A Craft Discussion on Douglas Glover’s “Attack of the Copula Spiders” at The Drunken Odyssey Podcast

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On this week’s episode of The Drunken Odyssey Podcast, host John King and I discuss the first of our contemporary books on writing, and one that I’ve found to be most influential: “Attack of the Copula Spiders” by Douglas Glover. A lively, if not combative, conversation ensued about the post-literate age, but-constructions, Alien, and more. You can listen to the episode here:

http://thedrunkenodyssey.com/2014/09/28/episode-119-a-craft-discussion-about-douglas-glover-with-vanessa-blakeslee/

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My “Top Ten Books on Writing” at Read Her Like an Open Book

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Be careful what you read. I say this because as much as the proliferation of “top ten” lists all over the Internet perturbs me, the list-as-blog-essay has penetrated my brain as well. Although the seed really was planted the other day, when I got to thinking how useful it would be to jot down a list of the craft books I’ve found most indispensable throughout the years and share it with my students. But why not just share my carefully-crafted list with them? And voila, the blog-post-as-list-essay was born. Hopefully mine isn’t as annoying as the “Top Ten Signs Your Boyfriend is Getting Ready to Dump You” variety. Quite the contrary. I hope you’ll find these books — selected without any political correctness, with in fact more male authors than female — as indispensable as I have. In assembling my go-to craft reads I didn’t let myself think too much, just knelt at the dusty bookshelf and quickly pulled off the ones that I’ve returned to the most.

Perhaps one day I’ll have my own to proudly add to the shelf, chock full of pithy wisdom, earth-shattering analysis, and inventive writing exercises. But for now, you may check out my “top ten” list here:

http://readherlikeanopenbook.wordpress.com/2014/04/22/guest-blogger-vanessa-blakeslee-the-ten-best-books-on-writing/

On Margaret Atwood’s “In Other Worlds”

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Last fall I wrote a review of Margaret Atwood’s latest essay collection, In Other Worlds, for the Millions. You can read the review here:

http://www.themillions.com/2012/01/a-journey-to-planet-x-margaret-atwoods-in-other-worlds.html

Character Doubling in Alice Munro’s “Lives of Girls and Women”

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In “Lives of Girls and Women” Munro uses the technique of character doubling to create drama by juxtaposing and contrasting characters. Munro’s technique brings the characters side-by-side so that they become distinct to the reader.  Throughout the story she describes characters together in the same paragraph or even the same sentence. The contrast which emerges as a result of this character doubling technique shows a relationship of opposition between the characters clearly, e.g. in the numerous passages where Munro describes and contrasts Del’s mother and Fern. Subplots and mysterious complexity emerge from character doubling. Del and Naomi get described together, and Munro creates a subplot to the main sexual plot of Del/Chamberlain when Naomi falls sick and returns from her illness and she’s suddenly become prim, the opposite of Dell. The technique of character doubling thus helps make the characters round and vibrant.

“Lives of Girls and Women” contains three sections of text separated by line breaks, and Munro uses the character doubling technique on the second page of the first section in her initial descriptions of Fern and Del’s mother. The story opens with a brief scene about the photograph, and at the close of the scene Munro segues into a paragraph in which the friendship between Fern and Del’s mother exhibits contrast: “Her voice was small for such a big woman, plaintive, put-upon, but in the end good-humored, yielding. All those qualities my mother had developed for her assault on life—sharpness, smartness, determination, selectiveness—seemed to have their opposites in Fern, with her diffuse complaints, lazy movements, indifferent agreeableness.” Munro begins with a description of Fern and sets up the contrast in the sentence following about Del’s mother. Two paragraphs later, Munro brings Fern and Del’s mother together again in a long descriptive paragraph concerning the role opera plays in the friendship between the two women.

“Fern Dogherty and my mother were friends in spite of differences. My mother valued in people experience of the      world, contact with any life of learning or culture, and finally any suggestion of being dubiously received in Jubilee. And Fern had not always worked for the post office. No; at one time she had studied singing….My mother had a book of operas. She would get it out and follow the story, identifying the arias, for which translations were provided. She had questions for Fern, but Fern did not known as much about operas as you would think she might; she would even get mixed up about which one it was they were listening to….”

So even as Munro shows the two women sharing a common interest in opera, the specific details she gives about each women’s individual approach to the subject differ greatly. The side-by-side portrayal of the two women clearly sets up Del’s mother as stringent, determined, a questioning, thinking woman, in stark contrast to Fern who is passionate and free in her behavior, shown with her bursting into song at the paragraph’s close. This contrast in character doubling feeds the story by creating different subplots lines that stem from the characters, i.e.,Del’s mother’s rigid women’s rights agenda is the opposite of Fern’s loose sexual subplot with Chamberlain.

The second section of the story focuses on the main plot of Del and Mr. Chamberlain; the relationship between Del’s mother and Fern falls somewhat into the background. However, Munro brings the character doubling technique back again in the third and final section of the story, continuing the contrast and dramatic opposition between Del’s mother and Fern. Another paragraph in which the two women are described side-by-side occurs after the dinner scene. Fern has just received the letter from Chamberlain announcing he has left town.

“When Fern talked about having a good time she meant going to dances at the Lakeshore Pavilion, going to the Regency Hotel in Tupperton for drinks and dinner, being driven from one roadhouse to another on Saturday night. My mother did try to understand such pleasures, but she could not, any more than she could understand why people go on rides at a fair, and will get off and throw up, then go on rides again.”

Like the character doubling Munro uses throughout the story to show the dramatic opposition in the friendship between Fern and Del’s mother and spawn subplot complexity, the paragraph describing Naomi post-illness contrasts her with Del. The narrator states, “I had meant to tell Naomi all about Mr. Chamberlain, now it was over. But Naomi (here the but-construction alerts us to the forthcoming depiction of opposition in the “new” Naomi) came out of her illness fifteen pounds lighter, with a whole new outlook on life. Her forthrightness was gone with her chunky figure. Her language was purified….She sat under a tree with her skirt spread around her, watching the rest of us play volleyball, and kept feeling her forehead to see if she was feverish…”  In her description of Naomi,Del places herself apart with her use of the phrase “rest of us.”  Naomi has her own character subplot as is shown here in the contrast between the two teenage girls; the contrast resonates mostly with Munro’s careful attention to Naomi’s physical alteration. The Naomi subplot crosses the main plot of Del’s sexual initiation, and the character doubling contrast becomes clear in the sentence illustrating what happened to Naomi while Del and Chamberlain got together: “All the grosser aspects of sex had disappeared from her conversation and apparently from her mind although she talked a good deal about Dr. Wallis, and how he had sponged her legs himself, and she had been quite helplessly exposed to him, when she was sick.” So each teenage girl has undergone her own change, and the changes are vastly different in regards to sex which creates heightened dramatic resonance and meaning for the overall story.

In Fern and Del’s mother’s last scene together, Munro uses the character doubling technique again.  Here the character doubling shows not only the differences between the two, but creates complexity in the story by tying-in to the larger religious and societal structures of Jubilee as Fern departs for the strawberry supper (Munro also makes use of a rhetorical questioning device in the middle of the character doubling description which helps add thematic inquiry to the paragraph).

“We heard her high heels going down the sidewalk….Sociable noise of the United Church affair washed as far as our steps. Did my mother wish she had a hat and a summer sheer dress on, and was going? Her agnosticism and sociability were often in conflict in Jubilee, where social and religious life were apt to be one and the same. Fern had told her to come ahead. ‘You’re a member. Didn’t you tell me you joined when you got married?’

‘My ideas weren’t formed then. Now I’d be a hypocrite….’”

The subplots branching out from the character doubling technique are extended in the exchanges between Fern and Del’s mother, in Munro’s use of what writer Janet Burroway dubs “no” dialogue, or dialogue in which the characters disagree and perpetuate the conflict.

The repetitive techniques of character doubling and subplot in “Lives of Girls and Women” create a complex story line. As the story goes forward, the branches developed as a result of the side-by-side character descriptions; the resulting contrasts help to clarify the differences between characters and spawn branches out of their opposing action. The repetition of the character doubling technique in passages throughout the story creates branches, and these branches complicate the main plotline. The complication of character doubling and subplot enhance the unity and coherence of the story, as well as give “Lives of Girls and Women” vitality and greater dramatic meaning.

*For a more in-depth analysis of Munro’ s short story techniques, I recommend, “The Mind of Alice Munro,” by Douglas Glover, which you can find, among other excellent essays on writing, in his collection, “Attack of the Copula Spiders.”

Image Patterning in Douglas Glover’s “Why I Decide to Kill Myself and Other Jokes”

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The root image in Douglas Glover’s “Why I Decide to Kill Myself and Other Jokes” is the jar of cyanide the protagonist Willa steals from the lab, intending to use it to commit suicide. Throughout the story, cyanide repeats in a variety of phrases and images: the jar of cyanide, the chemical symbol KCN. In the story cyanide is also linked to snow and other elements of setting, such as the bath salts Willa uses and later, the glass globe. Willa frequently links these elements of setting to the cyanide in a direct and obvious way. In addition to the root image, the word “blue” splits off from its association with cyanide and starts another thread inside the story which enhances the web effect of the image patterns. Along with the plot action, this imagery web helps give the story meaning and shape.

Cyanide is first mentioned in the third paragraph of the story in the phrase “the distinctive almond odour of cyanide” and repeated again in the next paragraph when the protagonist refers to her “nice little supply of cyanide.” After the line break, the next section of the story contains some backfill in which the cyanide is mentioned as Willa recalls a memory: “On one such occasion, I noticed the cyanide on the shelf above, clearly marked with a skull-and-crossbones insignia.” At the end of this section Willa associates the word blue with the root image: “I realize I have forgotten to find out if cyanide poisoning is painful. I have a brief, blinding vision of blue me writhing in the Victorian nightie, frothing vomit and beshitting myself.” The extension of the cyanide pattern with the splintering technique applied in the use of “blue” creates an echo chamber effect. The juxtaposition of the image patterns that arise subsequent to the plot structure gives the story a dimension of strangeness.

At the mention of cyanide in the third section of the story, the image is loaded further with meaning. In connecting the snowy winter landscape to the cyanide, Willa using setting to load the root image pattern. She extends the connection between the snow and the cyanide further by directly linking the setting to her internal state: “The winter outside corresponds to the winter of my spirit, which is a dry, cold wind, or the snow crystals on the windshield remind me of the poison crystals in the jar.” The root image of cyanide (as well as the role of cyanide in the plot) mandates the winter setting and the pattern of snow words, since snow is another white substance similar to cyanide crystals. Thus the content of the outside setting reinforces the cyanide image pattern with this double-image of white crystals.

Another passage in which image patterns are loaded occurs when Willa ponders over the jar.

Here we have, I think to myself, a jar of cyanide, which…is a simple compound of cyanogen with a metal or organic radical, as in potassium cyanide (KCN). Cyanogen is dark-blue mineral named for its entering into the composition of Prussian blue….The cyanide (in this case KCN) will also turn me blue, as in cyanosis, a lividness of the skin owing to the circulation of imperfectly oxygenated blood. Something like drowning—inward shudder.

The patterns are loaded using several methods. The images of the cyanide and process of cyanosis are connected to Willa’s inner state with the phrase “inward shudder.” The split-off blue pattern is tied in to the root cyanide pattern in the sentence explaining cyanogens. The skin and oxygenated blood will be repeated in the final lines of the story, thus contributing to the echo effect and overall resonance of meaning.

Throughout the story, images associated with cyanide crystals repeat in various ways as form and plot mandate content. At the conclusion of the kitchen scene between Willa and Hugo, the image appears when Willa goes to take a bath: “But it doesn’t really matter, and I drift down the hall to the bathroom, run water in the tub and pour bath salts (resembling cyanide), depressed and indolent.” Again the imagery connects the external, bath salts that remind her of cyanide (suicide) to Willa’s emotional state. In the car at the Wendy’s parking lot, the cyanide resembles snow and salt: “The cyanide (KCN—stands for twelve gauge shotgun) scatters in the air like snowflakes. It is as if we are inside one of those glass globe shake-ups, a winter scene, couple with dogs, but the snow smells like almonds” and “The cyanide rattles against the seatcovers like tiny balls of sleet or spilled salt.” The snow pattern is juxtaposed with the cyanide pattern at the beginning of the next section as the characters take in the cyanide-filled Pinto: “Snow sifts through the open doors and mixes with the white crystals.” This repeated and extended image patterning creates a web which enhances the story’s meaning as the characters move through the forward-moving plot events. Along with unity, the repeated images help remind the reader what the story is “about”—in this case, suicide, Willa and her father’s death.

An offshoot of the cyanide pattern, the “blue” pattern separates and weaves its own images and meaning throughout the story with the connection to cyanosis and specific shade of Prussian blue. Willa tries “to remember the exact shade of blue Prussian blue is and wonder if I would look good in that colour. Perhaps I should dye my hair.” Here again, form drives content. Willa and Hugo dust the snow and cyanide off the seats of the car, and the blue pattern surfaces in the present-moment plot action. “It is cold, dirty work, and my hands and lips turn blue (as do Hugo’s—not an effect of cyanide; this is because the body directs the blood to the major organs, the heart and brain, for example, to keep them warm).” This sentence ties back the split-off secondary image of “blue” with the root “cyanide,” further loading the image patterning.

The position of the word “blue” in the final line of the story allows the image patterning web to achieve a reverberating effect. Willa ponders “…a truth that only now begins to spread like imperfectly oxygenated blood through my arteries and capillaries, turning my limbs leaden and my skin blue.” “Blue” becomes a pun that reflects back over the story and bolsters the initial meanings.

Plot and “Why I Decide to Kill Myself and Other Jokes” by Douglas Glover

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In Douglas Glover’s “Why I Decide to Kill Myself and Other Jokes,” the protagonist, Willa, wants to return the cyanide to the lab and later use the hoarded stash to commit suicide. The relationship of opposition in the story is between Willa (A) and her boyfriend Hugo (B). Hugo wants to put the jar of cyanide back before Willa is “charged” and save her from killing herself. A series of three scenes play out in which Willa and Hugo collide in the same conflict over the jar of cyanide: Willa and Hugo in the kitchen, Willa and Hugo in the bathroom, and Willa and Hugo in the Pinto at the Wendy’s parking lot. In the conflicts between these two characters, the repetition of Willa’s desire keeps the plotline focused, forces the characters to search inward, and mandates content and imagery as the story progresses.

Willa’s desire appears in the beginning of the story. She announces what she wants in the following lines: “Let us say that a person wants, in general, to kill herself. She has a nice little supply of cyanide, obtained illegally from a university research lab (plants, not animals), which she intends to hoard for use when the occasion arises.” After a space break, the first sentence of the next section reiterates her desire and keeps the plot focused: “A girl decides to kill herself and life suddenly becomes a cesspit of complications.” In the third section of the story, plot stays focused on Willa’s goal in the line, “I do not wish to die in this Pinto with my dogs looking on.” This conflicting desire forms the basis for Willa’s next action, to hide a portion of the stolen substance: “I carefully pour out what I consider to be the minimum fatal dose, then double it.” Her action pushes the plot forward into the series of conflicts that follow in the next three scenes between she and Hugo.

In these scenes, the opposing poles of Willa (A) and Hugo (B) come into conflict in both action and dialogue. Willa restates her desire yet again in her first lines to Hugo: “Hugo,’ I say, ‘I wanted to kill myself. I stole this from the lab. I would have gone through with it, but Professor Rainbolt saw me. I didn’t want to get you into trouble.’” This direct dialogue helps keep the plot focused on the problem of the jar of cyanide and drives the action forward. Hugo’s response counters her speech; the opposing pole (B) fights (A): “It’s my fault, isn’t it? It’s all my fault.’” The continuation of the dialogue between them remains focused on what each character wants and how they are going to return the jar to the lab:

“I say, ‘Okay, well, as I said, Professor Rainbolt saw me, so you’d better take it back. If you take it back, then                                           he won’t find anything missing. You can just say you sent me to pick up a book.’ (A)

‘I can’t lie about a thing like this,’ he says.” (B)

Willa does not answer and (A) combats (B) with silence. Hugo’s next portion of speech is directed not at Willa but at his mother who has called; however, even in this sidebar conversation, the focus remains on the conflict over the jar of cyanide and Hugo’s desire of how he will combat (A): “’Mom,’ says Hugo, excitedly. ‘I can’t talk. I’m in a jam. Willa tried to kill herself. She’s all right now, but she stole some cyanide from the lab. I have to put it back somehow, before she’s charged.’” The plotline continues to drive the content.

The second scene involving Willa and Hugo takes place in the bathroom. Again this section opens with the protagonist meditating on the central, driving conflict, the jar of cyanide: “Presently, as I soak and pretend that I am already dead, reminiscing light-heartedly about my little stash of KCN, Hugo pushes through the bathroom door…” The actions of the characters are different from the previous scene—Willa takes a bath, Hugo pounds the side of the tub and gets more physical, tearing his shirt so that the buttons pop off—but the conflict remains the same. And the dialogue remains focused on the problem of Willa wanting to kill herself and Hugo attempting to intervene, even while talking about Rainbolt and his suicidal wife. Willa attacks Hugo’s revelatory announcement of Rainbolt’s response with a sarcastic comment: “Does Professor Rainbolt play the guitar, too?” Later in the section, Hugo suggest “therapy” to which Willa retorts and alludes to Mrs. Rainbolt again as a way to combat the conflict differently: “’For heaven’s sake,’ I say, ‘I don’t need therapy. I don’t want to turn into Mrs. Rainbolt. Evanescence is not my preferred mode of existence.’” Thus ends the spoken exchange between Willa and Hugo in this scene; Hugo’s response is a non-verbal thumping of the tub. While the approach the characters take to fight for what they want may change, the essential conflict never does.

The next scene and third in the series of repeated conflict between (A) and (B) again repeats Willa’s desire in light of the present action: “A woman who commits crimes and tires to kill herself automatically loses her ability, ever shaky at the best of times, to perform simple everyday tasks like, say, driving a car.” This technique of openly restating the conflict of Willa’s trying to kill herself helps give focus to the scene as it opens and orient the story to a unified and coherent whole. Again the dialogue and action taking place between Willa (A) and Hugo (B) centers on the same conflict, although the characters go about the fight in a different way. The dialogue focuses on the jar of cyanide, bringing the poles back into conflict:

“Is this all of it?” he asks, enunciating carefully, without looking at me. (B)

“Sure,” I say. “I may like the stuff once in a while, but I’m not an addict. (A).

Hugo’s responds in action rather than speech, smashing his fist on the dash, and Willa stifles a laugh.

The climax occurs when Hugo finds the cyanide hidden in the cassette box and there’s a “glass globe shake-up”—the cyanide flies into the air. Willa’s secret plan to kill herself fails because of Hugo’s combative action. She shouts, “Get out!” and the goal changes: both (A) and (B) must now join together to save themselves (and their dogs).

In the aftermath of the blow-up, the final scenes still show (A) and (B) in opposition with one another. When Hugo asks if Willa’s okay, the dialogue takes the following pattern:

“No, I’m not all right. No, I don’t feel okay. Okay?”

I turn away and the dogs follow me. (A)

“Where are you going?” (B)

“Home. I’m tired of this.” (A)

Hugo responds by running after Willa and embracing her (B), and Willa’s response is to pull away (A). The climax of the glass globe shake-up has caused the characters to change, to re-evaluate themselves and one another. In the final paragraph, Willa’s questioning of what happened causes the story to ponder its own meaning: “I lie awake thinking, thinking about what happened to Hugo back there by the car, what made him run after me, embrace me and weep—some inkling, I think some intuition of the truth, that I am leaving, a truth that only now begins to spread like imperfectly oxygenated blood through my arteries and capillaries, turning my limbs leaden and my skin blue.” The last sentence’s reference to the cyanide brings the plot into focus for a final time and heightens the sense of resonance and meaning.