The Milk Cow and the Cat – an example of great writing
I just laughed so long this morning – and thought you’d like to as well.
Here’s a short story from Brett Pharo. (From Kit Pharo’s excellent newsletter – Sorry, this issue doesn’t seem to be posted yet.)
Once you read it, see if it doesn’t just draw you through all the way – and we’ll talk about why it’s great writing on the other side…
Milk Barn Dangers…
By Brett Pharo
A family of seven can go through a lot of milk, and since a family of seven also has a lot of hands, having a milk cow or two seems a logical solution. Every morning before leaving for school, we would have a good home-cooked breakfast. But before breakfast the chores had to be done, and among those chores was milking.
Not being a commercial dairy, all milking was done by hand while sitting on a one-legged stool. Actually, it was two small pieces of two by four nailed together in a tee. Of course, it was considered improper to set the milk bucket on the ground, as it stood a good chance of being spilled if the cow moved or kicked. The acceptable position was to hold the bucket squeezed between your knees.
So, here’s the picture. You’re sitting atop a stool, which is really only a board, that has only one leg. While in this precarious perch, you must hold a bucket squeezed between your knees. The bucket can’t just be held at normal knee height, though, because it needs to be lowered so as to be below the udder. So, then, the feet need to be splayed out to the side while the knees grip the bucket, while perched on a one-legged board stool, all the while being slapped in the face by the cow’s tail when she’s not kicking or moving. Now that I think about it, it’s a wonder any milk ever made it into the house.
Every once in a while, the morning routine might be interrupted by something out of the ordinary. One such morning went something like as follows. As usual, on this morning there were several cats sitting around in various locations waiting for the milking to be done so they could get their share of the milk, including one cat that was sitting along the back wall of the milk barn about ten feet directly behind the cow.
It was also one of those mornings when the old cow was blessed with very loose stools. Now, ordinarily, that would not be much of a problem as the cat was clearly out of range of even the most vigorous splatters. As the cat sat, the cow lifted her tail, and I moved the bucket out of range. But, just as business was beginning at one end of the cow, the other end coughed. What would normally have fallen harmlessly to the floor shot across the room straight toward the cat. The wall was splattered from the base up to about five feet off the ground. Well, except for that spot where the cat had been sitting.
Hopefully, you put down your coffee or beverage before you got to that punchline.
And here’s hoping you also thoroughly enjoyed it. Let’s look back to see what elements kept us reading.
Human elements – relatable. You see “family”, “breakfast”, “home-cooked” – all great moments of childhood we are all familiar with.
Setting the stage – You learn a brief scenario about just how hand milking is done, and why it’s a very precarious setup. (Try sitting on a one-legged stool – much less with a bucket between your knees.) So you are invested in the situation of that young kid. “Slapped in the face by the cow’s tail…” gives you another picture (you can’t defend yourself from this as each of your hands is busy squeezing milk out of a cow’s teat – the only thing you can do is duck. And bear it.) Lots of sensory, just as the opening paragraph. You’re transported into this scene and involved in it personally.
Unexpected events – raised stakes – Now enter “something out of the ordinary”. A cat wanting milk, sitting far back from the cow, but directly behind it.
Rising drama – loose stools in the cow.
Crisis – cow lets go just as she coughs.
Story twist – The milk is saved. But… the wall behind cat splattered everywhere except where the cat was (formerly) sitting.
[Insert laugh track here.]
Go back and read the story again. We aren’t trying to say there’s a plot here. But for a short story, it has every element of good storytelling.
Use this (no-charge) Becoming A Writer link to learn more about how to find the stories within you that want you to bring them to life – and how simple it is to write them into existence.
Also published on Medium.