Blueprints for Building Better Girls

book by Elissa Schappell

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.

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Fight Club

book by Chuck Palahniuk

annotation by Lee Stoops

 

“We are the middle children of history, raised by television to believe that someday we’ll be millionaires and movie stars and rock stars, but we won’t. And we’re just learning this fact,” Tyler said. “So don’t fuck with us.”

~ Chuck Palahniuk, Fight Club (166)

I’d like to write about Fight Club, but everyone knows the first rule of Fight Club is you don’t talk about Fight Club. Everyone knows this rule. People who have never read Fight Club or seen its movie adaptation know this rule. Chuck Palahniuk wrote Fight Club as a short story, as an experiment while he was bored at work. Those original seven pages became chapter six of what would become one of the most legendary and quoted stories written in the 20th century.

The writing forces imagination. Fresh, engaging, violent, and, ironically truthful, Palahniuk’s prose captivates strangely as the entire narrative is in the first person voice of a man who unknowingly shares his body with another man – another man with whom he believes he has befriended and lives. This other man, Tyler Durden, creates the underground Fight Club, fights, loves the mysterious and broken Marla Singer (by whom the narrator is disgusted), and inhabits the narrator’s mind and flesh independently. Early in the story, the narrator shares experiences with Tyler and abandons his job and life for a more exciting, nihilistic life with Tyler. As the narrator loses control, he sees Tyler less and less often until the two personalities exist in isolation of each other, the narrator having no control over or sense of his body or memory when Tyler takes control. The narrator, even once Tyler disappears and frequently takes control, has no idea that he and Tyler are one in the same. The reader remains in the dark, as well, though Palahniuk hints cryptically at the truth of the plot throughout. The narrative is seeded repeatedly with the line “I know this because Tyler knows this” (26 (first occurrence)).

The story of the split personality is nothing new, yet Palahniuk writes it in a way that many fans claim got their friends/sons/husbands reading again. Creating a story that piques interest with enough strength to inspire non-readers to read is inarguably a remarkable achievement both for the author and for contemporary literature.

The prose is some of the most creative I’ve read in that it is literally reading the interior monologue of a man losing his mind while unaware that he is losing his mind. The majority of the book is stream of consciousness delivery – memories mixed perfectly with present tense story. From the famous line, “I want you to hit me as hard as you can” (47) to the reveal, “You were really fighting me…You said so yourself. You were fighting everything you hate in your life” (167), Palahniuk weaves a story of fabricated authenticity, pulling the reader through the brain of one of the most recognizable, iconic reliably unreliable narrators in modern fiction.

Palahniuk’s text appears on the page as somewhat scattered, but the stepping-stone quality of his story-telling is intended, intentionally leading the reader by telling only what is absolutely important and leaving gaps where the rest needs be simply passed over. Spending 200 pages in the mind of someone that is unaware of his own insanity, the reader eventually loves both the accidental hero (anti-hero?) and the enigmatic, charismatic, anarchistic Tyler Durden. The reader can’t help but keep reading, tunneling further and further into the story and the split mind of the narrator.

Even though the story is cleverly written as one of man-becoming-man, Palahniuk succeeds most impressively in writing what is inconspicuously, secretly even, a love story. From the narrator’s first encounter with Marla Singer (the damaged, accidental, suicidal love-interest of Tyler Durden) to the illumination of Tyler’s manifestation as a result of the narrator’s twisted, admitted love for Marla (and, again ironically though not as strangely for Tyler), the story is truly about love and loathing while masquerading as a violent, gritty, testosterone-infused (“Too much estrogen, and you get bitch-tits” (17)), meat- and beat-fest. “That old saying, about how you always kill the thing you love, well, it works both ways” (184).

“I need you do me another favor,” Tyler says.

This is about Marla isn’t it?

“Don’t’ ever talk to her about me. Don’t talk about me behind my back. Do you promise?” Tyler says.

I promise.

Tyler says, “If you ever mention me to her, you’ll never see me again.”

I promise.

“Promise?”

I promise.

Tyler says, “Now remember, that was three times that you promised.” (72).

 

All the things that Tyler knows are all coming back to me…

I know why Tyler had occurred. Tyler loved Marla. From the first night I met her, Tyler or some part of me had needed a way to be with Marla…

I love Marla (198-199).

 

What started as an experiment, a list of fictitious rules more than a story idea, turned into a seven page short story that turned into a book that turned into a movie that turned into something bigger than a simple cult craze – something culturally defining. The combination of Palahniuk’s spanking new, mind-capturing prose, his ridiculously interesting and filthy characters, and his holds-the-reader-till-the-last-page story-telling give Fight Club unprecedented strength. He offers readers and non-readers something to which they can’t say no, and he gives writers, by example, permission to get away from the rules, to invent new styles, and to write passion, even ugly passion, into places where passion may be obscured.