More about the story within in the story.

February 5, 2018

Here’s a New Yorker story about a man who went to prison as a young man and became a poet, writer and lawyer. Pretty good story. Read the whole thing. But contemplate what he said about writing his story. He was looking for the story within the story.

“A Question of Freedom,” his memoir, could have told a straightforward story: a boy without a father grows up confronting racism and poverty; he commits a crime and lands in prison; he endures and is redeemed. But, while Betts was writing the book, he kept thinking of something that the poet and scholar Elizabeth Alexander once wrote: “Certain kinds of black men’s stories are ever in vogue, stories that offer the easy paradigm of criminality and putative redemption.” So he inserted the question that he was asking himself into the text: What kind of story is this? Fundamentally, he decided, it is one of absence: prisoners disappear from ordinary life. It’s difficult, Betts told me, to portray a “life driven by removal,” to explain what it’s like to be away from all of your loved ones, to miss out on “going to 7-Eleven or getting a driver’s license for the first time.” In the poem “Juvenile’s Letter,” from his first collection, “Shahid Reads His Own Palm,” he declares, “if you want / the logic of birthdays / and anniversaries, turn / your face away / from what I write.”

A Decade After Prison, a Poet Studies for the Bar Exam | The New Yorker



How to write a proposal: the story within the story

February 4, 2018

If you are going to write about your grandfather, write about him with details.

For example, he fought in World War II in General Patton’s African-American tank battalion, the Black Panthers, and saw action in the Battle of the Bulge during the last months of the war. When he came back to segregated life in a small Alabama town, his heroism was unrecognized. And this left him embittered. So he married a woman and moved to Houston for a better life. But he never spoke about his bitterness. He was a sad and depressed man who never opened up to his children and drank too much. But one of his grandchildren got him to talk about it near the end of his life. (I’m making this up, by the way.)

Notice all the action and reaction I put in those  sentences.

Then there is the story within the story. A graduate student  is going to shoot a documentary not just about track at TSU, but about the track  coach and  his son who is the public address announcer at the track meets. The big story is the history of track at TSU and its evolution. Track as the first sport in the Olympics that American blacks competed in. But the story within the story is about a father and son.

My book, The Trials of Eroy Brown is about the acquittal of a black convict who drowned a  warden and shot and killed the farm major at Ellis Prison in 1981. Most people expected Eroy Brown to be easily convicted and sentenced to death, but he was acquitted after three trials. The story within the story was the major federal civil rights suit against the Texas prison system, called Ruiz, for one of the many convicts who sued about the brutal conditions. The book is about three murder trials wrapped up in a civil rights trial. The book tells Eroy’s story and also tells the story of Texas prisons from the late 1940s to the late 1980s. The jurors declared him innocent because when he told his story they believed him. And they believed him because they knew that bad things happened in Texas prisons.

Stories must be told in time and place. Put dates in your proposal. When is it happening? How long does the story evolve? And where is it happening? What is the history and nature of the place? I spent a lot of time in my book describing how prisons operated in 1981 and during the many years before. What is the central character’s need, or we might say, yearning? Eroy stood up for himself. He said he was defending himself  all the way.

So ask yourself, what is the story within the story? Think of movies and novels you like. What is the story within the story? Usually there is a set of actions, and the story within the story consists of the emotional needs and problems of the central characters.


Sketch out these elements of a story pitch and see if you can find the story within the story.

For next week: Read “All Aunt Hagar’s Children”

January 26, 2018

I suggest reading it once for pleasure and them a second time for form. In some ways this is a detective story. That’s one element. But it’s also a story about family. And it’s a story about the narrator’s needs and yearnings. I like the word yearning. What is the narrator’s yearning? And who committed the murder? That seems to be the point of the detective story. But it’s not what the story is about.

Notice also how the Jones uses place. This story is set in Washington, D.C. And notice the way he uses food and drink to explore the family dynamics. The murder victim was shot at the dinner table. It’s a complicated story but also very tight. Everything is connected. A remarkable story.

And by the way, who is Hagar in the Bible?


Meeting in MLK 248

January 25, 2018

So far so good. There is heat. And the display works.


Some writing advice

January 24, 2018 is a free website you can subscribe to. It publishes work by both established and upcoming writers. Here is a link to a recent post for advice from writers. It’s well worth looking at, and seeing if there’s a writer’s advice that suits your questions and temperament. I especially like Robert Olen Butler’s notion that fiction (and nonfiction for that matter) is about yearning. The screen writer’s talk about figuring out a central character’s need. But maybe yearning is a better work.

Notes on Writing a Novel
by Elizabeth Bowen
THE NOVELIST’S PERCEPTIONS of his characters take place in the course of the actual writing of the novel. To an extent, the novelist is in the same position as his reader. But his perceptions should be always just in advance.
THE STUDENT WRITER MAY HAVE A SECRET or instinctive belief that writing should occur spontaneously, and certainly when writing succeeds that way, it’s a gift. More often than not, however, wholly successful passages spring from unerring, spontaneous inspiration only intermittently and unconscious artistry cannot be depended on to achieve completed, successful works.
Letters to a Young Writer
by Carol Edgarian
BE GENEROUS. I mean, be generous on the page. Be discriminating with your characters, yes, but give to your reader with both hands—give like a lover. Don’t hold back. Don’t get tricky on your reader. Don’t save that good bit for later when things get dull. Above all, don’t mess with your reader’s heart. Woo your reader with riches; woo her with everything you’ve got. Your characters, your words, your story, your song: they are the coins in your pocket with which you pay for the honor of entertaining a reader. Spend them wisely. Spend them with joy. Spend them with love. Spend them as if you want to win the heart of your reader forever. As the great writers have won you.
by W. H. Auden
A POET HAS TO WOO, not only his own Muse but also Dame Philology, and, for the beginner, the latter is the more important. As a rule, the sign that a beginner has a genuine original talent is that he is more interested in playing with words than in saying something original; his attitude is that of the old lady, quoted by E. M. Forster—“How can I know what I think till I see what I say?” It is only later, when he has wooed and won Dame Philology, that he can give his entire devotion to his Muse.
Hall’s Index
by Donald Hall
THE PHRASE DEAD METAPHOR is a dead metaphor, henceforth known as DM. The phrase implies that the metaphor was once a living organism, like a human being, but died and became a corpse. When we use such words in our poems, we populate our poems with zombies. . . . The dead metaphor is not a criminal activity—but it is an activity at odds with poetry.
I TRY TO FIND STORIES THAT SEEM TO LEAP into existence off the half shell—stories in which the writer seems so inextricably woven into the fabric of the fiction that one can forget, as Somerset Maugham puts it, that it is a story one is reading and not a life one is living. I try to find stories that neither sanctify victimhood nor labor to serve received standards of rectitude.
Best Advice
by Kirsten Valdez Quade
IT IS POSSIBLE, I suppose, to live by simply replicating received responses to the events around us: joy at this graduation, sadness at that failed relationship. Certainly Hallmark cards and bad television encourage this kind of superficial engagement with the world. But if we examine our own emotional reactions closely and with clear eyes, the truth is usually much more complicated—and more interesting.
by Rick Bass
BEGINNING WRITERS LOOK FOR RULES, guidelines, clever sayings that can be posted on a mirror, and these things are important, or at least they were for me. My apartment used to be cluttered with sayings such as Flaubert’s “Live like a bourgeois and think like a demigod.” I also had on my walls crazy sentences, lines I’d typed out of novels, lines that I liked for their rhythm or their content.
A Short Short Theory
by Robert Olen Butler
AS ANY BUDDHIST WILL TELL YOU, a human being (or a “character”) cannot exist for even a few seconds of time on planet Earth without desiring something. Yearning for something, a word I prefer because it suggests the deepest level of desire, where literature strives to go. Fiction is the art form of human yearning, no matter how long or short that work of fiction is.
The Human Comedy
by Sherman Alexie
SIX-WORDERS are a cool hybrid. They work in a strict three-act structure, like screenplays.
The Teaching of Writing
by Kay Boyle
MOST ADULTS, HAVING SOMEHOW LOST TOUCH with the great simplicities, have forgotten that to write is to speak of one’s beliefs. Turning out a typescript with the number of words neatly estimated in the upper right hand corner of the first page has nothing to do with writing. Neither have questions about the prices paid by Harper’s Magazine or the Atlantic Monthly or the Ladies’ Home Journal or Esquire. Writing is something else entirely, as the young instinctively know.
The Lesson of the Master
by Cynthia Ozick
THE LESSON OF THE MASTER IS A DOUBLE ONE: choose ordinary human entanglement, and live; or choose Art, and give up the vitality of life’s passions and panics and endurances. What I am going to tell now is a stupidity, a misunderstanding, a great Jamesian life-mistake: an embarrassment and a life-shame.

Start as late as possible

January 19, 2018

This slogan is a variant of the Greeks and Romans writers, who said, start in the middle of things. A story or an essay should capture the reader’s imagination with action. Students who have been taught to write essays for a dozen years too often open with background. In journalism we tell stories. Here’s an opening of a story I wrote about a story teller.

John Henry Faulk was right in the middle of one of his favorite stories when he was interrupted by a burglar alarm that sounded worse than a billy goat caught in a barbed-wire fence. The alarm was to protect the art at San Antonio’s Witte Museum, where Faulk was performing his one-man show of Texas stories.

The point is to hook the reader with action and reaction. Once I get deeper into the story, I can give Faulk’s background, how he had a promising career as a radio and television personality when he was blacklisted by right-wing group during the 1950s. (The story is posted in the readings section of blog.)



Write like you talk

January 19, 2018

“Literature has something to do with language. There’s probably a natural grammar at the tip of your tongue. You may not believe it, but if you say what’s on your mind in the language that comes to you from your parents and your street and friends, you’ll probably say something beautiful.”—Grace Paley’s first maxim for writing.

Read your sentences out loud and see how they sound. Does the sentence sound like speech or does it sound like “writing?” If you try to write like you think writing sounds, it won’t sound natural. Write like you talk, only without the hesitations or the slang.

Here is an example from a student story:

There is a long road to recovery underway, but luckily there are many resources available to smooth over Houston residents’ transition back to uniformity.

Transition? Uniformity? We want to transition back to uniformity? This is not a sentence you would feel comfortable speaking aloud.

Here’s how to fix it: Many resources are available to help Houstonians get back to normal.


Correction: We are meeting in MLK 248

January 19, 2018

I had forgotten that Dr. Dixon is teaching in MLK 119. We will use MLK 248. But I may see if we can get a proper seminar room. Stay tuned. Please “follow” the blog.


Art of Narrative: Spring 2018 Syllabus

January 17, 2018

Thursday, 5:30-8:00
MLK 248

Michael Berryhill
713-313-7528 blog address for Art of Narrative:

Teaching Philosophy:

I approach this class as an editor working with writers. I want each of my writers to come to me with story ideas and approach how to develop them. I want to see your writing as soon as possible to get an idea of how best to help you. I have lots of handouts and stories to work with. We will be using my blog for the semester and everyone must post comments about the reading and writing process.

Course Description

The Art of Narrative is one of three foundation courses for the graduate degree in  Professional Communication and Digital Media Production. During the course of the semester, we will review the foundations of narrative story-telling in nonfiction, fiction and movies. The primary emphasis will be on nonfiction prose. We will review research questions, main theme statements, narrative, scene, dialogue, background, description and observation. We will look at various approaches to opening a story. I will give you selected readings for class discussion.

For class readings we will read some masterpieces of narrative, many of them available online. Students will be asked to find examples of good writing for discussion.

Each student will write at least 3000 words, either as a long form article or story, or as shorter papers. I will work with each of you in an individual way to see that your writing assignments reflect your strengths and witnesses. It’s very important that you submit drafts for revision. And we will see if we can adjust your writing assignments to help you in developing your master’s project.

One-on-one consultations: every student must meet at least twice with me, once to discuss the reporting, and once to discuss the rough draft. Make this a priority.

I’ve prepared handouts and will give them out the first day.  Everything in the handouts is available in the right hand corner of the blog. For those of you who prefer to read digitally, it’s all there. But I think there is something useful in being able to mark up and annotate a piece of writing. There’s nothing wrong with keeping one foot in the analogue world. Studies have shown that writing by hand can improve memory and understanding. Mark up the stories. Figure out how they are put together. This is important. Send comments to the blog. This is graduate study. Class participation counts.

Important requirements: 

Subscribe to the blog:

Post at least four comments about the reading and problems on the blog.

Learning  Objectives:

Goal 1: Understand and identify the elements of narrative writing.

Goal 2: Define the difference between essay and narrative writing

Goal 3: Write a 3000-word narrative.

Class Schedule

January  18:  Introductions. Story ideas. The instructional materials. How to write a story pitch. Read Bob Lee’s story: “A Hunt in the Big Thicket”

January 25: Bring story pitches for discussion. Read “All Aunt Hagar’s Children” and discuss next week.

February 1: Discuss Edward P. Jones story, “All Aunt Hagar’s Children.” Think in terms of the character section of the instructional sections, and the Six-Box Model for fiction. Stories are often about a character’s need.  What does the narrator of the story need? Stories must have a time and place. What is the time and place of the story and what is the effect of that on the story?

February 8: Planning the research and writing a pitch. The character’s need and the place and time of the story.

February 15:  Feature structure: Read “The One Left Behind”

February 22: Meet at Gregory School, 1300 Victor Street, Houston,Texas, 77019, for Documentary Film: This is Our Home, It is not for Sale.  Director will be present. A film about the creation of Houston’s premiere black neighborhood, Riverside.

[February Proposal due: present and discuss in class. Have a research plan. Schedule meeting to discuss.]

March 1:  Mythic structure

March 8:  Screen play structure

March 15  No class. SPRING BREAK

March 22:  Rough draft due. Discussion.

March 29: Reading to be assigned

April 5

April 12 Reading to be assigned

April 19:  l draft due

April 26

May 3 Last Class

May 7-11 (No Class, Final exam week)


Computer problems on grades

January 2, 2018

Dear Writers,

There was some kind of foul-up on your grades. I entered them in the computer system, or at least thought I had entered them, but none of them was registered. I am going through the paperwork to get them all entered again. I apologize for the confusion. N meant no grade. But I will  have the grades changed with the registrar’s office by tomorrow morning.