I’ve been honored to receive several inquiries about an assignment focused on my short story, “Brittle Sisters,” that appears in Thrice Fiction 9. I composed an initial response to the first student who contacted me, but decided to post one that attempts to incorporate the others students’ questions as well. Thank you all for asking me about my story.
You have my sympathy for having to write a paper. Your questions are very specific, and if I answered those questions directly I would be writing much of your paper for you. But I hope my response can help. Please feel free to use the anonymous feature for comments and responses.
If all of you end up cutting and pasting the same writing into your paper, no doubt your professor will notice. I encourage you to use proper attribution with summaries and quotes according to the stylistic usage of your university. Please consult your style books or a site like Purdue OWL for information on how to properly attribute the opinions and work of others.
It is my understanding that the following is the assignment on “Brittle Sisters”:
“1) Discuss how the story portrays the theme of becoming independent. Pay particular attention to various textual strategies, such as narrative perspective, characterization, individual events, or others.
2) Interpret symbolism in the story. Focus on how different symbols allow the story to talk about an overarching theme, for example, change.” (electronic mail transmission 2/11/2014 11:53 a.m.)
Indeed, when I was in school, it would have been marvelous to be able to email any of the authors I studied. Of course, I could have put pen to paper, but I had been trained to separate a thinker/author from a work. This is less the case in philosophy than in literature and criticism. What I mean by this is that in philosophy we still refer to thinkers like Aristotle, Marx, Foucault, Derrida, Irigary, and Žižek and their bodies of work by their names. In literature, we are more prone to refer to a work. It is a subtle but distinctive practice, and no doubt, I invite more commentary on the matter than I could ever wish. My perspective in interpretation is indelibly impressed by my training as a continental philosopher in post-modern theories, and, oddly enough, by Cleanth Brooks, the New Critic, who I met and with whom I studied briefly in his last years. One feature New Criticism, Post-structuralist, Marxist, and Psychoanalytic theories of interpretation have in common is they all have something to say about authorial intent.
I am ambivalent in revealing my interpretation and thoughts on the story because it may differ dramatically from a reader’s. In this respect I do not think authorial intent has primacy in interpretation over a reader’s, but it can provide an interesting glimpse into an author’s process, a story’s context and provide insight into a story that is unique in a way no other reader or writer has access. Aside from the problems and the nuances of authorial intent, and the various theories of interpretations, the simple matter is I write the story, hope it is good enough not to humiliate me, and then it’s in the wild. People interpret it and let the play of interpretation go on ad infinitum, if they bother to read it. This, however, does not help you with your concrete requests.
The first thing I advise students to do when analyzing a piece of writing is to proceed slowly through a text. It’s too easy to rush. Close and careful readings will not hurt your endeavor. Aren’t you fortunate my story is at least short?
As a reader, different elements in a story will immediately jump out at you as significant or meaningful as symbolic. As a writer, the symbolic is typically organic. You will notice when it is forced or deliberate without any finesse: it glares. When a writer spoon-feeds the symbolic she or he does not trust the readers to glean and to find meaning for themselves. In fact, each of you have brought to my attention objects, metaphors and connections that I never consciously intended to be symbolic—and that is not in any way incorrect. When you locate the symbolic and makes these connections thematically in a way that makes sense, it’s not wrong. This is to say, by selecting a contemporary work of writing, there exists no rubric, no tried and true canonical interpretation that proclaims, THIS is the correct interpretation, now go on…see if you can tweak it a bit.
There are many opportunities for locating symbolism before you reach the storm—a part of the story each of you focus on. Again, proceed slowing sentence by sentence and pick out objects and metaphors. Your analysis and how it connects to a theme is what your assignment asks. All symbols will not connect to every theme you discover in a text. You may notice multiple themes due to your own reading of the story. My story is not perfect by any means. I am a young creative writer in terms of experience. I think of symbols and metaphors and their meanings work like crystals on a molecular level or connect structurally like a web. One interpretation leads to another and another. Like I mentioned earlier, play with them. They cascade in their connections.
Change can certainly be a theme, and death is the most obvious one. But that may have eluded you. Sometimes, we look too closely at something to perceive it. Who and what changes in the story? Who and what does not? How does change affect other characters in the story? This also works for the theme independence. Death is a separation, and although some characters exist off-page, it is a story involving multiple generations. Independence often involves breaking away and coming back to family and finding your own way. Other themes that revolve around independence are maturity, thinking and forming one’s own opinions and acting on them, forming and developing an ethical system to live by. It also can involve atonement, forgiveness, and reconciliation. Sometimes, it can involve trauma recovery and healing. In this story, there is grief, terrible grief—how it manifests and how different people deal with it.
This may be painful for you to know but I have another story involving this family. The two stories were once a longer story through many, many drafts. More drafts than I am willing to admit. But an editor pointed out that the conflict I had established in the beginning had little to do with the resolution. I missed this obvious problem, and realized I had two stories. After revising them into two distinct narratives, the stories had a stronger structural and narrative coherence. In interpretation, it is acceptable to refer to additional sources or works of an author. I apologize at having published only two works at this point. It’s been a busy season, and I haven’t submitted anything for publication since last fall. But you can find the other story on this blog under Publications in Fiction. It may give you some insight into the characters you now must work with. However, your assignment is to confine your analysis to one work.
What you may not know is that the storms were an actual occurrence during the spring of 2006 in the Middle Tennessee area. On one day, 11 tornadoes touched down, several were F3s with wind force between 158-206 miles per hour. 14 people were killed and the destruction was extraordinary. It was the single most deadly storm event since 1974. I lived there at the time. Where I lived over 700 homes and business were destroyed. Two years later, the region was hit with an even deadlier and more destructive outbreak.
I mention the storms to offer some context to the setting in that particular scene because you may not be familiar with the extent of destruction supercell storms can cause. I did not plan out that scene in advance to include the storms. It just happened as I was writing, and I don’t plan out metaphors. I sort of try them on as I write. Some work, some don’t, and some tend to be cliché or have become codified tropes. I think, ah this works great, then I go over it and realize it is hackneyed or just a bad fit. Your questions cause me reflect on the creative process. There is much more flow involved than I had realized. This makes me happy. It no doubt frustrates you. Of course, I could write an essay to these questions, and I still wouldn’t call it the last word. I may not even receive a good grade.
In respect to the storms, there is the line, “More ruin from the storms passed by.” How might this line refer to Clarey’s understanding of Halle’s death? What is the narrative perspective here? Think of how later Halle is described as the lockbox in the family’s house of cards. Think about what a house of cards is. What is going on with this family? There is a before and an after, and Halle’s death is mid-point. Is Halle a symbol? There also is a lot of traveling going on in this story and references to journeys. I’m also just realizing that. It’s quite shocking, isn’t it, how irresponsible writers can be in respect to narrative? Here we writers are dropping in all these little trifles for readers to agonize over. Just wait until you must write on Flannery O’Conner, William Faulkner, or Cormac McCarthy. You will appreciate my naïve writing.
Students also have asked me to comment on the following objects employed as symbols:
Death, ashes, cremation, two siblings, creeks, lipstick, bourbon, ruin, trees, columbarium, repositories, recess, the interpretation of the title, the age of the sisters and how, understandably that has to do with the theme of independence, lock-box, house of cards, the relationships between Halle and his siblings and what unrevealed things about their childhood that Clarey and Imogen may not know? A very good question asks “What do the lines, “We have never done anything wrong, and we’ve been careful”, “this is different…this isn’t selfish” mean? One student wants to know if the sisters did something together with the uncle. Also, is the setting the house of Clarey’s grandparents?
I can answer the easiest question first: yes, the setting in that scene is Clarey and Imogen’s grandparents’ home. I actually had a difficult time making it clear in the story how and why this is taking place there, and this is really the fault of bad writing. And, sometimes, you have to let a story go. I thought this element was clear. It had passed critical editorial review from several sources. I apologize this element has confused you.
In respect to death, ashes, cremation, columbarium, repositories, recess, this is all part of the ritual of a particular way of funeral and memorial as an alternative to burial. Symbolically, you can notice the cascade of relationships I already mentioned. Sometimes it helps to look up the definitions of terms, connections will emerge for you.
The lock-box and house of cards is a metaphor that can used as a symbol. The lock-box is the foundation of a house of cards. Think it through: what is a house of cards? What happens if the lock-box disappeared or disintegrated?
Lipstick and bourbon—Bourbon is a staple Southern spirit or alcoholic drink. It is used medicinally as well in celebrations, to relax, etc…you may know it as whiskey. Take lipstick as you will. The interpretations are endless. You can have a good time with interpreting bourbon as well and connect it to themes of death and independence.
Two siblings—Right off I can think how pairs of things show up here and there throughout the story. Even on a structural level, down to words, you can find pairs. What do pairs do? Pairs reflect and differentiate.
Trees and creeks are part of the setting on pragmatic level. You probably have them where you are. However, like people say in film studies, everything in a scene is deliberate. I am not a filmmaker, but I am very careful. What I mean is that in extensive revision I am aware of what I leave and take away. But, I can’t give you everything. You’ll have to think this through: what do water and trees typically symbolize? On a more basic level, refer to your own experience. How do the tress in particular, one students wants to know, contextually frame the storm: “What does it mean to have [mighty hickory and] oak trees torn apart in the storm?” These particular trees are known for their strength and durability, what would their destruction symbolize and what else or who else might they symbolize?
I left the relationships between Halle and everyone deliberately opaque. It is yours to interpret as you will. I have my ideas but it would be unfair to taint your thoughts with them. I truly think that because I wrote the story, you would have that interpretation lodged in your mind as some sort of correct interpretation when it’s not.
And, last, the title. It will disappoint you entirely to know that I slapped that title on the story in a split-second before I sent it off for consideration. I was in a hurry and it sort of came to me. Psychoanalytic theory will help you out considerably with this problem of interpretation. Maybe it’s a bad title, or I could have done better. I certainly didn’t dwell on it. The best I can offer is to think of the word choice. I like words. The definitions of words interest me. So, although it was a hasty decision, I had lived with this story for a year revising in bursts, dwelling on it months at time. The word “Brittle” must have been lurking in the subtext of that story and its accompanying story.
I hope your insecurities soon vanish, and you become more confident as you gain more experience in analyzing text. Again, proceed with close readings. Look at word choices an author makes, sentence structure, and narrative perspective. These are deliberate choices an author makes. Point to textual evidence in the story to support your interpretation or write out more the reasons why you find your interpretation to be the case. This is what your professor is looking for, not mere opinion or impressions but the textual evidence behind what you feel is intuitive. It’s not actually intuitive because there exist words lined up next to one another that have led you to this impression. And, for me, character is the driving mechanism for action. Who a character is and what a character will do is what gives momentum to story. Right off, why would Halle be described “as cunning as the rest of them…” Are Clarey and Imogen really as angelic as they seem? This leads to the student question, “What do the lines, “We have never done anything wrong, and we’ve been careful”, “this is different…this isn’t selfish” mean?” Yes, what on earth could these lines be referring to? What kind of people are these women? Step back and reflect on who they are and what they do. This is where you will find meaning.
Good luck and best wishes, April