Published by the Students of Johns Hopkins since 1896
December 11, 2023

D'Ambrosio wins fans with incendiary style

By NATALIE BERKMAN | November 12, 2008

At a reading last Thursday, American short-story writer Charles D'Ambrosio incited the audience to peals of laughter with a story about a lunatic screenwriter and a masochist ballerina.

Of course, the premise is funny, but what really made the reading so enjoyable was the tone of D'Ambrosio's writing, his witticisms and the way he read it.

D'Ambrosio was raised in Seattle and attended Oberlin College. Originally, he never considered writing - he just loved to read. However, eventually he realized that he did not need anyone to teach him how to read, so he began to write.

He earned an MFA from the famous Iowa Writers' Workshop, the first creative writing degree program in the United States, which has hosted many great authors including Kurt Vonnegut, Richard Yates and John Cheever. D'Ambrosio has had several short stories published in The New Yorker and was a finalist for the PEN/Hemingway and the PEN/Faulkner awards.

Overall, D'Ambrosio is a highly accomplished author with an innate sense for characters and dialogue, and he certainly demonstrated that at his reading.

So far, D'Ambrosio has published two collections of short stories - The Point and The Dead Fish Museum (and a collection of essays entitled Orphans) - and for his reading at Hopkins, he read "Screenwriter" from The Dead Fish Museum.

Like many of the stories in that collection, it was originally featured in The New Yorker.

"Screenwriter" tells the story of a patient in a psychiatric ward who falls in love with a ballerina who enjoys setting herself on fire. Set in New York City, it shows D'Ambrosio's ability to capture emotional moments in a way that is neither corny nor cliché. Through his believable dialogue and his unique characters, he reveals that, "Everyone has a diagnosis."

"Screenwriter" was an interesting choice for a reading. It made sense according to D'Ambrosio, who said he prefers to read first-person narratives out loud because they sound than stories written in the third person when they are spoken.

It was told from the point of view of a suicidal screenwriter who initially seems to be an unreliable narrator, telling the reader some of his strange ideas: "I got into trouble when I told my p-doc I couldn't fall asleep, until I'd made myself comfortable by drawing the blankets over my head and imagining I was closing the lid of my coffin."

However, as the narrative continues, this screenwriter becomes a more sympathetic character. He falls in love with a ballerina when he sees her gown go up in flames.

"The ballerina spread her arms and levitated, sur les pointes, leaving the patio as her legs, ass and back emerged phoenix-like out of this paper chrysalis, rising up until finally the gown sloughed from her shoulders and sailed away, a tattered black ghost ascending in a column of smoke and ash, and she lowered back down, naked and white, standing there, pretty much unfazed, in first position."

The story is unusual, the characters are unique and the language is elegant and believable at the same time. There was a lot of dry humor in the story, which mostly stemmed from how the patients in the psychiatric ward acted and what they said.

Even though the thought of a ballerina burning herself at first appears horrifying, the way she asks for matches, has a house full of candles and tells the narrator to burn her, make for a rather amusing plot device.

Charles D'Ambrosio is a writer to watch. With an impressive resume already and a few collections under his belt, he is certainly worth reading.

He made the penultimate Writing Seminars reading of the fall semester an enjoyable one with the unlikely topics of suicidal thoughts and masochism in New York City.

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