Here’s a story featuring my fictional doppelganger by my young friend Hannah M.
I sense an orderly world in the realm of this story, and I appreciate that calm these days!
Here’s a story featuring my fictional doppelganger by my young friend Hannah M.
I sense an orderly world in the realm of this story, and I appreciate that calm these days!
In the spirit of the Bulwer-Lytton fiction contest, here are some of my high school students’ attempts to craft bad fiction: stories that give readers certain tonal and genre expectations, and then make sudden turns to subvert those expectations.
Terry galloped along the circular path facing a crowd of screaming children on his gallant horse of red with a gleaming saddle, when suddenly, the carousel stopped. (J.O., Spring 2015)
It was a dark and stormy night as I realized the poisonous gas filling my house had made me hallucinate and it was really sunny midday afternoon. (T.T., Spring 2015) A quite-unreliable narrator.
I looked out the pale, grim, and gray window, only to see two cats doing it like it was Christmas. (D.K., Fall 2015) I don’t know what this one means, but it does make me laugh every time I read it.
When I woke up in bed last night, I realized there was a fire-breathing dragon in the corner of my room, so I shut the TV off. (M.D., Fall 2015)
Little Jimmy was having a great day, eating his ice cream until he dropped it. Some ask why he dropped it. It was because he got hit by a truck. (J.T., Fall 2015)
So I was about to hook up with this girl and she was super into me. We had to be quiet because we didn’t want anyone hearing us. I didn’t have protection but I just went for it. By far this was the most interesting family reunion ever. (S.C., Fall 2016)
Today for lunch I ate a talking duck. Every time I took a bite, it yelled “Stop!” Until I ate his tongue. (J.B., Fall 2016)
Up the road from my house was a loud scream. The scream was almost as loud as my parents’ when I murdered them the night before. (A.V., Fall 2016)
The dog walked down the street, through a tunnel, over the hill, took a right, and ended up in the same place. (S.V., Fall 2016) This story shows how linear narration is, how readers can’t look ahead but are fed info piecemeal by the writer–who might lead readers astray, of course.
Her personality was like a potato that had been forgotten in the back of the pantry, the kind that starts to rot and grow those little things. The kind that you find 2 years later and throw outside for the raccoons but even the raccoons won’t want it. (S.K., Fall 2016)
He asked his wife, “Do you think we should have kids?” “No, honey, I think we shouldn’t.” “You’re right.” He then kicks out his two year old son. (M.L., Spring 2017)
I enjoy running on the beach with my girlfriend, until the LSD wears off, and I’m running from the cops in a McDonald’s drive-thru. (B.S., Spring 2017)
He traces lines along her back and strokes her spine gently. This surely is the book he wants. (C.J., Spring 2017)
My mom was mad at me for sneaking out last night because she heard the door open, but then she died, so I’m not in trouble. (K.A., Fall 2017)
If I had a dollar for every time I was called “ugly,” I would have, like, two dollars, because people don’t care enough about me to judge my looks. (M.K., Fall 2018) This one starts off sad—and then gets sadder.
He sat on his front steps as the world crashed down around him. Unicorns flew every which way, and rainbows made of jelly beans pelted the sidewalk. Yep, this was it — the end of the world. (A.H., Fall 2018)
Long blonde curls were soaking in the warm water when the boy picked his fork up and ate his ramen noodles. (K.T., Spring 2019)
It was a dark and mysterious cave lit only by the single torch of the traveler. There was supposed to be a bear, but the writer doesn’t feel like describing it. (W.J., Spring 2019)
As the hero approaches the scene, the villain has already killed the entire population. The villain executes the hero with one shot of a gun. (E.S., Spring 2019)
I was so excited that my sister was pregnant, knowing that finally I was going to be an awesome dad. (A.K, Fall 2019)
The story begins like this: two people were getting married at a beautiful park, and I don’t know what else happened because I was only passing by. (I.M., Fall 2019)
The parent was driving through the school zone and couldn’t believe the amount of speed bumps there were, until he remembered there are no speed bumps. (L.P., Fall 2019)
My creative writing student Ali Van Vickle recently took initiative and submitted a short story to TeenInk.com, which published her story! Here’s the start:
I was born in New Orleans into a wealthy family who gave me everything I needed. I’m your typical 13 year old. I love to ride my bike with my friends. As long as I can remember I’ve been happy. I remember my first day of kindergarten was terrifying because I didn’t want to leave my momma. I remember meeting all of my friends and all of the people who weren’t my friends. There was this girl named Sara. She has tortured my friends and I everyday from kindergarten to seventh grade. One day my friends and I were riding our bikes down by the bayou even though our mommas always told us not to. Sara and her friends came and told us that this was their bike path, and if they ever caught us there again they’d throw us into the bayou to the gators. I never road my bike so fast away from something before. I’d never been so scared either.
See more of the story here. She also dedicated the story to me:
My biggest inspiration is my Creative Writing teacher Mr. Hagemann. He has always been encouraging, supporting, and helpful with any of my questions. And he always gives me his honest opinion on my work.
Thanks, Ali! Keep writing!
Below is a fiction dialogue I wrote for a local public radio station contest, which declined to use it, so I’m publishing it with this wonderful blog.
“What happens?” Tom asked. He grabbed a Greek yogurt, blueberry, from his fridge and sat in his green recliner. I had a few more seconds to think of a response as he got back up to get a spoon. He peeled back the foil lid, scooped the fruit from one plastic well into the larger yogurt zone, slurped up a spoonful, and then looked at me and waited.
“Things happen,” I said. “Events, experiences. Birds fly from one powerline to another. A squirrel bounces across the street one moment, and is flattened the next. You mixed up the yogurt and it can’t be unmixed.”
“That’s not what I mean,” Tom said. He took another spoonful of yogurt, striated with blueberry juice like carrara marble, and swallowed it.
I squinted at him, partly to query him and partly to engage my brain.
Tom scraped the last of the thick dairy from the hard plastic and set the tub and spoon on an end table. He put his hands palms-down on the arms of the recliner.
“What I mean is — well, I’m not sure what I mean. But there’s gotta be more to it than what you just said.”
More to what, I asked.
“Life,” he said.
“Shoot,” I thought. I can predict where this is going. I suddenly felt safe in a banal way. I waited to again be brought to the edge of a mental chasm, to see how he’d drive the idea while staying between the cliff wall of known thoughts and the dropoff of cleverness.
“Well, not life itself, which is far too abstract. When I squash a squirrel, I’m also killing its children,” he said.
“Mary Poppins steps in time,” I said.
Tom ignored me and continued, “I’m ending a piece of that which gives life, that which IS alive, and which, according to evolutionary theory, has been continuous through unknown generations of individuals for more than a billion years. I just ended it. … That doesn’t make me special — but I can’t recreate squirrel life. And sometimes I end life so as to continue my own.”
“But when I’m alive, I’m eating yogurt. I’m turning food into thought. It’s literal food for thought.”
And we were both silent a moment. He closed his eyes and lay back his head.
I said, “Your need to define life and what happens is an emotional need, and not necessarily an intellectual one.”
“That’s a valid point,” Tom said. “But it doesn’t answer the question.”
“Which question, again?” I said.
“The question of what happens,” Tom said. He added, “Maybe we get in trouble when we ask such vague questions. But maybe these simple questions can be the most profound.”
“Maybe. But maybe they’re also just simple,” I answered.
He leaned toward me from his chair and said, “We’re alive, you and me, right here, right now. Doesn’t our very existence pose the question of what it is to be alive?”
I think I finally got his point: “And you’re wondering if considering this question is exactly the right, or exactly the wrong, thing to be doing with this experience of being alive.”
Here is a text co-written by my smartphone and me. I provided the starting word, and then I repeatedly chose one of the 3 words my keyboard program suggested to me. Here’s one starting with the “rhinos”:
I am going out with you and Jessica Simpson. the other day I was wondering how much of it is not an intended recipient of the book, but I didn’t know that you have any questions about your business and look forward to hearing from a single person who’s both polished and good luck. I’m sure that you have a lot more than happy to help me with the same thing as well as other hand.
Here’s another one that my phone wrote with my editing assistance, starting with the word “constables”:
the same time as a result of this product is not a problem with the help of my favorite part. it was the first time in the world of difference between the ages of my own mind. I don’t want to hear that you can also be used for a few years. this was a great deal with the new year to the title of your choice. the only thing that I have received this communication in error. please immediately notify me immediately by return false alert.
And here’s another text, made by my wife’s repeatedly selecting only the middle of three suggestions her phone offered:
Ok! See you manana, and then I will be able to set up a few weeks or months, but it is not a parent or something. I’m not sure if you are free to contact me. I have to go to the doctor. I am a beautiful person. I am a beautiful person. I am a beautiful person.
A friend recently posted this photo to Facebook, and, as I am a Matt, I was drawn to it. But I found this story problem to not accurately represent my desires. I don’t really want any flag at all, but given the choice of the two, I’d much prefer the Mondrian-esque flag on the right rather than the one with “4 equal parts.”
But then, story problems are all too often mere fiction. Students are expected to apply some math processes to situations that, while plausible (like realistic fiction) are not actually, you know, real.
I see some problems here with story problems that have fictional set-ups. One, if the situations are fictional, doesn’t that also suggest that the math is fictional (see also here), too? And if so, why should I spend any more time learning math than I do learning the names of all the dwarves in The Hobbit? And, two, if I’m an imaginative person, I might get so interested in the fictional situation and/or the fictional text that actually doing the math might seem damn boring in contrast, or even besides the point. Who cares about an equally sectioned red flag, if green better matches my living room decor?
Below are some examples (found here, questions that are in the style of the exam given to high school juniors in Illinois) of fictional math situations that seem strange and wonderful.
4. A customer in the music shop where you work purchases 3 cassette tapes. One costs $8.99, one costs $7.99, and one is on sale for $3.99. Excluding taxes, how much does the customer owe?
First, let me ask why the test writers either, A., know preternaturally much about my afterschool employment, or B., are asking me to pretend a whole lot here: I work in a “music shop” — what is this, 1998? Nope, wait, a customer is purchasing “cassette tapes,” so this is 1985. These prices certainly suggest those of the ’80s, but even then, who is selling a cassette for $3.99? Is this a good deal? I mean, is this cheap cassette Led Zeppelin IV or is it the Bullet Boys? If it’s the latter, should I harass the customer for his terrible taste?
So many questions: Why would I exclude taxes — isn’t that included in what the customer has to pay? I mean, am I gonna offer the customer numerous nonfinal tallies, say, giving a subtotal after every item? And why doesn’t this 1985 “music shop” have a cash register to do this work for me? Is the power out? It’s store policy to ask patrons to leave and we lock the store until the lights are back on.
The word “owe” — is the customer taking out a loan to buy these cassettes? Should I, as a math student of the future, advise the buyer not to buy cassettes at all, as the vinyl that now seems inconvenient will be cool again in just a few years, and the CDs that are coming soon will be usable long after cassette players become scarce, but the cassettes he buys will just be stored in some box in a closet in his mother’s house, to be thrown away when she moves out? Would the customer find my future-perspective frightening, as he did not know he would be buying items from a test-taker who was born long after 1985?
6. You must keep track of inventory in an office supply warehouse. This week, 8 computers of a particular model have been shipped out of the warehouse to a local store, while 4 more computers of the same model have been received by the warehouse from the factory. What is the overall change in the number of these computers in inventory this week?
I “must.” Ha, such imperatives. Am I a slave in this office supply warehouse? Or is it a family obligation, like maybe my manager is my wife’s uncle, who was kind enough to give me a job when I got fired (for asking too many questions and frightening the customers) from the “music shop” in question 4 above — and I had to spend some purgatory time in Question 5, where I was told to Calculate the missing values so as to complete the chart — and so now I feel like I owe the guy, even though our warehousing business isn’t doing so well. It’s these damn Kaypros. I keep telling him that everybody wants IBM or Apple computers, but he won’t listen, and half the computers we send out come back. He just tells me to stick with the strategic plan, but I really think he’s just jealous of my intellect. My wife tells me to bide my time, that the resumes I’m sending out to get a job in my field will eventually pay off, but until then, I’m stuck in the logistics biz. No kid ever grows up and says he wants to be in “logistics” — but here I am. Ah, well, at least I got a place to go and a paycheck to keep my home warm. And thanks to all these Kaypros we keep getting returned, I don’t have to do the inventory myself. Lotus 1-2-3, take it away.
After Question 7 — Calculate the missing values so as to complete the chart — ignores the spreadsheet the Kaypro made, I’m apparently moving to the health care field. Such career whiplash:
8. In the hospital where you work, one of your duties is to take pulse counts. One patient has a pulse count of 21 beats in 15 seconds. At this rate, what should this patient’s pulse count be for 60 seconds?
Man, oh, man, do I hate taking pulse counts. Having to hold the bony wrists while keeping a finger on the sagging flesh of these old arms, it’s the worst. Plus, are we really sure that it should be my “duty”? I mean, I have no experience except selling cassettes and inventorying computers. But around this place, man, you never know. But that’s why sometimes, just to keep myself amused, I’ll count a pulse beat for 10 seconds, and then scream, “OH MY GOD, WHAT’S THAT ON YOUR HEAD?” at the patients just to see how much faster their heart rates can get. I go for unpredictable. But even if I don’t scare them on purpose, how do we know that their heart will beat at an even rate for the next 45 seconds? I mean, dead people’s hearts once worked, too, until they didn’t. And once a person’s dead, at least they don’t have to do these stupid story problems.
The book mentioned in the title bugs me. I should probably just let it go, but for some reason it sticks in my head that I ought to write about this, and I’m paying attention to that “ought.”
So, it’s been a while since I read “The Old Man and the Sea” and I don’t really want to read it again. As far as I remember, it’s about, well, an old man and the sea. And he catches a fish, but the sharks eat it, and he returns to his life. And if I were to really do a criticism of this book, I’d have to reread it, but an in-depth criticism isn’t what I want to do, anyway. I’m not sure what I want to do, but I think I want to talk about fiction. (This is the vein of thought that seems the most compelling, anyway.)
So, yeah — the idea came to mind the other day that when we write about a work of fiction, we’re writing nonfiction. For my writing students, I define nonfiction as any writing done when the writer is writing as him/herself (when the narrator is the author), and when the writer is not lying. That’s about as good a definition as I can get.
The common cultural definition of nonfiction, at least when one looks at a typical bookstore, is that nonfiction books are the biographies, memoirs, histories, and how-to books. I guess I’d prefer to call these genres “Informational” books, and by “nonfiction,” I want to focus on a process rather than a product. When I have my creative writers do nonfiction, we start out by going out to a central hallway in our school, sitting down, recording the time, date, and location, and writing down whatever we observe and think while we’re there. Real-time writing. And the texts produced thereby may not be fancy literary stuff, but they are real — they are a record of what came to their minds at that time and place (though of course what gets onto the paper may not be exactly what went through their minds). The students have made texts, have put experiences into words, where words and ideas did not exist before.
So what does this have to do with Hemingway? I don’t know yet. Maybe something will come to me as I write — something usually does. Maybe I mean to contrast the bullshit of fiction to the humble honesty of nonfiction. But that, too, is just another distinction, an easy analysis of minor value.
But it seems weird that we can have nonfiction analyses of fictional works. Maybe this shows the commonality of (and the arbitrary distinction between) fiction and nonfiction — both are just labels on ideas. Works of fiction and nonfiction are both just made of words and ideas, which words and ideas are animated (figuratively) only by human consciousness (that is, if humans disappeared, our books and symbols become just objects and ink stains — though even applying those labels would require a conscious mind).
I don’t want to say Hemingway was doing anything better or worse than any other fiction writer, in any of his books. But why does fiction seem to bother me so? Here is my own bias; I don’t read much fiction these days. I don’t choose to get absorbed into a story. As a kid, I read a lot of fiction, but not so much since my early 20s. I feel a little guilty about this when talking to those who appreciate fiction, but not guilty enough to read it.
Maybe what bugs me is the storytelling machinery, the rules and conventions. I may just have read and watched too many stories, so that for most stories, I can anticipate what’s coming, and that bores me. I’d love to see an action movie where the hero doesn’t win, or maybe the story is told from a character who dies early on. Those aren’t as “emotionally satisfying” as the classic tale of victory and redemption (whatever that is), but I don’t find story-by-numbers very satisfying anyway.
And perhaps I don’t want to characterize — to judge simplistically — my life or the lives of my friends and family. I don’t want to see these real people as simple successes, or as simple failures. My dad died suddenly, with many aspects of his life unsettled — he didn’t get a character “arc,” and he didn’t get to complete his life’s story in a satisfying way. I prefer seeing people and lives as complex, as beyond simple description, and so fiction doesn’t often present a worldview I find useful.
But maybe my issue with fiction is a bit more basic and philosophical — I think it bugs me to have to pay attention to story at all. Stories are interpretations of what happens. Stories skip the boring parts — stories lie to us about how much of our lives should be boring. After reading Kerouac’s “On the Road,” I wanted to have my own road adventures, but I didn’t pick up a hitchhiker I saw one day — it just seemed dumb to do that. And for as much fun as he made hitchhiking seem to be, Kerouac wrote in “Big Sur” (if memory holds, and it might not) that he wouldn’t have hitchhiked at all if he could’ve afforded to take the train. So there.
I was looking today at some comic strips I had saved from a couple years ago — one was a “Peanuts” strip where I cut out the dialog balloons, and one was a “Hagar the Horrible” in which I replaced their modern English speech with Old English lines from “Beowulf.” Looking at these today, I enjoyed the ones where there was no dialogue (or where I couldn’t understand it). I was glad that my attention didn’t have to be bothered with some stupid joke. I loved the idea that there didn’t have to be an idea that I was supposed to get. Nothing had to be communicated — I could just appreciate the drawings instead of merely glancing over those to pay attention to the dialogue.
And maybe that’s what bugs me about fiction. At least nonfiction can admit it doesn’t know what’s going on. (Nonfiction that pretends to have all the answers, like histories and memoirs, also might fit my criticisms of fiction.) Maybe I really like art that doesn’t try to mean anything, that doesn’t try to teach me anything. F. Scott Fitzgerald was just 29 when he wrote “The Great Gatsby” — what the hell did he have to say, in some grand thematic way, about wealth or society? (And why should we readers look at the character Gatsby as some failure, some cautionary tale? Surely a real person who had lived a life like Gatsby wouldn’t have called himself a failure.)
Maybe I’d like “The Old Man and The Sea” better if nothing happened. If it truly WAS just the old man and the sea, and we didn’t have to bring fish and sharks into it.
I mean, I live my life without knowing what things mean most of the time. Maybe later, days or years later, I’ll have an insight into what someone meant by doing or saying X, or whatever, but even those insights I know might be superseded. I don’t have symbols in my life whose meanings are anything but the meanings I myself have assigned them. No meaning is necessarily attached to any particular object. When I think about how I didn’t enjoy my experiences in 7th grade basketball, I don’t need to draw any bigger theme from that. And frankly, I’m talking about stuff that happened years ago, things that I remember perhaps only because they were so unpleasant.
My journal is nonfiction, and I write down everyday some of the things that happened the day before, and what I’m thinking about that morning, and I also like about blogging that I can write and publish today — nothing I’m saying needs to have any kind of permanence. Maybe that sense of telling a permanent truth is what bugs me the most about fiction. Maybe I’d like fiction more if every story was told from multiple viewpoints so that it was never clear what had actually happened — indeed, so it became clear that nobody knew what actually happened (what “Rashomon,” and that “Magnum P.I.” that stole the “Rashomon” multiple-narrators technique, did).
And since any and every story, fiction or nonfiction, is just an idea, a fabrication — not a lie, but a construction from interpreted experiences — maybe story itself just isn’t enough to hold my attention. Maybe I want reality, or at least an acknowledgment of it.
POSTSCRIPT (the next night after writing the above): I’d like to summarize the insight of the previous post as every narrator is an unreliable narrator.
The narrator of “The Iliad,” which we’re reading in another class I teach, omnisciently depicts what happens to both Hector and Achilles when they are apart, and of course, this too is bullshit. That story is from no particular person’s or character’s perspective, and so that story must be from an impossible, unreal perspective — it must be a fabrication.
Of course, someone may say that fabrication is the essence and beauty of fiction. I get that, and at times I’ve been seduced into believing that life could be as simple and profound as stories set in Troy, in Middle Earth, or in Whoville have presented it. And yet, I’ve felt misled, betrayed, by these stories. It hasn’t felt helpful to me to be presented with ideas of perfect worlds, as if life really could be that simple and powerful and meaningful and etc. For a long time, I wanted my life to seem as thrilling and meaningful as it seemed in some fictions. It took me years to wake up from that idea and learn to accept my life as I found it, in its unedited reality. Attempting to get to that reality has always seemed less depressing than believing in a world that cannot be. Maybe there’s something passive (passively accepting these fictional worlds?) about reading, too, that I had to grow out of — and of course, maybe reading fiction and then growing out of it was a developmental stage that I had to go through. Whether I had to or not, I did read fiction and now I don’t, in general. The fiction that I do read now tends to be short fiction that presents new perspectives, new forms, and new ideas — fiction that seems to be more interested in discovering than in fabricating. I’ve enjoyed what I’ve read so far of Lydia Davis, Donald Barthelme, and David Markson.
So I’ve created a post that followed a feeling to the discovery of an idea, a theory, and now in trying to explain why I like this theory, I’ve come back to a feeling. Perhaps people’s ideas are justified by feelings more often than we like to admit — but, not being omniscient, I don’t know about the mental habits of other people. I’m talking here just about myself, at least, as well as I understand (at this point in time) my mind and how it operates.
our cat, Stephen Justice Benitez.
His name used to be just “Justice,” and at home, he goes by “Kitty” or, when he’s on our dining room table, “CAT!” But having now taken on this more important-sounding moniker, he is also constructing a more important career than simply being a moth-hunter. He recently revealed that he may have been an “alleycat extra” in the movie “Flicka” and he expects to soon be named U.S. Ambassador to Chile.
(Note: My wife said there’s something about living with the daily weirdness that is a cat’s behavior, and how that weirdness has started to seep into how we talk about him.)