Preface: Writers Work in Mysterious Ways

Melissa Mickael


After one term and one thousand sheets of paper, I'm looking at the computer screen and wondering what to write. As for those who argue about how it's impossible for a student to use over a thousand sheets of paper for a class in one term don't waste my time. Think about it. Every student in class received a copy of every story for each student in class. For each short story, there was a response written about every single one. For every report and short story, there were at least three revisions, two mistakes when I forgot page numbers and had to reprint, and eight reprints whenever the printer would spasm and die. It isn't so difficult to imagine now, is it?

It also took me half a term to discover the value of using both sides of the paper. I'm stupid like that.

Honestly, though, the quantity of typing I've done isn't what makes me feel that I've accomplished something in this class. No amount of page numbers can make up for a lack of quality. When I look at my manuscripts, I feel somewhat proud to have written them. These are papers I've slaved over, revised repeatedly, and revamped after every piece of criticism. I look at them, and then at the feeble beginning drafts I put together, and I see an ocean of differences. I see my growth in this short time and, even more importantly, how much farther I have yet to go to become the writer I want to be.

The samples of writing I chose to add to this portfolio include my main short story from FYS Creative Writing, a research report and bibliography on Harlan Ellison, and an analytic essay on Ellison's "`Repent, Harlequin!' Said the Ticktockman." They combine my work with fantasy writing, researching, and understanding the literature given to me. I didn't understand at the time, but this variety contributes to how I write in every field.

"The Jackal," a short story that became longer as the project went on, is my baby. I'll admit it. Believe it or not, I procrastinated again until three days before the rough draft was due. Unable to find anything that could inspire me, I grumbled, heated up some noodles, and sat down to watch Japanese cartoons at two in the morning. (This happens a lot. One day, I'll have to attribute everything I write to the wonders of instant food and lack of sleep.) In the episode I watched, a freakish character was attacking and eating a priest alive. It was ugly. It was fun to watch. My brain's interest was piqued.

`Why couldn't he be cuter? Cannibalistic psychotics can be sexy, too,' it said sullenly. I shrugged, waved my chopsticks around a little, and babbled something incoherent about blondes. By morning, I had two notebook pages of scribbles about an immortal creature that lived off of the flesh of humans. He was blonde. Some kid was going to show up and befriend him, and there would be a lot of torture and cuteness for all.

Thus, "The Jackal" was born.

It was longer than I meant it to be. I started writing two days before it was due, but everything came out fast I didn't look at what I was writing until I actually printed off the copies. (Fourteen pages. The class hated me for that.) I received my first comments and criticism from students and Terry Heller after the workshops, and it was incredibly enlightening seeing the story from a reader's point of view, knowing what was confusing, and what needed to be altered. People wanted to see more detail about the characters. They wanted background history, more on the background characters, and that would mean a complete turn around in the story. I had been glad just to get it done, but now I had to go through and revise everything again.

I'm still not sure if it was frustrating or fantastic. I ended up going through and changing the little things first. After that, I completely changed the story around I rewrote crucial scenes, redid the plotline, and added more clarification to the characters. The story was nineteen pages now, much more complex than the original, and even when I felt like throwing a stone at the computer, it was worth it. I began by looking at the story through a reader's perspective what sounds confusing, what should be clarified? Does this sound odd when I read it aloud? Is this too much information to digest, should I cut more? Why did I choose The Jackal to be blonde, anyway, if I like redheads?!

And most importantly, is it blonde or blond?

Hmmm. I'm still not sure about that one.

Three revisions later after a great deal of condensing and cutting material, I'm still not completely happy with "The Jackal." At the same time, I'm more amazed with it than anything else. Not due to length, my quality of writing, or even the story itself but because I saw, for the first time, how redoing my work can make it even better. Of all the lessons I've learned, discovering the process of actual revision was my favorite.

This isn't to say that I didn't learn anything from working on my other portfolio pieces, of course. (Thankfully, they were not born from eating noodles when I was half delirious.) My research report and bibliography for Harlan Ellison taught me just as much. I originally decided on Ellison because of his eccentric lifestyle I'd heard about, as well as the social commentary I found in his writing. I learned how to present a biographical report in interesting, well rounded ways. (The research librarian is also a wonderful man let it be a lesson to every student. Bring him cookies. I would, but as we know, I can't cook anything except instant ramen.)

More difficult (but also more rewarding) than the research report was my analytic essay on Ellison's story, "`Repent, Harlequin!' Said the Ticktockman." I not only had to understand the story's themes, but I also had to analyze them to the best of my abilities. Once I delved my way into the ideas of oppressive governments, the need for individuality, and jelly beans being randomly dumped on a city, I had to organize my thoughts into a coherent essay. It was difficult the first draft had all of the information, but it wasn't organized correctly. Trying to compact these themes into that structure, and include examples and explanations, was very difficult. In the end, I felt like I'd just wrestled an eight thousand pound sumo wrestler on steroids and won... but it was worth it.

Overall, these were the pieces that I worked with the most. They were the ones I struggled with every week. I also learned from my own writing, whether it was about revision, research, or the organization of my thoughts. Although this portfolio has been created to show my maturity as a writer, I like to think it also reveals the elements of writing that I still need to practice. That goal is worth one billion sheets of paper, no matter the cost of the pack.

Thankfully, of course, the library doesn't seem to mind how much paper I use. Take this as another valuable lesson for writers: when free printing is offered, don't turn it down.

Acknowledgements:

I would like to thank my parents for always supporting me in my choice to become a penniless, cynical author. Likewise, I am grateful for the support and wisdom of my teacher, Terry Heller, and the class of the FYS Creative Writing Fall Term session. Not only did everyone give me helpful advice, but they were very kind, and it's because of them that this portfolio is in the shape it's in now. I cannot even express my full gratitude in words alone. So thank you... I owe everything to you, guys.

Thanks to Aaron, for knowing German and always telling me when my papers were due, Jessica, for being a sweetheart, and Liz, who will one day reclaim the Auror's coffee if I have to set rabid Nifflers on them all.

Kudos, as well, to Maruchan Instant Lunch Ramen cups, FullMetal Alchemist's insane way of giving me plot bunnies, and The Rasmus. Further gratitude will be rewarded to anyone who finds my brain, which is running around aimlessly somewhere when you see it, please shoot it for me. I don't need its whining about sleep deprivation and studying.

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