Story Teaser- Here’s the first scene of my latest story…The Fickle Engines of Fate (or How I Met Your Mother)

”Anyone who survives adolescence has enough material to write about for the rest of their life.”

~Flannery O’Connor

We were the power couple of St. Ephrem’s Elementary School. We were Kevin and Whinnie. Zack and Kelly.  Dylan and Brenda.

Megan and I were in the throes of a modern romance for most of 7th grade. And even though we avoided eye contact, talked sparingly on the phone and when we did go on “dates” we traveled with friends to avoid talking to each other–I thought things were going great. In fact, I was convinced that one day, after puberty, I would marry her.

Then on a sun-splashed spring day Megan dumps me.  Here’s how it happened:

Megan instructs a pack of her girlfriends to hunt me down in the neighborhood. They find me playing basketball at the courts. They huddle and whisper by the metal bleachers then call me over.

They must of rehearsed because someone counted…1, 2,…1,2,3,4…  and together they swayed and in harmony they sang, “Megan doesn’t want to go out with you anymoreeeee.” Then they laugh and walk away. No explanation. No encore. No Diana Ross spreading out her arms, reassuring me, “that someday we’ll be together.”

A basketball bounces and a voice yells, “C’mon Jay its game point.”

After the game a classmate name Billy asks what the Spice Girls wanted.

Megan dumped me.

Are you surprised?

What?

I mean you guys don’t even talk.

Billy had a point. At 13, I should have known that “communication is the number one reason why 50% of all grade schools relationships fail.”

And Billy should know. During elementary school Billy’s parents got divorced and his last name changed. He was the first person I ever knew whose parents got divorced and my young brain found divorce interesting. I mean we were being taught at St Ephrem’s that divorce and remarriage were forbidden in the Catholic Church, punishable by eternal damnation. I worried for Billy’s mother. I wondered if she was aware of the ramifications of her actions, if she was willing to endure an eternity roasting in the jet fuel fires of hell just for a name change.

The next day, when the news hits school, it vibrates through the lunch room, blows hinges off the reading trailers, and grinds all recess yard activity to a halt. Everything stops. No running or cartwheeling or hopscotching. No screams, no whispers, no childish chatter. A football suspended in mid-flight. An arced jump rope– a frozen girl beneath– eyes up, arms out, little calves of potential energy. The recess yard is a photograph, a window display, a sprawling exhibit set behind tempered glass at the Natural History Museum.

Priests are made available for grief counseling. Principal Sister Mary Joseph considers closing school for a day of prayer and reflection.

But time passes and tulips bloom, hearts mend and a few weeks later I’m invited to a pool party at my friend Ray’s house celebrating the waning days of seventh grade. Megan is there and as per our relationship we keep our distance. After some swimming, some Doritos and listening to the Biz Markie CD something odd happens. Boys and girls start disappearing two at a time–hand in hand–until I’m alone, sitting at the edge of the pool with Biz Markie and a half bag of Doritos.

Apparently, this was a make out party and the teams were uneven. 6 boys to 5 girls. And apparently, I was not in the starting lineup.

Alone and with nothing to do, I polish off the Doritos, wait for Kelly Taylor to fly from Beverly Hills to make out with me and watch the darkness tip toe across the suburban sky with yellow fingertips and sad blue eyes.

To busy myself, to find a tourniquet for my little bleeding heart– I wander into Ray’s house only to find Megan and Billy making-out in a shadowy kitchen corner.

Hot cheesy fluid rushes to the back of my throat. I attempt to eke out words like “stop” and “no” but only manage little dying sounds. I can’t breathe… I can’t even blink. I forget my name and my space in the world. The walls shift like water. Time collapses into a black hollow void and there is a sucking sound and I’m weightless and floating. I’m carpet fuzz and life is a Dust Buster.

I watch Megan and Billy make out. Their kisses are sloppy and rushed. Their hands test new angles–elbows and hips– like their wrestling, like they’re actually trying to escape from each other.  I almost expect Megan to feel that sudden twinge of guilt, pull away and bring her big brown eyes back to me. But she doesn’t. She actually runs her hand through Billy’s wavy black hair, a move that looks practiced. A move she must have learned from Kelly Taylor. A move that jars Billy’s eyes open.

He sees me.

I see him.

He shakes his eyebrows and gives me a thumbs up.

Even now, as a mature 35 year old man, I take solace in the fact that Billy and his family are disciples of divorce and, if my early Catholic teachings are true, they will endure an eternity of heat rashes and pitchfork pokes while my righteous ass will be lounging with JC and his crew on cotton candy clouds, sipping blueberry wine from a gold goblet, watching Mary Magdalen bend at the waist in the first-class sunlight.

I’m 13 years old. My mouth is hot and cheesy and I’m floating. Billy Whatever- His –Last- Name- Is –This- Week is kissing the girl I thought I would marry. It’s the first flaming arrow to pierce my little heart and I’m certain my life is officially over.

And since I don’t know what else to do, I return Billy’s thumbs up with one of my own.

When my feet return to earth I turn toward the porch. I step outside where Rose and Anthony, St. Ephrem’s new power couple are holding hands and swaying to “Just a Friend”. When they see me they start laughing.

Apparently I’m crying.

~

Strengthen your Writing Voice by Counting Your Words

Since  September I ‘ve been teaching high school seniors the art of college essay writing. This unit offers diverse challenges because every student is writing a unique, personal narrative that’s a reflective presentation of themselves.

But for me,  the biggest challenge lies in encouraging high school students to break away from the rigidness of “school writing”. For years students have grown accustomed to writing formulaic responses that fit neatly into a five paragraph mold. Responses that pair well with rubrics and  are easy to grade. I understand, the five pargraph model teaches the basics of writing but the problem lies when high school seniors cling to  the writing model that earned them A’s in sixth grade and are afraid to let go. Though these essays maybe well- organized the responses often lack voice and personality.

Now there are many great tips out there for injecting voice into writing. But discovering voice take practice and dedication to the craft– something novice writers who are writing under the constraints of deadline don’t often have. So to help students break out of this elementary  mold, I instruct them to examine their sentence structure.

Look you could be recounting an absolute biblical experience… lets say your wading in shark infested waters with your pet sea lion Buddy… but if your sentences follow the subject +verb+ preposition model that your 6th grade teacher taught you,  your story essay will die  as quickly as… you get the idea.

Here’s some advice…take your writing and  count the number of words you have in each sentence.( I recommend doing this editing exercise in small chunks 4 – 5 sentences. Trying to edit an entire  essay may make you wish you were swimming in shark infested waters.) Mark the end of each sentence with a number count. Look at your numbers. How similar are they?

Make sure that the numbers are varied. I often suggest to students that they vary their words by  5.  In good writing, the sentences dance and shift and keep the reader on their toes. Varying sentence length is a simple way to create a unique voice while keeping your writing unpredictable and dangerous…like swimming with a sea lion in shark infested waters.

 

 

 

Great Lines in Literature- The Things They Carried

Line: “I was a coward. I went to war.”

From: “On the Rainy River” from The Things They Carried  by Tim O’Brien.

These two simple, declarative  sentences conclude O’Brien’s complex short story “On the Rainy River” which details the emotional anguish O’Brien wrestled with while considering the following…   to accept his Vietnam draft notice or abandon his family, trash his patriotic duty and flee to Canada.

The power of this excerpt lies in its brevity–like someone telling  a shameful story or a confession of sorts. You feel that each sentence is a story in itself. And the speaker is  being vulnerable yet you get the sense he’s holding back a great deal.

Additionally,  each sentence consists of four words which creates a symmetrical and emotional bond  between the sentences–packing an emotional and complicated punch.

Notice the verbs– “was” and “went”. Our soldier survived but there was nothing heroic about his experience. Even surviving doesn’t bring pride. In fact, survival may only compound the shame.In just eight words it’s clear that O’Brien holds personal ideologies over democratic, majority rule– which is  foundation all Greek tragedy.

Finally, the sentences challenge our romantic Hollywood axioms– that soldiers march unafraid into the jaws of war and if they return, they strode unashamed down Broadway, under confetti rain and into the waiting arms of America.