Wednesday, August 6, 2008

Freelance Writing: Measuring Up

Measuring Up
By Amy Brozio-Andrews


I loved participating in summer enrichment programs when I was a kid. Whenever possible, I’d always want to sign up for the writing classes; anything from journalism to screenwriting to creative writing – that’s where I wanted to be. Most of these programs offered open enrollment town-wide, and included kids from about a dozen different school districts (I grew up on Long Island, where the townships are pretty big). Most years, I enjoyed the six weeks I spent learning and writing with new friends, and once the class was over, promises to write and call (way before email) usually fell by the wayside as early as Columbus Day, as we all got wrapped up in our school-year activities and 'regular' friends. Summer classes and summer friends weren’t usually thought of again, until the next June, and by then, new classes and friends quickly replaced old ones. Except for one class…

I was about fourteen when I signed up for a creative writing class. There were about twelve of us in the class, and we were a pretty tight group. We all lived relatively close, and were able to hang out socially a couple of times; it must have been a really quiet summer, or we were really annoying teenagers to be able to get our parents to drive us places… I’m still not sure which it was.

We did daily writing exercises in class, went on field trips, and put together one issue of a literary magazine (hey, it was only six weeks!). Our final project was to write a short story on anything we wanted. These were read and critiqued by the whole class, and printed in our magazine. I don’t even remember what I wrote about, although I must have a copy of it in a box somewhere, but I vividly remember the story written by one of my classmates whom I’ll call Joe.

Joe wrote the kind of story I’d only dreamed about. It had suspense, a dramatic narrative, great descriptive language, and a completely surprising conclusion. After reading it, I believed that Joe was a great writer, and that of all of us in that class, I was sure he would go places. Joe’s was the story of a young man who was thrilled to finally get to sit and eat holiday dinner with the grownups, instead of being sent to play with the younger children outside. At the end of the meal, he picked up the playing card next to his plate along with the others, and found himself in trapped in a macabre family tradition. The family member who was randomly dealt a specified playing card at each annual family dinner was sacrificed on a large old stone with deep grooves on it in the backyard.

Sound familiar? Like Shirley Jackson’s The Lottery? I hadn’t read that story, and I don’t know if anyone else in the class had either. If anyone knew that Joe’s story was liberally borrowed from The Lottery, they weren’t telling. It was several years later that I did finally pick up a book of short stories by Shirley Jackson, and after reading The Lottery, I almost dropped the book. I felt like I’d been had. While we hadn’t kept in touch, I’d always thought of Joe as a remarkable writer. I’d dreamed of writing a story like that. I had pages of stories, poetry, notes, and character sketches written and stuck in notebooks and desk drawers over the years. Joe's work had stuck with me through all that time, like some kind of standard I'd held myself up to, and now I felt like he really hadn’t written it at all. He may not have plagiarized her work word for word, but I felt like hers was such a unique plot, that his kind of rewriting was still so much like the original that it should have come with a disclaimer – ‘based on the short story by Shirley Jackson’ – or something to indicate what a strong influence she had on his work.

I haven’t seen nor spoken to Joe since that summer we were in class together, over ten years ago. I don’t know what I would have said, if anything, if I had seen him since I read The Lottery. I don’t feel shocked about his story anymore. I do feel a little disappointed, though. But not so much in Joe; I’m disappointed in myself. Why was I so quick to believe that he was a better writer than I was? Perhaps he was, but why did my thinking he was a good writer mean I couldn’t be one too?

I sometimes wonder what ever became of Joe. I wonder if he still writes. I try hard now not to compare myself with other writers. It's an effort to keep the comparisons limited to the craft and technique of writing, and not wonder whether I'm a better or worse writer than someone else. While my writing may be judged, compared, liked, disliked, built up or torn down, I have finally matured enough to be confident in the fact that I am simply a writer, and that is enough.

Amy Brozio-Andrews is a freelance writer and book reviewer. She brings more than five years' experience as a readers' advisory librarian to her work, which is regularly published by Library Journal, The Imperfect Parent, and Absolute Write. Her reviews have also been published by The Absinthe Literary Review, ForeWord Magazine, January Magazine, and Melt Magazine. Amy is also the managing editor and an international markets columnist for Absolute Write. Visit her online at http://www.amyba.com.

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