We read. Why? Required by our job or the thing we ordered online came in a box with 33 parts and instructions in English and Spanish. We need to know if our taxes are going up, or if last night’s restaurant has a decent rating from Health Department inspectors.
And some of us read for pure enjoyment. We tolerate books on tape, but we like to pace our reading at our speed and not the speed of the voice actor, and we want to take that book or magazine wherever we’re in the mood to go. No equipment or batteries required.
I’m teaching a class in fiction writing this semester at the local college. Some of you might say, “What’s that?” The well-informed might say, “With AI technology, there will soon be no need to write fiction or anything else for that matter.”
My students turn in their work on Blackboard. No longer does the excuse “The dog ate my homework” suffice.
When I open my Blackboard account and begin reading the assignments for the week, I feel excitement, anticipation- always seeking the stories that resonate with me. And what characterizes those stories? Why do they resonate with me? They reveal one of the many truths that I understand about human experience with all its sadness, obstacles, moments of joy, and mysteries. Characters can be of any age, and the setting can be most anywhere as I have traveled extensively and have observed closely. I also am aware that there are basic themes that permeate all of literature and that each author’s voice brings endless variety to those themes.
Recently, one of my students responded to an assignment in which I asked the class to first read “Sugar Island,” deemed one of the top 20 best American short stories by editor Andrew Sean Greer, and then to write a story in which an artifact plays a major role. I was immediately intrigued as I read the title of Maeve Wilkin’s submission, “The Mason Jar.” Maeve is a sophomore at Edison State Community College and is pursuing an Associate of Arts degree.
Her protagonist, Sophie, is “sipping on a mason jar of wine while watching one of her favorite comedy shows play and can’t shake the feeling of emptiness even in her own home.” She is asking herself, Is this my life? Is this what it means to be alive?
Later, as Sophie reaches for the mason jar to wash it, “her hand slips, sending the glass crashing to the floor in a sudden explosion of sound. Sophie freezes as she begins to pick up the shards of glass scattered across the floor,” and a memory overtakes her of being 13 and watching helplessly as her mother “spirals into a frenzied state” with her “long dark hair hanging unbrushed and unkempt casting a shadow over the left side of her face.”
In the memory, her mother “cries out with her voice rising to a fever pitch, They’re trying to make us think I’m the crazy one, Sophie. But they’re the ones who won’t leave us alone. They’re watching us, listening in on our conversations. They come into the house at night and try to control us. We need to get rid of them. We need to be alone.”
Her mother won’t listen to Sophie’s remonstrances and “slams her fist down onto the small kitchen table, causing it to jolt. A mason jar filled with water tumbles from its perch and shatters on the floor, sending water everywhere.”
Wilkins concludes the story with Sophie reaching out and plucking the largest fragment from the debris and cradling it gently in her palm. “As she turns it over, she sees the faded logo of the antique mason jar company, Atlas, etched into the glass.” Her “mind drifts back to the day her mother had given her the set of jars during one of her rare lucid episodes, each one lovingly passed down from generation to generation.” She and her mother “had sat together in her childhood kitchen, her mother regaling her with stories of her family history: simpler times and home-cooked meals, before her own mother took her own life. Before any of them had the capacity to comprehend the depth of the family’s sickness.
“’Cycles,’ Sophie whispers to herself as she holds the broken shard of glass in her hand. The weight of it feels heavy, almost too heavy to bear. Sophie’s heart aches with a profound sense of loss. The loss of life, of well being- for her mother, her mother’s mother, and their cascading effect on her own. As Sophie gathers herself to begin the task of sweeping up the broken glass, she resigns herself to a lifetime of picking up the pieces.”
In conclusion, I am privileged to read what my college students write as they delve into their imaginations and use the power of their words to tell the stories of what it means to be human beings in a complex world.
Vivian B. Blevins. Ph.D., teaches telecommunication employees from around the country and students at Edison State Community College and works with veterans. You may reach her at 937-778-3815 or [email protected].