by Leonora Desar
This summer I taught my very first writing class. As with other things, I had imposter syndrome and decided that if my students were to take me seriously and actually call me Professor Desar (ha!) I would have to live up to the name. On one hand, this was a lot of fun. I got to share with them my favorite, most beloved pieces, of which Kathy Fish’s “Everything’s Shitty at Price King” tops the list. And on the other hand, more fun—of an unexpected kind. I couldn’t just share stories—I would have to analyze them. I would have to approach them like a detective or a sleuth or a plumber: yes, these pipes are the best we have ma’am, here’s why.
Wait, do plumbers even sell pipes? Probably not. But let’s move on.
I was nervous about this approach. I’ve always subscribed to the belief that writing is like a unicorn or a monogamous man in New York City—in other words, magical and elusive. If you got too close, you’d spook it. When I started my MFA program and my professor went off about craft I’d be tempted to play my inner soundtrack—
What if good writing leaves us clueless? What if it defies analysis, like the ocean or good sex or amazing ice cream? What if it’s like looking at the hot people I went to high school with when I was supposed to be focusing on algebra—this one had a big nose and Groucho Marx eyebrows and bad skin and big feet but was undeniably sexy—WHY???
Perhaps writing, like beauty, is more than the sum of parts.
But this wouldn’t get me out of analyzing it. That is, if I wanted to live up to my professor name.
Fortunately, Fish’s piece has some pretty sexy pipes. I was overwhelmed in fact with how crafty it was—from its voice and sarcastic teenaged narrator to its deft weaving of backstory to its resonance with a capital R. I couldn’t stop underlining. I couldn’t stop drawing hearts. It was like being in algebra all over again. Was Fish conscious of weaving these craft elements? I wondered. Or did they spring subconsciously from her experience as a storyteller and reader?
My guess is a bit of both. We become strong writers with practice and by reading, reading, reading—loving things without knowing why, even in the absence of analysis. We internalize them, the way I hope you internalize Fish’s piece before reading this. And we get better though analysis—not from a therapist (though that, too) but by taking out our metaphorical microscopes.
Now that I have joined the ranks of aspiring Professor Schmafts, I have a newfound appreciation for the art of craft. It’s not a buzzkill, it’s our friend. Armed with its tools, we don’t always have to rely on the whimsy of our talent or luck or a good muse day if our muse decides to abandon ship and binge-watch Dexter. There is something comforting about knowing how writing is not just sorcery, but a practical witch with tools and pipes.
Writing Witchcraft 101 (n):
1. Whereby your unconscious whooshes out the magic while your craft brain hones it. You’re in touch with your obsessions *and* you have the tools to help them all make sense.
2. In other words, witchery + craft = (and sexy pipes)
A closer look at Fish’s piece, pipe by pipe by pipe—
Voice!—Not Your Grandpa’s Holdup Story
This story is about a holdup. Our narrator is working the night shift at Price King, a poor man’s Seven-Eleven. We learn “a man walks in holding a gun—and a baby.” We’ve seen this before, even if we haven’t seen the baby. Holdups, robberies, men waving guns; we know how this story goes. Or do we?
This is not your average heist. As we’ll see, what makes “Price King” is our narrator. She’s funny, she’s snarky, she’s master of the funny-sad thing. The narrator takes absolutely awful and potentially wrist-slitting material and makes us…laugh.
Immediately, we have a sense of the narrator’s age. Price King, the narrator says, gets “like three customers a day.” The “like” implies a young, maybe female narrator. I am reminded of my sixth-grade teacher, Ms. Greenberg. In a particularly festive memory, Ms. Greenberg identified how many times a student said “like” in a single sentence. Apparently, this was a female problem—
“Like, like, like, do you realize how this undercuts your authority?”
Authority? Hello?? We were eleven.
In Fish’s piece, like wields authority. You got that right, Ms. Greenberg. Fish knows how people speak in real life, for better or worse. We trust Fish and the veracity of the voice. We also find authority in subtle word choices: “The place is shitty and dirty and small.” Fish could have written “shitty, dirty, and small” or “shitty, dirty, small”—both which would have had a different, less breathless feeling.
Note: I felt uncomfortable labeling the narrator as “she” without being sure. What if my impression was wrong? After all, you can’t always trust your evil experiences with pedagogy to guide you. Then I remembered I’d interviewed Fish about her collection coauthored with Robert Vaughan, RIFT, where this story appears. I cheated and found the Word doc (sadly, the interview is no longer online). In the interview, Fish does refer to the narrator as “she.”
Am I a genius for noticing that “like?” Or just a good rememberer? Fortunately, that is not the subject of this piece.
Fish alludes to factual details without making a big to-do. In the second paragraph, we get confirmation of the narrator’s youth: the gunman, who appears to be in his early twenties, doesn’t look much older. We have a visual. Another author may have devoted more time to describing him, but Fish, a flash writer, chooses the most salient details. We can see him. There’s an intriguing contradiction: thick glasses imply nerdiness, a lack of toughness, but his eyes are wild.
We have sound, we have light. “Dim, brighten, and stutter” are visual, but stutter connotes sound—like sneaking in two sensory details for the price of one. Fish likens the store’s overhead lights to an old film reel; the simile stands out because Fish doesn’t overload us with a second.
Subtle Pyrotechnics: What Does Clueless’ Cher Horowitz Have to Do with Anything?
Hello, cinematic language. Throughout this piece there’s action, there’s dialogue, there’s gesture, and all of this so deftly woven with the narrator’s thoughts:
“Where the hell is Big Bill? If this were a decent store, there’d be security cameras, some way to alert the cops, a non-inebriated manager on the premises.” (my emphasis)
This is an example of a catalogue, which is basically a list. My old professor—the one I bleeped out with my inner monologue—had a rule for these: you start with the most innocuous item on the list and land with the most powerful and bold. Fish does this intuitively (I don’t think she ever took Professor Bleeped). Security cameras (innocuous) are followed by some way to alert the cops (also innocuous) followed by a non-inebriated manager on the premises—funny!, namely because of the word “non-inebriated.”
Remember Cher from Clueless? She was blonde, she was dangerous, she was armed with Daddy’s Amex. She would’ve been Ms. Greenberg’s penultimate casualty of “like,” but she also had a wicked vocab. The contrast between her adolescent and literary voice was striking, the way that it’s striking when our snarky “Price King” narrator drops an SAT word.
Another cinematic foremother is Veronica Sawyer, played by Winona Ryder, of Heathers fame. Veronica is a snarky genius. She can be found penning erudite observations in her journal, slurping slushies with psychopathic hottie, J.D. (Christian Slater), and saving her high school from the afterlife. The voicey one-liners of “Everything’s Shitty…” echo Sawyerland.
“The man says, ‘Please. I need your help.’
Super polite were it not for the firearm.”
Note Fish’s choice of the word “firearm,” a slightly more elevated and unusual choice than “gun.” Also consider the ironic flavor of the second line, its humor. Politeness is not exactly what you’d expect someone to notice given the circumstance.
“‘I’d be happy to help, sir, if you’ll just holster that gun–here, let me hold your baby for you.’
‘I need it out,’ he says. ‘I don’t feel safe.’
I hear you, dude.”
Sometimes you need a fifty-cent word, and sometimes you need a simple dude. But seriously, imagine this without the final line. What if the narrator had said in an inner, less fabulous voice: “I also feel unsafe,” or “me too,” or if there was no insight into what the narrator felt at all.
Nope. The voice is character. The voice is all.
Well, maybe not all—
Resonance Through Backstory
Fish creates resonance—capital R—by weaving front and backstory. It’s not just a scene about a robbery told in a voice that would make Cher or Winona jealous. It’s about redemption.
But we’re getting ahead of ourselves…
Subtly, we learn that something is amiss in the narrator’s life, that the gunman may be the least of the narrator’s woes. Fish shows how you can weave backstory without weighing things down. She plants enough seeds so that we’re prepared when the narrator drops her bombshell: her kid brother died and she blames herself. The brother’s death doesn’t land as a gimmick, but a gut-punch.
Even before the first legit seed I’d argue there’s a less legit, more subtle one. In the second paragraph we see the baby in the gunman’s arms. We are made to feel his presence by his stare. Babies don’t stare—they sleep and drool. This is our first hint that this is no ordinary baby, at least to the narrator.
“My hand goes to the pocket of my apron, but I already know my phone’s dead. My dad, who’s probably asleep right now on the recliner in the family room, would be so disappointed in me–his now only child–for carrying an uncharged phone.”
At some point I reread this and my eyes bugged out. If I were a cartoon of the nutty professor, a lightbulb would have exploded above my head, eureka style.
Have you read the story before reading this like I asked? If so, I’m curious if you noticed what I finally noticed on my tenth billionth read. Do you see it? The word that basically gives away without giving away what happens with the narrator’s brother Cal? Still don’t? Good, I’m not jealous that you’re more brilliant than me.
The word is “now”—“his now only child.” This word changes everything. It suggests there was a time when the narrator wasn’t an only child, which means that someone died. I probably wouldn’t have picked up on it if it weren’t for my professorial ambitions, at least not consciously. But subconsciously, this plants the seeds for what we learn about Cal’s death.
Also priming us is the absent character, the dad. We learn he’d be pissed at the narrator for not charging up her phone. Initially I read this as another example of dark humor and snarky, teenaged voice. But there’s more to it; once we learn that Cal drowned the dad’s disappointment crystallizes. One: because after a tragedy you expect everyone to be prepared—always—and this includes charging up your phone. And two: the hypothetical disappointment may reflect the dad’s real disappointment in the narrator—or what she imagines is his disappointment—for failing to protect Cal.
“‘My dad’ll be here any minute,’ I lie. My dad’s not coming. He and my mother and I have been rolling off in all directions like billiard balls the last two years.”
Fish’s similes are sublime, and again, I love how she doesn’t pack them on. What better way to describe a drifting family than to liken them to billiard balls “rolling off in all directions.” We don’t know—yet—why they are rolling off. This creates tension, suspense.
“The baby looks so much like my little brother, Cal.”
Fish connects backstory (baby Cal) with the current drama (Price King baby). Imagine if the narrator looked at a random cereal box or pack of condoms and mentioned Cal? It would be jarring. This is how you write backstory, Fish shows us—you bridge the past to related images and objects in the present.
“‘I’m good with babies.’ Another lie.”
How is the narrator not good with babies, we may wonder. Or we might not wonder at all—we’re too busy fangirling over Fish’s piece—but our subconscious registers the info.
The Bombshell—Self Versus Self
Fish doesn’t deliver the bombshell of Cal’s death, not immediately. After planting info about the past, she gives us a few more beats of Price King drama. My old professor—Professor Bleeped—would give her props. He argued that you should plant your seeds as far away as possible from your ending or explosion of Chekhov’s gun (boom). This makes the big reveal seem true.
But what if we forgot to plant? What if when drafting we neglected to introduce the gun—or the backstory?
Flashback to my inner monologue, year one of MFA:
Craft, schmaft. I was in the heat of the moment! I was making writing magic and witch stuff or whatever. So I forgot to plant, so what??! My unconscious didn’t want to, dammit.
Flash forward to reformed, craft-converted me:
This is where revision enters, sweetheart. In the rewrite, we get crafty, planting bullets and kid brothers. This way the reader is prepared by the time it all goes off—Boom.
In this story, not one but two guns go off:
1. The actual gun the holdup guy is waving around. This and the narrator’s saving of the baby is the climax, at least of the external conflict: narrator versus environment
2. When we learn that Cal drowned and how it’s the narrator’s fault, how she believes that it’s her fault. This is the bigger boom. It’s the story’s center, its beating heart: narrator versus self—
“Cal drowned because of me, because I left him in the tub for one second. I see him, slippery as an otter, as Mom pulled his body out of the water and laid him on the floor, clamped her mouth over his.”
Boom—This startles. The bombshell is laid out like an island.There’s no transitional bridge—the last sentence in the preceding graph is “High five, baby.” But we’re prepped for it, aren’t we? Fish has been planting, planting, planting—but in a way where we haven’t noticed, not on a conscious level. That is, unless we’re trying to impress our students with how smart we are.
Fish shows us how to wield white space. She uses transitional absence to provoke an emotional response. But it’s not gimmicky because Fish has earned it. Our subconscious knows and goes—ah-ha!
This is what’s really at stake. Not the rando baby at Price King but the brother the narrator couldn’t save. Fish never says—if my narrator saves this other kid she’ll be saving her own brother and be redeemed, which would be annoying and overwrought and totally ruin the moment. Luckily, she doesn’t have to. She tells us everything we need to know. She has trusted us, her readers, to infer. She earns her almost ending.
The Ending: Untidy Change
Fish uses white space in her ending, too. Do you see it? The break in time and POV in the final graphs? If you didn’t then Fish did her job—she lured you in so you wouldn’t count all those crafty elements like calories. But as your nutty professor, it’s my job to spoil the fun.
We have a shift between the third and second-to-last paragraphs. One minute we’re hightailing around Price King with the narrator in present tense. The next, we are in past tense looking back. We look at the winding down of the story’s climax—the gunman with a bullet in his head—through the eyes of a police report.
We see the rest of the action through the narrator, through that unflagging teenaged voice. We have the poetry of “as,” “as,” “as” mixed up with some “Merle Haggard sounding shit.”
Then: more white space. Between the second-to-last and final graphs, the narrator leaves Price King and goes outside. More importantly, the frenetic pace of the climax ends. By the time we land on the closing, we’re not only in past tense, but Fish makes this very clear, drawing our attention to the fact that we’re looking back in time: “I remember.”
Why did Fish end the immediacy of the scene? The crafty answer would be to make a serious pronouncement about trauma. When we are traumatized, my inner professor wants to argue, we distance ourselves—and so do characters mimicking real people. What better distance is there to leap from the present to the safety of past tense?
But the writer in me argues that this was likely sketched in a fit of instinct. These lines have the feel of writing heat, of being in the zone. We may never know. We also may never know what happens with the narrator’s family. Do they knit together? Is there forgiveness? Yet in spite of our not knowing, there’s a shift. Before the narrator and her family were billiard balls; now her parents run to her. Fish never says “parents” but she doesn’t need to. The dad’s car door opens; we know who “they” are.
Fish has talked about the need for movement. We don’t need plot, not in flash, Fish says, but we do need change. Here there’s change, at least implied change. On a superficial level, the narrator saves the Price King baby. On a deeper level, she earns redemption—but without ruining it and saying so.
Yes, we know Kathy Fish is a genius, thank you, Leonora. But how does this help me?
My old self, before becoming a craft junkie, would say “not one bit.” That is, dissecting great writing will only ruin the writing at best or, at worst, turn one into a jealous maniac, who, in the face of greatness, will fold like a literary Tower of Pisa and crumble into dust.
But that was old me.
New me has a level head and a new license on life—and prose. Craft, I’ve become convinced, is a way for the conscious mind to recognize what the unconscious already knows. And by knowing—in our writing, in other people’s writing—we can avoid becoming jealous, homicidal maniacs. We can avoid prison (and rejections, if we’re lucky). We can harness our gifts and what we know.
Here are some practical (and hopefully fun!) ways to synergize what we’ve learned from Fish’s piece.
Level: Pretty easy
Write a confession. Don’t worry about annoying things like plot. Focus on the voice and nothing but the voice. Think Fish’s narrator (“High five, baby”), Cher (“I love Josh!”), Winona, (“my teenaged angst bullshit now has a body count”), or your own vigilante misfit.
The year is 1989. Your confessor has just entered the Twilight Zone. They’re granted a phone call and ring up their former self. Their plan is to warn them: don’t do what I did. They get the answering machine. Great. They have five minutes—or two page’s worth of time—to spill. What’s the worst thing they’ve ever done?
Bonus points for humor. Humor can create the funny-sad thing, especially if we’re getting heavy.
The funny-sad thing (n): 1. Where bad shit is balanced by comedy and is thus prevented from becoming overwrought. 2. Where humor and heartbreak work in synergy to create a more layered piece
If humor is not your jam, remember Fish’s use of irony—“Super polite were it not for the firearm.” Our friends at Oxford Languages define irony as “a state of affairs or an event that seems deliberately contrary to what one expects and is often amusing as a result.” Fish’s narrator doesn’t plead for her life. She doesn’t beg for mercy or send up her final prayers to her creator. She makes a joke.
We see irony in Heathers, too. Veronica dreams that J.D. is going to murder another Heather and frame it as a suicide:
“Veronica: ‘That knife is filthy.’
J.D.: ‘What do you think I’m going to do with it, take out her tonsils?’
Veronica: ‘Excuse me, I think I know Heather a little bit better than you do. If she were going to slit her wrists, the knife would be spotless.’”
What Veronica says about the knife is not what you’d expect from someone trying to talk her boyfriend down from killing her bestie, even if her bestie kind of sucks. She doesn’t play on morality, she doesn’t speak of right or wrong, she doesn’t even mention the electric chair. Instead, she makes a quip about the spotlessness (or lack thereof) of the potential weapon.
Level: Not too painful
When you’ve nailed the voice, write a scene. Your goal is to alchemize the external ala Fish—dialogue and physicality and all that good stuff—with narrative interiority.
Perhaps your narrator doesn’t get the machine. She gets her former self. And if your character’s former self is anything like mine, she’s not interested in being warned. She wants to live her life and smoke her cigarettes and make out with inappropriate suitors and decorate her room like a subway car from 1989.
Perhaps your narrator is able to convince her younger self to meet in person. Here you can really let the tension rip. I bet your narrator’s younger self isn’t pleased when her older self shows up in those mom pants. Ew, will that be me one day? And I bet your narrator is just dying—dying—to yank off her younger self’s pushup bra and cleavage shirt.
If you’re stuck, pillage from pop culture. Take your favorite character from your favorite film and write a scene that takes place after the credits roll. What’s Veronica Sawyer up to in 2021? Is she finally dating nice guys, or is she still hooking up with Jack Nicholson wannabes? What would it be like to eavesdrop on her therapy sessions?
For bonus points, throw in a catalogue, which if you recall is a fancy word for list. End boldly:
High school was a bitch. There were popular girls, frat parties, boys who forged your suicide note and fed you Drano with your Cheetos.
Level: Possibly aneurism-inducing, but worth it in the end
Write a piece that has two threads. One should be a conflict described in the present tense, like FIsh’s holdup. The other should be backstory. Try to:
Make the present conflict dramatic and superficial and the backstory emotionally hardcore and internal. For instance, in Fish’s piece, the external conflict could be described as “dude who might kill me.” The internal conflict, on the other hand, is deeper: “I am responsible for my loved one’s death.”
Weave the backstory by connecting it to elements in the present (i.e. kid brother Cal looks like Price King baby)
Suggest a major tragedy in the narrator’s past. Plant seeds and lead us to a bombshell
Connect the resolution of the external conflict to the deeper one in the narrator’s past. Remember, for Fish’s narrator it’s not just about saving some random baby; it’s about redemption
But don’t like, spell it out. End by implying change rather than hammering it home. In other words, no bows, please. In Fish’s piece, the narrator’s parents come to her, but no one says: I love you, honey! Things are going to be different from now on!! We forgive you!!! Cue melodramatic violins.
Are you reading this and thinking, Leonora, what the hell? You’ve really outdone yourself. This sounds terrible. My head is going to explode. I need some freakin’ Advil.
I hear you. As a former espouser of craft, schmaftness, my head exploded, too. I’m out of Advil, but as an antidote I’ll offer something for the craft reluctant. Read on if you’re a writing witch—single syllable, sans craft:
Have you ever written while listening to music? If so, you know how this can engender some kickass writing. It’s not rational; it’s visceral. It’s not crafty; it’s karmic. There’s a book—I’ll call it my <redacted> yellow bible—or simply, the bible. It’s like music; I can open it to any page, any paragraph, any sentence, any semi-colon—and whoosh—I’m writing.
Is it magic? Did the good people at Scribner plant ecstasy? Did the author of the redacted bible look ahead to 2021 and envision me, forlorn in my pajamas, plowed by writer’s block?
The important thing is that it works (though I’m afraid I’m jinxing it by telling you). Having a voice we swoon over in our ear does two things:
Makes us confident we’ll never write as well
Makes us say—if the voice is that seductive, which the bible’s is—fuck it, try anyway
Find your version of the bible. The sentences should make you feel fizzy; keep your fainting couches near. Read it before bed, put it beneath your pillow, envision yourself writing as well as your favorite literary sorceress and Scribner sending you an email wanting to publish your journal entries, and no, you don’t need to edit them, they’re raw and fabulous just the way they are.
You can also try an exercise from my old journalism professor, a sort of prequel to Professor Bleeped. Professor Prequel would have us do what he called copywork: in essence, we found work we admired and we copied it. We wrote it out by hand; no typing allowed. But don’t worry: we weren’t plagiarizing. We were absorbing. Naturally, this would have been different if we, say, crossed out Fish’s name or the mistress of the yellow bible’s name, replaced it with our own, and submitted it to The New Yorker.
We didn’t do that. We copied many writers, many masters, and no one got published in The New Yorker. But we did absorb the writing magic. We were like sponges or maybe leeches.
But don’t think of yourself as a leech.
Think of yourself as a witch.
Copywork is a communion. You are engaging physically with a writer’s voice. You can feel their word choices, their syntax, their preference for em dashes and breathlessness over semi-colons and formality. You are partaking in a spell, inhabiting another consciousness, channeling the dead. And moreover, this works whether or not you are a craft believer. Hell, it works even if your brain has an “out to lunch” sign or an alligator-ridden moat when it comes to craft.
And—let’s be honest here—some of this will probably break through the bouncers. It will tame the alligators, the ones waving those “out to lunch” signs. Your conscious brain may say, ah-ha, this is kind of interesting, I like this craft stuff. The next time you read pieces as powerful as Fish’s, you may find yourself dissecting it for parts (and pipes).
Leonora Desar was a teenaged witch once upon a time. Her mom used to yell at her not to burn the house down, which put a damper on her spell-making. Out there somewhere are love spells lost, the smell of incense, charcoal stains burned into the floor, a middle-aged man from Queens who can’t stop reciting Poe and mispronouncing it: Will that be my lost Leonora?—which may or may not be the result of a love spell gone awry. These days, Leonora is sticking with literary magic (mostly).