Posts Tagged stories
Have you read the poem, “Casey at the Bat,” by Earnest Lawrence Thayer? Or at least heard it recited? Most people have, I imagine. It’s one of the best known poems in American English, and can usually be found in any compilation of the best known or best loved poems of the American people. It was written in 1888, and has been reprinted in books and even in comics, it’s been used in film and TV, either in whole or in part, and it’s even been put to music. On the whole, it certainly isn’t great poetry, but I suspect its popularity comes from the fact that it tells a story in rhyme. It’s up there with “A Visit From St. Nicholas,” “The Midnight Ride of Paul Revere,” and “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening.” All of those poems tell a story, a plain, ordinary story. They don’t fool around with flowery language, they just come right out and tell the damn story. I think people instinctively like stories, and sometimes I wonder if language can get in the way of the telling.
The story in “Casey at the Bat” is simple. Casey, mighty Casey, is the power hitter on the baseball team for Mudville, and everyone at the game expects him to drive in the winning run in the last inning of the game. The score was 4 to 2, with runners on second and third base (in the vernacular of the game, that puts them in “scoring position”). Casey comes to bat and the fans look for a home run to win the game by a score of 5 to 4. But Casey doesn’t deliver. He lets two pitches go by, both called strikes, then swings and misses at the third. The game is over, and in one of the most iconic lines in all of literature, the poem ends: “. . . there is no joy in Mudville—mighty Casey has struck out.”
That last line is so much of a surprise, almost a jolt. Yet it makes the poem. Had Casey hit a home run and won the game, the poem would have fizzled. It is that last line that has put the poem so indelibly in the American consciousness. It is, after all, about baseball, a uniquely American game. The line isn’t odd or unusual, and it isn’t out of the realm of the ordinary or the commonplace. After all, baseball players strike out all the time. Yet here is a man, powerful, smart, not heavily conceited—he even quiets the crowd when the umpire calls “strike one!” “That ain’t my style,” Casey says, and raises his hand. He seems to know what he’s doing, and although he doesn’t point to center field like Babe Ruth did, we admire him and expect the best from him. We look to him to do what he does best: tear “. . . the cover off the ball.” But he doesn’t. He fails. Spectacularly. Well, at least he tried, and we can accept that.
I find myself wondering about a couple of points in the poem. Why was this game so important? Nothing is said. Was this a championship game, perhaps the last game of the season that would decide the pennant? It certainly wasn’t about major league baseball, though Thayer might have used fictitious names to tell a story about the majors. I also wonder why the score was so low. If Casey was as spectacular as he is made out in the poem, why hadn’t he driven in more runs? He may have driven in both the runs the Mudville nine had, but again, nothing is said. Perhaps he didn’t play that day until he was put in as a pinch hitter in the ninth. But the fans at the ballpark knew Casey would be coming to bat fifth in the inning, and that sounds like he was already in the lineup. Nothing is said about the opposing pitcher, either. In today’s recounting of a game such as this, the pitcher would be given accolades for striking out the heavy hitter, and his name would be prominently displayed in the newspapers.
In any event, those are minor questions. Casey let us down and the poem achieved a level of popularity not given to many poems. I still think it’s the story that matters. The story trumps flowery writing, though that’s not to disparage Shakespeare or Milton. Read the classics, but don’t lose sight of the story.
I’m going to stick my neck out here and try and define a characteristic of fiction that is, at least to me, new. I’ve written a few short stories as well as three novels, but when I finished a short story of about 4600 words a few weeks back, and read through it several times, I was struck by the story’s lack of a characteristic I’m going to call “import.”
What’s import, you ask? It’s going to be hard to define, and I’m not sure I can do a very good job. Perhaps the best way to define it is to look at stories that lack the concept. A story without import is bland, unimaginative, listless. That’s not to say that a story without import can’t be well written, or well conceived, or well executed. But when I finished reading through my story I asked myself, “What the hell was that?” It wasn’t that the story wasn’t satisfying, and it wasn’t that I didn’t get anything out of it, but it fell flat on its face, and I was left with the feeling of, “So what?”
To be effective, a story has to mean something. It not only has to have a real beginning, middle and end, the final impression left in the reader has to be real. My story didn’t do that. I thought it was reasonably well written, it has a real beginning, middle and end all right, and when I was through, I felt it gave the reader a lot of interesting information. I even had to do some research to get my facts correct. Yet, it was flat. Dullsville. Again, I said to myself, so what?
This was the first time this had happened. All my stories I feel give the reader something significant to take away. But this one didn’t, and I can’t really define why not. A story has to leave an impression on the reader. That can be either a positive or negative impression. Leaving a negative impression is at least an impression. If a reader says, “I hated that story,” that’s better than, “I got nothing out of it,” or “I didn’t understand it,” or “So what.”
I’m not sure how I can fix the story to make it more significant. It actually tells the story I wanted to tell, and does it effectively, with even a little humor, yet it lacks something important. The story falls into a category called magical realism, a relatively new genre which is sort of a subdivision of science fiction, and a genre I’m just getting into. I suspect no reputable journal or magazine would ever accept it, though; it’s too bland. I could spice it up, yet that would be to pollute it with details that have little to do with the plot. That probably wouldn’t fix the problem anyway.
Ah, the vagaries of the writing life.
What’s the hardest part of writing for a writer, especially an unpublished one? The hardest part for me is staying humble.
I haven’t found it particularly difficult to force myself to sit down and write every day. I enjoy the process—of putting words down on a computer screen, of rearranging them to better say what I want; of adding or subtracting words that don’t fit or make sense, of cutting out words or paragraphs or chapters that don’t advance the plot, or show character, or set a scene, or reveal dialogue; of re-writing those same sentences or paragraphs or chapters over and over; of letting others read them; or of taking their comments back to my office and using them to once again rearrange and modify the words. That’s never been a problem. That’s because I’m writing a story. I’m developing characters and putting them into situations where they have to use their wits to get out of. That’s a caricature of real life.
What does give me trouble from time to time is staying humble—perhaps a better term would be realistic—about my writing, and about my writing abilities. It’s tempting to think that the reason no agent or editor or publisher has wanted to take up the challenge of publishing or representing my novels (at least not so far) is that they just don’t understand them. That my work is so unique, so avant-garde, so unconventional or experimental that no one understands it. But I know that can’t be right. In fact, that’s total, unmitigated horse manure. They’re intelligent people; they wouldn’t be where they are if they weren’t. The real hard part is admitting to myself that my work just doesn’t measure up; that it doesn’t meet the standards that so many people in the writing industry have established. Sometimes I feel my ego inflate to red-giant size and I tell myself “how in heaven can anyone turn this novel down? It says what I want it to say, it isn’t derivative of any other novel, it’s been heavily revised and edited, and it’s been polished to the best of my ability. It’s prize-winning material.” I have to tell myself, “that may be true, you stupid idiot, but that doesn’t mean it meets the standards for being published.”
Now, I fully realize that writing and the critique of writing is a very subjective affair, and someone, somewhere is probably out there waiting to see my works and accept them for what they are. It’s just a matter of time before I get an agent/publisher. And I’m sure every other unpublished writer on the face of this Earth has had, at one time or another, the same thoughts, the same doubts. But it’s imperative we get a grip on our emotions and begin to realize that a large portion of why we aren’t published is that our work just doesn’t measure up. It’s not them. It’s us. This isn’t an argument for becoming discouraged, it’s an argument for being realistic.
Now shut up, sit down, and get to work.