I found this story scribbled on two sheets of paper while I was going through old notebooks, etc… I think it pretty clearly shows my state of mind during my graduate school creative writing classes! Not sure what to call it — any suggestions welcome!
All day, I couldn’t get the image of someone chopping down a tree out of my head. I was sitting at Servio’s Pizza with Mack, scribbling in my notebook while he lectured me on the proper way to write a cover letter. He thought I was taking notes; I was drawing a picture of Professor Wheeler wielding an axe, his sleeves rolled up past his elbows.
“Are you listening?” Mack cocked his ear toward the door “That’s the sound of your career options floating out the window.”
“Oh, whatever.” I closed my notebook. “I’m going to be late for class. Better go face the music.”
Mack’s lips were pinched together. He patted my arm. “Good luck.”
Professor Wheeler sat in the square desk at the front of the room, while the rest of us faced him in a horseshoe formation. Faces were blank. My story was up.
“Harhum! Who wants to start?” Wheeler let his straight eye roam over each of us in turn, his wobbly eye rolling up toward the ceiling, as though trying to escape out of the socket. When he got to me, I looked down at my desk.
Lucretia raised her hand. She was a freshman with two jet-black braids that she purposely wore at each side of her head. At the end of each braid was a purple bow. She liked to wear black shiny shoes with little straps across the ankles.
Wheeler waited a few moments, letting his eye shift around the room before finally settling on Lucretia.
“Yes?” He never said her name unless he had to.
“I liked Janice’s story, her use of the strong male protagonist. I thought he was very believable in his weakness, his fears about writing. He was just like one of us.” She swept her arm around the room. “He wasn’t snobby or pretentious when it really came down to it. It was all an act.”
She stopped and looked at the manuscript on her desk. Wheeler waited. I clenched my hands in my lap.
“I disagree.” It was Benny; he always sat on the left side of the room, always wrote with a red pencil, sometimes combed his thick hair while others spoke.
“I didn’t like the narrator. I thought he was arrogant and overbearing.”
I bit my lip. Slowly, I raised my eyes to Wheeler. His cheeks were pink under the spokes of hair on his chin, and he was staring at Benny. Benny shrugged and began combing his hair.
Wheeler put both his hands flat on the desk, big pink fingers like rolls of unbaked dough. He looked at me suddenly, and I lowered my eyes quickly, studying the cartoon I’d scribbled at lunch.
Wheeler was smiling as he chopped down the tree, a big willow with graceful drooping branches that dripped around his shoulders and head. I’d drawn beads of sweat popping out of his forehead, surrounding his face like little flies.
“Well, come on. What does everyone else have to say about the story?”
Beatrice, an Ecuador woman with a kind smile, stared out of the window. Mike, a sports fanatic who wore his soccer cleats to class, sat looking straight ahead, a fake smile etched in place. I held my breath and prayed that I would suddenly wake up and find myself in bed in my small apartment. What had I been thinking, writing a story like that?
“I suppose I could add something to the conversation,” Wheeler said, cracking his knuckles. He rested his chin on his hand and tilted his head at me.
“A very unusual approach, Janice. I don’t think I’ve ever had a student do this before.”
I sucked in my breath, looking straight at him. In my drawing, my arms and limbs stretched into the sky, reaching out to the air as he crashed through me, toppling me over into the rough, dry grass.
“I applaud your honesty, your attention to detail.”
“Finally, you’re writing about what you know.” He tapped his forehead. “You’ve stopped writing clichés, plastic, polystyrene. Now you’re playing with fire. Now you have the power to inspire.” He stood up. “And to hurt.”
I covered my mouth with my hands as he walked out of the room.
I enjoyed your short story… You could call it; The Double Edge Of A Writer’s Words…. Or The Fire That Sent My Words Flying….
I hope you’re well.. And having a great week…
Hi Katie! Hope you’re doing well, too. Thanks for the suggestions! I like the “Double Edge” idea… and lots of folk have mentioned “fire,” so I’ll have to have a think… 🙂
Hi Louisa, I really enjoyed your short story, it resonated with me as I’m doing my MA now. I especially liked your description of his hands as ‘big pink fingers of unbaked dough’! Great! I’m awful with titles but how about ‘Playing with Fire’? Good luck with it! 🙂
Thanks, Kendra! Good luck with your MA! This is, of course, an exaggeration, but I do think writers (and I’m sure anyone who puts themselves out there) need to develop a kind of “filter” to let the helpful suggestions in and keep the negative/unhelpful ones out!
Hey Louisa, I loved this. It’s packed with tension. Liked the subliminal suggestion that “her story” is to do with her doodle of Mr Wheeler chopping down the tree (symbol for life and vitality etc and suggesting his criticisms are stunting the talent of students, and especially her). Very good. Lovely and understated. Personally I emphasise with Prof Wheeler. I have been that soldier trying to get students to say what they think and have courage of convictions. The ending is brilliant twist. The truth does/can hurt.
Thanks, Marianne! Well, I know you are much kinder with your students and would never wield an “axe” to their work! There is definitely a way to balance criticism, honesty, and appreciation for someone’s creative efforts. You do a great job of that balance in your creative writing classes!
Great short story… Sticking your neck out never seems to get easier !!! I like the twist- that the old
grizzly ‘ executioner’ wielding the ax- is the supporter. On the other hand, it’s really clear that
he may just as easily ..!
Since there’s been mention of fire in the title
What about ‘Trial by fire’??
Thanks for stopping by! It’s funny that three people have now mentioned “fire”! So, I think I’ll start with that…