Monthly Archives: June 2008

First Date

First Date

6/30/2008

Kenneth Burchfiel

 

I approach her before slinking away.

It just doesn’t feel right.

The meter she moves with, the stanzas she dresses in; who am I to be with her?

Who am I to enter her world?

But she reaches out an arm, draws me closer to the monitor, plants my fingers on the keyboard.

I shouldn’t be here, I think. It doesn’t feel right cutting a sentence

In half and ripping out the commas.

She urges me to type and I give in, banging homesick fingers on the keyboard.

No, she says—less structure.

less form. more freedom.

I resist. It’s adulterous just to think of exchanging my paragraph and indents for rhyme and rhythm. One never breaks a marriage with pro—

Oh, but she looks so slender on

that page. Sounds so

enticing

when read aloud.

So I begin a

dance with her, trying to mimic her

footsteps that seem so

natural when you read them off a page.

She calls my prose prosaic—

says rhyme scheme is the rage.

I stumble along

with fingers too bulky to mimic

the rhythmic flowing of her ways.

Yet she smiles anyway

at the progress I’ve made,

Says she’d love

to have me

dance

another day.

So began my scandalous affair

with Poetry.

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Postball: A New Sport

Of the three sports that one can find here at Schreiben Depot, this may very well be the simplest of them all. Take a look!

postball

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Typing for the Write Reasons

Typing for the Write Reasons

6/29/08

Kenneth Burchfiel

 

    

As far as hobbies and jobs go, writing will forever be pigeonholed in the “Mundane” category. All one does is sit at a desk, pull out a funny contraption called a keyboard and move their fingers around, changing the appearance of the pixels on the screen. Composition does not come with sound effects; there are no overtimes or power plays; Microsoft Word does not come with hidden levels.* With all this in mind, is it not incredible that some people still write to enjoy themselves?

Not quite. To be honest, I can’t imagine a better way to spend an afternoon than to sit down at my keyboard and hammer away—for better or for worse. Here are my five reasons why the pencil still trumps the Playstation.

 

1: Writing is practical.

In today’s world of usability, ease of access and portability, writing has no equal. From the era of papyrus to the days of the PDA, composition has always been a simple matter. One only needs a utensil and a place to scribble it—the bathroom wall, perhaps, or a high-tech tactile monitor. Come to think of it, there’s not much that can’t be used as a writing device. Bird feathers, eye movement and airplanes have all proved adept at the task.

Can one play basketball in outer space? Can a NASCAR race take place in the bathroom? Is it possible to go clubbing underwater? The wonderful thing about writing is that it knows no boundaries: not the stratosphere, nor a canvas the size of atoms. Pencils cannot run out of power. The blue screen does not show up on paper. Soda-clogged keyboards and faulty antennas do get in the way from time to time, but there is always—always—another way to get one’s message across.

 

2: Writing is cheap.

How much money does one need to be a world-renowned painter? Though the purists may chide me for my answer, I’d say that the dollar is just as important an art tool as the brush. Top-knotch art supplies can easily fetch $1,000; Adobe Photoshop, the gold standard for digital editing, requires more than a little gold to purchase. Considering the cost of easels, paints, canvas, classes, workshops and frames, it’s little wonder that artists are stereotyped as being poor. I won’t even attempt to estimate the costs for photographers or video game fanatics.

    While cameras are worth their weight in gold, pencils are worth their weight in—well, lead. For $5.99, an aspiring writer can buy a pencil and enough paper with which to write a novel. Good keyboards can be picked up for less than $20. Microsoft Word isn’t exactly cheap, but one needn’t upgrade to the latest version if they don’t have to. In 2007, I celebrated my 10th year of using Word ’97, a program that prints out the same 12-point font, Times New Roman documents that Word 2020 probably will. (I have since made the childish decision to purchase Word ’07.)

    A great thing about writing is that the medium used has little, if any impact on the piece’s quality. The Gettysburg Address could have been written on a Tie Dye T-shirt and read off Lincoln’s back, but it still would have bought the Pennsylvania audience to tears. Thus, much to the chagrin of corporations worldwide, composition remains a frustratingly cheap endeavor.

 

    3: Writing is applicable.

    I have never understood the joke that English is a poor subject to major in. Show me the field in which writing has no role whatsoever, and I’ll show you a poor choice of a major. Astrologists and Zoologists both share the pen as one of their primary research tools, and even Oscar-winning actresses need to prepare for that infamous acceptance speech. There’s no escaping language, especially the written version.

    In sitting down to write this little article, I’m preparing myself for a life as a doctor, dermatologist or a disc jockey. The skill of writing spans almost every career in the modern world. I might not have the faintest notion of where my future will lead, but I know that the keyboard can help me get there.

 

    4: Writers age well.

    I have great sympathy for the poor souls known as professional athletes. What must it be like to reach 6 foot 2 in middle school and star for the Lakers before winding up outmatched and unwanted at the age of 33? It is a tall peak that football players reach, but I’d hate to spend the better part of my life walking down the other side of the mountain. Nor would I like to lose my job when my eyesight or biceps begin to go.

    No, I consider myself in the league of golfers and fishers: people who look forward to the days of gray hair knowing they’ll be in better shape to excel. Rarely is one’s capacity to write hindered by their age—or their physical well-being, even. Quadriplegic Jean-Dominique Bauby composed an entire book merely by blinking one eye as a scribe read out a choice of letters.

    This point is not included in a morbid sense; I don’t see my ninety-year-old self laughing and typing away as everyone else in the retirement home looks on. I merely purport that writers are an entire lifetime away from their “peak,” and happy for it.

    Is it no wonder that so many professional players become sports columnists?

 

    5: Writing is liberating.

    The sugar cube waded into the swimming pool, gawking at the bag of dry ice on the diving board.

    Was there a purpose in my writing the above sentence? Perhaps not, but I’m not about to retract it. Writing not only knows no physical boundaries, but has well eclipsed the creative fences of common sense and reality. The keyboard is merely a translator between my imagination and the screen in front of me. Whatever goes on in my mind can transpire on the page—no strings attached.

    This isn’t a universal theme for all fields of composition, of course. An editor wouldn’t like it if their foreign correspondent started to wax about the sunset in a war zone. Nonetheless, fiction writers have fewer restraints on them than skydivers—and no bulky parachute to lug around, either. I can take a story anywhere I want; I can skid off the plot line on an incoherent tangent; ich kann in ein anderes Gesprach schreibe (aber mit furchtbar Grammatik); I can even stop typing words altogether and asoetuhaoeycoeasyh. Granted, the reader doesn’t always like where I take a story and might not care for the zqjuaoeuasocyh, but I still have the sovereign right to wield the pen as I please.

    Professionals aside, most writers have no established boss or supervisor to which to answer. There is no Constitution of the English Language that stands as literary law. In the “progressive” world of writing, grammar, syntax and formatting are optional features; only creativity comes standard.

    Birds can have their wings. Astronauts can have their spaceships. With only a pencil and a notepad, I’m still freer than any of them.

    

 

 

*Actually, Word 97 came with a secret version of pinball. Anyone who still uses this program should go online to find out how to unlock this “Easter egg.”

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Squabbling over the Fire

Squabbling over the Fire

6/26/08

Kenneth Burchfiel

Genocide is not personal. Indeed, nothing is more impersonal than the attempt to murder a group based on their race and culture, and nothing else. Unfortunately, those who have the most power to stop genocide have the fatal tendency to distort their relief efforts into a private feud—or, worse yet, a political bargaining chip.

One would think that the word’s political leaders would be able to swallow their pride at the outbreak of humanitarian atrocities and focus on preventing further murders. The cause of world peace demands nothing less. Somehow, though, the presidents, premiers, prime ministers, sheiks and dictators of this world always manage to skew mass killings into political ammunition, directed at whatever enemies they may have. One tragic example is the ongoing genocide in Darfur, an atrocity that might have been quelled earlier had it not been for the “us first” attitude of two world leaders.

The United States and the People’s Republic of China could not be much further away from Darfur—if one measures lengthwise, that is. In reality, both are quite close to the conflict due to their respective ties with the government there. American corporations have a sail’s worth of ties to Sudan, as does the Chinese government and its oil-forged relationship with Omar Al-Bashir.

Both of these powerful nations are more than aware of the genocide; in those respects, at least, they share common ground. The unfortunate twist in the anti-genocide push, however, is that both countries are at odds with each other as well. China and the USA are the two most powerful entities on Earth; in their stooping to help the people of Darfur, they inevitably rubbed elbows and bruised shoulders.

Suddenly, the genocide became personal. Bush chastised Hu Jintao for his oil ties to Sudan, as did numerous relief groups. China retaliated by pointing fingers at America’s human rights violations—gross misdeeds, no doubt, but paling in contrast to the Janjaweed’s butchery. Distracted by the crosstalk that went back and forth between them, both leaders—both countries—let 400,000 lives slip between their fingers and millions of homes burn to the ground.

One of humankind’s worst traits is our tendency to squabble over who financed something, who perpetrated something or who allowed something while forgetting that “something” altogether. The governments of China and the U.S.A. acted like two firefighters who, with hoses in hand, squabble over who lit the flames as the house burns down.

In any humanitarian crisis, we must put the victims’ wishes before our own. Though I’m blessed not to count myself among the ranks of those endangered by the Darfur genocide, I can imagine the wishes of the people quite well. They don’t care about the feud between China and the U.S; they aren’t interested in the cockfighting between Bush and Hu Jintao. What they want more than anything else is safety, shelter, infrastructure, food and drink; their lives, really. Once the world’s two greatest nations can provide for that, they’re free to bicker for as long as they want.

Unless the world can put the people of Darfur before their own interests, the dreams of the Sudanese will wither away in the harsh African desert, never to return.

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Interview Day: A one-act skit

[A one-act play that I wrote while considering my own admissions journey to come. J]

 

Interview Day

6/24/2008

Kenneth Burchfiel

 

Setting: A cramped admissions room. The spartan wooden table in the middle makes for a poor centerpiece, but it blends in well with the folding chairs set up on either side. A faded college logo—U of Q, it reads—is printed on the very center of the table and on the backs of either chair. Cork boards on the walls are inundated with pastel-colored leaflets, many of which show the campus’s fall foliage and the university’s science team. A bowl lamp hangs from the ceiling. Perhaps the only thing in the room that could be described as “cheery” is a paper banner hanging on the wall. It reads: “UNIVERSITY OF QUINCY INTERVIEW DAY.”

There is a young woman sitting at the table. Her name is Olanda; she graduated from the U of Q five years ago, but hasn’t been able to find a steady desk job. For now, the best she can do is come in during the summer and interview the next crop of possible UQ students. Her questions are printed on stately pink sheets of paper; judging from her neat piles of response forms and admissions standards, it looks as if she takes some pride in her job. Pride that has some trouble showing through her nervous expression.

 

The first applicant walks in, wearing a blue polo shirt ten sizes too small. His hair is gelled and parted down the middle, save for a little strand in the back that pokes up like a television antenna.

OLANDA: Hello there. You must be Ray.

RAY: You are incorrect. The name is Raymond.

Ray stands in front of the seat and crouches down onto it.

OLANDA: It’s great that you could make it today, Raymond.

RAYMOND: The day is always great when a member of the Alabaster family graces an institution with his presence. You have a front-row seat to brilliance.

Olanda smiles politely and shuffles a few papers.

OLANDA: Now, Raymond, the U of Q is looking for students who can demonstrate a commitment to academic success. I was impressed with your transcript, but just wanted to know if—

RAYMOND: My time here is not to be interrupted. Can your college demonstrate a commitment to academic success? I have Yale and Penn on speed dial, young lady, and I wonder if all your students combined can stand up to my potential.

OLANDA: Well, the Princeton Review just included us in their list of 10 up and coming colleges—

RAYMOND: Up and coming? The Alabaster family has been at the top of the social food chain for three hundred years running! I will not attend a school whose only claim to fame is improvement. Snorts. Why, I feel derelict just sitting here.

OLANDA (apologetic): The University of Quincy might not get the press that the Ivy league enjoys, but we still have a respectable list of prominent alumni. Take Jacobin Schwarz, for example.

RAYMOND: Jacobin Schwarz was our butler for three years. Three hundred thousand down the drain.

Olanda is silent for a few seconds.

OLANDA: Thank you for your interest.

Raymond stands erect, sidesteps away from the chair and turns for the exit. Olanda sighs as the door closes.

A few seconds later, a bright-eyed girl skips into the room. The red curls in her hair bounce with every step.

OLANDA: Welcome to the U of Q interview day. You must be Meghan.

MEGHAN: And you must be my key to a successful future!

Olanda is taken aback for a second or two. It’s something of a shock to hear such a shrill, excited voice after three minutes of Raymond Alabaster.

OLANDA: Well, before we go any further, I’d just like to get a chance to know you. Could you describe some of your chief interests?

MEGHAN: LEARNING! I wake up every day and race down to my encyclopedia. Books are the spice of my life! My mother’s a teacher, and we both spend the afternoon sipping herb tea and learning about the wonderful stories our planet has to tell. Jeepers, it makes me giddy just to think about all the good things books can teach you!

OLANDA: That’s excellent. I’m glad to hear that you take such interests in academics. Are you involved in any extracurricular activities?

MEGHAN: What else could a kid want but learning? I was in Girl Scouts a long time ago, but it was so boring. Our troop leader wouldn’t let me study the Mongol Empire during one of our campfire meetings. I was out of there like a kerosene molecule in a jet nacelle!

OLANDA: Well, are there any sports you play? Lacrosse, perhaps?

MEGHAN: Sports are an animal’s pastime. While my dad lumbered up to watch golf last night, I cuddled up with the University of Quincy viewbook—like any responsible Homo Sapien. Why aim for par when you can shoot for knowledge instead?

By this point, Olanda has begun to wonder what other summer jobs might offer $13 an hour.

OLANDA: Thanks for coming in today, Meghan. We’ll be sure to send you even more information about the U of Q.

MEGHAN: U and Q rhyme! That’s—gasps—that’s KNOWLEDGE!

Meghan pushes back her chair and runs for the door, skipping all the way.

Olanda leans back in her chair and takes a minute to sigh, wondering if it really would have been that hard just to find a job in a cafeteria line. Or an assembly line.

The door creaks open slowly. Olanda presumes it’s the draft.

WALKER: Greetings, Olanda. We are now connected by the deep.

Walker walks in slowly. He is dressed in a long purple cloak; only his face is visible. There is purple and black makeup on his cheek.

OLANDA: It’s good to meet you, Walker. That’s an interesting cloak you’ve got there.

WALKER: This is not a cloak. It is a Deep Channel Garment. It allows the deep to follow me wherever I go.

Olanda nods slowly. She pulls up one of her pink question sheets and lays it flat on the table.

OLANDA: Before we get started, Walker—there was some missing information on your transcript. You didn’t indicate a state and country. All I have here is… Olanda squints. “Cavern of the depths.”

WALKER: The exact location is not for you to know. That will come after initiation.

OLANDA: Initiation?

Walker stands up from his chair and walks slowly across the table.

WALKER: I have waited fifteen months for a suitable partner in the deep. I seem to have finally found my match. Drape my cloak over your head, and we shall chant the forbidden tune of the Cavern Depths together.

OLANDA: I take it you have a great interest in out-of-school activities.

WALKER: Stand up. The deep does not wish to wait for its host partners.

OLANDA: Perhaps we can discuss your standardized test scores?

Walker is now face-to-face with Olanda, who remains seated. Walker slowly raises a cloaked hand and draws it over her face.

WALKER: Repeat after me, in tune: “As the deep fills my mind with thoughts of the eternal caverns…”

OLANDA: Get away from me!

She stands up and retreats to the corner of the room. Walker lowers his cloaked hand.

WALKER: Very well. The deep will find you… in time.

Walker walks backwards out the exit. As the door slams, Olanda clutches her head in her hands. She looks ready to bang it on the desk when the door opens.

OLANDA (in a monotone): Welcome to interview day at the University of Quincy. You must be Chelsea.

Chelsea nods quietly and sits at the table. Olanda sighs and draws out one more pink question sheet.

OLANDA: What is your prime motive in coming to the University of Quincy, Chelsea?

Chelsea (again, quietly): Well, I liked the range of classes that you offered, and I was very excited about the chance to play soccer on the club team. I’m not the best player, but all of my neighborhood friends say that I do alright.

Olanda perks up a little. This person seems… normal, almost.

OLANDA: Perhaps we could talk about your transcript?

CHELSEA (blushing): I was sad to have gotten a C+ in World History last year. I tried very hard in that class, and I think I learned more than what the grade indicates. Then again, I was excited with my B+ in advanced algebra. My mother always said that I could go far in math.

Olanda’s eyes are now wide in astonishment. She seems almost afraid to believe that this girl might be an all-around average kid.

OLANDA: Just one more thing. Can you tell me a little about yourself?

CHELSEA: I’m just a suburban teenager looking for a welcoming place to study and have fun.

Olanda’s eyes are still wide.

OLANDA: That’s it?

CHELSEA: I… I guess so.

OLANDA: No aristocratic, stuck-up family heritage?

CHELSEA: I don’t think so, no.

OLANDA: No unhealthy obsession with books and facts?

CHELSEA: Not that I know of.

OLANDA: And you’re not about to convert me to the deep?

CHELSEA: I’m not sure what you’re talking about.

Olanda, relieved and with a wide smile on her face, stretches out a hand.

OLANDA: Congratulations. Welcome to the University of Quincy.

A confused Chelsea grasps Olanda’s hand and shakes it. The curtain falls.

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Wandering Green Eyes

Wandering Green Eyes

6/24/08

Kenneth Burchfiel


He remembered exactly when he first saw those little brown eyes.

On the glass kitchen table sat a folded newspaper, destined for the parrot cage, that had an inconspicuous advertisement on the bottom. He balanced himself on the mahogany to take a better look and saw a child’s face—an expressionless face—with only two little eyes to look at.

His mother walked over to pick him off of the chair, and he pointed to the picture. She merely looked at the words and shook her head, causing two diamond earrings to twinkle in the chandelier light.

The face left him for a few years before returning on a December evening, squeezed in between his Christmas wish list and . He could read by that point—picture book fare, but enough to let him connect the little red words on the ad to the little brown eyes.

He asked his mother about one of the words he saw, a word they hadn’t learned at Greenwood Academy.

“Poverty?” she said. “Poverty… is when you don’t have enough money.”

He didn’t quite understand what that meant. Not with his father’s sports car pulling into the driveway; not with the hundred-gallon aquarium casting teal reflections on the steel refrigerator. It seemed that those eyes held a story that he had never been told. He pushed the newspaper aside and went back to the Christmas list.

Maybe life would have turned out differently if that face had simply left him alone, disappeared from the newspaper like any self-respecting ad. Perhaps it would have followed the course of those five years that followed that December evening: five years in which no picture would distract him from what was billowing into a dream existence.

He was a stranger to those little brown eyes by the time they returned. It was the same ad, the same part of the newspaper, but the face looked markedly different. He couldn’t explain the change.

With his picture book days long passed, the copy was not hard at all to read. The child in the photo did not have a mother or a father; apparently, he was also “mal-nourished.”

Again, his mother was in the room; again, he asked her just what this meant.

“The poor thing,” she said, turning for the washing machine.

“Can we help him?” he asked.

His mother laughed so hard that a sock fell from the laundry basket in her arms. “Help it?” she said. “Why, that’s in Africa. It’s thousands of miles away!”

That seemed to settle it. If he couldn’t get to Africa, how could he help the face in the picture? The recycling man arrived a few hours later, and those little brown eyes were whisked away from under his. It was almost a relief to see the face go.

Much as he tried to resist it, though, that square of newspaper made a permanent imprint on his mind. His parents tried to wash it away with video games and vacations, but the pesky topic of human rights didn’t seem to go away.

Mrs. Lorres, his 6th grade teacher, told his class that anyone who bought in a newspaper article and gave a speech on it could win an ice cream coupon. The next day, he waited for an hour as everyone presented their stories. Avery talked about rising chocolate prices; Julia had a funny story about a stolen toilet; Erin had a sad story about his favorite baseball team’s 10th inning defeat. The huddled crowd of polo shirts and monochromatic ties clapped after each one.

When it was his turn, he stepped onto the Sharing Carpet and cleared his throat.

“My story is on the mass killings and starvation in Bosnia.”
The class went dead silent; only the clock dared to make any noise. He started to talk about the checkpoint murders and food poisoning, but Mrs. Lorres cut in.

“Erin? Erin, may I have a word with you?”

A mass of blue eyes watched him exit the classroom.

“Erin, you know that’s not school appropriate.”

He tilted his head in confusion. “The story… I saw the story on the front page of the Albeit Globe.”

“Erin, those things aren’t for little eyes to see. You wouldn’t want anyone to cry, would you?”

He certainly didn’t want anyone to cry. But the little brown eyes had seen more than that, he figured, and the advertisement always showed a tear running down the child’s face.

One day, he came home from school to find his father sitting on the couch with a newspaper. His dad wore a white-striped suit, the same one that he left for work in every day, and had a happy look on his face.

“Come over here, son.”

He shuffled onto the couch next to Pop.

“Do you see that?” he asked, pointing to a headline:

Carter and Browne sees Greatest Profit Margin in a Decade

“Your father’s company has been doing very well,” Pop said. “Do you know what the good news is? Someday soon, when your father gets old and wise enough, he’s going to give his business to you. That way, you can have just as much success.”

He smiled wide, just like his father wanted him to. But his grin was tempered somewhat by a black-bordered ad at the corner of the Business section. His eyes gravitated to the bottom of the page, where two little brown eyes stared back.

“Erin?”

He blinked. “Y-yeah?”

“You’d like to have this company, wouldn’t you?”

He nodded, still looking at the picture.

Rarely would he mention this taboo interest with his friends. They were far more inclined to discuss the trips they took on their parents’ yachts or debate whose summer home was the most exotic. If he said something about Africa, they would look at him a little funny and keep on talking.

His private school, nestled in between Champlain Estates and the Chestnut Reserves, had a proud history of “helping young men and women climb their way to the company ladder.” They learned all about staff management, foreign networking and—more than anything else—how to knock the other person off said company ladder. His teacher would watch students eying one another’s papers with a sense of pride.

He felt as if he were getting further and further away from those little brown eyes—even if he saw the advertisement every other Thursday. His parents would only shrug when asked about genocide; then, to change the subject, they’d talk about the value of self-reliance and the ability to think independently. When he asked a teacher about community service, she replied that his business education would be the best service “the community” could ask for.

And yet, it always seemed as if some thread of fate were linking his innocent eyes to a pair that had seen too much. Some force that caused him to mistype a URL and end up at the Genocide Prevention Group. Something in the air that pulled him to the stories of starvation and disease, even when his dad preferred him to read the Business section.


Junior year begun with clear goals in mind: 4.0 for a GPA. 2300 or better on the SAT. At least two high-profile internships with national bankers. It was to be his year, and his year alone.

The plan looked airtight from the outside. His grades were the envy of his peers; his SAT class, a breeze that complemented the autumn wind. For a few happy months, he was at the center of the world again—with no competing interests in sight.

Third quarter was when it began to unravel. The distractions were minor at first: he would see the little brown eyes appear during a math test or a physics lab, but only for a second or two. By March, however, he couldn’t go an hour without seeing the face. By April, the pull of those eyes was enough to derail his train of thoughts, a vehicle poised so firmly on the tracks of inheritance and success.

It all came crashing down in May. There sat an innocent essay prompt on his desk: “Where do you see yourself in ten years?” As much as he tried to conjure up his father’s vision of a cushy office chair and a sports car, no words came onto the page. All he saw were those little brown eyes—not just two, this time, but thousands.

He saw a bleak desert that had only tears for water; he saw mosquitoes; he saw coffin after coffin after coffin, many of which rested on the open sand. His classmates wrote happy drivel about Fortune 500 positions, but all he saw was a crowd of 500 with no fortune at all.

He knew he wasn’t supposed to take seriously those poorly designed charity ads in the paper. He simply couldn’t help it. There had come a flashpoint in his life where all the friction those brown eyes created had ignited a fire within his conscience.

A funny thing happened after that failed essay. Suddenly, he paid no more attention to the sports car in his driveway or the internships on his calendar. Even his GPA seemed a worthless pursuit. His parents offered reward after reward to rein him in, but their bait failed to impress.

By August, things seemed to have settled down. His dad commented on his son’s newfound exuberance; the kid looked passionate again, spirited. He would never guess the source.

Two weeks after senior graduation, Erin handed a one-way ticket to a boarding agent. She looked him up and down with narrowed eyebrows and wove him through.

His baggage consisted of two duffel bags and a tote; all the rest of it remained at the house, where he hoped it would stay forever. All he packed for a carry-on was a poorly cut advertisement showing a child’s face with green text on the bottom. The nonprofit’s logo matched the graphic on his business card.

His parents would ask him why, no doubt. Erin would explain the gist of it in four words: he could not turn away. Yachting trips and fundraisers had their appeal, but that face carried a simple plea that pulled him away from it all.

On the first day of the job, they showed him to a food bank that rested brazenly on the knife-sharp desert rock. The sun had not yet risen, but already, a crowd of 50 or 60 was lined up with baskets and bags.
Malnourished
. In poverty.

A pair of little brown eyes watched him step up to the warehouse’s entrance. Erin felt as if this child had spoken to him for the last fifteen years.

He finally had a way to reply.

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Gardening with Words

Gardening with Words

6/22/08

Kenneth Burchfiel

 

 

    In short: although the ambiguous and choice-filled nature of composition may incline one to outline and resolve all details of a story beforehand, they would do better to use the writing process as a means for “growing” their idea to the fullest.

 

    Perhaps the most daunting thing about the writing process is the sheer amount of choice inherent within every story. With about 250,000 words in the English language and some 1,000 words in a typical short story, it’s not hard to see why even the shortest piece can take a while to complete.

    Of course, when people talk about the decisions involved in writing, they are not just referring to word-by-word dilemmas. The biggest choices any writer makes are over issues such as plot, setting and character-elements for which there are no guides, no preprogrammed templates.

    The ambiguous and indefinite nature of writing makes it something of an anachronism in modern society, where every detail of a time-consuming project is expected to be definite and clear. To compensate, English teachers and bosses instruct their students and workers to outline pieces, plan out sections and use as many resources as necessary.

    The problem with the push to outline and plan out a piece, unfortunately, is tat it treats the development of an idea as, say, the development of a concrete slab or a cardboard box. When writing is marginalized as a means for putting ideas down on paper, outlining seems to be a natural and reasonable strategy. My argument, however loopy it may sound, is that the “plan it out before” group has made a gross misinterpretation.

 

    How do writers get their ideas? Does a deliveryman come and ring their doorbells with a package of concepts? If only this were the case. No, ideas arrive as seeds, mere glimpses of a thought’s full potential. Writing is not a game of cutting open a hypothetical box of ideas and typing down the contents, but a long, time-consuming process of gardening those seeds until they reach maturity. And in the writer’s case, the watering can that allows such growth is not the outlining chart nor any pre-writing brainstorm, but the keyboard itself.

    Should this sound like some cryptic message, I’ll try to put it more bluntly. I do not view writing as the end process of an idea’s development, but as the tool I use to develop an idea. I approach the keyboard with that hypothetical shell of a story idea; only by writing out the actual story can I get the characters, the plot fully developed.

    That’s the difficult thing about composition. When I sit down at the desk to face a blank page and a blinking cursor, all I have is that little seed. I can paint it, surround it with other ideas, but it’s still only a hint of the story to come.

    Perhaps this is what turns people away from writing. There are no axioms ore tested-and-true theories that an author can take with them to the table; everything—from the characters to the setting—is more or less indefinite.

    The sheer amount of choice in writing doesn’t make composition any easier, nor does the inability to effectively plan beforehand. Oddly enough, these seeming hindrances are what attract me to the craft. If I followed a strict writers’ guide that only gave me a few choices per page; if I knew exactly what I was going to write and how a story would end, I wonder if I would even bother to compose at all. One of the great joys of typing out a story is the process of discovery that takes place. Before my very eyes bloom characters, setting and plot, all of which have never been seen before. The ambiguity of composition turns writing into an exploration of unmapped territory, with the final destination a surprise in the making.

    Do I wish that my hobby were more like brick laying? There are times when I do envy those who know just what they’re making and how to produce it. Those moments come and go, but what stays constant is the thrill of discovery that an untouched page, a story in the making can bring. The best ideas may take a while to grow, but that’s what writing is for.

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