Bartleby Snopes Writing Blog

Becoming a Better Writer

Category: Flash Fiction

Writing About a Spousal Fight

Guest Post by David S. Atkinson

Intro by Nathaniel Tower

When David S. Atkinson asked if I would read his latest short story collection, I didn’t hesitate. A chance to get a free advanced copy of a book I knew I would like by a great writer and good friend? There was no way I could turn that down. David is a treasured member of the literary community. Aside from being a voracious reader who can somehow read and digest every word of any book within 24 hours of receiving it, he’s one of the nicest and most supportive writers I’ve ever met. And he’s damn funny, which is on display both through his personal interactions and his fiction. Not Quite So Stories is one of the best collections I’ve read, and I’m not just saying that because we’re friends. I’m saying that because I mean it. Unlike David (who must have some sort of time-freezing device) I don’t have the time or dedication to read every book that gets sent my way, but David’s was one that I read and enjoyed thoroughly. And I probably owed it to him. Of course, after reading it, I feel like I owe him even more. Yup, it’s that good. 

If you haven’t read David’s collection, do so now. But before you do, stick around here and enjoy learning a little more about his process and inspiration for one of my favorite stories in the collection.

 

david atkinson

Writing about people one actually knows is always an uncertain territory. Conflicts with loved ones is particularly fraught with peril. After all, one never knows how the subject will react. Presuming one actually cares, the need to write the story must be weighed against how the person might feel, and what they might do about it.

Writing about a spousal conflict is even more of a minefield, especially if one wants the marriage to continue.

However, I did write about an area of my real life marital strife in my story “A Brief Account of the Great Toilet Paper War of 2012,” which is included in my new short story collection Not Quite so Stories. The issue centers on, as one might guess from the title, toilet paper. There are great disagreements in our household over toilet paper.

To explain, my wife is an “under the roll” believer, whereas I maintain that this is blasphemous. I take this quite seriously, which amuses my wife. Also, she doesn’t tend to replace empty rolls unless she herself needs them. Sometimes, she’ll just set a new roll nearby and start using it rather than actually placing it on the roll. This all bothers me much, much more than is reasonable. toilet paper war

So, it all went into the story. I went wild with it, taking things to ridiculously absurd extremes (I have never, I repeat never, glued toilet paper to a roll in order to ensure that there is always toilet paper on the holder, whether usable or not). Still, the core of our “debate” is there and I’m airing our dirty laundry in public.

Is that a good idea? Should I have done it? One school of thought, advocated by Anne Lamott, is to go ahead…but to: “give the character a small penis,” the idea being that the subject would never claim that the character is them. However, I didn’t want to give my wife any kind of penis at all. Further, I wouldn’t worry about my wife claiming the character is her. Rather, I would be concerned with her being hurt and thus damaging our relationship.

So, what did I do?

Well, first of all, I wrote about a relatively insignificant conflict. Arguments about toilet paper may get heated at home, but this is a fairly petty matter that isn’t particularly private. I think that helps. Also, the story is humorous. I’m trying to entertain and make people laugh, not get validation from the reading public regarding my position in the argument (I’m still right). Beyond that, I made sure to make the wife in the story more reasonable whereas the husband is a loveable yet ridiculously over serious about toilet paper protocol. In short, he’s a buffoon. Even if my wife read the story and felt it was an airing of a private marriage matter in public, I’m the one I made look ridiculous. All of those things work together to make me feel more okay in writing about something from my marriage.

david atkinsonNow, am I guaranteed to be okay? Absolutely not. However, I know what I’m comfortable with and I know my wife. I thought about whether or not I should write the story, and I thought about it deeply before I began writing…no matter how innocuous I thought it was. I considered her possible feelings, and considered them again before getting the story published. Whether or not I’m actually okay, I thought about it a great deal and decided I was. Personally, I think the fact that I considered her feelings mattered more than anything I happened to write.

Of course, it also probably helps that my wife doesn’t hang on every word I write. She’s got a lot of important things going in her life and I’m not the center of everything. Nor should I be. To be honest, I’m not entirely sure she’s read “A Brief Account of the Great Toilet Paper War of 2012” yet. We’ll have to see if my advice on this changes when she does.

Wish me luck.

 

David S. Atkinson is the author of Apocalypse All the Time (forthcoming 2017), Not Quite so Stories, The Garden of Good and Evil Pancakes (2015 National Indie Excellence Awards finalist in humor), and Bones Buried in the Dirt (2014 Next Generation Indie Book Awards finalist, First Novel <80K). His writing appears in Bartleby Snopes, Grey Sparrow Journal, Atticus Review, and others. His writing website is http://davidsatkinsonwriting.com/.

Developing Character Through Movement & Gesture

Lately, I’ve been focusing on an aspect of character development in my own work that I’ve noticed in stories that catch my attention, especially in flash fiction: revealing character through embodied movement.[1]  A character’s lifelike qualities emerge vividly out of how she occupies the narrative space. The brevity and compression of flash allows writers to experiment with form and structure with few constraints. In respect to embodied movement, as with any aspect of fiction, the writing and the words carry more freight. One of the more memorable examples is Ron Carlson’s “The Great Open Mouth Anti-Sadness.” The whole piece is a wonderful work of characterization, yearning, emotion, and movement in a confined space:

He worked one dress shoe off with the other, and then held it on a toe as long as he could. The air cooled his arch perfectly, and he thought that: perfect. Evaporation was such a stunning feature of life on earth. Water rises into the air. Now he opened his mouth and then a little wider than was comfortable. [2]

Another is Kathy Fish’s lovely “Tenderoni” from Smokelong Quarterly, where a young woman watches her boyfriend figure out how to move a dead kitten off the road:

My boyfriend and I grab our bikes and pedal across town for a parade which has probably been cancelled anyway. Ahead, Mark’s skinny calves pump, his day glo rain poncho flaps behind him like a flag. He stops and gets off the bike and I catch up to him.

“Oh, damn,” I say. “A kitty.”

“It looks sort of lumpy,” he says. There’s a drop of rain holding on to the tip of his nose and steam rising from his shoulders. “We should move it.”[3]

We know nothing about this couples’ ages, not much about how they look, or exactly where they are. It’s raining, they want to see a parade, they ride bicycles. One likes to smoke, one wears glasses. They are tender with one another. Readers feel like they share something intimate and significant with these people. Most of what we learn about them is from how they move and act and in what they say to one another.

Characters move through space and display physical characteristics, emotional expressions, and psychological states. They also convey their intellect, sexuality, humor, mood, opinions, trauma, and the status of their relationships. How a character conducts herself in the story tells us more than a description. We typically take advantage of dialogue as an opportunity for subtext, but movement can enrich characterization without having to rely on explication. When we show how a character emotes, for example, the disparity between their inner lives and their exterior responses contribute to tension and conflict. Nancy Stohlman in The Vixen Scream and Other Bible Stories cleverly borrows most everything the story needs with a one-word title, “Samson” and writes twenty-one more words of precise movement and dialogue:

“Don’t worry, we’ll both do it,” Delilah said, reaching for the hair clippers on the counter next to the lice shampoo.” [4]

How a character or reader changes and transforms over time in the narrative space has something to do with embodiment and movement, even if there is little to no embodiment and/or restricted movement. They are enabled to act in some way. A character’s movement also influences how time dilates and constricts, speeds up and slows down. This is how character movement can regulate pacing and momentum.

In “Abbreviated Glossary” Gay Degani uses concise, stark sentences to convey an emotionally charged story in 150 words that takes place over eight months:

Pact:

His lips disappear between his teeth when I break the news. He says he’s not ready—no diapers for him—but I know he is. I’ll do the hard part. I promise.

Hope:

My fingers knead the curve of my belly. Dev slips an arm around my waist and grins at his boss. Proud papa.[5]

Amelia Gray in “House Heart” tells the story of how a couple lures a woman to their home and traps her in the ductwork. For one woman, her whole world becomes the visible interior of the house and how she dwells in it with her husband and this new, determined presence. For another woman, her space is confined to the interior of a house and the spaces she creates:

We licked each other’s faces, listening to the girl above us. At that moment, she was learning that she could crawl on her hands and knees in he main passage, but that in the smaller lines, she would have to slide on her belly, arms outstretched, pulling herself forward.[6]

Eventually, everyone’s focus narrows to the interior where violations of hospitality play out.

Character development through movement is another way for our characters to gain more presence, mass, and substance. A young, recently injured gymnast is going to move very differently than his older brother who is a former heavyweight class wrestler and makes glass for a living. There are also characters we cannot help but remember always, not so much for the way they look but for their presence and how they bear themselves in a story.

 

[1] Bradley, April. First published as “Character Development & Movement.” Fiction Flash Fiction Chronicles. July 3, 2015. http://www.everydayfiction.com/flashfictionblog/character-development-movement-in-fiction/
[2] Carlson, Robert. “Great Open Mouth Anti-Sadness.” Flash Fiction Forward: 80 Very Short Stories. Ed. James Thomas & Robert Shapard. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2006. 62-63.
[3] Fish, Kathy. “Tenderoni.” Smokelong Quarterly. Issue 28. October 2, 2008 Accessed June 13, 2015. http://www.smokelong.com/flash/kathyfish22.asp
[4] Stohlman, Nancy. “Samson.” The Vixen Scream and Other Bible Stories. Magill SA, Australia: A Pure Slush Book, 2014, 86.
[5] Degani, Gay. “Abbreviated Glossary.” Melusine, or Woman in the 21st Century. Accessed June 13, 2015. http://www.melusine21cent.com/mag/node/251
[6] Gray, Amelia. “House Heart.” Gunshot: Stories. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2015. 16.