The urge to create new things—to create for creation’s sake—is one of those reliably redeeming human traits. When I think about ancient cave dwellers brewing dyes with which to paint the walls with animals, I grow fond of those cave dwellers and wish I’d gotten to have a beer with them. Any kid today, spray-painting the wall of an abandoned garage or the side of an overpass, has the same primordial wiring.
I’m sure that the urge to write—the wiring for what is known clinically as gottawrite syndrome—is closely related. It was there long before writing itself. People used to sing their tales around the campfire. A blink of an eye and now they’re self-publishing their stuff so you can read it on a Kindle.
Every few months, when I teach an adult-ed class called Writing a Short Story, I get to meet yet another self-selected group of people who have that urge to tell a tale. My latest class wrapped up last Thursday night. As usual, it ran six sessions, at the end of which ten people who hadn’t written fiction before found that it wasn’t so implausible an idea, that they could in fact create something out of nothing. What a joy it always is for me at the end of the last session, when, having shared our responses to one another’s stories, we all just sit around for a few minutes and bask in the feeling of having gotten it done. I won’t let anyone leave till I’ve taken a snapshot.
This group’s stories make a fine pile. There’s “The Mummy’s Scepter,” complete with ancient Egyptian priests issuing curses inside the Great Pyramid. Straight out of Universal Pictures, no? Then there’s the two cops sitting in a diner discussing how the recipe for Coke—or was New Coke?—just got stolen that night by a thief dressed up as Spuds McKenzie. A woman figures she’s got her life straightened out till her grown daughter moves back home with the cat. A Confederate soldier watches the Union wounded in the field at Fredericksburg and insists on upon going out in the dark to help them. In 1945, a little black kid nicknamed Bubba Dough, growing up in the South Carolina, decides to prove he’s Superman and, complete with home-made cape, jumps from the roof. Ten years after the Holocaust, a German woman finds a box hidden under the floorboards by her late father, and which contains a revelation: his skull cap and prayer shawl. A soldier home from Afghanistan must decide between giving his dead comrade’s girlfriend a message of true love or . . . the truth. Another soldier and his wife are suddenly running across the parking lot outside their apartment as shots are fired and a man lies dead on the asphalt. And a young museum curator, new to the city, aglow with beauty and confidence, begins to lose her hair, her health, her composure, while someone she doesn’t even know continues to poison her.
The stories, as always, are wonders in themselves. I am one for what I call humble but magnificent goals—the conception, the planning, the doing, the completing. These are where the value lies. First, show up and create; worry later about who will publish you and what to wear at readings.
But there’s another value specific to a class like the one that just finished up, and which, I think, hearkens back to the campfire. The arc of my class is always the same—strangers sign up, find themselves together in the same room listening first to me, and then to one another. By the third session everybody’s in it together, shuffling off their vanity like people who’ve signed up at the gym and now have to show up in T-shirts and shorts regardless.
In the end, they get to experience the shared pleasures and frights of writing. By session five they’re exchanging first drafts, and by session six—having read one another’s work and sat talking together as fellow strugglers in the word-mines—they have achieved a kind of fellowship, and learned the lovely ways of mercy and tact and helpfulness, and nobody really wants to go back to being strangers. They’re at the campfire. I love that part.
From the time they first walk in the door and hear the rudiments of story writing, to having written one themselves, takes six sessions. But for my sake, as the one helping these new writers, the experience is too short. I already miss them.