When I was in Fifth Grade, I was, as Ron Burgundy might say, “kind of a big deal” when it came to writing creative stories in class. My teacher enjoyed them, my fellow classmates seemed to like them, and most importantly, I loved writing them. Perhaps because of this, I felt pressure as our final writing project was nearing toward the end of the school year. This wasn’t just any writing project. This was the Oscars of Fifth Grade creative writing exercises. In fact, the best story in both Fifth Grade classes was going to be entered into a local young writers’ competition on Long Island.
The big day arrived, and I was so nervous, I sharpened three pencils when I knew I wouldn’t need more than one. My teacher handed out our writing assignments, and I quickly opened mine as soon as I received it. The story idea went something like this: “One day you run into someone who looks exactly like you. What would you say? What would you do? Describe the situation in as much detail as possible.” (This is going on memory from something that happened over 30 years ago, so I’m sure it wasn’t worded exactly this way, but it was close.)
I thought it was a great idea for a story, and the first idea that popped into my head featured a main character competing in an upcoming big race that his town held every year. He lost all the previous years, but after bumping into someone who looks exactly like him, he hatches a plot to have his “twin” hide out in the middle of the race track behind a bush so that as soon as the race begins, he would appear to have an enormous head start on his competition and win the race. I was about to start writing, but then I realized my teacher might frown on the fact my characters won by cheating. I was then stuck for an idea.
This was the first time I can remember having writer’s block. I nervously checked the clock, and it seemed to be racing by. Most students were already hurriedly scribbling down what I was sure were genius ideas, and I felt completely left out. A few poor souls were milling around the class maps hanging from the chalkboard in front of the classroom, desperately searching for ideas. At first, I mocked them in my head, but in a few short minutes, I was joining them in my own desperation.
“This is stupid,” I thought as I elbowed for room and glanced around the world map. “What exactly am I looking for? It’s not like if I see a certain country—” Then my eyes landed on Greece, and I remembered we learned all about Greek mythology that year. (The Greek myths inspired my young mind, and I even made up a song about Greek mythology, though I only remember the chorus: “Greek myths retold/They just get old!”) I decided I would create my own epic Greek myth, one that would blow my teacher away and make her proud.
I hurried back to my desk and started formulating my story. I don’t remember the details (again, this is over 30 years ago), but this is essentially the abridged version from my middle-aged memory: There were two warring, rival factions in ancient Greece, each headed by different but very powerful gods. (I made up my own gods with their own individual powers.) Their dramatic battles raged for years, yet they always ended in a stalemate; one clan was never able to defeat the other. Finally, one of the gods strikes a deal with Zeus to give him a new power of assuming the form of his enemy so they look exactly the same. One night, the two meet, and the god in disguise gains the trust of the other, never realizing that the opposing army is sneaking into his territory. (I borrowed this from the Trojan horse story, which I was also taught that year. Hey teach, I’m demonstrating applied learning!) In the end, the god who was able to assume a new form at last vanquished his enemy and army, and there was a huge celebration. It was epic. It was exciting. It was, I admit, a little violent. But honestly, what Greek myth isn’t? I mean, Zeus disguised himself as a bull to rape Europa. My myth wasn’t anywhere near that bad.
I handed my paper in with a huge smile on my face. It was probably the best thing I wrote that year, and I knew my teacher would love it. If I wasn’t selected as an outstanding story to enter our local writers’ competition, I knew I would at least be a finalist.
Weeks passed before our test results returned, and the wait was agony. At last the day arrived, and before our teacher handed out our stories, she made a proud announcement. “I am happy to report,” she began, her face beaming, “that one story in particular was so good, it’s going to be entered into the Long Island Young Writers’ Competition!” I leaned back confidently in my chair with a faux bashful, “Who, me?” look. I was certain she was talking about my story, but as I looked at her with an overly confident grin, she seemed annoyed. She glanced at me quickly and then looked away as she finished her remarks. “The student I selected is Brenda!”
Now, before I continue this story, you can be sure that the name “Brenda” is a pseudonym, as I don’t want to offend anyone, lest she or one of her friends/family members is reading this, which, let’s be honest, is highly doubtful. (This will make more sense as you continue reading.)
My heart fell. “What?” I asked myself. “But Brenda hasn’t written anything interesting all year! How is this possible?” I stole a glance at Brenda, my mind a seething, jealous rage, and Brenda seemed more surprised than I was.
Our stories were returned, and our teacher asked Brenda to read hers to the class, her face still beaming. “Okay,” I thought, trying to calm myself down. “Maybe her story really is good. Heck, maybe it even blows mine away.” I tried to have an open mind as we listened to Brenda anxiously, but proudly, read the fruits of her labor. Over 30 years later, I obviously don’t have her story memorized, but this is basically the shortened version from my memory:
One day, I was walking down the street, and I ran into someone who looked exactly like me! I couldn’t believe it! We even had the same color hair and eyes! “Wow!” we both said at the same time. “This is amazing!” I invited her over to my house, and we played board games and had lunch. Then we went outside to play. My mother felt like she had twin daughters. We realized we even had the same interests! We also traded outfits in my bedroom. We had a really great time together, and I didn’t want it to end. At the end of the day, I was very sorry to see her leave, but I knew we’d see each other again someday. The End.
“That was it?” I thought to myself. “That was the story that beat mine and every other story in class??” Even the original idea I abandoned had more plot than that! Years later, I would watch an episode of “The Simpsons” where Marge becomes so upset by the violence on the show-within-a-show “Itchy & Scratchy” that she gets the writers to tone down the antics until there’s literally just a scene of Itchy and Scratchy calmly rocking back and forth in rocking chairs on a porch and offering each other cool glasses of lemonade. That was it. That was the entire story. That was Brenda’s story. And my teacher ate it up (like Marge, I guess).
Summoning as much courage as my 11-year-old self could, I approached my teacher at the end of the day and asked what she thought of my story. “Too violent,” she immediately sniffed. And that was it. That was the end of my writing days in Fifth Grade.
I suppose my classmate’s story was the least controversial because absolutely nothing happened in it—at least, nothing of interest (unless you find people playing board games interesting). The point is that when you’re writing a story, there needs to be conflict. In other words, something has to happen. It can’t just be people sitting around talking to each other, unless you’re establishing characters and/or furthering the plot. This is a common problem with the first few chapters in a book because writers are so busy building the rules of their worlds, setting the characters on their stages, and “laying the pipe” of exposition, and I’m not immune to this problem either. The first few chapters of Danger Peak are probably the hardest to get through because there’s so much I have to explain to the reader. It’s 1989. There’s this mysterious, magical mountain that killed the main character’s older brother the year before, and he wants revenge. These are his two best friends, and they’re in a motorbike-racing club. This is their eccentric technology teacher. Yadda yadda yadda. This is one of the reasons why George Lucas said, “Screw it!” and had an exposition info dump in an opening text crawl in every “Star Wars” movie.
Years after elementary school, I saw Brenda in our high school library. She was being tutored by an Honors student. What subjects did she need help in? English and writing. I smirked at the irony as I passed her to head to my next class. I never saw her again.
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P.P.S.: Next week’s blog: A Sneak Preview of Danger Peak (Finally)! (Trust me; it took a lot of restraint to not title this blog “A Sneak Peek at Danger Peak.”)