Write About A Real Boy (The Poetry of Experience, Part Two)
When I was in fifth or sixth grade, can’t remember which, I and the other students were asked to write a short story.
I’d been writing short stories since about third grade. I can’t remember what story I actually turned in for this (let’s say) sixth grade assignment, but I began around then to write longer stores than I ever had before. At the time I was a frequent reader of Poe on my own, but had not yet read Lovecraft.
One story I wrote about the time of the assignment, but did not turn in, concerned a murderer in the hills of New England. Soon after the murder (which may have been at least partly provoked), the murderer passes out in the snow-heavy hills, wounded and losing blood, apparently on the verge of dying. When he wakes up, he finds he has been revived and captured by a strange group of people who always wear the hoods of monks over the faces, so he can’t see them.
After spending some weeks imprisoned by them, he realizes that these people aren’t human but alien, although he hasn’t seen them yet. Then he realizes, after several encounters with a strange odor that both repels and excites him, that they intend to mate him with one of their kind. Their goal: they cannot proceed in their desire for world domination until they have absorbed the human capacity for evil, which he, as an apparently unremorseful murderer, seems to represent for them.
At the end of the story, this main character, conflicted between the desire to commit suicide in order to save human beings and the overwhelming urge to mate with the alien creature, finally gives in to his sexual desires after recognizing that in fact he doesn’t really care to do good for other people and never has. Besides, he has no wish to save a species from whom someone like himself could have been created. He himself is the proof, that is, that there’s no particular reason to save the human race or to feel that doing so would be morally right. So he goes ahead and mates with the alien and unleashes destruction upon the human world.
Have all the fun examining the social and psychological underpinnings of the sixth grader writing such a story that you want, as I myself certainly have. But that’s not the point here.
The point has to do with the fact that I spent a lot of time discussing story writing with a friend in my neighborhood, a boy I’ve long since lost track of and probably can’t even name right. We had a lot of crazy ideas for stories.
After he wrote his own fantasy story, however, his parents told him that he couldn’t turn it in. Instead they took it from him and told him that he had to start over, and that this time he had to “write a story about a real boy.”
Hard to know what if anything he ever wrote after that. I’m the one who kept writing.
One of his parents was an English teacher. I’m sure they were giving him what they thought was very sophisticated literary advice. And what a great side effect that it must have corralled a little bit of his uncorralled imagination.
Sometimes, when I think about all this, I realize I was lucky to have parents who were not English teachers and did not try to give me the latest writerly wisdom for sixth graders.
But who knows? Maybe being told to “write about a real boy” didn’t drain the life from my friend’s creativity by teaching him that writing literature was just another way to do what you’re told, to figure out how to be a successful, responsible, conformist adult. Maybe he wouldn’t have been all that interested in writing anyway.
When I look at many of the critics promoting a “poetry of experience” or “literary realism” or any similar attempt to straitjacket literary imagination and inventiveness according to some weakly defined, supposedly pragmatic standard, I wonder about that bit of literary advice that I remember so vividly from my childhood. It was a bit of advice perhaps meant kindly, and with the benefit of significant reading in normative literary conventions, and with the helpful learning strategy of showing an excessive, fanciful young man that creating literature is another way of learning to deal in an organized manner with the practical facts of day-to-day life.
How much of our contemporary critical discussion, by creators of literature as well as critics of it, really is just a more developed embodiment of that same bit of perhaps well-meaning high school English discipline? A world of English teachers wrapping writers on the knuckles for their own good and telling them to get with the program?
And is part of it really perhaps not so well meaning? Isn’t part of it lazy, pedantic, and illogical, though it claims otherwise? Doesn’t it contain just a bit of the desire to gain control over the imagination of others?
And is the advice to write about a real boy or girl one you would give your own children, if you have any?