Max* was the most precocious of the students in the creative writing group I'd been asked to lead at my son's school. He incorporated universal themes into his character's dilemmas, but refused to cast those characters in our universe. His stories were situated on faraway planets in distant galaxies. While I saw nothing particularly wrong with specialization, for Max, space was the final, and only, frontier.
He was the first student to read his stories aloud, and the last to recognize that his critiques of the others' recurrent topics ("Dude, your villains always die in fiery crashes!" "Alyssa, another stray Rottweiler looking for a home?!") also applied to his own works.
Although the students had been chosen for the group due to their creative writing aptitude, they initially, rigidly, followed what I privately called the preteen's "anyone but us/anywhere but here" directives of storytelling:
When an assignment was given to create unsympathetic characters without making them villains, AND, place them in seemingly ordinary surroundings, Max returned with a chapter about a less-than-invincible Zorgonian. His fellow writers liked the character but not the story's setting. Max asked for my "honest opinion" after the others had left. "Another Chromios** landscape? For you, that's shooting fish in a barrel...or the Chromiosian equivalent: phasering aquatic finned vertebrates in a dilithium cylinder."
"Yeah, it's a rut," he admitted. "But life's more...colorful...in the future."
"Who's your favorite contemporary author?"
Max's eyes narrowed. "Say yours first."
"Deal." The previous week I'd had seen a copy of "Oliver Twist" in Max's bookpack. "Charles Dickens*** is my favorite contemporary novelist."
"Way, you say?" Max guffawed, knowing he'd been challenged. "Madam, explain thyself."
Hence I told Max my Office Holiday Party Story®, wherein a colleague of my husband's corralled me by the hummus platter with her insistent, And what do you do? query. Upon hearing I wrote fiction, said colleague bemoaned the "fact" that few authors nowadays write what she liked to read – historical fiction. She cited Hawthorne, Wharton, and Dickens as first-rate historical fiction authors.
My usual response to the unsolicited You're a writer, why don't you write something like this?! would have been to smile enigmatically, swirl my punch cup and savor the sound of clinking ice cubes, and drift toward the buffet while murmuring, "You must try the artichoke dip." But for some reason, I skipped that and I told her that while she might find Dickens appealing for his quaint dialogue and "historical" characters, I considered him to be a contemporary writer. Dickens was contemporary – thematically if not temporally – in that he wrote about the times in which he lived. His stories were not written as picturesque exemplars of olden days; his protagonists dealt with what for them were present-day, everyday matters. Colleague nodded, mumbled something about not having read Dickens since grade six, and left skid marks on her way to the dessert cart.
"So, you remember the sense matrix exercise, two weeks ago?" I asked him.
Although each writing group member groused when given the assignment to incorporate mundane objects into their stories, Max had amused us all with his tale of the significance a rubber band, a shampoo bottle, and a potato peeler in intergalactic political machinations.
"You mostly rocked that story, Max."
"I most certainly did."
"Everything was new but the setting. Now, imagine something both extraordinary and ordinary. Imagine writing about your own neighborhood in such a way that a future reader might consider your work a historical treasure."
"Not a chance."
"Okay, write just one colorful story in the here and now."
"Here? In Hillsboro?"
"Great idea, Max! I was thinking anywhere on this planet, but..."
"Nothing special happens here."
"Anything can happen here, if you write it. I dare you."
"Darers go first."
I found something special in Max's laughter as he flung my challenge back at me. And his penchant for affable mockery would surface in a character in The Mighty Quinn, a book I'd not yet written, but that I knew would take place in an allegedly nothing-special town.
The following week the writing group gasped at the revelations in Max's latest story. The mundane, cloud-streaked skies above mild-mannered Hillsboro, Oregon were the perfect incognito training grounds for Chromiosian aviators – who knew?
*not his real name
**real name of a minor planet, as cataloged by the...wait for it...Minor Planet Center
***his real name