I have always wanted to be a writer. Going through a box of old papers, I found stories I wrote for classes in 1st and 2nd grade on that gray newsprint that kids use to learn to write in cursive. In third grade, I remember writing a story for social studies, about 2 friends who visit Moscow. Later, in 6th or 7th grade, I wrote something much longer. I think I considered it to be a novel at the time, but in fact, my guess is was maybe 20,000 words long. The first writing I did for a real audience, however, was a series of stories I wrote in collaboration with my friend Eric in our junior and senior years of high school. I call the series our “Something Dumb” series because that was the title of the first story in the batch.
There were 7 of these stories and I still have copies of all of them. The first of them, “Something Dumb,” was written on the book cover of my chemistry textbook. Eric and I sat next to one another in chemistry, and one day, for reasons I can no longer recall (but quite possibly because we were bored) we began writing the story in small print on the front of my book cover. I would write some, then pass it off to Eric and he would write some. Back and forth we went, ignoring our education in favor of writing. It seems to me that we filled every surface of that book cover with the story. When it was done, Eric took it home and typed the whole thing up–or possibly I did, I can no longer recall that either. And then we decided to print a bunch of copies and pass them out at school.
If you could combine The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy with the humor of Zucker/Abrams/Zucker movies, and then added in a hearty helping of the “show about nothing” we got a few years later with Seinfeld, you’d have a close approximation of what we were aiming for. Whether or not we actually hit that mark only our readers could tell you. To be perfectly blunt, these stories could not be distributed in schools today. We’d probably be expelled for doing so. But they were fun to write and those folks we passed the stories out to seemed to enjoy reading them. (We know this because we did a survey of our readers once, and yes, I still have those survey results as well.)
You can’t really understand these stories without getting a flavor of them. Let me, therefore, present you with the first four paragraphs from the original “Something Dumb”:
Chapter 1: The Dumb Beginning
Ions configured to form bigger ions. A bird chirped as it witnessed this. Some insignificant human named Barry told a dull joke then laughed raucously. Someone hit him. More ions fused together. The ions completed their configuration and a figure formed from them. It walked out into the open space and looked around. Little speckles of light twinkled all around. The figure was human. It was in space without a space suit. Instead, it wore plain clothes and very surprised look on its face.
As the saying goes, to err is human. Well, if that was any excuse for why this particular man was here, it was a poor one. It took him a second to realize he couldn’t breathe, and another for him to panic. When he did panic, it went something like this: “AHHHHHH!” It made a loud sound, although sound doesn’t get very loud out in space. Suddenly, he disappeared. Coincidentally, at the same time, a teacher was fumbling with a piece of chalk while one of her students was choking on his pen cap.
The man appeared in a more likely place this time, hanging from the big hand of a clock. Someone accidentally spit on him, making him all gooey and quite sore. So he didn’t mind when he disappeared again this time reappearing at a rock concert. Unfortunately, he was not pleased with the music and yelled, “This sucks!” However, he wasn’t aware that this was a Death Tongue concert, and he soon found himself scattered about the parking lot.
He was lucky, however, that he ended up here, because the galaxy that he was previously in was abruptly destroyed when Barry told, what he thought, was a pretty good joke.
This was a story about nothing that was somehow really about something. That something was amusing ourselves and our friends.
There were features to the stories that people seemed to like. For one thing, we used our friends’ names in the story and they became memorable (at least to us) characters through the series. Barry was always trying to tell a good joke. There was the recurring “car with no driver” which preceded Tesla by about 30 years. Eric and I regularly appeared in the stories as “two innocent bystanders.” There was Norman (named after our friend Norm) who was always making an effort at universal domination. (The world was just too small.) There were dozens of these recurring characters, all parodies of friends, teachers, acquaintances. The only truly fictional character in the batch was Zeke, our made up main character.
Other stories in the series followed. I can’t remember if these were written on book covers or not. Titles included:
- We Haven’t Thought of a Title For It Yet
- When You Need to Clean Up, Hire a Maid
- Something Dumb II: Something Dumber
- Everything You Wanted to Know (And Less)
- Not So Popular Entertainment
The stories also developed “features” which readers seemed to enjoy. Somewhere, something strange was always happening, after a complete nonsequietor to the events in the story. Some examples:
- Somewhere, Eric made a pass at Ruth.
- Somewhere, a dog barfed. A cat mistook the puke for cat food and ate it. The cat died. The owner was very upset and shot herself. The dog gained control of the house and threw a big party.
- Somewhere, a man who had just finished eating a turkey dinner was attacked by a pack of wild turkeys.
- Somewhere, an innocent bystander couldn’t stop himself from buying all of the fund-raising candy bars.
- Somewhere, the universe went crazy for a second as Barry screamed, “Dodgers suck!” while Chris screamed, “Mets suck!” Some drunk bystander screamed, “Baseball sucks!” That shut everyone up except a 50 year old cop who, instead of asking the drunk for some I.D., took a sip of whisky and decided to retire so that he could live with his wife, Bertha, in Florida. Unfortunately, he didn’t know that his wife had left him a long time ago, and he had been sleeping with the dog for a while. The dog didn’t seem to mind.
These stories were a lot of fun to write, and I especially liked the days when we distributed a new story to our friends. Reading through some of them as I wrote this, I still find myself cracking up at what Kelly calls “boy humor.” The thing it, I think we did actually entertain people with these stories (we might have made of few of them sick, too) and that is what I try to do, first and foremost, with my writing. As silly as these stories seem today, the reaction we got from our readers helped me to gain confidence as a writer.
But I shouldn’t be the only one to tell you about these stories. I’ve asked Eric, my partner in these literary crimes, to give his thoughts on these yarns of ours, more than three decades after they were written. Here is what Eric had to say:
Eric: I never had a known desire to write. I guess I enjoyed some of the writing I had to do for class in junior high and high school, but writing for pleasure never really occurred to me before 11th grade. I certainly enjoyed reading, and as a recent fan of Douglas Adams’ work, it was the most obvious influence on the stories we wrote and on the limited amount of fictional writing I tried to do after high school. So when Jamie showed me the first few sentences he had written on that chemistry textbook cover, I don’t know what compelled me to add a few sentences to it, other than being so monumentally uninterested in whatever our chemistry teacher was rambling on about. And it was much more funny too.
They say you should “write what you know” (do they say that? I honestly don’t know but it sounds right). Which is why, I assume, all of the characters in our stories were based on our friends/acquaintances/people we observed from afar in high school. In some cases, we took someone we knew and gave them a whole new identity, like making Greg the Supreme Being and Norm thirsting for nothing short of universal domination (well, that one may not be completely off base). And in other cases, we didn’t alter their personalities or social quirks – they’re in the stories as we knew them, perhaps embellished a bit for artistic effect.
I did re-read these a couple of years ago, and unfortunately, overall, they do not hold up well. There are still some giggles for sure, but the humor definitely isn’t timeless, and some of it is a little offensive. Much of it is also “inside humor,” in that anyone who did not attend Grover Cleveland Humanities School Without Walls Magnet High School1 would not get many of the references. But the joy I felt writing and reading those stories is still palpable in my memory (what’s left of it). I vividly recall snickering in class as we passed paragraphs back and forth. I felt proud after typing them up on my Apple IIE at home, waiting 20 minutes for them to print on the dot matrix printer, taking another 10 minutes to tear off the perforated edges of the paper, and eventually stapling them together and bringing them to school for the masses to enjoy – or at least humor us with their semi-enthusiastic response. The writing I’ve done since then has almost been exclusively non-fiction (mainly just via blogging) – I find fiction a lot more difficult to write. Maybe I just need the right partner. 🙂
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- One of the in-jokes Eric referred to. In 11th grade, our magnet program did what they called a “school without walls” experiment where we spent a lot of time outside the classroom at various places, like Cal State Northridge, or wandering around downtown L.A. We, of course, decided our school program needed an updated name. I sometimes refer to it as Former Two-Non-Consecutive-Term-President Grover Cleveland Humanities School-Without-Walls Magnet High School. Today, it is, simply, Cleveland Charter High School. ↩