By Suzy Rigdon
Compelling writing is about tension, Leslie Pietrzyk told graduate students from George Mason's MFA program during her Visiting Writers workshop in early February. Invoking the hallmarks of Alfred Hitchcock, Pietrzyk gave the example of film: if the audience sees a group of people on a train and then it explodes, we are surprised, Pietrzyk said. However, if we watch a group of men playing cards on the train and beneath their seat, visible only to the audience, the bomb counts down the seconds, we are hooked, our hearts racing.
Pietrzyk knows tension. Her fascinating collection This Angel on My Chest (University of Pittsburgh Press, 2015) revolves around a single theme: in each of the stories, a woman’s young husband dies unexpectedly. From the very start, we know the direction each story will take; yet we read all sixteen stories, waiting for each discovery, anxious to see how the widow(s) will react. With each new tale, we grieve or laugh or shout alongside her.
If we see the bomb ticking away, we will sympathize. We will feel connected to the character, to their struggles. We become invested.
For Pietrzyk's craft workshop, I chose to work on a piece that had already earned a handful of rejections from literary magazines. Turns out the problem was pretty straightforward: I had pulled a punch in my story, springing a revelation on readers just as it had been sprung on me during the writing process. But readers don't like to be surprised, Pietrzyk said. They feel duped, tricked, like in The Sixth Sense when Bruce Willis' character finally discovers he was dead the whole time. It’s better to give more information to the reader up front, rather than surprise them later. If we see the bomb ticking away, we will sympathize. We will feel connected to the character, to their struggles. We become invested.
In Pietrzyk's story “I am the Widow," the title sets up the tension well. Widow is a strong word—evocative. Even before we start reading, we feel we know this woman. We become settled in our expectations, so even as the widow mentally (and seemingly irrationally) lashes out at the friends and family during her husband’s funeral, at the mementos they drop into his coffin, we stay with her. Her pain and anger makes us hurt, too.
Pietrzyk is a master of her craft. She tells stories in the second person, transforms narrative into lists and indices of foods, a quiz, and even a 40-page craft lecture told from twelve different perspectives. She builds stories from the point of tension. As she explained during her craft seminar, tension has to come somewhere between the external story (i.e. the plot and action), and the internal story (the emotional life and motivations of characters that ultimately create conflict). Even when writing in the most unconventional of ways, Pietrzyk succeeds at this.
At her reading, Pietrzyk told a crowded room of writers and readers that her self-challenge while writing This Angel on My Chest. was to feature at least one hard truth about herself as a woman, a writer, a wife or a widow in each of her stories. She considered releasing the book without giving readers the truth of her inspiration, but ultimately decided she needed to. Although she hopes readers don’t get wrapped up in looking for the factual truth in her stories, this knowledge creates a different type of tension.
Good analysis and good writing both stem from the same place: asking questions. How do you begin to revise a story you’ve spent weeks on, one that has already been rejected a few times? Think about the tension, Pietrzyk recommends. What kind of story do you want this to be? What do you want the reader to care about? Everything needs to lead toward something, she said. And in This Angel on My Chest—as in all of her writing—everything does.