A Pretty Audience of One

Much to my surprise, it’s been well over a month since we launched Longer Thoughts, and in that time I’ve actually met my initial goal of writing at least 250 words every day Monday-Friday (not counting days on the road). Even more surprising is how much feedback I’m getting–thank you to everyone who has commented or written; it’s always been constructive, sometimes is instructive, and is most certainly a great source of motivation.

I’ve actually also surprised myself in regards to what I’ve been writing about. Granted I didn’t have a particular goal when I started, but I didn’t expect to do as much analytical writing as I have, such as the posts about the Geek/Nerd Universe Spectrum, and sidekick pets. (I’ve also become rather skilled at typing [target=”_blank”], but that’s more mechanical in nature.) Reaction to those types of esoteric romps has been particularly strong, and I’m glad that I’m finally putting my American Studies degree to practical use.

But the flip-side is that I haven’t done as much storytelling as I’d expected to. Yes, I’ve put a few short stories up, and every post is a story in its own way–but not in a true narrative sense. Maybe it’s because I don’t think people are interested in anecdotes from my personal life. Or more likely it’s because that kind of writing requires more personal risk, exposing real pieces of one’s psychological makeup (albeit carefully-chosen scraps). But storytelling was what first got me writing, way back in the 2nd grade.

I’ve mentioned a few times that I was an odd child. Not in a paste-eating or ADD way; just odd. Part of it may have been because of how other kids reacted to my appearance, most notably a prominent Jewish-Italian nose that was at age seven the same size that it is today. But more of it was probably because in conversation I had a difficult time putting my thoughts and feelings into words–and knowing when and how to edit them. I still fall back into that pattern sometimes, especially if I’m very tired and/or hungry: my mind unhinges just a touch too much, and out spills whatever random thought, old commercial jingle, or stream of jibberish that happens to be at the front when the ol’ brain door opens.

And of course most young kids make even YouTube commenters look thoughtful by comparison. My peers usually expressed their disapproval of me with the flat statement “you’re weird”, followed by immediately leaving my general vicinity. So alone (but not necessarily lonely) I would sit in homeroom, learning day by day to be evermore cautious about interfacing with other child units.

I like to imagine that my homeroom teacher devised the writing assignment after seeing me sitting at a two-seat table by myself every morning, diligently completing my assignments and generally not socializing, even when appropriate. But whatever the reason was, it changed my life.

“Good morning!” chimed Mrs. Jones (her actual name!) It didn’t take long for everyone to stop running around and settle into their seats, or finish peeling the glue off their hands, whatever the case may be. (I may not have been a paste eater, but I never said I wasn’t one of those “repeatedly coat one’s hands with Elmer’s glue and peel it off like skin” kids.) “Everyone take out pencil and paper, because we’re going to do something really fun!”

Most of the other kids probably groaned inside, but I perked up and picked out my favorite fat blue pencil from its matching pencil case, raring to go. At least until the other shoe dropped.

“Today you’re going to pair up and write stories about each.”

Oh, no. Mark and Dave would team up, like they always did…Ashley and Courtney were already whispering in preparation…and pretty much everyone else was looking around the room to find a (non-spastic) partner. I turned my eyes to the desk in order to avoid the look of disgust I’d see if someone’s eyes accidentally locked onto mine.

“Ashley and Teddy…Dave and Angela…Janet and Steven…”

Double-oh-no! Mrs. Jones was choosing for us! So instead of merely dealing with repeated rejection, some poor kid was actually going to be forced to interact with me against their will. Worse still: what if she paired me with Ernie, The Kid Who Punches A Lot?!

“…Jennifer Keller and…Greg…”

(it’s important to note that I didn’t earn the name “Storm” until I was fifteen; the explanation for that will have to keep for another time.)

Wait, what? Jennifer and Greg? Or did she say “Craig”…no, he’s not in our class. And of the three Jennifers in attendance today, did it have to be Jennifer Keller? I mean, she’s really cute. What if I say something stupid? What if she says I’m stupid. What if I say she’s stupid?

“Hi,” said Jennifer. While I was busy figuring out which type of embarrassment was going to kill me, she’d sat down next to me at my outpost.

“Hi,” I replied, managing not to add how much I loved her long brown hair, how kind she seemed from across the room, or how when I grew up I wanted to be like The Fonz. To my surprise she didn’t immediately start ticking off my faults, and per Mrs. Jones’ instructions we had a short, awkward conversation about things that we liked (awkward wasn’t part of the assignment; it was my own innovation.)

It was probably only my imagination, but I thought Jennifer looked relieved as she went back to her table to write her story about me and trains and pizza and The Beatles and Spock and pinball and New York and bowling and The Fonz. But I let it go: my mind had already turned to Jennifer and her favorite t-shirt and tulips and place to go in the summer.

In all honesty I don’t remember what she told me, or what story I wrote. But I remember how good it felt to put Jennifer and her favorite things into my mind, where they mixed with whatever odd bits of imagery and emotion happened to be flying by at the time. And with a dash concentration, out came a three-page epic the likes of which had never been seen at Stedwick Elementary School.

“Okay, pencils down,” called Mrs. Jones. Having finished ten minutes before, I put one last flourish on an ornamental doodle. “Pass your story to your writing parter–you’ll be grading each other’s story.”

Triple-oh-no! I hadn’t considered that Jennifer would actually be reading, let alone grading, my writing. I briefly entertained eating the three sheets of paper, but decided that I’d rather not have to explain my lack of appetite to my parents later.

Once again it was Jennifer who had the presence of mind to make the exchange happen, and I immediately set to reading. Her paper did in fact feature me, and I’m pretty sure it mentioned at least one or two of the hundred or so things I’d mentioned to her inside of a minute. I gave it top marks.

Mrs. Jones went from table to table, checking the grades and asking questions. “Did you like the story?…Good. What was your favorite part?….ah, very nice…” When Mrs. Jones got to me I shyly complimented Jennifer’s effort, but couldn’t bear to watch when she reached my assignment buddy’s table. If Jennifer thought it was stupid or insulting, I’d prefer to learn it in the form of a bad grade, later.

“Great job, everyone!” said Mrs. Jones. “Now give your stories back to your partner.”

Gah! I wanted to run from the room, but Jennifer was already walking my way. And something seemed different about her. She wouldn’t look at me. I held out her paper, which she glanced at before taking it in hand. She smiled a little when she saw her high grade. Then her face went serious. The three wide-ruled sheets of paper I’d labored over stayed in her hand, which hung at her side. She looked up at me and seemed…worried. My heart sank; she must have hated what I wrote and given me a bad grade. And now she was forced to show me in person.

“Can I keep my story?” she asked, shyly. It took a few moments for her question to register, by which time she’d assumed the answer was “no”. She put the sheets down on the table.

“No, no, no,” I said, grabbing them up and putting them back into her hand. “I mean–YES. Of course you can have it.” Jennifer smiled again, and to my surprise I realized that this pretty girl had just been afraid of being rejected by me. Since I didn’t have anything else to say she began to turn away, but before she took a single step, she turned back.

“If you wanted to, you could write me one tomorrow, too,” she said, flying back to her table before I could answer.

I did write her another story the next day, every day the next week, and every so often for the rest of the school year. Jennifer never did come to sit with me during homeroom, and we didn’t talk much except to say “hi” to each other now and then, but I think that was about as much interaction as you typically get between boys and girls of that age.

I also like to imagine it was exactly what each of us needed at the time. For my part, gaining a level of acceptance from Jennifer through writing made me realize that it might take some effort, but that it was both possible and worth it to get over my fear and make friends. Not long after that first day with Jennifer, I took a chance and talked with a kid who sometimes came to school in a gold Star Trek shirt who, as it turned out, loved Star Trek! Just like me! We became fast friends, and I’d wear my red Spock shirt on the same days that he came in as Kirk.

As for Jennifer, I’m still not sure why my stories appealed to her. Maybe she didn’t get much attention at home, and my stories helped fill that gap. Or perhaps I wasn’t quite as hideous and weird as I remember.

But regardless of why it worked out, writing still holds the same joy that it did when I was a 7-year-old dreaming up new tales for my pretty audience of one. And although I don’t remember the stories I penciled out for her, or the details of her face, when I write today I still feel in a concrete way that someone is listening, and that it matters to them.

I guess what I’m really saying is that I’ll have to start telling stories again soon.

Maybe tomorrow.


  1. Nic
    Posted April 13, 2011 at 3:28 pm | Permalink

    I really like this story a lot. I feel like I sort of blew that part of my life in terms of not having a lot of those consciously formative experiences, but your penultimate line lets me think there might be hope yet. Thank you so much for sharing.

  2. Posted April 13, 2011 at 4:19 pm | Permalink

    I think a lot of writers carry the notion of the ideal reader, that one person who looks forward to everything you write, who reads your work with attention and focus and gets what you’re trying to do. Sometimes it’s a real person, sometimes it’s an amalgamation of everything we’d want our readers to be. I wonder if, for a time, Jennifer Keller was your ideal reader, and if you have one now.

  3. Posted April 13, 2011 at 7:45 pm | Permalink

    “Alone (but not necessarily lonely)” is the five word story Hemmingway wishes he could write (it also very succinctly sums up my entire childhood). I’ve already sussed out that you’re an amazing story teller but now I see that you’re also an amazing writer and will be an amazing blogger as well. 🙂

  4. Posted April 13, 2011 at 10:19 pm | Permalink

    Thanks, Nic. I’m a big believer in not giving up on something until you’ve tried it at least ten times. I’m still figuring things out myself, but making a solid commitment, not letting myself get discouraged early on, and just doing things that I feel are good in my own eyes have been the key. So go for it.

    Greg – I’d say yes, I do carry at least the hazy frame of an ideal reader in my head when I write, though s/he disappears if I do anything other than look at them from the corner of my eye. It did probably grow from my mind’s perception of Jennifer, though at this point it’s probably more like the alien at the end of John Carpenter’s THE THING. Except supportive. And not gross. And not trying to kill me (I think.) At any rate, it’s still probably best that I not attempt to view it straight-on. Is it something that you carry with you and/or are able to harness as a tool?

    Erin – I think most people think of solitude only as punishment, but I’d be willing to bet that most of the people in the world with superpowers of every sort have learned its whole value. And thank you for the blush-inducing praise!


  5. Posted April 14, 2011 at 12:42 pm | Permalink

    Storm – I think my ideal reader is a version of myself at around age 10, only he’s much smarter and cooler than I ever was. Nobody writes the exact story he’s looking for, so I try to do it for him. Is it a useful tool? My writing passes through a lot of beta readers, and maybe, when I’m taking in numerous comments on my drafts, it’s good to imagine the ideal reader as the one person I’m ultimately responsible to. Curiously, he looks just like Wilford Brimley.

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