Wow. That sounds hectic. That sounds miserable. That class sounds like a total nightmare. You certainly have our sympathies, you who were safely ensconced in a small, selective liberal arts college whose idyllic campus Forbes frequently ranks among the most beautiful in the world, whose Norman-Rockwell-Shining-City-on-a-Hill-morning-in-America sunrises and oh-so-bucolic-L.L.-Bean-catalogue sunsets can leave one breathless, whose soaring refectory offers a slew of locally sourced grain breads and ready-to-order omelets to a student body comprised primarily of a diverse selection of academically excellent White (non-Hispanics). We’re sorry to hear that in your creative writing class your senior year at this unnamed college—with its as-advertised low student/teacher ratio—this one Writer-in-Residence got in your face. However, though we do indeed find ourselves drawn in by your trenchant critiques of your writing workshop and feel terrible that this Writer-in-Residence pointedly asked you to revise a few pages and your exalted sense of self, we think you should start to consider getting over it.
Does any of this have anything to do with skateboarding? Yes, Somewhat, Not At All.
It has everything to do with skateboarding. Well, what happened (the year Arto Saari set the world aflame with an “all-banger” part in Menikmati, the year Mike Carroll did that effortlessly stylish big-spin in Modus Operandi, which was the same year Wright said he gets “a lot of breaking-up-is-hard-to-do stories” and said, “If there is a gun in the first act, it better go off by the third” and said, “In student fiction there is always a dead body”) has everything and nothing to do with skateboarding.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
So what happened next? Well, in theory, as a “hardcore” skater, you shouldn’t have cared what some Writer-in-Residence who had never done so much as a switchstance frontside shove-it had to say about your skateboarding Bildungsroman. You shouldn’t have batted an eye. After all, for a variety of reasons, skateboarding, much like experimental fiction, often provokes the forces of mindless conformity. For proof, one need look no further than the letters submitted to skateboard periodicals such as Thrasher. There you encounter variations of the same youth-in-conflict-with-society story… Jocks at my school hate me… My dad told me he’ll throw me out of the house if I don’t quit skateboarding… The cop totally flipped!… Likewise, almost every professional skateboarder can share a story about how, early on, a parent, teacher or peer group attempted to dampen their ardor for all that is “gnar,” all that is, in Geoff Rowley’s words, “the stoke.” For example, in a recent interview, the professional skateboarder Mike “Lizard King” Plumb had this quintessential tale to tell:
I had a counselor ask me in the eighth grade what I wanted to be and I told him I wanted to be a pro skateboarder. He told me that wasn’t a realistic thing that could happen. That was a dream. He made me go through this list of careers and pick one. I had to pick out my future off this piece of paper that was printed off this computer. I was like, ‘What the f—? I’m in eighth grade and you want me to pick a career? Can’t I go back to lunch and hang out with my homies? What the f—, dude?’
In theory, you should have responded to Wright’s intimidation tactics as Lizard surely would have. That is: filled with bluster and a renewed determination to prove the world wrong. Lizard would have been irreverent. Lizard would have gotten onto the conference table and done a massive tre-flip, and then he would have taken his board and, in the name of youth and beauty and freedom, smashed it into those plate-glass windows protecting those precious copies of Swinburne, that picture of Robert Lowell.
In practice, after that particular Techniques of Fiction class, you slithered into the bathroom at Sunset Cottage and sat in a stall and cried. There’s no point in attempting to spin it. Men can cry. Men can sob convulsively. For real, though, your mind was straight-up reeling like the vortex in that vintage Vision skateboards Mark “Gator” Rogowski graphic. You know the one. (“Change it!” he said. Can you believe that? He actually said, “Change it.” Not “Would you please change it?” Not “Could you please change it?” Or “Would you consider changing some elements of your story?” Just “Change it.”)
Seriously, dude/action-sports enthusiast, you think filming a video for a top-ranked board company such as Anithero, Girl or Deathwish is quite demanding/gnarly? Let me tell you, a creative writing class can also be quite demanding/gnarly.
It was not rad.
Still, you gather your belongings. You gather your shattered dreams and you get on your skateboard and you push away from Robert Lowell. You push past an Amish cart, past the white picket fence. You feel better already…just being back on your board…that is, until you approach a curb and attempt a remedial kickflip, and lo and behold, your back truck catches on the concrete and you fall/“slam.”
“Tony Hawk! Owwwwww. Hey, Tony Hawk. What’s up, dude?” a white-lacrosse-hat-wearing White (non-Hispanic) individual calls out from a passing car.
As the only skater at this small liberal arts college you marched to the beat of your own drum and blah, blah, blah. Now you are giving far too much background. This may shock you, but what transpires in an MFA program, or in an undergraduate writing workshop, is of little or no interest to most of the reading public. Sure, there are certain kinds of literary fiction (fiction within fiction, or what some call “metafiction”) that refer to the act of writing without alienating readers. But one (unless one wants to write for one’s mother and a small circle of friends) has to be ever mindful of one’s audience, and of what that audience’s visceral reaction might be. If you are going to set your self-referential, hyper-self-conscious story within this rarefied milieu, you had better make sure you are still telling a damn good story.
(That was precisely Wright’s point.)
Moreover, unless you want to write for yourself, your mother and your small circle of friends, it would behoove you to remember that experimental fiction can be dreadfully dull. Not that you should necessarily add sex and violence haphazardly. But if you are indeed trying to do something experimental with this fractured narrative, there are a couple of principles you should bear in mind: 1) in literature (unlike skateboarding) no one is impressed by tricks; 2) there should be a reason for your experiment.
In other words, you had better be certain you are still providing compelling content.
Maybe, just maybe, buried deep beneath these layers of self-consciousness and self-reference, there is something resembling compelling content. If so, why don’t you proceed directly to this content? In other words, why don’t you simply say what happened? More to the point, what you really want to do is talk about what happened to that girl. Right? So why don’t you just introduce her in lightly fictionalized form?
Blah, blah, blah you were skating and then you tripped and fell and someone yelled, “Tony Hawk!”
As you get up, you see your skateboard rolling towards this girl with brown wavy hair and an orange shag sweater.
You realize it is Sally Smith.
She’s like, “Hey.”
And you’re like, “Hey.”
“What are you doing?” she asks.
“Nothing,” you say.
Sally starts talking about how her own evening has gone. Sally, a sophomore whom you have been seeing on and off and who has everything going for her, is returning from a knitting club meeting on campus. You and Sally start walking along Middle Path—the gravel-covered, tree-lined central artery of this institution whose literary magazine is legendary, whose dining hall floor is waxed to such shine it looks as if it has been fused with a perfect pane of glass—and you are rambling to her about how horribly this class has gone, and before you—
Whatever. Let’s not go there.
At about 4:30 a.m., Sally emerges from your room and enters the lounge.
“What are you doing?” she asks.
“Oh, nothing,” you say. “Do you know Jack London only wrote at night?”
She looks at the TV. On the screen, professional skateboarder Pat Duffy is doing a backside lipside down a handrail in the rain as The Doors song “Riders on the Storm” plays. It’s one of the more beautiful moments in all of human history.
“No one needs to be watching skate videos at four in the morning,” she says.
“Did you know his house cost 350,000 dollars?” you ask.
“You’re a mess,” she says.
Truer words had never been spoken.
Next thing you know, you are accompanying her on the “walk of shame.” Fresh-faced students are streaming south to class. You and she, bleary-eyed, are walking north.
Her dorm—a “Brutalist box,” a “1960s mistake,” a concrete cube—is widely considered the least desirable on campus. Erected in an era of student unrest, its narrow corridors and tight turns were meant to deter congregation. In Brutalist architecture, the structure is often frankly exhibited, as are electrical conduits and plumbing, but that is beside the point.
You pass out.
You wake up in crisp white sheets, and it all starts coming back… write for a small circle of friends… change it… still on your skateboard.
Save for the Rand McNally map of the U.S. above the bed, her room is completely bare. Nothing on the white cinderblock walls. Nothing on the gunmetal grey desk. Nothing on the dry-erase board.
“Love what you’ve done with the place,” you say.
“I love the map. I love looking at it. I learn things, just looking at it,” the all-American-girl-next-door-whom-we-are-calling-Sally says with a smile that could light up a room.
Her father—a bioethicist who travels the world to participate in various symposia—had sent some cookies from London.
You eat those cookies. You show those cookies who’s boss. Blah, blah, blah. What happened next? Oh, wait, don’t care. Nothing, or next to nothing, is at stake.
How about this? Instead of subjecting us to an inventory of your poignant reactions to a Writer-in-Residence’s “tough love,” why don’t you introduce a conflict? The plot of a story almost always involves some sort of conflict or struggle between opposing forces. In other words, make something happen, such as divorce/marital problems, serious physical illness, disability or death.
Fine, have it your way. But the scene can’t just end here. The effect will be far too jarring for the reader. In general you don’t want to pander to the reader, but you don’t want to lose the reader either. You may recall this germane point from our ENGL 293 textbook The Art of the Short Story: Although the writer of fiction is free to create his own world, he is not completely free. We have to feel that this fictional world hangs together, that one thing more or less leads to another. For instance, if a story begins with a skateboarder attempting to frontside-360 a handrail, we should know by the end whether he falls or rides away.
THIS HEADLINE UNDERSCORES SOME OF THE DARKER THEMES THAT ARE ABOUT TO EMERGE, IN ADDITION TO REFERENCING A NUMBER OF CLASSIC SKATEBOARD VIDEOS, SUCH AS FUTURE PRIMITIVE, VIDEO DAYS, MOUSE AND WELCOME TO HELL, AND IF YOU ARE IN A EVEN BLEAKER FRAME OF MIND, YOU COULD JUST CALL THIS SCENE “DEATHWISH,” AS THAT IS THE NAME OF A CURRENTLY POPULAR SKATEBOARD COMPANY
Because it is warm, you two decide to cut class and go to the river. Her suit is brown and the water and the sun, as Hemingway would say, are good.
So she is standing there knee-deep in the water. Sally is the picture of health, a Norman Rockwell come to life.
There is what appears to be a little welt on her well-bred arm.
So you hold her well-bred arm, and you say, “What is that?”
She remains silent.
“Is that from a cigarette?” you ask.
She remains silent.
“You burned your arm, didn’t you?” you ask.
“You did that to yourself, didn’t you?”
At that moment her eyes are hollow and yet full of feeling and blah, blah, blah. This shift of focus from the creative writing class to Sally feels a little sudden and more than a little forced, but finally, however clumsily, at least this story is starting to drift into slightly, slightly more interesting territory. So you’re saying that after that traumatic Techniques of Fiction (ENGL 293) class, you sought solace from Sally, but that doing so was clearly ill-advised because of her history of unstable/self-abusive/self-harming thoughts/behavior(s) as indicated by the burn mark on her arm? Okay. That’s something. Now use your instructor’s and classmates’ critiques to improve your story.
PLAUSIBILITY IN FICTION
Where can you turn for hope, for healing, for answers? You’re a good guy, and you want to do the right thing. So after lollygagging on the river and running your fingers through Sally Smith’s Currier-and-Ives-fall-scene-colored hair, you return her to her Brutalist box and 360-kickflip to the Health and Counseling Center. Common stressors that are a normal part of college life—including greater academic demands, new financial responsibilities, changes in social life, exposure to new people, ideas and temptations, and anxiety about life after graduation—can make young people vulnerable to anxiety and depression. Fortunately, the Health and Counseling center offers a range of confidential, no-cost services and makes many campus resources available to students feeling helpless/hopeless, blue or simply stressed out. Remember! If you think someone at work/school is going to do something they may later regret, it’s important to tell someone you can trust, such as a teacher, a priest or a police officer.
Furniture within the Health and Counseling Center included a mobile filing unit, a typist’s chair and coat hooks. An array of magazines fanned across the coffee table. On the same coffee table stood a blue “stress ball” emblazoned with the words Eli Lilly and Company. Three or four students were sitting in the waiting room, reading, doing schoolwork or just staring off into space. What were they doing there? How would they fill out those forms they give you, answer those questions, simultaneously neutral and prurient, standardized and salacious? Have you ever had thoughts of harming yourself? Have you used any drug in the past 30 days that was not prescribed by a doctor? In general, how happy or adjusted were you growing up? I feel stressed at work/school. 0 1 2 3 4 I feel hopeless about the future. 0 1 2 3 4 I like myself. 0 1 2 3 4 I feel afraid of open spaces, or driving, or being on buses, subways, and so forth. 0 1 2 3 4. There was (you thought) a novel in every one of those forms. In fact, you had often thought of writing a kind of antinovel solely using language gleaned from a single one of those forms.
But today you were not here on behalf of your novel. You were here to do the right thing. A friend, family member or loved one seemed discouraged/depressed/blue.
Like the stress ball, the pen the secretary lent you was emblazoned with the words Eli Lilly and Company.
With the same hand that had once written <iJack London’s house burned down_, you now wrote a note to Bob, the director of the Health and Counseling Center, apprising him of Sally’s self-injurious behavior(s).
Fortunately, the well-trained staff at the Health and Counseling Center took it from there. Bob contacted Sally and invited her to come in for a consultation. “We understand it is a major step to reach out for help,” Bob said. Sally soon found that addressing some of her concerns in a therapeutic setting was a much more constructive way of handling her problems then engaging in self-injury. “I feel blue,” Sally said. “I feel hopeless about the future.” “As difficult as it may be to endure right now,” Bob explained, “there will come a day when you look back on these times as a tremendous gift. You’re young and have so much going for you.” Bob reminded Sally of the simple pleasures in life, such as taking a jog. After three or four of these therapeutic encounters, Sally went on to live a productive and richly fulfilling life. “I am a happy person,” she reported. “I find work/school satisfying.”
Meanwhile, after that last ardent evening, you and she amicably parted ways. You spent the rest of your senior year revising your skateboarding-themed Bildungsroman. But you would always look back with pride on that moment when you saw something was wrong and you did something about it. You’re a good guy.
Suddenly the phone rang. It was professional skateboarders Julian Stranger, John Cardiel and Tony Trujillo. How they got your number you never found out. Tony Trujillo said he had seen you skate at your bucolic liberal arts college, and he was like, “Julian and I have been particularly impressed by your nollie kickflips, and therefore we would like to invite you on tour with the Antihero skateboard team so that you may thrash with us.”
“What do you thrash?” you asked.
“What do you got?” Julian Stranger replied with a sneer.
Then you became a world-renowned professional skateboarder. And everyone lived happily ever after.
Or did they?