Twenty years ago, one of my students wrote a story about a kid who is bored at his new job in the women’s clothing section of a large department store. We had talked about putting protagonists into a position where they had to make a moral decision. For this protagonist, a person who considered himself one of the good guys, it was whether or not to call store security when he witnessed an older, clearly disadvantaged person shoplifting. The story received a coveted Gold Award from the National Council of Teachers of English. In the letter of congratulations, the contest coordinator made a special point to note that the hardest thing for any young writer to do is to write a short story.
Until that moment, I hadn’t really thought about it, but two decades later, those prophetic words stalk me and my students. No matter the models, no matter the warnings, no matter the conferences, young writers turn out — let’s call them rough — pieces of short fiction. Why? Because, for the most part, they want nothing to do with the real world and/or anything that actually happens to people in it.
Take this week, for example. In our Stranger Comes to Town unit, we read a Bo Caldwell story called “When Children Are Present.” It is about what happens when a young man starts working at a daycare and a child dies under mysterious circumstances. We spent a day outlining situations in which a person’s gender might complicate a plot. What happens when a woman takes over as small town volunteer fire chief and someone is killed in a house fire? Is she judged more harshly than the previous male chief would have been? What happens when a peeping Tom disturbs a peaceful, friendly neighborhood. Does the middle aged, unmarried man whose sole passion is fostering cats draw unfair attention?
We read A and P by John Updike. How many of you have been bored at work? I ask. Every hands goes up. Okay, I continue. Now think: what kind of a stranger could come in a disrupt the day? Someone suggests that a 60 year old man gets a job in the teenaged clothing store that she works in. I feel a dangerous glimmer of hope.
I worry that Cheever’s Good-bye My Brother will not appeal to them, but they come in very excited to discuss it. They cite powerful passages. They respond animatedly to the characters. Everyone understands that the blacksheep of the family might, indeed, be a stranger. In fact, many of them know this firsthand. The odd uncle who finally shows up for Thanksgiving. The cousin who dropped out of school and has been living out of dumpsters in New York City despite the family’s wealth.
We draw maps of a setting and describe what kinds of lives exist in it. Several quiet minutes pass as students envision the placement of playgrounds, stadiums, salt marshes. They use color pencils and markers, label all kinds of things. Next, they put these aside and create one paperdoll with some kind of history, a brief description. We tape these to the board and raffle them off. “Take this character,” I say, “and put him or her into your setting. What happens?”
When, finally, it is time to write, they tap away on their keys. Based on their Character Goes on a Journey stories, I am on red alert. Plots for those stories mostly derived from one of three places: The Hunger Games, Game of Thrones or Clue. But surely my comments and their grades will remind them: real world, real world, real world.
Anyone need help getting started? I ask. A hand shoots up. I glance down at the graphic organizer she’s sketched in her notebook. In the center circle, in all caps: SUPERHERO.
Now, I have two choices and both of them spell failure not for my student, but for me. Do I remind her how difficult it is to create an ENTIRE world and make your reader believe it, thereby crushing her creative impulse? Or do I offer my useless advice and then set her free to write a story that, despite my most optimistic hopes, will fail miserably?
Actually, I can do neither because her question is: What is a really cool way a superhero might come by her powers?
What can I say? My own imagination is just not that vivid.
In her book The Discovery of Poetry, Frances Mayes says that no matter how inexperienced kids are, they are capable of writing good poems, a philosophy I have total faith in. Kids stun — and I mean STUN — me every year with the poems they create. But most things that stun me about fiction have been that numbing kind of stun that comes from a really bad stubbed toe. The searing pain and then the wretched throbbing. The anger you feel towards that stupidly placed piece of furniture, your own lack of grace. God, you need something to punch.
Since I can’t do this, when I start reading another fantasy piece in a heartlessly tall pile of stories, I write a list of all the new words the writer has invented at the bottom of the first page. Only the author knows if these are places, people, tribes who survived the apocalypse, days of the week.
Other stories, I just collect for future Ripley’s Believe it or Not plot device games I might or might not play someday.
For example: The story where a girl invites a stranger to a concert her younger sister desperately wanted to attend so the younger sister gets her revenge by asking out a boy the older sister likes. Eventually, they even marry, and then — wait for it — she discovers he’s their long-lost brother.
The superhero came by her powers by falling on her face during marching band practice. Sniffing pavement, it turns out, makes one invincible. And maybe the story itself didn’t quite come together, but I can applaud the real gem here: a marching band superhero fired up by asphalt. In a fiction writing class full of young people on ridiculously artificial deadlines, this is considered a good day.
Now, I could end this blog entry with a line like Joyce’s: Gazing up into the darkness I saw myself as a creature driven and derided by vanity; and my eyes burned with anguish and anger. It would fit.
Or I could just end it the way young fiction writers do, no matter how many times you beg them not to: And then, I woke up.