The True Fortune in “The Fortune Cookie”

Recently, I came across some of my old stories, written when I was still in middle school and high school–not, as today, via a keyboard and word processing program, but with a yellow mechanical pencil, the lead on the pages now faded by the onslaught of years.  I’m not sure why I was rummaging about.  It was one of those quiet, gray, nondescript January days in New England, when the world seems to be slumbering, taking a long nap before reemerging, green, and flowery, in the spring.

vermontslumbering

 

I suppose it was just something to do.  I went through long-neglected boxes and plastic tubs, uncovering memorabilia, books I hadn’t flipped through in years, old school assignments, and, yes . . . old stories.  Looking at the sheets of paper, realizing my handwriting had improved not at all since high school, I sat down beside a window and began to read.

boxesinatticbeginning

 

The stories are decades old.  Honestly, I had forgotten some of them even existed, but now, with the pages in my hands, the words before my eyes, they came back to me.  Yes.  “The Penny.”  I hadn’t thought of that one in years!  A cliched clunker with a predictable climax–though when I originally wrote it, surely I’d thought it was a nail-biter.  “The Wager,” “The Martian Library,” “The Right One,” “Pea Soup on a Foggy Day” (don’t ask!).  I read them all.  I couldn’t put them down.  It was easy to cringe at the over-the-top writing, the lack of believable characters, the flawed motives, the well-worn plot devices.  Had I really liked these stories when I’d written them?  But then I began to view them with a more forgiving eye.  I’d just been starting out, after all.  They were my first forays into a craft that takes a lifetime to hone, and even then, there is always room for improvement.

peasoupfog

 

But there was more there than just words to read and critique.  There were memories, old feelings that came back to the surface after being submerged for decades, hopes and dreams and ways of looking at the world when I was twelve and fourteen and seventeen.

That’s when I pulled out “The Fortune Cookie.”  I remembered that one well.  I had written it as a senior in high school, and back then thought of it as my best work, easily my most accomplished story at the time.  I remember that summer, shortly after graduation, submitting it to a handful of magazines, hopeful, confident that one of them would accept it.  They didn’t.  It wasn’t the first time I’d received rejection slips–but it did hit me harder that summer.  Why didn’t they like the story?  Could I have been so wrong in my assessment of it?  Wasn’t it any good?

fortunecookie

 

Rereading it now, through the cold, hard light of two decades’ worth of perspective and experience, I am able to admit–it’s not a publishable story.  It’s not entirely flawed.  There are some good scenes, some taut dialogue, and the conclusion, unlike the other stories I had written as a teenager, actually does pack a punch.  But it’s still the work of a beginning writer, barely finding his voice, still with so much to learn.  Even today, as I write this post, there is a part of me that is tempted to revise the story, edit it, prune it, sharpen it, make it better.  But I don’t.  And I won’t.

beginnerwriting

 

“The Fortune Cookie,” for all its flaws, is irreplaceable–a piece front and center in my own personal literary time capsule.  It belongs to a different era, just before the dawn of the Internet and email, and years before smartphones and social media.  It was written, in that faded mechanical-pencil lead, by a teenage version of myself, approaching the story from a different angle, with a different skill set and a different point of view, than the way I’d approach it today.  As frustrating as it might be to read it now, with all of its warts and fallacies and portions of illogic, “The Fortune Cookie” will remain as it is, in its original format.

timecapsule

 

I’ve never been one to keep a journal.  I’m not sure why.  I tried a couple of times, but quickly grew bored with it.  I suppose I’ve always needed the added layer of taking my personal experiences and using them in stories that I make up, worlds that emerge from somewhere deep within my subconscious, perhaps mirroring our own, perhaps quite different.  For whatever reason, I’ve always felt a need to create something new, as opposed to reporting on and writing about true events.  But in doing so, I have often felt the lack of a journal as a loss.  There is no record of how I felt on September 6, 1992 or June 29, 2001, or October 5, 1987.  It’s hard not to lament sometimes and wish I had such things recorded, in a weathered and bound notebook that I could access anytime I wanted, that provided a peek, however brief, however terse, into the shadows of my past.

writingjournal

 

That’s when I stop myself, and come to understand the true value in the poorly written stories from my youth.  When I read “The Fortune Cookie” today, there are certain passages that take me back, completely, to my senior year in high school, to the day when I hunched over the same wrinkled pages I hold now.  I can remember the feelings that raced through me as I wrote the last scene, the way the pencil couldn’t move fast enough, unable to keep pace with the speed and direction of my thoughts.  I can remember sitting down to write the first word, feeling inspired, fired up, and realizing, then as now, that there is no high so dizzying as a new idea that needs to be let loose onto the page.  I can even remember the feelings I had as I wrote specific sentences, the onrush of adrenaline, the urging to press on.

dizzyingflyinghigh

 

And so, in many ways, “The Fortune Cookie,” and stories like it, are my journals–and will continue to be.  I can imagine a time, thirty years hence, looking back at this very post and thinking, “Remember when?”  Or rereading portions of The Eye-Dancers and recalling exactly the way I felt as I wrote the scene.  It doesn’t end.  It doesn’t have to be confined to a different decade or a previous century.  It will go on as long as words are written, thoughts shared, and hearts and souls expressed onto the printed page.

sharingyourheartend

 

Do you have any old stories lying around, collecting dust, hidden in a dark corner of the attic or a forgotten folder on your hard drive?  When you come across them, your own “Fortune Cookies,” as it were–perhaps cringing at the words, perhaps smiling, perhaps a little of both–I hope you decide to keep them.

I know I will.

nostalgiaend

 

Thanks so much for reading!

–Mike

49 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. John W. Howell
    Jan 30, 2016 @ 20:05:39

    I have lots of old stories that will never see the light of day. I have a 120,000 word manuscript that is in the laundry room in case I need a door prop. I can understand the need to keep this stuff private. I am mostly embarrassed when I read it now.

    Reply

  2. joannerambling
    Jan 30, 2016 @ 23:24:53

    I so wish at times that I had kept things from my school days, just after I married Tim he convinced me to toss out a lot of stuff and even after 30 years I am still pissed that I gave in and tossed them out

    Reply

  3. laurelwolfelives
    Jan 30, 2016 @ 23:58:15

    I visited my childhood home before I left N. C. for good. The man who now owns it, got out an old shoebox and handed me a picture of a horse I had drawn and a letter I had written. Now, I find pictures I had drawn many years ago. Strangely, I always throw them away.

    Reply

  4. Karina Pinella
    Jan 31, 2016 @ 03:16:01

    I felt the same about keeping a journal. I always felt hesitant also in writing how I really felt or did because there was always a sense that someone might read what I wrote. I felt more comfortable in writing stories or writing notes to my friends and words just flowed because I was not writing about myself really.

    Reply

  5. Andrea Stephenson
    Jan 31, 2016 @ 11:22:05

    Like you, I recently re-discovered some of my old stories and attempts at novels. They do have a value all of their own in showing how we started out and, like you, they remind me of who I was back then. It’s great that we still have them.

    Reply

  6. Kathy Lauren
    Jan 31, 2016 @ 15:43:17

    I have kept most if not all of my old stories. The earliest from when I was about 11 years old. I’ve thrown out lots of stuff over the years, but my box and envelopes of stories managed to follow me. (some even on restaurant napkins). :o)

    Reply

  7. Sonya Solomonovich
    Jan 31, 2016 @ 17:55:15

    I know that feeling of rereading your old stories. I probably wouldn’t publish any of mine unless as an example of my teenage writing. Would you ever post “The fortune cookie” on your blog?

    Reply

  8. Chic Mona
    Jan 31, 2016 @ 20:06:03

    How fortunate you are to have these treasures to hold. I can only lament . Many a memories re-lived and loved thru the vast fog of time can’t be lost when they are hand written. I’m not sure why, but in reading your nostalgia,I was reminded of the film “I Remember Mama”. It’s a reminder for me, every moment of our time here has value. Thanks for sharing your rummaging glimpse. ~cheers

    Reply

    • The Eye-Dancers
      Feb 01, 2016 @ 19:01:57

      Very poignant thoughts, and I do tend to be nostalgic anyway.:) So finding those old stories only enhanced that even more! You’re so right. Memories are there to be cherished and kept–I often wish I could remember everything, but of course that’s not possible.:)

      Reply

  9. dancingpalmtrees
    Jan 31, 2016 @ 23:44:09

    I have a notebook/diary from when I was 17 which is about 40 years ago! When I last read it all I could think was “Who is/was that person?” Back then I was in a cocoon. Now I have emerged as a fully mature adult butterfly. Time not only changes but brings new perspectives to Life.

    Reply

    • The Eye-Dancers
      Feb 01, 2016 @ 19:03:36

      It certainly does! Reading my stories causing similar thoughts in me–I often shake my head.:) But it’s nice having that window into the past, despite all the head-scratching and cringing at those old words on the page.:)

      Reply

  10. Sherri
    Feb 01, 2016 @ 11:07:20

    Oh Mike, I just love this post for the way you capture so evocatively and beautifully the feelings our old writings conjure up. The only story I still have is a ‘mystery’ called The Telephone when I was 13, illustrated it and everything. I only ever read it out to my family (who laughed, so I got the message it was more a comedy than a mystery!), but you’re right, although I more than cringed when I read it again recently, as I turned each page, I was transported back to my 13 year old world, sitting at the kitchen table writing on paper with a pencil, thinking how I would wow everyone with my wonderful story! No wonder I still shudder when I think of writing a novel, ha! It’s interesting too what you say about keeping a journal. I have kept a few, and diaries, over the years, but intermittently. I didn’t keep any of them, which I regret. It is wonderful that you still have your old stories Mike, and wonderful that you can share your thoughts with us here. You’re right, don’t change a thing! 🙂

    Reply

  11. teagan geneviene
    Feb 01, 2016 @ 14:54:04

    I have a couple of fortune cookie messages that I keep taped to my computer monitor at work. Have a marvelous Monday. Hugs.

    Reply

  12. Donna Gwinnell Lambo-Weidner
    Feb 02, 2016 @ 04:51:53

    We moved so often that many of my things have been tossed. I do have a couple of poems from high school though. It is reassuring to know that progress has been made. Another good post, Mike.

    Reply

    • The Eye-Dancers
      Feb 03, 2016 @ 14:27:06

      Thanks so much, Donna! And that’s very true. Another helpful benefit from looking at old writing is seeing how far we’ve come and how much we’ve improved over the years!

      Reply

  13. jjspina
    Feb 03, 2016 @ 02:01:43

    I know what you mean, Mike. It is part of you and your past. I have a stack of old poems I have kept for years. When I read them I feel as if I could improve on them but then it would take away from whom I was back then. Great post, Mike! 😄

    Reply

  14. VanessaxGrace
    Feb 03, 2016 @ 15:16:33

    This amuses me for two reasons. One, I just came across a children’s story I wrote during a writing course. I can see how dull it is and was planning to rewrite it. Maybe now I’ll leave it as a benchmark.

    Second, my oldest fancies himself a writer. I think he just likes the idea of being a writer, because he certainly doesn’t have any discipline about it. Reading your perspective reminds me that he too may have a day when he looks back at his current writing, and appreciates how far he’s come 😊

    Btw, thanks for the follow. I’m honored.

    Reply

  15. penneyvanderbilt
    Feb 03, 2016 @ 16:31:17

    Reblogged this on Ancien Hippie.

    Reply

  16. inesephoto
    Feb 04, 2016 @ 17:57:00

    Oh that’s bittersweet. I have got a piece of paper with three poems. Don’t know why I still keep them – no one is going to read them ever 🙂

    Reply

  17. Carol Balawyder
    Feb 04, 2016 @ 20:15:32

    How right you are that your stories are in a way your journals. More so, even, because entries in journals are usually snippets whereas a story has soul to it, character development.
    I understand why you don’t want to re-write The Fortune Cookie. It would be like trying to change the past. An impossible task.
    I really enjoyed reading this post. 🙂

    Reply

  18. Ste J
    Feb 06, 2016 @ 11:41:26

    Stories are probably better than journals as they give an insight into how you were thinking as opposed to details about a day that may seemed to have held nothing of interest, that recall of what you were doing and feeling would make for a good story in itself, or to be transplanted into one.

    Reply

    • The Eye-Dancers
      Feb 07, 2016 @ 20:56:09

      That’s a great point–the fact that old stories can often say more about ourselves than old journal entries can. It really is amazing, too, how I can recall the way I felt while writing certain passages in a story two decades ago . . . Like magic.

      Reply

  19. reocochran
    Feb 11, 2016 @ 05:12:05

    First, your photos and art work here are lovely, Mike. I like that you may just take a small part of your past writing which can stimulate a new beginning. Seeds taken from our own written works means no problem with plagiarism. 🙂

    Reply

    • The Eye-Dancers
      Feb 16, 2016 @ 15:29:16

      Thanks, Robin! And you wouldn’t believe how often I’ve “borrowed” from myself with my writing! But you’re right–as long as you’re
      “stealing” from yourself, it isn’t plagiarism!

      Reply

  20. stockdalewolfe
    Feb 13, 2016 @ 18:09:13

    Wonderful and love the photos!

    Reply

  21. mlhe
    Feb 16, 2016 @ 16:07:53

    You had me at “mechanical pencil” and I adored this post so much that I want to share a little gift with you: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=w0H1eASnnFA

    Reply

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