Thursday, May 2, 2013

How Medium Affects Storytelling

Elizabeth Zelvin

As a lifelong writer, I’ve told my stories in a variety of media: novels, short stories, poetry, and songs. Running through all of them are the threads we call theme: what I have to say to the world, woven into the fabric of the story. Certain themes recur in what I hope it doesn’t sound too pompous to call my body of mature work. Some of these are the universal themes of creative artists, such as love and family. Others refer to my work as a psychotherapist and addiction specialist: alcoholism and recovery, abuse and healing.These are subjects I feel passionate about, and I have returned to them again and again.

I write very differently about these themes depending on the medium. I don’t do it deliberately. I don’t consciously inject the issue into the story. Nor do I consciously say to myself, “Oops, this is a short story, not a novel so I’ve got to do it this way; it’s a song, not a poem, so I’ve got to do it that way.” But on an intuitive level, I choose the voice, pace, and vocabulary most appropriate to the form I’m working in at the time.

My mystery series featuring recovering alcoholic Bruce Kohler includes three novels, four short stories, and a novella. The title of the first novel, Death Will Get You Sober, states the theme of the series: that investigating murders will be the catalyst for Bruce’s recovery. Bruce’s voice is sardonic but candid. In the first scene, after waking up in detox on the Bowery, Bruce says, “To tell the truth, I felt like hell. My mouth tasted like a garbage scow, my memory was on lockdown, and I bitterly regretted not being dead by thirty the way I’d always thought I’d be.” At the end of the book, he’s changed enough to be able to say, “For a giddy moment, I felt ...joyful. Like a guy with a best friend. Like a guy with a future.” Because it’s a novel, there’s room for me to give a lot of detail about recovery and Alcoholics Anonymous as Bruce and his friends go about their sleuthing and a couple of scenes devoted solely to his ambivalence to and struggle with sobriety.

In the short stories, I have to skate much more lightly over the recovery theme, even though not only is it crucial to Bruce’s character, but it also supplies key elements of the plot. I have to make every word count. “Death Will Tie Your Kangaroo Down” starts: “When I got sober, I thought I’d had it with drunken strangers.” Bruce invites an Australian he meets in Starbucks home and then can’t get him to leave. On page 3, he says, “I couldn’t get him to AA either, though I tried. I succeeded in getting his beer out of my refrigerator, where it looked dangerously at home.” And then the guy gets killed and the investigation begins.

Here’s a poem on the same subject but in a completely different voice and diction, from my book, Gifts and Secrets: Poems of the Therapeutic Relationship.


he was in a blackout when he broke the fish tank

he remembers pouring one more shining cataract
for drunken trout to leap deliriously upstream
spawning on his lips the songs, the curses
lies, excuses, broken promises

next thing he knew, he lay like Gulliver
a giant among the jagged shards of glass
cut to the heart to see the blood red swordtails
lying like abandoned scarves
goldfish copper bright as pennies spent
iridescent rainbows trampled out
flowing fins and tails like wingbeats stilled

next day he found his first church basement

the commonality of grief and shame
the hope, license to speak the truth
the unexpected presence of laughter
so hard, so simple, such relief
to say his name and add
I’m an alcoholic

And finally, here’s the same story told as a song in a voice that’s different from both Bruce’s and the poet’s, from my album, Outrageous Older Woman. It’s called “The Still.” Click, play, and enjoy!


Kay Kendall said...

That song is a hoot, and so very, very sad. Just plain brilliant.

Very interesting topic.

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