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May 27, 2024

A World Inside

By James Noguera

I feel him watching me, waiting for me to look up. But I stare down at the floating branches. They're white and thin, like body parts of an unhealthy tree. Old shorts and a wrinkled, white T-shirt hang loosely from the trunk; I know he doesn't care.

He waits for me, knowing I will. I don't have to now, but I will have to come back and face him eventually, he knows. So I look up. Into his brown and black. I can see it all in there, the world; it hides inside them.

I see the man as a boy, typing his first short story in his next-door neighbor's apartment because he doesn't have a computer of his own. He had written the story out on paper, but now he wants to print. He doesn't know how to write a story, only that stories are printed out on paper.

The neighbor shows him the room with the computer. The neighbor and the boy's mother wait in the kitchen. Alone, the boy copies the sentences from page to screen and watches them grow into paragraphs, then fill a page, then two.

The story is about the ghost of a firefighter, burned alive while he slept, who roams in search of his killer. When he learns the identity of the killer, he mercilessly extracts revenge.

After an hour, having read and reread the story over several times, the boy decides it's finished. He gets up and tells the neighbor so he can print. He watches as the machine produces the pages, then holds them in his hands: the same words he had written, but somehow different. He goes to the kitchen to show his mom. "Wow!" she says, holding them high. "Good job!"

The next day, he reads the story aloud to his sixth-grade class as part of a talent show, standing in front of everyone and speaking into a microphone. His fifth-grade teacher, the one who had said in front of the boy's friends that the boy, instead of passing on to the next grade, would be going back to kindergarten, listens in the hallway. The boy adds sound effects and new details off the cuff, building and building story. He doesn't even look at the teacher out in the hallway. When he finishes, everyone claps and he bows, then sits back down with his friends. He looks at them. "Was it good?" he asks.

They only say, "Too long."

I see the man in the third grade, struggling to conquer cursive. His teacher goes over the same characters dozens of times. She wonders if he's mentally challenged. He feels that it is his hands that are the problem. His hands are fine. He can never remember what the capital "Z" looks like. He won't remember until he's in his twenties. Then he'll forget again.

I see the man at age twelve, trying to write a book for the first time. He doesn't know anything about writing a book, only that books are important and that they make people feel and see and think things. He writes in a marbled black-and-white notebook he carries with him everywhere he goes.

He wants to write a murder mystery game book, like the one he had just finished reading and rereading. While none of the endings were completely satisfying, the possibilities, the almost infinite possibilities definitely were. He wanted to reproduce that, that thing.

In the lunchroom, he tells his friend, his only friend, to read the few pages he has. "It's not finished," he says before handing the notebook over. He watches his friend read, then turn over a few pages, go back, flip over another few pages, then put the notebook down and leave.

I see the man as an infant speaking his first words. They are mere repetitions, double syllables. He's heard them before.

I see the man at twenty, seriously trying to write a novel for the first time. He knows nothing of novel writing. He hadn't read that many either. But he knows a novel is supposed to be long, something learned people write.

He spends weeks at home, blurring his vision in front of a white computer screen, ignoring the outside. It's the summer and he has stopped hanging out with his friends. He doesn't think he likes them anymore.

The novel he is writing isn't very good. Called Nightmare of the Apocalypse, it's about a woman who has a nightmare of the end of the world. He fills pages upon pages with useless description: of curtains, of walls, of ornaments. In the climax, there is a battle between Satan and God during the end of the world. Luckily for the man, the story will get erased when his computer crashes.

I see the man at twenty-four, again trying to write his first novel. He makes it his New Year's resolution to complete a draft by the end of the year. He is older and wiser now than in his previous attempt and knows something about how a novel should be written: about brainstorming and research and organization. He had bought a book about colonizing space. He had spent the month before the New Year composing an outline and collecting data about the planets and moons, about hydroponics, about submarines: some thirty pages of prewriting.

It was to be a science fiction novel placed three hundred years in the future when humans have colonized the solar system, about a motley crew of humans and androids that find themselves confined and stranded on a stolen spaceship.

He begins writing on New Year's Day. He writes, reads, and writes again. The story begins to take shape by September. But by December, he realizes something absolutely crucial: it sucks -- an unrealistic space opera he has no idea how to write. But he keeps going despite himself, not stopping until the end of the year. And by then, he has his draft, some 25,000 words, of the novel and keeps his resolution. Then he puts it away.

I see the man opening an email from an editor, expecting another rejection. It is not a form response. The editor likes the man's story. He wants to publish it! The man tells his nearby coworker, who congratulates him. It is his first story to be published. He is twenty-seven.

I see the man as a graduate student sitting in his professor's office. He had submitted a 55-page science fiction novelette he had written over the summer; "I don't know if I can help you," his professor had said. The man hadn't understood. The professor had mentioned something about "voice." The man still hadn't understood. He wrote a new story.

"What is missing in this story is you," the silver-haired professor says.

"You mean, I have to be in my stories? Can't I, um, not be?"

"What I'm talking about is voice, your voice, something only you can write."

"I don't think I know how to do that."

"Well, this story here, which is a nice imitation of Borges. But Borges brings himself to the mirror in 'The Aleph.' Consider what you would see of yourself in that mirror."

I look down. Bare feet. He's still there, watching. I turn my back to him and walk away. I'll be back, he knows.

Article © James Noguera. All rights reserved.
Published on 2014-06-02
Image(s) © Sand Pilarski. All rights reserved.
1 Reader Comments
09:49:13 PM
Any writer will understand what this means. Thanks for speaking for the soul work involved in finding a voice; it costs more than anyone can know.
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