The first essay in our Creative Nonfiction workshop is due next week, and a student comes up to me after class.
"Can I, like, write fiction and then go out and do it?"
He shuffles a little and moves sideways as other students edge out behind him, shifting his backpack on the floor. He stares at his feet while they pass, and then looks up earnestly.
"I mean, I know this is supposed to be true, but I haven't done anything very interesting. I'd like to write something entertaining. So could I write fiction and then go out and do it so it's nonfiction?"
I suggest that the question he's asking might be a good start to an essay, and rush off to meet my husband and son for dinner. It's Thursday night, there's a long line at Zachary's Pizza in Rockridge, which smells of sausage and pepperoni, and of the dregs of the red wine the woman next to me at the counter has been drinking. It's already cold and dark outside, but Zachary's is warm and noisy, full of good cheer.
Over dinner I tell Steve and Ben about my student.
"So what'd you say?" my son asks.
"I told him I didn't know. 'I mean, I guess so,' I said. 'Or maybe that would be a good beginning to your essay, just what you asked, in exactly those words.'" I'm starting to worry now about whether I should have thought a little more about my reply.
Class doesn't meet again until Tuesday, and I'm wondering all weekend what exactly Brad Lerner is going to write and then go out and do. I don't have much of an impression of him yet. A sandy-haired, polite, kind of gangly kid from Castro Valley, a nearby farming town become suburb, he's been sitting in the back row, quiet and seemingly attentive, hasn't volunteered any comments yet as we discuss the opening chapters of the textbook: Who-What-When-Where-How, the merits of scene over exposition, handling dialogue and characterization, using the five senses in description. We've read only a handful of essays so far: Maxine Hong Kingston's "No Name Woman," Judith Ortiz Cofer's "The Story of My Body," Joan Didion's "Goodbye to All That," Jo Ann Beard's "The Fourth State of Matter." Not from an immigrant family, or the victim of racism (though surely there are some race problems at Castro Valley High), or old enough to be looking back at a golden era of his youth in a glamorous city, he probably feels there are no precedents here for what he might write. Beard's essay about the 1991 shootings in the University of Iowa Physics Department is disturbing. Surely he's not going to write a short story about a campus massacre at a state university and then go out and commit one in order to produce an interesting essay for his English class.
Maybe he's going to go out and court danger or seek opportunities for heroic action in one of the many violence-prone urban neighborhoods that the East Bay offers. It would be hard to script that in advance. How could you write a story and then act out a scenario without knowing the specifics of the dangerous situation you might encounter? Maybe he's going to commit a criminal act instead of saving someone from a criminal. Rob a 7-11? It happens here all the time. "I pulled up the hood on my sweat shirt and strode into the store, checking to be sure I was the only customer." Or maybe he's looking for romance or passion. He'll imagine her first. "I looked across the room and then I saw her. She was laughing, leaning against the bar, her long blonde hair shining. She turned and our eyes locked." He could probably script the beginning, but maybe not what would happen next. He'll be depressed if she blows him off.
Monday morning I open the newspaper with some trepidation, wondering if anything will jump out at me, but it's the usual muggings and robberies, drug busts and loitering, dogs lost and found. No Brad Lerner, in the local paper at least.
Finally it's Tuesday afternoon, time for class. I circulate, gathering papers, scanning the room. No Brad. This is not so unusual, the day the first paper is due. I keep expecting him to burst through the door halfway through class, but it doesn't happen. I check my email after class, wondering whether he's contacted me with an excuse, but there's nothing from him. I sit hunched over my desk, reading through the series of emailed explanations from other students while I flip through the stack of papers from the workshop.
"I'm so sorry, Professor, but I was rear-ended and my car was towed. I'll be there Thursday."
"Sunday night we had to rush to the hospital with my Great Gramma. It's touch and go."
"I just realized that today is Tuesday. My alarm clock says Monday, and I thought I had plenty of time to write the paper. Sorry I missed today. Needless to say, I'll get rid of the clock."
"I had to go to work early, but my paper is attached. Did anything happen in class today?"
It is too late to ask Gloria, the department secretary, whether she's heard anything from Brad, so I pack up and go home.
The next morning Gloria is painting her fingernails a brilliant shade of scarlet. The smell of nail polish fills the office. She tells me she hasn't heard anything. On Thursday Brad is absent again. And on the following Tuesday. His name is still on the roster, but he's nowhere to be found. He doesn't reply to my email asking if he will be dropping the class. I check with Gloria to see what else he's taking, and Ron Eddy and Judy Rosen both tell me he's disappeared from their classes as well.
It's been a few months now. The quarter is over, and I have to give Brad a UW for "Unauthorized Withdrawal." I take the form to Gloria, whose nails are chartreuse today.
"So who's Brad Lerner?" she asks, setting aside her eyeliner as she searches for his student ID number on her computer. "Why didn't he do an 'Authorized Withdrawal'?"
"I'm wondering that too." I pick up one of Gloria's paperweights, a map of the world in a flattened glass dome: pale blue oceans, continents in pink, yellow, pale green. Her desk is a mess, overflowing with papers and knickknacks and makeup, but somehow she always knows where everything is.
"Where do I send the yellow copy?" She holds up the stack of carbons: pink for the administration, orange for the department, green for the faculty member, yellow for the student.
"I really don't know. He could be anywhere by now." In a momentary mental slide show, I picture him worshipping by the Ganges, hunting big game in Africa, running alongside the bulls in Pamplona, walking the tightrope in a circus in Ecuador. "He could really be anywhere."
©2011 by Jacqueline Doyle