Thursday, September 1, 2011

Will Write for CandySEP 1ST, 2011 BY TALKING WRITING
By Richard Price
What Readers—Not Teachers—Want

Coming Soon: TW’s Next Issue and “Why I Write”

Happy 1st Birthday, Talking Writing! Next Monday—September 5—we launch a provocative new issue about teaching writing. And in our new bimonthly format, we’ll update the TW site with more pieces every week throughout September and October.

As part of our anniversary celebration, the Sept/Oct 2011 issue will include a selection of “Why I Write” essays. Here Rich Price kicks things off with an unusual form of inspiration….

The contest: Write a two-page short story on the spot, the winner to be decided by fifth graders in Miss Hogan’s class.

The prize: a foot-long Hershey’s bar, compliments of the teacher.

I want to win, but the field is crowded. There are almost 20 entrants, including myself, each with our eyes on the chocolate prize.

I start to write, something about a UFO landing or Bigfoot. I write a page and then stop. I look around the room and realize everyone is writing about UFOs or Bigfoot.

Then I know. This story needs vomit—lots of it.

There is plenty of inspiration. The bug is going around, and last week Brian Trask heaved up a Hostess blueberry pie during history. Why not a story about a superhero with superhuman puking abilities? The storylines are endless. Captain Vomit to the rescue! Halt, evil doers, or be punished by the atomic blast of hurl! His arch nemesis? Sawdust Man.

I love it. I begin writing again. The candy will be mine.

• • •

And it was, sort of. My story won in a landslide vote, but Miss Hogan apparently had an aversion to upchucking. She pulled me aside.

“The story was in bad taste,” she said in an acidic voice.

The Hershey’s bar disappeared, and my face turned hot with shame. Later, the playground buzzed over the puking superhero. Passages were recited from memory, but I just wanted to run away.

Creating Captain Vomit had been different from completing the usual laborious writing assignments about the human heart or the life of Helen Keller. Not unlike my gastrointestinally distressed character, the story had spilled out of me, rushing from head to hand almost as fast I could write. It wasn’t my first writing experience, but it was the first story I felt passionate about.

I didn’t write creatively for years after that day.

A part of me is sorry now for embarrassing the teacher. But I’m also resentful that Miss Hogan didn’t see the joy that produced a winning piece. She missed that writing is for the writer and the reader, not the editor or teacher.

That doesn’t mean I haven’t benefited from either. I have. Since that bad experience in fifth grade, both editors and teachers have helped me to shape my stories into the best possible form. But the good teachers and editors never dictated the content; they guided me, clarifying my thinking or pushing me to pin down facts.

Miss Hogan wanted her writers to see the world through her approving eyes rather than their own. I wrote that story certainly to win, but also because I loved it and knew other eleven-year-old readers would, too. Miss Hogan could have steered all the passion that created Captain Vomit into something more appealing to older readers—or that at least didn’t land me in detention—but she didn’t.

I still love to write. I started again seriously a few years ago, after taking a feature writing class at the Harvard Extension School. As a freelance journalist, I now know that what I like to read in a newspaper or magazine is often what other readers want. I still get excited when I see my articles in print or online, even if I can’t imagine writing full time. The Internet has taken too many chocolate bars from more talented writers.

When my stories involve a sensitive topic, I face reader criticism but strive for balance, and I rarely have a “newsmare.” (Well, there was that 2009 short feature in a local newspaper about a 74-year-old barber celebrating fifty years of “lowering the ears and taking a bit off the top.” Big mistake. The editor’s phone rang for days from advertisers complaining about “that old butcher getting free publicity while we have to pay for space.”)

One thing has changed, though: my impression of Miss Hogan. Perhaps she was caught off guard and believed she was saying the right thing. Or, she wanted to save me from a life of trashy novel writing. Maybe she was afraid my mother would read it later and wonder what the hell they were teaching me at that school.

Sometimes, before I send a Word document to an editor, I imagine what Miss Hogan’s reaction would be. I open the attachment and read it with her eyes. Is the prose sloppy? Do I have my facts straight?

But most important: Do I care more about this than winning a Hershey’s bar?

Richard Price is a part-time journalism major at the Harvard University Extension School, where this story began as a “Why I Write” essay in a class taught by Martha Nichols.

He hopes to graduate within 20 years. This is his second piece about vomit.


3 Responses to “Will Write for Candy”
on 01 Sep 2011 at 9:29 am1Lorette
This piece is fantastic – I can relate as a parent of a vomit-loving 8 year old, an aspiring writer, and sometime educator. And sometimes I wonder how old I will be when scatological humor is no longer funny…

on 01 Sep 2011 at 10:03 am2fran cronin
richard: your piece is delightful. kept thinking of when my son was reading captain underpants. as a mom with literary pretensions, i too had some ms. hoganesque moments every time i opened one of the books. but hey, i was not the audience. and most importantly, it got my son reading. imagine if capatian underpants had also vomited!

on 01 Sep 2011 at 11:01 am3Adria Arch
I laughed out loud. Thanks so much for this insightful piece. I am an artist, but can certainly relate to everything you’ve said.


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Will Write for Candy

Will Write for Candy