Strange Things are Happening to Me
Then it happened. There was a note on the black-carpeted floor outside my dorm.
It was a yellow Post-It and I picked it up to discover that someone had written in very messy handwriting:
We don’t choose who we love. All love is an accident of the heart. Prepare to crash.
It was very hard to read, but once I understood all the words I felt that whoever had written this note had good timing. I was now convinced that I was in love with Alice and that I planned to break up Joe and her. I know it’s sound cruel, but this man was abusive. Maybe he had never hurt her physically, but he had with words or just his actions. He didn’t seem to give a shit about her and I couldn’t stand this. I didn’t care if Alice dated me—well, I did but that wasn’t the main goal—but I wanted her to be happy. She deserved to be happy.
I closed the door and put the note on the sidewall that my bed was against. This note was my inspiration. I checked the digital clock by my bed and discovered it was nine-fifty A.M. I had “Creative Writing Introduction” at ten A.M. and I wasn’t even dressed. I really hoped I wasn’t going to repeat last year and sleep in for every morning class.
I had chosen the class because of On Writing by Stephen King. I had finished it over the holidays and was intrigued with the career of a writer. I wasn’t sure if I was going to become one, but it didn’t hurt to try it out.
I showered, changed quickly, and dashed out the door at ten A.M. The class was two-thirty Lerner and it was about a ten-minute walk to get there. When I finally got into class it was ten-fifteen. The professor looked at me from his lectern and just nodded as if I had walked in at the right time like everybody else. He had brown wire rimmed glasses so basically his look screamed writer. He also wore a brown suit jacket, blue jeans, and brown loafers.
“Welcome Art to ‘Creative Writing Introduction’ or, as I like to call it, ‘Creative Writing one-oh-one’.”
I stared at Wire Rims. How the hell did he know my name?
“Everyone else is accounted for so I assume you’re Arthur Amatory. Would I be correct?”
“Yes,” I nodded to the professor as I sat down beside a girl with mousy hair. She kind of looked like Minnie Mouse if she were a human.
“I just assumed you would prefer to be called Art.”
“Well, you were right,” I said, wavering.
This was too weird. But after the note by my door, I was beginning to expect my whole day was going to be a strange one.
“My name is Richard Craine. Now isn’t that rich?” The class smirked at the little pun on his name. “You can call me Rich or Rick, but not Dick for obvious reasons.” Again, the class smirked. I had a feeling they had already heard these jokes. “I was just discussing why anyone would delve into creative writing. Though I am published with three New York Bestsellers, writing is a difficult profession. Once you sell your first novel, your readers, your agent, your publisher, and editor expect more of the same thing. It’s a lot of pressure and no one really knows if your book will flop. You just have to write the best book you can.”
Then Mousy Hair raised her hand and Rich nodded towards her. “What about nonfiction?”
“It’s the same process, Jane. Your editor, publisher, and agent want you to make the bestseller list, want you to make the Pulitzer Prize, and all those prizes because it not only makes you more money but it makes them more money and it gets you more known in the world. After you’ve established a fan base you can almost do nothing wrong. You could write a shitty book and people would probably buy it because your name’s on it. It’s kind of what some films do with famous actors; they drag them into their movie so they can make money. However, I don’t highly encourage this. If I see any of you write snuff or any Twilight Fifty Shades of Grey crap, I will rip your manuscript in front of your face. I am here to teach you about literature and I am here to teach students who are in love with words and basically couldn’t live without them. If you get horny from just reading a book, awesome. If you don’t, that’s fine too but by the end of this class I want you to be horny for literature. I want you to be driven by literature. There will be no writers’ block in this class. And if there is, I’m going to smack your head because there’s some creativity in that brain of yours; you just need a little push. Writing is an art, but it’s also work. And if your writing doesn’t drive you, stop. If the book you’re reading is not making you want to finish it in one sitting, stop. I’m not saying you should write your book in one sitting, nor that you should always read one book in one sitting (hey, if you can, good for you), I’m saying that you need the craving. That’s how you don’t get writers’ block. If you always crave words, if you always crave story, you’ll always be hungry. So never lose that hunger.”
Jane was writing so furiously that when I glanced over her shoulder, her words looked illegible. I wasn’t taking any notes because I wasn’t really sure I was a writer and if I had any questions, I could always ask Rich after class. Then maybe I’d take notes.
“But today we’re going to talk about what makes good writing and what makes bad writing.” Rich clicked his mouse and the slide behind him changed so there was a big picture of a book with large black block letters reading:
“Someone name good writing that they have read. Could be a poem, a song, a novel, an essay, or any kind of book.”
I raised my hand and Rich looked directly at me. “Yes, Art.”
“On Writing by Stephen King,”
“And what makes that writing so great?”
“I don’t know. I guess his approach to writing. It’s not really a self-help book, it’s more of a memoir with self-help tips thrown in.”
“Could you describe the writing?”
“Um...I don’t know. Casual I guess.”
“Yeah, I guess so.”
Rich nodded. I wasn’t sure if that was the answer he wanted but then he chose someone else, a girl who was two rows behind me.
“The Great Gatsby,” she said. I turned my head to see a blonde with natural bright yellow hair almost as bright as the sun. “And why do you like that book, Rachel?” I turned around again. I hadn’t realized but Great Gatsby Girl was the same girl I had met at the bar last year who Joe had forced me to talk to. I guess she wasn’t just into English.
“I like the approach Francis took. It was very bold of him to write a story in first person, but base the whole story on someone else. Nick Carraway is the narrator but the whole story is about Jay Gatsby. I don’t know how many authors wrote one story about another story but I believe it was quite rare at the time.”
Rich smiled and seemed to like that answer, but I couldn’t stop but think how stuck-up Miss Rachel was because of calling F. Scott Fitzgerald “Francis”. She didn’t know the guy and why did she have to be so pompous about it?
“So what do you think good writing is?” Rich asked, but this time he asked the class again.
A dirty blonde haired boy wearing big blue block glasses announced, “I think good writing all has to do with the words: how they’re phrased and what words they use. I think one of the word masters of the world is Don DeLillo. If you’ve read any of his books, every word seems to be chosen so carefully like poetry. Also, he works on a typewriter so it’s like he has to compose the right word or else. But I also think that true writing drives the reader forward whereas bad writing stops you from reading.”
“Very good,” nodded Rich. “Yes, I believe that good writing is all about the choice of words you use. And of course you want your reader to keep reading your work so that drive of reading has to be there. But the drive should be within you when you write anyway so therefore you should have composed the best words on the page because when you go through editing your work, you’ve changed roles. You are no longer the writer but instead the reader. So you must ask yourself, ‘would I read this?’ and if the answer is no, then you need to fix something.” Then Rich clicked his mouse again and the slide changed from a book to a bunch of pictures of what I believed to be writers. I didn’t recognize any of the faces except for Stephen King’s.
“But the trick is, how do you write good writing? Is there a style you must develop? Not exactly, but you must form a voice in your writing. But that’s sort of a different hurdle to jump over. I think in order to accomplish good writing you have to read good writers. Of course, these images of authors are only a few as there are plenty more: Ernest Hemingway, Sylvia Plath, Raymond Carver, Stephen King, Alice Munro, et cetera. And if you read these writers, you might start writing like them. This is a good exercise for writers when finding their voice. But basically you want to write words that readers want to read. And there are many styles. Some writers have extremely complicated sentence structures along with words. Others write very colloquially. Some write very British, others very American. And none of these styles are wrong, but you must establish a voice that is unique. I think your goal as writers is to write prose and poetry that readers can pick up and know by just glancing at the text that you wrote it. But this is a very hard thing to accomplish and you may never accomplish it, but you must try.”
Then Rich changed slides again. The slide was completely blank except for one sentence:
Write to be read.
Then he changed slides yet again and this slide showed another set of bold letters:
“So now that we’ve established good writing, what is bad writing?” A guy with frizzy red hair in my row raised his hand. “Yes, Francis?”
That’s ironic, I thought.
“I think bad writing is wonky sentence structures, words that weren’t chosen properly, and basically writing that makes the reader avert their eyes.”
“Very good,” said Rich.
I looked down at the long desk in front of me. Everyone seemed to understand more about creative writing than me.
“Bad writing is frankly crap or repetitious. For example, Steve Barry (I apologize if any of you have read him but never bring a book of his to my class as I will rip it in two in front of you). His stories may be good, but his structure is repetitious. He follows the same form for every story. And it’s not exactly a beginning, middle, and end; it’s basically the same story in all his books just with a new situation. Trust me, as good writers you will discover when bad writing occurs in your own work and in others’. A lot of bad writing comes from genre fiction, but I don’t want to bash genre fiction. You should never write with some itinerary like some movies do. All action movies seem to follow a structure, as do romantic films, and sometimes drama. But your work needs to be unlike those formatted structures. Make your work a bit different and this is how you establish a unique voice. Maybe you like romantic tales. Fine. But don’t have the girl just fall in love with the boy. Maybe have the girl be a complete psychopath like in Gone Girl. Always surprise readers and don’t always try to meet their expectations. If anything, try not to meet any of them. Good readers know old structures, so give them a new one.”
Rich coughed and took a sip of his glass of water he had on his desk before continuing.
“But I think it can be good to read bad writing so you know how to not accomplish the same feat. But don’t buy the book, just open to a passage or two and read it. A great exercise is pinpointing good writing and bad writing. Pick up a book, read a section and ask yourself, ‘good or bad writing?’ and then explain why you think it’s either.”
Rachel rose her hand again as Rich took a large gulp from his glass. “Yes, Rachel?” he said, placing his glass back down on his desk.
“But shouldn’t we be more focused on writing rather than the components of what makes it good or bad?”
“Yes, of course. But you should always have these thoughts in mind when you’re writing, as it will make you a better writer. Believe me, you’ll know what writing is bad. And even if you don’t see it, I will.” Rich flashed a large grin at us and it got a few students laughing.
When the class ended, I tucked my binder back into my backpack and left the class.
Creative Writing had replaced my Psychology course and so all I could really do was wander down to the cafeteria before “English: An Introduction” started. Creative Writing started at ten P.M. and went until noon.
By the time I got back into my room with my sandwich (I was beginning to get sick of sitting at a table alone during lunchtime), it was one-thirty. I bit into my egg salad sandwich and as I placed it back in its plastic container, I played some music on iTunes while I browsed my emails.
I always liked to listen to music when I was in my room alone but when I hit ►, “Strange Things” by Randy Newman began to play. At first, I was not concerned. But as Randy began singing the chorus, I began thinking of the day so far. That note on the floor had been strange and so had the line I had heard before I had gone to bed the night before: “He beats her up emotionally!”
And even when I had gone to the cafeteria, strange things were happening to me: the cashier’s name had been Alysse. Though it wasn’t Alice’s direct name, it got me thinking.
Dude, it’s just a song. You hit ‘shuffle’ and magic happens.
So I didn’t think much about it until the next song played: “Your Body is a Wonderland”.
When I was about seventeen, I had thought for the longest time that the chorus was “You’re Alice in Wonderland” rather than “You’re body is a wonderland” so yeah, this song struck a chord. But then, the only person that could be sending me messages was God. And I just believed this to be a very strange coincidence and nothing more.
But then “Wonderland” by Taylor Swift played. “Flashing lights and we, took a wrong turn and we, fell down the rabbit hole.”
Great, I thought. So that was the actual Alice in Wonderland. My emails were starting to read fuzzy.
As I tried to concentrate, I began to picture Alice’s face (the one I knew and the Disney cartoon). I shook my head. This was crazy, but then the next song was “Heavy Love” by Serena Ryder. “Do you think you’re strong enough?”
“NO!” I yelled at the screen. Thankfully the music was quite loud so no one heard me. I checked my watch. It was now one forty-five. What’s next? I asked myself as I closed my Firefox browser. There was no way I was checking my emails now. “Parachute” by Train. But this one didn’t really have me breaking down or anything, I just found it to be a nice song. So I listened to it and opened up Firefox again. But when I opened up my browser, I saw the Cheshire Cat smiling back at me. It was the face from the movie, the one with real people. Mia Wasikowska played Alice. The white teeth smiled at me mockingly and the aqua blue font Alice in Wonderland was below his eyes where his nose should be.
I slammed my screen as “Parachute” automatically stopped blasting its presence.
I glanced at my watch and noticed it was almost two o’clock. Might as well go to class, I thought. I stuffed my book Catch-22 into my backpack and headed out the door, locking it behind me.
When I got to class, everyone was already sitting down and when I looked up at the wall clock, I noticed that it was exactly two-thirty. Professor Bradley clapped her hands the moment I sat in my seat as if she was trying to turn on the lights that were already on.
“Welcome back to ‘English: An Introduction’. If you’re in the wrong class, now’s the time to leave.” No one moved. Bradley just smiled and continued. “We have begun Catch-22 so I hope you all have read the book...”
She droned on and on and I just wanted her to shut up. I didn’t know what the book was about, but I had figured some kind of conspiracy. When the class was over, I was the first one out the door.
“Don’t forget that your papers are due next week!”
Right, papers. What was that on again? But I knew that it had to do with Catch-22. We were supposed to have read the book over the break. I hadn’t even opened a page.
When I got back to my dorm, Joe was smoking a joint out the window.
“Hey man,” he said. The sickly sweet smell stunk up the room.
“Joe, what the fuck are you doing?! It’s fucking January!”
“So?” Joe said, giving me an inquisitive look. “Would you prefer I keep the window closed?”
I didn’t answer and just dropped my bag on the ground and walked out of the room with the door open.
“What the fuck man?!” I heard him scream as the door slammed shut while I walked towards the lounge.
“Fucking asshole,” I muttered out loud as I sat on one of the couches and turned on the T.V.
The big plasma television set was already showing C.B.S. and the channel was playing reruns of How I Met Your Mother. “Miracles” had just started. I had seen the whole show, but I needed something to cool me off and I thought Ted Mosby and the gang were hilarious. I needed a pick-me-up. But once the episode ended, a tear was forming in my left eye. Ted Mosby had just proposed to Stella Zinman. It wasn’t that I wanted to marry Alice. At least, not yet. I probably would have gotten emotional even if I had just watched an episode of Friends.
That’s when Joe walked into the lounge. I quickly flicked the T.V. off as if my dad had caught me watching porn.
“Next time don’t leave the door open,” said Joe as he washed his hands in the sink.
“Sorry about that,” I said to his back.
“You seem a bit stressed.” His voice was louder over the running faucet. “You might want to smoke with me. It may calm your mind. Don’t really know what you have to be stressed about. School just started.”
I nodded even though I knew he couldn’t see me. The faucet wasn’t exactly in eyesight of the couch. Maybe he saw the top of my head move.
Joe turned off the faucet and sat down on the opposite side of the couch. “You know you can tell me, right? School problems, girl problems, anything.”
I felt a sort of sweat in my chest when he mentioned “girl problems”, but I doubted he noticed as he wiped his hands on his blue jeans. But he did notice that I wanted to be alone, so he patted me on the back and left the lounge. I turned on the T.V. when the door closed but Friends was playing so I turned it off.