Monday, August 3, 2020

Writing Lessons from the Sunshine State


What Lauren Groff's haunting story collection teaches us about thematic unity and formal innovation.  ♦
Florida by Lauren Groff is a collection of stories in which each piece acts as part of a greater whole, featuring different characters and different timelines that all intersect to create one single representation of Florida as both a state and a state of mind. Groff depicts the state as terrifying yet beautiful, a feeling that stretches throughout, and while tropical storms, snakes, and crocodiles are always a threat, the main characters in her stories somehow find beauty within the chaos. Groff uses the same character in different stories throughout the collection to provide continuity between pieces and stretch the topics of motherhood and marriage, but even when Groff explores characters besides the mother, all lend well to the overall feeling of Florida as a place where being content is not an option, such as the two sisters who are abandoned on an island in “Dogs Go Wolf” or the homeless girl running away from life in “Above and Below.” Groff employs various narrative structures that help keep the content fresh and exciting, making these stories as unpredictable as the Floridian weather, and I found myself being swept around in a gust of literary wind that left me as entertained as I was unsettled.

In fact, maybe the most important thing aspiring writers can learn from Groff is her use of varying story structures. When you think of a short story, you may imagine a beginning, middle and end, and while Groff does use a straightforward, linear form in some of these pieces, she employs other structures to great effect; in “Snake Stories," for example, Groff uses an unconventional, crot-based structure to tell about a woman in Florida struggling to be happy with her husband and two kids. In this context, a “crot” is a part of a whole, like an entire collection of smaller stories sharing space inside a single story. Each one is short, rarely over a paragraph long, and somehow related to snakes, whether this is literally, or related to someone’s deceptive actions, or the narrator recognizing someone’s snake-like tendencies. The piece begins with the narrator relaying the story of Adam and Eve and the snake that fools them into committing the original sin, and it then transitions into the narrator describing her son’s school projects about snakes and his fascination with them:

I can’t get away from them, snakes. Even my kindergartner has been strangely transfixed by them all year. Every project he brings home: snakes.

The pet project: i thnk a kobra wud be a bad pet becus it wud bit me, picture of him being eaten by a cobra. The poetry project: snakes eat mise thy slithr slithr slithr thy jump otof tres thy hissssssssssssssssss, picture of a snake jumping out of a tree and onto a screaming him. Or so I assume: my child is in a minimalist period, his art all wobbly sticks and circles.

Why, of all beautiful creatures on this planet of ours, do you keep writing about snakes? I ask him.

i lik them and thy lik me, he tells me.

As the piece continues, the narrator describes seeing her husband, a man “overrun by angels” but who “struggles with things that appeal,” gravitate toward another woman at parties. “Snake Stories” is about temptation, deception, and recognizing the snakes in the grass, meaning that there is evil and potential danger lurking around everyone.

Most of the stories in Florida are between fifteen and thirty pages long, typically somewhere in the middle of that spread, and all but one take place in Florida. The only story to break both of those normalities is “Yport,” the final story in Groff’s collection. Coming in at fifty pages and taking place in France, this is the perfect way to end the book and drive home the ideas presented throughout. Having spent the previous two-hundred-plus pages in the sunshine state, you might expect that the recurring mother with two kids going to France would be a beautiful, exciting, and stress-free escape . . . but it is nothing like that. Groff seems to be saying you can take the woman out of Florida, but you cannot take Florida out of the woman. Her husband has stayed back home, so she is bound to Florida through him; her melancholy and drinking problem both came with her from Florida to France; and the surreal visions that other characters had in previous stories are present as well. Groff removing her character from the titular state but having the character struggle with the same issues shows that Florida is a state of mind, something that the characters cannot escape, even when they pick up and go elsewhere. The longer page length of the finale and switch up in structure from all the previous stories, along with the changed setting, is a great way to end the collection and solidify the ideas presented throughout.

The stories in Florida are atmospheric and sometimes surreal, and the various narrative structures create a collection that might seem (at first glance) to be here, there, and everywhere, but all of this works together wonderfully to convey and explore a cohesive thematic idea.

  • About the Author
    Ben Woodson is a rising senior at Miami University of Ohio, where he majors in Interactive Media Studies and minors in Creative Writing. One of his aspirations is to write a screenplay. In his spare time, Ben enjoys biking and hiking. He works in a deli but on the side resells vintage clothes. He is very interested in fashion and wants to start a sustainable clothing business one day. After graduation, he plans to work and gain experience in content marketing and branding to one day apply those skills to his very own business.