So Why do you want to be a Writer

 

 

 

 

      She clears some papers off a beat-up Lay-Z Boy and asks me to be seated.

      “Take a seat,” she says even though I already took it. She types on the computer. “Make yourself comfortable. Just give me one second.” I pull my stories out of my backpack along with my notebook and place them in my lap. I pat down my hair and adjust my shirt and look through my backpack for something to write with. I notice my fly is down and zip it up. “One sec…” she says. She clicks the mouse and swivels her chair to face me. 

      “So. How’s everything going?”

      “Good. Got my mid-terms back and, you know. Keeping busy. Classes. Work.”

      “Good good. Work going well? You’re at that new sandwich place downtown, right?”

      “Yeah, the ol pizza place. Uptown, yeah. Work’s good. How bout, how about you?”

      “Good to hear.” She glances at her computer briefly. “So, what have you got for me this week?”

      “I uh,” I make sure the pages are in order and hand them over. She briefly scans the ones on the top.

      “This is new? Is this a new story?”

      “Yeah, there’s two there. An old one and a new one. Just started on it. But the other one’s got edits and stuff–the old one.” I point at the papers in her left hand.

       “Okay, okay. Wait, this one’s new?” She holds up half the ruffled pages. “So, wait. How many stories are you planning to include in your senior collection?”

      “I was thinking four. Maybe.”

       “Four…” she clucks her tongue, shuffling through the stories. “Maybe. Well, let me tell you one thing.” She sets them aside. ”Today is…” she putters her lips and looks at the calendar on the wall. It’s still on the previous month. She shakes the mouse and looks at the screen. “Today is…the seventh…which means you’ve got about a month, a little over a month to get this wrapped up. Doesn’t exactly give you a lot of time to introduce any new stories. I would suggest you take the ones you have at this point and edit, edit edit. But, hey, that’s— I’m just here in an advisory role. You’re the one who makes the tough calls. Your senior project. A showcase of your talents and ambitions as a student of creative writing. I’m–am I making any sense?”

      Yeah,” I say. I cough to clear my throat. “Yeah. Well, I just like, had another one I was working on—it kind of went with the others I was doing.”

       “It went with the others,” she clucks, still looking at her computer.

       “Like thematically, I mean.”

       She exhales as the pc dings. She excuses herself and begins to type furiously. The window to her office is open and a light breeze comes in, gently lifting various papers across her office. My stories wave at me from her lap. From the fifth floor, I can see that the trees all across campus are starting to green. A flock of chattering songbirds hop from tree to tree as a gaggle of students cross the campus. A few of the birds break off to chase away a crow and I suddenly remember that it’s my turn to buy toilet paper but my roommate’s to buy beer. I grab my phone to text him but remember I’d shut it off. I become aware to the fact that she’s done typing and is paging through my stories again. She sighs and, still reading, holds a finger in the air. She’s about to make a point.

       She clears her throat. 

       I sit at attention. I clear my throat.

       She turns the page over, frowns, and slouches. She shifts in her seat from cheek to cheek as she finishes one page and begins another. My gaze returns to the window. A security van in the distance beeps back and drives off. Her chair creaks. She is sitting up. Her glasses are off and she is rubbing her eyes. We both clear our throats.

       “Can I—can I ask you something.”

       “Sure.”

       “Why do you want to be a writer?”

       “Why do I want to be a writer.”

       She scootches closer. “Yes. Why do you want to be a writer.”

       I look at my shoes. Then at her. “It’s, I mean, as an English major I can either go into teaching or focus on writing. And I don’t really wanna teach.”

       “I’m not talking about your studies. I’m talking about….look, what I’m asking is why. Let me rephrase it. What makes you want to be a writer—what gives you that, that—drive, that need to tell a story.”

       I look around her office. One whole wall is a bookshelf.

       “Guess I read a lot as a kid.”

       “No—that’s not what I’m asking. What I’m asking is….here—let me put it this way. What is your goal?”

       “My goal?”

       “Yes. What is your goal as a writer? What do you want the reader to get out of your stories.”

       “What do I want them to get out of them.”

       “Yes.” She sits back and then leans forward, suddenly animated. “Have you read Dubliners?” She spins to face the wall of books.

       I nod. I have.

       “I have,” I say.

       She wheels around once more.

       “That’s good, that’s good. Well, if you remember—in every story there Joyce gives a character a what’s-called-‘an-epiphany.’ Sound familiar?”

       I nod. It does.

       “It’s, uh, a religious moment,” I say, “where a character has a sudden, uh, realization.”

       “Yes, of course. It’s a moment of, well, of divine inspiration–although it doesn’t necessarily have to have anything to do with religion or be even be in any way related to one’s spiritual life. The epiphany, it’s a moment—in a short story–it’s a profound moment where a character has a strong sense of awakening. Where the truth is suddenly revealed to them—the veil torn away. Paul on the road to Damascus.” She pauses to check if I’m following her or if I need a Sunday School lesson. She continues.

        “The scales fall from their eyes, so to speak. The character, in their own idiosyncratic way, sees their place in the cosmos. Perhaps come face to face with who they truly are. What Joyce does is he has his characters either realize something about—about their own social condition, their spiritual life, their vanity, their…their… and afterwards, you see, each character is presented with a choice in a matter of speaking. Of course, it’s not done the same way in every story. That’s the beauty of Dubliners. The ending of The Dead and the epiphany found in the final lines of Araby couldn’t be any more different, and yet… Are you following me?”

       The elastic part of my underwear is starting to bother me but I refrain myself from scratching. I keep nodding.

       “And, if I may say something,” she twists her chair and picks up a folder at random from her desk. It has my name on it. With her other hand she holds up the stories I gave her today. “I don’t see any of that here. There is no choice for your characters. Or if there is, your characters just seem to ignore it.” She waves the papers in my direction to further drive her point. “Your characters, they just kind of drift around. The world has no greater meaning for them. They just experience the mundane level of everyday activities. Something happens. Then something else happens. Then it’s over. The End. Fin. No change—no character realization. Nada. The characters just go on as before. Take out the story you were working on last week—Folks Don’t Know. The one where frat boys go to the party and play drinking games. Tell me the story. What’s it about?”

       I rub my hands against my jeans and pat my hair down once more. “Well, I don’t think I said they’re in a frat.”

       “My mistake. They aren’t in a frat. Go on.”

       “Well, it’s about these two college kids who have dorms next to each other, and since neither of them really has any other friends they just sort of hang out a lot and decide to go to a party. To hook up and stuff.”

       “Okay, yes, that’s what happens. But what’s it about? Where’s the story? What is at stake?”

       “Well,” I shift and a spring deep within the Lay-Z Boy makes a ping. I try to lean back but it seems to be stuck in recline mode and I fall into the cushiony back. I cross my legs so it looks deliberate. “I guess what’s at stake, is like, that there’s not much at stake. In their lives, I mean. Well, there is, but at the end of the party they both kinda ruin everything they spent the party working for. Drunk and alone.”

       “Okay, okay. I see what you’re trying to do, but—but what is the reader to get out of all of that? What’s the… Here, take what’s it called. The one with the boy on the swing-set. You did some edits I see.” She looks at my lap. “You have a copy of that one with you?”

       I crawl forward in the recliner to get at my backpack. I know I don’t have any extra copies but I pretend to look anyways. I flip through my notebook and shake my head.

       “You didn’t bring one for yourself? You expect to go over your short stories with your senior project advisor and you don’t even bring a copy for yourself?”

       I rummage through empty bag.

       “If I–” she takes a breath. “To be a writer you need to, well, you need to first act like a writer. If I was an editor of a magazine and you came to me with only one copy of your story I would laugh you right out of the office.” I hunt through the bag again for a pen to write a reminder for myself. I don’t find anything. Nothing in my pockets either. I scratch my knee vigorously.

       “Alright?” she says.

       I say okay.

       “So, let’s get back to it. You need to look at mine or, no? Well. Tell me about ‘Swing-set.’ What’s the story there.”

       “Well,” I say, drawing a breath. “Pendulum was a story I wrote a couple of years ago. I did another version of it for my creative writing class and…” I gauge her reaction to see if I’m saying what she wants me to say. I’m failing but I can’t stop myself from finishing. “A lot of other people in my class seemed to like it too, so, I, uh, decided to include it in my senior collection. Cause it’s, like, thematically similar, I guess.”

       “’Thematically-similar.’ Tell me how it’s similar. And I don’t want to hear the background of the story or how you wrote it—just tell me the story.”

       “I, uh, well. It’s similar, because they’re all kind of, uh, ‘slice-of-life’ stories. And the story is about this kid—he’s kind of like the pimply faced, ‘smelly-kid’—the, I guess you could say, unpopular kid that everyone picks on. The kid himself doesn’t really give a—doesn’t really care. He rides around with his parents in their busted up van sitting between piles of garbage and never wears clean clothes to school but he doesn’t really know anything different.”

       “Yes, that’s the character, but what is the story? And we’ll talk a little bit about ‘slice-of-life’ stories a little later. You’ve read Raymond Carver I’m sure.”

       “Yeah, I have. So the story is, anyways, there’s this kid and he’s about ten or eleven and he goes to the park all by himself. It’s a small-town that only has a park and a post office and a bunch of people who come home from their jobs in the city and watch tv in their houses and rarely ever talk to each other. “

       “That’s the setting. Go on.”

       “So yeah, this group of other kids comes over and this boy, Ronald, is on the swing set trying to beat an imaginary record he’s made of swinging as high as he possibly can. Then this other group of kids come over and they start insulting him and calling him names while in his head he’s competing in what he thinks is like an Olympic-style challenge.”

       “You’re telling me what happens. What’s the story?”

       “The story’s this kid being bored and living in his own head. And then all these other kids who are a bit better off than he is are also bored. It’s the end of summer and they just get into a fight because they don’t really have anything better to do.”

       She flattens Pendulum in her lap. “So they yell expletives at each other. You use a lot of choice language here—some words that in any other context would border on exploitative—racially, homophobically–but, honestly, I have to say, it does work for this story as it’s about ignorant children. Then the boy jumps off the swing, their fight dies down almost as quickly as it began, and, as you put it ‘the orange-red sun slowly slid behind the monoculture fields as a chorus of hogs shrieked out from a passing semi in the coming darkness beyond town.’ And that’s the story. That’s how you end it. Just like that. Nothing accomplished, nothing resolved. The ‘smelly-kid’, as you call him here, and his bully friends all go home for ‘microwaved leftovers and late night TV crime dramas.’” She sets the paper down on her lap. “The End.”

       I lean forward. “Well, I wanted to, like, give an impression of a time and place. To show what things are really like. How people live.” I can’t seem to recall if any my favorite writers actually did any of these things.

       “Okay, okay. I can see that, I can see that. Of course. But the reader—the reader doesn’t want to just see”, she puts up air quotes, “’Life on a Page’. The reader wants a story to come to life. But to not just show life, but to show them possibilities. You have to give the characters a chance to change. Here,” she says, shifting her tone. “Here’s an exercise for you. You know how to chart a plot, correct?”

       My stomach gurgles. I hope she can’t hear it and think back to eighth grade English.

       “You mean rising action, falling action?”

       She nods, reaching for my notebook. I pass it to her. She flips to a different blank page twiddles her fingers at me.

       “Something to write with?”

       I pat my pockets.

       “You don’t have a pen? Nothing to write with at all?”

       I shrug to show her I’m just as dumbstruck.

       “You don’t bring a copy of your own stories for yourself and you don’t have a pen. A pen and paper are the tools of the writer’s trade. If you were a carpenter, you wouldn’t leave your hammer and nails at home, would you? If you were a plumber you wouldn’t leave your plunger at home, would you?”

       I say I wouldn’t. She picks up a pen from her desk. She draws a triangle in my notebook and scribbles something illegible beside each point of the drawing.

       “Now, I know you probably know all this but it’s worth going over.” She points at one end of the triangle. “Here’s the start of the story, right? That’s the exposition, the setting, yadda yadda. Now going up the hill, here’s the Rising Action—where the stakes are made. Then here’s the climax.” She points at the peak. “This is where the house of cards comes tumbling down, and then that goes all the way to the end—the resolution.”

       “The ‘dennoment,’” I offer eagerly.

       “Right, yes, the dénouement,” she gently corrects my French. “Now,” she hands me the notepad along with the pen, “not every story needs to follow this basic format, you understand. This is just an exercise to help you plot out your own story so that you can get a better image of what’s going on. Now, if you were to chart out Folks Don’t Know or Pendulum, where would the climax be? Where would the falling action take place?”

       “Like near the end.”

       “Well, no. More specifically. Within each of the stories.”

       My stomach growls once more. I look at the pictures of a family on her desk. One is of an older man holding a fish and then another with a big group of people standing in front of a sign that says Niagara Falls but with no waterfall in the background. I look again at the piles of papers on her desk. There is a scorpion petrified in a paperweight. I start to feel depressed. My leg still itches.

       “You don’t have to do this now. I just want to get you thinking. How much time do we have?” She shakes the mouse around to wake it from screensaver mode. “Okay.”

       My phone buzzes. The battery must be on the fritz. I was sure I’d turned it off. She doesn’t seem to notice over her typing. I reach down and mash the buttons through my jeans to silence it.

       I stifle a yawn. My afternoon coffee is starting to wear off. I look around her office something to occupy my mind and search through the wall of books to see if I recognize any of the titles.

       A bell rings, signaling the end of the day’s classes. Outside it’s a nearly cloudless sky. From the window I can see the stars and stripes flopping about in the breeze in front of the main lecture hall as students from all over campus empty out of the buildings and head back to their dorms for the afternoon.

       “Sorry,” she apologizes for the recent burst of typing. “Just a—”

       I can’t help but yawn as my phone buzzes again. I reach into my pocket and hold down the power. She makes one last theatrical click. “Sorry, again. And I’m sorry but we won’t have time to go over any of your other stories today. I hope that’s okay.”

       “No biggie.”

       “Hah. Yes. I just want to…before you leave… Something to think about…With writers, it’s not that there are any rules they have to follow per sé. But there are a series of best practices all of our greatest scribes tend to follow. A writer must write so that the reader will get something out of their stories, okay? Readers don’t want to just pick up a book or a story and watch a character interact with other characters in a mundane and boring and ultimately meaningless world. While the world may in fact be all of these things, that’s beside the point. Our job as writers is to at least give our characters—our creations–an opportunity to see things differently. Give them a capacity to rise above the minutiae. Do you follow?”

       I tell her I do.

       “As writers, our aim is to not just create a believeable world filled with characters that the reader can identify with—and I have to say that you’re not bad at this to a certain extent—but you have to give your characters more. Of course, this doesn’t mean your characters have to make good decisions. By all means, no. In fact, some of the greatest stories ever written are about individuals making exceptionally poor decisions. But that’s I just want to challenge you to do more. Did you say you’ve read Raymond Carver?”

       I tell her I did, I have.

       “I think you would really enjoy him. He’s good at the ‘slice of life’ aspect of…well I’m going to give you a book Lend one, rather.” She twists her chair around to locate it on her shelf. “It’s…it’s filled with some of the greatest short stories of all time and it shows you various drafts of each story. It will give you a very helpful demonstration on how a writer’s perspective evolves through continuous edits. How a writer must be capable of finding the story hidden in their work through multiple rewrites. Let me… let me…” She gets up out of her chair steps to the wall of books, fingering their spines until she finds the right one.

       I look down at my notebook, at the mountain of plot alongside her illegible scribbles. At the top of the page I use her pen and scrawl “Bring extra copies of stories next time, asshole! ”

       “Bring a pen too!” I add.

       I look out the window. An old man is slowly taking down the flag at the center of campus. I wonder if it’s supposed to rain. A guy bikes past and a couple of girls enter the dorm building opposite.

       “Here it is.” She sits back down. She wheels closer to me. “The editors of this collection also have little chapters which outline various aspects of the short story. I want you to read this paragraph about plotting aloud.”

       My phone goes off again, louder and louder with each buzz. I have to raise my voice to be heard.

       “You understand what they are is getting at, surely.”

       I say I do. I reach into my pocket and pop out my phone’s battery to keep it quiet. Then she flips to different sections of the book and gives it to me. I politely and thoughtfully leaf through the many different chapters. Then I thank her and make to give it back.

       She tells me to keep it for now. She calls it an “indispensable tool for the undergraduate writer.” I thank her again. The meeting seems over. She’s taken off her glasses and is rubbing the bridge of her nose.

       “It just shows—it just shows you that can’t be too afraid to change your stories. To give it more of a direction. Do you, ah, do you see where I’m coming from? I hope you do.”

       I realize I really have to pee. I tell her I follow her and thank her again.

       She dismisses my gratitude with a flip of her hand and shakes the mouse to check the time. “Well, that’s all we have for this week. Just… just think about what I said, okay? And keep writing.”

       I thank her once more and hand her back the pen. She tells me to keep it. It’s got an advertisement for a local bank on the side.

       “Thanks,” I say and pick up my empty bag.

       “Okay,” she says. She wishes me goodbye and shuts the door behind me.

       Everyone else on the top floor of the English department building seems to have gone home for the night. The only noise I hear in the hallway is the humming of the florescent lights above.

       I look down at the book, dog-eared and with key paragraphs highlighted yellow. I drop it into my backpack and I look down at the rudimentary diagram of Plot Mountain standing alongside her chicken-scratch script in my notebook Then I see the reminder I wrote for myself, focusing on the word “asshole!” as it falls into my backpack and I eye my new pen. It is pretty cool.

       I push open the bathroom door and the automatic lights flicker on. I line up to the only urinal without an Out of Order sign on it and remember all my missed calls. I hit the flusher and pull my phone out of my pocket.

       I replace the battery and almost leave the bathroom without washing my hands. As I wait for my phone to load, the bathroom lights switch off. I wave my hands in the air to light my way towards the door. As it swings open, my phone makes a cheerful chirp. Three missed calls from an unknown number and one text message. I pull up my text messages first. From an unknown number, it reads:

       Get out of the building.

       My zipper is down. I fix it and recieve another message:

       Leave.

       Then:

       Now.

       I start to respond “Whose this--” when a deep rumble comes up from somewhere below. The floor vibrates through my shoes. I start at a quick walk down the hallway but then everything begins to shake and wobble. I run towards the elevator. I slam the button multiple times to call it up and as the doors ding open I see the sign:

       In case of emergency, use stairs.

       I bolt towards the stairway. The low groan from below turns into a spectacular white noise. The walls at the other end of the hallway explode–a maelstrom of brick heading my direction. Shelves topple over like dominoes. Splinters and shards of glass fly through the air like confetti.

       I kick open the door and jump from one concrete slab to another, bounding over each series of stairs in single leaps. I make it down one, two, three flights when the floor beneath me vanishes and then everything stops and goes black.

 

 

       

       A steady fire smolders someplace nearby and as my eyes adjust to the faltering light I see what appear to be tombstones rising around me. The quiet flames dance with their shadows on the walls. I try to pull myself up and a sharp sting of pain runs up from my legs to my spine and stops in the back of my brain. The floor surrounding me is wet and sticky and warm and when I try to pull myself up again I find that my arms are stuck to scattered bits of paper by a thick, inky substance.

       Pipes hang low over me. Through the flicker, I see another file-cabinet, or maybe a drinking fountain, spraying some sort of translucent liquid against the wall. I try to call for help but all that comes out is a pathetic muffled moan. The pipes above leak warm salty water onto my face and it takes me a moment to realize that these are my tears. And as I lie on the cold basement floor quietly sobbing into what I come to understand was an expanding pool of my own blood, the silent crackle of the flames begins to roar brighter and louder and I can feel its heat. A light begins to glow in my head and images burn into my skull like the negative of a film.

       Images of myself as a child, pedaling my big wheel through the empty streets of my hometown–the world seeming both so small and yet so big at the exact same time. I think of my childhood dog, and how excited I was to come home from school one day to find him escaped and free. The next day he turned up dead—some poison he had got into, my father said. He looked so old and sad, even then, my dad. Images later in life. My reticence, my pretentiousness, my high school self-certainty. My mom, at home by herself, watching TV and eating Hungry Man dinners as I snuck cigarettes with friends in the closed down warehouse just up the road. The present day. My goldfish, Rusty, and how I hope my roommate would take care of him after I’m gone. And girls—a montage of the many I’d fallen in love with races through my head, followed by the handful who loved me back. And then how I hurt them. And then myself. Alone. Angry. The waste of it all. The bitterness. Turning my back on the god of my youth. Bottling everything up. Waiting for a cause that would never come.

       The images go through my brain in one big flash. And then as quickly as they came, they abandon me.

       So now there is just myself and the darkness. My body becomes an island in an ever expanding universe of blood, and my heart, pounding heavy against the ground, continues with its circulatory duty, stupidly churning out and exposing pint after pint of blood to the stale basement air. My lungs begin to give.

       The flames around me burn with less violence. The darkness soaks into the walls. Keeping my eyes open takes too much effort and on my lips I taste dust and iron. The silence builds. I try to pull back the images, to go through them all again one by one. I cycle through them and tell myself the appropriate words attached to each. I say “Mom,” I say “Dad,” I say “Big Wheel.” I recite to the darkness a list of names, names like “Rusty,” hoping that these words would manifest the presence of that which they represented. I try and I try and all the while the silence grows. It expands. And so does my struggle against it. The battle between my thoughts and the silence grows to encompass the entire focus of my being, and as I lay there, now helpless, the silence slowly pulsates, edging in and out of my consciousness like a waning tide along a beach I will never visit. It creeps in and out and I grow weaker. I resign myself to receive the final blow, and when it comes I will greet it like an old friend.