Thursday, February 6, 2014

What's at stake? "The Middlesteins," by Jami Attenberg.

The two-hour drive on snow covered I-70 was worth it. The Lions of Winter conference at Eastern Illinois University featured authors I love, so despite my panic at driving on slush I persevered. (I won't even mention how my attendance itself pushed against my introversion, how I freeze whenever I'm around the event's planner, the much admired Roxane Gay.)

Two workshops in particular caught my eye. One was led by Alissa Nutting (subject of the previous post), and the other by Jami Attenberg. I'd read Jami's fourth novel, “The Middlesteins,” months ago. The Middlesteins are a family much like my own neurotic, Jewish mishpocha—except the Middlesteins exist only on the page, so I can appreciate their endearing antics without enduring angst.

Matriarch Edie Middlestein has an obsession. She seeks solace in steak dinners and steaming bowls of cashew chicken. She shovels piles of potato salad into her mouth as her adult children plan their kids' bnai mitzvahs, complete with chocolate fountains. Edie's food addiction drives her husband, Richard, out of the house and the story soars. “The Middlesteins” is a novel, but it reads so true. Attenberg doesn't spare the fictional family—they cry, they bloat, they search for comfort—but she paints them with such empathy, I couldn't not adore them. “The Middlesteins” is a rare novel—simultaneously insightful and fun. Go read it. You won't be sorry.

Not That Kind of Steak.

“In a good story the guiding force is the stake,” said Attenberg in the workshop. “Always ask yourself: Do I care about what's at stake? Your story needs more than interesting characters.”

The author added that the stake, which can be about anything—money, friendship, love—should be revealed in the first 50 pages of a novel and has to be resolved by the end of the book. Also, a novel should have one big stake and lots of other smaller stakes weaving around it.


“The setting of a story can increase the stakes,” said Attenberg, who taught that the bigger the stake, the better the story. Some settings, like New York City, naturally amp up the stakes. “Instead of writing a scene in which your characters have a conversation in a park,” she said, “put them in an elevator. One with a stop.”


On character development: One good way to get to know a character is to kill off someone the character knows. How does the person react to the death? Another way to get to know a character is to send him/her on a simple task. Attenberg told us, “I like to send someone off to buy a pack of cigarettes.”

Jar of Secrets.

Attenberg's provocative prompt had my heart pounding. She passed out slips of paper onto which each of us was to write our deepest secret. She collected the slips, put them in a jar, and instructed us to take out a random slip and write a scene about it. On the slip I pulled my co-workshopper disclosed that she had punched her father during one of her parents' fights. (Or maybe the author of the secret was a guy. Who knows?) I admit to being slightly disappointed—I was hoping to pull a murder confession—but made do. Besides, hitting a parent who's already rumbling with your other parent doesn't seem so dark to me. But then again, who am I to judge someone else's shame? I have enough of my own. My deepest secret? I'm not telling.

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