Note: This piece was originally published in the CERN Student Club’s “Creative Voices” in 2009. The website is now under major revamp, so I am republishing it here.
When she was ten Janine was asked to write a story based on four pictures in her mandarin writing class. The first picture showed several workers working in a factory, the second showed a worker injuring himself when operating a machine, the third and forth showed him being sent to the hospital and recuperating at home.
The pictures were ridiculously boring and mind numbingly conventional. For a class designated for training the creative writing skills of the students, they sure didn’t leave much space for imagination, but that was the sort of story that was likely to come up in the state exam that Janine was going to sit for later that year. So the teacher wanted the class to write a story out of the glaring obviousness depicted by the pictures.
In a stroke of brilliance and perhaps even a little mischief, Janine came up with a story about Aliens. Yes, Aliens. She wrote about Aliens who have taken the form of human beings and have secretly invaded the factory in order to get the first hand information on Milo production, because in the young mind of Janine, Milo was the most delicious drink in the world. That was before Janine discovered beer, of course.
And then one day, a worker in the factory named Achmed discovered the secret plan of the Alien invaders. In a frantic attempt to keep their identity a secret, the Aliens created an ‘industrial accident’, which if successful, was going to send Achmed into eternal damnation, along with the secret of the Aliens.
Being the hero of the story, Achmed did not die, instead he only sustained a broken arm. He was sent to the hospital, where he told the staffs there about the truth of the Aliens. But unfortunately, nobody believed him. They thought he was traumatized by the incident and had become crazy. And who is Achmed to fight the revered authority of modern medical diagnosis, even if it bears a name as absurd and meaningless as Cephaloneuronal Disseminata? Even in her bout of creative wandering, Janine didn’t forget the teacher’s instruction of conveying positive and desirable moral values in her story. So she decided that Achmed would stand by his defense of Alien invasion with dignity and the belief that truth will always prevail. But sadly, in the imperfect world that we live in, integrity and honesty are not the prescripted remedy for craziness. So Achmed was sent to ‘recuperate’ in an asylum, which was where his ‘home’ was in the last picture.
Now tell me, that was a brilliant story, isn’t it? So why did the teacher ask Janine to rewrite the whole story, specifically stating that it must be REALISTIC and ‘contains the elements of love, courage and workplace awareness’? In other words, the teacher asked Janine to write what everyone else wrote, which was the thing Janine detested the most.
That incident jarred her thoughts and left an imprint in Janine which will change her forever. She didn’t want to be alienated, so she learned how to write grade A essays. She learned the rules of the game (read: exams) and became the teacher’s favorite student again. Since then she’s written countless model essays and won many prizes, all the while suppressing that tiny ‘Alien’ in her.
People always ask me the same question when I ask them to write for this newsletter: What should I write about? That question disconcerts me, not because of the potential hazard I could wreck if I were to start giving out literature advices, but because how difficult it actually is to provide an answer which is satisfactory, non-patronizing and most of all, I personally believe in with all my heart. Trust me, I have been through my fair share of writer’s block, alternating between staring at the walls wishing that they would speak to me and at the blinking cursor on the computer screen willing them to start spewing out Shakespearean wonder.
Now don’t think that I haven’t asked the same question to anyone else. The first person that I asked that question to was my uncle. I was at an inquisitive age, and he told me the best way to write is to first come up with a darn good idea. He also told me an idea that is not dangerous is unworthy of being called an idea at all, even if it means choosing the unorthodoxy and condemned path. Because critics will always exist, they will always be the merciless predator who preys on your weaknesses.We write to be judged, he would tell me, and I imagine myself standing before a court of uptight wig-wearing judges defending my choice of vocabulary (“What could you possibly mean by ‘you are a nincompoop’, young missy?”, “It means ‘you are an idiot’, your honor.”, “ARE THOSE YOUR LAST WORDS???”).
As you can imagine I didn’t quite like his advice. I thought he was trying to project his anachronism onto my young and impressionable mind. But somewhat inexplicably, what he said stuck to me and quite annoyingly, I think he might even be right.
But over time I also discovered that the mind is a treasure vault which is unlocked with just a sprinkle of this magic powder called imagination. My dad always tells me inspiration comes from your life’s experience, however mundane or insignificant you think they are. Even if you’re not a shiznit at everything you do, everybody has a story to tell. I liked my dad’s version of “How to Write for Dummies”. But even with all these foolproof advices thrown my way from all over, I still struggled to communicate with my non-responsive walls. Why can George Orwell come up with a revolutionary fiction like 1984 and why can’t I even write a decent passage about say, mushrooms?
Once I was asked to write an educational article about lethal fungus for a newsletter of a regional consumer association. What I thought of as a witty and informative article eventually ended up in the ‘Jokes’ section of the newsletter, reason being my ‘funny’ pen name. I was a bit miffed, of course, because I thought ‘Super Mario’ is such an appropriate alias for an article about ‘super’ mushrooms and the editor should be able to see through the humor of it. But would I have changed it if I’ve known earlier? Probably not. I’m beginning to understand my uncle’s ‘Predator Theory’ and what he was trying to tell me.
And yes, I do realize that writing an article articulating my point of me being a bad writer is an oxymoron in itself. But I think by now we have established the fact that I am not the best person to go to when you need writing advices. I heard that Stephen Hawking at some point when he was writing A Brief History of Time thought that he must’ve lost his mind. And I think I understand how he must’ve felt. In no way am I suggesting that I am in the same league in literature as Professor Hawking is in physics (I do have nicer hair, though). So as to not appear like a total moron who bites her own tongue because of her bold attempt to write an article about writing, I am going to quote one of my favorite author Kurt Vonnegut on how to write well,
1. Find a subject you care about.
2. Do not ramble, though.
3. Keep it simple.
4. Have the guts to cut.
5. Sound like yourself.
6. Say what you mean to say.
7. Pity the readers.
Couldn’t have said it better myself. Oh and I’m Janine by the way.