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Thread: Week 4: Post entries here!

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  1. #8
    Man vs. Himself

    by
    William Haskins



    I’ve written from the time I could hold a pencil (possibly a crayon… I can’t really remember that far back). It’s not that I was a precocious child or anything. Writing was, to me, as natural as talking. If thoughts are worthy of expressing verbally in the company of others, I figured, how can they not be worth writing down when alone?

    So I retreated into my imagination and wrote—adventure stories, fairy tales, doggerel verse and the crude philosophy of a toe-headed kid who tries to stand on the shoulders of giants, but inevitably crashes to the ground, all skinned-knees and chipped teeth.

    I never saw writing as anything separate from the normal course of life. Not that any of it was really any good. Sure, I’d get occasional praise for a clever rhyme or a story with some accidental narrative cohesion, but I never touched anyone. Never moved anyone.

    That was the magic that real writers practiced, and it had eluded me at every turn.

    After a backwater reading curriculum in elementary school, I entered junior high with no expectation that formal education could offer me any new insights into writing. But that all changed when I met my 7th grade Language Arts teacher, Ms. Koch.

    She was petite, but flinty—with the fiery eyes of a woman who’d spent her career in a school flanked by two of the worst neighborhoods in the city, teaching kids who often came to school hungry, who fought openly in the hallway and despised books. Yet, constantly and unswervingly, she reached out to bridge our life experiences with the vast expanse of literary tradition. She played records to underscore the poetry of contemporary song lyrics and showed us film versions of classic Edgar Allen Poe stories. We read, and discussed, the style and humor of Mark Twain and the claustrophobic horror of Anne Frank’s diary.

    We were only a few weeks into the semester when she gave us our first writing assignment.

    It was fairly run-of-the-mill for a 7th grade English composition class. We were to write a short story that explored one of the three major literary conflicts: Man vs. Man, Man vs. Nature or Man vs. Himself. Pretty basic stuff.

    But I remember my heartbeat accelerating at the challenge. For the first time, I wasn’t left to my own devices to create a story out of thin air. Now, I had a purpose. An artificially imposed purpose, maybe, but one that would nevertheless govern the story’s structure and tone, one that set a level of expectation that I might meet, or possibly even exceed. Or maybe fall short of.

    I spent that weekend staring at the ceiling and daydreaming over which direction I might take my story. Finally I settled on one of my favorite motifs—a boy and his dog. I had spent the past year devouring the works of Jack London, so I decided to set it in the frozen and hostile terrain of Alaska.

    A week before, I merely would have spewed out a description-heavy snapshot of setting and one-dimensional character, aiming only for style. But now, I turned my ideas over in my head, examining them from all angles, dissecting and analyzing, embracing and rejecting.

    I began to write about an arctic explorer, separated from his group and left to wander a frozen wasteland, accompanied only by his faithful dog.

    Man vs. Nature writ large.

    But as I went back over my class notes, I knew I had to dig deeper. I had begun to fully realize the importance of conflict as the central component of fiction. No longer would picturesque settings and exotic characters suffice. Critical thinking and basic literary theory had transformed me.

    I returned to the story and looked at my character’s circumstances. He was cold and lost and frightened. But it wasn’t enough. I began to starve him. Hunger, surely, would make his struggle against nature even more brutal.

    By page two, his food supply was completely gone.

    Now the wheels were spinning. Cold, lost, frightened and hungry. Left to the mercy of merciless elements, finding comfort only in the loyalty of the wretched beast that trotted alongside him, paws flayed bloody by the edges of cracked ice.

    But it still wasn’t enough. “What would be going through his mind?” I asked myself.

    Fear? Yes, but the pain, the hunger would overpower all else. I went inside his head and found a desperate man seriously contemplating eating his dog. Now there was some conflict—man reduced to animal.

    But he couldn’t do it. I couldn’t do it.

    I sat staring at the paper, paralyzed by the confusion I had inflicted on this poor bastard manufactured in my imagination. Morality, biology and logic all conspired against me, pulling my mind in a hundred directions at once.

    I was in heaven, and the rest of the story wrote itself.

    A week later, I watched the faces of my classmates as Ms. Koch returned our stories; some happy, others mortified as they peered at the grade marked neatly in red ink at the top of their paper. But the grade meant nothing to me.

    I had put my protagonist in the worse possible situation, his body racked by pain and cold, his spirit crushed by his desolation, his mind tortured by his temptation to butcher and eat his only companion. And he had emerged with nobility and dignity, a man of compassion.

    That the dog chewed into his throat and devoured him was almost incidental. After all, in the battle of Man vs. Nature, nature always wins.

    Ms. Koch handed me my paper and returned to her desk. I looked in the top corner, unmoved by the neat red “A” written there. It was the five words beneath the grade that hit me like a shot of adrenalin:

    “Must you be so cynical?”

    I looked at her and we shared a smile. We both knew the answer to that.
    Last edited by William Haskins; 05-18-2005 at 08:36 AM. Reason: format fix
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