Reopening an old chapter in my notebook

Tuesday, September 24, 2019 - 3:05pm

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Design by Jack Silberman

My hands trembled as I carried my laptop in my sweaty palms, nervousness filling my brain. I walked with no urgency, trying to drag the process out as long as possible. I hoped for any sort of divine intervention that would delay the event that was about to unfold: I had to present my writer’s notebook in front of my entire class. 

As I made my way to the podium, I placed the laptop down with a sense of trepidation, unsure of what would come next. I had presented in front of many classrooms before, but there was something different about this one — instead of the typical presentation, covering a topic from the class, I was presenting my fiction writing. 

This work was all my own, a journey into the depths of my creativity. Would my classmates like the style of my work, or would they find it boring? Would they understand the story, or would they pan its lack of plot development? I was trying something new but also very risky: showing what I thought passed for good fiction, which might have been completely opposite from what everyone else thought.

Before we get to that story, let me backtrack for a minute. One day, in my 11th grade English class, I had a severe case of writer’s block while trying to write my writer’s notebook for the week. Every week, we had to write a one-to-two-page story about any topic we wanted and present it in front of the class, either sitting at your desk or at the class podium (you got more brownie points if you gave it at the podium). These pieces were a significant portion of my grade and much care had to go into crafting them. They had to be interesting; full of pithy literary description; and, more importantly, authentic. Try as I may have, I could not pull out an interesting life story from the depths of my brain that I wanted to share with the class. 

For my first entry, I tried to make watching a baseball game seem like an otherworldly experience, filled with an overload of visual description. On a trip the summer before my junior year of high school, I watched the Blue Jays game from the top of the CN Tower, the tallest building in Toronto. 

Watching from that far intrigued me. It was unlike any baseball game I had seen: The fans looked like mere dots in blue seats; the players on the field were barely discernible from the color of the grass. From that far up, I was unable to see the ball as a cue to what was happening in the game. Being the baseball buff that I am, my entry became about how the lack of visual clarity forced me to imagine what was happening in the game, and how I had to reach deep into my baseball knowledge to make sense of it at all. 

I stepped up to the plate and began to read my writing. While I thought this piece was quite creative, apparently my class and the teacher didn’t feel the same way, and I decided I needed to change tack. But to what, exactly? I wasn’t chock-full of remarkable stories, and trying to make my boring life events seem interesting didn’t work. I went to my teacher for advice, and that’s when the spark hit me — I would pivot to writing fiction.

Given my history of writing creative stories, I should have realized it earlier, but I was too afraid to share my mystery stories with the class. Being the insecure eleventh grader that I was, I no longer had the burning desire of my seventh-grade self to share my fiction in front of such opinionated teenagers. What if they found my ideas to be rip-offs, or too much like history class, or just plain boring? How could I keep them enthralled, without losing that all-important descriptive factor? I should write a story based off of Sherlock Holmes, with a continuing plot arc that would keep listeners coming back.

I would try to keep them in suspense with a murder mystery, with a few twists of my own. I wanted to set the stories in the modern-day, but the main character would travel back in time — incorporating my love of technology — and be forced to solve the mystery in order to return to the present. 

After adding in my love of history, I now had a story set in present-day England, with a brief flashback to the Victorian era, an enthralling period for me. The contrast between the technological advancements of the Industrial Revolution and the grittiness of 1890s London made for a perfect conflict and the presence of a modern-day character trying to make sense of the past would make it more palpable for my contemporary audience. 

I thought I had a most pleasant idea, but I was still filled with doubt as to whether they would accept it. Standing at the podium, I was about to test that proposition. 

Though I was always uncomfortable speaking in front of the class, I was more nervous than usual this time. I kept tripping over my words, the uncertainty still lingering over my voice. 

I started off the story in an old English country estate, with a man unsure as to his place in the modern world. He felt lonely and out of his time, looking for a way out of his boring life as a London banker. He wished he could be a detective, given his sharp mental skills, helping people solve their most pressing mysteries. Though he had plenty of money, he couldn’t find satisfaction, and was trying to fulfill it by buying a manor in the countryside, a respite from his busy city life. While on the house tour, he found a secret bookshelf in the study, and all of a sudden, he became absorbed into a roaring wind, and then a whole new world: 1890s London. Thrown into this new environment, the main character decides to adopt the role of his favorite fictional character, Sherlock Holmes. To see whether this grand idea would work, you would have to wait for the next entry, and thus my series was born.

After I finally delivered the last word, I looked up to see what my audience thought, and to my complete surprise the spoken feedback was a lot more positive than I thought it would be. My teacher liked this a lot more, and I realized I did too. The formula was so plainly obvious I missed it: Write about something you are interested in, and that authenticity will shine through.