Get Off My Lawn

“Oh you’re a writer?” she asked. Jen sat across from me in the break room. She munched on baby carrots and sliced green peppers. She had seen me working on a story on my laptop and plopped herself opposite me, thinking, apparently, it was an excellent time to interrupt. I replied, “I write stories and poems, but am I a writer? I don’t know.”

“You’re a writer,” she said. A grin draped across her face. “You know, I do a little writing myself.”

Everything Jen had just told me insta-morphed me into a literary curmudgeon who sits on his front porch giving passersby the stink eye while sipping a cup of coffee. First, she breezed over the generalization that one who writes is by default a writer, the way a political pundit breezes over facts. One who composes a sonnet isn’t a poet in the same way that one who makes coffee isn’t a barista. Second, her scrivener proclamation was meant solely as bait.

I nibbled. “What do you write?”

She pushed herself up in her seat. “Don’t laugh, but I write fanfic. Have you seen Vampire Diaries?”

“Heard of it.”

“Well, yeah, so I just write stories about those characters.”

There I am, a largemouth bass, relaxing in a clear pond minding my own business, when suddenly I sees a squirming minnow, just floating there looking delicious.

The minnow says, “Hello. Lovely day, isn’t it? You hungry?”

I reply, “I could eat.”

“C’mon, gimme a taste.” The minnow shakes its tale appetizingly.

“I can see the hook. It’s right there just under your dorsal fin.”

The minnow looks downtrodden. It’s failed in its purpose.  It says, “Please sir, just eat me. I’m a goner anyway.”

So I, not wanting to offend the poor minnow, take a bite.

Back in the break room, I shut my laptop and snatched one of her carrots. As I bit into it, I asked, “What kind of stories?”

Jen said, “Like, I imagine them in different situations. Do you know Ian Somerhalder? He plays a guy named Damon that I write about a lot. I post it online and a lot of people seem to like it.”

“That’s cool.”

“What do you write?” she asked.

I could feel the hook’s smooth, teflon point prodding my upper lip. I could have quit right there. Grabbed my laptop, and excused myself to the bathroom, but instead I journeyed on. “Well I don’t write fanfic,” I said with a smile. “Right now I’m working on a novel.”

“What’s it about?”

“Just, uh, just based on life in the midwest.”

“Cool,” she said. “Maybe we could read each others’ work sometime.”

This was it. The hook was just about to be set. It pierced the top layer of skin and suddenly I had second thoughts. I made a half-assed attempt at retreat.

“My work isn’t really ready to be read. And won’t be. For a while.”

“You could read mine,” she said. “I’m always looking for feedback.”

The hook punctured my lip and caught hold. There was no escape. “Yeah, I could do that.”

Of course, Jen beamed. She knew I studied English in college and looked forward to getting feedback from someone in the know. But the curmudgeon in me had gone full Gran Torino. To myself and my closest friends I complained about the pseudo-genre of fanfic and how there was no doubt within in me that I was about to read something more teeth-gnashingly awful than sitting through Gilbert Gottfried reading Fifty Shades of Grey.

The next day she brought in one of her short stories and handed it to me telling me it was one of her best. That evening, when I got home, I pushed away my doubt and approached it with an open mind. However, it lived up to its expectations. There were bulging crotches and glimpses of cleavage and non-witty “witty” one-liners–all sorts of kitschy, formulaic plot and character arcs that would give Twilight a run for its money. But as I read, a question formed slowly, starting as a whisper and ending in a scream. As a writer, what is her goal?

My goal with every piece is to first create something well written, and second, something that entertains and/or challenges. But that doesn’t apply to everyone. Some write as a form of self-expression. Others simply because they enjoy it. And others still write to sort of make it big. I couldn’t critique her piece unless I knew her purpose for writing it.

If her fanfic was meant to someday be published or was meant to tell an enchanting story, then I’m sorry to say, it failed miserably. It was an over-sexed, corny adventure story that was light on the adventure and heavy on the pornish dialogue. But did that mean it was bad? Honestly, it would have been a shame to the literary world were it published, but as a venture in creative thought, what wrong can be spoken of it?

The following day, I approached Jen and she smiled at me sheepishly. I held her story and she glanced at it, then back up to me. “What did you think?” she asked.

I asked her what her goal in writing it was. “Honestly,” I said, “If your goal is to get something like this published, it would need a lot of work.”

“Oh I don’t want to be published,” she replied immediately. “It’s just a hobby I enjoy.”

“Okay,” I said. “I’m gonna add a few notes over lunch. I’ll get it to you after break.”

In the end, I made a few suggestions to (I think) improve the characters and the plot, but most of what I said was meant to encourage. I noted her use of foreshadowing and good use of metaphor and simile. What she said without saying directly was that she wrote for the sake of enjoyment, for exploring ideas, fantasies, whatever, that she may have otherwise never considered. Because of this, I encouraged her to continue on. The literary curmudgeon inside me had quieted and I pushed my pretentiousness aside to allow someone who considered themself a writer (even though every bone inside me protested the title) to embrace their craft and continue on.

If my lawn was literature and I was Clint Eastwood, then I had decided it would be okay if I allowed a few people to have their own little picnic on it. And eating that minnow didn’t turn out to be so bad after all.

Steven E. Athay is an aspiring story designer and connoisseur of all things awesome. Follow him on Twitter at @steveneathay, or read his blog Afflatus.


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