The Greatest Story Ever Told
My girlfriend works at a non-profit thing in Manhattan that is run by a famous writer; the non-profit thing teaches writing to children between the ages of six and 12, which is nice of them, to do something nice like that. Yesterday, she sent me a short story written by “Lizzy,” one of her six-year-olds.
“Lizzy” (not her real name) dictated the story to my girlfriend during “workshop” period, when they weren’t supposed to be doing story-writing, which seems counter-intuitive to me, but it’s not like I’ve ever been to the class or know what’s going on. After reading it, I wept — not really, but I felt like weeping. It might help you here to know that the my girlfriend’s name is Julia… so it’s a story about the two of them:
And then Lizzy and Julia were in a car and there was another car, another car, another car — and there was lots of mustard in one of the cars. And Julia realized her car was a deer! Covered in mustard! The deer mustard scratched Julia and then Julia ran away. She saw lots of safe people and she fell asleep and had a dream and the dream was that all the mustard was eating her. And then Julia woke up and Julia said “AH!” and all the safe people woke up and the old man said “Shush, we’re sleeping.” And then everyone, everyone, everyone turned to mustard.
That is the entire story as shown to me. After reading it, I felt like weeping. I contacted my girlfriend on Gchat instant messaging:
3:44 PM me: she really captures the sadness
What can be said about such a story? The mustard… everything, everything, everything turning into it. What words do I have? After a few minutes of thought, I IMed my girlfriend again:
3:48 PM me: bb!
Julia: heeey bb
me: i’m going to use your kid’s story about the mustard
if that’s okay
it is the greatest thing ever
that was lizzy!
me: so good
3:49 PM is she the one of color
Julia: jesus christ
me: the black one, jeez
Julia: get with the times, man
no she’s chinese
Julia: so her english isn’t perfect
me: she’s the one who loves you
Julia: also I asked her if she knew what mustard is
me: tao lin like wishes
3:50 PM he could achieve that level of writing
Julia: and she nodded vigorously
and then she was like here, i’ll draw a picture
i will send you the picture
My girlfriend then sent me Lizzy’s drawing of mustard. Here is that:
So many questions, but what can I say? Why does “mustard” look like a fox, or a Pokémon thing? And is that an open mouth, or a nose? I thought it was a nose, but now I’m realizing it could just as easily be an upset open mouth? And why mustard in the first place? And do I really want the answers to any of these questions?
I meant what I said about almost weeping, and I meant what I said, about Tao Lin (to pick a random example) selling his soul to write a paragraph that good. After I read it, I couldn’t do work for hours and hours — couldn’t write, which is what I depend on being able to do for money. The story had thrust itself deep into my mouth — there’s an awkward and unpleasantly sexy metaphor, even though Kafka used it; maybe I still can’t write — burrowing deep into me, blocking my words. And the mustard… the mustard was filling every depth, flooding every shore. And you — you silly people — you think that I am kidding.
I’ve written for my entire adult life, which is maybe the problem. I’m too conscious of what I’m doing to be able to write in the way that a first grader writes (six years old equals approximately first grade, I think). She’s bored with the car being a car? Then the car is now a deer, why not? She’s bored with the people — they’re mustard now; everything is. Symbolism and magical reality and insanity; the kind of story that, say, Miranda July tries way, way too hard to create; her effort smacks of the lamp, so to speak. This effort is real.
All you need to write is honesty and a story to tell, and then you need someone to take the paper away from you. Teach me. Let me be that innocent again. Somebody teach me, unteach me, whatever. Let me back in. Let me back into the first grade.
image – Mammatus Clouds
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If you’ve been looking for a chance to say something then this very well could be it.
I wish to God I’d had a list like this when I was 23.
Answer phones better than anyone else has answered phones before. Relay messages so brilliant, they bring people to tears. Turn the coffee run into the choreography of Swan Lake. Become best friends with every intern and every underling and every taxi driver you encounter.
I remember taking the pen and notebook from that woman outside the courtroom, flipping to a clean page in the book, and writing, JESSICA IS SAD in big, bold, uncoordinated letters. “My sister is going to be a good writer someday! Look at how nice her lines are!”