Exploring the art of prose


Tag: Structure

Losing Composure by A.D. Carr

  Poioumenon for my son “Can I ask you a personal question?” I asked. “About kids?” It was early 2017. I was in the passenger seat and my friend, G., was driving. She’d been my lit professor back when I…

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Author’s Note

This was the first story I wrote about Turkey, and as such I wanted it to feel like some of my favorite stories from Turkey. I wrote the first draft almost four years ago now. Not much of it remains in my memory outside of what I shall call “the moment of possession,” and the ending. The moment of possession is the start of the third section, when a devil takes hold of Gökçe’s heart, and she becomes capable of violence. This moment, or rather the placement of this moment—far ahead of the end so that it becomes in a way an immediate and almost nonsensical action of great consequence that is given little explanation—was very important to me in the conception of this piece. Gökçe isn’t interesting to me because of her motivations; she is interesting to me because of the actions she has channeled this energy into. This is the sort of human element absolutely denied in a workshop. Our characters must have reasons for doing things before they can do them, their behavior, their speech patterns, their politics must be rationalized to the audience before they can be presented. But this rationalization feels inappropriate in the context of my story, in the context of modern Turkey, and is utterly absent in some of the most heart-wrenching and tender stories from Turkey that I have come to love.

In a fairytale, the protagonist goes on a rescue mission, or they search for a talisman, or they hunt a great evil. The knight must slay the dragon, but the fairytale does not bother mentioning the dragon’s social policies or its human rights violations, or its genocide-denial. The fairytale operates on a system of jettisoning motivations as early as possible so they do not interfere with the immediacy of the narrative. To me the immediacy of the political situation in Turkey is outsized for a narrative of motivations. It is a realm of desperation and frustration to the point that it becomes almost like a fairytale. I do not care to completely catch you up to speed, misery is a given, let us look beyond it, at the person who operates amidst it.

Gökçe’s story starts just as the last bit of space in her is filled up with frustration, and in the night, she snaps. Consciously, she knows not why, and perhaps it is the same for the reader—who, after all, decides to blow up the leader of their country over the barking of a dog? She is meant to be almost unbelievable, to make such a consequential decision so unannounced well before the second half of the story. I hope of course that as the story continues, as she develops her plan, and her madness seems too methodical, the reader becomes acquainted with Gökçe’s desperation. I hope they might say: Still, assassination is a bit much, but yes, that leader is no good. I want the reader to understand, sympathize with Gökçe’s desperation, yet still feel off-kilter because her motivations are dispensed without much ado. This, I hope, refocuses the piece so that it is not about how a woman like Gökçe can reach such a boiling point, but rather how it is precisely that she will boil over, and what will happen from there, how she will plan accordingly within this new self-reality. In a way, this moment of possession is an internal climax that has dropped its pretense and even its buildup, become instead a method by which to begin a story. It is in internal climax that, in another story, might have been reserved for the end of the piece.

There’s an obsession with digging and digging and digging into the soul of a character. I wonder if sometimes this is a procrastination on the part of the author, hiding behind the axiom that an author should intimately know their characters as a way to avoid doing their work. Other times I wonder if there is an ingrained tick in any author who has gone through a program—so often their colleagues ask: why did the character do this? what was the motivation here? what were their thoughts and feelings here? These questions, though helpful for a writer who does not know the answers, do nothing for the writer who does, and it presupposes that whatever knowledge the author possesses should be shared immediately with the audience. And so a tick is born in the program pupil, the tick of preemptive explanation, thus creating the form of a story that is motive crammed up to our eyeballs with the last few paragraphs reserved for the final initiative of the character.

It is easy, I think, to fall into this trap of motivations as narrative. We say that bad things have to happen to our characters or else there is no conflict, but bad things are not a narrative. Being enacted upon is not taking action. I could see a version of this story that has gone through the workshop and it is maybe fifteen pages long instead of twenty-five, and the first thirteen pages explore Gökçe’s political history, flashbacks of her relationship to the Turkish government, memories of misogyny from her youth, and the prickliness of religion, while the last two pages are her sneaking down to the computer and deciding to blow up the president. I’ve seen a lot of stories go that route, exploding the proportions of the interior emotions in response to societal injustices. The political outrages pile up on the psyches of our characters the way the blades of straw pile up on the camel’s back, and the interest in these stories is the guessing game of which straw will finally snap the spine. It works for a lot of writers and resounds with a great many readers but I will say I find it boring. The camel is not dead now that its back is broken, it still has a desert to traverse, it has reached a crucial juncture where its destiny has bifurcated without its consent. I care so much more about the lives we try to live, the molds we break, and the bounds we observe when we have reached the turning point and are left to reassemble our notions of our self and our place and our potential.

I think of this in terms of stories I have enjoyed: what happens when the climax is not close to the end? what does this look like? what happens when we still have years to live?

But maybe I am full of shit because of my ending. Doesn’t it just stop? Doesn’t it stop on the cusp of a momentous event?


KENAN ORHAN is a Turkish-American writer. His stories appear in Prairie Schooner, Massachusetts Review, The Common, and elsewhere. He lives in Kansas City.