Writing Craft: Fun With Problems by Robert Stone

Over the past few weeks, I have been working my way through Fun With Problems, a collection of short stories by Robert Stone. These stories exist in the darker side of humanity, revealing layers of complexities of the human psyche. Characters are dreadfully flawed, typically with an abused substance lending to their conditions. Relationships are equally complicated, usually broken, as each character works through each other’s issues, whether as casual acquaintances or lovers, showing that every action contains a consequence.

I am drawn to complex personas in any story regardless of the medium – that includes premium cable channel serial dramas – I have never liked shallow characters that can be simply labeled as good or evil, I feel ripped off. Equally, being a visual person I am attracted to vivid descriptions of environments and settings. When these two qualities of a story play off each other, they strike a visceral nerve leading to a serotonin rush like no other.

In the title story, “Fun With Problems,” we find Peter Matthews, a divorced lawyer on in years who lives a solitary life in the Massachusetts countryside, a place he hates. He lives there because of the opportunity to make a living off the criminal element in the nearby rural areas that result in kids landing in the local jail, such as his incarcerated client he’s on his way to meet.

[The Hamptom] Valley was his native place, and he had been watching it all his life; its preachifying and its secret horror. The recently arrived professionals, academics and technologists, had brought to Hampton a self-conscious blessed assurance, unaware of the beatings, arson and murder that thrived in the hills around their white-trim shutters. Matthews knew the place’s black heart. It was his living.

A drunk in recovery who has not actually recovered, he inflicts his apathetic negativity on others as it fuels his meager egotism and depression. The dreariness of falling sleet and snow on a bleak town paint a vivid portrait of Matthews’s mind during his drive to the jail.

The famous jail, the red brick rat-house minarets attached to a new wing of frosted Martian glass, stood beside the river between a pair of old paper mills…. There were also a few shabby offices, headquarters to some social-services organizations. These were relics of the age of concern, grown decadent with underfunding, long on ideology and short on practical solutions. One scarred band specialized in raiding the migrant-pickers’ cockfights. A crazy poet did children’s theater the children dreaded.

Matthews, reminiscent and longing for his happier, earlier days with his ex-wife in the 1970s, much like the jail that houses the delinquents he serves, is the relic of the age of concern who has grown decadent. The prison conference setting further paints this portrait.

Matthews and his client conferred in a chapel in the jail’s old wing, a relic of gentler days. The chapel had been temporarily divided by partitions of wallboard and Plexiglas that reaches a third of the way to the ceiling and were being slowly vandalized.

It is in this setting he finds his quick fix, a younger woman who happens to be a psychologist, who was also on the wagon, whom he can corrupt with alcohol to gratify his loneliness, and wanton needs. All of this playing a more significant role than his responsibility to his wrongly incarcerated client.

In the last story of the collection, “The Archer,” we meet Duffy, a well-established and somewhat eccentric professional artist who teaches at a New England university. He was reputed to have threatened his ex-wife and lover, a fellow professor, with a crossbow. Over-consumption of alcohol plays a central role as he copes with the heartache and daily reminders of what he once had. He travels to a college town on the Gulf of Mexico as part of his lecture circuit to escape the sorrowful New England winter and the reminders of all that he had lost – his home, his wife, and his life. The following scene captures his edgy, fragile psyche brilliantly:

The interior of the plane on landing seemed so impacted with flesh that it would have required only one neurasthenic’s psychic break to be transformed into a thrashing tube of terror, a panic-driven, southbound rat king of tourists headed for the offshore ooze.

Throughout the story Duffy make a series of observations of the town suiting of an established painter, one who sees the overall scene and zooms into the grittiest details as a sort of self-portrait. Each observation connects to a previous one, I noticed, painting a grand picture of the town. He describes the town as “layers of stuccoed box bungalows leaning on thin concrete walls lit by tiki torches, enclosing tin pastel swimming pools.” The descriptions often carry themes of religion, redemption, and morality, reflecting his thought-process and overall sadness. Note the tiki torch and plane references in the following excerpt in a later paragraph:

The doomed palms with their spiky crowns reminded Duffy of a crucifixion. Insolent posters were affixed to their suffering trunks with cruel nails the size of industrial staples, threatening passersby with the judgment of Christ. Artificial palms stood at intervals among others like Judas goats at a slaughterhouse to encourage and betray the doomed natural ones. The tiki-torch fuel, together with road stench and beach barbecue pits, gave it all the aroma of a day-old plane crash.

Throughout the stories in Fun With Problems, the scenery is lush and complex, filled with people and things representing the good and bad of society living amongst each other, its ambiguity displaying both flaws and beauty externalizing the protagonists’ personas. After finishing the book, I had read in Stone’s biography that he is known for writing about characters with complex psychologies, an attribute that I was pleased to discover during my own course as a reader.

Writing Craft: The Road by Cormac McCarthy

Cormac McCarthy’s The Road contained an unusual, if not disruptive writing style that immediately struck me on the first page. Sentences varied in odd structures, some abrupt, some run-on, some fragmented. Many contractions were missing apostrophes; quotation marks were completely absent from all dialogue. Some dialogue was intertwined within paragraphs of description, action, and narrative as exemplified in the following:

He screwed down the plastic cap and wiped the bottle off with a rag and hefted it in his hand. Oil for their little slutlamp to light the long gray dusks, the long gray dawns. You can read me a story, the boy said. Cant you, Papa? Yes, he said. I can. (7)

The disruptive writing style, seemingly incoherent at times, stylistically blended with the post-apocalyptical world of The Road. The atmosphere throughout the story was gray and cold, filled with the lifeless charred remains of a once flourishing landscape weighted heavily with despair and innate survival. The text portrayed this with eerie appropriateness. Sentences were cold, words were charred, and prose and dialogue loomed with despair, graced by the smallest nuances of hope. Proper constructs would have been detrimental to the authenticity of the story, its chaotic reality in the reader’s mind.

Dreams and memories blurred with the protagonist’s reality, as did the narration and the protagonist’s inner dialogue. Point-of-view shifted with no warning from third to first person to tell the story as accurately as it could be told. In the following example, a series of third person run-on sentences morphs into the protagonist’s perspective:

They stumbled and fell through the woods the night long and long before dawn the boy fell and would not get up again. He wrapped him in his own parka and wrapped him in the blanket and sat holding him, rocking back and forth. A single round left in the revolver. You will not face the truth. You will not. (68)

The ambiguity of who speaks the sentence “A single round left in the revolver” – narrator or protagonist – is found throughout the book lending to the precariousness and fragmentation of the story’s environment. The two subsequent sentences “You will not face the truth. You will not,” call to question whether this is actually the protagonist speaking to his son, his inner dialogue, or the narrator speaking to the protagonist, further compounding this world of uncertainty dynamic.

The stylistic handling or mishandling of the text contributed to the fullness of the story. Disjointed oversimplified dialogue with minimal clarity of who was speaking helped to illustrate the dismal, desperate environment. While heavy repetition of thematic words solidified the setting: gray, cold, wet, ash, burned, charred, dead. Run-ons punctuated by short fragments and single word sentences accentuated the scenes’ actions and moods.

My take away from The Road is one of creative freedom, of knowing the rules well and breaking them to fit the writer’s intent. The text successfully created a vivid portrayal of the post-apocalyptic world, one that was as rich and thriving in detail as it was gruesome and deadly in story. An exemplary literary work in which every word is used as the hues and thick brush strokes of a Van Gogh landscape.

Book Review: Crystallizing Public Opinion by Edward Bernays

The early history of public relations fascinates me. I find that there have been minimal societal and cultural changes, since 1923 when Edward Bernays published Crystallizing Public Opinion. The principles on which the book is based, human behavior and the needs of organizations to communicate to the public, have largely remained unchanged. Bernays was cognizant of the rapid development of technology to deliver thought communication in a variety of media and methods, such as the printing press, radio, telegraph, and motion picture, to influence public opinion. I found it refreshing to read a book on the public relations discipline without encountering the usual current day business-speak and references to social media, though the striking relevance of the subject matter to the web, email, corporate intranets, 24-hour television news networks, and satellite broadcasting is clear.

Crystallizing Public Opinion reads as both an educational piece on the public relations field and a promotional piece for Bernays’s services as counsel of public relations. I smiled as I read the successful accounts of anonymous public relations counsels who were always referred to in the third-person. I wonder if he really thought he was pulling one over on the readers when he was rightfully boasting of his many historic accomplishments in the field – I doubt it. Among those mentioned I recognized were his physician-endorsed campaign to make bacon a healthy breakfast food staple and his work to promote acceptance of the controversial play Damaged Goods about venereal disease. He knew exactly what he was doing by describing these achievements.

Bernays took great pride in detailing the profession, comparing it to that of Legal Counsel, the court of public opinion equating the court of law, and ethics and integrity being strong drivers in the values of his business. “Popular misunderstanding of the work of the public relations counsel is easily comprehensible because of the short period of his development. Nevertheless, the fact remains that he has become in recent years too important a figure in American life for this ignorance to be safely or profitably continued.” (64) What better way for him to court the interest and new business of prospective employers than to write this book with this level of this seemingly authentic conviction?

The concept of the public relations professional being the news creator caught my attention; I found this topic particularly useful in my corporate communication profession. In the business environment, news is created to drive an idea to win over employees; it needs to surpass their resistance, apathy, or disdain. “The counsel of public relations not only knows what news value is, but knowing it, he is in the position to make news happen. He is a creator of events.” (189) The strength of this role is enormous when wielded correctly because not only is it about influencing public opinion, but also turning the public – or employees – into advocates of the message. This is a necessity in communicating organizational change, for instance, a task I am now taking on.

The symbiotic relationship that the public has with the content provider, or organization, was of particular interest to me. “‘Give the public what they want’ is only half sound. What they want and what they get are fused by some mysterious alchemy. The press, the lecturer, the screen and the public lead and are led by each other.” (105) Public opinion is created by the information the public receives on a particular subject, however, the provider of the information, such as a corporate communication department, focuses on and distributes news that is determined newsworthy by the internal public as well as the senior leadership to push forward a corporate goal.

From my perspective, following this symbiotic relationship in traditional news publishing in Bernays’s time, a vicious cycle is formed that limits the amount of information made available to the public. Varying points of view and diverse subject matter are left out because of a lack of interest or political bias, even though the content might otherwise be deemed newsworthy. Positive stories in today’s news are a casualty of this constrictive cycle, it’s not nearly as attention grabbing as a horrific crime or salacious celebrity scandal. The Internet, and especially social media, may have disrupted that cycle in recent years, especially in an internal business environment where employees have complete access to the outside world. Therefore, as Bernays states, “the public relations counsel must be alive to the events of the day – not only the events that are printed but the events which are forming hour by hour, as reported in the words that are spoken on the street … or expressed in any of the other forms of thought communication that make up public opinion.” (82)

Bernays’s explanations on group psychology shed light on the various nuances that must be considered in communicating organizational change. When employees are faced with change, typically half of the population is averse to the idea, according to a recent human resources led training session on change management at my job. “Intolerance is almost inevitably accompanied by a natural and true inability to comprehend or make allowance for opposite points of view.” (90)

Being the corporate communicator (aka the internal public relations person), I have a massive undertaking to manage. To take on this endeavor, Bernays recommends, “fundamental study of group and individual psychology is required before the public relations counsel can determine how readily individuals or groups will accept modifications of viewpoints or policies.” (112) Basically, I need to survey, listen, observe, anticipate reactions, and proceed with care.

As I had recently noted in my review of Bernays’s 1928 book Propaganda, he was far ahead of his time, offering insight and wisdom on a complex discipline that will likely never cease to exist. As technology continues to evolve rapidly, increasing the efficiency, speed, and quantity of communicated information, humans are still human, perceiving and comprehending no differently now than a century ago or a century from now.

Book Review: Propaganda by Edward Bernays

In my continuing fascination on the subject, I recently read the 1928 book Propaganda by the father of PR, Edward Bernays. What I found most surprising was that not much has changed in American business or politics since the original publication of this book.

Please check out the review over on the Anne W. Associates blog and feel free to share your thoughts: http://www.annewassociates.com/book-review-propaganda/

Book review: On Writing Well

My recent review of William Zinnser’s On Writing Well appears on the Anne W Associates blog. I enjoyed this book immensely; it has opened up a new perspective in how I approach writing.

Check it out! http://www.annewassociates.com/book-review-writing-with-a-newfound-freedom/