High School Alumni Reflect on the Fiction They Wrote As Seniors
For Years I had been thinking that the stories my seniors wrote deserved a larger audience, an audience of not only readers who wanted to read good fiction but writers who wanted to write good fiction. In my sabbatical project I set out to compile a collection of excellent student stories that would be the foundation for a book with a larger, instructional purpose. First, I read through piles of class collections from my last nine years of teaching; I selected the best stories and began tracking down one writer after another. Once I eventually made contact with all of them, they agreed, enthusiastically, not only to contribute their “old” short story from high school, but also to compose a reflection on their story. Next, I read several excellent story collections—among them The Best American Short Stories 2004 and The Story Behind the Story: 26 Stories by Contemporary Writers and How They Work—in which authors reflect on their own fiction writing; then, considering these books, I developed a series of questions that would stimulate interesting reflections from “my” writers. One by one their reflections came in, and one by one I was mesmerized. The reflections are stunning not only for their general quality but for their variety, honesty, depth of feeling, and humor. Without question, the most gratifying aspect of working on this project was my ongoing correspondence with these twenty-one committed writers, most of whom are in college or graduate school, some of whom have begun careers, and at least one of whom has gotten married and has been living outside of the country. In each and every case, these writers recalled their stories passionately, and offered their own distinctive take on their personal writing process. I read multiple drafts of their reflections and offered editorial advice, pushing them to write the best, most interesting, most articulate reflection that they could—and revise they did. As the title indicates, these students—along with their stories and, ultimately, their reflections—inspired me; they inspired me to be a better teacher when they were students, and they once again inspired me when they wrote their reflections with such insight and care. As their reflections were submitted to me over the course of several months, I proceeded to write my reflections on their stories—and on their reflections as well. I examined each story from some distinctive critical and pedagogical angle, highlighting, for example, the skillful use of the omniscient point of view in one story, while admiring the brave use of a writer’s personal life (as he confides in his reflection) in another story; subsequently, I developed a unique writing exercise to correspond with each story and to correspond, specifically, with the distinctive quality or technique I highlighted in my reflection of the story. All together, the result is a panorama of neatly arranged voices, each offering up useful advice and insights, not to mention inspiration—for both students and teachers of writing. Ultimately, I conclude the book with a short story of my own, a story about writing stories—followed by my reflection, which traces the story’s inspiration back to my experience as a teacher at Penncrest High School.
21 Short Stories by 18-Year-Olds
And the Teacher They Inspired High School Alumni Reflect on the Fiction They Wrote as Seniors
Rose Tree Media School District
Foreword & Introduction by Jim Zervanos 4 & 8
Stories & Writers’ Reflections
1. DEREK SCHMIDT, 1998 Rossi’s Bar 18 & 28
2. RUTH HARIU, 1999 Christmas Cards 32 & 42
3. EMERSON BRENEMAN, 2000 The Reign of the Last Caesar 46 & 61
4. JOSHUA JORDAN, 2000 Have-Nots Like Us 67 & 74
18. PAT SHUBERT, 2004 Share the Darkness 258 & 266
19. MORGAN TUOHY, 2004 Anticipating 270 & 278
20. MATT GILBRIDE, 2005 Moving Out 281 & 289
21. ANGELA ROSENBERG, 2005 Deal With It 296 & 304
O Captain! by Jim Zervanos and Reflection 308 & 316
Teacher’s Reflections and Exercises
1. The Perfect Ending in Derek Schmidt’s Rossi’s Bar 30
2. Showing, Not Telling, in Ruth Hariu’s Christmas Cards 44
3. Pop Culture and the News as Inspiration in Emerson Breneman’s The Reign of the
Last Caesar 65
4. The Sympathetic Rant in Joshua Jordan’s Have-Nots Like Us 77
5. Narration as Story in Laurie Rines’s Primal Scream Therapy 96
6. Going to the Limit and Beyond in Lee Goldsmith’s In True Silence 113
7. Plot “Triggers” in Jen Malkoun’s All That You Can’t Leave Behind 123
8. The Road Story—Mike Mastroianni’s Freehold 135
9. The Setting As Battleground in Noah Painter-Davis’s Pet Store Therapy 145
10. The Story Arc—and Scene Arcs—in Jonathan Pitts’s Leaving Places 153
11. Verisimilitude in Scott Pritchard’s Stasis 170
12. The Magical Structure in Pablo Sierra’s Las Golondrinas 183
13. Motifs, Mood, and Pacing in Andrew Choe’s Smoke and Mist 201
14. Omniscient Point of View in Eleni Solomos’s Trajectory, Velocity 218
15. The “Simple” Style of Julie Wasson’s Megan and Michael 228
16. Romantic Comedy in Rachael Elliott’s Cynical Girl 243
17. Starting In Medias Res—In the Middle—in Paul Scherer’s Breath 256
18. The Unlikely Narrator in Patrick Shubert’s Share the Darkness 268
19. The Taboo Topic in Morgan Tuohy’s Anticipating 279
20. Fiction Inspired by “Real Life” in Matt Gilbride’s Moving Out 293
21. Seeking Closure in Angela Rosenberg’s Deal With It 306
Foreword In the spring of 2005 I was invited to speak at a Pennsylvania State Press Association conference in Harrisburg, to talk about the teaching and writing process that resulted in the short stories published annually in Penncrest High School’s literary magazine; I had been the magazine’s faculty supervisor for nine years, and almost all of the fiction that appeared in the Gryphon had been born out of an assignment in the Modern Literature course I taught. My immediate—if not rude—response to the conference organizer, Mr. Hankes, was “No.” I was eager to get off the phone. No way was I going to stand in front of God-knew-how-many teachers and students and for an hour presume to be an expert on “how to write a good story”—or even pretend to believe that such an expert existed. Only a fool would attempt to boil the whole mystery down to a one-hour lesson. Even if I took a less dogmatic approach and just reported what went on in my classroom, I still couldn’t sum up in one hour—or ten—all that transpired in a semester of my Modern Literature class—all the readings, the discussions, the knowledge and understanding that, at least in this teacher’s eyes, seemed to snowball into an unquantifiable mass—all of which led to the students’ writing of their own short stories.
Determined, Mr. Hankes asked me, rhetorically, if I realized that no other high school literary magazine in the state published such great fiction. Flattery wasn’t going to work, I promised myself; I considered that as a conference organizer he would say what was necessary to fill the empty one-hour slot in the day’s schedule. He went on to say that some of the magazines didn’t publish any fiction at all and the ones that did, published only very short stories—a page or two long. He confessed that every year he greedily plucked the Gryphon from the pile of contest submissions before any other judge could get his hands on it; he had a collection of Gryphons in his classroom, he said, and, when encouraging students to write fiction, he often directed them to the Gryphon stories as models—“I especially love the orange issue,” he said—the 2002 issue, I thought—“and that one—oh, man—Pet-Store Therapy, about the kid with obsessive-compulsive disorder”—Noah’s story. “That’s one of my favorites, too,” I said. Then his tone changed—as if what he was about to say was off the record. He admitted that it was hard even for him—a high-school English teacher himself—to believe that the stories were written by eighteen year olds; they’re “so adult,” he said, in one breath asking “how do you get them to write such powerful stuff?” and in the next daring to ask, in so many words, if I’d ever run into trouble, you know, as their teacher…. As if I were an encourager of criminals! The mastermind behind these beautiful crimes! No trouble, I said, and offered some philosophical inanity about how you can’t write out of fear any better than you can teach out of fear.
“So will you do it?” He knew he’d hooked me, but I kept my mouth shut. “I’m telling you,” he went on, “No one in the state is doing anything even close.” I had no idea. He taught in a school district west of Harrisburg. I sat there at my desk, in a school district in the suburbs of Philadelphia, beaming, secretly imagining Gryphons—their stories—littered about classrooms all over the state; and yet I felt unsettled: I wanted my students—all of them, past and present—to be hearing this—this praise that was theirs. I reiterated to Mr. Hankes that it would be impossible for me to stand there and, in a single hour, teach anyone how to write a short story, let alone teach other teachers how to teach anyone how to write a short story. I yammered on about how proud I was of my students and how, if you really wanted to know how they wrote such great stories, you’d have to ask them. Patiently he listened and then suggested I bring a couple of my students along with me, to have them read their stories and discuss their writing process—I could chime in if I wanted to, he said. I liked this idea. Suddenly I was grateful that this skilled conference organizer had hung on the line after my ungrateful resistance. I already knew which students I was going to ask—one of them was Angela Rosenberg, whose story, “Deal With It,” I’d just recently fallen in love with.
I spoke for about twenty minutes that day in Harrisburg—said a few words about my teaching philosophy, offered up a few basic story-writing strategies—and then introduced the two student writers, who read their stories to an awestruck audience and then gracefully fielded questions—from students and teachers alike—speaking with confidence and a sense of authority that blew away even their teacher, who was already gushing with admiration: they were not my students, standing there at the lectern; they were writers, whose company I was proud to share.
As it turned out, the conference experience was inspiration for this book. And yet nothing about this collection has anything to do with the Gryphon or literary magazines; it certainly has nothing to do with writing with the prospect of publication in mind—no more than the writing of these stories had anything to do with publishing in the first place. While many of these stories didappear in the Gryphon—and, in fact, won awards that recognized them as among the finest works of creative writing in the state—many of the stories, simply because their writers, by chance, were assigned to me in the spring semester, and not the fall, of their senior years, had been written too late to be submitted for publication. As much as I stress to my students that they must write fearlessly, not for me or their friends or their parents, but for themselves and perhaps for some imagined ideal audience, who might never read their stories, I am always thrilled by the prospect that others—especially their peers—might read their work, whether through their high school literary magazine, through the bound collections I assemble in the classroom, or through the stapled copies they pass on to their friends. Assembling this collection has afforded me the opportunity to follow through on the impulse I’ve experienced countless times after reading my students’ stories: to share them, to give them an audience outside my classroom, and to point out, still amazed after ten years of teaching, “This was written by an eighteen year old.”
I am once again, in the context of these pages, sharing space with people who were once my students but who are, at least herein, writers whose company I am proud to share. Originally, I had planned to cull from old classroom collections the best eighteen stories from my first ten years of teaching—for no other reason than to justify the title “18 Short Stories by 18-Year-Olds.” After berating myself for not having bound and saved the short stories written by my earliest Modern Literature students—who, of course, being my beloved first, seem to me now the best and brightest I’ve taught—I read through the pile, which rose up to my waist, and narrowed the best down to twenty-three. It seemed foolish, then, to eliminate one, let alone five, stories for the sake of a title; two of the writers bowed out of the project, leaving me with twenty-one stories.
The format of the book resembles that of the hour-long presentation my two students and I made at the conference in Harrisburg: the stories are followed by the writers’ own commentary—their reflections—which were written for this collection (for most of these contributors that meant several years since reading, let alone writing, their stories); first, in the Introduction, I try to boil down my teaching philosophy as well as some basic story concepts, all in an effort to stimulate creative thinking in the minds of both high-school students and their English teachers.
None of these stories was written in a Creative Writing class, but in a Modern Literature class, whose focus was reading and writing “critically,” not “creatively.” It has always been my hope that the short story—the culminating assignment—would not be a tangent for the student of literature but a natural, if not exhilarating, opportunity to demonstrate knowledge and understanding impossible to quantify in a single analytical paper. If nothing else, I hope this book might serve as inspiration for English teachers who might feel ill-equipped to teach “creative writing” and who, having read these stories as well as the writers’ reflections, might free themselves—and their students—to incorporate fiction writing into their literature classes, to think of storytelling not only as a form of personal expression but as an alternative means of demonstrating an understanding and appreciation of learned material—particularly of a given body of studied literature.
In this collection I’ve added my own brief reflection after each story, an attempt to highlight what qualities I think are worthy of not only admiration but emulation; again, with an audience of students and English teachers in mind, I’ve also offered writing exercises that consider the preceding story as a model. Finally, I’ve included a story of mine, “O Captain!” which was inspired by my students, too many of whom did not live long enough to tell another story—all of whom—collectively—have taught me unquantifiable things: it is just that, I think—the unquantifiable things we’ve learned—that we try to capture in our stories.
Introduction I. Students and Their English Teacher
Teachers aren’t the only ones who might see fiction writing as a guilty pleasure, as an activity that shouldn’t be indulged for too long before getting back to business as usual, reading Shakespeare or imitating his sonnets. The students themselves often think of fiction writing as a break long overdue, at least students like many of my seniors, who look forward to the fiction-writing assignment almost as much as they dread it, for fear they’ve lost a certain storytelling talent they remember having in elementary school, before the word “practical” entered their vocabulary.
But when it comes to learning, context is everything, and even the most practical of math lessons could end up pointless nonsense—or even pointless fun—without some purposeful framework. I’m not proposing more “pointless fun”—certainly not through fiction writing—in the English classroom; rather, I’m proposing more purposeful fiction writing, specifically in standard English Literature courses—not just in Creative Writing classes, electives whose electors tend to fall into two groups: those who are determined to write purposefully, albeit creatively, and those who think “creative” is synonymous with purposeless, not to mention easy. Any author worth his salt will emphasize what hard work fiction writing is—and it is hard work, no doubt—but it is also fun; in fact, if it weren’t so fun, maybe students would be encouraged to do more of it, because it’s good for them, whether they know it or not.
One of the pleasant things about the typical English research or literary analysis paper—for both teachers and students—is that the criteria for excellence can be taught, learned, and, at least theoretically, met, and not only by the highest-achieving students. One of the daunting things about creative writing—for both teachers and students—is that the criteria for excellence—or at least the qualities that make up an excellent story—are impossible to quantify. After all, the very nature of fiction is that it is an invention born of the creator’s imagination, and so—to the frustration of teachers and students alike—natural talent, that intangible yet identifiable thing, is often the only thing that distinguishes the work of one student from another.
Still, certain aspects of storytelling craft can be taught. And so it follows that teachers—to make matters of evaluation easier and “fair”—might develop objective criteria for a fiction writing assignment. Such a rubric might look like a checklist, which presupposes that the student incorporate the exact components outlined for the assignment and thereby demonstrate that he knows, for example, how to employ a first-person, as opposed to a third-person, point-of-view narrator and how to punctuate dialogue properly. This approach certainly isn’t a bad one, if only as a way to assess a student’s understanding of the basic features of a story.
But we all know that a great story isn’t just a coherent one with a pre-determined number of skillfully employed “features” incorporated into it. We have to believe—all of us, not just teachers—that great stories are not achievements reserved for the “gifted” or “talented.” We also have to accept that no matter how talented the writer is and no matter how many wonderfully employed “features” he or she has managed to incorporate into it, the final draft of a story may seem, perhaps for some inexpressible reason, not all that great—and, as such, it may be difficult to evaluate, let alone grade.
But impersonal evaluation often yields impersonally written stories. Personal, passionate evaluation, however, encourages personal, passionate stories. In my experience as both teacher and writer, passionate discourse between mentor and student has a diminishing effect on the importance of grades. That’s not to say that passionate discourse isn’t messy or that it doesn’t require a lot of time and hard work—does it ever!—but therein lies the stuff of real learning and even inspiration—for the teacher and the writer.
The book in your hands is a testament to that passionate discourse, while at the same time it represents only the tip of the iceberg. These twenty-one writers (along with the hundreds of others not represented here), as seniors in my Modern Literature course, read dozens of stories, poems, essays, and several novels; they discussed and wrote critically about what they read; it was only in the final stretch of the semester that they began to consider writing their own “modern” short stories—ones that would, in a sense, fit right into the body of work they’d just spent months studying. By then they were equipped with more than just a hazy sense of what “modern” meant; what’s more, they had developed a keen eye for not only thematic tendencies but varied narrative approaches and writing strategies. What I hope my students come to appreciate more than any other concept is this: that themes and meanings—those intangibles in literature that typically inspire theories and interpretations—are inextricably linked with how the story is written; that content and form are utterly intertwined; that if you don’t study the “form,” you can’t fully appreciate the “content.”
Roger Ebert, the film critic, has said, “A movie is not about what it is about. It is about how it is about it.” This point, which applies to fiction as well, might provide relief—or added pressure—to the student who is convinced he hasn’t got an original idea; after all, the student will argue, all the good stories have been told already. But Roger Ebert and I would remind the student, “No one has told the story you have to tell in the way only you can tell it.” How will you tell it?
The options are infinite, and your choices are critical. Will you tell the story in the first-person point of view, or the close third-person point of view, or the omniscient? If first-person, will your narrator be a wise old woman, full of insight and regret, telling her story years after its significant events have occurred, or will your narrator be a young man, like the protagonist in Patrick Shubert’s “Share the Darkness,” still rattled by the events of last week, telling his story in the midst of ongoing action, lying in the cold street, gazing at the stars, in the warm bed of his own blood?
II. The Stories
While my Modern Literature students have great freedom to tell the stories they wish to tell how they wish to tell them, they must adhere to some basic requirements that help link the assignment—and their stories—to the content and spirit of the course. As such, their stories demonstrate—to their teacher, at least—some of the things they’ve learned. Like the literature they’ve read for class, their stories must take place in the modern-day world; they must be realistic, not, for example, science-fiction or fantasy (though I’ve made exceptions for students who conscientiously seek to incorporate “modern” qualities into their preferred genre). The story must delve into challenging emotional territory, while steering clear of a “romantic” or “happy” ending, which isn’t to say the story must be sad or tragic; rather, the ending should capture the story’s core truth, without being sentimental or gimmicky, without resorting to conventions of soap opera, Hollywood blockbuster, or the after-school special, with an obvious moral or lesson.
Robert Frost likened writing free verse—or poetry without “rules”—to playing tennis with the net down. Of course, no rules are “absolute,” but knowing some strategies and techniques—for example, knowing the “classic” elements (some of which I’ve highlighted below)—can serve a writer well (even if knowing sometimes means altering or even rejecting), as the varied stories in this collection demonstrate. The “classic” three-act structure is the traditional story form, as ancient as the earliest storytellers: in Act One a protagonist faces a conflict; in Act Two the protagonist’s struggle builds to a crisis; and, in Act Three, the protagonist’s decisive action at the climax creates irreversible change. An artist must know a tradition in order to break from it, know the rules in order to break them—or at least to break them artfully. Pablo Sierra turns the three-act structure upside down and inside out, moving artfully through time and space, leaping from one narrative perspective to another, rejecting conventions of realistic, chronological storytelling—but never haphazardly; at the core of “Las Golondrinas” the classic elements hold the story together like an intricately designed collage.
No matter what the author’s narrative approach—simple or complex, traditional or avant-garde—every one of these twenty-one stories features a protagonist, who deals with a conflict, which is the heart of the story—without conflict there is no story. In Noah Painter-Davis’s “Pet Store Therapy” the protagonist battles a complicated psychological disorder in a setting that serves as a battleground for his conflict, which manifests itself in both an external conflict and an internal conflict: as he tackles his obsession with cleanliness in the external, or physical, world of the filthy pet store, his internal—that is, his psychological and emotional—conflict, rooted in his ambivalent feelings toward his cat-adoring mother, festers. In Michael Mastroianni’s “Freehold” the setting spans America’s terrain, from the Northeast to the Southwest, where the protagonist’s journey brings him face to face with his father’s mysterious past and his own unknowable future.
The protagonist seeks resolution—that is, he seeks to restore order in his life—but the conflict is not necessarily resolved in the end, not in the way he seeks to resolve it, anyway. In Paul Scherer’s “Breath” the protagonist’s conscious desire is to discover whether he is truly the father of his adulterous (dead) wife’s child; but his unconscious desire, it turns out, is to devote himself as father, regardless of the biological facts. In Jonathan Pitts’s “Leaving Places” the protagonist wants to be a musician, like his father, who long ago went seeking glory in the city of Los Angeles; but what he really wants, he comes to realize, is to be nothing like his father. The conscious desire is often the exact opposite of the unconscious desire, which manifests itself in the end; human beings often want one thing but deep down need—or just plain get—another. In Eleni Solomos’s “Trajectory, Velocity” a wife wants the joyful news of her pregnancy to heal her wounded relationship with her parents; instead, she endures a suffering that unites her with her husband in a way she never expected.
A protagonist’s “failure” to get what she initially wanted does not necessarily mean she “failed.” In Angela Rosenberg’s “Deal With It” her young protagonist has broken up with her boyfriend in order to enjoy a carefree senior year; in the end, her conscience is tinged with regret—far from “free,” after all, she realizes the price one must pay for independence, and she’s wiser for it. On the other hand, a protagonist’s “success” in getting what she wants doesn’t necessarily mean a “happy ending.” The protagonist in Rachael Elliott’s “Cynical Girl” wants more than anything not to be pregnant, in spite of her symptoms; though her wish comes true, she faces some unexpected grief—and, in the end, this charming, witty, cynical girl musters up a newfound, humbled voice. Though Angela’s and Rachael’s protagonists seem to “learn a lesson”—about themselves and life—a good story is not about “right” and “wrong” or “winning” and “losing.”
Sometimes a story blurs the line between “right” and “wrong” in such a way that its very ambiguity is the story’s central truth. There’s no telling who is “right” or who is “wrong” in Lee Goldsmith’s “In True Silence,” in which a father tries unrelentingly to keep his brave, proud son from fighting in a war; we come to understand only that heartbreak is inevitable in a world where young men leave their families to fight for their beliefs. In Matt Gilbride’s “Moving Out” a young man, determined to repair his relationship with the woman he loves, as well as with their son, turns to alcohol when she turns him away, self-destructing even as he dreams of a better future. A good story is about being true, and the truth lies somewhere between “right” and “wrong,” between “winning” and “losing.” What is true is that people face adversity, and their lives change as a result, for better and for worse.
In all of these stories the protagonists traverse an arc that starts at point A and ends at point B; typically, the overall arc is comprised of smaller arcs, often defined by scenes, each challenging and compelling the protagonist toward a crisis, when he or she must face the conflict once and for all. In the journey from point A to point B, the writer must determine whether to show or tell; the oft-quoted nineteenth-century novelist Henry James advised, sensibly, “Show. Don’t tell”—that is, show the story through action and dialogue, rather than tell the story through a summary of “what happened.” But to reject telling altogether would be to deny the fact that fiction writers—and the narrators they create—are storytellers, who use narration—summarizing sometimes-huge chunks of time—usually throughout a series of fleshed-out scenes, in which we see action and hear dialogue in an immediate physical setting. The first-person narrator in Jen Malkoun’s “All That You Can’t Leave Behind” shifts seamlessly from action to memory, from present to past, where the heart of her devastating story lies. In Scott Pritchard’s “Stasis,” the balance between third-person narration and scene creates a lifelike rhythm, the vivid prose bringing to life not only the action but also the thoughts of the protagonist; we are drawn in by the story’s sense of truth and authenticity—its verisimilitude.
The twenty-three storytellers in this collection push their protagonists to a climax that seems both surprising and inevitable, a moment when the protagonist’s decisive action results in irreversible change. In a startling narrative twist, Morgan Tuohy’s “Anticipating” leads us to a precipice, where the climax is suspended in the story’s final word—as well as in the blank space that follows; the finale is devastating to the reader, as it is to the protagonist, who faces a confrontation neither we—nor the narrator himself— ever could have anticipated. In most of the stories in this collection, another significant moment follows the climax, perhaps not what you’d call a resolution, but a denouement—simply the outcome—often a quiet moment in which the core truth of the story, as well as the heart of the character, present themselves in a kind of blooming and bleeding at the same time—as in the seemingly simple, yet resonating, final images of the first two stories: in Derek Schmidt’s “Rossi’s Bar,” a young guitarist, in the spotlight that was once his mentor’s, shows a busboy a few chords, then asks for “a glass of water, filled to the top with ice”; in Ruth Hariu’s “Christmas Cards” a lonely divorcée devours “a bag of heart-shaped candy…except the green ones, which I threw out the next morning.”