I Don’t Know About You But by Kara Vernor, [A Craft Essay]
I read and write because it’s cheaper than travelling and the second best way I know to surprise myself and feel something new. To remind myself that my daily trappings—showering, running my face through a carwash of products, layering my body with clothing, and driving forty-five minutes to work—while a fine part of life are not all that’s out there. When I was younger, it was drinking and smoking and sex and music, but even that gets old when you do it too much.
I would guess all literary writing surprises in some way or we wouldn’t feel expanded by it. In a workshop I taught I asked students to read a sample story and note when they felt surprise or wonder, and then we discussed the how—the methods the writer used to affect us just so. Below are those that best double as prompts.
- Leap/juxtapose/braid—the narrative leaps, often at a paragraph break, to another time, place, voice, tone, topic, thought, etc., and then leaps back (see Kathy Fish’s “Strong Tongue” and John Jodzio’s “Two Malls”).
- Set and then break a pattern—the pattern can be created from repetitive syntax, conventions of genre, a story’s own internal logic or conceit, etc. (see Scott O’Connor’s “This Is What We Do,” Jennifer Howard’s “Flat Stanley Crime Stories,” and Matthew Baker’s “The President’s Doubles”).
- Invent descriptions that make us re-see the familiar (see Lindsay Hunter).
- Pan in/pan out—the narrative begins with a specific, present situation and then veers into a broader vantage point or aphoristic generalization (see Mary Ruefle’s “Little Golf Pencil” and Steve Almond’s “Jeff Keith, Lead Singer of Tesla, Considers Youth”).
- Link disparate words or phrases/disorder syntax (see Gary Lutz).
- Transgress—a character thinks or behaves in an unconventional manner, one that likely makes the reader uncomfortable (see John Jodzio).
Virtually all of the methods we identified huddle beneath the umbrella of subvert expectations, which requires, even if only subtly, disorienting the reader. If you’re a reader-pleaser, if you shy away from challenging your reader, I hope you’ll use each of these bullets as prompt and license to get strange and unsettle us. I mean, to deeply delight us by letting us fend for ourselves. To hit us with a “sudden feeling of wonder and astonishment, as through unexpectedness.” To drive us out of town and into the open.