At the Gym: Why Details Matter

           At the Gym by Brandi Sharmek is a poem from Periphery 55. The poem can be found in our archives as well as under the story of the week tab.  The Periphery Blog is a blog about writing, narrative, art, and everything in between.

A few years ago I worked for the recreational staff in the gyms here at Drake.  It was a strange job just sitting in the gym, unable to spot or help the students.  I was just there to watch, to keep the peace.  When I talk to others who have, or still do sit inside weight rooms and try not to make too much eye contact with the patrons, they always mention the same couple of things.  They mention the fake movement, the furious cycling to nowhere, the fake space of full wall of mirrors, and the tiny interactions that can color an entire day.  When I read At the Gym by Brandi Sharmek, it took me right back to those moments.  Nothing I have read has so perfectly captured the feeling of spending a lot of time inside a gym.  I want to look at how Sharmek uses details to create a larger world and work far beyond their descriptive quality. 

            The most interesting aspect of At the Gym is the timing of the piece.  Anyone who has been bored at a job can speak to how time ebbs and flows while there.  Single moments can stand out for days while hours slide by unnoticed.  The reason the timing works so well in this piece, is that the poem comes off as over a long period of time.  These observations don’t come from a single day, nor a single place.  Descriptions of the track, basketball court, and weight room all run together.  Comments like, “Watch as he circles around us to the tock-tick of a counter-clockwise Tuesday,” and, “Read the sign: Monday, clockwise. Talk in circles, observe the showcase below,” speak to the extended timeline of the poem.  These observations come from a lot of time spent within the gym, not a single day or place.  The power of this timing is that the observations come off as exemplary of a larger experience.  Because every line paints a different picture, we as readers know they all aren’t happening one after the other, they are simply collections of observations across the time the speaker has been working there.  Put together these specific examples paint a much larger picture than a dude staring from behind the desk, and wannabes storming the court.  Each example is exemplary of many similar interactions and thereby the gym as a whole.  At the Gym uses specific details to be descriptive across a longer period of time and a broader experience than is what is shown.  That technique is a wonderfully accurate way to show and describe a boring job. 

            Specific details work to reflect back onto the speaker.  It is easy to miss the complete lack to action within At the Gym.  Every line is an observation or fantasy, never an action on the part of the speaker.  Part of the reason the lack of action is easy to miss is that it is so varied.  Sharmek does an incredible job of using every sense to creation the world of the gym.  I hear the weights chatter, I smell the antiseptic, and I see all six screens displaying the same image.  Every line isn’t another patron, nor image, but a switch between senses.  What is so interesting about all of these observations is that they are just that: observations.  The speaker, without ever saying anything about themselves is someone who spends a great deal of time observing the gym.  They are not the one pumping iron or running miles, merely observing.  More than that, through their voice we understand that observation isn’t spiteful nor sardonic, merely perceptive and above all bored.  Sprinkled into that perception, are fantasies: “Imagine an elephant elevated on an elliptical,” ponders the speaker.  These thoughts are interspersed with observations of the gym, telling of a wandering mind.  The specific observations not only work to build the world of the gym, but characterize the speaker. 

            Why then are specific examples so important?  It is kind of a strange question to ask.  It is the difference in saying the Mr. Rochester is ugly, or that he,

Had a dark face, with stern features and a heavy brow; his eyes and gathered eyebrows looked ireful and thwarted just now; he was past youth, but has not reached middle aged […] Had he been a handsome, heroic-looking gentleman, I should have not dared to stand thus questioning him against his will (Bronte 114)

It is the difference in saying that Gloria Gilbert compulsively eats candy, or that there is a specific brand of gum drop that she simply must have or she will pout and throw a fit.  We live our lives through specifics, not generalities, and when it comes to describing a place or person, those specifics define them.  When I think of my friends and family what stands out to me isn’t broad impressions, but details about the way they speak or habitual actions that paint that larger picture.  When I think of the gym, it isn’t of the machines, but the tick-tock of clocks and smell of antiseptic.  Sharmek could have easily told us about the gym, but through details, she is able to show us the space.

You are all Invited to my Joint Funeral with Benjamin Becker: When to Break Rules

            You are all Invited to my Joint Funeral with Benjamin Becker by Daniela Silva is a story from Periphery 55.  It can be found in our archives as well as under the story of the week tab.  The Periphery Blog is a blog about writing, narrative, art, and everything in between.

            You are all Invited to my Joint Funeral with Benjamin Becker is a story that I have been wanting to talk about for a long time.  Silva captures a feeling of listlessness in very clever ways, while still being incredibly funny and poignant. Silva’s story falls into an archetype of stories we get from time to time at Periphery about funerals.  They come in all shapes and sizes: happy and sad, serious and funny, melancholy and profound.  What I have noticed throughout many of them, including Joint Funeral, is a push back against the severity of the occasion.  Often stories will work to undercut the importance of funerals, or how seriously society takes them, even if they are conveying genuine grief.  This week I want to look at how Silva undercuts the severity and importance of funerals using grammar, conjunctions, and syntax. 

            Joint Funeral has a meticulously crafted careless feel to it.  When transcribing the story for this post, I carefully added capitals to the beginnings of sentences and quotations, names and other proper nouns, before realizing how much work they do when breaking the rules.  The story feels irreverent about the future and funerals, and that ideology carries all the way down to the rules of grammar.  Lines like, “and ben goes “dude!!!! totally!!!” work really hard to showcase how far Silva pushes beyond foundational rules of grammar.  Careless uncapitalized ‘I’s litter the story, like the protagonist was writing it on the back of a napkin while sitting in their 1996 gold Nissan Altima.  The same ideology the point of view character and Ben have about funerals extends to how the story is written.  Grammatically the story is as irreverent as it is thematically. 

            No less than 33 conjunctions are used in Silva’s story.  That means that almost 5% of the 672 word story is conjunctions; that’s one of every twenty words.  Silva’s heavy reliance on conjunctions works to make the story sound colloquial, like it was an actual conversation.  Anyone that has ever transcribed an interview or conversation can attest that people don’t speak like they write.  Fragments, and run on sentences dominate all but the most formal speech.  Silva uses conjunctions to push against syntactic structure with sentences like this one:

we’ve been friends for nearly five years now,

and i don’t remember how i met ben exactly,

he wasn’t there and then he just was,

asking me about whether he should patent

an invention called the slitten

(which are literally just sleeve-length mittens)

or whether we should have a shuffleboard table at our funeral

and laughing at my jokes even when they don’t deserve it

One can feel the memories flashing before the protagonist’s eyes as they run through six different thoughts at mach 1.  Conversations do that.  They are peppered with disjoined thoughts all connected with ands and buts and ors even though grammar and syntax demand that writing doesn’t.  By breaking the basic rules of grammar and sentence structure Silva showcases how little either character seems to care about the seemingly severe topic of a funeral.  Through syntax the irreverent tone is underscored. 

            The adage ‘you must know the rules to break the rules’ holds especially true in writing.  Syntax and grammar should be tools of communication rather than chains that hold an author back.  These socially understood rules of written communication help authors convey meaning effectively to a wide audience.  Breaking rules inherently calls attention to itself.  A fragment, or run on sentence can stand out of a piece of writing.  Breaking that understanding of communication conveys its own message, but it takes a specific piece and a specific voice to use it.  It can be really tempting for authors to break rules for the sole reason of breaking rules.  All too often those choices shift focus away from the writing itself to the errors and the effect of them. Joint Funeral embraces that idea, making the focus on errors work for the story.  Joint Funeral works incredibly hard to look like it doesn’t care.  Every uncapitalized name and ‘I’ work to convey a specific tone.  The piece is built around a disregard for societal understandings of importance, and therefore carries that same ideology to rules of grammar.  Silva has a reason to break the rules, and the effect works with the piece instead of against it. 

            Why then do so many pieces about funerals push back against severity with which society views them?  Next week the blog will showcase Funeral Weather by Caitlin Allen from Periphery 53 and look at just that question. 

Twelfth Floor: What Goes Unsaid

            Twelfth Floor by Olivia Williams, is a story from Periphery 56.  It can be found in our archives as well as under the story of the week tab.  The Periphery Blog is a blog about writing, narrative, art, and everything in between.

Twelfth Floor by Olivia Williams is a breath of fresh air of a story.  The heart of the story doesn’t come from incredible stakes, nor taking itself too seriously, but an intimate view of character.  It is as charming as it is succinct at showing how meaningful stories can come from even small encounters.  What I want to talk about in Twelfth Floor is what goes unsaid in a story, and how that creates meaning. 

            The line that sold Twelfth Floor for me was: “The elevator groaned inwardly, as it always did on the eighth floor”.  So much work is done by that single line, it is a stroke of genius.  The context that Jackie takes this elevator ride every day hits the reader from out of nowhere.  More stunning, however, is the next realization, that all of the tension of the story is in the context that the elevator ride is something Jackie does daily.  All the anxiety that comes from the other people in the elevator and a spider the size of her big toe is a daily occurrence.  Those anxieties are routine for Jackie.  From that single line, Jackie’s seemingly specific anxieties become generalized, her character is revealed but only through oblique detail. 

            The dual revelations of that line betray yet another.  Williams never says Jackie works in this building, nor that she is an anxious person.  Williams never says these things because she doesn’t need to.  She shows how simple things cause anxiety, how those tensions weigh on Jackie, and then that they are a daily occurrence.  The subtext screams these messages to reader through how Jackie sees the world, and how she acts in it.  These integral aspects of the story go unsaid.  They demand that reader pay attention, and put the pieces together for themselves. 

            Twelfth Floor is a perfect example of “The Iceberg theory” as coined by Ernest Hemmingway.  Hemmingway is famous for his minimalist style, and sparse descriptions.  That minimalism goes beyond syntax and diction, however.  Hemmingway believed that great stories should omit important parts, and only show them through subtext and theme.  A story then becomes like an iceberg where it has substance beneath what the reader can see. 

            The classic example of Hemmingway’s theory is his short story Hills like White Elephants.  In the story a couple sits at a Spanish bar and orders beers while waiting for a train.  The couple bickers before the argument gets cut off by the train arriving.  A passing glance at the story leaves a reader with little to work with.  The man and woman never specifically say what they are arguing about, and their curt conversation circles on itself several times.  Hemmingway leaves what they are arguing about unsaid.  He forces the reader to surmise what the two are talking about from generalities of their conversation.  Each line becomes a clue to help the reader figure out what the couple is actually talking about.  In reality the couple are arguing about whether the woman should get an abortion, and what would happen to them afterword.  The reader must put that together for themselves, however. 

            Why is it important that integral aspects of a story go unsaid?  Firstly, stories often are more realistic because of what goes unsaid.  People don’t spout exposition because most of the time, both participants in a conversation already know the context.  In White Elephants people commonly use euphemisms, or mask tensions by talking about other things.  Each line where the couple talks about beers and the future carries the tension that they aren’t really talking about those things: that isn’t what is important to them.  In Twelfth Floor Jackie would never tell strangers in an elevator that she works in the building.  It wouldn’t make any sense.  Secondly, the impact of leaving key aspects unsaid forces the author to show rather than tell.  The extent of Jackie’s anxiety is shown through her actions.  We see her struggle with routine, mundane encounters.  We understand her fears even if they are out of proportion to her surroundings.  We understand these things because Williams takes the time to show us.  The impact of Jackie’s anxiety would be nothing if we were simply told she was anxious.  In fact Williams never describes her as nervous, and only uses the word anxious to describe how Jackie thinks the spider sees her.  By never overtly describing Jackie, Williams forces the reader to pay attention to her actions and make their own decision about her. 

            An example of the depth created by leaving Jackie’s anxieties unsaid are these two contrasting descriptions:

            Jackie’s eyes wandered left, to the watery reflection of the young man. The tall, quiet         shape stared back.

            Jackie, trapped inside a 7 x 5 metal box with a large-sized spider and an average-height            young man, inwardly screamed.

Jackie first describes the young man’s reflection as tall, only to later describe him as average height.  Did she describe him as tall because he was intimidated by the stranger?  She possibly saw him as larger than he really was, only to later more accurately describe him as of average height.  Did she describe him as tall simply because she is short and therefore to her an average height man would seem tall to her?  All of these questions can be asked to better understand Jackie.  Details here have depth because of the ambiguity.  If Williams had simply told us, it would have not forced the reader to examine them as closely. 

            Clocking in at 825 words, Twelfth Floor goes to great lengths to stay focused on the story at hand: Jackie’s elevator ride.  The reader never learns about the job Jackie is going to, the setting, or even Jackie’s backstory.  Despite the lack of background, Jackie feels incredibly real.  Much of the reason for Jackie’s interiority is because it goes unsaid.  Similar to when we meet a stranger, we only see their actions.  From those actions we have to surmise an entire character.  Leaving Jackie’s character unsaid give incredible depth to her actions because as a reader, we are piecing together who she is.  Each detail works to show us who Jackie is.  They hint at something larger about the story, something that goes unsaid. 

Echoed Cries: Character v. Plot

            Echoed Cries by Jake Huebsch is a story from Periphery 50.  You can find it under the Archives tab or under Story of the Week.  The Periphery Blog is a blog about writing, narrative, art, and everything in between.

            We have all been there, watching a scary movie or reading a horror novel where we shout at the character, “Don’t go in there!” “Don’t open the door!” “Just run away!”  More than many other genres, horror struggles to balance character with plot.  Many times in order to produce a more frightening story, characters have to act in ways that put them in more danger.  The plot demands that characters make certain decisions in order to produce more fear.  It can be difficult for authors terrify if characters make rational decisions and call the police or simply run away when a monster or murderer comes for them.  The hallmark of great horror stories, however, is when characters are able to make believable decisions and the horror to still come from those actions.  How then, can authors balance character and plot in a horror story?  Huebsch has some answers his story Echoed Cries. 

            The first thing that struck me about the story was how tightly bound character motivation and uncovering the Beauvont’s secret are within the narrative.  Only the protagonist would have a good reason to be in the Beauvont mansion, and have reason to look critically at the portraits to discover the Beauvont secret.  The background of the story does an incredible job of allowing the reader to understand why the protagonist goes to the mansion, stays there even after he realizes something is amiss, and looks critically at the portraits.  If the protagonist was a thrill-seeking teen, the deep examination of the portraits, as well as remaining in the mansion, would come off as unsatisfying.  The protagonist has a job to do within the mansion.  He is staying in the mansion to restore the paintings, so it makes sense that he would be looking at them critically and then staying in the mansion despite his fear.  The protagonist’s character is designed in such a way to explain why he stays when others wouldn’t.  We aren’t shouting “Get out of the library!” because it makes sense for him to be there, and stay there.  Character isn’t overtaken by plot. 

            There is something to be said about horror stories that isolate characters.  We think of The Overlook Hotel from Steven King’s The Shining or the ship ‘Nostromo’ from Ridley Scott’s Alien, or any number of lakeside cabins or country manors a la The Turn of the Screw, Get Out, and so many others.  Isolating characters in a terrifying place makes sense for horror, but it is important to note that all of those stories work incredibly hard to set up why characters go to those locales.  King goes into great detail about why Jack Torrance wants to be the caretaker of the Overlook, and what spurns the family to live there.  Early lines within Alien show the crew’s commercial interests and how heavily money and bonus’ weight on their minds.  Character is emphasized in all of these examples before plot. 

            It becomes frustrating as a reader or viewer when authors have characters go to, or inhabit these frightening places when we would not.  It draws readers out of the text because characters that don’t make rational decisions no longer function as characters.  They become slaves to plot.  Slaves to plot do not demand empathy or sympathy when terrible things happen to them, because they own irrational actions  caused their downfall. 

            The 2017 It film, despite being a good movie, is filled with these poorly motivated actions.  When I saw It in theatres, during the movie someone shouted, “Stop following the balloon!”.  The frustrated viewer was of course talking about how the ‘Loser’s Club’ consistently puts themselves in avoidable situations where the rest of us wouldn’t.  Of course terrible things happen to the kids when they wander into sewers, or abandoned houses.  

            2017’s It also has an incredibly novel look at character action in the opening scene with Georgie and his lost boat.  The now famous scene of Georgie sticking his hand down the sewer is painful to watch.  I squirm just thinking about it.  No one should ever stick their arm down a sewer, and Georgie knows this.  The scene is so terrifying because we watch Georgie get convinced to do something we would never do.  It’s genius.  Character is at the center of Georgie’s actions.  He is a little kid able to be manipulated, and he is worried about his brother’s anger if he loses the boat.  We are yelling at the screen for Georgie to make a better decision, not a rational one.  That distinction is key. 

            I was really excited to find Echoed Cries within Periphery 50 because at this time of year, I always itch to watch scary movies and read horror novels. I was even more excited after I saw how well Huebsch set up the story.  Horror as a genre balances and incredible amount.  Character arcs, pacing, setting, and plot are all just as direly important in horror as they are elsewhere, but on top of all that, the author is trying to frighten the reader.  Sometimes that balance can come undone, which means horror authors have to be vigilant to keep character agency at the heart of the story.  It is no small feat, which is why Echoed Cries stands out to me. 

The Wolfhound: Why Syntax matters

            The Wolfhound by Matt Nelson, is a story from Periphery 47.  It can be found in our archives as well as under the story of the week tab.  The Periphery Blog is a blog about writing, narrative, art, and everything in between.

            Something I look for when reading through Periphery submissions isn’t just a good story.  More than a sold structure, a well paced narrative, or engaging characters, what I look for is how authors use the structure of language to communicate.  Because there is basically unlimited variance in how even a single sentence can be written, that level of detail can work incredibly hard for the story, if only the author pays attention.  To me, much of the elegance of writing is that because how one goes about creating a story is so open, each decision has the ability to become meaningful.  Decisions don’t all have to be painstakingly thought over, but authors can play tricks and layer meaning into even minute choices that are astonishing.  The Wolfhound by Matt Nelson from Periphery 47, is exemplary of that attention to detail, and just how hard syntax can work to tell a story. 

            Let’s say that you are narrating a character running a long distance.  How could sentence structure show the passing of time, and the scattered thoughts of the runner?  Take a look at how Nelson narrates Patrick’s run.  

Sixteen miles now, pound, pound. I’m fucking tired. I’m golden as shit. These are the kinds of thoughts that run through your mind when you run; crazy thoughts. The runner’s high starts deep into the run; you say the strangest things. You laugh but it’s casual. When you run the senseless things rise to the surface and take some sort of form before dissipating like the sweat from your skin evaporating into the air.

The short sentences that begin the paragraph bounce around from thought to thought.  They jar the reader with their quick change of subject, while also matching the pounding footstep-rhythm established in the first sentence.  The scattered thoughts both underscore how tired Patrick is, but also hint at the distance he has run between thoughts.  How much time passed between the start of mile sixteen, and Patrick imagining thoughts sweating from his skin?  If each sentence perfectly flowed into the next, one could easily assume that they were one right after the other: a continuous flow of thoughts.  That is not the case.  The jarring distance between thoughts easily translates to the distance Patrick has run. 

            Notice the breathless semicolons that connect thoughts that wouldn’t otherwise make a great deal of sense next to each other.  I love the simple description of runner’s high as “I’m golden as shit”.  It is nonsensical, and seemingly random, but perfectly encapsulating the fatigued thoughts of mile sixteen.  The comment feels like an inside joke Patrick has with himself, that only really becomes funny when exhaustion has overcome you.  You don’t have to run sixteen miles to understand the wild thoughts that beat through the fatigue of running.  The clipping sentences, each with different thoughts, show the reader how tired Patrick is beyond Nelson simply saying so. 

            Through syntax alone, Nelson underscores the point of both how far Patrick has run, as well as how tired he is.  Through choices the author made, not about the narrative, nor the character, he was able to convey meaning through the construction of language. 

            Another example that shows just how well Nelson makes his points through syntax is the second sentence in the story

My sister Donna had already awoken, and sat at the kitchen table, wearing her small eyeglasses and Cinderella pajamas, pretending to read the National Geographic and actually sipping at a cup of coffee.

Donna shouldn’t be drinking coffee.  She knows this, and Patrick knows this.  It is something she does with a little bit of pride and little bit of shame.  It isn’t hard to picture her hiding the coffee mug behind the pages of the National Geographic magazine.  Nelson never says any of this.  What he does say, however, comes from his construction of the sentence.  Just as Donna is hiding her habit from Patrick so too, is Nelson hiding his description of it from the reader. 

            The first clause of the sentence, an independent clause, stand alone, almost like a cursory glance from Patrick.  The longer he looks, the more he sees, starting with where Donna is sitting, what she is wearing, what she is pretending to be doing, and finally what she is actually doing.  Nelson hides what is actually happening, within the sentence itself, and by doing so, tells the reader so much more about Donna and Patrick as characters, and their relationship as siblings. 

            I was talking with a friend recently, when she off-handedly said that no one under twenty-five knows how to use a semi-colon, and that struck me as odd.  Not simply because semi-colons are rarely useful in 280 character tweets, but because they are another tool for a writer to use.  Not knowing how to use a semi-colon would be like an artist not using a specific color.  (Though Semi-colons are admittedly the color terracotta of grammatical tools).  It’s not that writer’s need to use them, but simply knowing about all of the choices that go into the writing process allows authors to make more meaningful decisions about language.  And making meaningful decisions about language is the most specific definition I have ever heard about the term ‘Literature’