Sunday, January 11, 2015

Read This: "Savage Breast" by Elizabeth McKenzie

I have to warn you that this is a devastatingly sad, rip-your-insides-out kind of story. At least, that's how it was for me. If you're not up for that, don't start reading it.

But it's an amazing story. I came across it because my daughter, who just turned six, was paging through a New Yorker I had left on the dining-room table. She pointed out a Roz Chast cartoon; I looked at it with her and then went into the kitchen. Later, she called me over to look at something else. She had started reading this story. She showed me a description, near the beginning, of kittens dressed in clothes. "Look, Mama," she said. "It's cute." It's funny how a kid can be smart enough to read passages in The New Yorker and still be young enough to be charmed by the idea of a kitten in a top hat. I agreed the description was cute, and went away again.

Later, she called me back to look at something else. "This," she said. "Look. It's sad." She was now pointing to a paragraph near the end of the story. I doubt she read all the stuff in the middle; she was probably glancing through the pages and some words near the end caught her eye. Maybe "bloody" or "bones." She likes that kind of thing, just about as much as she likes cute kittens. This was the paragraph:
Some of the beasts were losing their claws and ripping their skin as they dug into the ground. Their toes were getting bloody, but it didn’t stop them. The little fur they had left was clotted with blood, and the sand was sticking to it, and they were wiping their paws on their sides in bold, bloody, sandy streaks and continuing on. The reddish-brown streaks on their fur and their foreheads began to resemble war paint. Frantically, they scratched on, occasionally finding a beetle in the cooler parts of the soil, or a ground rat’s tunnel, or a snake hole with bones in it.
I stood next to her and read it. "Yes," I said afterwards, "that is sad. Sometimes grownups like sad stories. And the people who write for this magazine are very good writers, so if they want to make something sad they can make it very, very sad. So that it haunts you." I wonder now if that was an odd thing to say to a six-year-old. But it was what occurred to me at the time. 

Of course, after she was in bed, I read the whole story, from dressed-up kittens to bleeding beasts. Then I went into the kitchen and sobbed for a minute, in a way I don't often. I wonder whether it will really haunt her. I don't know what she took from it, or whether she'll remember it at all. But I will.

I'm recommending it here not just because I think it's a good story, though obviously it is, but because, in the revision exercises, I've been talking about ways in which your writing brain—the one that deals in dreams and intuition, the spirit-world and eternity—can work together, as you write, with your editing brain—the one that makes order and sense out of things, and fixes all the typos. I think this story is an incredible example of those two working together in top form. If you read it, I think you'll see what I mean. Also read the short interview in which the author discusses how she wrote it.

"Savage Breast" by Elizabeth McKenzie, from The New Yorker, 12/15/14

Elizabth McKenzie talks to Willing Davidson about writing "Savage Breast"

Otto Schubert, Hoch die Republik, Vienna, 1928 via 50watts


  1. thanks for this thoughtful rec. i, too, have a stack of new yorkers that i try and keep up with, but this one i missed.

    i happened to google you tonite to see if you're still working with words. it seems so. wish i could once have the proper latitude and longitude to take a course with you. my writing wilderness is in arizona, so likely not.

    i often give away monster dogs to people as a gift. in fact, it has become one of only two books i give away as i've realized (sadly) that books as gifts largely go unread and discreetly unmentioned in successive years when you meet the recipient at other gifting holidays. so, 'monster dogs' and 'at the jim bridger' - these two are received well and read with relish even by the most fiction-resistant humans i know. anyhow, all good things to you and yours. thank you for long ago writing such a lovely story

    cheers, mark sutz

    1. Thank you so much for your kind words! That's wonderful to know. Maybe I should do a course online? If you have another person or two who's interested let me know and I'll be glad to look into it.

    2. would love to but now that my writing success seems to be well past the expiration date, i write in a kind of vacuum, any writing cohorts i ever had long gone and my immediate contacts and family with less than zero concern or care for my writing. i've become like the crazy aunt who toils away at wide leather handstamped bracelets in the spare room, when i tell people i'm working on another story, i can see in their eyes the pity. but i will certainly keep it in mind if i ever find myself in the presence of another writer.

    3. Do look for community where you are! I'm sure there are writing groups and classes in your area. Check at the libraries and search online. Or try something like this: It can be lonely work sometimes, but there are others out there doing it too.

    4. Thank you so much for the link and the kind words. I've been fortunate enough to long ago have studied with some writers I admire through undergrad and mfa and do miss constructive feedback. I've learned that sharing my writing with people i know - friends and family - (when they are rarely open to it) only serves to polish my ego for three seconds and gives me zero useful information on what is and is not working in a piece. If I could snap my fingers, I'd love to step back a century and a half and be granted a mentorship with Dickens wherein we'd correspond monthly about fiction craft. Mentoring is such an antiquated notion, but something I'd re-insert to modern life if I could be King for a day. I've tutored young creative writers, with great joy, so see the benefits from the other side. I found your recipes blog - lovely stuff - the simple pumpkin muffin one sounds crazy easy delicious.

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