Broken-down Poetry: Creative Writing: On a Bench with Joel


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Thursday, February 11, 2010

Creative Writing: On a Bench with Joel

Preface: I promised more creative writing in my 2010 Writing Goals. Here's round two. I wrote this piece for Prose, and I admit I am awfully proud of it. For the most part it's in classic style, but I waver from it here and there (which is why I got points docked). 

The names have been "changed" to protect the "innocent."


“It is better to fail in originality than to succeed in imitation,” said Joel, quoting Herman Melville.

Joel sat on a bench in the far corner of the college student center. An empty cardboard coffee cup sat in the empty seat beside him; his MacBook was propped open on his lap. Joel was haphazardly deleting a list of unanswered emails when the girl arrived. He shut the lid.

“Sit down,” he told her, moving the cup. Joel shoved his Mac into the open satchel bag next to his sneakered feet. As he made room for the laptop, the bag’s contents spilled: gloves for the cold, a book of poetry (to be read for class and for pleasure, he assured her), and a digital voice recorder. He put all the contents back inside except for the recorder.

“When I’m driving in my car and I have a great idea, I talk into this,” said Joel.

She nodded. The girl had a recorder of her own peeking out of her side pocket; she pulled it out to show him. “I have one too.”

He continued, “My housemate left it when he moved out, so I kept it. He never could take care of his things.” Joel tossed the recorder on top of the satchel and kicked the bag underneath his seat.

The girl pulled her legs up onto the bench turning to face him, and Joel did the same. He drummed his fingers on the wooden-arched back; he leaned against the armrest. She inched closer, hoping he wouldn’t notice.

The girl was sure she was in love; there was no other word to describe her feelings. While other boys his age wasted away weekends watching movies and playing video games, Joel made art; he read. Joel was not like other boys, always rambling on about football or girls; he spoke about art and philosophy. He was a teacher, the girl his student. All she wished to do was sit at his feet and listen. And she listened intently.

As they sat there on the bench – the girl unaware of anything but him, he unaware of anything but himself – Joel began telling her of his lengthy theories of theology and the human condition. He told her how he was an Epicurean; he does everything with moderation. He told her he hated obese people; he eats everything with moderation.

He told her what it meant to be an artist – unrestrained by anything but one’s own inhibitions. The girl was a writer; she managed to tell him between breaths. He viewed art more highly.

“With art you can be original,” he said to her. “Writers use everybody else’s words.”

Originality was Joel’s favorite trait; he believed he possessed it in heaps. When he got dressed in the morning, when he chose what to eat, what picture to paint, who to speak to – he thought of no one but himself. He renounced imitation. Joel taunted anyone who thought inside the box, and mocked those who tried so desperately to do the opposite.

“To be nobody but yourself in a world that’s doing its best to make you somebody else, is to fight the hardest battle you are ever going to fight,” said Joel, quoting e.e. cummings.

The girl scooted even closer to Joel. He was too distracted by someone behind her to notice. A blond boy who looked to be Joel’s opposite – blond hair, clean shaven, broad shoulders – was walking past. Joel called after him, but the boy hesitated coming over. After a full-arm wave from Joel, the boy walked to the bench. He stood before them, ready to speak – he opened his mouth to start – but Joel spoke first.

“Can I see them?” Joel pointed to the three-foot portfolio the boy’s white knuckles clutched.

He refused. He knew Joel to be a relentless critic. They continued in a ping-pong of pleas and denials until the boy gave in. He held his breath.

“It’s not bad,” said Joel, looking at a charcoal drawing, “but it’s missing something.” Joel spoke a textbook of critiques: the composition’s off just a bit; this shouldn’t be the focal point. Art should tell a story, he said. This doesn’t tell a story.

The boy looked on expressionless.

“You’re upset?” Joel asked him.

He didn’t respond, but looked at the girl for support. She stared back at him with wide-eyes, saying nothing.

“Well, I wasn’t going to lie to you. What good would that do you?” Joel slid the drawing back into the portfolio and handed it back. “Did you have a chance to see my artwork? It’s hanging upstairs in the art building.”

Gripping his portfolio much harder than before and walking in strides much more hurried than before, the boy left without answering.

Joel turned to the girl. “I wasn’t going to lie to him.”

The girl, blinded by her infatuation, could not see what the boy saw. She could not see the self-absorption, the superiority complex. To the girl, Joel was an intellectual, an artist with insight she could only understand if he broke down it down into bit-sized pixels.

Joel was right: the boy’s composition was all wrong.

“It was nice talking, but I need to finish my homework,” said Joel.

Without voicing the truth – her desire to stay, to hear him talk more – the girl got up and stuck out her hand. “Goodnight, Joel.”

He met her hand with his. But mid-shake, he scratched her palm with his forefinger. He smiled. “I like to touch people in a way they’ll remember me.”

The girl blushed as she walked off in the same direction as the blond boy. She didn’t look back, nor did Joel watch her leave.

Reaching under his bench, he retrieved his MacBook, opened it, and deleted a few more emails before beginning his homework.

Afterward: In classic prose, the writer presents a truth to her reader. When my classmates read this, they thought my truth was that "Joel is an egotistical jerk." That wasn't my original intent, but okay. 

Dr. Allison, however, wrote the greatest comments on my paper. After Joel acts elitist toward the girl (for the first time), he wrote: "He should be slapped!" And after the girl scooted closer to Joel the second time, he wrote: "She still likes him? Why?"

Oh, Dr. Allison, if only you knew.

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