand beyond this, with multiple characters, multiple issues, but still a common thread (or threads) woven throughout? I dreaded it, and as each week went by without much of an idea, I started to panic.
I knew, at the very least, that I wanted my project to be nonfiction. I’ve been wanting to write about my family and their West Virginia and immigrant history ever since I started the grad program at BSU. But the question still remained: If the task is to write, at the very least, a diptych, how could I possibly tie together different relatives from different sides of the family, people with such radically different backgrounds and upbringings?
My first point of attack was to sit down and type out a series of questions for my parents to answer and record on tape. After a couple days of deliberation about the core familial issues I wanted to address, I handed my mom and dad a print-out of questions about three family members: my dad’s dad, Calvin; my mom’s half-brother, Steve; and my mom’s half-sister, Jeanie. I asked questions ranging from the inane – “When was your father born?”, “How would you describe your brother?”, and “What is your earliest memory of your sister?” – to those with multiple deep levels – “When was your father diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia?”, “Why did your mother sign away custody of your brother, Steve?”, and “Why didn’t you ever visit your sister in prison?” Even though I found that most of these questions led to other questions later – things I thought of later while hunched over my computer, listening to my parents’ recorded answers – as I transcribed their interviews I started noticing patterns. Each of these family members I’d highlighted in my questions had, at some point, been largely absent from my life. Each of them struggled with some form of emotional deficiency. And, as it turns out, I felt I hardly knew any of them.
After the transcriptions were finished, I printed them out and began cutting them up into

sections. I wanted to take both of my parents’ accounts of each of these relatives and group together common memories, recollections, and feelings. I stapled both parents’ accounts of these three relatives together and put them into their own separate piles, according to person. And while I still felt disconnected from these three relatives of mine, I started noticing just how much there was in common among them, and not only that, but just how much in common I had with each of them, in terms of feeling, emotion, and understanding. When talking about my Aunt Jeanie, both my parents said they felt a disconnect in her, a sense of not belonging, and an overwhelming desire for the love and respect of her mother. Both my mom and dad saw my Uncle Steve as a bit of a misfit and a thug who got his life straightened out with the help of the military. My grandfather, Calvin, was a bit more difficult to sort out. My dad was able to recall fond memories of his father in spite of the emotional illness my grandfather suffered (and that the family also suffered because of it), but ultimately be rational about it in terms of how it changed the family dynamic and what my dad’s understanding of the situation was. My mom, on the other hand, was much harsher and much more critical of father-in-law in her interview answers. That also led me to a connection between my mom and me, that we share the same lack of empathy and understanding for my dad’s dad, which is something I’ve been trying to write about for years that this project has finally helped me begin to understand and articulate.
Writing linked essays has helped me form connections I never would have realized existed. For example, while reading through the interview transcriptions with my parents and moving around my little stapled piles, I hit upon a common thread among my grandfather, uncle, and aunt that I’d never even considered before: Calvin being confrontational and getting into heated arguments with neighbors and friends, Steve getting into a fight at school and breaking some kid’s jaw, Jeanie being arrested and taken to jail. It was amazing to me that this whole possibility emerged from three very different people. Linking has helped me see the commonality where I never imagined there could or would be any and this triptych project has allowed me to bring my writing to a deeper, more meaningful level. It is certainly overwhelming, and no one promised writing would be easy, but linking has been so personally rewarding for me and I plan to see this project through as my creative project/thesis for the Fall of 2012.

Making the Impossible Possible

Linda Taylor

I truly never thought I could do it. Sure, I’ve been in the professional field for many years—writing and reading book proposals for our publishing outsource company, editing, copyediting, proofreading. When I began my master’s program lo these many years into my life, I wanted to understand more about what drives me, why I do what I do, and how, in the process of reviewing proposals and manuscripts for my day job, to be able to put my finger on what works and what doesn’t—and why. In short, I needed what my new country friends would call a cattle prod.

What did I think I could never do? I thought I could never write a novel, sustain a storyline, weave a tale. I edit, after all, so that means cut cut cut—rarely add add add. How does a writer take a story and make it last for 200, 400, 800 pages? (Thank you, J. K. Rowling, for raising the bar on me.) How does a writer weave a tale that keep the pace, cause readers to invest in characters, create an arc that keeps readers turning pages, and then, at last, provide a satisfying ending?

How?

I saw it as an impossibility.

Then I took Professor Cathy Day’s Fiction Writing Class. She’d be thrilled if I told you that after one semester I answered all of the above questions, mastered the techniques, and wrote the great American novel. But she also wouldn’t want me to lie. What she did for me, however, was teach me to write a novel by giving me a bite-sized assignment: “Write a set of stories that link.”


I can do that.

I can sustain a story for maybe twelve pages. I can work on characterization so that my readers know one protagonist well and resonate with him or her.

So write a story.

Okay, now write another.

Okay, now write a third.

Make them link. Have an overarching theme that ties these stories together—location, relationships, whatever. Interweave a plot line.

I can do that.

Then I had 25 pages and wrote to Cathy in dismay, “I’ve written 25 pages and nothing has happened!”

Cathy suggested that I use the storyboard technique we talked about and worked on in class. Out come the index cards. Write out each scene. Rearrange. See what happens.

Enter the plot line. Only trouble is interesting. Create trouble. With guidance from Cathy and the help of Michelle Hoover’s “Plotting Your Novel,” I studied my key characters in each story. What do I know about these characters? What is their flaw? What do they want? What will happen if they don’t get it? What then? How will the characters react? Get inside the characters, in their “souls,” as Cathy would say.

Go back to my index cards, noting these elements along with the characters in each scene. Are they acting as they should? Is this scene advancing the storyline? Are my characters real and sympathetic (even the bad ones) or mere caricatures?

Get hung up on the details.

Experience frustration.

Stop writing for a day or two and decide it’s impossible.

Cathy encourages, “Just keep writing. Don’t get hung up on the details. Just get it all out of your head and down on paper.”

So I begin to bang away at the keys until I have a story. Fill in the blanks. Keep typing. Don’t worry about inconsistencies. That’s what editing is for. It’s not polished. Not perfect (I hate that). Not fully realized. Lots of flaws (I hate that, too). But keep going. Get it written. Take my characters’ desires and stir up some trouble (hey, this is fiction—anything can happen!), and see what they do.

After getting it down, it’s time to go back and revise (that I do know how to do—edit, cut cut cut, shape, focus). Whose POV is the focus in each story? Am I staying consistent? Are the links making sense—that is, are my characters interacting naturally or does anything feel forced? (Just because anything can happen in fiction doesn’t mean suspending belief.) Is the dialog believable?

I’m at 63 pages now—I know, not anywhere near the great American novel. But I can turn in a nicely polished assignment. But beyond that, you know what? I know that with my little story, there is so much more yet to say. So much more to explore with my key characters along with some minor characters. Backstory to create. Other plot lines to discover.

Don’t get me wrong . . . this is hard work. But I can begin to see it now—how a writer weaves a tale, sustains a storyline, creates and builds interest. And the more work I do, the more I appreciate those who’ve gone before me and written the great books we still read today. It’s sheer brilliance.

And maybe, just maybe, I can do it.

Tricked into Writing a Novel


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This semester was my first foray into writing linked stories, which at the beginning felt like a completely new form from anything I’d ever attempted before. And that might be a more appropriate word than “foray”—attempt. We read several examples of linked stories as a class; some felt more like short story cycles, while others felt more like novels. We read Winesburg, Ohio, Mrs. Bridge, Please Don’t Come Back From the Moon, and A Visit from the Goon Squad. We defined “linked stories” as stories that fit together, but could also stand alone individually. Not quite everything we read fit into this model completely. For example, sometimes a piece of what we read might not stand alone well, and so it would read more as a chapter of a novel than a story in a series of linked stories.


Whenever we talked about something we had read, we would talk about where it might fall on the scale of short stories vs. novel. Several times, we literally drew a line on the chalkboard with “short stories” at one end and “novel” at the other. We would then place whatever title we had just read wherever we thought it fell on the line, usually closer to one end then the other. No book fell right in the middle. For example, Winesburg read more like short stories, and Please Don’t Come Back from the Moon, more like a novel. While this was theoretically a good illustration for what we were learning, the fact that none of our reading fell perfectly in the middle into its own classification of “linked stories” made understanding this new form somewhat more difficult for me, especially when the time came for me to begin writing my own.

I began my linked stories full of trepidation. I had a setting, a discount movie theater, and a few characters in mind, but I was terrified that I would not be able to “link” my different storylines effectively. When I finally began writing, however, my characters and stories seemed to “link” together almost magically, without me even trying. In fact, I did not even notice the “linking” going on in my stories until workshop, when my classmates pointed out that my characters and their stories were linked not only in their common workplace, but also within their interactions.


Although when I looked over what I had written, I began to worry that something more closely resembling a novel was evolving on my computer screen. Then I was worried that what I was writing was not actually linked stories, but chapters of what was becoming a novel. This was a problem I had not anticipated. When we came together again as a class, I found out I was not alone, but that others in my class were also concerned that their work was more resembling a novel or short story cycle, and somehow this form of “linked stories” was eluding us. We eventually came to the earth-shattering conclusion that we were going about this in the wrong way. Linked stories is not necessarily a form off on its own, but it is a way to write a series of short stories or a novel. As our professor told us that day—she’d tricked us into writing a novel.

From Storyboards to Novel: How I learned to write a novel using a linked-story approach


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My initial goal was to write twenty-two, linked-story vignettes revolving around three main characters: Cate Porter, Natalie (Nat) Roberts, and Connor Braun, who are brought together on a college-sponsored, study-abroad trip to England. I had the basics of the story, but my challenge was how to manage the each character’s vignettes. To accomplish this overwhelming task, I did two things. First, I broke each character’s story arc down into individual storyboards. Second, I wrote out what each character wants; what happens if they do/don’t get it; what was at stake for each person; and as a result of the first three questions, what would happen next. Once the planning was done, I started writing my linked stories, and quickly discovered that the form of linked vignettes was not working. I tried to write through this complication, and in doing so I found that the novel form emerged instead of a series of twenty-two separate vignettes.

My first chapter is an instance where I used storyboards and a linked-stories approach. The chapter begins with Cate’s first-person narration of arriving at the airport, having a drink at the bar with her mother, and what she wants from this trip. While at the bar she notices travelers around her, specifically a blonde girl across the bar. The next section of the chapter is told from Nat’s perspective. From her seat at the bar, she narrates her day’s events up to that point, fills the reader in on her fear of flying, and notices Cate and her mother across the bar. She is also the first to see (from the bar) Connor walking through the airport. Finally, Connor arrives at the airport and explains his feelings for Cate, who is his older brother’s ex-girlfriend and the girl he is in love with. Additionally, Connor narrates the first interaction between him and Cate at the gate and together they are introduced to Nat at the gate via the trip director’s roll call. Having the individual, visual story arcs allowed me to see more easily where each character’s story touched one another. I use those points of connections to link their stories in the first chapter and will continue to do so through the novel. For example, the point at which Nat’s story and Cate’s story is overlapped is the reason why Nat’s story is rooted at the bar.

Prior to this I haven’t written any fiction, nor have I written anything longer than 30 pages. Taking the time to do individual storyboards and think about where and how the storylines linked, as well as articulating the answers to the four questions I mentioned above, allowed me to have a clearer focus. I’m psyched to see how my novel will turn out and I know I would never have obtained the momentum I have now without using storyboards and a linked-story approach.

Lessons in Structure from Mrs. Bridge

Evan S. Connell takes an uncommon approach to structuring his “novel” Mrs. Bridge, and, in doing so, he gives his readers an opportunity to consider a fundamental craft question: What does (or can) the structure of a story accomplish? Or, what is the function of the form?

Mrs. Bridge is a composite novel told as a series of 117 very short stories in the life of the title main character, each story giving a glimpse into her character, the lives of her friends and family members, and the distant and fragmented nature of her relationships with those people in her life. Any reader will make strong connections between these stories, and will eventually piece together a storyline for Mrs. Bridge’s husband, her son, her two daughters, and several of her society friends.

Connell could have easily structured this book differently and included all of the same content. For example, instead of a composite novel, he could have written a linked short story collection. One story would be about Mrs. Bridge’s husband, one about her son, and one about each of the other major characters in her life. In a sense, this is the way the reader approaches the book anyway, tracing these storylines separately from one another—at least that was the natural way for me to read it.

If it had been written as a linked story collection, the pervading themes of loneliness, isolation and social decorum would have eventually emerged. In each story Mrs. Bridge would be unable to connect with those around her in a meaningful way, and we would get the sense that she is immersed in a world of loneliness even among friends and family.

But Connell’s chosen structure, the composite novel in 117 story-like chapters, adds or rather emphasizes another theme or another layer in those themes already present. This is a theme of fragmentation and a type of detachment that is more stunning than mere loneliness and isolation. The constant ending of a chapter and beginning of a new one removes the sense of immersion in a world of loneliness and replaces it with a sense that Mrs. Bridge is not immersed in anything or anyone. She has a brief interaction with someone, and her actions are determined neither by the desires of her own heart nor the emotional life of the person with whom she is interacting, but are based instead on a set of social mores that is blind to humanity and true human relationships.

The structure of Connell’s book dips into an interaction and then withdraws. It returns to a similar interaction with the same characters later in the book, but in a manner that is detached, oblivious to the meaning of the previous encounter. For Mrs. Bridge, interactions happen in isolation, in a fragmented world of unrelated experiences. As a result, it is a total mystery to her that other characters can even have genuine relationships with one another.

The fragmented structure—the structure that disallows immersion in any person or storyline—adds a profound shallowness to Mrs. Bridge’s character and her experiences, a shallowness that stems from her failure to touch the reality of human life around her, from investing in it and immersing herself in it.

Could Mrs. Bridge have been a successful book if written in a different form? Quite possibly so. But it would have failed to capture something of her experience of time and reality that is present in the fragmented structure that Connell chooses. Connell’s form walks us through the themes of Mrs. Bridge’s life, and through the way in which she experiences life. It is every bit as meaningful and as functional as Connell’s best irony, his saddest tale, and his truest image.

Mrs. Bridge, Too Much Like Real Life?

I can’t help it. When I read a book, I long to see characters grow and change. I long to see them overcome. Become better. Resolve a problem. Come out at the end (of the book or of their lives—maybe both) as better people.

I wanted that for Mrs. Bridge. In the novel by that name, by Evan S. Connell, I am invited to step into the life of this character and, through 117 vignettes, follow her for more than two decades. I watch her start out as a feisty young woman who “could get along very nicely without a husband” (1) to a woman who, on the last page, is stuck in her car, halfway out of her garage, alone, with no one hearing her call out for help—“until she could attract someone’s attention, she was trapped” (240).

She disappointed me. I had such high hopes for her.

For Cathy Day’s class, I began my reverse storyboard. Instead of separating each of the 117 vignettes, I used my index cards to combine sets of stories. As I read, I discovered that many of the stories seemed to come in sets of two or three, with a tell-tale segue, such as “not long after” (96) or “the next night” (184), or the continuation of a theme or person from the previous vignette. I pulled these together on my cards, reaching for a new card when a story arc very obviously changed. The flow of characters coming and going from the story still allowed for sections on average of about two or three vignettes per card.

I began to notice what happened to Mrs. Bridge as a result of each set of vignettes. She often tried to do something, to change, to better herself, only to slide back into a life that seemed to circle and circle instead of moving forward.

Why? I asked myself.

That’s when I hit vignette 68, “Tornado at the Club.” As we watched Mrs. Bridge stay at the table with her husband as the rest of the diners run for safety to the basement, we read, “It did not occur to Mrs. Bridge to leave her husband and run to the basement. She had been brought up to believe without question that when a woman married she was married for the rest of her life and was meant to remain with her husband wherever he was, and under all circumstances, unless he directed her otherwise” (145). Even in a tornado?

Apparently so.

Suddenly I understood her. Why couldn’t she move forward in her life? Her husband, who did not figure prominently in the story up to this point, was always like that stormy weather on the horizon. He was the tornado that pulled her into an endless circle and she spun around him for her entire life. (I don’t think he’s a bad guy—I need to read Mr. Bridge to find out. But he was, by virtue of being a man in this time period, very much in charge of all that occurred in his family’s life.) Her lifestyle and friendships were determined by his standing. They gave a party, “not because they wanted to, but because it was time” (79), she had guest towels that no one ever used because “that was what everyone did” (26). Each person she met made her feel like she needed to do a little something more to better herself, to fit in: Grace Barron had traveled and talked about art and politics, causing Mrs. Bridge to feel “inadequate and confused” (36). Result? In the very next vignette she was trying to learn Spanish. We discover later that these records found their way into a closet. In vignettes 31–33, we segue from Mrs. Porter trying to hire Harriet away, to the Porters being fellow church attenders, to Dr. Foster, the pastor of that church, to Mrs. Bridge deciding she needed to better her vocabulary and so purchasing a book to do just that. When it didn’t seem to work, away it went to the shelf. She tried painting. She quit after a few lessons.

Mrs. Bridge, who are you? She didn’t know that herself. Instead, she kept up appearances. She tore down her son’s glorious tower because “people were beginning to wonder” (68), thereby changing her relationship with her son Douglas forever.

Thus, when I created my storyboard, I couldn’t bear to put the vignettes in a row moving across a line, which means moving forward. I chose instead to create a “tornado” of sorts, with the center story being vignette 68. All of Mrs. Bridge’s relationships with her friends (highlighted yellow) and children (highlighted green) swirl around but she never seems to move forward. The children do get away in some ways, so their cards start to move off the bulletin board. The random expectations of her life in her community (highlighted pink) result in boredom and lack of purpose. These highlight for me what happens when a person circles and circles and circles and goes nowhere.

And what happens when the vortex is gone? When Mr. Bridge dies? Mrs. Bridge is in a car, stuck in her garage, calling out to the world, “Hello?”

Perhaps that’s why the book resonates with so many readers still today. Maybe it’s too much like real life. Many of us are stuck in our own loops—our own tornadoes—circling, swirling. It may not be around a domineering person. Maybe it’s around a regret, a grudge, a sorrow, a habit. Can we break free? Can we get away? Can we, by the end, be better people?

The Gravity of George Willard

By Kat Greene


While reading Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio, I realized the town and its stories revolve around George Willard. He is the character which most other characters gravitate toward, confide in, and engage with. He is the personification of the town. An ironic twist, because he decides to leave in the final story, “Departure.” Regardless, the gravity he creates in Winesburg holds the stories together, and thus, the journalist became the center of my reverse storyboard.



As I read the stories (in order), I took detailed notes of the events and the people presented in each story. Once I had finished, I cut my notes into the individual stories and arranged each story according to its relationship to George Willard. I found that there were three types of people who directly touched Mr. Willard: friends (“The Thinker” – “Loneliness”), family (“Mother”), love interests (“An Awakening” – “Sophistication”). The stories in their respective categories encircle “Departure.” Additionally, three characters have shared a secret or back story with George that they have not shared with anyone else. These stories are noted with a star.


 
Next, I looked at the stories that split off from the main circle, such as “Mother,” “Death,” and “Paper Pills.”


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I found that my completed storyboard highlighted three important things. 
  1. First, the arrangement further emphasizes Anderson’s theme of isolation. Stories such as “Tandy” and “Adventure” are deeply entrenched with isolation and are visually isolated in the storyboard. The same can be said for the “Godliness” stories, as well as “Man of Ideas,” “The Untold Lie,” and “Queer.” 
  2. Second, the arrangement highlighted for me the paradox that despite the fact that the majority of the characters felt alone, they were all very similar. 
  3. Finally, the storyboard as a whole is held together by the narrator’s storytelling. Sherwood’s rhetorical choice to include an all-knowing narrator, who I suspect could the voice of the old writer in the book he never published, as mentioned in “The Book of the Grotesques,” unifies the collection.