annotation by Talya Jankovits
When I finished Elissa Schappell’s “Blueprints for Building Better Girls”, I was sort of jumping up and down in my seat. I wanted to shout out loud YES! You nailed it! I know its a keeper when I feel a bit heavy in the head and my writing heart is swooning and droopy, and of course, I know for sure when that leak of envy comes out – why couldn’t I write this? And I think the reason for all my fanfare is that Schappell was able to capture the girl and the woman that every one of us can relate to in some way. It doesn’t matter whether the story is set in the 70’s the 80’s, if its in a teenage bedroom or an arty New York studio, what does matter is the finite focus on the united emotions and right of passages that most of us can relate to. At moments, I blushed or cringed, thinking Schappell must have spied on me at some point. She didn’t, she spied on girlhood and womanhood collectively.
Blueprints for Building Better Girls is a series of short stories that hold soft echos of each others characters or glimpses of former character selves. The first story and final story, Monsters of the Deep and I’m Only Going to Tell You This Once, share the same main character, Heather, but in the first story, we see Heather young at sixteen and in I’m Only Going to Tell You This Once, we see her as a mother, speaking to her seventeen year old son about something that happened to her as a young woman. Throughout the stories, we see Heather in three different stages, teenager, college student and mother, and through it all we see Heather as Heather. She feels authentic and real, as if we have in fact stayed with an actual person who morphed and grew and retained a former self. Characterization is hard to do, but staying with a character in different stories at different times in life, while incorporating both flashback and memory–that’s called expertly executing craft.
Much like our younger selves, these characters are not all likable, in fact they are so raw and honest that I don’t think “attachment” to character is relevant in such a series of stories. While reading, I felt inserted into these characters, and I was willing to see where they would take me, even if I didn’t like it, and sometimes, the characters didn’t seem to necessarily like it either. The act of growing up, of coming to age (no matter how old we are, because on some level we are always growing up, always haunted by the smallness of our youth that hovers over us the rest of our lives) isn’t pretty or necessarily enjoyable and Schappell’s ability to narrow in on any girl’s life, be it that of a college student, a high school student, or a woman trying to build a family, makes these stories real, haunting and inexplicably relatable.
I like to believe that the reason I am a poor short story writer is because I am a novelist, (one novel in the works seems to allow me that excuse at the moment). I want to write great short stories like Schappell. I want them to be successful, to stand on their own, or like Schappell, for them to also stand together. A lot of times I try to understand what it is I am not doing right in my short stories that other successful short story writers are. Looking critically at Schappell’s short stories, I tried to find tools that can help me build better short stories (no pun intended). Schappell has the ability to place you in real moments, to vividly build scene without spending too much time doing so, with a few lines revealing something both wondrous and agonizing. And of course, she knows her characters, she knows them so well that she sees them in any stage, can reveal them in any age and utilize both the characterization and the plot to work together and deliver a punch. Her stories made me hungry until the end until a last devastating line left me full but craving more. That’s how you write a short story, or in my case, how you envy one.