The Greatest Story Ever Told

Now I realized that it had understood everything; it took wing, leaned far back to gain impetus, and then, like a javelin thrower, thrust its beak through my mouth, deep into me. Falling back, I was relieved to feel him drowning irretrievably in my blood, which was filling every depth, flooding every shore.
–Franz Kafka, “The Vulture”

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

 Julia: ha!

  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

 me: oh

 Julia: so her english isn’t perfect

 me: she’s the one who loves you

  it’s great

 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

  of “mustard”


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. TC mark

image – Mammatus Clouds


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  • N Looman

    Suddenly I am quiet. Thank you for sharing

  • E.B.

    Woah, that was good. I liked what you interpreted from Lizzy’s story. I feel the same way – we really are too concious and we try so hard to find the best words that we could never just let loose like Lizzy. Kids have the best imagination.
    Imagine if we lived in a world were kids – and not adults – were the best selling authors.

  • Nate Arnold (@nathanDarnold)

    Sounds like 826NY to me- I volunteer at the CHI chapter, and we have books and books filled with similar- hilarious/unmeaningly thought provoking writing. Good stuff, and great to see the kids using their imagination muscles. Honestly though, there’s nothing stopping you from writing as innocent and unadulterated. Heck, the way our culture is regressing (saw a grown ass man wearing an Angry Birds t-shirt the other day) there may be a market for mustard stories soon.

  • Dan

    I honestly get the point about the beauty and purity of a child’s mind. With concern to the way this story is dissected: I dont see it.

  • liz

    I teach first grade. Their creativity knows no bounds and they never cease to amaze me. Re: your last paragraph – you definitely need to be un-taught. Have no fear. Draw that heart with human eyes and eyelashes, that house with a chimney and all 3 trees with a tire, Relax. Submit something you know is crazy and run back to your seat without a care. Kids are fantastic.

  • Leah Beckhoff


  • Alexandra Glorioso

    I love this post. Someone should buy that little girl some ice cream. And a copy of this post to put in her scrapbook.

  • samantha

    This was perfect.
    Almost as perfect as the six-year-old’s paragraph.

  • shareenarciso

    Oh wow. And I call myself a writer. If she’s just 6 and can be that …. good, then there is a very, very bright future for her.

  • SJR

    I can feel the comfort of the safe people. And the old man watching over them all. Thank you.

  • Anon

    Sometimes mustard is just mustard.

  • Preston

    I read this article in full with a dose of cynicism and dull captivation, thinking nothing much of it as I went along. As soon as I finished, however, I felt unexpected chills run through me. Delightfully and oddly stirring article.

    • Oliver Miller

      Nice. More comments like this, please.

  • Michelle

    I wish I had never lost my childlike innocence. It was such a wonderful thing. I hope I can get it back. Thanks Oliver for yet again writing another poignant article. Please write and publish a book.

  • IamCatman!

    The drawing looks like a cat! Mustard is a cat! :D I suppose Mustard is the name of a cat.. Well, whatever it is, I really love the story behind this article =) Keep writing!!!

  • Rose Georgia

    i read this just after clicking ‘send’ on an application to volunteer at a similar sort of non-profit. strangely (or maybe not so strangely) writing the application made me feel the same frustration you articulated in that last paragraph. i just sounded studied and hyperanalytical – all the things university taught me to do that really just get in the way. it’s barely been two weeks since the end of exams and already i want to be untaught.

  • Rose Georgia

    also, you might enjoy this

    actually, thinking about it, her story (the girl in the video) sounds a lot like the stories i made up when we had to do french conversation tests in class. maybe that’s the key – you’ve learnt english so well that you’re not struggling to find words anymore so now is the time to write in a completely different language you barely know.

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