I thought of Gotham’s tagline—Stories. Everywhere.—while reading a magazine article about shipping containers that get lost at sea.

Many of the products that we procure come to us via containers shipped across the world’s waters to a port somewhere. Every day, about 6,000 of these ships are at sea, bringing us all those clothes and toys and housewares that we so crave. The products travel in massive containers on gargantuan ships manned by small crews. Which explains why so many of those containers often tumble off the ships.

(In 1965, a young man traveled by shipping container, as a stowaway, from Australia to England because he couldn’t afford the airfare; he didn’t go overboard but almost paid with his life, which you can read about in his memoir The Crate Escape.)

These lost items from shipping containers contribute to the pollution choking our oceans, and the problem is worsening as global warming creates higher winds and bigger storms, the cause of most container-overboard accidents.

In 1997, a rogue wave caused 62 containers to topple overboard near the western coast of England, including almost 5 million Lego pieces, which is interesting because the shipping containers very much resemble Lego pieces.

Eric Carle was aware of this whole phenomenon when he wrote and illustrated the children’s picture book 10 Little Rubber Ducks. Some may see it as a simple counting book, but, well, it’s so much more.

A box with 10 little ducks tumbles off a ship and the ducks float their separate ways. One drifts west where a dolphin jumps over it, one drifts right where a turtle glides past it, and so on. Their journeys are enhanced by Carle’s collage artwork recognized by children everywhere.

We follow the 10th duck as the vast water and sky turn inky dark. We sense the duck is scared, but these ducks are realistically inanimate, nothing more than molded plastic. And yet we feel the duck might be relieved when, the next morning, it meets a mother duck and her ducklings and begins to drift along in their company.

Night falls again and the rubber duck stays with the duck family. The mother says quack, the other ducklings answer with quack and then…the lost rubber duck gives a squeak.

Was that random chance? Or did this odyssey somehow breathe life into the duck? I can’t stop wondering.

If you’re feeling imaginative, perhaps you can conjure a story that springs from shipping containers. Go!

Great Sentences

Creative writing is about weaving webs with storytelling and capturing the blood and guts of life on the page. It takes a few talents to do this well, both tangible and not. 

And a big part of it is just knowing how to put words together in the best possible way. Which words to use, where to put them, what kind of rhythm and emotion to breathe into each sentence. 

A great sentence can be a simple as this one from F. Scott Fitzgerald’s novel The Great Gatsby, describing one of Gatsby’s all-night parties: 

In his blue gardens men and girls came and went like moths among the whisperings and the champagne and the stars.

Interesting that he used blue instead of green. And notice the rhythm of that last segment with the moths and whisperings and stars. We feel the magic. 

A great sentence can be even simpler, like this one from Toni Morrison’s novel Beloved

In Ohio seasons are theatrical. 

That last word theatrical blows open our imagination, especially placed at the very end, rather than the more mundane arrangement: Seasons are theatrical in Ohio

Or a great sentence can be somewhat complex, like this one from Sandra Cisneros’s short story “Woman Hollering Creek,” where we lie beside a woman in a lonely marriage:

This is what Cleófilas thought evenings when Juan Pedro did not come home, and she lay on her side of the bed listening to the hollow roar of the interstate, a distant dog barking, the pecan trees rustling—shh-shh-shh, shh-shh-shh—soothing herself to sleep.

The sounds are summoned in our mind, and we seem to ease into sleep with that onomatopoetic: shh-shh-shh, shh-shh-shh.

A good place to see great sentences is in the winners of the monthly Gotham Twitter contest, where we give you a brief prompt and ask you to write a Twitter-length story (each winner getting a free Gotham class). 

Our winner for last September’s theme Loophole:

Dracula had one fang due to gingivitis, so theoretically Mina was just half a vampire, and this loophole allowed her to eat garlic smothered fettuccini. @carparelli22

Our winner for last July’s theme Staycation:

My couch is an all-inclusive resort. It has crumbs, loose change, your body’s fading imprint. The drinks are strong but there’s no ocean, just grief. @cararothenbergg

Our winner for last April’s theme Red light:

Framed in her neon showcase, Mihaela shifted in ill-fitting stilettos. She stared past leering faces with a fixed smile, thinking of her daughter in Bucharest. @ingridtruemper

In so few words, these writers have brought to life a whole world. That’s impressive. And you can probably do it too.

Alex Steele
President, Gotham Writers Workshop

The Mystery of Us

I remember a restaurant in my neighborhood that looked very alluring. You would walk down a few steps and enter one of those dimly lit havens for the city’s elite. I heard that people like Paul McCartney went there; I perhaps felt too intimidated to dine there myself. Also, they served only raw food, though supposedly they took it to astonishing culinary heights. 

I also remember reading about the scandal that ended the restaurant, a story I recently revisited watching the documentary Bad Vegan. The owner was young and glamorous and had the savvy to run a Manhattan hotspot that specialized in world-class food and clientele. She was also a good person. She gave free meals to friends in need, including a writer acquaintance of mine who was struggling financially. 

Then she became romantically involved with a sketchy guy who wore Rolexes and flashed money and claimed to make his fortune in black ops and other things. The kind of guy whom everyone could see was bad news. And, no, he wasn’t even attractive. 

He scammed her into crime and out of money until she lost the restaurant and ended up in prison. 

What drew this woman-with-everything to this guy? Loneliness, low self-esteem, imposter syndrome? It’s not entirely clear even after viewing the doc. Not everything is knowable about people. 

Some of us may be more mysterious than others, but I believe there lies mystery inside pretty much everyone—things even those closest to them don’t understand. I feel that way about my wife and daughter, for example. And I bet they feel that way about me. 

When we’re telling stories, true or made-up, it’s a good thing to keep in mind. What is the mystery of a character—a hidden hole, an unseen flaw, a secret no one can know? The mystery doesn’t need to be explained (like Rosebud in Citizen Kane); it’s enough that it’s there. 

Do you fully understand Heathcliff and Catherine in Wuthering Heights? Captain Willard and Colonel Kurtz in Apocalypse Now? Celie in The Color Purple? Don in Mad Men
I’m reminded of another documentary, Jacob, about a guy who used to teach for Gotham, Jacob Appel—along with being a prolific writer, he’s a doctor, psychiatrist, lawyer, and tour guide with nine advanced degrees. I wrote about him here. The filmmaker is asking Jacob questions, attempting to find what drives him, what makes him who he is. Jacob, resistant to too much probing, says something to the effect: If you peel the onion too far, there’s nothing left.

Alex Steele
President, Gotham Writers Workshop