How to Read Short Stories as a Writer
How to Read Short Stories as a Writer
Perhaps the best and maybe only advice one can give someone trying to learn to write short stories is to read a lot of them. Eventually, if you read enough of them, you begin to get the picture. You begin to get a felt-sense for what a short story is like, what the form can do, what other people are accomplishing. But getting beyond admiration or intimidation, to see why and how good stories work, and even better, to learn from them, is not something most people have a lot of instruction in. They read as consumers, not as writers. But reading as a writer is a different deal. It’s the kind of analytical reading that can move one along in terms of developing one’s own skills and talent. I’m not talking academic reading here. You don’t need to write a term paper. But as a writer, it does help to know what to look for in stories, to see how certain common denominators are handled. Then hopefully you absorb those elements to the point where you don’t have to think about them (at least not until revision time). They’re available to you, integrated into the self out of which you write. But first you have to be aware of them.
In Writing Fiction, a Guide to Narrative Craft, Janet Burroway compares the form of the short story to a human face, which “has necessary features in a necessary harmony.” It’s a good analogy, because, as she points out, while there is great variety and individuality in human faces, they do have common denominators: “…two eyes, a nose between them, a mouth below, a forehead, two cheeks, and a jaw.” Likewise, each short story can “look” like a human face in the sense that it has some common denominators and yet be as individual as the face of someone you love. In some cases, the story form can be distorted or fractured in ways that bring to mind Picasso’s cubist faces, where while we recognize an eye here and there, and a triangle that is surely a nose, it isn’t a face we recognize in the same way we do realistic human faces. The story seeks to take the expected common denominators and make you see or experience them in new and maybe unsettling way.
Burroway goes on to say that the necessary features of the story form are conflict, crisis, and resolution – all helpful elements to study. But when I read a story as a writer, and when I try to help developing writers learn to read as writers, I look at a lot of things in the story to see what the writer is doing and how he or she is doing it. In the end, a story is always more than the sum of its parts. Looking at the parts can never capture the soul of the story, if you will. That comes from something that can never be pinned down, analyzed, taught, really. Call it inspiration, call it luck, call it talent or experience or a combination of those – whatever it is, it can’t be put together piece by piece. But knowing the pieces, being aware of them, having absorbed them into your writing self via many stories, can stand you in good stead when you sit down to write your own stories. You forget about what you’ve learned while you’re writing; then, when you begin to revise, you have some tools available to help you craft the story.
So what are some of the things we look at in stories when we read as writers?
First, you have to read just as a consumer. That’s the way the story is meant to be read – you’re meant to get on board and go for the ride. A good story makes you lose your own sense of time and place as you’re transported into the story’s reality. You shift into another way of being as the words on the page become more real than your own living room or the number 28 bus you’re riding to town. Fine. Enjoy the story. During this first reading, you’re not trying to figure anything out. You’re just having the experience. You’ll know automatically at the end if it’s been a good experience, the kind that makes you feel richer for having had it; or whether you feel somewhat ripped off: you spent thirty minutes reading this story and what have you got to show for it? You feel no more entertained or enlivened than you did when you started and you may even feel aggravated, frustrated, because the writer let you down. Most of us won’t want to analyze any further the “bad” story – though that can be useful. But let’s just assume that the story you just read is one you admire and as a writer, wouldn’t mind emulating or learning from. Where do you start?
Start with your “reading” of the story. By this I mean your overall take on the story. First, how did it make you feel? What do you make of it? How would you describe the story in your own words. Not just what happened – the plot – but the experience of the story. What do you come away with? It’s a good idea to do this in writing, so that you access your deeper experience of the story. Getting down a sense of your reading of the story will help you grasp that readers out there will be having some sort of experience when they read your stories. And that you’re responsible for delivering some kind of experience. It’s important to know, at some point, what kind of experience you want the reader to have. It doesn’t have to be absolutely spelled out in your mind; in fact, if it is it might be too simple or formulaic. But it helps to know that you do want the reader to experience something: to be moved; to enter into a certain experience of life at a deeper level; to feel life in a certain time and place so thoroughly that the person is shocked to come back to what they normally think of as reality; to laugh out loud; to be captivated by language. You begin to develop a sense of this by seeing what it was about other stories that got to you.
At this point you need to go back and reread the story. This time, you’re reading it not as a consumer, but as a writer, to begin to see into the inner workings of the story. You will have had the initial experience of the story, and now you’re shifting to a much more analytical experience of looking not so much at the story as a whole, but as a series of choices, decisions, technical devices and skills that you as a writer can learn from.
After you’ve read the story a second time, write down what happens in the story. This is simply a plot synopsis. It may feel too obvious to do, but it’s actually a useful exercise, because you get to see the narrative arc of story. It’s useful to see that the story did move; we started in one place and came out at another. And things are different at the end of the story. It’s amazing how few people can actually tell the plot of a story they’ve read. But the plot is like the spine; you need to be able to see the actual action of the story. And seeing what happens in a number of stories will eventually seep in, so that you have a better sense that something has to happen in your stories.
Generally short stories consist of both situation – what is going on right now, when the story opens – and backstory – everything that has led up to what is going on when the story opens. The situation will become forward motion – the actual forward progression of action in the story, the “what happens,” the plot summary of above. The backstory is everything that we need to understand the importance and meaning of the situation. For example, in Eudora Welty’s famous story, “Why I Live at the P.O.,” the situation is that sister Stella Rondo has moved back home with her supposedly adopted daughter, thereby suddenly displacing the first person unreliable narrator from her position in the family. The forward action will be what happens now that Stella Rondo has returned: the protagonist will get into various fights with other family members which she will see as them ganging up on her until she moves out of the house to the P.O. The backstory is everything relevant that has gone on prior to the present situation: Sister Rondo left town with the narrator’s boyfriend and had a possibly out of wedlock child; the narrator herself is high strung and unstrung to a large extent, a blowup just waiting to happen. Most stories consist of situation and backstory, and the story writer’s job is to manage these in such a way that they work together in a harmonious and integrated way, not too much or too little of either one.
Alice Adams, a wonderful short story writer, had a little schema for writing – and in our case here, reading – short stories. A = action; b = background; d = development; c = climax; e = ending. She didn’t mean that these elements should be put in in big clumsy blocks. No one was better than Adams in feathering in background amidst forward going action. You can track these elements in her stories and in many many stories – identifying in the margins with letters (a, b, d, c, e) when you’re seeing action, when background, when development (the plot thickens), when climax and ending. Obviously a story has to get off the blocks with action, but then before too long, if we’re to retain and build our interest in the situation, we have to know what has come before, background that will inform us about why to care about what is happening now. One of the most useful things one can do when reading as a writer is to study exactly when we have action and where we’re getting backstory or background and to become aware that most writers are working with both these elements as they establish their stories.
Vivien Gornick says that every work of literature has both a situation and a story. I have found this to be very useful in studying stories and writing them. By “situation” she means what we have been referring to above, the “what happens” part of a story. But she uses the word “story” differently than we normally think of it. By story Gornick means what the story is about: “the emotional experience that preoccupies the writer.”
“Story” as Gornick uses it is often what gives a story power, resonance, impact. It’s what gives the story depth. “Story” here has to do with meaning or theme, perhaps, though I’m not crazy about those terms. In a story of mine called “Legacies,” I write about a character named Miriam, who is essentially me, going to her grandmother’s apartment at a time when her grandmother was beginning to lose her memory and Miriam’s mother was contemplating moving her to a nursing home. On the day the story takes place, Miriam rolls her grandmother’s hair in the oppressive heat of a South Carolina afternoon, and later when Miriam’s mother comes over, as they’re taking the curlers out of the grandmother’s hair, the grandmother remembers a long hair fall she had cut off when she was young, and they find it in the bottom dresser drawer. Miriam’s mother has Miriam sit on the dresser bench and she places the hairpiece on Miriam’s head to see if she might wear it. That’s what happens in the story. What the story is about is what gets passed down, from generation to generation, whether you want it or not. The Miriam of the story is ambivalent about her Southern Baptist grandmother, and indeed about her family, hardly able to wait until a plane will lift her away from them, and at the same time, hardly able to bear leaving. When the grandmother and mother give her the hairpiece, she doesn’t really want it – “It strikes her as some unwanted pet for which she will now be responsible.” But it is hers now, both bestowed and forced on her.
Thinking about what a given story is “about” will begin to open up how the story works in many cases. The writer is working on both a surface “situation” level; and a thematic, meaning, “about” level at the same time. When these two are working in harmony, the story is richer, denser, more layered for it. To begin to see how stories are metaphoric – how their surfaces are really speaking about something – is to begin to understand how to write stories.
Here are other common denominators to study in short stories:
Point of View: Beyond first vs. third person, point of view involves authorial distance and control. It’s a way of seeing the material, shaping it so that the reader can “get” the way the author sees the story. Often people think (wrongly) that you have to “show” everything. But if you really study short stories, you will see that most 3rd person stories have a very strong, authoritative narrative voice or narrator that is “telling” the story as well as showing it. The telling is disguised as showing, with vivid, precise details. Showing alone would be too diluted. Most stories are so dense that they need that narrator to shape, give information, move things along, tell more than the character can say him or herself, in better language. It’s really helpful to look for this narrative voice when you study how a short story is launched.
As for first person, there is a wide range there but the most important thing is to make sure your narrator is either clearly reliable or clearly unreliable. Trouble lies in the middle ground, when the reader (and maybe author) isn’t sure.
Voice: The voice of the author and the voice of the individual piece. Voice of the author has to do with personality, sensibility, a way of feeling/vision about the world, distillation of author’s essence into language. It is what binds the whole story together. It’s the way the author sees the story. Voice of the piece might be more particular, such as jocular, sardonic, elegiac, searching, etc. Sometimes it’s the voice of the character, in first person and sometimes third person, or it is the voice of the omniscient narrator.
Tone: Related to voice — tone is the author’s attitude towards the material — and clues the reader in as to how to “read” the story — tone comes through many subtle clues of language, style, detail, approach. Readers “hear” a story, the voice and tone of the story when they read.
Language: Language is related to tone and voice, in that it gives us those things. The language tells us a lot about how to “read” the story — what the author has in mind — not language for language’s sake (“Look, Ma, I’m writing!”), but as a functioning part of the story. Also important in establishing whether this is a writer we want to read. How sophisticated or authoritative is the use of language? What sort of language is used and do we trust that it is “working” or just haphazard or lazy or general?
Time: Organization of time is always important — so that we feel real time is happening, passing. Look for how time is handled in a story: does it take place over a period of time and if so, how long? When in time does the story start? What is present time and what is past time in the story? Why does the story start when it does — on a particular day? Is it told retrospectively, from a distance of time?
Place: Place is the largest context of the physical world that the story occupies; the environment of the story; a fully imagined, realized world , textured and real to us. Eudora Welty said something about if she can believe the place of a story, she can believe the people. Often it’s good to just name where the story is taking place, or get it established early on, so the reader doesn’t spend reading energy wondering and trying to figure it out. Look for how place is named or handled – or not pointed to at all – in stories. Importance of place can vary greatly story to story.
Setting: the actual stage settings for various scenes and events in the story — more specific than place, which permeates the settings. Place is the forest, settings are the trees, fleshed out.
Characterization: Huge. Physical characteristics; “get a life” aspects (job, family, effects such as home, relationships, texture of overall life); interaction with other characters in the story – usually one major relationship explored but not always; Characterization can’t be neutral. It’s what the author wants us to see or feel about the character — some idea or position on the character that is communicated by every aspect of characterization, so that we can “read” the character; character changed or “moved” by end of story usually; something has happened that makes a difference from now on.
Description: Importance of creating real, believable world but never description for sake of verisimilitude; Never “mere verisimilitude” please! Description must function — as part of overall conception of story, what it is “about.”
Detail: as in “telling.” Useful in characterization and story interpretation. Helpful if it functions; not merely alert, original and precise, but metaphoric if possible.
Scene and summary: scenes are action and summary is usually backstory or maybe just summarizes something in the present that is not significant enough to be done in a scene. Scenes should always be dynamic, something changing in the story, not just giving information or passing time. Always notice when you’re in scene (and why) and when in summary. Notice how absorbing and effective scenes are (dramatic moments) — you get to “see” for yourself. Voice in a story controls scene and summary and allows the author to move in and out of these smoothly. It integrates these two necessary aspects of story-telling. It is a mistake to treat scenically non-dramatic material, which slows down the story and becomes boring.
Dialogue: Elizabeth Bowen says dialogue is what characters do to one another. Dialogue is an essential part of characterization and showing what is between characters. Notice in scenes the use of dialogue and what it is “doing.” People aren’t talking just to have a conversation. Notice that good writers tend not to get stuck in long, drawn-out dialogue marathons. It’s usually more pithy than that.
Openings: First sentence and first paragraph establish a great deal: situation, main characters, what we’re going to be reading “for,” authority, point of view, tone, voice. It’s always interesting to see what terms the author establishes; whether the voice draws you in; what key notes are hit; how much of the overall story is suggested/expressed in the opening. Focus. A sense that the author knows the whole story already and the best way to convey it. How and when are time and place established? Where are you “hooked” and why?
Endings: The author’s final comment on story. Endings can open up story or close it by “finishing” the experience. A key moment in terms of “reading” the story, interpreting it, getting the full experience of it.
Form or structure: Overall shape of the story — how it is constructed. Where it begins and ends and how that holds it together – is there a narrative arc or is the structure more modular? Do you sense the underlying skeleton of the story, backbone that supports everything?
Vision: Hard to express but we sense it — what the author is really saying, exploring, commenting on, expressing. The biggest picture of the story, even beyond them – a view of life/human nature/human experience.
Here are my readings of two short stories:
“Proper Library” by Carolyn Ferrell
My reading of the story: Lorrie is a young black homosexual living in a rather chaotic household. His mother is trying to help him get ahead in the world by encouraging him to stay in school and increase his vocabulary by studying words from the dictionary. Lorrie has been involved passionately/sexually with a guy named Rakeem, and dropped out of school for six months during their affair — but when the story starts, Lorrie is back in school, but meets up again with Rakeem, who makes him feel he can be himself, and by the end of the story he is going to see Rakeem again, but also keep on with school — as if he’s integrating the disparate parts of himself, to get to have all the pieces of the pie of himself. The story ends on an upbeat or optimistic note that is not quite believable, because I’m not sure whether this will work for Lorrie — that he can “do both, have it all.” “Words” become a central metaphor in the story, and when he says “I know these new words and the old words without looking at them…” is this for real or is he fooling himself? “The words are in my heart” seems to be saying he has gotten what he needs at home to be able to be himself, to “have this flavor of the pie” — his gayness? — he seems strong at the end. It’s really a wonderful story, original and moving.
What happens? After being out of school for six months when he was involved sexually with Rakeem, on the day the story starts Lorrie meets Layla, Rakeem’s cousin, who says he is looking for Lorrie. Lorrie has been studying words with his mother, who wants him to stay clear of trouble and move up in the world. At school Lorrie is teased mercilessly about being a faggot. He goes home to his mother and all the kids he takes care of, and it’s generally chaotic – -his brother-in-law Tommy is there, having brought home another girlfriend that morning (?) and Lorrie intends to learn some new words, but all the kids need attention, and he suddenly knows he will know them without studying — and he decides to go meet Rakeem, who makes him feel like himself. He vows to return home, continue in school.
What is the story about? Being oneself. Being disenfranchised from those around you. About life as a black, gay teenager. About a strata of society, poor urban blacks with gangs, aids, teenager moms/dads. About staying alive inside. About hope.
Point of view: sympathetically Lorrie’s first person. Reliable, except for some question at the end.
Voice: amazing. Both the external voice of the social/racial/ milieu and the inner voice of consciousness/feeling/dreams and desires that would never be vocalized.
Tone: Compassionate on the part of the author; Lorrie’s tone is dignified, sincere, candid. He (and the author) lets us know him.
Language: Amazing. Both the ghetto talk, and the inner poetic talk of Lorrie’s spirit. “Moving on.” P. 7 “Soft like the dark hair…” section example of how we dip into his heart — and also the pie talk — Language is personable, original, energetic, alive. The language conveys the experience of getting into his soul — not just what happens externally, the situation, but his story in the emotional sense —
Time: All in one day, with backsstory/context of six months when he dropped out of school. The day is followed blow by blow, apparently, scene by scene (illusion of) — so that we believe time is actually passing — he leaves for school, he’s at school, he comes home.
Place/settings: the Bronx; his mother’s apartment; school Jane Adams. Bus. Fully imagined settings so that details resonate and carry the whole picture.
Characterization: rich with secondary characters brought to life by dialogue, information, situation — Lorrie is fleshed out by those around him and his reactions to them. We see him as very caring, good, we’re on his side. “I love me some kids.” We get into his inner feelings — he is speaking so frankly, honestly to us — as if nothing separates us, we might as well be him. We have wonderful scenes where we see him being tormented by others, and we empathize with him. Enough repetition of this to convince us and to establish refrains, motifs: keep moving; pie; etc.
Description: carefully and lovingly observed descriptions from Lorrie — of the kids, especially — establishes his character — his own perceptions as “true” —
Details: surprising and pleasing details — that ring true. From the juxtaposition of the grocery cart and his passionate feelings, to small details like the kids having their bottle of Sugar Shack syrup out – the author knows this world, and shows it to us in concrete details —
Scene and Summary: First scene: with Ma as he leaves for school. Tommy comes in with new lady – talk of “love.” His sister gives him letter knife. No quotes for dialogue — why?
#2. Layla Jackson comes running up with baby – will he baby sit. Yes. Rakeem is looking for him.
summary section follows, filling in about Rakeem
#3. He’s on the bus, gets teased about being a faggot.
#4. He meets Rakeem who says be there, Rocky’s Pizza. Lorrie thinks he will not go, that the kids and words are enough.
#5. He’s in Mr. D’Angelo’s class — Lorrie’s thoughts, feelings — about “doesn’t the heart count” and Mr. D’Angelo —
#6. Mrs. Cabrini tells him he’s his own shooting star
Next section — background, context — about learning words, doing things the right way.
#7. He’s in history of civilization – gets note from girl, “Please give me a chance.”
next section — background/context about Estine’s words
#8: Woodworking class where teacher mocks him and he leaves.
Section about Rakeem and how he made him feel
#9. He receives Layla’s baby tee tee in fourth class.
more memory/background about Rakeem with mini-flashback scene
in several sections.
#9. He arrives home to his mother — there’s trouble with Tommy — he intends to learn his words, but house is in chaos — and he suddenly feels he doesn’t need to study them because he already knows what to do, he knows them without studying. His mother comes in and he tells her he’s going to meet Rakeem — and he feels that he can bring it all together — home, school, Rakeem — but what has led to this — and is it believable?
Opening: really curious opening section. With “fucking in the butt” phrase so strange — whose voice? Lorrie’s? He doesn’t feed people, his mother does — it’s a curious rather confusing opening — but the author must have wanted it — felt it had to be — but it doesn’t exactly tie into the story in any way.
Ending — why does the author end on Tommy and what he tells his wife about love? How does that reflect on Lorrie’s story — or end it or open it up? Doesn’t seem to hit the right final note.
Form: story takes place over one day, with interspersed background that informs this day. By end of story, Lorrie has “moved,” come to a different place than he was at the beginning —
Vision: something compassionate and hopeful in the author’s vision — even with all that is going on in this kid’s life, he’s basically valuable, good, hopeful for the future — surviving and trying to reconcile who he is with the world he lives in — a good heart — no condescension or twisting of our emotions regarding him — he’s treated with enormous respect and dignity — but she doesn’t romanticize him too much either.
“Sarah Cole: A Type of Love Story” by Russell Banks
My reading of the story: I think Banks creates a fascinating narrator who tries honestly to understand a past painful experience but is ultimately too limited to really fully appreciate what he has done. But it’s hard to say! Is this a reliable narrator? In the end, Banks has a climactic scene in which the action becomes very ugly as the narrator breaks down and “kills” Sarah by calling her ugly — but at the same time he is saying this, he sees her as transformed into a beautiful woman — a fantasy. He seems to recognize that he has “killed” her in some way — but is it that in saying the “truth” that he really feels, he has made her all the more desirable? What’s going on at the end? It’s very hard to interpret and may not be interpretable, which doesn’t diminish its power — provocative stuff.
What happens in the story: There are layers of story here — a man looks back from ten years distance on his younger self, who was “extremely handsome” and tries to figure out a love affair with a woman he describes as the homeliest woman he ever knew. The story he tells is that they meet in a bar when Sarah introduces herself to him on a dare from girlfriends, he gets fascinated by her because she’s so homely and so unlike him, they meet again at the bar, again he’s fascinated by the experience, he walks her to her car which has been hit and dented, she cries and he comforts her. Several weeks later, they meet again and go to his apartment to make love — he comes on to her but she tries to tell him they’re different — she leaves before anything happens.
He becomes obsessed with her and stays away from her, because he distrusts his obsession — doesn’t understand it — but runs into her after “forgetting” that she lives on a certain street – he’s goes up to her apartment to carry her groceries in, and she kisses him — and he leaves.
She brings his shirts to his apartment the next day, a Sunday, and they become lovers — connecting like real lovers, real intimacy. For the next few weeks they meet and make love until one night in August, she wants to go out together, in public, for a drink — he resists — they argue — they begin going out and he is uncomfortable, she gets drunk, they grow apart — until they agree they have to talk. The narrator interrupts the story and says he ran into someone who knew Sarah and that she isn’t actually dead probably, as the narrator first said. Now he admits that by thinking of her as dead, he is able to tell this story, because he wishes he could say the things to her he didn’t know or say when she was alive, that he did love her.
Part VIII is the final scene where she comes to his apartment to talk, he tries to break up, she says she isn’t leaving, he grabs her by the arm and makes her leave — she cries — and he says three times that she’s ugly — as he does so, she is transformed into a beautiful woman in love, until she disappears. He feels he has killed her —
What is the story about? About love — about man and woman coming together — and social forces, conditioning, appearances, class. About storytelling and memory — about how we harm one another —
Point of view: Complex — a narrator looking back on younger self — trying to be “honest” and “tell the truth” — whether he arrives at self-knowledge at end is interesting…
Voice: Voice of narrator purports to be truth-seeker, sincere, remorseful –
Voice of author — sophisticated story teller interested in layers of meaning, complexity of truth telling — honesty —
Tone: purposefully unreliable? Falsely remorseful or complicatedly remorseful —
Language: very precise, detailed, complex sentences expressing complex thoughts, experience, feelings —
Time: Told looking back from ten years — takes place between late May into maybe early fall — we are specifically placed in late August and in last scene a few weeks later, she’s wearing shorts and it’s described as “still warm.” The story is told more or less chronologically from the first meeting in the bar, but interspersed with the present day narrator interjecting present day musings and an incident from “a few years” ago where he ran into a friend of Sarah’s who said she had gone back to her husband —
Place: est. as Concord, New Hampshire — but we’re told it doesn’t matter where it took place — the milieu is very class -reflecting — his world of white collar work vs. hers of blue collar work —
Settings: his apartment and hers; her street; the bars they go to —
Characterization: both external of Ron — his clothes, looks, job, objects, apartment (same of Sarah), their backgrounds, current lives in terms of jobs, family or lack thereof, their relationships with others; and internal — his feelings and hers as expressed in scene, dialogue, actions — the trappings of the external and the internal feelings — through actions — and development of the story — everything he does builds up a portrait of him — occasionally we get a clue from “outside” him — such as the friend of Sarah’s saying “you haven’t changed a bit” — self-centered –
Description — as part of overall conception of story — his descriptions of how ugly she was — and his fascination with that –
Detail — such as her car and his bike — functioning to reinforce characterization, theme –
Scene and summary —
Scenes: #1. the initial meeting in the bar
#2. meet again in bar and get better acquainted; he walks her to the car and embraces her when she weeps
#3. several weeks later scene in his apartment when they go there to make love and don’t
#4: they meet on Perley street and go to her apartment where she kisses him
summary of when she comes to his apartment and they make love — and the next few weeks of making love.
#5. “One hot night, a Saturday in August” — they argue about going out for drink – “You owe me.”
summary of going out to parties in which he overdresses and she gets drunk —
#6. telephone conversation in which they must talk
#7. scene in which he meets her friend years later and declares he loved her
#8. scene in which he tries to break up and she won’t leave and he makes her —
Dialogue — pitch perfect — her inarticulateness — his command — their gestures, eye contact, physical way of being in the world.
Opening: red flags –of sincerity and fascination with the material of beauty and ugly — these bold juxtapositions — breaks ground —
Ending: ambiguous — fascinating —
Form — the story within the story — the narrator looking back and imagining Sarah as dead — and that he has killed her — he did do damage to her — he used her — but also got drawn in in some way he doesn’t understand — the “love” part – his own mysterious pain
Vision: author’s complex view of human relationships — of the external world of appearance and inner world of feelings/intimacy – a man and a woman — can we separate the two — love and harm — we “kill” those we love sometimes — by conditioning, shallowness, societal pressures —