The Shorecrest All-Stars
by Peter Mountford
According to George Saunders, “The process of writing will always be trying to repair something that doesn’t exist with tools you have to invent on the spot.” I’m with George: it’s just not that easy. But it can be done, and it’s been my immense pleasure to work with many hundreds of students at Shorecrest this year. Over the course of the last couple weeks, I read 240 of my students’ short stories (seven 9th grade classes and one creative writing elective, mostly inhabited by juniors). It was a transcendental experience. The pedagogical equivalent of an ultra-marathon. Taken as an object, the stories had the heft of a large city’s yellow pages.
Certainly the most interesting thing about reading fiction on that scale is how informative it is about the psyche of that generational bandwidth. It’s like an x-ray of their collective unconscious. Because the fact is, writing fiction is an incredibly personal (that’s why one never tells a writer to not take a rejection letter personally; for better or worse, it’s incredibly personal). As Anne Sexton put it: “Poetry is my love, my postmark, my hands, my kitchen, my face.” Or, Anton Chekov: “Everything I learned about human nature I learned from me.”
So, what did I encounter in that vast stack of stories? What does the x-ray of their collective unconscious reveal? Well, I’m more optimistic about this generation than I was before I read those 240 stories. People gripe about how the internet is corroding this generation’s souls, but I happy to report that I didn’t see any corrosion.These authors are witty and hopeful; they’re keenly observant and impressively, deeply, empathetic. Alas, they have problems formatting dialogue, but in the interest of full disclosure I’ll admit I had the same problem when I was fourteen. I’m supposed to select a handful of stories as candidates for the WITS anthology, but I’ll be sending over a truckload (sorry Jeanine!).
There were trends, inevitably: a certain number of time-travelling wives, a bevy of broody vampires, a smattering of star-crossed lovers on sinking boats called The Titanic, and a bunch of stoic soldiers. But just because a thing is familiar, doesn’t make it bad (just ask Shakespeare, that inveterate pillager of other people’s stories). In one, for example, a young soldier is sent to a sweltering battlefield in the aftermath of some heavy carnage to pick up the bodies, and while he and his buddies try to make light of it all for appearances sake, they find themselves deeply traumatized by the experience. In another, a wildly original one, a young man who died on the ski slopes is greeted in heaven and given the tour, before being offered one last glimpse of earth. He agrees and is spirited down, once again, and, in an incredibly touching moment, finds his friends on the slopes where he died, crying quietly and mourning his death. They can’t see him. Eventually they head off down the hill and he too grabs his skis for one last spree and there he is: a ghost howling down the slopes, grasping gleefully for life.
That was what was so astonishing, to me, about reading all those short stories: the frequency with which I was blown away by the poignancy of the scenarios they evoked. You too can read these stories, when they’re published in a couple weeks here and on the Shorecrest website.
“The job of the writer is to win the battle against loneliness.” So said the late-great Barry Hannah. I think the students at Shorecrest knew that, instinctually, and managed, somehow, through the mysterious alchemy of their writing, to spill enough life onto their pages to win that battle.