Archive for category Fiction

5 Principles of Fiction for More Effective Content Marketing

Marketing these days is all about content. Storytelling.

Online marketing is an iterative story. Content may be final—published on website, posted on the blog and promoted through social media—but the story is in a constant draft state, a work in progress that is created and developed as much by the agency of the corporate author as the community with which it speaks.

In these stories, characters and plot lines are distributed through multiple online channels, each quite different, from purpose and audience intent to profile character limit. Our audience expects a different tone on our company Facebook page from what’s delivered in a standard news release. We pour syrup on our pancakes at breakfast in an 80/20 pattern every morning because 80% is about the audience and their needs, and 20% is about us.

(De)constructing the corporate narrative using five key attributes from the craft of fiction and storytelling provides a solid frame of reference for translating business goals into online content strategy.

Somehow it seems prudent to provide a disclaimer here that we should emulate not the imaginative nature of fiction in our marketing, but rather its structure and style.  Storytelling is, after all, the oldest form of human communication.

1.    Tight Lines

Good writers can produce tight lines of copy that are creative, compelling, and persuasive. They tend to have a healthy aversion to adverbs, hyperbole, and exclamation points.

These writers can use metaphor and analogy to convey complex, technical information, or to tease an emotional response from the reader that leads to an action or contributes to feelings of brand affinity. Here are a few tips for being more like them:

  • Use active voice. It means the subject of the sentence is the agent, performing the action. Instead of writing donation was given by {company} to benefit… , write {company} donation benefits…. Not only does active voice eliminate unnecessary words (the be verbs of passive voice), it’s more engaging for readers because it emphasizes the action and clearly conveys the main idea.That said, there may be times when passive voice is useful for de-emphasizing the performer of the action or putting focus on the recipient. (The distinction between active and passive voice for marketing and professional communications is, perhaps, another blog post altogether.)
  • Show, don’t tell. This is Fiction 101, using setting, character, and tension instead of description to illustrate action and create sequence. Marketing communications, whether online or offline, illustrate with data points, customer testimonials (social proof), and specific evidence given at various decision points in the sales cycle.
  • Be grammatically correct. Always get your ideas out before worrying about copy editing a blog post or product marketing email, but do take the time to proofread the content. If you break the rules, do it for style, not by accident. An excellent resource for grammar and punctuation is Purdue’s Online Writing Lab.

2.    Character Drives Action

It’s true in fiction, and it plays out in marketing.

The process of identifying and understanding a target audience for marketing efforts is like developing characters for a work of fiction. You know who they are, what they make a year, their educational level, where they eat and shop.

The marketer needs to create content for the individual buyer and her needs. Audience strategy isn’t a matter of B2B vs. B2C so much as a combination of immediacy of need, complexity of product, and to some degree, price point.

For example, the simple B2B software sale may rely in part on emotional triggers related to time/labor savings, while the B2C buyer may be facing a more complicated decision-making process for a product or service (higher price point, status, longevity of product, its prominence in daily life).

Serving up content that’s relevant to the business audience is critical to everything from generating interest to keeping a customer. To do this, marketers create buyer personae that guide their efforts and help uncover what motivates that audience.

This persona is literally a profile, or character sketch. It’s all those demographic characteristics, habits, and behavior patterns scribbled on sticky notes across a fiction writer’s desk, color-coded to indicate role in the story or a specific scene.

The marketing lesson from fiction writing is to think like the characters do, and use that knowledge to focus editorial strategy and create content that attracts the most qualified sales prospects.

3.    The Plot

Plot is what happens in a story—the sequence of events, conflict, cause of the action, the outcome. Writing workshops present a five-step formula: exposition, rising action, climax, falling action, resolution.

The corporate storyteller can use these elements of plot to guide an audience along a conversion path, which is marketing babble for a reader or viewer taking the intended action, such as submitting a form or dialing a phone number.

This writer strives to lead prospects through a sales funnel by engaging and educating them with content. Information architecture and website copy function to drive a visitor along a certain navigational path that results in an action—the writer decides what information to provide at each decision point in order to move the plot and its audience forward.

Another plot development exercise in marketing is mapping communications, such as email campaigns, to where an audience is in their decision-making cycle.

Is that person in the discovery stage (exposition)? Is she being nurtured with informative and relevant content (rising action)? Has she identified a problem or need (climax)? Is she evaluating technical solutions (falling action)?

For most marketers, the plot lines are many. Following this dénouement of the sale, the story begins again with the customer relationship.

4.    The Narrative

Narrative creates the reader’s experience of the plot, how the sequence of events, conflict, and resolution are presented. The narratives of effective marketing communications follow the same arch of explanation, rising action, and resolution—whether in a 500-word blog post or a 140-character interrogative.

Marketers can employ narrative technique to get the attention of their audience, tell a story, and elicit emotional response in the reader. Effective narrative vehicles include advertising campaigns, white papers, case studies, and online content such as blog posts and videos.

In a crowded, always-on marketplace, it’s not enough to make a story stand out—it has to carry meaning that resonates, too.

Audiences are overwhelmed with information and communications. They go online to find to the information they need and, depending on the scope of the problem, a website has a limited amount of time to gain the interest and trust of this audience.

Don’t just present the plot, but create an experience of the plot for the reader. It’s the difference between using your website homepage as the landing page for a PPC campaign, versus a page that uses content specific to the reader’s search, a form to request more information, and a follow-up email campaign to keep the audience engaged.

5.    Setting the Scene

“It was a dark and stormy night…”

That doesn’t work in business writing, either.

Threading together character, plot, storytelling, and copy is scene, the place where these other elements of the narrative interact.

Developing the themes that tie an online corporate narrative together requires content to be organized and somewhat consistent.

The narrative is the combined content—the blog posts, status updates, news releases, static web copy—that reflect the ethos of the business in order to appeal to the character/buyer personae.

Effective online content strategy speaks to both humans and search engines in order to provide value, whether facilitating immediate purchase or bringing prospects into a months-long educational sales cycle.

Setting the scene is often a function of public relations. PR positions the company in the marketplace—its strengths, limitations, competitors, and even corporate personality—setting the scene for the action to take place, for the sales lifecycle narrative to unfold.

The company’s culture, list of awards, digital footprint, and online sentiment create a scene that tells an audience whether to trust or retreat.

These five lessons from fiction writing can string the thousands of words from our content marketing efforts into a narrative experience for the reader, who alone can drive the action for the corporate narrative.

This post was originally published on B2C Marketing Insider. It is a revised excerpt of this post (sans fuckwords), inspired by reasons 1, 2, 5, and 8.

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Misery and Me: Grammar, Copywriting, and Laundry Soap

In an advanced technical writing class as an undergraduate, I remember the professor saying, “This should sound wrong to you all.” She meant simply that we should be able to identify grammatical and mechanical errors by sound (or more accurately, sight) by the time we landed in that class.

It occurs to me now, after so many years and blog posts and white papers and fiction pieces, that I’ve never actually had a formal course focused on grammar. A technical writing course that showed how to put those words into reports and documentation, and creative writing workshops that focused on how those words were used, yes, but never a formal study in grammar.

At this time of night, it’s probably best to lay off the coffee and go watch tv, but it’s interesting to contemplate whether writing is something that can and/or must be taught/learned (that question alone a longstanding debate that requires at least the length of a seminar paper).

Perhaps we absorb writing style and proper grammar more from what we read than what we practice in the typical classroom context that’s often hard to translate to any real-world rhetorical situation. And I mean what we read as in what we’ve always read, long before entering college, the profession, or the writer’s basement studio.

I remember reading books like Watership Down, The Call of the Wild, and The Catcher in the Rye as a kid, not because they were assigned, but because the stories were good. Soon after writers like Stephen King and Dean Koontz took the place of those fluffy animals and rye fields (which could explain a lot about my fiction writing, it seems).

Reading books served as writing instruction. We absorb the language we’re exposed to, it seems, which is what establishes the foundation for our awareness, understanding, and command of grammar.

Our university courses and professional writing excursions serve, then, as an opportunity to exercise those skills can be developed naturally through a love of works like, in my case, Misery and The Door to December. From there my time as an undergrad studying English resulted in a love of literary works most of my friends have never heard of, and my graduate writing workshops taught that, as creative writers, we have to know the rules of grammar in order to break them.

Long before my consumption of anything book-length, I practiced the strange habit as a child of reading each line of copy on packaged products. Any products. Shampoo bottles, cereal boxes, motor oil, bags of dogfood, soup cans, laundry soap.

I’m really not sure what the point of this post is, other than to say that writing is no longer the dominion of the English or communications major. The business world is now an extension of our private worlds. Brands and consumers alike “publish” their writing online everyday through social media, blog posts, and reviews.

Ultimately, the source of mechanics and style that we draw upon in our writing, whether consciously or otherwise, is everything that we’ve read up to the point where we sit down at the keyboard, be it Ars Poetica, the labels on personal hygiene products, or the stuff of nightmares.

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Wandering the Inferno Without a Guide: The Fiction Reader’s Experience of Morality

Something that has always fascinated me as a student of reader-response criticism is the idea that as readers, we are voyeurs into a character’s life, and our sympathies within a work of fiction may not lie where they would in the same real life situation.

As readers of literature, we are trained and therefore predisposed to look for conflict, to not want everything to work out for the main characters (otherwise, we may as well be reading fluff fiction in which there is always a happy ending—boring, yes, but every reader has his or her own tastes.  The real point here is that fluff fiction, where all the characters get what they want and nobody gets hurt or experiences any adversity, is not a true imitation of reality.)

Drafting chapters of my novella, I have kept Stanley Fish’s thesis in mind from Surprised by Sin: The Reader in Paradise Lost*;  Fish argues that the reader sympathizes with Milton’s Satan over the character of God because of the reader’s own fallen, sinful nature.  I don’t entirely agree with this statement, but it serves as the basis for my own claim that readers who have an inherently good nature (as the binary opposite to evil…oooh, should we go there?) cannot help but wish to witness or experience the bad in fiction, the morally questionable thoughts and deeds of a main character such as this narrator, because these good-natured readers would never make such choices in real life.

However, where Fish argues that reading a text in this way—cheering on the “bad” characters—is a reflection of the reader’s sinful nature, I believe the reader’s choices are simply made by looking for that which we would not or could not ever experience in our own lives and “aligning” ourselves with deviant characters for the duration of the text, safe within the confines of the imagination.                        

First-person narration is also effective in any story with such gray areas of right and wrong, sympathy or hatred toward the narrator, because there is no didactic third-person voice (representative of the author or reader’s conscience) to moralize and analyze the characters and their situations—it’s like trying to move through the darkness and confusion of Dante’s Inferno without a guide, a much more exciting prospect than being told how to think or feel within the text.

I’ve realized that the negative characteristics of my narrator and those with whom she interacts may be considered evil, but all are directly influenced by the situation or context in which they occur, and I have ultimately found in writing these chapters that the notion of evil, just like that of morality and goodness, is nothing if not relative.

*Fish, Stanley.  Surprised by Sin: The Reader in Paradise Lost. 2nd ed. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1998.

**Image Credit – Engraving by Gustave Dore (1870). Photo Courtesy: iStock

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On Revision

“This morning I took out a comma and this afternoon I put it back again.”
~ Oscar Wilde

Here we sit, my novella and I. It’s dusty and yellowed from spending a few sedentary years on the bookshelf. It was half-buried under a growing stack of magazines and portfolio clippings I’m too lazy to digitize, the articles, newsletters, and case studies pushing the thesis and its stories further down, out of my line of sight.

A friend reminded me recently of the story I’d written for my MFA thesis, suggesting I revisit the work and see what happens.

It’s been a good 5 years since I’ve done any real writing. That “thing” that makes the stories happen is dusty and yellowed, too, it seems. But we’ll see. (Never mind that I’m here with this blog post rather than re-reading…)

While procrastinating, I made a few observations to help wrap my brain around the project ahead. Because that’s what the older me does. Makes observations first. (And will that hinder creativity?)

  • About 95% of the actual words need to be rewritten. It no longer flows off my tongue.
  • On the other hand, every once in a while there’s a turn of phrase so delicious that it shapes an entire chapter. (Oh, admit you like your own work sometimes. Don’t reject the manuscript before you submit it.)
  • And even with those few delectable pieces of prose, there’s always just one more little tweak to make. With every reading.
  • The revision process is interesting from the perspective of the writer’s relationship to the text and to the reader, and even more, how the revision process fits into that paradigm given that the writer then becomes her own reader.
  • Either the perspective or the structure of the narrative will change in the next draft. In other words, I see the story differently now, as both reader and writer.
  • There are at least two subplots that had not been explored at the time of thesis binding. (Or since then, of course, but it sounds better to blame the print medium for a story abandoned after it printed ‘cause the ink’s already dry.) How will this affect the overall story?
  • I “hear” the narrator more clearly now, and she may have grown a few years older, too. (She’s about 17 or 18 in the current version.)
  • If this thing ever does get published, how/will it affect my professional writing career? Would I care?
  • This project is long overdue.
  • Do I have to read the whole thing before getting started? (It’s called The Raining Tree, if you’re curious.)

There will never be a final draft of any writing, of this kind. Even if it’s something as simple as Oscar Wilde’s comma. it matters because it’s part of how we get there—to that thing we create, the conversations we start, the questions we ask, and the roads we travel.

Thanks, tt, for reminding me to clear the dust.

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Splitting Infinitives with Abandon: The Technician vs. The Artist in Writing & Dance

Freedom of form and expression is a religion for artists, whether they’re writers, painters, sculptors, or performers.

In order to find that freedom and use it purposefully, we learn and master the basic rules, conventions, and technicalities of our art, no matter the medium.

We do this so we can break those rules, make them our own.

Writing lends itself well to an analogy of movement, so let’s compare it to dancing as an example of this study-master-create-destroy relationship, specifically technical/creative writing and ballet/modern dancing.

Both are art forms best practiced on a foundation of technical knowledge, so it will never be a case of either/or but rather and/also—as knowledge and experience grows in one genre or discipline of an art form, it informs our work in other genres. It’s why the technical writer should take a creative writing class, the fiction writer a poetry workshop, the ballerina a modern dance class, the stage actor a ballet class.

The technician (the technical/professional writer, the ballet dancer) versus the artist (the creative writer, the modern dancer).  The latter creates art, while the former creates understanding.

This echoes a concept in an essay I just read for class, if you’ll spare a moment for theory. In “Authors and Writers,” Roland Barthes proposes that language is a structure that can be redefined or lost entirely for the author who functions to create ambiguity (a means), while the writer is bound to language as a vehicle for clarity (an end).

Applied to the real world, it’s why undergraduate writers with romantic notions of coffee shops, turtleneck sweaters, and dark-framed glasses may perceive technical writing as boring, not as sexy and free as creative writing. (If only they knew it was really us in those dark glasses, jacked up on caffeine and pushing deadline for the script of a video that demonstrates new software functionality, not a wandering soul contemplating the influence of religious and social construct in the coming of age of the heroine in a new novel, which surely everyone will read…)

Anyway, as a creative writer I’ve lived through moments of sheer boredom in various gigs as a technical writer, like creating documentation for an open-source content management system that seemed to bear ill will toward the end user who hoped to create, organize, and manage their content. (This boredom came before I started thinking critically about the theory and practice of technical writing.)

However, I’d argue there isn’t a creative writer out there who wouldn’t savor the precision and power of language involved in technical writing, the first step toward artistry and manipulation of structure.

Getting there requires an understanding of the foundation of the technical aspects of the medium, be it movement or language.

The appeal of creative writing—and I am definitely in support of following this path—reminds me of my daughter’s attitude toward dance when she first started (granted, at 2 ½-years-old). She thought hip hop, jazz, or even tap would be preferable to learning the technique of a plié in the five positions at the ballet barre (skipping third), drawn instinctively to what seemed to be a total freedom of expression in movement in the other disciplines.

The freedom of creativity seems more accessible than rules, structure, and technique, at any age.

Just as the dancer learns basic language, positions, and articulations at the barre and puts them together in combinations at center floor, the writer both masters and challenges the conventions of their genre through practice not only in grammar and mechanics, but also craft and artistry in language and storytelling.

Again, we learn the rules in order to break them and re-create them. The act of creating itself is an act of discovery articulated through a re-creation of the set of symbols (language, steps) we learn as technicians.

In creative writing, this is the freedom to split infinitives with abandon, to fragment our sentences for the sake of authenticity or effect, to prefer ambiguity for our Dear Readers over clarity. It’s how we share what Joyce Carol Oates refers to as “the child-self…a sort of flame that continues to burn throughout our lives, to which the writer or artist is by nature more attentive than other adults.”

Too much precision and “correctness” would extinguish that flame for our reader. But of course, it’s the creative writer’s duty to ensure this ambiguity is a result of artistry, not poor command of language and technique. Working outside genre conventions? Make it a challenge to current thinking in the field, not an oversight.

Artistry is a product of both originality and technical mastery.

The trained dancer is bound to the same paradox of technique and control versus creative freedom and individuality. A good example here is in modern dance–you have to know where a traditional position is and be able to “hit it” in order to break it, as dictated by choreography or spirit of the moment.

This reminds me of a statement in a modern piece choreographed by a beautiful and brilliant master. It was a move aptly named the “oh, s%&t!” because it required not a specific form or number of steps, but rather the dancer (me) had to literally throw herself onto the floor—a move that couldn’t possibly be fully scripted or choreographed, and it varied each time. (Writers, ever revised your work with the same sentiment two times in a row? Didn’t think so.)

Technique came in, though, as the momentum of this throw—initiated by the action of an arm toss—recovered into a very specific turn that led into preparation for the next movement.

Creative writers make this “oh, s%&t!” move all the time. We throw ourselves into our craft and work toward something beautiful, but we cannot predict the finer details of the outcome nor the ways in which our audience will perceive it. The artistic and poetic will always grow out of our technical control, the fulcrum on which we balance our turns of creativity and clarity.

References:
Barthes, Roland. “Authors and Writers.” A Barthes Reader. Ed. Susan Sontag. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux,
1983. 185-193. Print.
Oates, Joyce Carol. “Introduction.” Telling Stories: An Anthology for Writers. Ed. Joyce Carol Oates. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1998. xvi. Print.

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Tight Lines: 12 Reasons the MFA is a Solid Degree in the Technology Space

Tonight I had the pleasure of sitting around a table drinking wine and sharing crème brûlée with some friends from graduate school, specifically the MFA program in creative writing at Minnesota State University Moorhead. Pulling up in my minivan I realized it had already been a good 5 years since my last writing workshop around that blessed, beat-up and beloved table in Weld Hall library.

One discussion stood out over the Cabernet and custard, perhaps because of where I’m at academically, professionally, and personally. It was whether an MFA degree had any value in today’s workplace for those not interested in teaching at the college level, and how those skills might be applied in the workforce.

At the table for tonight’s conversation were four MFA graduates and a faculty member. The grads included a software developer, a local magazine editor, a PhD student/professor, and a marketing director. Not a bad as products of the program, I’d say.

This post outlines some key areas where the MFA program directly relates to the creativity, critical thinking, and communication skills that are very much in demand in today’s job market. It’s time to start that dialogue around how those of us in the arts and humanities can create some pretty kick-ass careers for ourselves.

The perspective here is from a fiction writer (as opposed to poetry or nonfiction), and it’s from the marketing point of view (versus a visual art like design or a sales role such as business development).  It deals mostly with applied professional writing—as a “creative” on an in-house team or at an agency, for example. (I’m sure the linguistics or communications theory-laden post will soon follow.)

One more disclaimer is that I have split personalities when it comes to writing about marketing.  I’m a B2B marketer marketing an advertising product to folks who market B2C. But at the end of the day, we’re all fucking human. Write that way and you can sell a product or service or otherwise inform and persuade an audience. That’s all we really need to do.

Here’s that list, from my own experience as an MFA graduate with a pretty sweet career. I may not have been placed on that path because my credentials state this particular degree, but the skills needed to get there tie directly to experience in a creative writing program.

Copywriting

1. Tight Lines. These people have the ability to write tight lines that are both creative and persuasive. In fiction, the writer needs to create believability and truth, or verisimilitude, in the story.

2. Plot Lines. Web copy, for example, needs to drive a visitor along a certain navigational path that results in that person taking an action, whether it be submitting a contact form, calling a business, or even moving on to the next page. Creative writers, too, drive their visitor—their reader—along with intent. The audience is brought on that proverbial journey, as the business writer strives to both pull a prospect through a sales funnel and engage them in interactive content, and a fiction writer so convincingly delivers a narrative that can pull the reader along the story’s path without question of the reality or the characters created—they simply must get to the next part of the story.

3. Buyer Personae. This one is huge, but it’s covered in the Marketing/Sales Cycle section below.

Public Relations

4. Positioning. PR positions the company, setting the scene for the action to take place. It’s important in PR to be completely transparent, to stay away from embellishment, but this is where command of English language comes in handy.

5. Storytelling. These are the folks that tell the company’s story, and they need to do it well. Hire a storyteller. Or become one. Enough said.

Marketing/Sales Cycle

6. Audience. Identifying and understanding a target audience for marketing efforts is akin to developing characters for a work of fiction. You know who they are, what they make a year, their educational level, where they eat and shop.

3., Part Deux. Buyer Personae. The ability to serve up content that’s relevant to the business audience is critical to everything from generating interest to keeping a customer. To do this, marketers need to create what’s called a buyer persona to guide their efforts, to know what makes that target audience tick. This is literally an outline or profile of a character—for me, it’s all those characteristics scribbled on sticky notes across my desk and color-coded to indicate mannerisms or role in the story. But again, working within the framework of buyer personae is where the ability to create and develop characters in a fictional work becomes a skill that transfers nicely.

For these writers, it goes well beyond the numbers that identify age, location, and income— the ability to create and give voice to these buyer personae, understand their pains and how to manage their egos, and bring them along on that storied journey are inherent in those who’ve spent time writing fiction in first person or as a member of the opposite sex, to name just one exercise in character development.

7. Lead Generation and Nurturing. Think like the characters do. Where would you place the ads that would reach you if you were that character? Where would you be located? And engaged in what media? Where and how do you participate online? Think of what content gets the most downloads, and later, analyze what content was downloaded by the most qualified prospective customers and focus your editorial efforts accordingly.

8. Content Strategy. Oversimplified, this is creating, running, managing an editorial calendar.

In addition to providing the right content for your audience, this includes understanding how to work with people in order to elicit guest posts and suggest changes that keep the contribution on par with the quality of other writing on the site while maintaining author’s style. Experience in MFA program workshop dialogue, copyediting, and working with any published or up-and-coming authors are all great ways to develop a foundation for business content strategy and how to execute on it successfully.

9. Engaging. For marketers, this means creating dialogue around a topic or issue, whether in person or online. For MFAers, it’s the ability to deconstruct, put back together, and discuss what we read. “Nice work” is a comment that brings nothing to the table.

10. Case Studies and White Papers. The former is an in-depth profile that tells the story of how a business solved a problem or made more money using your solution. The latter is a paper that also solves a problem, typically research-intensive and from a thought-leadership perspective looking at improvements that can be made overall in an industry (and of course, in the About section in tiny print on the last page, how the corporate author is positioned to solve those problems).  Naturally, these are my favorite pieces to write.

Software Development

11. Stories. Using sticky notes and whiteboards to piece together the story of how functionality or a process will work in a software application is similar to performing this exercise in order to piece together a novel, story, or poem, or even the core argument for an essay (for the creative writer, it’s possible the whiteboard is instead a Moleskine®). This also applies to telling the story from the end-user’s perspective and the actions they take during the software testing/QA process.

12. Complexity. Being able to understanding complex processes and communicate them is useful skill. The correlation? A research paper on something like “Burnt Norton from T.S. Eliot’s Four Quartets or Vladimir Nabokov’s Pale Fire.

Other Skills

  • Interviewing for a job (MFA: Engaging conversation and defending position in MFA workshop.)
  • Taking (and applying) feedback and critique of professional work (MFA: Feedback from professors and peers during workshop.)
  • Working independently (MFA: We write alone.)
  • Write simple code for web development, design, and animation (MFA: Knowing how language works.)
  • Research skills (MFA: If it’s out there, we can find it.)

Thus ends my preaching—for now—on the virtues of an MFA degree for those who aren’t ready to or have no plans to teach.

It’s interesting to note it wasn’t until later in the evening that said software developer, local magazine editor, PhD student/professor, and marketing director observed that none of us had actually graduated the MFA program together and were, pretty much, barely classmates. This attests to the community surrounding writing programs such as these and the craft itself.

If you do nothing else in life, perfect your craft. If you have a talent, use it. Get involved with the community around it. As fellow MSUM MFA graduate Kristen Tsetsi writes, “I no longer know the grass of forbidden lawns, because I drive past it.”

Exploring the craft before that forbidden lawn of unbridled creativity becomes unfamiliar is an experience that we’ll draw from inevitably in our careers, whether we realize it or not. We MFA grads had the opportunity to develop a mindset that allows for creative, critical, and analytical thinking–a stage on which to practice freedom in our art, engage in healthy debate and discussion, and advance our writing abilities both technically and creatively, all while participating in good conversation and community.

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A Bit of Vodka & Sauerkraut

Since it inspired the name of this blog, here’s an excerpt of the short story Vodka & Sauerkraut. It was written quite a few years ago, when my writing style was a little younger, so to speak, and I’m fighting the urge to edit and revise as I copy it into this post. Remind me to write about that later – being a constant revisionist. It comes with the territory.

Here are the first couple sections of the story. Enjoy.

Vodka & Sauerkraut

Had I thought of it, I could’ve counted the time by the growth of the tiny cracks in the wood that makes up my windowsill, the years’ passing into a downward spiral etched into the green paint.  One winter, a hairy spider lived in the center, where all the little cracks came together.  But then it died.  Margaret killed it with my cane.

Summer is the worst.  The sun shines right in my window and dries the wood even more.  The cracks grow faster and sometimes little slivers of green come off.  Good for my philodendron, the sun.  The only plant I can keep alive.  A hardy bastard, that one.

And now I pass my days at the window, watching the cars outside always driving back and forth but never really getting anywhere.  As if it weren’t bad enough I laid there on the church floor with my bloomers blaring big and white for all the congregation to see, my shattered hip cemented to the floor like tuna casserole to the bottom of a cake pan.  If Jeremiah—my son—had been in church to help me into the aisle, this wouldn’t have happened.  My hip wouldn’t have broke and I’d still be at the farm, watching the wheat fields instead of this damn window.  But here I am, forced to eat three squares a day, and people always ask about my bowels.

During the day I watch the cars outside.  Once, I saw a cat get run over while it was crossing the street.  A white one, too.  Have you ever seen a white cat get run over by a Studebaker?  There’re not white for long, I’ll tell you that much.  I watch Bob Barker on the television just before lunch.  In the afternoons I sit by the window to watch the tumbling clouds, the treetops lush and full in the summer, then the first frost, bare branches shivering in the northern wind.

Suppertime can get pretty strange, when folks start their sundowning, and I go right back to my room.  The ones who are already a little off slide a bit closer to the edge, hearing things, feeling things.  But it’s no wonder, all the pills they pop into us old folks these days.  I take mine at six.  There’s one for this, and one for that, and this one’ll help you sleep at night, and this one gives you energy and makes your heart go thump.  None for me, though.  None of those that monkey with the mind.  Just a couple of vitamins and something for my arthritis, which gets pretty bad on account of my hip.

The old folks can get pretty worked up.  Calling out, an imagined conversation with inanimate objects and uninterested aides.  And if you listen real close, it’s like music from the past, the ribbon of what was that tangles in the brain, frayed at the ends.  It makes an electricity in the air that lifts the hairs on my back.  On nights when it’s real bad, I leave the dayroom to spend the night in my room, alone save for the occasional nurse’s aid barging in on her rounds to make sure I’m still kicking.  So far, I am.

*

“Ms. Opal?”  Margaret knocks softly on my open door, three times.

“Yes?”  I sit up on my elbow—wasn’t really sleeping—and reach for my glasses on the nightstand.  Damn near blind without them.  I pull myself up by the siderail on the bed and offer Margaret a tired smile.

She hands me my teeth and helps me swing my legs over the side of the bed.  I like when Margaret works.  She waters my philodendron without dripping on the bookcase, and sometimes she sits in my room with me to watch Lawrence Welk.  Sits right there on my corduroy couch while the rest of the aides do the rounds.  Laziness, if you ask me.  Her hair’s always funny, too.  Dyed two colors.  But she doesn’t get too excited about anything, and I like her just fine.

Margaret holds out my wool sweater and tells me it’s time for supper.  I prefer my housedress.  Who the hell goes to supper in a slip and a sweater?  Those loonies might, but I won’t.  Not me.  No siree.

“We’re having turkey and mashed potatoes tonight,” she says.  “And apple crisp.”

“Whoopee.”  I grab the cane leaning on my siderail and hoist myself up.  Used to be taller, back in the day, walking upright and proud through the halls of my school, shiny chestnut hair raining down my back.  Now I’m a shell, curled inward and looking forward to nothing because I already know.

I tell Margaret, “We have that same crap at least three times a week.  It’s just that sometimes they call it something else,” I tell her.  “Like that turkey hotdish when they take the same old dry potatoes and the brick of stuffing and mush it together.”

Margaret laughs and her smile shows the gap in her front teeth.  I grin, then pop my teeth in and chomp them together.  She seems to think it’s pretty funny.  To me it sounds like banging a couple of butterdishes together.  I settle into my housedress and follow her into the dining area.  I stop next to the chair furthest from the piano—only two big pillars and a few tables to separate me from Bertha wailing “Remember the Red River Valley” as she accompanies herself on the piano, her fingers bent and shaped like bolts of lightening.

Margaret pulls the chair out for me.  The little old lady with the white hair, white sweater, and glasses.  That’s all of us.  And I take my pills at six, at the table.

From the dining room I hear, “Vodka and sauerkraut!  The spices of life!”  Phyllis.  She gets stuck on a phrase and says it all day, chanting it again and again, a nursery rhyme with no apparent rhythm, flat and familiar like the food they serve.  It’s funny like that.  There’s hardly a one of us that’s ever done anything wrong, and here we are, inmates on death row with nothing but three hot meals, a rubber mattress to sleep on, and a pot to piss in.  If you’re real lucky, you get one by your bed so you don’t have to get up at night.

Margaret helps Clarence sit down across from me.  He lives down the hall, close to the nurse’s station.  The poor old fellow wanders for hours, searching for his wife, Irene.  He calls her name all the time, short and quick like a dog’s command, then a drawn out plea—Irene!  But she had passed giving birth to their only child.  Lucky for him he doesn’t remember that.

“Goddammit ya wh-whore!”  Rose’s raspy voice rises over the dirge of activity, the rattle of pills in the medicine cart, the splashes of juice spilled on the floor, the urgency of call lights down the hall.

“I do not have to sit here, you.  You floozy,” Rose erupts again.

Margaret smiles across the tables at the other aide, a gesture of support.  A kind soul, that Margaret.  The aide, a plump young woman with her bangs in her eyes—how I hate that—pushes Rose up to the table and backs away, blushing.  But Rose keeps at her.  And the worst part of it is that my ears have become accustomed to her foul mouth, and I dare say that sort of behavior no longer strikes me as odd.

“—seven kids and three dead husbands.  Took care of them all by myself!”  Rose is never too clear how many kids she had, five, seven.  Once she even said ten.  “And look at you!  Still wet behind the ears, telling me when to sit, sleep, eat, and shit!”

But none of the aides are around to hear that sour old Rose, and she’s not hollering at me, or even looking my way, but sort of up and to her left, her toothless mouth twisted into a grimace, as if a little angel or, more likely for her, a devil, sits upon her shoulder, and she disagrees with its counsel.

Sometimes the past, well, it just comes up and takes a little bite out of the present, steals little slices of time and replaces them with things that have already happened, in a different life, a newer life.  Some of those old timers don’t even know their own kids anymore.  I swore I wouldn’t know Jeremiah no more, until he got me my private room.  At first I was thrown into a room with a miserable old bat who did nothing but complain about her arthritis or her gout or the corns on her scaly feet or the rash on her be-hind.  You get the idea.  A person could get old sitting here naming all the things that’ve gone wrong with old Ethel Schlightenburg.  So I told Jeremiah I’d dissolve the trust and leave everything to the pet shelter downtown if he didn’t see to it that I got a private room.  I would have done it, too.

Margaret is over by the piano, passing out trays of turkey slop.  She ducks her head quick to dodge a spoonful of mashed potatoes.  Amos always throws his food.  Crabby old bastard.
The nurse starts to walk toward my table, shaking pills in a medicine cup.  I wonder what’s in the dixie cup in her other hand—juice or water.  Either way, they never give you enough drink to swallow your horsepills.  Mine come at six.  About three or four of them, two blue, one red, and one purple.  And sometimes a white one, too, but mostly just at night.

It’s that young nurse tonight (so many come and go—talking about little Tommy’s first day at school, the evils of wayward men, the aide who threw her back out lifting old what’s-her-name—they go on talking like we can’t hear, or if we can, we can’t make sense of twentieth century speech anymore, like we crawled out of some giant abyss, a rip in the Great Ribbon, some black hole where our ways, our worth, don’t translate across the generations).  And tonight it’s the young nurse with short, choppy brown hair pinned back at her ears.  She’s got this look about her eyes that she really, really cares about the arthritis burning in your fingers, your bad hip, but you can tell her sympathy is a costume, as much as her pink lipstick and white uniform.  It doesn’t stay white for long.  Not when she walks past old Amos.  But the mashed potatoes shouldn’t show too bad on her.

This nurse, she set the two little cups on the table in front of me, one with my pills and another filled halfway with amber liquid, either apple juice or a urine sample.  Bad enough the cups are so small, but then they only fill them halfway.  Won’t have to take us to the can as much then, I suppose, or change too many diapers.  I don’t particularly care for this gal.  The insincerity of her smiles of reassurance and her pats on the back almost offend me, leave a bitter taste in my mouth.  She moves my long braid from my shoulder so that it dangles down my back.  She always does that, as if I need it.  I like it on my shoulder—it keeps my neck warm and I can’t reach that far behind my back on account of my stiff arms.  So I sit here, in my chair, and suffer with a cold neck and the sight of Rose sloshing pureed turkey through her pink gums and onto her dry lips while she hollers at someone no one else can see.

I empty the pill cup.  Colorful beads rolling around on the table.  One is small and dark gray in color, the iron.  It makes your poop black.  Scares the dickens out of you the first time it happens.  There’s a shiny red one that almost scooted itself right off and onto the floor, and two white ones that just spin in place on the tablecloth. The bright orange horsepill is all the vitamins in one, just to be safe.  I take them at six. The prettiest one is half white and half blue, but there’s all kinds of tiny beads inside it, too.  This one I slip into my pocket for after my supper.  It goes down a little better with some decaf.

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