Ironing While Watching TVby Alex Keegan
The Internet Writing Journal, June 2004
We do it. We drive, listen to the radio, chat. Our kids can play a computer game, watch TV, talk on the phone, listen to Heavy Metal and do their homework. They may not get it right, but.
I have just read "Amor Divino" by Julia Alvarez. You can find it in the quite excellent collection The Art of the Story: An International Anthology of Contemporary Short Stories, Edited by Daniel Halpern.
Amor is a fine story bringing together a senile old man, his granddaughter, various Dominican maids in an intricate tale of family. But what struck me about the story, especially when every day I read anything from two-to-ten beginner stories is how (a) Alvarez manages to introduce such telling details, (b) how the thing is so rich -- you can open at a page, dive in and pull out a gem and (c) how so often the words are put together in such a way that they iron while watching TV.
I like acronyms, so here's a new one: the words Ironing While Watching TV or IWWTV.
I have persuaded some of my Boot Camp writing group to read at least one from five fine stories every day. Today, one of the stories was the Alvarez one. The main characters are Dominican, but Julia Alvarez manages to introduce them, the show them, to let us understand them, before she mentions Dominica. Notice that. Beginners think we must get the Dominican fact in up front, so they tell us. What happens then is the reader, instead of feeling the characters, starts using whatever stereotypes abound (incorrectly) about "Dominicans" or Portuguese, or Scotsmen.
But Alvarez Irons while watching TV.
The story begins with what a great-grand-child wants. Trivial, a warm-up, but it turns out, because Alvarez IWWTV that the opening heralds the ending, it whispers the story's theme, it shapes and helps to frame. At he same time it introduces as part of something else the otherwise, needs-to-be-told fact of the old man's senile distress.
In the second paragraph, "mere scene-setting," the barely-trained maids in white suits, sneaking away to watch soaps, and then "every time Yolanda crosses over there's a scramble to their posts."
The fact that various family members live in a compound is just slipped in here. The fact that Yolande likes the power of her entrance, the fact that the old man was "a big man in his time" and the fact he is blind, and almost deaf and dumb, all this, plus the great images of these maids are pulled together as a scene and instead of three paragraphs of exposition.
When we realize what Alvarez is doing (and beginners don't) it's very clever, seemingly effortless. Every paragraph introduces new facts but while doing so, spins the plates of one-two-three other facts, keeps the plates spinning, the images burning in. So when the third paragraph introduces Yolande's divorce, it still includes the maids, the grandfather, the great granddaughter, the compound, the relationships. And will we be surprised when the story has at its heart that love comes and goes, that there are more ways than divorce to deal with problems, that family webs are important, that the grandfather too, had his troubles?
IWWTV, they do so much more. Everything for a reason. No accidents.
We all know the adage "Show-not-Tell" (which I dislike and recommend "Seduction-not-Instruction -- See my articles) and I've already mentioned how Alvarez let's us get the feel for the people, so they are real before using the word "Dominican." That appears at the bottom of the second page. In a lesser work, I would have read flat, instructional lists of who the characters were, what their ethnic backgrounds were, probably sent to my weary brain in a monotone.
Yolande's soon-to-be ex-husband is English. But does Alvarez say so? No, first in a short snappy paragraph they speak by phone in English (drip-drip) to John at his office in San Francisco (slipped in like quietly dropped litter), and then (for in every Alvarez paragraph twiwwtv) we see Yolande stop herself when she realizes she is arguing in front of the servants. The introduction of the class, their position in society, simply there, quiet, absolute, stronger because we are never badly told.
It is now, at the bottom of the first page that we actually read the word "compound" but we have had "crossing over", "all the other houses" and "going over often" already so the truth, naturally has been established. So is that all the paragraph does? Hardly, this is an example of ironing, remember! In a quick brushstroke we know that the old man came here when his wife became sick (twenty years ago), that all the appliances are that old (we get a great image of a huge old-fashioned black rotary phone). But that image is thickened, deepened because it "sits like the judge in his black robes at the palace of judges where she spent the afternoon."
Nothing seems to do just one thing in this story. Here, even some imagery is linked into the story's history, and we continue to see, just in the paragraph, the intricacies of the Dominican divorce, some nice macho insights into how the male members of the family presume this soon-to-be ex must be failing in the bedroom, and lastly, the safety of the clan.
Everywhere the words work like Trojans. I'll bite my tongue and not use the acronym again!
So now when Yolande and her husband fight by phone, it's simply well-written fighting talk, but it's here that slipped in, well-greased is his British accent. But that's not enough for Alvarez, why not some character and a comment on the transatlantic difference. His British accent makes the expletive all the more shocking, as if he has to stoop more than an American to use such language.
In the next short paragraph we get more on the complexities of the family relationships (tick), character (tick) and an aside on Dominican law. Then look, after she has mentioned law.
"Laws - ee God. What laws?! The place is a zoo. Shall I remind you, my dear, that there was a coup the day we married?In that there is as much, no more, detail as an average beginner story, but apart from richness and vivid scenes it's the subtle, hidden information that is so brilliantly conveyed. This family is rich, connected. They know generals, grow orchids, get married in the national church. All that is nicely slid under the reader's closed door (you can't escape!), but while we are at it, let's show the grand-mother's failing mental and physical health, slip in the husband's name, and such a great wedding!
"I'll ask you please not to name-call my native land, if you don't mind." This is ridiculous, Yolande is thinking. What have we come to?
And, of course, he is right but she does not want to be reminded. The tanks rolled on to the streets the morning of the wedding, trapping them in the compound, with the twenty-pound wedding cake across town at the baker's and the flowers wilting in the national cathedral. So as not to disappoint the bride and groom, an uncle persuaded a general friend to come out of one of the army tanks and marry them under martial law in the orchid garden in back of the grandfather's house. The grandfather, who still had his wits about him, gave Yolande away since her father was still stranded at the airport. But the grandmother was not as cooperative. She sat by, looking grim in a pink chiffon gown held together with safety pins hidden by the shawl draped over the back of her wheelchair. She threw a handful of rice out of turn and petted Yolande as she was saying, si, she was taking John Merriweather, the third, to be her lawful husband. Before the year was out the grandmother was dead.
One more paragraph, just one more example of Alvarez now doing the dishes as well as the ironing, whistling Dixie, calling her stockbroker, and tap-dancing. Yolande still kicks herself at her bad planning. She missed out on her big church wedding, pew on pew of uncles and aunts, cousins, a momentous sense of adding a new branch to the family tree. Only a totally Americanized Dominican would plan her wedding the day after elections! Invariably there is a coup or revolt or some sort of incident. But then, why hadn't her family advised her differently? She can guess why. They had been so relieved that the crazy Yolande was finally going to settle down with a decent man that they were not about to suggest any delays.
It is only when moving from decent, uncomplex, less hard-working, less inter-related prose to prose like Alvarez that I am made to notice just how well-placed are incidents, words, connections. Having now seen a master at work, I could imagine taking any of the sub-themes, family, power, sex, madness or naughtiness, class and by searching through the whole text probably find references, links and overlaps in every paragraph.
It's that which sets quality writing up there, a plane or two removed, that which, if we skim or read quickly, we simply do not see. To some extent, it is that which we have to learn to read, the subtle, the inter-connected.
In a very recent story of my own, (so recent the ink is still wet), I had a mining village and an annual sacrifice. But when is it set?
Early in the story, the narrator says:
I am a good tenor and if there was Eisteddfod still, I might well, this light and merry songster, take a tilt at some grand prize; if there were prizes or there was competition still. Father, too, might orate.But there are no Eisteddfod. No poetry. And we sing only for practice, and today.
So the careful, acute reader, knowing there are Eisteddfodau still, must set this in the future. But later the narrator also says:
This tenor, I am born thirteen years after the last mine closed, but our digging was done twenty before that, when there was a terrible time of closing, and the men left empty, grey as the slate roofs, soft as rain.If the narrator is twenty, and then this mine closed "in the terrible time of closing" (the Thatcher era, the nineteen-eighties) fifty-three years before. So this is set about thirty years into the future.
Discussing this with a student, I discovered he had totally missed these two hints, and in fact thought the piece (because of the archaic language) was set in some Victorian time. We have to learn to read carefully!
In my article Napalm, I mentioned that the writer has a responsibility to try to ensure that the reader cannot miss, but. well, we must read too.
I've just been taking the hatchet to a beginner story, killing words. The writer asked, "So any word, phrase, sentence, that isn't essential, that isn't working for it's place in the story should be given the boot?"
My answer was, usually. But there will be times where "superfluous" words, because they are doing the ironing while watching TV, pass the blue-pencil exam. This opening is from a story "Milieu, Miasma" eventually "Night Work" which was published in the University of Colorado's Sniper Logic.
Jack Sherman's word today is miasma. He is thinking of the morningfaint stench of misplaced semen, pussy, of feet and toenails and armpits, visitors, paper, print, of red wine drying to a sediment in glasses by the sink, the tiny ozones of television, carpetmites and spilled coffee, aerosol-dampened shit, wash'n'go, exhaust fumes, tyre-slick, colours of sirens, CD residue, atoms.In strict terms could we not lose the first two paragraphs, or replace them with one slick sentence? Yes, we could: in plot advancement they aren't that important.. but the paragraphs AS LANGUAGE have some power and effect, and they also reflect the main character's mental state. They also show his intellect and that (probably) he's a wordsmith.
Yesterday - (milieu) - Jack had thought of lies, protestations, fabrications and confabulations, of subtle underdigging, of sexgame alluding, of hurt and scathe and fluttering, the words first. He thought of proximities, knees which parted, pale hamstrings flashing, of stretches, openings, arms, mouths, legs (briefly), fingers flexing, intellects and raw ape.
The supervisor tells Jack put two gross of Heinz special-offer four-packs out. It's eleven o'clock. Outside the shell of light that's the supermarket car-park the sky is so black it throbs, and Samson Akibile drives the cleaning tractor in and out the shopping trolleys, the stainless proletariat, files, aisles, serries, straightened snakes of silver glinting in dark yellow sodium nitelite.
Jack wheels the loader out into the shelving, into the flourescent white which is blueyellow, the silk-finished beige floor, the semi-naked store. He works out fifty-seven times two-eight-eight as he stacks. "Sixteen thousand, four hundred and sixteen," he says as he comes in.
"How many beans?" the supervisor says.
The fact that the story involves convolutions and complexities, lies, also means that this opening is setting up the story's tone, foreshadowing the theme. Then, within that we have two more characters, the supervisor and Samson Akibile, and the night.
Once more, IWWTV.
British Crime and Literary Fiction Author Alex Keegan is publisher and editor of the British literary magazine, Seventh Quark. He is
creator of the five Caz Flood novels: Cuckoo (Headline Books, St. Martin's Press), Vulture,
Kingfisher, Razorbill (Headline Books) and A Wild Justice (Piatkus Books)
which all feature feisty female private investigator Catherine "Caz" Flood. Cuckoo was published in the U.S. by St Martin's Press, and
was nominated for an Anthony Award as best first novel.
His prize-winning short stories have been featured in numerous publications including Mystery and Manners, BBC Radio 4, Blue Moon Review, Southern Ocean Review, and The Atlantic. He is a Contributing Editor for The Internet Writing Journal. His blog can be found here.