Saturday, 6 December 2008

Misfortunate Short Story Festival

This past summer, we held a short story contest on Misfortunate. The theme was "How I learned to stop worrying and love blueberry pie." We all posted our stories anonymously under the user account "story", and on the day that voting opened. We permitted votes from externals, or just encouraged them to read the entries. Several of my co-workers were offended by Dennis' softcore erotica. To be fair to him, we didn't specify a genre... We planned to make this a regular event because of how much fun it was to get us all writing. With the demise of Misfortunate, and the rise of its replacement, and all of the drama in between, we never did.

In fear that my winning story would disappear forever, I'll post it here and in several other places. Naturally, I have no title.

Story #2 Posted by "story" at Thu, 28 Aug 08 00:42:26 -0400

It was 9:31 p.m., and Joelle sat hunched over at her desk furiously trying to write a story. It was dim in her room. All she had was a pen, some paper, and a little lamp hovering over her desktop next to her head. She set it up in just this way so as to inspire herself. She had often envisioned the best writers writing in similar conditions. She stared at the sheet and began to write. She jotted down the first two paragraphs, and then stopped. A moment later she started up again, and again, abruptly she stopped. She paused. With a pensive gaze outside the window in front of her desk, she seemed transfixed. She started again, then again stopped. She continued in this fashion until she decided to go and have a drink. She was thirsty, or so she thought. Perhaps she thought it would help her write. “How can I write when I’m dehydrated? I need to have a drink now before my dehydration further retards any of my mental processes.” She tended to come up with things like this - lies that helped her rationalize her procrastination. But at what point did awareness of one’s bodily functions become synonymous with procrastination? She often asked herself this question, always answering plainly that at no point would it. She continued with her trip to the kitchen.

Seventeen minutes passed. It was now 9:48 p.m. Joelle thought perhaps it best to start from scratch. Now discarding all of the previous scenes which were written on paper, she turned off the little desk lamp and flicked on the main lights in her room. She opened her laptop. In her usual methodical way, she devised a OneNote notebook to hash out all of her ideas. She thought, “Well, I could use Excel, or Word, but nothing quite gives me the flexibility I want in rearranging ideas that OneNote affords me. I don’t want to be restricted this early in the writing process. I need a tool that will let my thoughts flow freely, and I will reorganize what I find when the time comes.” And on that basis, she began typing hysterically – words everywhere, tabs for themes, tables for ideas, highlighting words, drawing diagrams, colouring shapes, and all. She hoped that some combination of themes therein would surface, she would be enlightened, and the plot of her story would reveal itself! Much like a Platonic ideal: she decided to conceive of her story as pre-existing, waiting merely for the artist to bright it to life, into the world of existence.

At 9:54 p.m., she got tired of typing and looked at the fruits of her labours. It was a mess of words - hundreds of words - coupled and uncoupled, in sentences and not, meaningful and less so. She began by trying to assimilate each individual idea, but there were too many. Individual ideas ranged from that of “living dangerously” to “the meaningfulness of conviction”. There were dozens. Next she tried to group ideas into themes, but they were too equally balanced: none pervasive, all equal in value to her (or so it seemed) so none worth incorporating into her story. She had considered incorporating all of the themes, but then she would certainly exceed the word maximum, not to mention how the work and time involved in incorporating dozens of themes was something she wouldn’t dare expend. She wanted to write a story, but it wasn’t worth that much effort.

It was hitting 10:00 p.m., and she was officially beginning to panic. She decided to take a Facebook break: login, look at her home page, see what her friends are up to – the usual. "When troubled by something, it’s best to get it out of your mind completely and revisit it with a clear mind!" Well, that’s what she would tell herself when she was just on the verge of completing something. She just never managed to fight the distraction that she never realized that this was always a critical moment for her: this was when she would likely find success. But she never learned this lesson. These thoughts always interrupted her concentration, and they always gave her a rationalization for her inaction. "But at what point did awareness of one’s mental state become synonymous with procrastination?" She was convinced she was doing what was best for her writing – clearing her mind so that ideas could flow. It was most likely a hindrance. After all, how much was her mind genuinely “cleared”? Perhaps she never knew what it really meant to have a “clear mind”. Or perhaps she knew, and preferred the comfort one gets out of lying to herself to avoid a reality that required effort.

“10:09 p.m.?” she wondered to herself. “How could that be? I only checked my notifications and Inbox, popped open my gmail, replied to a couple people, and here we are – nearly ten minutes later.” She decided to have some coffee. She tended to view coffee as a miracle drug that was made available to the general public. But it wasn’t. It hardly had any effect on her, really, besides increasing her heart rate, inducing increased and frequent urination, dehydration, and forecast the highly probable uncomfortable night’s sleep she was going to have if she were to have it after 5:00 p.m. which she was about to do. It was about 10:12 p.m. But she sat and thought about the coffee, and thought about how she would have the coffee, how enjoyable the coffee would be, about how the coffee would help her. And somehow during sitting and thinking of the volumes of nothingness about coffee just described, she wasted six minutes – it was 10:18 p.m. - and she hadn’t even yet made the coffee, let alone drunk it.

Minutes later, while sipping at the delicious coffee, the thought crossed her mind of potentially recycling an old idea that she had previously used in a one of her stories: “Coffee: It’s the bitter tastes we take sometimes just for a reason to sit.” It was about a girl who hated her life. She would go far out of her way every morning to have her coffee – neither because she liked coffee, nor because she enjoyed the cafĂ©, but rather because the act of sitting and savouring her coffee gave her a few moments of clarity while alone with her thoughts, all before embarking on yet another miserable day. And for just a few seconds, while sipping at her sweet, dessert-like home-made coffee, into which she had added vanilla flavouring, Bailey’s, and topped with whipped cream, she thought she could incorporate the idea. And just as quickly, she changed her mind. Perhaps it was the fact that she was enjoying every tasty sip of the coffee. Perhaps it was that she saw the unfairness to the other contestants that exists in the act of recycling her own work for a competition. But more than likely, it was the fact that she could no longer relate to such an ungrateful, morbid creature that was the inspiration of her former protagonist - “that bitter coffee drinker” (ambiguity intended). The last thing she could do was be dishonest. "At what point does honesty with oneself become synonymous with procrastination? If I continued in this fashion, and incorporated this idea, ripped off my own writing, and pretended to currently relate to this character, I’d be lying. I can’t do that.” She had an answer for any insinuation that she was procrastinating. Not that anyone besides herself made the accusation.

After sipping at her caffeinated beverage for some time, all the while dreaming of being hundreds of miles away, walking on white sand beaches at sunset under a colourful sky, she snapped out of it. She jerked her head toward the clock so she could see the time. She’d gotten carried away with her fantasy of being in a situation of not having anything to do, and envisioning what it is that would be a perfect way to pass the time. “10:47 p.m.? What the heck?!” She hurriedly returned herself to her desk. It was too late for panic; she just acted purely out of adrenalin. She threw out the crumpled sheets of paper, closed the curtains to the window, turned on both the room and the desk lamp, closed OneNote, and opened Word - as if these were all indications that she would now focus and stop wasting time thinking about things that were at the moment absolutely inconsequential. It was useless to try to adopt a new routine for writing, or to search high and low in an attempt to incorporate every possible idea. It was pointless now to daydream. She began to do what she always did when she buckled down to write: she began typing in Outline View, created a basic outline for the document with headings, chose the ideas that happened to currently reside in her mind precisely for that reason, added points under each heading, and began to type, effortlessly stringing together points as if she were playing connect the dots. She began to relax. The discomfort from the caffeine began to take full effect. Her hands were shaking, her heart was racing, and her thoughts ran amok. She convinced herself that the caffeine had given her the energy she needed to persevere past the physical roadblocks, and power through to the glorious end that would be a completed story. The only theme that ran in her mind was one she’d thought up the other day, and had been hoping since for an epiphany on how to present it in an inspirational way:

To live by one’s convictions: at the very least, you were honest with yourself, in the best scenario your way of life inspired others to live similarly. That is, others saw success in what you deemed valuable. When Nietzsche challenges us to “live dangerously”, this will be how I do it.

Granted, it was some deviation of all existential themes, but the particular wording was hers. And maybe tonight would not be the night that she methodically determined how to exploit it, but that was ok. It was now 11:34 p.m., and she knew she had to let go of that aspiration. Her hands and her thoughts were flowing as if they were controlling her - as though she were a spout pouring the current of ideas forth without there being any way of slowing it, or any reason to alter it. It was beautiful just as it was. The ideas were pure, honest and true. They were illustrations of a girl who doubted herself, and the descriptions of her means of frustrating herself. It was about a girl who could not tell if she was on track, or lost; a girl who did not know if she was rationalizing her actions, or if they were legitimate. This was a girl who had success in questionable methods, but never acknowledged them as such; a girl who fought all instinct with failing attempts to find new methods. It was a story about the unnecessary worry that accompanies self-inflicted torture. To Joelle, no one could ever be more honest with him/herself than when his/her thoughts flowed freely - uninterruptedly and unguided. In writing, she was honest to herself. She stopped trying to do all of things that she was told or read that successful people do. In continued wreckless abandon, she wrote - without intention, decidedly curious to see the values that would surface at the end of this process. Perhaps, after all and in a roundabout way, her story was an illustration of her theme.
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