Personal ads, written by lonely people seeking connections or reconnections with others, offer an emotional treasure chest of possible stories—both fictional and factual—to a creative, introspective mind. We need not have experienced the same kinds of losses, joys, fears, or regrets that the ad writers express to be able to awaken similar emotions and weave them into original fiction, memoirs, or poems. For example, a couple of wistful lines from the "Missed Connections" section of Craigslist prompted me to spin a story of romantic obsession between fictional characters who have nothing in common with me except these emotions: artistic passion, self-doubt, and a yearning for meaningful connections with colorful people. Emotional authenticity turns stick figure characters into fully fleshed out human beings. These are the lines that evoked my story:
From those pained words, I wrote “Awaiting Fading,” a short story about a young artist who can’t erase the memory of a shopping experience at an art supply store, where she found herself enchanted by an employee with whom she shared glimpses of their respective artworks on Instagram before insecurity transformed admiration into intimidation, making the customer feel so unworthy of the new friend that she ran away from the store, as well as from her own feelings of inadequacy. The story begins with the lines from Craigslist, as the narrator stares wistfully at the now empty store, permanently closed, and realizes that she has no way to reconnect with the artist employee.
I presented those same story-evoking lines to some of my teenage students. I assured them that by borrowing a pair of lines, and then taking off with it, like a torch passed from runner to runner in a cross-country marathon, they would not be plagiarizing, but rather, connecting and reconnecting with readers in the same way that the author of that borrowed line wishes to have connected with the one whose memory won’t fade. I gave them about 30 minutes to whip up a first draft of a short fiction worked based on emotional, but not actual reality. The teenagers were pleased and surprised by their own creations.
The on-demand short fictional works included: one story about a border security agent who can’t get a tiny Mexican boy out of his mind after the agent intentionally broke the law and allowed the boy and his family safe, but illegal passage into the US; another story about a person who once witnessed a woman jumping from a high-rise to her death, and now yearns for that death to stop haunting her; one poem about a witnessed act of charity in India, between a rich woman in a car and a child begging at her window; and another story about a soldier at war, forced to kill a fellow soldier who defied regulations. Each story's personal emotional reality gave texture to the purely imaginary characters and settings.
|(painting by my son, Ian Lipson, just because I find it inspiring...)|
Two sample short stories follow, one by Daniel and another by Liam, ages 15 and 16, respectively.
I don't know why I remember you. You, of all the people who passed through these gates. What made you so different from that mass of huddled souls?
I can see you still. Your unbuttoned collar. Your untied shoes. Your toy bear, hugged tight against your chest. I sometimes wonder what made you come here. I remember stamping your passport for tourism. Your family said that you’d stay for just a few weeks. To see your relatives, then leave. I’ve gone and checked your records. You never did leave.
I sometimes wonder where you are now. I know that I should have reported you as soon as your visa was up, but I didn’t. I wonder why. What made you, of all people, so different from all the other I flagged and sent back?
Perhaps you’re not here anymore. Perhaps you were only passing through on your journey to who knows where fleeing from who knows what. You certainly don’t know, or didn’t at the time. Your father didn’t look at me. Your mother left so fast that she left a pair of pants behind. They’d fallen out of her luggage. I called her back, but only you turned to look at me.
I still remember what was in those pants. They were blue jeans. Made in Malaysia. In the pockets were a crumpled up receipt and a candy wrapper. Caramelo agridulce. I asked my coworker what it meant. Why anyone would enjoy bittersweet candy is beyond me.
Sometimes I think that I remember you for a reason. After all, God does not play dice. Why should your memory persist? I’ve seen countless deportations, telling myself that it was for the good of our community. I somehow always find myself looking out for your face. You must be grown up by now. It’s been ten years since you passed through our checkpoint. I wonder what your life is like. Do you go to school? Do manual labor like your father did? (The callouses never lie.) Perhaps I should have stopped you. Pulled you and your family over. I knew what was happening. I don’t know why I didn’t.
* * *
I Shouldn’t Remember You
I shouldn’t remember you. Maybe you will fade now…as so many of the others have done.
You never really did fit in with us, having nothing to boast, no stories to share, never understanding the jokes we told. I remember the nights you sat alone at the fires, staring off into the distance, as if grasping for a lost memory, while the rest of us huddled close in the winter nights, discussing battle plans and sharing tales of our women and children, thousands of miles across the Atlantic.
Every so often, one of us would call out to you, “Come join us, laddie, tell us of your deeds. We’ve got a lot more wine to spill.” Yet, you never did join us. Instead, your sole response would always be some clever excuse to get away from our reeking breaths.
“Damn rebs,” you would say, in your best impression of a grown man’s voice, “Someone had better keep watch.” And so the nights would go on.
We kept our steady march, until the day we finally reached Bunker Hill. Then came battle day, our valiant countrymen, charging up the slopes, straight into the Americans’ grapeshot and musket balls. Our comrades, who endured so much alongside us were ripped apart, blown to shreds by the merciless rebels above the hill. Then came our turn, our regiment’s attempt to secure the fort. As we charged out into the open field, only you stayed behind, clutching the seams of your bloodstained jacket, crying for mother, crying to be taken back home.
I had to do it. It was my job. One that I had done countless times before. Yet, when I called your name, and stated your crimes for cowardice, I could barely force myself to raise my gun. My hands trembled as I poised the barrel of my flintlock against your temple. “I had to do it,” is what I now tell myself. “It was necessary for the discipline of the men.” But every time I close my eyes, I think to myself, “I am the man who murdered a boy crying for his mother.”