# of pages written: 2
# of days left to write 1st draft: 118
The summer I turned nineteen, I happened to run into a girl with whom I’d gone to high school. I told her my plan of dropping out of college and moving to LA to pursue acting. She seemed horrified. “You’re dropping out of school?” she said. “But school is what you’re good at!”
It’s true. I’m very good at school. I got straight A’s in high school. On my report card – on every report card – there was literally nothing but A’s. My mom used to tease me: “All A’s again? Boring! Why don’t you try getting a B every once and awhile?”
“You know,” I told her, “some parents give their kids money if they make all A’s.”
“Why would I do that?” she asked. “You’re going to make A’s anyway.”
I’m not trying to say that I’m some sort of genius. I’m definitely not. At the wedding I went to over the weekend, I couldn’t figure out how to get the water to come out of the water dispenser, and I often have trouble doing simple arithmetic in my head. All I’m saying is that I’m very good at school. I’m good at reading things and writing about them. I’m good at taking notes and meeting deadlines. I’m good at problem solving in math (although obviously not good at real-life problem-solving, hence the water dispenser issue.) And, most recently, I was reminded of how good I am at following directions.
Sometimes I go on newpages.com and browse the literary journals and the writing contests and try to find a few places to which I can submit one of my various unpublished stories, essays, or poems. Today, I came across an online journal called Literary Juice that offered the following challenge:
Pulp Fiction: This might be LJ’s biggest challenge yet! A “pulp” fiction is comprised of only 25 words; no more, no less. Please keep the title one word only. Just as you would with the flash fiction, deliver an element of surprise.
This is the first fall in a long time that I haven’t been going back to school as a student or a teacher, and in some ways I miss it. I thought it might be nice to have an school-like task: a clear-cut assignment with rules and guidelines, just like this one. I sat down at my computer and giggled with glee. “What fun!” Then I churned out the following:
He bought her a five-pound Hershey bar as an apology. Later, in the kitchen, they found bits of silver wrapper, vomit, and her beagle, dead.
Steven’s hand brushed Miss Benning’s ass on his way to the pencil sharpener. “I think it’s sharp enough,” she said, and they both blushed.
We lose the game and Coach makes us run suicides. My lungs burn and my legs cramp. Now I feel like part of the team.
“Mom! Where’s my blue shirt?” I open the door. She’s on her bed, crying.
“Never mind.” I back away. “I’ll find it.”
Isn’t it strange that being given restrictions actually seems to boost my creativity? I guess I’m forever craving the certainty of school– people telling me what to do and how to do it. My friend Jeni has a blog, and I often I’ll ask her, “what do you want me to write for your blog? Just tell me, and I’ll write it.” And in my writers group yesterday, one of the women told me that I should try to turn my short story into a novel, so what was the first thing I did today? Attempted to follow her assignment.
But why am I so eager to follow other people’s assignments and guidelines, but not my own? I gave myself a deadline for the first draft of a novel (January 1st), and I have to tell you all: so far I’ve made very little actual progress on this self-inflicted assignment. Maybe I haven’t given myself enough structure.
Nikki has also always been a good student. One day, as we cleaned up from dinner, we talked talked about the part in Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance where the narrator, a college professor, decides to do away with grades in his Freshman Composition class.
“I know I wouldn’t like that,” Nikki said, rinsing off the cutting board. “I like getting the grade because it lets me know I’m doing things right.”
“Oh yeah.” I loaded our colorful, ceramic plates into the dishwasher. “That was what was great about school. You work hard, you get an A. Immediate feedback. Instant gratification. I miss that.”
I talked about how writing is so hard because I get very little feedback. That’s why it’s great to get something published, or even get a nice rejection letter. It’s like getting an A on my report card.
“It’s like with meditation,” Nikki said. “I always want somebody to tell me if I’m doing it right. I read all of these books and try to follow what they’re saying, and I guess a part of me just wants to hear someone say, ‘great job, Nikki! You get an A in meditation.’”
But, of course, that doesn’t happen. That’s not the point of meditation. And, I suppose, that’s not the point of writing either.
I love being given guidelines and structure because it gives me an immediate sense that I’m doing things “right.” When I don’t have that kind of structure, it can be scary. I don’t know what the rules are, so I don’t know whether or not I’m failing.
In Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, the narrator says that the kids who were normally A-students were very stressed out when he did away with grades, and yet they started turning in even higher-quality papers than they did before. When he asked them about this, they said, “we assumed that we had failed. And then we just did the best we could.”
“Maybe that’s what we both need to do,” Nikki said, wiping down the counter with a sponge. “In meditation, in writing, in life. Just assume that we’ve failed and then do the best we can.”
I’m not sure I agree with that. But I do know that I’m so used to being a good student that I’m forever trying to figure out how to get an A, when that’s not really the point anymore. I need to strike a balance. I need to give myself rules and structure — a real assignment, but I also need to forget about the grade.
I don’t want to assume that I’ve failed. But I also don’t need to be a straight-A student anymore. I just need to do the best that I can.