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.

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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.

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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.

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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?

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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.

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“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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Thanks so much for reading!

–Mike

Writing What You Know (Or, Reading in Front of the Sixth-Graders)

“I think you’re ready, Michael,” she said.  “You’re reading very well, and I want the big kids to hear it.”

On the one hand, I was thrilled.  Of all the students in the class, I was the one Mrs. Northrup had chosen for the honor.  But on the other hand, I was scared silly.  I was six years old that fall, a first-grader who may have been reading well but who was also the shyest student in the class.  Looking back, I am sure Mrs. Northrup realized this, and she had decided the task assigned would do me good.

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Of course, being six, I didn’t share her professional and experienced perspective.  She’d been a teacher for decades.  I just knew that standing up in front of a classroom full of older kids and reading aloud to them seemed about as beneficial for my development as walking straight into the heart of an active volcano.

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“Don’t worry,” she assured me.  “You’ll do just fine.”

When the time came, book in hand, I trudged through the old hallways of Abraham Lincoln Elementary School, up the flight of stairs to the floor where the “big kids” had their classes, and, moving slower and slower with every step, arrived outside the assigned door.  I wished Mrs. Northrup had accompanied me.  She could have introduced me to the class, or done or said something to make it easier.  But she had sent me up by myself.

I considered turning around and leaving, but realized Mrs. Northrup would get word of such a tactic before day’s end.  No.  I was stuck.

I knocked on the half-opened door, my heart beating faster, faster.  There were sixth-graders in there!  They seemed light-years ahead of me, and more intimidating than a pride of lions.  The teacher–whose name I have long since forgotten–smiled at me and motioned for me to come in.

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“You must be Michael,” she said. “Mrs. Northrup told me to expect you, and I was just telling the class that one of the top first-grade students would be coming up to read.”  Great, I thought.  More pressure.  “Come along in!” she beamed.

I stood in place a moment longer, my mind still clinging, stubbornly, to potential escape routes.  But when the teacher motioned for me to come in again, her smile widening, I did the only thing I could think of.

I turned my back to the class, took a deep breath, and sidled through the door.  I heard someone in the class chuckle, but I didn’t turn around, wouldn’t turn around.  In front of me, the blackboard still contained the teacher’s notes, in crisp, perfect chalk-script, from whatever lesson the class had been learning earlier that day.

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No one said a word.  I looked at nothing but the chalkboard–I didn’t dare glance back at the class, nor did I look at the teacher.  I had a job to do, a task to complete, and I didn’t want to be in any way distracted.

I opened the book to the assigned spot, and began to read.  The passage ran one entire page.  I wasn’t sure the class could hear me with my back turned to them, but I didn’t stress over it.  I just told myself to read the next line, the next sentence, the next paragraph, get through it, and then exit the room.

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As soon as I read the last word, I began to side-walk toward the door.  I moved as quickly as I could, and I didn’t turn around and walk face-forward again until I was in the hallway, heading toward the stairs, which would take me away from the sixth-graders and their classrooms and their lessons.

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Not once, during the entire experience, did I turn to face the class.

*********************

It’s something every writer has heard, often drilled into them with the force and repetition of an iron-clad commandment:  “Write what you know.”

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We hear this so many times, in so many different places, and from so many reputable sources, it seems nearly impossible to argue.  After all, who can argue against the truth?  Besides, the advice seems to hold a lot of weight.  When we write about experiences, situations, jobs, relationships we have experienced, don’t our words contain more validity?  Don’t they resonate more, sing louder and more confidently?

Yes.

And no.

Let’s take a step back.  What, exactly, does “write what you know” refer to?  Is it to be taken rigidly, literally, basically saying that if I have never been fired from a job, to use a simple for-instance, that I cannot then write about a character in a story who is fired from their job?

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Or is it more broad?  Maybe, though I haven’t ever been fired, I still can imagine what such an experience might feel like.  Perhaps I have been dropped from a sports team, turned down at an interview, caught doing something wrong at home that resulted in less-than-ideal consequences.  The feelings I may have experienced during those situations may not be identical, one-for-one matches to getting fired, but do they really need to be?

Or take my first-grade experience related above.  It’s a silly old story on the surface. (And that evening, after getting word of what happened, Mrs. Northrup called my mother on the phone to tell her all about it.  They both had a good laugh over it, and eventually I did, too.)  But the experience also contains a lot of very real, raw emotions:  the fear of public speaking; feeling awkward and shy; the fear of performing badly under pressure; the possibility of being laughed at, ridiculed, or rejected; the burden of carrying the expectations of my teacher to represent her class well; the isolating journey up to an unknown, Brobdingnagian portion of the school, inhabited by “big kids”; and so on.

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In other words, it is rich with emotional experience, feelings, internal memories that can be “borrowed,” so to speak, when writing about situations that, at first glance, seem radically different and unrelated, but, in actuality, when you probe deeper and drill down to the feeling level, are really quite similar.  After all, what do we remember from our experiences, the good ones as well as the bad ones?  The circumstances, obviously, but even more so, the feelings, the emotions, the pain or joy, the sadness or elation that resulted.

Writing what you know can be interpreted as only writing about things that are a one-for-one match with your own personal experience.  That is a valid interpretation.  But I would argue it is an unnecessarily constricting one.  A fiction writer uses his or her imagination to create worlds, events, characters that, hopefully, allow readers to enter into the story, become engaged in far-off places, other time periods, or even just the next town over.  If we as authors are reluctant to write things beyond the purview of our own literal experience, then we probably should not write fiction at all.  With such strict parameters in place, creating a straitjacket on our literary endeavors, speculative fiction would never exist.  There could be no time machines or werewolves, vampires or interdimensional voids that carry four seventh-graders to a faraway and alien world.  There could be no Yellow Brick Roads or dreams and powers that lift us high up, “over the rainbow.”  There could be no Morlocks or Superman or preternatural do-overs in Frank Capra Christmas classics.

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Anytime I feel disqualified from writing a certain scene or character because I “haven’t ever done that before” or “been there before,” I just take a moment and think back to that scared, shy, and overwhelmed first-grader.  If I just close my eyes and listen, really listen, I discover he has so much to share.

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Thanks so much for reading!

–Mike

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