The story I am about to tell happened because of Hemingway. But it wasn’t his fault.
In English, we’d been reading The Old Man and the Sea for almost a week. For those unfamiliar with this particular book, it is 96 pages long. Also, we were on the block system. In case you don’t feel like doing the math, I’ll break it down: we were reading the same 96-page book for an hour and a half every day.
I finished on the second day, but complied with the mandatory Reading Time by bringing another book. M was not amused. She wanted to know where my Hemingway was. Then she sent me to go get it.
At my locker, I just stood there, looking at the inside of the door. I’d taped up pictures because other girls taped up pictures, but mine were sepia-toned and not quite right—postcards of Albert Einstein and Marilyn Monroe. They coexisted more or less peacefully with my locker-partner’s shrine to Brad Pitt.
I was standing there, seething over M, when Gatsby came down the hall toward me.
This is what I wrote about him a year later,* when we had the same history class, but I’m including it here because here is as good a place as any and sometimes you just need to know about a person:
First, about Gatsby. He is 16, and has black hair and blue eyes, and his teeth are crooked from being kicked in the mouth so many times. He’s not very big, but his body seems angular and tough, like if he were already grown up. He smiles a lot, is always nice to me, and sometimes tries very hard in class, although mostly not.
[In History] he always has something to say, and usually it is something so desperate and passionate and indignant that I envy him for being able to say it, like no one was going to laugh at him for caring so much.
Gatsby is a hard boy to explain to someone who hasn’t met him. Even hard to explain to the people around here, who know him. He’s rough and loud, but in a way, still very gallant.** I like him very much, in the only way I can. I like him in the way of a small girl in the back row of 4th hour History, watching closely, but never saying anything.
That day though, I didn’t know anything about him. I was still unacquainted with his character, his eccentricities. I was only a very quiet, very cautious girl looking at a stranger, limited to what I could see.
And what I could see did not look good. He was holding a red paper Coke cup against the side of his face. When he stopped at his locker, he opened it with a little flourish that was supposed to make me laugh. One eye was swollen part-way closed.
“Hi,” he said. The corner of his mouth had cracked and was bleeding in a tiny bright smudge.
I looked around to see if he might be talking to someone else, but like with Robert DeNiro in Taxi Driver, I was the only one there. I couldn’t think of anything to say, so I nodded.
I’d heard him talk before, to other people. He sold drugs. We were smack in the middle of what is now quaintly termed a “meth belt,” and I’d heard him going over his theories on supply and demand. His voice was lower than you’d think from looking at him. When he smiled, blood feathered out from the cut in his lip.
He dug through his locker, still watching me, but not unkindly. “It’s not bad. I mean, it could have been worse.”
I raised my eyebrows and that made him smile again.
“Of course it could,” he said. “Things can always be worse.” He touched the corner of his mouth with his tongue. “Guess it looks bad, huh?”
I nodded. Every time he smiled, he showed a mouthful of chipped teeth. His skin was clammy-looking. His knuckles were scraped, scabbing over. Every thing looked pretty bad.
“I got lucky,” he said, suddenly. “He was plowed and I got lucky. Almost too drunk to keep standing, you know. If he hadn’t been so drunk, I’d probably be in the hospital. That would be worse.” He held the cup against his cheek and shrugged. “It’s been worse.”
And this story is the truth. It’s what happened, but all I wrote at the time was this:
Gatsby was in the halls yesterday when no one else except me was there. He pointed to a bruise on his cheekbone, said, “I got lucky. If he hadn’t been so drunk, I’d probably be in the hospital. He was just plowed, though. Almost too drunk to stand, you know. It could’ve been worse. Things can always be worse.”
Then I moved on to something comfortable and mundane because I was 16 and sharp enough to know what he was telling me, but not articulate enough to talk about it. What I felt but did not say was that I had seen Gatsby, not in words, but in gestures—that his meaningful features were all in the pauses, in the way he never dropped his gaze or looked ashamed.
I’ve talked before about other people’s stories sometimes being your stories too, and that sounds so simplistic but I don’t know how else to say it. This was one of those moments when stories converged, and later, it was also the moment that made me understand I was always going to fail at describing the world. It was only ever going to be approximate, and all I could do was try, and after that, try harder.
And I hated The Old Man and the Sea, but suddenly I understood Hemingway, what he meant about the dignity of icebergs. How it’s due to seven eighths of them always being underwater.
*By junior year, I’d mostly abandoned the field-guide format. Even though I recorded Gatsby’s contributions to class discussion on a fairly regular basis, it wasn’t until I’d observed him at close range for almost a semester that I finally got around to writing an actual introduction.
**I don’t want you to get the wrong idea. Gatsby wasn’t virtuous or noble—he wasn’t one of the good guys. But this pronouncement stands, at least: he was always nice to me.
Brenna, I know you get this all the time from other readers and commenters, but your writing is so incredible and fascinating and just makes sense. If that makes sense. ^_^ I’ve been reading your blog for a while (but never left a message before) and each post leaves me wanting to read more. Also, I’m really looking forward to your book. *squee*
Hi Taure, I’m so glad that you stopped in to comment! I’m glad you like the posts, because I like writing them :) and I really like the discussions that tend to come out of them. I just think people’s stories are so interesting, and I love when I can share them with other people who think they’re interesting too!
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These snippets are gorgeous. Thanks for continuing to share them with us.
No, Jessica—thank you for reading them :) (It took me a ridiculously long time to figure out what my blog should look like and what I had to say and then one day it hit me, “Hey, I’ve always had a *lot* to say and just never said it!”)
I often feel lost and isolated when I read these posts. There’s an elegant symmetry to your writing that creates tension. It’s magical really. Seductive. I’m a little in awe of you. It’s like your writing is watching the reader. Love your work.
I know my life’s a pain and but a span
I know my sense is mocked with everything;
And to conclude, I know myself a man
Which is a proud and yet a wretched thing.
From Nosce Teipsum ~ Sir John Davies
Thanks, Simon! Again, you’ve come through with an excellent and uncommonly appropriate poem :)
Young Brenna reminds me of a quietier, less sarcastic Daria, which is a show I absolutely adored.
I would read/watch anything based on these tales with relish. And maybe mustard.
Bob, I LOVED Daria! (Though I definitely lacked her bite.) However, my senior year, I had a fantastic friend who looked, thought, and talked like her—absolutely entertaining, but you never wanted to be on her bad side!
Beautiful and brutal, like all your high school stories.
Listening to The Old Man and The Sea audiotape (narrated by Charlton Heston, no less) in a dark, 98 degree classroom the last week of freshman year remains one of the longest and most hellish experiences of my schooling.
Okay, I have to say, the fact that it was Charlton Heston actually makes that kind of awesome in a really surreal and terrible way.
Also, as much as I hated the book, the week, the class, I do have one small, sweet memory of it: I was clearly not the first person to have the Old Man and the Sea Problem, and someone before me had drawn extremely laborious and detailed little flip-books on all the corners, so I spent two days passive-aggressively riffling my pages to see a stick-man dunk a basketball, win a race, walk over the top of a chair like Buster Keaton, and leap into bed with a waiting stick-girl to have vigorous stick-sex.
I’ve always wished I could find that flip-book artist and personally thank them.
It was almost a redeeming quality, though it didn’t make it any less sophoric. We did have some fun trying to mimic his epic pronunciation of “the great DiMaggio”, though.
That’s rather amazing. I love strange graffiti and commentary.
Ah, the great DiMaggio. And his bone-spur. Wow, I’m having flashbacks now of how much I hate that book :)
We also did a lot of listening to audio performances in that class. In a dark room. While sleeping.
I have such a soft spot for good voice-over. Back when I was in high school, MTV would sometimes play reruns of My So-Called Life in the afternoons and my sister and I would watch them and mock them and make fun of how earnest and improbable everyone was—and then I just saw that show again recently and was like, “Wow, it . . . actually kind of *was* like that. Who knew?”
Brenna – how old are you? (If it’s okay to ask) “My So Called Life” was soooo one of my favorite shows growing up. I remember when it went off the air I tried to get people together to write to the network to keep it alive. I was so sad to see it go. And the voice over was great!
Totally okay to ask :) I’m 30, which means I was about the same age as the characters when it originally aired, but we didn’t have TV at my house yet. Then, during the time it was in reruns, the outfits were just barely outdated and just barely ridiculous!
I’m only 2 years younger than you so we were about the same age when this was a hit. And I have to admit, I still slightly like some of those clothes, but then again I’m kind of always stuck in a different generation (style wise, music wise, etc..). :)
To me, that’s one of the annoying things when I write, the fact that alll I can write is really that initial, superficial glance. I mean, especially when it’s one of those parts or a character description that I really want to nail. But, because of the very nature of this, of different people seeing different things a lot of the time, and well, I can’t change that. But then, writing also has that bit to it that lets you dig under that outside layer and find out what’s under there. But then, how much of that is the writing, and how much is just the thinking? Because with my characters, I know quite a lot about all of them, and I haven’t really started writing yet. So how much am I going to learn from the actual writing? And then, when do I start? Because truthfully, I’m kind of terrified to, for several reasons. One, I’m still trying to plot out book one (after having plotted out five books, I scrapped book one, and I’m still stuck on that), and I want to write, but I know that trying to write a book without an outline is generally a bad idea, even though not having a clue about the ending works for school essays. Two, I’ve heard all of these stories about writing as a teenager, and the writing coming out just terrible (yes, I was a spectator at the high school week on Merry Fates), and in most of these stories, the book never sees the light of day. And last, but kind of including those other two, I’m afraid I’m going to mess up on something, and then I’ll go back to fix it, but then I’ll lose that spark that I had in the first place, and make it even worse than it was before, then mutilate it so bad, that it won’t be able to go back and fix it ever. But then I’m not sure if I need to just get it over with and write it, or wait until I’m absolutely ready. But then, I’ll just have to figure that out for myself, won’t I?
I can only say how it’s been for me, but on a certain level, writing has always been kind of scary. It’s a big commitment and it takes a while to figure out if you have the stamina for it, since the only way you ever know is by actually doing it. It’s like that whole idea of the map being the territory: “Can I do this? If I do it, then I’ll know that I can.” The good news is, people who want to be writers have usually already been acting like writers for a long time (you know—reading, writing).
I think one of the most important things is just to keep yourself from getting paralyzed. Practice makes a huge difference in the long run. It wasn’t until years later when I could look back and see early bits of good writing mixed in with the early bad stuff that I realized the whole time I’d been practicing, I’d also been improving.
There was a very minor character in my first serious (and yes, doomed) attempt at a YA novel who was very transparently me. She carried around a black notebook all the time and one of the main characters asked her why she was always writing things down. She told him it was because she wanted to be a writer and she figured that it was really hard to get good, but if she started now, by the time she was old enough to be taken seriously, she’d be way ahead of everyone else. (Apparently, I also felt that no one took me seriously.)
Basically, what I’d say is this: it’s tempting to wait, to hold off on writing the thing you love until you feel like you’re good enough to do it justice, but I don’t think you can. You only grow into your voice and your style by writing the things you really care about, because caring about something forces you to put yourself into it. It forces you to push forward, to write the uncomfortable things, and that’s also usually the good stuff.
Thanks. Just, thanks. This is the best advice I have ever had about writing, and it’s definitely something I will take to heart.
The last bit, a great quote. I don’t always make time to read everyone’s comments. I’m missing out on some good stuff.
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Have I mentioned how much I love reading your high school reflections? Because I do–so, so much. There’s such an amazing depth to them!
Oh, I’m glad you’re enjoying them! I’ve really been having a good time putting them together and figuring out what I want to say.