This week, Tom Murphy squared against the most powerful and unexpected opponent he had and ever would face: time itself. Seriously, forty-five minutes seems so short on the teaching side of things. Clearly having three-hour classes at JHU has cheapened my sense of time. That being said, this week seemed entirely clipped. I suppose the only solution is to teach at hyper-relativistic speed.
This week in class, I had the students read “The Last Question,” a story by Isaac Asimov, which details the history of mankind from 2061 to about the time when all the energy in the universe has been expended (some trillion years down the line). It’s a fascinating story, in my opinion, if only because it spans an inconceivable amount of time and space in about 10 pages. And that’s what I tried to emphasize to my students: the scope (or lack thereof) available to writers in short fiction. Last week, we read “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty”, which, in three pages, covered a man’s errand-filled afternoon. Asimov takes us beyond that and bounds within ten pages something that is, theoretically boundless—that is, the progression of time. I think it’s a neat juxtaposition of how a short story can exhaust a time-span of three hours, or paint a suitable portrait of millions of years of history.
The net goal of this is to instill the students with the idea that they can write about anything and everything, that the length of a story does not determine its content.
Aside from length, there was another aspect of “The Last Question” that I thought deserved examination by new writers. Essentially, this story lacks a single, coherent character—covering the span of time that it does, it would have been difficult for Asimov to have provided us with one—and it examines a single phenomena repeatedly, using different subjects and different backdrops. And yet, it still works as a story—and these quirks make it significantly more read-worthy (in my humble opinion) than other stories that rely on more conventional storytelling.
The lesson: Get out of the box!
I was discussing with One Of The Other Teachers (anonymity, while probably not necessary, seems proper) on a subject related to this. That is, I was hoping that, in the stories that I provided for my students, they might intuit that a story grabs at the reader more effectively (sometimes generally, oftentimes in my experience) if it is more creative. We all have lives, and we all can only see the world as we see it. However, I think one of the biggest failings that all writers make is that they stick too close to home in their first attempts at writing. I’ve done it, you’ve done it, and we have all done it. At some point in our lives we’ve had a detail of our story called out and our single, obvious response has been, “But that’s what happened.” As if that means anything.
And on top of it, these stories can, well, be boring. I’ve said as much, and definitely been told as much, and even though our lives may be mired with quirks and “fascinating” events, that probably isn’t going to translate well. My solution as a teacher: get my students to avoid it.
In contrast to this argument, I have been told by a Nameless Professor that anything is entertaining if the writing is done well enough. That may be so. And, though I am inclined to ask, “What is the color of the sky in your world, Nameless Professor?” I would say that there’s a fair response to Nameless Professor’s claim. Young writers and students of writing may not find their writing voice for years. Writing is clearly an iterative process, and when you start, you start with, essentially, nothing. However, if the subject is something well-thought out, and creative, then the writing of a story might not become the central highlight. In fact, whenever I read something, the subject is what I am most concerned with. It is only in an academic reading that I bother to judge the merits of writing (the exception, of course, being when writing is abysmally poor).
But that’s what I’m trying to get these kids to do. And, hopefully, I can see these ideas take fruit next week. Because we’re going on to workshoppin’!