Timmy Reed on “School Spirit Was/Is for Suckers”
Watch Baltimore’s Timmy Reed turn a short story into a chapter of a novel by changing basically one thing. The explanation is followed by the full text of both versions. Here’s Timmy:
. . . . .
“School Spirit Was for Suckers” is the third chapter, written in past tense, of my new short novel, The Ghosts That Surrounded Them, the rest of which is also in past tense and out now from Dig That Book, Co. But the chapter started out as a stand-alone story in the present tense, published at Everyday Genius and republished in the Wigleaf Top 50 (Very) Short Fictions of 2014. There were no other real revisions to the chapter, even when I was writing it as a short story and had no idea it would become the third chapter of a novel—or the second chapter either, which it almost was. The thing just kind of plopped out whole, full of ghosts and children and stroking and a knight in shining, hollow armor. But then I decided to change the tense. Why’d I do that?
This is not a simple question to answer at all. There are many reasons: some interrelated, others apparently random, some easy for me to articulate, others not so much. For one thing, the short story that would become the first chapter of the novel There Was A Family had already been published at Vol. 1 Brooklyn, and it was in past tense. So, tense consistency. Just like I teach my English 101 students! Pretty basic stuff. I have the mystery behind my decision-making process solved, but then, I think to myself, I could have just as easily switched that first chapter to present tense and maintained consistency. So, why’d I do that?
Well, it might be that I think novels in the present tense occasionally risk sounding like stage directions, which is a pretty common complaint. But that is not it because I have written two drafts for novels that were entirely in present tense and I have done stories that way as well. I also like reading books in the present tense (and I don’t mind reading stage directions either, for that matter). In fact, I don’t even always follow my own basic rule about tense consistency; I have written one unpublished novel that jumps all over the narrative clock from chapter-to-chapter. So, why’d I do that? Why did I want my narrator looking back in time to tell my readers about these two families, a woman named Sue, a dog, and an infinite number of ghosts? I could have easily told the story in the present tense. It would have perhaps felt more urgent, more immediate that way.
Maybe that immediacy was something I was trying to avoid or distance my narrator’s voice from. Immediacy. Distance. Something in those words feels right, although maybe not. It interests me that we often use the same words to describe space as we do to describe time, even before physicists theorized that they were connected.
So I think I wanted the narrator to have some distance in the voice. I thought of the book as a kind of mysterious field guide or religious text as I was writing it and to me it felt both more mysterious and more authoritative, like the voice of someone writing from deep in the future, looking back at the lives of present day humans and cataloging their thoughts, feelings, actions, mistakes, while simultaneously revealing the hidden world of ghosts that these people were so oblivious to. That kind of voice was easier for me to establish in the past tense.
There was also the element of surprise, of the narrator knowing something about what is going to happen in the plot that the reader cannot know unless they keep reading. That was a factor as well. While this particular chapter is not very plot-heavy, I feel like the novel relies pretty heavily on the tight interplay of a whole series of encounters and events and I wanted to lead the reader along in a similar way to old folk tales, in which the narrator has the power of knowing an old story that is new to the audience.
I am sure, like everything else in life, my decision to switch tenses was both more complex and more simple than the convoluted explanation I just tried to put forth. Some of it, like many decisions I make when I am writing, is more intuitive than anything else while I am doing it. Only looking back in and revisiting the process in a piece like this raises more questions in my mind than it answers, I think. I never really know. Nobody does. Not even ghosts.
I think I would like to write a novel in future tense sometime. It seems like stretching back a rubber band and holding it like that, right next to the reader’s ear. Why’d I want to do that?
School Spirit Is for Suckers
The elementary school is haunted but no one knows it. The kids would be so excited if they did! The ghosts stroke the children’s necks and thighs and breathe into their ears. Being stroked is not why the kids would be excited. They would be excited just to know that ghosts are real.
The school janitor scrubs the backs of ghosts. He thinks he is scrubbing lockers, but the ghosts are pressed against them. It is not that the ghosts are dirty. They just like being touched.
The ghosts could intervene in the lives of the children, but they don’t. They could alter their test scores, usurp their bullies, visit their parents at night and remind them what is at stake. They could do all of those things and more, but they stack themselves in huge invisible pyramids on the floor of the school gym instead.
The teachers and students are not at war with each other, but they often pretend to be. It is a part of their training that no one talks about except for the ghosts, who like to gossip in the lunchroom. They like to pull pranks too. They lick the children’s sandwich meat with their dead tongues. Some children eat their sandwiches and smile at each other. Other children just poke at their food as if it were still alive.
The school’s mascot is a knight in shining armor. The children wear tee shirts with the knight on their chests when they are forced to wrestle and race each other in gym class. They carry banners with the knight on them at graduation. The knight doesn’t have a face. He is only a suit of armor with an empty black space inside.
The teachers pretend to care about the knight but most of them forget he exists as soon as they get in their cars.
Some of the teachers wouldn’t believe in ghosts if they saw them. They would just think, “Oh. Another student. Take a seat.”
The children will never be prepared for life and the ghosts understand this. It is obvious to them. The teachers will never be prepared either. There is no such thing as being prepared.
During Pep Rallies, the ghosts sing the school’s alma mater. The song is like a prayer to them and very solemn, although they do not pronounce the words. They sing long vowel sounds instead. The words are not important.
There is one teacher who is always asking, “What is wrong with the world today?” as if the children should know the answer. They have no idea. They have not seen much of the world yet and the teacher knows this but he asks them anyway. He asks his wife the same question at home and she doesn’t know either. The ghosts know the answer though. They whisper it to each other on the swing set at night. “There is nothing wrong with the world,” they say. “This is the way it is supposed to be.”
School Spirit Was for Suckers
The elementary school was haunted but no one knew it. The kids would have been so excited if they did! The ghosts stroked the children’s necks and thighs and breathed into their ears. Being stroked was not why the kids would be excited. They would be excited just to know that ghosts are real.
The school janitor scrubbed the backs of ghosts. He thought he was scrubbing lockers, but the ghosts were pressed against them. It was not that the ghosts were dirty. They just liked being touched.
The ghosts could have intervened in the lives of the children, but they didn’t. They could have altered their test scores, usurped their bullies, visited their parents at night and reminded them what is at stake. They could have done all of those things and more, but they stacked themselves in huge invisible pyramids on the floor of the school gym instead.
The teachers and students were not at war with each other, but they often pretended to be. It was a part of their training that no one talked about except for the ghosts, who liked to gossip in the lunchroom. They liked to pull pranks too. They licked the children’s sandwich meat with their tongues. Some children ate their sandwiches and smiled at each other. Other children just poked at their food, as if it were still alive.
The school’s mascot was a knight in shining armor. The children wore tee shirts with the knight on their chests when they were forced to wrestle and race each other in gym class. They carried banners with the knight on them at graduation. The knight didn’t have a face. He was only a suit of armor with an empty black space inside.
The teachers pretended to care about the knight, but most of them forgot he existed as soon as they got in their cars.
Some of the teachers wouldn’t have believed in ghosts if they saw them. They would have just thought, “Oh. Another student. Take a seat.”
The children would never be prepared for life and the ghosts understood this. It was obvious to them. The teachers would never be prepared either. There was no such thing as being prepared.
During Pep Rallies, the ghosts sang the school’s alma mater. The song was like a prayer to them and very solemn, although they did not pronounce the words. They sang long vowel sounds instead. The words were not important.
There was one teacher who was always asking, “What is wrong with the world today?” as if the children should know the answer. They had no idea. They had not seen much of the world yet and the teacher knew this but he asked them anyway. He asked his wife the same question at home and she didn’t know either. The ghosts knew the answer though. They whispered it to each other on the swing-set at night. “There is nothing wrong with the world,” they said. “This is the way it is supposed to be.”
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