Tuesday, January 31, 2012

The Story of Our Feeling Good

In college I took a class in writing short stories. The major project for the class was to write a short story of some set length and put it through a workshop process in the class. I had only a half-assed idea as we worked through character sketch assignments and little scenes. As the deadline approached I was faced with the prospect of having nothing much to show. My friend Creeg was in the class with me and I knew that he would come up with something pretty good. I don't know why I was so sure of this. I had never read anything spectacular that he had written. I just had the feeling that he would be better than me and I didn't want that. I wanted to come up with something good, really good.

One night, late into the evening, Creeg and I sat up talking with my girlfriend, Stephanie. She's upstairs now as I type this, having put the kids to bed and gotten herself settled in to watch something on television. At the time, I didn't know a lot of her history and so when she started telling a story about a summer temp-job that took her to the Jacob Javitz Center in Manhattan, I listened, but I was also thinking about another girl I had known and a restaurant that she had taken me to. As Stephanie told the story, I imagined her in that restaurant and saw myself as a waiter. I excused myself from Creek and Stephanie shortly thereafter and spent the next few hours putting ten pages or so of double-spaced text onto the computer.

I worked the draft over a bit over the next few days and then printed copies for everyone in class. I gave it to them and then waited a week for the class to come around again. My job as they discussed my story was to keep quiet and listen. I was to take notes and see how my story worked without me defending it. I had been through this with other people's stories. One guy hadn't been able to keep himself under control as his piece was savaged for being as boring and pointless as it obviously was. A young woman interrupted us in our discussion to explain the point that we were missing. Having seen those two fall apart, I was committed to making it through my critique without speaking.

Aside from that I was struggling with the story that we had read the week before. It was incredible. Artful, interesting, gorgeously written. The only thing it lacked was an ending and the guy who had written it was obviously helpless with the thing. He just couldn't find his way out of the trap he had built. I worried that he was going to find it soon and that my story, even with what I thought was a perfect ending, would pale in comparison. I kept my eyes on him during the critique. I had been one of his most vocal fans and one of the few who had not suggested an ending because he clearly didn't want our suggestions on that. I wanted him to perk up and take note.

As the critique began, several women in the class began telling me what a sexist bastard I was. Me? I thought. But then I realized that it was my character they were reacting to. As the discussion went on, I saw that the character I had drawn in my image was, for them, indistinguishable from me. Our professor rescued me before I could say anything by saying, "Let's keep this about the story and the characters, not about the writer." And that's when the guy with the great story spoke up. He lectured the girls on the narrative voice I had chosen. He saw that I was doing a Salinger and he said that it wasn't bad. He smiled at me. I think he knew that I would take that as the compliment it was intended. And then he said, "what we should be noticing is the ending."

They didn't have much to say about the ending. There was an actual silence in the room. If this were a television movie script I would say that I was holding my breath, but I wasn't. I knew that the ending was good. And the silence told me that it was very good. Finally, one woman said, "it's fucking perfect, you bastard."

All of this is to say that time to time when I sit at the keyboard rejecting ideas that will not work for the blog, typing halves of poems that die on the table, and crumpling printed drafts that no longer feel worth the time to edit, I think back to sitting in that room with Creeg and Stephanie. I remember getting the idea and typing fast as I could. I can just about feel what it was like in the class listening to people tell me about the story and having a tiny hope inside me become something real. When I get stuck and just don't have anything to write about, as I did tonight, I tell myself that story and it makes things better.

I have a feeling that most everyone has at least one story like that. I could read several books of those stories. Maybe that should be NPR's next series. It could run once a week for years. Hell, it could go once a day. The stories we write to remind ourselves that we are, after all, good. Maybe, just maybe they could call the series Write On.