A Sense of Touch

My friend and I are planning a beach vacation together, and lately, our giddy-anticipation texts back and forth have been fixated on one thing: Getting sand in our sunscreen.
We’re stupidly excited about whether the sand will be the coarser kind that, when it mixes with your kefir-like SPF 50, magically transforms into a sugar-scrub exfoliant they sell at Lush for $30 a pop. Or maybe it’ll be that baking-powder like sand, and hey, remember that time we tried that sunscreen that allegedly didn’t come off on your clothes? It was the consistency of ranch dressing, and with that soft, powdery sand everywhere, applying it was like rubbing melting gummy worms to your forearms.
There’s nothing like touch, is there?
Writers tend to neglect the sense of touch in our stories, (and smell, too!), preferring the flashier, sometimes easier senses of sight, sound, and taste.
Our stories suffer for this oversight —and not only because we ignore a wealth of material.
Did you know your body has two separate systems for processing touch? Your discriminative touch system tells you whether that fluttery brush of dune grass grazed your knee or your thigh. It’s what tells you whether it tickled or whether it itched.
Your emotional touch system doesn’t care much about where or how, but who. When the touch comes from a loved one, or is unwelcome, or satiates your skin hunger, your emotional touch system sends an entirely different set of messages to your brain. It’s the system that makes touch essential in bonding one human to another.
When we do remember touch, we tend to go for one system or the other, the discriminative one, more often than not. But look what happens when you invoke both, as Yusef Komunyakaa does in these lines from “Lust:”
He longs to be
An orange, to feel fingernails
Run a seam through him.
Frequently we don’t get granular enough. We’ll describe something as “smooth,” and move on.
Observe: Take off your shoes and feel the floor beneath your feet right now. (Unless you’re on the subway!) Now change rooms, and do it again. Both floors may be smooth, or carpeted. But they’re not the same, right? The waxy finish of your parqueted living room is not the same kind of smooth as your unyielding, chilly kitchen tile.
With touch, be choosy with your details and words, and profligate in your brain networks. And remember, simile and metaphor are your friends:
I can’t read the River, can’t see my hand
when it plunges elbow-deep
               to feel the cool against
                            the Mississippi heat—
            hot as a dog’s mouth.                       

 –January Gill O’Neill, “The River Remembers:”

Your turn. Write about two best friends, barefoot and outdoors, and start the story with touch.

Kelly Caldwell,

Dean of Faculty

Getting Repetitive

Good fortune found me working across the street from a movie theater recently, and as the smell of popcorn filled the air at 9:30 a.m., I thought, “Weekday matinee!”
Gradually, though, I realized, this was no regular Thursday morning matinee. It was an exclusive showing of Super Mario Bros. for students of a school for special needs children.
Four or five people arrived first, including a little girl in a wheelchair, squealing with joy. Beside her walked a boy with the flatter face and upturned eyes of Down syndrome. Another group arrived, and another, then another. Every group included a child using some kind of assistance: tiny wheelchairs, reclining wheelchairs, sticker-covered wheelchairs, crutches with arm braces, a walker. More children with Down syndrome arrived, too.
How did I know it was a special screening just for them? The doors to the theater stayed locked. Each group knocked on the door, then waited for an usher to let them in.
The exclusivity of the screening revealed itself through repetition.
Writers hear often on our early drafts, “This is repetitive.” But repetition isn’t always something to avoid. It can be a tool we use to reveal truths buried beneath the surface of our work.
You can call back again and again to objects that hold special meaning; you can return again and again to a setting, or repeat a distinct phrase or sentence.
You can use anaphora — repeating a word at the beginning of each sentence or paragraph, or, as Gotham’s Elane Johnson does in her essay “Aftermath,” each phrase. (Click here to read an excerpt.)
You can use epistrophe, repeating something at the end of each sentence, as John Steinbeck did when Tom Joad says goodbye to his mother in The Grapes of Wrath. (Click here to read it.)
Skillful repetition creates a strong emotion around what’s repeated. Think of Martin Luther King Jr. in his famous “I Have a Dream Speech,” using anaphora to create a sense of urgency for justice. (Click here to read an excerpt.)

Or Carmen Maria Machado in her memoir In the Dream House, reiterating “You wake up, and the air is milky and bright,” until it curdles. (Click here to read excerpts.)
The trick is in the timing — the distance between what you repeat, and the rhythm in the way you do it. I’d love to give you a formula, but, as with most things in writing, you’ve just got to experiment. Read your work out loud, and when your repetition makes you flinch, or you long to skip over it, you know it’s not working.
How you break your pattern of repetition is important, too. Look at how King and Johnson and Steinbeck do it.
Which brings me back to the matinee — what broke the repetition is also what revealed that the moviegoers were students enjoying a morning off: A bright yellow bus, arriving after the movie, whisking everyone off to school.

Kelly Caldwell

Dean of Faculty

Trimming the Flash

The other day, Gotham’s own Arlaina Tibensky and Josh Sippie were talking flash stories in my general vicinity, when Arlaina said something that blew me away. 

“Flash stories are like bonsai trees. First you grow a huge tree, then you prune and prune it,  and shape it into a beautiful tree you can put in your pocket.” 

It’s the perfect way to describe writing a flash piece (a work that’s anywhere from 50 words to 1,000, but no more) because it heads off two common mistakes people make when drafting a flash piece. 

One, they write a sequoia. Three or four characters!  A plot and a subplot!  A convoluted major dramatic question! All of which quickly grow into a 100-foot seedling, which the writer then tries to prune, and ends up ruining. 

Or, they write a single reed of feathergrass, and find themselves with nothing to shape. 

A better approach is Arlaina’s — write as many words as you want about one character experiencing one change. Then, visualize the tree’s shape before you start clipping and trimming. Cut judiciously, so that you create space for the story’s true magic to flourish. 

In her flash fiction piece “Mayretta Kelly Brunson Williams Bryant Jones (1932-2012),” Deesha Philyaw starts with a hermit crab — one story borrowing the recognizable shell of another —specifically, an obituary. Within that familiar structure, she tells the (rollicking) story of Mayretta’s life in outline—that’s the plot. Philyaw then wraps those bare facts in asides and commentary, in Mayretta’s distinctive voice, to reveal the story’s deeper (hilarious) meaning. 

Take the first paragraph, which reads almost exactly like every other obit—almost:

“On, March 14th, 2012, Mayretta ‘May’ Brunson Kelly Williams Bryant Jones slept away peacefully right into Jesus’ arms after a long undisclosed illness (and if that big-mouth Margaret Hill says May had a nasty woman’s disease, she’s a goddamn lie).” 

Essayist Bhante Sumano accomplishes similar magic with his flash nonfiction piece “Buoy” by focusing his story on a split-second, very awkward moment between himself and his roommates. He breaks the moment—five dudes eating breakfast with NPR on the radio —into increments, each with its own paragraph. In between them, he grafts on observations and reflections, like, “I sip my orange juice at the table while the room shrinks—wishing, in hindsight, that I had refused the breakfast invitation, slept in.” 

On their own, the external scene or the internal dialogue would be interesting, but together, they’re a slow-motion car crash. And the tight focus gave Sumano room for the highest-impact moment of all, what he wished he’d said.

Both Philyaw and Sumano’s stories illustrate another common mistake writers often make when writing flash — they assume, incorrectly, these deeply affecting, memorable, big stories are small.

Kelly Caldwell

Dean of Faculty