I have a friend who told me a story once. I went over to his place to swim in his pool. I jumped in and swam a few laps while his brother watched TV in the living room. My friend came home from work a few minutes later, still wearing his clean white dress shirt and plain red tie. With a beer in his hand he grabbed a plastic chair, unfolded it, and sat down next to the pool and loosened his tie. He wiped the sweat from his brow, took a long gulp of his beer then he chuckled, “Damn I feel like one of the guys coming home from work in the movies. How they grab a beer and kick back you know?”
“Yup, well that’s how it is,” I said. He nodded and took another long gulp. “Nothing like ending a long day with a beer. Especially a crazy day like today.” I wanted to swim one more lap, but I couldn’t, I was intrigued. So I stood in the shallow end of the pool, then he started to tell me his story.
The story itself was interesting, but at this point, it wasn’t the story itself that had an effect on me. I will get into what he told me later, but just know that what I took from that day was the way he told it to me. All of his hand gestures, the way his voice changed to fit each mood, everything he did was so captivating. He threw all these words and movements at me and I ate it up. Once he was finished, it took me awhile to realize that a lot of what he said was either exaggerated, or just plain lies, but that’s just who he is, a salesman. Later that day I wondered if I could ever tell a story like he did. I sure as hell knew that telling stories out loud was not a possibility for me, I’m too shy of a person for that, but I thought that maybe writing one could be worth a shot.
As I tried to figure out the secret behind a great story, I became obsessed with reading books. Anything I could get my hands on. I fell in love with the way different authors told their own unique stories. I wanted to know it all—like a chef trying to make the perfect dish, I looked and searched for the key ingredients. While this was going on I kept thinking of my friend, or more specifically, salesmen in general, and how they operate. Just like a great author, every great salesman will force you to believe what he says. That’s exactly what my friend did to me. I believed every syllable that rolled off his tongue to be true, and disregarded any deception that was thrown in. Naturally, I wanted to have this effect on people through my writing.
I racked my brain for days about a story good enough for people to believe. I was stuck and needed an extra push to get my creative blood going. Then one night I remembered a film that was all about a group of obnoxious foul-mouthed salesmen. It was a movie I’d seen years ago in a theater class, Glengarry Glen Ross.
At first I wasn’t sure how this movie would help me write a story. However, I felt like I needed to discover something this movie had to say. So I deconstructed the film the best I could, searching for anything to help me figure out how these guys were so believable. After watching and re-watching, and re-watching I still couldn’t find anything that revealed their secret. However, there was one scene in the film that kept bugging me like an unpopable pimple.
The scene is in the final minutes of the film when Jack Lemmon’s character, Shelly “The Machine” Levine, is trying to say something to Al Pacino’s character, Ricky Roma, in their office. Shelly is being called into a room to talk to a cop about a robbery he just committed, and while Roma is complimenting him about his salesman skills, the cop hassles Shelly even more so, demanding he get inside the room for interrogation. The distracted Roma gets on the phone, and Shelly gets up to go inside the office with the cop. Shelly struggles to say one last thing to Roma, but Roma is on the phone, trying to close a deal and totally oblivious of what Shelly has done. Shelly then walks in the office with the cop, unable to say a final word to Roma.
I started to wonder if I had had any moments in my life where I was left speechless. The type of moment where something needed to be said, but never was. No matter how many hours I spent recalling my past, there was nothing I could use to help me understand the scene. These instances are pretty rare to begin with and like I said I’m pretty shy, so any kind of intense confrontation never came my way. I was just your average college kid trying to get a degree in English. I didn’t know that the moment I was searching for was just ahead of me.
I was taking a fiction writing class, and in this course, my teacher made us write in a journal. We had to keep a “Journal of Epiphanies.” By epiphanies I mean the kind that James Joyce talked about. Basically writing about a certain gesture, fragment of a conversation, mundane objects, or even a phrase that makes no sense at all. But each is recorded with “extreme care.” The idea being to bring to life something that people don’t normally see as having life. The whole idea is confusing, and probably even more so because I just butchered the definition.
Anyway, we had to keep a journal of these damn things. So I would try to write my entries the best I could. I wrote about anything that came to mind. I’d write about a tree in my back yard, a conversation I heard from some random guy, a chair. Some entries were from a song or a quote. Some were long some were short. I tried to mix it up and write as much as I could but there were only so many things I could write about. I knew I was running out of ideas when one of my last entries was about a sandwich. One night I came to a point where I just couldn’t find anything worth putting down on paper. My brain was so fried you could’ve put it on a stick and sold it at a county fair. I flipped through my journal and noticed one entry where I talked about famous murder scenes—one being the scene in Tarantino’s Death Proof where the stuntman Mike kills a carful of girls with his own Chevy Nova. It reminded me about my friend’s story that had me so hooked. It was about a car crash he’d seen on his way to work. He kept saying how unreal it was, cars rolling over each other and busting through dividers on the freeway. His gestures were so great because he would show how each car would crash by using his hands. His hand would roll when a car rolled, or flip over when a car flipped. To show the part where the car went through the divider, he used one hand and smashed it into the other like a hard punch from a boxer. And of course he even threw in obnoxious sound effects with each crash. In the end he said it was “Like something out of The Fast and the Furious.” I’d never seen anything quite that spectacular while I was driving. But his story reminded me of something I had seen a few years ago that was equally shocking: A dead body on the freeway.
This incident took place one day back in 2011. I hadn’t had the moment with my friend that made me want to tell stories yet, but I still felt the urge to write down what I saw that day. I only wrote one page but I kept that paper and still have it to this day. When I took it back out, I believed that the words I wrote about seeing a dead body to be some of the best writing I’d ever done. As I reread the page, something struck me about the words that made me rethink all my beliefs about storytelling. I was certain every word was true and that my experience was captured perfectly. Not because I knew it was true, but because I could picture myself back in my own shoes as I read the page. I thought to myself that this single piece of paper is worthy of praise, but why? Because it was real, it was the truest thing I’d ever written. I remembered reading that Hemingway always thought honest and truthful writing was the best writing. So there it was—for that moment I believed to have found the secret to storytelling. It all made sense, everyone was always searching for the truth, so therefore the most honest of authors would surely be the best. I was so excited about my new discovery that I needed to share it with somebody fast. I looked at the paper and thought, What better way to show what I’ve learned than to write this exact page in my journal? My teacher was the only one who would read it, what was the worst that could happen?
The day came to turn it in, and I was confident as hell. I walked into that classroom thinking I knew something all the other students would take years to figure out. I turned in my journal with a fat smile, the type of eerie smile that scares everyone except your mother. I was pretty excited to share my journal with my professor, because I wanted him to be impressed with what I wrote. I didn’t care if he thought every other page was worthless trash, as long as he loved that specific entry. I wanted that one piece of paper to wrap around his brain and stick to it like duct tape. I wanted him to be so captivated that maybe he’d go out of his way to give me a compliment. Not once did I doubt that he would like the entry in my journal.
Like a steroid injection for an MLB slugger, my enormous ego doubled in size and strength when I received a flattering email from my professor. It read:
“Hello, I was really struck by your journal entry. In particular, the piece about the woman’s body that you saw. It was very realistic and heartfelt. With your permission, I’d like to read it to the class. I will say it was written by anonymous. But if you are not comfortable with it, that’s fine too. Please let me know. Thanks, see you in class!”
As you might have guessed, I was totally comfortable having my page read out loud. I was so high on myself I wanted everyone to share my drug and experience my writing. I even thought about suggesting to my teacher that he could go ahead and say it was me that wrote it, just so I could get the credit. However, I wasn’t used to being this confident about anything before, and the tiny bit of doubt left in my head convinced me not to write that in my email. I noticed my cockiness was starting to cross over into asshole territory, so I tried not to sound that way in my email: “Hey professor, Thanks for telling me. I appreciate it. You have my permission to read the piece. Hopefully the rest of the class likes it.”
The next day arrived and my journal entry was to be heard by all my fellow students. By the time class started and everyone sat down I made sure to look around and see everyone’s face before the reading. I wanted to see how clueless they were. I liked knowing something the rest of the class didn’t and I desperately wanted to see their reactions to my writing. When my professor walked in and sat next to me, we exchanged a glance that suggested we were in this thing together. I remember feeling pretty calm and confident that everything would go smoothly and that the class would be in for a treat. I thought everyone would be just as intrigued by my story as I was when my friend told me his.
Although being at ease helped my nerves, it didn’t stop the increase of heat I started to feel inside the room. I was so anxious that I started sweating my ass off. I’m pretty sure a pool of sweat formed in my pants and on my chair. I wasn’t sure why I was sweating so much, I had been in more nerve-wracking situations, but this was an unfamiliar experience for me. As I look back now I wonder if my sweat was trying to tell me something. All the late stragglers got seated and the professor was starting the class. He said, “Alright, so I have all of your journals, and before I hand them back I want to share an entry from one of them. I’m not going say whose journal it’s from so don’t start trying to guess, just listen and we’ll talk about it afterwards.”
I didn’t want to give away that I was the author of the entry. I wanted to keep everything a surprise. So naturally I tried to hide it. I did what any guy would’ve done. I leaned back in my chair and slouched, pretending like everything was cool and I was the most laid-back person in the world. I thought about my salesman friend and the salesmen from the movie. They would’ve played it perfectly, acting as if they had no part in what was about to be said. I tried my best to be composed like them. If I’d brought black shades that day I probably would’ve put them on too.
The professor cleared his throat and started to read, “June 1, 2011. The day I saw a dead woman. I looked over the railing to the 60 freeway ... And I saw everything. The green car was smashed against a pole, and there she lay about ten feet behind it. She had a tarp over her body, and as my curiosity grew, the wind started to blow. It was as if my curiosity and the wind were simultaneously blowing the tarp off the woman. The wind blew just enough to reveal her entire body. The trail of blood led up to her head and was pooled around her mouth. Her blonde hair that must’ve taken a couple minutes to do was now for nothing. Wherever she was going didn’t matter, the Converse shoe that came off her foot was useless. She just lay there and I just stood there. People around me were gasping or taking pictures, but I just stood there in silence. I’ve never seen a dead body like that before. Sure I’ve been to open-casket funerals but this wasn’t the same. This was death, the true meaning of the word. I felt a connection to this woman that I will never forget. I hope and pray she lived a good life and I pray her family can find peace on this tragic day. If death is a part of life, then why was I shocked to see it firsthand? Why is everyone shocked to see it?”
A few seconds passed by, silence. A few more seconds, still silence. I sat up in my chair in angst. I scavenged the classroom for any look of appreciation. Nothing. I started to doubt myself a little bit more as the seconds dragged on and nothing was heard except a cough from the corner of the room. I remember thinking to myself, What happened? Why wasn’t anyone saying anything? My brain went into a panic, more questions filled my mind, Was it not that great? Was this what I got for being cocky? Or maybe everyone was trying to process what they heard? Did it not make sense? Somebody had to say something fast or I might’ve freaked out and rushed out of the room in anger.
“Alright, so I want to hear—” said my professor.
Three loud sniffs and a sigh were heard from the corner of the room. My eyes frantically searched for the noise. I went from face to face trying to find any sign of emotion, but everyone was looking in the same direction. My eyes then landed on Victoria, the quiet blond girl in the far right corner. She had her head down and her hands over her face. I felt a small wave of reassurance. Thank God somebody had a reaction to my words. However, I wasn’t expecting her to be the one to react like this. To be honest this was the first time I paid any conscious attention to Victoria—sure she spoke during class workshops, but it was maybe once every two weeks and very brief. The spotlight was on her in this moment, and when she lifted her face, tears stained her cheeks, making them sparkle like two clumps of freshly glossed clay. It was a beautiful sight at first, and striking, but one look into her eyes and the beauty was gone completely. It was the pain in her vivid blue eyes that overtook me. I started to think that maybe this wasn’t just an ordinary reaction. Then the few soft words that came out of her delicate mouth were so loud and piercing, it was like she spoke into a microphone. I will never forget what she said. Wiping her doused cheeks and watery eyes, she managed to say, “I’m sorry, but June 1, that crash. It was my mom.”
If an already silent room could be stripped of any more sound then that is what the classroom sounded like. Everyone’s jaw dropped, mine being the lowest. It’s strange, but a room full of wide-open mouths is probably the most muted of all rooms. It was the silent sound of utter disbelief. My eyes were fixed on her and suddenly everything I was so confident about left my mind in a flash. I thought to myself, Shit, what have I done? The silence after the reading poked a small hole in my ego, but Victoria’s words were like a giant needle that punctured whatever was left. My body and mind were deflated.
I couldn’t think for several seconds, let alone contemplate what everyone was doing until I saw Victoria start to get up and leave the classroom. People were looking at her in concern. But she was oblivious and walked passed everyone. There were a few moans and groans of distress sent towards Victoria but she kept walking, shunning any attempts of confrontation. The reality of the situation suddenly struck me like a giant wave collapsing on an amateur surfer. Say something, anything. Say you’re sorry, I thought. I watched Victoria walk out of the room, rubbing her eyes with her sleeves. I saw two girls walking out of the room calling her name, and my teacher said, “Hold on you guys, just let her go.”
The two girls went back into their seats, and I sat motionless at my desk dreading what would come next. I rubbed my head and then my eyes. Then I pulled the skin on my face back so far that my eyes and forehead felt numb. I wanted to change who I was, I didn’t want anyone to recognize me. I wanted to be somebody else, not the guy who ruined the class, anyone but the guy who reminded Victoria of her tragic loss.
My professor started to speak, “Okay, so I know we all feel upset and concerned about Victoria, and I will talk to her about what happened, but I just want to emphasize that nobody did anything wrong here. This was all just a bad stroke of luck that none of us could have predicted. I do not want the writer to feel discouraged about this. There is nothing wrong with writing about real life, but I think we all learned that there could be feelings hurt once that writing is shared. We all have the freedom to write about anything we want, but just know that something like this can happen when it’s revealed to the public.”
The students nodded their heads and mumbled in agreement. There was a collective feeling of relief that overtook the classroom, and everyone started to relax and talk things out with each other. I was grateful that my teacher stood up for me, but I couldn’t help but feel embarrassed and ashamed. There was still a huge amount of guilt corrupting my thoughts.
The professor spoke, “Ok, now that we have talked about what happened, let’s just workshop these stories then I’ll let you guys go for today.” Normally the class would cheer when our professor said this, but nobody wanted to reveal any indication of joy just yet. Workshopping the three stories was a blur and normally I always comment on everyone’s story, but this time, as you may have guessed, I stayed silent.
Despite my professor’s consoling words, the next few days were rough on me. It was hard to cope with what my words had done to Victoria, and to everyone else in the class. I thought I had the secret to writing, but what I considered my best was a heartbreaking tragedy in the worst possible way. I wrote something true and I thought people would embrace it. I desperately wanted to believe my professor, but the guilt was too hard to erase.
I had no other choice but to confess what I felt with my professor. I saw him in his office hours, and thankfully, he had more words of comfort for me: “I gave you the journal of epiphanies to practice your observation and description. That is exactly what your page did, it was a paper with just enough description to feel real. Believe me, what happened in class beyond anyone’s control, so stop torturing yourself and just keep writing.”
I nodded and forced a smile.
“I have a suggestion for you, and I’m not telling you this because I want you to hide all your personal stuff. By all means write and share whatever you want, but I know many writers that keep some writing all to themselves, regardless of whether it’s good or bad. Just something to think about for next time.”
I took his suggestion to heart, but I still had one more thing left to do before I felt better. After our next class the following week, I apologized to Victoria. She seemed to be doing fine that day, and she told me it was mainly just a strange coincidence and a total shock to hear about her mother’s body in full detail. Every time I would see her throughout the semester, I would apologize and eventually we got to the point where she was able to joke about the incident with me. I think we were able to get through this whole situation because of the connection we suddenly shared through her mother. I released a personal piece of writing to the public, and it just so happened to have a connection with Victoria. Because of my constant apologies thrown her way, I think she was able to see how truly sorry I was and that I was only trying to better myself as a writer. I felt like things turned out well in the end. However, in the back of my mind, I still wished I had kept my paper tucked away, out of sight, instead of pulling it out just because I ran out of ideas in my journal.
Going back to that day in class, I realized that my speechless moment was very much like the moment in the movie. I now knew how Shelly felt when he wanted to speak but couldn’t. How just one single word was suddenly the hardest task in the world. It took me awhile to get back into reading and writing. I desperately tried to make the stories for my workshop as unrelated to real life as possible. As a result, they didn’t turn out so great because I was trying to write about things I didn’t care for or couldn’t relate to. I didn’t understand it for a long time because I was scared to write about anything related to my life, or other people’s lives, but one day it hit me like a baseball bat to the head. The incident with my journal entry and Victoria was the best lesson I learned about writing.
The “moment of truth” is a cliché phrase for a reason. In Glengarry Glen Ross, Shelly is a chatty salesman that never shuts up. However, when the moment of truth comes, he can’t say a single word and expose what he’s done wrong. My moment of truth was just as devastating. There I was on my high horse thinking I discovered the secret to writing, and suddenly the horse bucked me off and told me I was dead wrong. Just because it was true didn’t make it the perfect piece of writing that everyone should read. There are moments with my friend where I call him out when his lies get too frequent, and then he struggles to own up to them—sometimes he strays too far from the truth.
I guess what I’m getting at with this whole truth thing is that when it comes to storytelling, there is no right or wrong way to tell a story, but there should be some kind of balance. A complete and total true story is good and all but there’s often something missing. Drama. Everyone wants their stories to seem real and honest, but sometimes it’s too much to take in, and unfair to the real people involved, or in my case, harmful to the people involved. That’s why the other element of storytelling is so crucial. It’s always good to have some of that salesman’s charm and pizzazz in a story, even if it’s not true. After all people tend to forget facts, but they always remember what entertains them.
Since my realization, my stories have changed. I don’t get caught up on trying to tell the truth in my stories, and I don’t make my stories so farfetched that they aren’t relatable. Nowadays, every story I’ve written has a little bit of both elements, every single one, regardless of what genre it is. Who cares if a story isn’t completely true? If the memory isn’t perfectly clear in your head, why not make it better? Even if parts are made up, are our thoughts and ideas not real? If something I’ve thought about changes me as a person, then didn’t that thought have a real effect on me? And can’t that same thought have a real effect on you as well?
So when I think back on the story my friend told me, part of me wishes I could decipher which parts were fact and which were fiction. But then there’s an even stronger part of me that doesn’t want that at all. This part of me doesn’t care about that. This part just wants to hear a real story.