Dispatches | November 21, 2008

As a teacher, I actively avoid complaining about student writing. In my first short fiction writing class as a student, I recall struggling with the concept of conflict. It took me a semester to understand why writing an unflattering portrait of my roommate wasn’t story enough. I had never heard of a narrative bridge and had a heck of a time getting characters from place to place. And I was also paralyzed by the simple task of describing what my characters looked like. Big, tall, brown hair: what else do you need to know? My point is that the discipline of creative writing has a long learning curve, one that takes decades, and it’s important to remember your own first bewildered steps. I kept most of my short fiction and poetry from college to remind myself how lost in the woods I really was. I’m still lost but now that I know a few tricks and the terrain feels familiar my terror has been replaced by a sense of creative play.
Though my students might say otherwise, I believe myself to be a gentle, easy-going teacher until they turn in pieces about pixies, knights, damsels and dragons, wizards, vampires, Martians or serial killers. As a gag-gift one of my students gave me a copy of Stephanie Meyer’s Twilight. For the students in my intermediate fiction class, I placed paragraphs from Meyer’s opening chapter next to the first chapter of Donna Tartt’s The Secret History. Both novels open with the same primitive set-up: a sensitive, self-conscious narrator, confronted with the challenges of a new school, is drawn to a group of mysterious outsiders. In Twilight, they’re vampires, in Tartt’s novel they’re mere mortals, but more dangerous and fascinating.
When I asked one student why she wrote so often about fairies, she told me that the conflicts of real life bored her. I kept my thoughts to myself: just wait. Even when I lure them into writing stories about the complexities of human interaction—what you might call “meaningful encounter” stories—they bail on me at the last minute and tack on a blockbuster ending. This semester I’ve had two double suicides, a drug overdose, a gang-related murder, and a stock pile of dead bodies in the basement, all plot twists that came at the end of stories where the characters were seemingly sane for the first twelve of thirteen pages. When I call them on it, they admit they didn’t trust their instincts; at the last minute they worried that their stories didn’t have enough action. Whoever asked them for action? Plot, yes. Action, no.
Of course, I blame the movies, but only the bad really ones. The best films tread the same path as the short story. A fine recent example of a short-story like film is The Visitor. An academic in a deep malaise after the not-so-recent death of his wife is pushed into presenting a paper he “co-authored” at a conference. When he arrives at an apartment he owns in the city, a place he hasn’t stayed for some time, an illegal immigrant couple is living there, an arrangement made by a not-so-trustworthy friend. An unlikely friendship forms and the couple’s crisis helps our depressed academic transcend his own. An unlikely friendship is subject enough for both mediums.