Volume 23, Number 4

Write Your Story: The Show

Nadia Ibrashi

You hear about it, and think: “Why not?” The show gives a prize of one million dollars and starts with ten contestants reading their short stories to a panel of judges: two commercially successful authors and a professor of literature. You have five minutes to read your story. In between each contestant, there is an interval of music to alleviate the tedium of the narratives.

The show is the brainchild of a producer of other successful reality shows, and is slated for the end of the season when singing competitions are over. It is a gamble for the producer and the station. Who wants to listen to stories being read in this age of sound bites? But it is a pilot and you are told that you were chosen because you articulate your words clearly.

You start with a story of your choice to read, and then you are given the same topic as the other contestants and have a week to prepare. You will be judged on creativity, theme, topic, dialogue, plot and entertainment value. It will be tough to keep your story under one thousand words but you think you can write a coherent story within these limits.

Your husband and your friends know of your desire to achieve a modicum of success. Your husband says: “Abigail, I wonder if there isn’t another way to reach your goals. It might be too stressful. Anyway, you have a job.”

“Horton, I can’t explain it,” you say, because you can’t explain the inexplicable, but you go anyway. You will be lodged for six weeks in a hotel, sharing the room with another contestant. You feel that you were born to write, despite numerous rejections from literary journals. You recently received an acceptance for a story from an up-and coming literary journal, whose editor, a young graduate student, said he really enjoyed the mystery of your story, its elusiveness, its suggestive language, the opening of its end, the tensing of its start, etc. You are grateful to be published. You express your gratitude appropriately in your e-mail response.

You are a teacher of English as a second language in an inner-city school, where the kids speak in a polyglot cacophony that threatens to overwhelm you. You enjoy the children, though the reverse may not be true. You teach them pronunciation, elocution, a series of consecutive “The rain in Spain falls mainly on the plain” moments, a life of Sisyphus unfolding one class at a time. You appreciate that they speak one more language than you do, but when the girl from Hong Kong articulated her first “r” you almost rolled over and purred, and when the young boy who spoke a language with a clicking sound came out clearly with a “P” you almost kneeled in prayer. You take pride in your work, but, admit it, you are burned out.

You meet your competitors, and to your surprise, you are not eliminated in the first round, or the second. You prevail, reading different stories. The sci- fi story you created last week was a success, with numerous tweets of support. A story set in a new world, where a single mother challenges the rules. She raises her child at home, not in the “pocket farms” designated by the state, and becomes a brave social activist. You are pleased with the character arc.

You receive prompts and broad themes from the panel of judges who seem to enjoy your misery, though they feign compassion as you tear up during your last read, mainly because your pointed shoes were squashing your toes and you missed your cat, and your husband. They love it when contestants cry, an extra dose of reality to hammer the reality of the show further.

A professor of English was eliminated in the last round. His references to Dionysus as a parallel theme to the protagonist’s descent into madness didn’t cut it. As his face reddened, you imagined his students’ dismay. You are clever to bury your references so deep that even you may not be able to retrieve them, though you couldn’t resist a little poke in your last story using the words “Heart of Darkness,” as a metaphor for your protagonist’s divorce. No one seemed to notice.

The last challenge is a story with the following mandatory words: “peripatic, Olez, Xanadu.” You feel like snorting when the list is deliciously enunciated by the judgette, an ex-movie star/ author of a best-selling book doubtless written by a ghost writer such as you, with a sexy lisp and luxuriant hair cascading down her back. By the bland look on the judges’ faces, they don’t know what the words mean either, though they seem smug. You’ve never heard the words that you have been given, and plan to research them up as soon as you are released from the episode. The judgette adds that the theme of the next episode is “Loss.”

You get five more minutes at this stage of the competition, so that your story could be about six pages, and take fifteen minutes to read. Naturally, you won’t read it straight through, what with commercials and a short musical interlude. You hear rumors that the producer is happy, that viewership is exceeding his expectations and that millions tweeted that they wanted to see Usher perform his songs.

The only other contestant left is Dan Corpetite, a car insurance salesmen who has surprisingly beat out all competition, except for you. His style is conversational, his dialogue is slang, and you have to admit that his plots are interesting. His simple twists seem to please the audience who give him high scores all the time, because at this point you only advance through audience votes. Unlike other shows, this show only gets a few million votes, and you presume it mainly is due to the song and dance routines. Last week, am rocked the stage while you waited in the back for your turn to read.

You are the last MFA standing and you bemoan the fact that they don’t give second prizes. By the way, you don’t recognize yourself because, while initially, you could wear your own clothes, and be “yourself,” at this stage of the competition they dress you in expensive suits and have your hair arranged in loose curls while earrings dangle to your now-uncovered chest in the low-cut blouse that the dresser made you wear.

Next week, you are head-to-head with the salesman and his tear-jerker about a lost dog that is recovered two miles from his house. “His name was Smut, a five-pound Cocker Spaniel.” Dan’s voice cracks and he gulps; part of his salesman-like presentation. Son of a bitch.

The narrative is told in chronological order, with sloppy characterization and an ending that hammers you over the head with its sentimentality. Yet the judgette and several audience members are tearing up.

Your story is about a group of friends stranded on an island, an isolated setting that brings out their basic instincts; selfishness, jealousy, love and hate, the whole fucking spectrum of human pathos with subtle symbolism thrown into the mix. You read the story in a sober manner, allowing the viewers to insert their own emotions. You don’t gulp and your voice doesn’t crack. “It was the time of purple sunsets as Hariette Bunny walked into the ocean, waves crashing at her feet. She heard Jim’s voice calling out to her, but she never looked back.”

Finally, it is the last episode when the results are announced. The host, now wearing an elegant tuxedo and sporting a Mohawk, is ready to announce the winner. “Our very first, one million dollar prize and a chance to publish with the esteemed publishing firm of Bricoux and Fricoux is …”The music hatches up a few notches and there are sixty seconds of blood roaring in your ears.

You and Dan are standing on either side of the announcer, smiling at the camera. You are wearing a black evening gown and Dan is wearing a seersucker suit, almost bursting at his waist. You can’t hear anything from the clamorous crowd and the music. You imagine your husband and your friends watching the show. You imagine paying off your mortgage, and putting a down payment on a new car. You buy gourmet cat food and you and your husband plan a Caribbean cruise. With your newly acquired credentials, more of your stories could be published as a collection of short stories. You receive testimonials, a blurb in publishers weekly and book prizes. When you finish your novel in progress, it will sell to the highest bidder; there could be movie rights, and money rains like manna.

Confetti is falling on the stage. Through the colorful glitter, you see that Dan is beaming. He throws air-kisses to the judges and the audience. “One million dollars,” the presenter repeats, placing his arms around Dan’s shoulders. You are shuffled off the stage where you can cry freely.

Your cat is probably screaming, your car is being repaired and you pray it doesn’t need a major overhaul. Your husband is working double shifts at the tile factory. You are still waiting on a response to a story that you sent six months ago to a literary journal.

You remember a bedtime story about a girl who had a chicken. She collected the eggs and took them to market, thinking that in a few months, she would buy a calf that would grow into a cow whose milk she could sell to buy a pig; soon she would have a farm. But she tripped and the eggs broke. Goodbye calf, cow, and pigs.

You pack your bags and fly tourist class, sitting next to a guy who snores all through the flight. When you arrive home, your husband politely refrains from saying: “I told you so.” Your friends don’t call.

You sit at your desk and write the story that you’ve always wanted to write, the story about how your pet dog was lost when you were a little girl and how you are still looking for him. You look out the window. It is a dark and stormy night.