Sunday, 19 July 2015

Just Like JD Salinger (but, you know, with more jokes.)

When I was in my first year of Uni I took a module in Short Stories and for a cocktail of reasons I neglected it. The final hand in was somewhere between three and six thousand words (I forget the exact number) and it got to the day before the hand in and I hadn’t written anything, so I decided I was going to drop out. Who even needs a degree? The whole thing had been an awful idea anyway. I went upstairs to tell my housemate the news. “Lily stop writing this second, we are dropping out of Uni”. On my way upstairs I had decided that she didn’t need a degree either.
She didn’t look convinced “It’s going to be fine,” I said pushing her laptop away and climbing into her bed. “I’ll tell your Mum and you can tell mine. We will get jobs at bookshops and get a flat. It’s going to be brilliant, anyway aren’t we going to be writers? You don’t need a degree to be a writer, you need life experience, Baby!”
This is where we would have lived so our Mums couldn't find
us after we dropped out.  

Lily did not want to drop out with me so I went downstairs to spend two hours writing an email asking for an extension which I never sent. Then I went back upstairs to ask if on the off chance you got hit by a car on the way to the hand in you would still fail. “Like do you think you would get an extension automatically on account of being hit by a car or would it be a case of ‘If you were on your way to the hand in then you can give it to us now?’ “
“Letty I really don’t know”
“Yeah, but what do you think”
“I think dropping out is a better idea than walking into traffic”
“I mean, I wasn’t going to walk into traffic on purpose.”
She didn’t say anything else so I waited in her doorway for a bit before adding.
“But if I do get hit by a car, and I die, I still want my name reading out at graduation okay.”
Nothing again.
“Lily, if I get hit by a car and ….”
“I’ll tell them.”
There is an obvious cue to leave here which I ignore “You know my Mum knew someone who…”
“Letty you have to go away now.”
“Yeah okay.”
I do not go away.
“But can I just tell you this last thing.”
“Are you sure? It’s really funny.”
“Please just go away.”
I leave mumbling something along the lines of “Whatever I can take a hint.” Which I obviously can’t or I would have left her alone significantly sooner than I did. I went down stairs, drafted several more emails asking for extensions that I never sent then set off for a two-hour walk in town to ‘Get some ideas’. I eventually started writing at about 10pm and by midnight I had written 2 questionable short stories. My friends edited out the most glaring spelling errors, and a few weeks later I felt distinctly guilty about getting an average grade.
This is photographic evidence of me pretending to be working
in second year. I am actually on twitter.
When I told you the story about my Short Stories hand in and I said I hadn’t done any work I wasn’t being honest. The truth is that I’d done loads of work I just didn’t want to hand any of it in.
In Short Stories you had a workshop group and you took it in turns to bring a story for the group to workshop. In my workshop group, there was this guy who thought he was the next Ernest Hemmingway or Raymond Carver. He was older than me as he’d taken a few years out before Uni to explore his ‘Central Wound’.
One session he brought in a story about a guy who bought a pen, this pen stayed with him and he kept it throughout his life using it at key moments, the protagonist started out young and hopeful, slowly becoming an alcoholic then killed himself by opening an artery with the pen and proceeding to write his suicide note in his own blood. The workshop group was fairly confused by the technicalities of this story.
“Wouldn’t the pen run out of ink over the course of 50 years?”
“It’s a cartridge pen obviously.” (You aren’t really meant to respond when you’re being workshopped, but everybody did.)
“It’s not that I don’t like the story.” I said (although I didn’t.) “I just think you take the end bit too far. I mean have you ever tried writing in your own blood?” He looked at me like I was mental.
“Well I have and you know what it’s not as easy as it looks on murder shows. You would, without a doubt, bleed out before you got even halfway done with this suicide note.”
“Well,” he said, “it’s a metaphor.”
The next session it was my turn to bring something in, I forget what I brought but I do remember what Hemmingway Jnr had to say.
“It’s not that I don’t like your writing Letty, it’s just that it reads like it was written by a teenage girl. I’d just prefer to see something more authentic.” I had no idea what to say to that, so I pretended to be following the rule that said you shouldn’t respond.  The irony of being told to be more authentic by sounding less like a teenage girl when I was a 19-year-old girl was 100% lost on me at the time.
19 -year-old the authentic jokester   

The problem was that the comment tapped into my pre-existing fear that I was good at some things but somehow I was good at all the wrong things. So when it came to discarding a years’ worth of work I didn’t think “I can’t hand this in, that Jackass in my class doesn’t like it.” It was more like what he said confirmed my sneaking suspicion that everything I’d been doing all year was wrong.
When I was seriously thinking about dropping out in second year I started looking at other courses. The thing it came down to was that I couldn’t imagine my future without a degree. If I left the university I was at I would only end up going to another one. I’d have to make new friends, get to know a new city and, ultimately, I’d still have hand something in sooner or later. So I cobbled together these two short stories that I thought were literary and serious. The first was about two maids that discover a murder in a hotel room, but because they didn’t like the woman whose room it was, conspire to cover it up. The second was about a woman who accidently runs someone over and calls her friend to help her dispose of the body. The whole idea with both pieces was that they started comic then evolved to be chilling and leave the reader with a niggling feeling that all people are capable of unspeakably dark acts.  When I went to my tutorial for feedback on the work my tutor said that the pieces were very rough and needed more thorough proofreading. Fair enough I thought. She went on to say that the pacing was a little off, and I could have worked on the plot more. Overall though the work was saved by my excellent comic timing and sense of humor. I was torn between outrage and triumph. On the one hand, secretly, I wanted people to think I was funny more than anything in the world. On the other hand, she had missed the part where I was exposing the darkness of the human condition entirely.  

Ultimately triumph won out. Over time I stopped telling people that I was hoping to be the next JD Salinger “but, you know, with more jokes.”. And started writing work about dolphins winning the Chelsea flower show. That story I was trying to tell Lily when she rightly kicked me out of her room was about this girl my mum knew at school who smashed her arm so she wouldn’t be able to write and therefore get out of her exams. Only she made a mistake and smashed the wrong one so she still had to do all of her exams and she had a broken arm. In hindsight, when I left Lily burning with the desire to tell someone my hilarious anecdote it would have been a better idea to go straight down stairs and write it as a short story. That story probably would have done a better job of making the reader laugh but then leaving them with questions about the human condition than anything I came up with.

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