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Reading Matters

Doug Wilhelm is a full-time writer and an independent publisher in Weybridge, Vemont. His newest book is the novel STREET OF STORYTELLERS (Rootstock, 2019). His 15 previous novels for young adults include THE REVEALERS (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2003), which has been the focus of reading-and-discussion projects in well over 1,000 middle schools.

My summer of story: The Human Comedy

I’ve struggled to come up with the simplest way to get young writers going on writing a real story. By “real” I don’t mean non-fiction — I mean a piece of fiction that is a story.
    I’ve tried going super-simple. “In a story,” I wrote on the board, “something happens.” But that was too general, too vague. Then I tried saying, “When your friend asks you ‘What’s up’ and you say ‘Nothing,’” that is not a story — but when you text your friend “OMG! You won’t believe what happened!” you are promising (and you’ll soon be telling) a story.”
    But that didn’t give enough of a sense of what a story is. So lately I’ve begun saying, “First, create a character or two that you really find interesting. Then put them in a predicament. If you do that, then let your characters find their way out, you will have written the first draft of a story.”

    I think this isn’t too bad. As an example, I’ll sometimes tell a writing workshop, of middle or high schoolers: “The book that really opened up for me, in ninth grade, what a story can be, and what writing can do, is a novel called The Human Comedy. It’s about a boy from a poor family in a farm town in California, during World War II, who has a bicycle — and because he has a bicycle, he has a job. He delivers telegrams for Western Union. Right away in the story, he has to deliver a certain type of telegram — and this is his first predicament. It’s wartime. What kind of telegram is he delivering?”
    Surprisingly, the group usually doesn’t guess this. Maybe they never get past wondering what a telegram is, or was. But as I pick up again this 1943 novel by William Saroyan — after all these years, it’s still in print, still reliably on library shelves — I see quickly how vividly, and naturally, he gets his story rolling.
    We meet Homer Macauley on page 6. He’s riding his bicycle in a “telegraph messenger’s coat which was far too big and a cap which was not quite big enough. The sun was going down in a somnolence of evening peace deeply cherished by the people of Ithaca. All about the messenger orchards and vineyards rested in the old, old earth of California.”
    So Homer is a boy in a place almost outside time, but also very much in time. Homer rides past a line of Army trucks, waving to the soldiers; and soon we understand that his brother is in the Army, his father is gone, and that’s why, at 14, he’s already working. The first telegraph he is handed to deliver will inform Mrs. Rosa Sandoval, 1129 G Street, Ithaca, “that her son, Juan Domingo Sandoval, had been killed in action.”
    Homer can barely bring himself to tell Mrs. Sandoval, who feeds him cactus candy and then suddenly “began to sob, holding herself in as if weeping were a disgrace. Homer wanted to get up and run but he knew he would stay.”
    Mrs. Sandoval seems to confuse Homer with her own son, and he doesn't correct her. When he does leaves, “he saw her back in time, a beautiful young woman sitting beside the crib of her infant son. ... He was on his bicycle suddenly, riding swiftly down the dark street, tears coming out of his eyes and his mouth whispering young and crazy curses. When he got back to the telegraph office the tears had stopped, but everything else had started and he knew there would be no stopping them.”
    The Human Comedy, as it moves on, doesn’t become a classically made story in the way that everything fits together and all builds toward a culmination and resolution. Saroyan was not a planner, more an impulsive creator than a disciplined writer; and his best-known novel is fairly episodic. But everywhere it is just this alive, with a sense of deepness that comes through like looking in a clear pool.
    And I’ve always remembered this beginning of the story: how Saroyan gave us a boy to care about, then placed him in a situation no boy should have to be in. All because of war, because of humanity, because of life and death and all the things that “had started and he knew there would be no stopping them.”

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