Mannequin Monday – A Pivotal Choice

The naked form, the blank page. Time to dress them again. Dress with your narrative. Your point of view. Your expression of self. You as artist, making art.

This week we take a look at four exciting, award-winning stories from teens. Courtesy again of Narrative magazine.

Plus, Donald Maass offers advice on writing with meaning, in Writer Unboxed.

And a sample of my own writing. This time a repost of The Mother’s Day Card.

This Week’s Story

Narrative magazine, a consistent – and free – source of good fiction, recently ran its fifth annual Narrative high school “Tell me a Story” contest. The winners each had their stories posted on the magazine’s website.

In the words of Narrative, “What happens when you make a choice? A choice that can’t be smoothed over, reconciled, or unmade? That’s a question for the ages—and for story.”

More: “In this year’s Narrative “Tell Me a Story” High School Contest, we asked students around the world to address, in a six-hundred-word story or essay, a pivotal choice. These young writers proved they are fearless in mining life’s defining choices, finding grace or humor when it’s in the offing, or, if not, revealing how truly irrevocable choosing can be.”

Anna Buryachenko, Narrative Magazine

Narrative awarded first place to Anna Buryachenko for her story, My Rickshaw. Her character’s pivotal choice: an invitation to leave her home and her family in Havana to work in Florida. You can read her story here.

Other Winners

Samina Kaushek scored second place for her story, A Numbers Game. You can read it here.

Samina Kaushek

Evan Yee
Patience Wallace

Two tied for third place. Patience Wallace won for her story, The Black Hole.

And the other third place winner, Evan Yee for An Ethical Dinner Dilemma.

Well-done stories. Leaving Havana and family…straining to enjoy eating a slice of pizza…saying yes to dating a boy…choosing a live lobster for dinner. Defining choices.

The four teen stories embrace real-world choices. My Rickshaw is perhaps a metaphor for any teen preparing to leave home for opportunity, whether for college or for work and career. As a side note, in this time of pandemic, it will be interesting to see how many teens choose to take a gap year from college. Interesting to see what creative forms that gap year will take. Interesting to see how many actually return to college when events return to “normal.”

Of the four stories, Patience’s The Black Hole resonates most strongly with me. Does the girl accept the boy’s offer to date? The boy who is a cutter, who self-harms. The boy she has “carried” all school year with her friendship, her support. In her view, she chooses him or she chooses herself. She can relieve herself of the anxiety of carrying someone else, or bury herself underneath this troubled boy’s own emotional burden.

Samina’s story rings true, doesn’t it? The anxiety, the internal arguments about eating pizza, measuring calories. In the longer view, a possible life choice, a psychological choice. And Evan’s fun story: choosing a lobster to eat…life or death for the lobster, an ethical dilemma for the diner. The “money-shot” quote: “But something has to die to feed us.”

The Purpose of Story

The core of story. Good vs. evil. Choices. Donald Maass, president of the Donald Maass Literary Agency, recently posted “The Meaning of Meaning”, in Writer Unboxed. In the post he discusses the role of meaning in fiction.

Donald Maass, Writers Digest

Maass says, “What is the purpose of a story?  What vacuum does it fill?  I believe we spend time consuming stories because they address what we most profoundly need to deal with.  Conflict and problems.  Facing our fears.  Elevating our spirits.  Delighting in our folly.  Affirming our faiths.  Validating our values.  Challenging our misconceptions.  Forgiving our failures.  Finding hope.  Overcoming our aloneness.  Reconciling to death.”

I can see these affirmations come through in each of the four teen Narrative stories. Conflict. Problems. Facing fears. Elevating spirits. The four writers have captured meaning in their short tales.

Maass continues, “Even morally gray tales…in the end force a choice.  What is right must be decided.  A conclusion must be reached.  The story ends and, when all is said and done, one outcome is indisputably better than another.”

Each story forces a choice. Leave home or not. Date a boy or not. Eat a slice of pizza or not. Pick a lobster for dinner or not.

My Current Writing

Here’s a story I wrote for a recent International Writing Program course from the University of Iowa. I revised it a bit for this post. I hope you like it.

The Mother’s Day Card

He parked at the curb in front of the house. Reached over to grab a bag and a bouquet of red carnations, embellished with a bit of baby’s breath. Mom’ll say, You shouldn’t have wasted your money. The flowers will die

He thought, So will dadTonight.

He hesitated at the front door. I don’t want to do this.

He rang the bell and turned the knob. Always unlocked. He stepped in. His mother came down the hall. “He’s not good, Will.”

He nodded. “These are for you. Happy Mother’s Day.” He handed her the carnations. She smiled. “I’ll find a vase.”

He followed her to the kitchen. “Go say hello. He’s awake.”

He walked to their bedroom. His father lay there in the hospital bed. Shrunken. Pale. Eyes closed. 

“Hi, dad.”

His father opened his eyes. Nodded slightly.

He took a corsage and a card out of the bag. “I got these for you to give mom. Can you sign the card?”

His dad shook his head. His eyes clouded.

“Okay, I’ll sign for you.” He pulled a pen from his shirt pocket, opened the card. To My Wife on Mother’s Day. He signed the card, Love, John. He had already written Dear Madeline across the top of the card.

He put the card in the envelope, a matching yellow. Left the card and the corsage on the side of the bed. “I’ll get mom.”

He went back to the kitchen. “He needs you for a minute.”

His mom wiped her hands on a towel and went back to the bedroom.

He poured himself a cup of coffee and sat at the table. Stared out the window. Took in a deep breath.

A while later his mom came back to the kitchen, her eyes wet. “Thank you for doing that for him.”

She busied herself preparing supper. A light meal. Shrimp cocktail, potato salad, deviled eggs. “I doubt he’ll eat anything.”

After they ate, his mom’s friend Angela stopped by. With a crumb cake from the local deli. 

He stretched out on the couch for a nap. Fell asleep to the hushed tones from the kitchen.

He slept longer than he expected. Night had fallen. The house was quiet. Angela came into the living room. “Your dad is gone.”

“How’s mom?”

“Having coffee. Do you want to see your dad?”


He stepped into the bedroom again. The Mother’s Day card stood on the night table. The corsage was on her pillow. 

He stood looking down at his dad. His dad’s body. With an index finger he gently closed his dad’s eyes. 

The doorbell rang. Moments later two undertakers stepped into the bedroom. They said nothing. He moved aside, walked back to the kitchen. His mom sat at the table, Angela next to her, holding her hand.

His mom looked up. “He’s at peace now. No more pain.”

He nodded.

“See if the undertakers need anything.”

As he approached the bedroom, he heard the zip of the body bag. He stopped. They came out of the room. He met their eyes. Nodded.

He walked ahead of them to the front door. Held it open for them. Stood in the doorway. A dark moonless night. He watched them carry the body bag – his dad – to their van. Watched them put him in the back, close the doors, drive off. Fade into the black night.

Today she didn’t tell me the flowers would die. Dad died, instead.

He went back inside.


As always, comments are welcome. Thanks.