The Big Choice: I Stand Here Ironing

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It’s the Big Choice plus perspective in the Writers’ Room this week as we analyze the 1961 short story “ I Stand Here Ironing” by Tillie Olsen.

Genre and Three-Act Summary

“I Stand Here Ironing” is a Status story, and here’s a brief overview of the three-act summary.

  • Beginning Hook – Someone from school contacts the mother to discuss how best to help Emily.
  • Middle Build – While ironing, the mother reviews Emily’s life to decide what to do.
  • Ending Payoff – The mother concludes that the best she can do is let Emily know she’s just fine as she is.

Analyzing the Scene

Scene Type: Big Choice

  • What function does this scene serve in the story (Editor’s scene type)?
    Short story, so it’s the entire story in one and includes the core event of the Status Story, which is the Big Choice.
  • What kind of scene is this (Writer’s Scene type)? 
    Shawn identified this scene as the rise of fall in Status event, which is how he’s described the core event of a Status Story. More generically, I think it’s a scene/story about making a decision after an accounting. 
    Valerie: I see this as a mea culpa kind of scene: a mother coming to terms with how she’s raised her daughter, the best she could do at the time but not good enough.
  • What does this scene type accomplish within the context of the novel as a whole?
    Status stories are about what we’re willing to sacrifice to gain respect and how we want to approach life. 
  • How many people are in the scene? 
    There are three characters onstage (the mother/narrator, Emily, and the person making the inquiry), two of which are unnamed–which is interesting–but loads of offstage characters because the narrator is reviewing the course of her daughter’s life and her role in it.
  • Where does the scene take place (location)?
    At home, at the ironing board
  • What is the power dynamic at play in this scene?
    The person from school begins the scene with the most power, but in the end, the mother and Emily regain their agency. 
  • What is the point of conflict, and how does that relate to the characters’ objects of desire?
    Each of the three main characters has an idea of what’s best for Emily.

When we analyze a scene we need to answer four story event questions, and identify the five commandments of storytelling. These are covered in detail in Story Grid 101 which is available as a free download from the Story Grid website.

Story Event Questions 

1. What are the characters literally doing—that is, what are their micro on-the-ground actions? The narrator is ironing her daughter’s dress.

2. What is the essential tactic of the characters—that is, what macro behaviours are they employing that are linked to a universal human value? She’s trying to convince the person who has asked her to intervene, to leave her daughter alone; to let her be.

Leslie: Slightly different take on this: It feels like she’s trying to decide what to do, going back and forth, like the motion of the iron.

Click here for the Essential Tactic Cheat Sheet

3. What universal human values have changed for one or  more characters in the scene? Which one of those value changes is most important and should be included in the Story Grid Spreadsheet? If we look at this as a status sentimental story for Emily, then the value shifts from unknown to known, or unpopular to popular or rejected to accepted.

If we see this as a status pathetic story for the mother (as I do), the value shift is more subtle. She moves from someone who is trying to create a good life for her daughter, to someone who has accepted that she’s failed. She’s accepted, and seems proud, that her daughter has found a place of her own and wants “people” (the person/people asking her to intervene) to let Emily get on with it.

4. What is the Story Event that sums up the scene’s on-the-ground actions, essential tactics, and value change? We will enter that event in the Story Grid Spreadsheet? A mother defends, and protects, her daughter from a well-meaning individual who wants to “help” her daughter, because she believes her daughter’s belief in herself and hope for the future, is more important that whatever “help” can be bestowed. 

Five Commandments of Storytelling

Inciting Incident: The narrator/mother receives a request to come to school to talk about her daughter “who needs help.”

Progressive Complications: The narrator reviews Emily’s life and her role as mother. 

Turning Point Progressive Complication: Emily wins first place (Action) and being “Somebody” left her as imprisoned as her anonymity.

Crisis: Does the mother agree to discuss her daughter’s situation or not? 

Climax: The mother declines, concluding that Emily will find her way.

Resolution: The mother concludes this is a step in allowing her daughter to become who she is naturally, rather than conforming to someone else’s standard.

What’s special about this scene?

Leslie: This is a story I found a little tricky at first to unpack, but once I got into it, I could appreciate how well this story’s premise is presented. The narrative type is technically what Wallace Hildick calles “listen while I tell you.” That’s a first person past tense narrative. 

But the intended recipient isn’t hearing what the mother is saying. The mother might be rehearsing in her mind what she could say. So on one level this is a small decision about what to do about this one request, but the big picture is that the mother is deciding on her approach. Given that she can’t change the past, how should she relate to her daughter now? Should she encourage her to pursue third party respect and validation? Or should she focus on the relationship and supporting Emily in who she wants to be? The idea that fulfillment is not always about pursuing every opportunity is a different angle than we see in most Status stories.

We get a lot of history that doesn’t seem to move the plot forward. The key is that the mother is making sense of the past so she can make a good decision. So it’s not the events themselves so much as what the mother concludes about them: the past does not dictate the future, and by saying no, she can help Emily prevent the trap she fell into while raising her family.   

Valerie: I think “I Stand Here Ironing” is a terrific example of a story being crafted so well, that it can be interpreted multiple ways.

Shawn talks about this story in Ground Your Craft and he analyzes it as a status story from Emily’s point of view. He also mentions that it could be seen as a worldview or morality story.

I see the mother as the protagonist; someone who has tried and failed to give her eldest daughter a positive, loving and nurturing upbringing. She’s made peace with the failure, or is trying to, and the best thing she can do for Emily now is to keep the world from trying to drag her down. At last, Emily has found something to call her own and the mother tells well-meaning folks, who think they’re being helpful, to back off.

That doesn’t mean one of us is wrong and one is right. It means that Tillie Olsen did an incredible job crafting her story.

The artist’s job is to present the story to the reader and then step out of the way and let the reader bring to it what she wants, based on her experiences, beliefs etc. It’s not the writer’s job to tell the reader what to think or believe (although it’s a common trap writers fall into).

We don’t know what kind of story Tillie Olsen intended to tell, and in a way, it’s beside the point. “I Stand Here Ironing” lends itself to multiple valid interpretations and that’s the beauty of it. It’s a strength, not a weakness. 

Key Takeaways: 

Valerie: When we’re writing a story, we’ve got to pick one global genre and stick to it. Everything we write flows from that global choice. However, once we send our work into the world, the reader will receive it however she wants. If your work lends itself to multiple interpretations, then kudos to you!

Leslie: When you have a global internal genre, choosing a specific narrative situation is even more important than with a straightforward Action story, for example. Here, the narrative situation is embedded within the story and gives us a perfect context to present the crisis the mother faces. Substance and form go together perfectly.

Join us next time when we analyze “3:10 to Yuma” by Elmore Leonard

Your Writers’ Room editors are Valerie Francis, specializing in stories by, for and about women, and Leslie Watts who helps fiction and nonfiction writers craft epic stories that matter.

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About the Author

Leslie Watts is a certified Story Grid editor, writer, and podcaster. She’s been writing for as long as she can remember: from her sixth-grade magazine about cats to writing practice while drafting opinions for an appellate court judge. When the dust settled after her children were born, she launched www.Writership.com to help writers unearth the treasure in their manuscripts. She believes writers become better storytellers through practice, and that editors owe a duty of care to help writers with specific and supportive guidance to meet reader expectations and express their unique gifts in the world.
Story Grid 101: The Five First Principles of the Story Grid Methodology
by Shawn Coyne
What are the first principles in writing a story that works? At Story Grid, it’s easy to get distracted by the tools, spreadsheets, commandments, macro lense, micro lense, and on and on. However, all of this eventually comes back to five first principles. In Story Grid 101, Story Grid founder Shawn Coyne distills 30 years... Read more »
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