I remember reading Jonathan Swift’s “A Modest Proposal” like it was yesterday, not because I (at sixteen) had any spectacular sensitivity to the struggle of the impoverished Irish against the British, but because of the writing assignment my teacher followed the reading with. Or, more to the point, my own utter failure to produce anything remotely resembling the assignment’s target. We were supposed to write a satire of our own, but here’s the thing about satire: you have to have something to mock.
This isn’t to say that I didn’t find plenty to mock in the numbingly stupid whirlpool of human interaction that we call high school. I actually spent a great deal of time mocking classmates who were slow on the draw with classmates who were quicker, but there just wasn’t anything so grandly horrible about any of them that merited wasting any effort to satirize them in writing. I was also one of those “head in the sand” teenagers when it came to the real world, so I didn’t have enough of a grasp on politics or the world at large to turn my pen intelligently against anyone or anything outside of the high school.
The end result was that, asked to write a piece of satire with Swift and “A Modest Proposal” in mind, I ended up taking a Gulliver-like character and plopping him into a world where ritual cannibalism was practiced. I think he may have ended up being eaten in the end, and I remember the story being full of hidden meanings and symbolism that made the premise slightly less ridiculous. The hard copy never made it back to me and the electronic copy has suffered the fate of corrupted data or incompatible file formats, so I can’t go back and rediscover whether anything in the story could be called decent writing, but I remember being both proud of it and terrified to let the substitute put it in an envelope to send to our real teacher, who was often absent that year to be with his very ill father.
I knew the story wasn’t a satire. In fact, I think I wrote a note to send with it to let my teacher know that I knew it wasn’t a satire, but I didn’t have anything else to send. I had sat down to write expecting to drag some piece of satire out of myself and ended up being utterly caught up in the world and the character I was creating. He was like some magical creature who had sprung to life fully formed in my head and I had to let him out before he faded away and died. I knew even as I was writing that I should stop and refocus on the assignment, come back to this story later, but I couldn’t hear myself think over the story my explorer was trying to tell me. I ended up sending in a piece of writing that was maybe twice as long as it was supposed to be and not remotely closed to the parameters of the assignment. I was a little scared, but, audaciously, a little triumphant, because at that point in time it was the best piece of creative writing I had ever done and I knew it.
My English teacher was one of those fantastic teachers that you don’t forget, and his reaction to my paper was one of the moments that sticks out in my mind. He didn’t give me as high a grade on the assignment as I typically earned because it didn’t (as I knew) demonstrate my grasp of satire, but neither did he fail the paper nor make me rewrite it. He quietly accepted that the story had been written from the starting point of what we had read in Swift and was done for the class and then gave me praise and advice given what the story was. It would have been well within his right to have me write something else, but instead he chose to validate the right to live of the characters that sometimes pop into your head, begging to be given life on the page.
It’s a lesson I haven’t forgotten, and I’ve been thinking about it this past week in particular because it’s happened again. I sat down last week to write a story reacting to a conversation that I had with John. I meant it to be a sweet, simple, fable-like story to make him laugh, but the minute I sat down with my pen and notebook, I heard a knocking in my brain and realized the seed of an idea for a little tale had given birth to someone, something else. It took me a week to get down the first draft of what I expected to be a much shorter writing project, with the main character telling me every minute where he needed to go. All I had to do was find the right words to get him there.
I’m in the process of revising and shaping the story now as I type it up, and I don’t know if it’s any good. I never do, in some ways, although you’ll all get the chance to give me your feedback later this week, I think, if you’re so inclined. What I do know is that I’m glad my sanity isn’t habitually threatened by characters who are left to run around my mind, begging for a page to live on, while I feel obligated to labor away on some proscribed task that has no room for the gremlins in my brain. I’m grateful for a teacher who encouraged me, in his own way, to let the brain-gremlins out.
Especially because I’m discovering that the more time I spend writing, the faster the demanding little critters reproduce.