The “Concerning Craft” series introduces Little Patuxent Review contributors, showcases their work and draws back the curtain to reveal a little of what went into producing it.
Please meet Madeleine Mysko. A registered nurse, she is also a poet, short story writer and novelist. She teaches creative writing both privately and as part of The Johns Hopkins University Advanced Academic Programs and coordinates the American Journal of Nursing “Reflections” column.
Though a novel, Bringing Vincent Home reads like the finest memoir, so authentic and convincing that at times I found myself turning back to the title page to be sure it was a work of fiction. Rarely does a book of any sort touch me as this one did. Madeleine Mysko has created a vivid, beautifully written, and deeply personal piece of literature.
She has received two Maryland State Arts Council Individual Artist Awards, a Howard Nemerov Sonnet Award and an Artscape prize for fiction.
You can read Madeleine’s short story “A Close One,” which first appeared in to the Little Patuxent Review Winter 2010 Form and Structure issue, by clicking on the link. Considering how this story came to be published there, she stresses the role of revision in the following essay prepared for our craft series:
“A Close One” underwent so many changes before it was finally published that I wasn’t sure I could speak about it—with respect to craft—without getting confused. But, in the end, the look back at this story’s development proved useful.
A workshop leader once said my stories were strong on character but weak on plot. “Nothing much happens in your stories,” he said. “They end too soon.” I believe that the workshop dictum “Show, don’t tell” may have been to blame. I loved my characters and worked hard to show who they were. Though I knew that readers liked a sure climb to the peak of Freytag’s pyramid and a quick plunge down the denouement, I struggled. I loved James Joyce and aspired to subtle epiphanies.
The first version of “A Close One” was little more than character sketch of woman I felt I knew. Like the character “Andrea,” I was a mother of teenagers at the time. The epiphany, in short, was this: during a chaotic summer, a mother of teenagers realizes she’s emotionally trampled. No one loved this version. No one published it.
Years went by. I took to heart the criticism that something should happen in a story. I returned to Andrea and tried to make something happen. I drew from what I knew: I had recently undergone a hysteroscopy. Moreover, because I was a nurse, I felt that I had a good grip on medical details. I packed Andrea off to an outpatient center and made something happen, a surgical procedure—realistic, if I do say so myself.
Still, the story was unloved and unpublished. I began to think that I had done nothing more than add to the time it took to get to the epiphanic conclusion: a mother feels trampled—both by her teenaged children and by the “messing around” gynecologists can do. Worse, I no longer loved Andrea.
Some say there are only two archetypal plots: (1) The Hero Goes on a Journey and (2) A Stranger Comes to Town. I wouldn’t say I had the latter “door” in mind when I took yet another stab at “A Close One,” but that is the door I breezed through. There was “Violet”—a stranger, an unwanted guest in a chaotic household, a heretofore nameless character who had been in the periphery since the first version. All I had to do was put Violet–literally–in the driver’s seat, and something happened.
I’m glad I didn’t abandon Andrea. If I had, I would also have abandoned Violet, the character whose importance I didn’t see until late in the process. I could say that Violet rescued both Andrea and me, but let’s give credit where it’s due: to patience, that element of craft we seldom discuss. Sometimes you have to live with for a story a long time—with or without a plot—before you know what happens.
If you, like Madeleine, favor character over plot (or, like popular authors, emphasize plot over character), you might want to read Jeff Gerke’s Plot Versus Character: A Balanced Approach to Writing Great Fiction. And if you need plot suggestions, click on the following link for the timeless 1916 Universal Plot Catalog or see updated compilations such as Roland Tobias’s 2003 20 Master Plots: How to Build Them.
In the next installment of “Concerning Craft,” we will continue the prose part by introducing you to LPR contributor Glenn Moomau. And, as always, we would be pleased to post any comments you might have.