“‘It was a dark and stormy night’—My god, Kevin, I can’t believe my eyes or my ears. You can’t start a short story like that. That’s a joke start. A writing spoof. Good lord, man, it’s the way stories start on the Peanuts comic strip. Everyone in the world knows that’s the worst cliché in writing…”
“But you told us to make the opening sentence something that would really capture the reader and make them sit up, Professor Brown, which it just did. If you read on, you and the class will see that it was a dark and stormy night, and that that is central to the plot.”
Charles Brown, PhD, Professor of Creative Writing, stared with undisguised horror at Kevin Martin. It wasn’t that this particular student horrified him. It was the thought that with nine tenths of the semester still to go, the usual uphill struggle to teach nitwits to write had just revealed itself to be steeper than ever. Honestly, the level of incompetence of these kids was unreal. The days of worrying about split infinitives and ending sentences with a preposition were well and truly over. Fuck it, really. Even the President of the United States couldn’t use adverbs correctly, which, when he’d pointed this out to the class last week, had resulted in Mei Chin, who used no syntax correctly, complaining that he, the professor, had told them only one week earlier that they shouldn’t use adverbs at all.
“Believe me, Kevin, I have absolutely no intention of reading on. I want you to start again, this time with some semblance of originality. This is a creative writing class, not an exercise in comic humor, tweeting, or work calculated to drive your professor into an early grave.”
Professor Brown handed Kevin’s eight-page manuscript back to him and pulled another from the pile on his desk. But he saw the hurt look on Kevin’s face, and thinking about how the department chair was harassing him over course evaluations, thought maybe he’d gone too far.
“Look class,” he wheedled, “you probably thought that if I am driven into my grave it wouldn’t be an early one. I’m getting old and cantankerous, I know it. The worst thing I can do in a class like this is dampen your enthusiasm for writing. I should be thrilled that you’re even taking this class. The dean threatened to cancel it when she learned the enrolment had dropped to less than fifteen. Apparently, she’s just concocted that as a new College rule. So you, my dear twelve disciples, are my lifeline; what I live by and for whom I live. Kevin, just change the opening sentence, suppress the gush, make the plot fresh and original, and e-mail me your revision. I promise I’ll read it and we can discuss it in class next week…”
“How about ‘Supersaturated stratocumulus clusters whipped across the Wagnerian sky like redulent-noir brush strokes ripping the fabric of the black night’?” Kevin suggested. The class giggled. They were more embarrassed than amused.
Professor Brown, still feeling vulnerable, played along: “I think ‘clusters’ is the wrong word there, Kevin. Clusters are surely puffy. They don’t whip. How about ‘lashings’? But maybe they don’t quite jibe with ‘brush strokes,’ which, in any event, don’t usually ‘rip’. ‘Push’ might fit better. Much more forceful! Anyway, Kevin, something to work on, for sure.”
Turning away, he started reading the next offering. “Righty oh, this next one is from Paula: ‘Mom’s cancer had returned with a vengeance. You could see it in her harried, sunken eyes. The illusion of remission could no longer be sustained.’”
Kevin groaned loudly from the back of the class and made gagging air-gestures with his fingers to his open mouth. Professor Brown ignored him but noted to himself that with that sort of aggression he must be feeling more humiliated than he had revealed. Steeling himself, Charles read on with sinking eyes.
The class seemed interminable. There was no remission, that was for sure. And to make matters worse for Charles Brown, right after class he had to go to a stupid faculty meeting. The College of Humanities and Arts had recently been restructured by the dean. The Department of English was now Literature, Media Studies, and Communication. Charles had been relieved that Creative Writing had survived, and he was working hard to persuade the Coordinator of Media Studies to require their majors to take at least four credits of creative writing. He really did need the enrolments, with the dean, an historian whose field was Ecological History, whatever that was, breathing down their necks all the time. Anyway, with the restructuring had come a bunch of faculty he’d never met before, and Charles was willing to embrace the possibility that new faces might help minimize the tedium of those old-timers who still felt compelled to waste what time they had left correcting the sentence structure of any new proposal that was on the agenda. Not that Charles was opposed to correct grammar; it was, after all, his bread and butter. But why fret over the punctuation of a proposal that was sure to be voted down?
Charles helped himself to a paper cup of coffee, looked around the conference room, and dropped into a swivel chair next to Phyllis Maynard. She taught classes on Restoration Comedy and she was also under enrolment pressure. She had approached Charles to see if he’d co-teach a course on play writing, and Charles, who was quick at reading academic tea leaves, suggested that they call it Writing Screen Plays instead. Phyllis loved the idea—although it still had to be considered by the Curriculum Committee—and decided she needed to revise her opinion of Charles.
“How was your writing class today, Chuck?” Phyllis asked. “Still getting lots of stories about girls becoming psychotic when their beloved pony dies?”
“Did I tell you that one? The latest version is that her dead horse has now been reincarnated as a unicorn who is invading her dreams. At least it’s better than the moms dying of cancer, or fathers coming out as gay. Christ, I wish I’d never told them to ‘write about the things you know’! In a class of twelve, surely there can’t be that many homosexual dads and cancer survivors? They’re mostly nineteen to twenty-two-year-olds; they must be screwing like rabbits the whole time. Why don’t they write erotica? Maybe the next Erika Mitchell is in the class, some mute inglorious Milton. The only male, one Kevin Martin, continues to write on topics about which he knows absolutely bugger all—the assassination of military officers by disaffected privates who’ve been treated with contempt…”
“Is he that morose, scruffy young man with an attempt at a beard, who always wears a dark sweatshirt and jeans?”
“The very same…”
A young merely assistant professor sitting on the other side of Phyllis, interrupted them.
“I don’t think it’s appropriate to discuss students publicly like that. Don’t you know the privacy rules?”
Charles bristled. “It was a private conversation until you eavesdropped, Martha.”
Phyllis gestured with her palms extended outward like a referee separating two boxers. “Hush you two, Paul’s trying to get the meeting started, and Martha”—here she dropped into a stage whisper— “I do need your support for the new position we’re proposing for an Americanist—you know, dear, Melville and all that. You’ve heard of Melville in Communication Studies?”
By now the Department Chair, Paul Munro, was glaring at the three of them. “Can we please settle and get started everyone? We’ve got a long agenda and there are some important decisions to be made.” Paul was new to the job. He’d come from the journalism program and was still finding his feet. Charles was finding him overly controlling, so after about half an hour of silly items, when the proposed new Americanist position was at last up for discussion, he couldn’t resist raising his hand and asking Paul, with a deadpan expression, if the Zoology Department had been consulted? “They have a strong program in marine mammals,” he added.
Phyllis groaned audibly and shook her head. Paul looked and sounded mystified: “I’ve had two e-mails from people in this room arguing against our need for such a position, but I don’t know what Zoology has to do with it…”
Phyllis came to his rescue. “Forget my rude friend and colleague, Paul, he’s just messin’ with you. He’s been reading about unicorns and mastectomies and murdered officers all morning and it’s addled his brain. I believe he’s referring to whales; Moby Dick to be exact.”
Charles sat back in his swivel chair looking smug, but his grin turned to alarm when the chair back reclined too far and he nearly fell over backwards. Talk about messin’. Someone must have messed with the little adjustable wheel at the back of the chair.
Paul was delighted at this confirmation of gravity and loss of gravitas. He had taken an instant dislike to Professor Charles Brown, after the merger and his appointment as Chair had thrust Brown into his sphere of operations for the first time. Brown’s claim to fame was one novel that had made it to the New York Times bestseller list, admittedly for some weeks, but at least a hundred years ago. Paul hadn’t read it but had once read a review. It was about Mexican drug lords and didn’t sound appealing. Since then he’d had no further success, except a few short stories in literary magazines, and a couple of essays on writing. Paul had talked to the dean about what it would take to get Charles to take early retirement. It was a damn pathetic publication record. How about his teaching?
Charles, a tenured full professor, wasn’t required to participate in the university’s well-developed system of course evaluations. So naturally he didn’t bother; arrogant prick. Paul had therefore looked him up on Rate My Professor. He was surprised. Comments were mixed. Some students were ecstatic—they claimed good grades in his class, but mostly they admitted the course required very little work. Any twit could sit down at their laptop and whip off something creative and come away with an A, and just ignore a few snarky comments about overwriting and how rare it was that cerise sunsets, tinged with mauve, were splashed with the crimson blood of the spirits of twilight. Other students were less positive. They obviously had bruised egos. Charles was described as hostile, rude, dismissive, demeaning, the Gordon Ramsay of literary criticism. Students had left the class in tears, their ambitions dashed, their talents mocked.
Maybe Paul could encourage one of them to lay a formal complaint. The university had a new code of conduct to reflect students’ increasingly fragile sensibilities. Charles Brown appeared to be a major violator. But a new department chair had to be cautious. There was the inconvenient matter of academic freedom, and the dean had warned him to be careful: The College couldn’t afford a lawsuit at the very moment they were having to freeze new positions. Yeah, well, that Melville proposal was dead in the water, forgive the pun—or was it an allusion? The Media Studies group was agitating for someone who’d published on how Twitter was redefining a new gender-neutral populist American discourse. That would be far better for enrolments.
Charles Brown was a has-been; the classic case of dead wood who won’t float on downstream and thinks he’s too important to take on any of the shitty admin tasks that the faculty were having to do more and more of nowadays. Surely there was a way of getting rid of him? The more Paul thought of it, the greater his ire. He scowled at Charles and acknowledged one of the perky female colleagues from his own department, who started her pitch by suggesting contemporary Twitter scholarship would be much more relevant for today’s students “than a dead white male, woops, sorry, I meant whale!” Charles sneered. Martha laughed out loud; Phyllis’s sarcasm must have stung.
When the meeting was finally over, Charles went home, despondent. He lived quite close to the campus, right near one of the dramatic gorges for which the university was so well known. It was a short walk across a bridge, but sometimes he took the rustic, brick-lined path that meandered through the trees to a platform where, after summer showers, a tall thin waterfall made a great backdrop for students’ selfies to send home to doting parents. It looked very much like heavy rain was in the air, and the wind was getting up, so he took the more direct route.
He hadn’t had any lunch. The miserly new Chair, Paul whatever-his-name-was, had stopped providing little triangular white-bread sandwiches for the faculty meetings, even though they were always held at lunch time. Only well-stewed tasteless coffee was proffered, with artificial creamer. Charles now made himself a decent cup with his Keurig, slathered a piece of toast with an equal thickness of creamy peanut butter, sat down at his computer, and opened his e-mail.
Kevin Martin was quick on the draw. He’d already submitted his revised short story, entitled Retribution in Camp Leatherneck, Helmand Province. The plot was how a US marine, depressed and angry, had rolled a live grenade into the tent of his CO, a Captain Dobbs. Charles was surprised. It was genuinely quite well written. Taught, punchy sentences. The futility of the Afghanistan campaign captured perfectly in the banter among the marine grunts. Captain Dobbs was overdrawn. Surely no Marine captain could be such a total asshole. Charles knew nothing about military conduct, but he remembered how General George Patton had been disciplined for striking and humiliating a terrified private. Shit, it was irritating that the wretched Kevin might have sparks of talent. Still, he needed feedback on his lack of authenticity.
Charles used Track Changes to make some edits and a couple of comments, and then wrote his overall appraisal in the body of the e-mail.
Kevin, this is a decent first effort. You have some vivid descriptions, and you can be grateful that I stopped you from filling it with clichéd lines. But as I presume you know nothing about conditions in Afghanistan, I feel the story lacks verisimilitude. I’ve heard of incidents like this back in Vietnam, but never from our recent activities in the Middle East. As to the psychology of someone becoming homicidal simply because he’s been demeaned in public, well I’m not a psychologist but it didn’t ring true to me. Revenge and desire for retribution are common themes in literature—think Hamlet, or True Grit—and can make for compelling stories, but there needs to be greater justification for anger than you captured in this piece. I would think marines get shit from officers all day long. Maybe if you followed my advice and stuck to what you know, you’re writing would begin to improve. No more contributions on this theme, please.
Shortly after sending this off, there was an announcement to the departmental faculty list from Paul Munro—goodness, is that his name? —Department Chair and Associate Professor of Journalism:
Dear Colleagues, despite the strong vote at today’s faculty meeting to offer the new position to the Americanist candidate, I’ve decided we must consider the needs of our new department first. I’ve made an offer to Dr. Tuesday Maçon. Her talk during the appointment interviews, ‘The New Satire: How Twitter is Making Everyone a Mark Twain’ achieved it’s purpose and would be the kind of thing that would really appeal to our undergrads.
There was more, but Charles couldn’t contain himself. He clicked ‘Reply All’ and sent the following:
Dear Chairperson, if any of your so-called journalism students still use MS Word rather than Twitter, would you please advise them that the two little blue lines under a word mean they’ve made a mistake. Thus, they need never to learn the true difference between a possessive pronoun and the abbreviation for ‘it is’—all they have to do is look for those little double blue lines and allow auto correct. You might think of doing the same. Sincerely, Sam Clemens.
His e-mail pinged. It wasn’t an enraged reply from Chair of Idiocy, Paul Munro. It was from Kevin Martin.
Professor, if you had been a more careful reader of my piece, and not a pompous prat, you would have realized that the Afghanistan story is a parable for the contempt that honest stiffs feel for elites, whether officers, rich bankers, self-proclaimed intellectuals, or professors. That while you think demeaning people in public might be very funny, it often has unexpected consequences. Talking of which, you may not have noticed, but the reply that you sent to Dr. Munro also went to many students in the department. Dr. Munro had very respectfully included all senior students, office staff, and student reps in the cc line. I’m sure he might consider it inappropriate sarcasm designed to put him down, were he even likely to pay you the slightest attention.
Shit, thought Charles. That was a mistake. Fuckin’ e-mail. The new President was right—if you want to communicate with someone, write it out and send it by courier. It was the only thing Trump had ever said that Charles agreed with. But now it was too late. Well, too fuckin’ bad. The students wouldn’t have a clue that he was commenting on its versus it’s. That battle had been lost years ago. He should stop worrying about it. But he needed to reply to Kevin Martin, who was being far too disrespectful and cheeky. He was about to get a D for this latest assignment, maybe an F if he wouldn’t submit something closer to his own experience.
Dear Kevin, I’m going to overlook your rudeness, which I attribute to immaturity and the lack of decorum which maybe, if you identify with the despised stiffs in our rapidly decompensating American society, can be blamed on Twitter. Let me repeat again, I’m looking for a story based on your knowledge and experience of the world. I need a revision before I’m willing to assign a grade to this effort.
Charles Brown, PhD, Professor of Creative Writing
Department of Literature and Assorted Bullshit Non-Disciplines
At the very last minute, Charles deleted the last line. But he was getting annoyed and added a blind cc to the other eleven students in the creative writing class. Kevin’s reply was short, and angry.
You’re even more insensitive than I thought. My father was killed in Afghanistan by ‘friendly fire’. He was known euphemistically as a tough, no-nonsense officer, and to me as a sarcastic, unforgiving father. I always knew that the ‘friendly fire’ was no accident. But what you seem unable to grasp is that my story is a parable. A lesson.
Shit, said Charles out loud. What a crap day this was turning out to be. All he was trying to do was give feedback. That’s what a writing class is all about—say one or two nice but untrue things as the sugar-coating, and then give them the honesty they so badly needed if they were ever to aspire to a New York Times bestseller and their few minutes of literary fame. Worse was yet to come.
Charles’s cell phone rang. It was Phyllis.
“You’re not in your office?”
“No, I’m working at home. Like all the other academic slackers.”
“Be quiet for one precious moment, Chuck. You haven’t heard the news?”
“Paul Munro has resigned as chair. He went to the dean this afternoon. The dean’s PA said he was in tears. She heard him yelling in the dean’s office that he couldn’t take the constant harassment and insult from self-appointed elitist failures who confuse constructive feedback with malicious put-downs and don’t deserve to be part of the university community…”
“I suppose he meant me?”
“I suppose he did.”
“Well good riddance. He overrode a clear faculty vote. You must have been royally pissed off yourself, Phyllis.”
“I was, but I was preparing a reasoned, thoughtful, counter-argument when your facetious little e-mail arrived—and to the whole damn department, students included.”
“That was an error. A techno-balls up. Not really my fault.”
“You never give up, do you Charles?”
They hung up. There was nothing much more to say. Maybe he’d come on a bit strong but having two people furious with him in one day was indicative of the rot in modern colleges. When his wife Lucy came home from her job at the university library—no longer a librarian, a media specialist—he poured them both a large glass of wine and poured out his troubles in concert.
Lucy was also in a bad mood. She hated getting home in rotten weather like this. She’d had to walk a long way to where her car was parked. The university had recently turned the much closer parking lot she’d used for years into a Center for Multi-Cultural Studies. She was sympathetic.
“What did that upstart student mean by saying his story was a parable?”
“Who knows? He probably doesn’t know the meaning of the word. I think he looks up obscure words on-line, like Bill O’Reilly. And as for the chair, well, happily the ex-chair, he obviously wasn’t suited for the job if he couldn’t take a bit of ribbing. The annoying thing is that I was deliberately trying to make him look stupid when I truly don’t care that much about spelling and grammar. What I’m trying to get my writing students to understand is the greater importance of expression of ideas, not the mechanics of writing. That’s why they should always start with their own experiences. Just my tough luck that the horrid Kevin actually had some bad experience with the abuse of power.”
“I know, dear, the importance of authenticity is something that truly bothers you. I remember it was the only negative review you ever got—the one from the LA Times. The reviewer described your ‘powerful first novel as having one fatal flaw—Charles Brown is a poser who clearly knows nothing about Mexican drug dealers’.”
“Jesus, Lucy, don’t remind me. Luckily, he was the only critic who was even remotely familiar with that whole underworld scene. I thought my rendition had real gut-wrenching punch. Fortunately, others did too.”
Lucy’s support made Charles feel better. He had almost recovered his composure, when at eleven o clock he braved the howling weather and took their dog, Snoopy Two, for her evening walk.
He was just passing the steepest part of the path beside the gorge when a dark figure emerged from the shadows in front of him.
“Goodness, you startled me,” Charles said, dropping Snoopy Two’s leash on the path and reaching into his pocket for a tissue to wipe the rain drops off his glasses. “Look, I’m sorry about my comments this afternoon, maybe we can talk more about it all tomorrow…”
“Maybe not,” came the reply.
Mrs. Lucy Brown raised the alarm when Snoopy Two came home, bedraggled and trailing her leash behind her. It wasn’t like Charles to allow her to roam around like that, although he sometimes let her run off to chase squirrels. Lucy contacted campus security, who suggested she call his cell phone. Silly, why hadn’t she thought of that? It rang in the house—it was perched on the edge of the sofa in Charles’s study where he’d spent the latter part of the evening reading student assignments. The Campus Police searched around, with no luck. He could be anywhere. It wasn’t until the next morning that the shocking word came. Charles’s lifeless body had been spotted at the bottom of the gorge.
How could it have happened, everyone wondered? Could Charles Brown have slipped? Could he have tripped on something and lost his footing? He knew the path well, but it was badly lit and slippery in the rain. It had been windy, visibility was poor. It would have been easy to make a wrong step. Everyone agreed that it had been a dark and stormy night.
Ian M. Evans
Ian M. Evans is an Emeritus Professor of clinical psychology who has turned his hand to writing fiction instead of the scientific books and journal articles that defined his teaching and research career. He was born in Bath, England, but grew up in Johannesburg, South Africa. Ian’s BA Honors degree was in History and Psychology. He then went to London and completed his PhD at the Institute of Psychiatry, King’s College. It was his great good fortune to land his first job at the University of Hawaii, and, enjoying extreme contrasts, subsequently taught in upstate New York and in New Zealand. Ian’s research interests include positive therapeutic interventions for children with emotional and physical challenges, both at home and at school. He retired with his wife, another academic, back to Hawaii, where their grandchildren love to visit. Ian has a daughter who is a professor of American literature, and a step-daughter who is a professor of cell biology—personifying C. P. Snow’s “two cultures”.
If you enjoyed ‘Write What About What You Know,’ leave a comment and let Ian know.
You can read more of Ian’s writing below:
Forgive Me My Trespasses
A satirical look at political sexual scandals from the perspective of psychotherapy principles of compassion and self-forgiveness. (Finalist in the 2017 Beverly Hills Book Awards.)
The Eye of Kuruman
A romance set in Botswana and South Africa, in which a young public health nurse working for the WHO struggles with questions of love, cultural challenges, social injustices, and self-discovery.
Austin Macauley, 2017
A thriller in which an intern psychologist at a university counselling centre must judge the dangerousness of her clients, against a background of faculty controversy over guns on campus and concerns for student safety.
How and why people change: Foundations of Psychological Therapy
Oxford University Press, 2013.
How and why thoughts change: Foundations of cognitive psychotherapy.
Oxford University Press, 2015.
You can find and follow Ian at:
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