Tag Archives: DIYMFA

Writing Fiction from Point Zero

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I’m nearly finished reading Gabriela Pereira’s upcoming how-to manual for writers, DIYMFA. My review will appear here by the end of the week. You can check out the book here:

DIY MFA Book

This week, she’s challenged her team of early reviewers to write about our Point Zero moment, that moment when we first became writers. That’s easy for me; I became a fiction writer when I killed a boy.

Relax. I only killed him on paper, and it was so refreshing, better than any fancy-shmancy therapy.

I was a young high school teacher, only twenty-six, and not yet skilled at defusing classroom conflicts. Bubba, a big, thick jock, landed in my French class. Funny and playful, he was one of my favorite students up to that terrifying day. We’d been doing a creative activity that involved lots of discussion. I needed the class to quiet down for further instructions, but Bubba didn’t want to quiet down. Instead, he bolted from his chair and started shouting at me. I later learned that he was rather dangerously unhinged, but this was my first inkling of trouble.

Anyway, when I asked Bubba to step out into the hallway, he flushed a deep purple and unleashed a torrent of abuse, crazy stuff along the lines of “You can’t tell me what to do, Bitch.” And then he plumped down into his seat, his arms crossed, and glowered up at the clock, waiting for the bell to ring.

You could have heard the proverbial pin drop. The other students gaped at him, and then at me. You know, they don’t teach you about this stuff in college education classes. Quietly, I retreated behind my desk and picked up the phone. “Saved by the bell” has never rung truer as when Bubba stomped out a moment later.

I didn’t cry—I’m not usually a crier, but I was shaking so hard I could barely dial the principal’s office. At the end of the school day, after having met with the principal and the counselor, I was still shaking. When the school’s hallways quieted, I sat at my desk, reviewing what had happened, what I might have said to set him off, what I could have done differently. The kid was suspended for his outburst, but he’d be back. I was a skinny little thing, and he was a hulking brute. How could I protect myself?

And then my eyes landed on the three-hole punch. It was one of those heavy monsters you find in classrooms and offices, five pounds at least, with a convenient handle. If a person were to swing that hole-punch overhead and bring it crashing down on someone’s skull, that would do some serious damage. Cerrunch! I could picture the moment, and it felt good.

I sat down at my computer and slammed out the beginning of a story right then and there: a young female teacher is confronted by a big, angry jock student who threatens her, lunges for her. In a panic, she grabs the hole-punch and crushes his skull. Blood everywhere, soaking into the carpet. Where could she hide the body? She sneaks down the hallway to the janitor’s supply closet and nabs a roll of those heavy-duty blue trash bags…

On and on I went, detailing every move the quaking young teacher made as she hides the body in a vacant locker, planning to retrieve it over the weekend. But when she comes back, late Saturday night, the body has been moved! A trail of ants leads to the gym, where the dead jock has been stuffed beneath the bleachers. Who could have done it?

This was fun! I must’ve hunched over my keyboard for a good hour, my fingers flying. When I finally stopped, I felt—relieved, refreshed, empowered. Whatever happened next, I could face it because I’d already killed that evildoer. As it turns out, he soon left school.

I never finished that creepy little story, but I’ve since written several more, plus two novels, and I’m working on a third. And it all started with the question from which all story ideas come: What if?

Whither Creativity?

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I’m part of a team of advance readers for Gabriela Pereira’s upcoming DIYMFA, a book in which she presents the essentials of creative writing that she learned while earning her MFA. So far, I’m enjoying her book, especially her concise way of presenting the various types of plot conflicts, with concrete examples. Look for DIYMFA this July. Check it out here:  http://diymfa.com/product/diy-mfa-book

This week, she’s asked us advance readers to comment on which of these myths about creativity we’ve fallen prey to.

  1. Creativity is an exclusive club, and you can’t be part of it.
  2. Creativity is innate–you either have it or you don’t.
  3. Creativity is driven by chaos, so there’s no way to control it.
  4. Creativity is all about getting that one “Big Idea.”
  5. Creativity is focusing on an idea until it’s perfect.

Honestly, Gabriela, I haven’t stumbled over any of these. Am I unusual in that respect? I hope not. All of us are creative—creativity is a basic human drive. How we express our creativity varies greatly, of course: writing, dancing, making music, making visual art, building things, repairing things, designing things, growing things…

Looking back at my upbringing, I don’t recall any family members or teachers who tried to squash or belittle my creative efforts. My parents were at least patient with my many “projects,” and were supportive of my many performances. My sister, my friends and I were forever building forts, putting on shows, making witch’s brews of leaves and mud, excavating “jewels,” composing songs—on and on. Typical kid stuff, right? Mom did insist that we learn a musical instrument, though she promised we could quit after two years if we truly hated it. Neither my sister nor I quit.

A few special mentors helped me to see myself as especially creative. In the fourth grade, Mrs. Graham cast me as the Spanish dancer in our class “recreation” of a Spanish rancho during our California history unit. She noticed my love of dance and lent me her antique, embroidered shawl to whirl about, not even complaining when I accidentally stepped on the fringe.

I was blessed with an excellent band teacher and two demanding but nurturing drama teachers, all of whom gave me the chance to shine onstage. It was an honor to do the same for my drama students when I taught theater classes.

And writing has always come easily to me. As young as eight or nine, I’d lie awake at night, spinning stories in my head. I remember creating what would today be called “fan fiction,” new stories based on characters from TV’s Batman and Star Trek. I recall a Catwoman-esque character who fought on the side of good, climbing buildings at night to protect Gotham City from nefarious types, like the nasty boy down the street.

So, where do the ideas come from? I dunno—they just come. Doesn’t everyone slide into daydreams about “Wouldn’t it be funny if…” or “Wouldn’t it be ironic if…” or “What if I found a dead body in those bushes over there?”

Of course, a surplus of ideas doesn’t equal a publication-ready story. That’s the hard part. And lots of readers wouldn’t agree with me about what constitutes an interesting story. But there’s no doubt that I’m a creative type. I have no doubt that you are too.