Archive for the ‘Stories That Teach’ Category

Stories That Teach: “Letter to the Lady of the House” by Richard Bausch & the Power of Schmaltz

In our Stories That Teach series, we take a close look at our favorite tales to see what they can teach us about craft. We’ve examined the fictional lessons and social relevance of Susan Minot’s story “Lust,” dissected the elegant sentences in Lauren Groff’s “Ghosts and Empties,” and considered what makes Steven Barthelme’s “Heaven” so effective. In our February edition of Stories That Teach, we discuss one of our old favorites: “Letter to the Lady of the House” by Richard Bausch. Here, we question the notion that sentiment is for suckers and examine what makes this romantic—but realistic— epistolary story so moving. 

“In “Letter to the Lady of the House,” sheer sappiness bumps up against moments of ugliness. Grand proclamations about the nature of love follow descriptions of the mundane. Its sentimentality is not only excusable; it’s extremely effective.”

Listen to “Letter to the Lady of the House” here.

Discussed by Sadye Teiser

I will admit that I used to listen to Richard Bausch’s story “Letter to the Lady of the House” (as it was read on This American Life) every Valentine’s Day. And I would cry. The entire story takes the form of a letter that a husband writes to his wife the night before his seventieth birthday. She has gone to sleep after an evening of petty arguing and, after some whiskey, he decides that the best way to make his feelings known is by writing her a good, old-fashioned letter.

There is a reason why people disparage Hallmark sentimentality. After all, isn’t one of the first things that we learn in writing workshops the old adage Show Don’t Tell? It’s easy to dismiss a sentimental story as having flimsy craft. But letters encourage us to be direct. Especially when they are written to someone we love, they promote sappiness. A letter is a particularly risky form for a story to take. So, how do you write a successful story in the epistolary form? And is schmaltz really so bad for fiction?

Richard Bausch’s story “Letter to the Lady of the House” first appeared in The New Yorker way back in 1989. I will admit that it has many lines that would be at home in a Hallmark card. However, several elements save the story from falling into a pit of mushiness. First, its sentimentality is often combined with harsh, but realistic, observations on marriage. Second, although it has its abstractions: the story is rooted in the commonplace.

The letter starts out by recounting the small stuff. The husband, John, and his wife, Marie, fight about whether or not the pepper that the husband puts on his potatoes will upset his stomach. She goes to bed angry. He drinks whiskey. He watches TV. He thinks about how they have to prepare the house for their children and grandchildren’s visit tomorrow. He considers leaving: going for a walk around the block, or sleeping in a hotel for the night, or perhaps never returning at all. He makes this decidedly ungenerous proclamation:

I saw our life together now as the day to day round of petty quarreling and tension, that it’s mostly been over the past couple of years or so. And I wanted out as sincerely as I ever wanted out of anything.

Now, that is something that you would never find on a greeting card. However, it is a realistic thought for a couple in the middle of a fight, after decades of marriage. Then, of course, the tone softens. The husband stands in the bedroom doorway and looks in on his wife, asleep under the covers, and thinks only of her smallness, her vulnerability. He goes for a walk in their neighborhood. He is seized by the fleeting but strong feeling that this is his last night on this earth. Well, of course, he returns home and gets a little bit sentimental. (I usually start crying right around here:)

When I stood in the entrance of our room and looked at you again, wondering if I would make it through to the morning, I suddenly found myself trying to think what I would say to you if indeed this were the last time I would ever be able to speak to you. And I began to know I would write you this letter.


Stories That Teach: “Lust” by Susan Minot – Discussed by Sadye Teiser

In our Stories That Teach series, we look at what some of our favorite works of short fiction can teach us about craft. In the past, we’ve examined the art of the sentence in Lauren Groff’s “Ghosts and Empties” and dissected the creepiness of Laura Benedict’s “When I Make Love to the Bug Man,” to name just two. Today, we examine the ineffable lessons that Susan Minot’s “Lust” can teach us about the fictional form, as well as its concrete commentary—still hauntingly relevant today—on relationships between women and men. You can read Susan Minot’s story here (you need to sign in with Narrative; it is free to register).

This story is about the—implicit and explicit—silencing of and disrespect for women that occurs in their romantic relationships with men. This is something that we certainly touched on, but did not linger over, in class discussions.

Read “Lust” here.

Discussed by Sadye Teiser

Susan Minot’s story, “Lust,” was always one of the most popular in the undergraduate creative writing courses I taught. When it came time for students to imitate the form of a story that we had read, many picked Minot’s unusual and pithy piece. “Lust” was originally published in 1989, before most of my students were born. But it teaches what is still a progressive lesson, namely: a story can take any form that it likes.

We would always discuss the story’s form and content, but the greatest lesson that I hoped “Lust” would teach my students was an ineffable one. It was a lesson I could not map on a Frye tag, assign vocabulary to, or quantify in any way. I wanted my students to realize that, though a story can take many shapes: you know a story when you read one. You know this because it feels complete.

Susan Minot’s “Lust” chronicles the relationships that its unnamed protagonist has with men while she is at boarding school. It is told in a series of stand-alone parts, from a sentence to a paragraph in length, that together form a cohesive story. They are told in first person and second person, in past and present tense.

There is a section about the protagonist’s parents, and their oblivious remarks about the boyfriends she had at boarding school. Though brief, the passage is brimming with specificity, such as the closing line: “My father was too shy to talk to them at all unless they played sports and he’d ask them about that.” There is a poignant, short section about the songs she associates with certain men. There is a sweeter, melancholy passage about a boy who dies in a car crash shortly after his tryst with the protagonist.

In one passage, she spends the night with a guy who is too shy to make a move until, as they fall asleep, he puts his arm around her—and that is the extent of it. Another passage describes a romance on a camping trip, sleeping bags zipped together. In another section, our protagonist talks, bluntly, about all the different types of penises she’s seen, remarking: “But it’s like faces; you’re never really surprised.”

Some passages are more sinister. One recounts a memory of the boys who lived next door while the protagonist was growing up. They tied her ankles together, and forced her to show them her underwear. Another recalls lines that men have yelled at the protagonist from cars. It ends with this: “So I’d go because I couldn’t think of something to say back that wouldn’t be obvious, and if you go out with them, you sort of have to do something.”


Stories That Teach: “A Particular Woman” by Molly Jean Bennett – Discussed by Sadye Teiser

Our Stories That Teach series closely examines works of fiction for the lessons that they can teach us about craft. We’ve taken a look at Lauren Groff’s exquisite sentences, the creepy suspense of Laura Benedict’s “When I Make Love to the Bug Man,” and interiority in Anne Valente’s beautiful story “Mollusk, Membrane, Human Heart,” to name a few. Today, we dive into our own archives and discuss sentence integrity in Molly Jean Bennett’s flash story “A Particular Woman.”

“Each of these sentences is a portrait of a particular body part. They add up to form a cohesive story, but they are also complete in themselves. You could put each of them up on the wall, or on the refrigerator, and appreciate them individually.”

Read “A Particular Woman” here.

Discussed by Sadye Teiser

Every single story that we publish at The Masters Review furthers my own understanding of the craft of writing. Editing a story is, also, a wonderful opportunity for close study. In our Stories That Teach series, we focus on craft elements of our favorite works of fiction and examine why they are so effective. So, we decided that it was high time we feature a story from our own archive.

Molly Jean Bennett’s bold piece of flash fiction, “A Particular Woman,” was published in our New Voices section. It charmed us, and our readers, instantly. In this story, the parts of a woman’s body, quite literally, come alive. Her bladder is shy. Her spine is a compulsive liar. Her eyes love disco. This story is an excellent lesson in the power and integrity of the sentence. Bennett crafts sentences that are beautiful works of art in themselves, but that also function within the living, breathing body of the story.

This story is what we jokingly refer to in the office as “twitter friendly.” In other words, it had lots of sentences that we could use to promote the story on social media, which fell comfortably within the one-hundred-and-forty character limit. I’m talking about stunners like these:

“The moon, rising over the crumbling house across the street, appeared like a wound beneath a gauze bandage.”

“The kidneys scolded other people’s children.”

“The tongue was a brilliant expressionist painter living in the wrong time.”

“The elbows couldn’t break dance, but often tried to at wedding receptions.”

“The liver painted pastoral scenes on sliced almonds.”

Of course, I’m not trying to assert that twitter is the ideal place for thoughtful, nuanced dialogue. That must be made clear. But it’s important to note that you don’t need a lot of words to paint a vivid picture.

Each of these sentences is a portrait of a particular body part. They add up to form a cohesive story, but they are also complete in themselves. You could put each of them up on the wall, or on the refrigerator, and appreciate them individually.

Have a little fun: try illustrating each of the lines above. What do you get?


Stories That Teach: “Ghosts and Empties” by Lauren Groff – Discussed by Kim Winternheimer

In this craft essay, Masters Review editor Kim Winternheimer uses Lauren Groff’s “Ghosts and Empties,” to examine how success on the sentence level affects story elements.

Fog with trees and lamp post

“New writers fill their sentences with syrupy words or too many adverbs, but good writers use prose to reflect a sensibility about the world.”

Read “Ghosts and Empties” here.

Discussed by Kim Winternheimer

“Ghosts and Empties” was published in The New Yorker last July, and while I’ve always been a fan of Lauren’s work (she judged our first anthology!) this story struck me as a special iteration of her ability to craft an incredible sentence.

The story begins with the line: “I have somehow become a woman who yells, and, because I do not want to be a woman who yells, whose little children walk around with frozen, watchful faces, I have taken to lacing on my running shoes after dinner and going out into the twilit streets for a walk, leaving the undressing and sluicing and reading and singing and tucking in of the boys to my husband, a man who does not yell.”

The piece then follows the narrator on a walk through her neighborhood, as she observes the people, houses, and goings on around her. “The neighborhood goes dark as I walk, and a second neighborhood unrolls atop the daytime one.”

I love a piece that dazzles on the sentence level. New writers fill their sentences with syrupy words or too many adverbs, but good writers use prose to reflect a sensibility about the world. They find something new in an old idea. All of Lauren’s writing is like this. I mark so many lines the page fills up with checkmarks, underlines, and stars. The page is left, literally, dazzling.

I like looking at stories on the line level because it is the first filter between story and reader. When a writer can deliver information in a readable way, but access a different economy in the language, you know immediately you’re in good hands. Take the following passage: “There’s an elegant, tall woman who walks a Great Dane the color of dryer lint; I am afraid that the woman is unwell because she walks rigidly, her face pulsing as if intermittently electrified by pain. I sometimes imagine how, should I barrel around a corner to find her slumped on the ground, I would drape her over her dog, smack his withers, and watch as he, with his great dignity, carried her home.”

David James Poissant mentions concrete imagery in his craft essay on Steven Barthelme’s “Heaven,” citing the importance of delivering vivid visuals to the world of the story. “Ghosts and Empties” feels like a story dedicated entirely to this notion, with this line serving as an excellent example. We can see the woman walking her tall, gray dog. We can see them moving gingerly through the night. We can see the dog, in the narrator’s nighttime vision—and in a quick break with reality—gliding away with the woman draped across his back.

But let’s examine what else is working on the line level. Revisit the passages I mention above, and note their length. Note that while delivering concrete imagery through the use of effective language, Lauren is also architecting sentences to mimic the pace of a long and breathless walk. Brilliant! What is also interesting to me in “Ghosts and Empties,” is the narrative arc that develops—and is enhanced by—Lauren’s choices on the sentence level.

As the narrator walks and watches, she begins to know the houses, people, and animals around her. One could argue that she knows her surroundings better than most, and yet, is kept at a formal distance. She sees, she observes, but is limited in her understanding based solely on what she can infer. She is the most intimate observer in the story, but is never an insider. And thus, the prose enhances the conflict: a duality between seeing and knowing surfaces. (more…)