I hear from my former students occasionally. A few have gone on to accomplish remarkable work. Hear equally from the ordinary and, remarkable. Requests for recommendations, announcements of new jobs, marriages, children, a photo, copy of a book or film script, story in a magazine or anthology, perhaps inscribed personally to me or sent directly from the publisher. The gift of a snapshot, book, or story meant to break silence that settles in after they leave the university, the silence that being here, a student for a semester in my fiction-writing class, doesn’t break, silence of living ordinary lives we all endure whether our writing is deemed remarkable by others or not.

A current student, Teresa McConnell, wants to help other people. The story she submits to my fiction-writing class, though not very long, is quite ambitious. It wishes to save the life of its main character, a young woman of color, a few years out of high school, single, child to support, no money, shitty job, living with her mother who never misses an I-told-you-so chance to criticize her daughter’s choices. Voice of the character my student invents to narrate the story reveals the young colored woman to be bright, articulate, thoughtful, painfully aware of how race, gender, age, poverty trap her. Worse now because a baby daughter is trapped with her. Lack of understanding not the narrator’s problem. She’s stifled by lack of resources, options.

What’s a poor girl to do. My student’s story, like the fictional young woman it portrays, begins and ends stuck in the midst of an apparently insoluble quandary. If the writer wants her fiction to aid actual people outside it, desires her words to be more than a well-intentioned display of good intentions, more than a dreary recital of a plight suffered by countless young, underprivileged women, the story requires help.

A desire to help is admirable, I think, and in order to help, I will set aside, for the moment, my doubts. Perform the job I’m paid for. Concentrate upon being supportive. Commend strong passages, point out inconsistencies, transparencies characteristic of an undergrad first draft, which, after all, the story is. Console Miss McConnell that every story—by a novice or Nobel laureate—begins life as a first draft.

I appreciate Miss McConnell’s attempt to step outside herself, beyond this cloistered university world where the skin of an overwhelming majority of the students, including her skin, betrays no trace of colored-people’s color. My color, by the way. And lucky for her, not hers, since her father a bigot she will admit later, and he flat-out despises colored people. Her mother is different, she adds quietly. Mom taught me to respect people of all races, she says. And I don’t ask Teresa McConnell, but I’m certainly curious which parent contributed more to her story’s determination to help.

My student’s story stuck like most people’s because there’s no place for it to go. Except to explore the sadness of wanting things not to be the way they indisputably are. A story begins with an author’s desire to write it. Starts with a person the author happens to be.

Should I tell my student that in order to overcome the smothering inertia of helplessness, I’m currently reading biographies of Ludwig Wittgenstein and Catherine the Great, a novel, “A Dream in Polar Fog,” about the Chukchi people, Joseph McElroy’s stories in “Night Soul.” Contemplating retirement from my day job of college teaching. Resisting the possibility age might retire me from fiction writing. Coping with the likelihood that neither my imprisoned brother nor son will be released anytime soon. Negotiating with sexual desire, strong as ever, though it less reliably elicits a hard-on to fulfill it. Unlearning old-school verities of time, space, memory, identity while I shiver in the icy wind of the only certainty granted by a long, precipitously up and down life—its absolute extinction.

Of course hearing my story does not fix hers. Perhaps I should begin our conference by talking about a different story. Not mine, not hers. One less personal, though familiar to us both. For instance, Hans Christian Andersen’s fairy tale about an emperor’s invisible new clothes. Tell her I loved it the very first time I read it or it was read to me, a colored boy hungry for books, for stories that rescued him from the dismal poverty and unpromising futures of his life. Confess to her my instant envy of the bold kid who exposes a naked emperor. Explain how Andersen’s seductively simple fable has grown more complicated as I’ve aged. Its subject not a guileless, helplessly honest boy, not the foibles of a particular pitiful guy who happens to be emperor, but empire. Empire’s power to enthrall, lobotomize, oppress. To ensnare us within our own fantasies. Our vanity, willed innocence, terror.

How can I teach Miss McConnell that it is impossible to write a story without a naked little wannabe emperor squirrelled away inside it. Let’s undress your story, Miss McConnell, I could say. Except that invitation too suggestive for a teacher to propose to a student. Even though it would be easier to school her if she, I, the story naked.

Instead I play it safer. We keep on our clothes. Stick close to the text. In its very first sentence, with its fifth word, Miss McConnell, your story addresses a “you.” The character who is your narrator warns that “you,” reader, would be pummelled by tiny fists if her daughter burst suddenly from the phone booth of her crib, masked, caped, armed with the superpowers all down-and-out, unwed teen mothers daydream for their kids. To avoid this beating, reader, “you” better listen up. Change your ways. Surrender privileges that victimize others and drive them to strike back with baby punches or terrorist bombs.

I advise my students that identifying readers as the enemy too early in a story not the wisest strategy. Nobody likes being called out. Pronounced guilty without a trial. Readers bad-mouthed are same readers the story endeavors to woo. The “you” in Teresa McConnell’s first sentence too inclusive. Casts a net wide enough to catch her racist dad, her tolerant mom, me, you, people who sneer at reading fiction, curious people who love to read stories. No story able to help everybody. No story is smarter than all its readers.

Lighten up, I remind myself. Don’t sound like the narrator’s carping mother. Attempts to be playful a virtue of Miss McConnell’s draft. Why shouldn’t her story, like this story, pose a few teasing, little, unthreatening threats.

In spite of my intention not to infringe upon any students’ writerly prerogatives, I feel obliged to remind them that making up a story also entails making up both an author and an audience. Word by word a story welcomes some readers, shoos others away. Paints faces on invisible characters outside it as well as inside. A face for the author hovering precariously both inside and out. Author who swoops around at warp speed in galaxies no one else has ever seen.

We, my student and I, not characters in a sci-fi drama located in hyperspace. We are seated at a small, round table inside an office outside the story. An office set aside for me a few hours a week inside a university building. Outside the brick building a large city spreads and if this borrowed university cubicle owned a window, we could see whether snow still falls outside as it was falling earlier this morning on a city that starts or ends at a wall of concrete, steel, and glass towers lining the sea. Inside this city is a house my student resides in with her family, not rich not poor, not a colored family, so she’s not a colored daughter falling between society’s cracks, unwed, broke, child to raise, stuck in a dead-end job, bills, bills, more bills and more trashy jobs to pay them until the end of time. No, that’s definitely not her, according to the backstory Teresa McConnell recites as she speaks briefly about herself. My curiosity, no matter how professorially, how gently I probe, would be invasive of her privacy, so I don’t pursue more than the little she volunteers. Story she’s written for my class enough. Should reveal all the author wishes readers, including me, to know about her.

We’re not characters inside the story we sit and discuss inside this office. We only pretend we are. No one’s life is at stake. Words on the page are the reason we are meeting. My student’s words are what they are. Words. They contain the story, although you could just as appropriately suggest the story contains them. You could say the text is what I desire to help or say that the fact she’s written a text intended to help other people is why I want to help her. None of the above helps much, you might be thinking. World remains as it is—resistant, opaque, you may also be thinking, and is the “you” I’m imagining the same presumptive “you” her story calls out in its initial sentence.

One thing for certain I can say: my student’s not the young brown woman inside the story. No one in the universe is that young colored woman. However, in one game a story can play she exists. In another game she doesn’t. In another game no game exists, only you and I exist, and not for sure, not for long.

Which game are you playing, I could ask Teresa McConnell. Are readers supposed to pretend you exist or don’t exist inside your story. Both. Neither. Are good writers able to help readers negotiate such issues. Does compassion trump technique or technique trump compassion. Is it O.K. to borrow another’s identity in order to perpetrate a good deed. If you don’t obtain the other’s permission, are you an identity thief.

Isn’t your story, like every story, a masquerade. Why do you believe your disguise is working. Do you care if your mask slips and uncovers your face. I often worry mine’s slipping.

So let’s look closer. Together, Teresa. I believe we both care. Look right here, page 3, where your young woman’s infuriated by a smug, smart-ass emergency-room clerk who assumes that the female in front of him, because she is young and colored, won’t own health insurance to pay a doctor to sew up a bloody gash in her daughter’s head. Why not have your young woman kill him and turn your story into that story.

Show not tell. Don’t bother telling me or telling a young woman you are on her side and wish to help. She doesn’t need that kind of help. She’s quite as capable as you are of dealing with an obnoxious clerk. Your story depicts her as stuck much deeper. She needs more than words, your story says. So maybe chopping off the clerk’s head a way out. A way out of the story and out of yourself, too. Risk letting her do what you would never do. Then maybe the young woman will speak for herself, not you. Speak with action not words. Break free, break bad outside the story’s boundaries.

Nobody wrote John Brown’s story before he committed the acts that created his story. Nobody could pretend to be him or speak for him or hate or love him until John Brown smote his enemies in Kansas and perpetrated a bloody raid on Harpers Ferry to free slaves. No John Brown story, no John Brown, no Civil War until he showed the way. His way. His acts. The war inside him exploding outside.

Who believes they can experience what another person experiences. Wouldn’t a person be many people if such an exchange possible.

I wish I were in love with my student. Maybe it would be easier. Maybe for thirty minutes in this office, maybe during the moments I desire to help her, I am. I do. And help myself. The pair of us celebrating the end of empire. Empire that traps us and neither of us loves. Of course we don’t. We wait for it to tip over, fall down and go boom. A vast reverberating, silent crash changing everything. Us, this office, university, city outside, nation inside which the city resides, nation inside the idea of empire wrapped so carefully strand by strand, silk and steel cable of spider webbing wrapped round and round endlessly, a transparent cocoon holding everything inside, binding everything together until in one quiet, crystal-clear instant we decide to say—No. Nothing’s there. Emperor naked. Empire naked.

We wait and wait for the moment to arrive. Wait for the time to celebrate. Time to love. We understand empire a chimera, a bad idea. Same bad idea over and over again. Empire dead. Long live empire.

Dark, dark, darker when empire failing. We chew on nothing and nothing lasts a long long time. We dream and starve and die. We wait. Hope to survive as subjects of the next empire.

So here we sit, my student, Teresa McConnell, and I, awaiting our liberation, our chance to help one another. To celebrate. In this office, this moment. Though around us, inside us, something keeps us in place. A story more powerful, more hungry, more implacable than any one of ours will ever be.

Anyway, the story on the table not mine, I say. It’s absolutely yours, I reassure my student, and you must always feel free, feel more than welcome, Teresa, to discard my advice, anybody’s advice.

She smiles. I think she’s beginning to relax in spite of the uncomfortable surroundings, this unnatural exchange. I believe she senses my desire to help. Perhaps she’s offering me what she expects for her story, for herself. No more, no less than the benefit of the doubt. I repeat to her that I truly have no desire nor interest in seeing her change what she’s written so it conforms to my ideas. Difficult enough, impossible enough, I say, to revise my own stuff.

She nods and smiles again. On the table her story lies open to the third page, where a young admissions clerk insults a young, brown-skinned mother.

Tomorrow, I want to confide to Teresa. Tomorrow, Teresa, I will gaze up from words on the page and our eyes will meet. Tomorrow, I will tell her, I’m going to look into the possibility of obtaining a weapon. Haven’t decided yet the best way to deploy it, if and when I get one. Whatever kind of weapon it turns out to be. Arming myself is the first step. Figuring out the next step the harder part—scale, location, how to maximize what might very well be my single chance to help, chance to inflict damage on the empire. Assassinate a sadistic prison guard, chairperson of a corrupt, merciless pardons-and-parole board. Blow up a building, an airplane, take hostages. Write a story. Fall in love. Raid Harpers Ferry.

Your asshole clerk, I should say. Deal with him. Your way, Teresa. Marry him. Murder him. Whatever. Your way, I will reiterate. Then I must be careful to add, Please ignore my crazy digressions, my playful revisions. They are not as innocent as the baby fists in your story.

Inside my head I see empires of my desire, empires of my revenge topple and kick up clouds of dust around my feet as they bury themselves, words spoken and unspoken. I suppress my dream of power, a fantasy I might possess an idea to improve myself or society, let alone possess the means to show any single person what she should or shouldn’t do next. I revise. Lean closer to my student for emphasis.

Your clerk, Teresa. This is the point or rather he’s the point where for me the energies within your story converge, crackle, glow. He’s about your age, your social and economic class more or less, your color more or less, a color, wisely or not, unspecified by your story, but hardly irrelevant, I’d guess, since you imply his color inspires his ugly reaction to the young colored woman.

I think or rather my opinion or rather what I feel is that the clerk is you, Teresa. Something about you, about your father, your mother, me. We’re all inside that young guy and he’s inside us and that’s what allows him to be able and willing to marshal hundreds of years of history, of pillage, blood, suffering, and squash someone or maybe not try to squash, maybe just contain, maybe just loosen a little or sometimes just squeeze the wraps slightly tighter to test, to practice controlling them. Exercising them to make sure they are in place. To be certain they include, surround, protect us. Like the bonds of a story that hold it together and make sense of everything. Of a moment in which the clerk finds his job compels him to serve a young colored female who by God should expect nothing from him, who on the contrary should be serving him or grateful to him for whatever service she receives, who should make it apparent to him, always with humility and deference, that she’s well aware that the invisible strands permitting her to believe she has a right to ask him for help also license him, as he performs his numbing job, to despise her, abuse her, despise himself as he pretends to help so empire won’t crash down on both their heads.

Deal with him, with that, Teresa. As I must deal with my responsibilities. Teacher and elder. Subject of empire. Inventor of fictions.

Should I also share with my student an unsettling image that intrudes these days when I attempt to situate myself within this nation we inhabit. How I see young people returning from war. Daily, coast to coast, they are landing here and there in small airports and large, in bus depots, unpatrolled spots along interstates, smell of war still in their clothes, in their nostrils, blood dark on hands they furiously, secretly, silently scrub and scrub like Lady Macbeth, wasn’t it, I think. Think maybe I’ll teach “Macbeth” next semester or something from Shakespeare anyway. “Tempest,” perhaps, or Melville’s “Benito Cereno” or narratives from Chernobyl that Svetlana Alexievich recorded or Ellison’s “Invisible Man,” because what else to say to them, how to help.

A few of these young people may receive a government bounty for school and a few of that few might migrate to a class like yours, Teresa, this class in which you seek help to write a story. A story to help others, story for a class in which my job is to help. The prospect terrifies me.

Whether or not any survivors of war wind up in my creative-writing classroom, where are the rest. The ones I think of as veterans returning, and the ones killed in action, and the appalling number who die here inside our country each week by their own hands.

How many alive only an instant in these killing fields before they are gone forever. How many does it take to disturb the frozen quiet, black glisten of empire. To penetrate, agitate, produce movement. Not the empire’s dead invisible carcass thrashing darkly. Something else moving I try to detect in your eyes. In your story.

Where do they go. The ones coming back from combat, jails, exile, from being forgotten, tortured, ignored, from being buried alive. Not spoken of. Spoken for. Your young colored woman, her baby, that kid working at the hospital desk. You. Me.

I poke out a hand to break the silence as we both rise. We shake shyly. Our chairs groan chair noise. See you next week, Teresa. ♦

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