Short Reading Lessons in Writing: Two Kinds

A morning short story reading group meets at one of our library branches on the second Monday of each month.  The library provides the short stories, snacks, and a staff member to make coffee and keep things moving along.  That staff member is me.

I’m learning a lot about how readers read and, I hope, how good writers write.

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Three signs of a good short story discussion:

—half the readers dislike the story

—there are no complaints about my coffee

—no one wants to leave afterward.

Today, we discussed “Two Kinds,” which is one of the chapters in the Joy Luck Club by Amy Tan.

June, the American-born child of a Chinese mother, remembers her mother’s determination to make her daughter into a famous prodigy.  At first June is excited about being as successful as Shirley Temple or her chess-champ cousin, but the unrelenting trials to discover what kind of genius she might be and the constant failures to live up to her mother’s expectations finally causes her to rebel.  Her mother tries one more time and, deciding that June is a piano prodigy, buys her a used piano and finds her a teacher.  June discovers that the teacher is deaf and stops practicing, though her mother doesn’t notice and continues to brag about her daughter’s talent.  Things come to a head at the talent show, when June’s revenge against her mother’s pride backfires in front of a roomful of people.  Afterwards, mother and daughter have a screaming showdown, and her mother says nothing more about the piano until June is an adult, when she offers it to her in what June sees as a gesture of forgiveness.  But it isn’t until after her mother’s death that June sits down at the instrument, and realizes that she can play both her recital piece, “Pleading Child” and the next one, “Perfectly Contented”—and sees that that they are two halves of one song.

I learned a lot from our discussion, not the least of which is that childhood memories of music lessons can linger for decades.

Sympathies are subjective.

The people who didn’t like this story were firmly on the side of the mother.  To them, she worked very hard to help her daughter realize her potential—what mother doesn’t want the best for her daughter?  In their opinion, June was a complete brat—ungrateful, selfish, and lazy.  One reader felt that she was too young to be that disrespectful.  Another suspected that June waited until after her mother’s death to play in order to make a point: “She doesn’t give an inch.”

About half of the people who liked the story were firmly on Team June.  The mother, they thought, was completely unrealistic and undermines her daughter’s self-esteem at every turn for the sake of her pride.  June accepted herself as she was, which one reader thought was a remarkably healthy thing to do.  “Difficult, but far healthier in the long run.”

The rest were sympathetic to both.  They mentioned the cultural differences, and felt that the battle of wills between mother and daughter was perfectly normal, if heart-breaking.  The mother wanted everyone to know how special June was, and June felt that she could never live up to her mother’s ideals.  And both were superlatively stubborn:  “They’re exactly alike,” said one reader.  “But they love each other.  You don’t feel this strongly about someone if you don’t love them.”

At the end of the discussion, I asked, out of curiosity, which readers had children—not one person who disliked June raised their hand.  I’m not sure what this means, if anything . . . except they hadn’t experienced both sides of the battle.

The author’s history can influence the readers’ sympathies, and first person narration can confuse the issue.

Most of the authors this year borrowed heavily from their own lives to write their stories, and it’s well known that Amy Tan is no exception—there was a biography provided at the beginning of this story that also provided some information about her mother.  This confused the readers like no other story since we read Aleksandar Hemon’s “The Conductor.”

One of the reasons Team June resented the mother was that she didn’t  value June’s real genius for writing—even though in this particular story there is no mention of June writing anything and the person who initially commented on this hasn’t read the whole book.

But Team Mom felt that the mother had suffered so much from leaving her children behind in China—in the story, June says they are dead—that she should be forgiven for pressuring June.  “Besides,” one reader said, in all seriousness, “she didn’t know June was going to be Amy Tan.”

One lone reader said that she hadn’t read the bio before reading the story:  “I thought it was really funny,” she said.

There was a silence . . . and then several nods around the circle.  We agreed that the bio buried the funny—and that from now on, we’d try the stories without knowing so much about the authors, until right before we met.*

Some themes resonate.

I have never been part of a short story discussion where so many readers shared their own personal experiences about childhood, motherhood, grandmotherhood, and, above all, piano lessons.

Whether the readers were Team Mom, Team June, or Team Story, they all felt compelled to bring up examples from their own lives.  They may not have liked this story, but they felt it—they disliked it, in part, because it was too real and they considered the mother to be a real person, not a written character.

Of course, all of us—since our lone gentleman was absent, possibly with good reason—were daughters and many of us had daughters or granddaughters.   We could place ourselvesvery easily into the story.  We did wonder whether this story would have worked as well, or in the same way, with father-son characters—and how a man would interpret the mother-daughter relationship.**

We decided that the mother-daughter struggle was almost universal—and the parent (or parental figure)-child struggle was.

And that the best stories bring out our own.

 I really mean it about the piano lessons.

Most of us had taken piano as children, or had forced encouraged our children to do so, and we all had stories about it—but one of us was a retired piano teacher, and she storied us right back.***

It wasn’t the first time I’d had to guide the discussion back to a story—but it was the first time I had to stand up to do it!

So, when it comes right down to it, there were two sides to this story on many different levels—perhaps all of them.

But everyone agreed that Amy Tan can deliver a wallop.

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*Should be an interesting experiment—next month’s story is a Hemingway.

**Hey, John?  You busy?

***In case you were wondering, she was definitely Team Mom—but admittedly, there wasn’t a Team Unappreciated Deaf Piano Teacher.

17 thoughts on “Short Reading Lessons in Writing: Two Kinds

  1. Have I bored you yet by repeating how much I LOVE these recaps? I get so much out of what the readers liked and disliked and laugh every time it’s the same thing that is loved and hated. It seems like you guide them as well, and I think they’re so lucky to get a writer doing the guiding. I think they’re getting more out of it than they would without you, so keep up the good work!

    (And I am so excited to hear the Hemingway recap next month! He plays a bit part in my WIP, and I’m curious what your group will know about him before reading his work. So much of what is written about him is his own fiction, his own mythology, but it doesn’t come to light until you read what others (like Gertrude Stein) say about him. Oh, I can’t wait!)

    • Let me see . . . Nope, not bored yet! 🙂

      It seemed like most of them knew of Hemingway, but not necessarily about him. I wonder how many will look him up before we meet again?

  2. So much to love here. A smattering:

    ““she didn’t know June was going to be Amy Tan.”

    “she storied us right back” – I love the way you wrote this.

    Also, this made me think immediately of that book Tiger Mom (which I’ve not read).

    Final point, I read the Joy Luck Club years ago – I remember none of this. That scares me .

  3. You rang?

    The book club does sound like an interesting group for discussion. Personally, I view any parent/child relationship on similar terms. Parents want the best for their children. I see it as a mother/father’s mission to steer their children into pursuits they can be good at and develop social skills and self esteem. Sometimes they place their own dreams on their children’s shoulders. Our kids may be prone to accept this, but one has to be careful not to press down too hard. Again, I haven’t read the Joy Luck Club, but Mom sounds like she thinks the only way to success for her daughter is through piano. Mother/daughter dynamics are different from Father/son, because women are much more….emotional. (I don’t mean that as a slight, it is simply a fact). There are more complex emotions in a woman^ than a man, and that impacts the relationships they have. I imagine Amy Tan probed the depths of these emotions in the book. That being said, had the story been about a father forcing his son to play sports, fish, study to be a doctor/lawyer or even play piano, when he didn’t want to, the resentment in the relationship wouldn’t have been that different, but the story wouldn’t have been as interesting!

    ^This has fascinated me (as a poet).

  4. This reminds me of two words Betsy used a few weeks ago: universal chord.
    Adding the bit about the piano makes it even more interesting.

  5. The only thing I don’t like about these meeting recaps is that I WASN’T THERE! (green-eyed monster is out in full force)

    Isn’t it funny how something so small as a first-person POV can make us think it’s the author’s real story? This happens to me often when I read poetry.

    I want a book club discussion like this one. All mine does is drink wine and talk about TV shows and movies and movie stars. Half of them don’t even bother to read the book anymore. And right this instant, as I’m typing this, I’m thinking I should keep this group for the wine and fun, and find another group to talk about books.

    • Second Monday of every month, Teri, and we have a guest room!

      Maybe you could establish your own short story group? People are more likely to read shorter work in a month and each member can be in charge of locating and copying one month’s story in rotation. Just a thought.

  6. The reader’s not always the only one to be confused by the author’s background and first-person narrative.

    My first novel was very, very loosely based on some real life experiences. When I went back to it a couple years after letting it “incubate,” I actually could not remember whether the details in some scenes had really happened or been fictionalized. Very strange feeling…

    • I’ll bet it was.

      A writer whose name I can’t remember — anyone?—said that most writers tend to re-imagine reality in order to improve the narrative, and sometimes we get lost. I don’t know if that’s true, but ti gives me a great idea for a story . . .

  7. This was fascinating! And I’ve already noticed a problem with the first person/autobiographical element when it comes to my own fiction. An acquaintance picked up my advanced copy of my story collection, flipped to a first-person story, read for two seconds, and then said, “WOW! I didn’t know your mom played in the Philadelphia Orchestra.” (Um, that’s because she didn’t.) This person then picked out a few other details about “my” life that I quickly had to correct. I wonder what this is going to mean in the future once the book’s out, especially when it comes to family members or people who know me…

  8. Oh god, just realized if people take my fiction to be reality, they’re going to assume I model lingerie in my free time (ha ha ha!), put my best friend in danger by abandoning her in the woods late at night, and tried to light something valuable on fire out of spite. Fabulous.

    • I know what you mean! In my first drawer novel, which was in first person, the mother of the MC was a space pilot who was posthumously convicted of mass murder.

      Even thought my mother knows perfectly well that she was never a pilot or an accused murderer and is still alive . . . she was not amused.

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