By Elias Keller
A mother and father sit at the kitchen table, reading a short stack of loose-leaf paper with expressions of intense scrutiny.
The father shakes his head. “He should be writing better than this.”
“He’s trying, dear,” the mother replies. “He’s made a lot of progress since last year.”
“Well, he’s not trying hard enough. Look: the structure is good. The prose is fluid. It’s just not there yet.”
The mother nods. “I know.”
“Jonathan!” the father calls out. “Come here! Now!”
A minute later, an eight-year-old boy shuffles into the kitchen.
“We want to talk to you about this story,” the father says. “Now, you have a boy and his pet alligator going to the mall and then the alligator eating people in the food court. That’s clever. Even ironic. But clever isn’t enough. Clever wears off quickly. Do you understand?”
“But I just wanted to—”
The father puts his hand over the boy’s mouth. “Jonathan, no. Writers don’t explain their intentions. A good story just is. It exists on its own terms.”
Speaking gently and brushing some hair out of the boy’s eyes, the mother says: “What you have, honey, is a premise, a situation. Now you need to go deeper. Who are these characters? Who is this boy? Who is this alligator? What do they want from life and what’s blocking their way? The more you know these things, the more your premise turns into a story. Do you see what we mean, honey?”
Jonathan nods and mumbles.
“But, son, fleshing out characters doesn’t mean just concocting backstories,” the father puts in. “Anyone can do that. You have to feel your characters.”
The mother murmurs in agreement. “And while we’re talking about feeling a story, sweetie, remember that you need to use all of your senses. What does the food court sound like? What does it smell like? Readers want to know these things.”
“But you can’t just write, ‘The food court smelled good.’” The father raises his eyebrows. “That’s telling. You have to show. You have to make the reader smell exactly what the food court smells like.” The father hands the boy the stack of papers. “Now I want you to go upstairs and rewrite the story, and don’t come down until you’ve finished.”
“What about dinner?” the boy asks.
“After you’ve written this properly,” the father replies. Jonathan starts to protest, but his father holds up a hand. “Son, if you want something, you have to work for it. Now go.”
When Jonathan is gone, the father sighs. “Writers. They all think it’s enough to be clever. I’ll be damned if I’m going to let that happen to him.”
“Dear, he is only eight.”
“You’ve never too young to learn how to do things right. Wasn’t Mozart composing when he was five? Wasn’t Tiger Woods playing golf when he was two?”
“Maybe I should just bring him a little snack,” the mother says.
“Oh, come on. He’s not going to starve to death. It’s good for artists to stay a little hungry. When he’s accepting the Nobel Prize, he’ll thank us.”
A little while later Jonathan returns with another stack of papers and lays them on the table. “Can I have something to eat now?”
“That depends,” the father says. He and the mother read the papers with red pens in their hands.
“You’re close, sweetie,” the mother says. “But your stories have to reflect your unique perspective and experiences. They have to connect to your heart. Then the words have meaning, and import.”
“What your mother means, son, is that your story has to say something about our world.” The mother whispers in her husband’s ear.
“Right,” the father replies, snapping his fingers. “That’s just it.” He turns back to the boy. “What the story’s lacking, son, is a sense of the zeitgeist.”
“The zeitgeist, sweetie,” the mother says. “It’s a German word for the ‘spirit of the times.’ Good literature is like a cultural document. It tells future generations what it was like to live in a certain era.”
“But it’s just a story about a boy and an alligator!”
“That doesn’t matter,” the father says. “It’s not what the content is—it’s what you do with it. The greatest novels are about the simplest things. Now, do you want to be read a hundred years from now, or do you want to be an obscure hack?”
Jonathan shrugs. “Well?”
“I want to be read hundreds of years from now,” the boy mumbles.
The father nods approvingly. “That a boy.”
“Honey, just think deeply and compassionately about the world around you, absorb its energy, and infuse that into your story.” The mother smiles sweetly.
“But not too explicitly,” the father interjects hastily. “You’re not writing an essay. The zeitgeist has to be a ubiquitous, but subtle presence in the story. Just like in real life.” He stands up and opens a door. “Now go down to the basement and revise. You won’t be distracted down there.”
The mother looks startled, but is silenced by a sharp glance from her husband, who gives a stack of blank paper to Jonathan.
“But I’m hungry!”
“Well, so is your alligator,” the father says. “Now use that feeling for your story. That’s what we mean by connecting to a character.”
Jonathan walks downstairs, his footsteps receding into the basement.
“I think he’ll get it this time,” the father says when back at the table with his wife. “All writers struggle with false starts.”
“Are you sure we’re not being too hard on him, dear?”
“Of course not,” the father says, picking up a book. “Artists thrive on adversity.”
– Elias Keller is a Philadelphia native. His short fiction has appeared in Literary Orphans, Wordhaus, Crack the Spine, Every Day Fiction, APIARY, Slush Pile, Forge, and elsewhere. He currently lives in New Orleans. www.eliaskeller.com.