Christopher tm Herdt (cherdt) wrote,
Christopher tm Herdt

How I came to read The Stranger - or - Manuscript Day, 1992

Jim Colondo was an excellent fellow who seemed to genuinely like his creative writing students, in spite of the fact that I think he disliked his job. Photography was his passion, not bureaucracy, not discipline, not politicking--but at the time I don't think any of us really saw that because he was too busy doing a fine job. He was a thoughtful person. When I was hospitalized after my ski accident, I received Valentine's Day cards from the entire class, thanks to Mr. Colondo. That's right: I even have a Valentine's Day card from Jomo Grady. That speaks to the power of Mr. Colondo's good-nature.

At the high school level, creative writing is not about details, it's just about getting people to write, to express themselves, to be inspired, to find a voice. Mr. Colondo introduced us to photographs, songs, sculptures, and poems, and asked us to be inspired. He introduced us to pantoums and villanelles and asked us to be inspired by the constraints. And, poor man! he had to read the results and dole out checks, check-plusses, and check-minuses.

It must have been he that nominated at least two dozen students at East Lansing High School to participate in Manuscript Day 1992 at Western Michigan University. On the merits of a particularly ridiculous piece of prose, I got to head down to Kalamazoo one fine spring evening, and spend the next day workshopping our writings with some poor MFA student-instructors who were stuck with us. I imagine they must have thought, "I came to Western because of Stuart Dybek, and now I am babysitting angsty teens? I feel like a schmuck!"

I can't remember if we drove, or were ferried there in a school bus. It hardly matters, but I recall that I was hanging out with my friend James Wilson, who in creative writing went by the more creative name, Jim "Driftwood" Wilson. We had a dormitory room on campus, so the college semester must have been over already, and according to the event schedule there was a dance/mixer for Manuscript Day attendees. It was probably stupid, but we thought we'd go check it out anyway.

I don't recall how I met Melissa. I think she was outside the dance with her friends. Did she smoke? Maybe she was outside smoking. Smoking was a very adult thing to do, and a little rebellious. If you ever want to keep a teen from smoking, the best thing to do is to make the teen's 12-year-old sibling start smoking. That ought to kill the cool. But maybe I am giving her bad habits she didn't have.

Melissa was wearing a long red velvet dress, appropriate for a more formal dance that this. She had long wavy dark brown hair, and she had an aquiline nose that I thought, for some reason, made her look a little witchy--in a good way. We all agreed that the dance was very stupid, but she asked me if I wanted to dance anyway. It would be ironic--we would be dancing and it would seem like we were enjoying ourselves, but of course we would be mocking it at the same time. It was a plan that couldn't fail.

We danced, or rather swayed or whatever passed for dancing, with my arms around her waist and hers around my neck and she was warm and her dress was soft and she was very close and everything was very confusing. We went back outside and talked under the moonlight, near the parking lot and the bike racks and the tall brick institutional buildings. She met up with her friends again and we said goodnight, and everything was very chaste but flirtatious: not a kiss was exchanged, but the thought was clearly in the air. Later I ran into James and we went up to the dorm room and hung out with some other people for a while until we all got tired and went to sleep.

The next day we received purple t-shirts with a drawing of a cat and an excerpt of William Blake printed on them in pale green: "What immortal hand or eye dare frame thy fearful symmetry?" We went to our workshops and read the pieces for which we'd been deemed worthy of attending the event. We talked about them and tried to give each other suggestions and ideas without really being very negative, mostly out of respect for our own delicate egos and what would come to us in our turns in the hot seat.

Around lunch I ran into Melissa and her friends again, and she said they were going to look at some student artwork, did I want to join them? Of course I did. While we walked along, studiously considering each charcoal sketch and conté crayon drawing, someone mentioned The Cure's song, "Killing an Arab." Did you know, she said, that it is based on a novel?

1992 was a very politically correct time, particularly if you were a high school student, and particularly if you were hoping to come across as cool. It was an important question: how could one of the coolest bands--the other being The Smiths--possibly sing "standing on the beach/with a gun in my hand/staring at the sea/staring at the sand/I'm a stranger/killing an Arab"? How could they create such a violent, callous, senseless, and racist song? We looked for explanations. In some ways, perhaps those were better days than these.

Somehow, I knew that it was based on a book. I must have picked up this knowledge from someone far, far cooler than myself. Had Scott Flaster or Matt Collar mentioned it? Could I have overheard Jen Burigana talking about it at school? Or was it something that Stacy Walker or Melanie Furchner had mentioned in a letter? I even knew which book it was.

"Yes," I said, "it is based on Albert Camus' The Stranger."

A letter seems likely--I had read about it somewhere. Like so many other things I had read about but had never heard spoken. It probably didn't help that I was studying not French, but Spanish, where no letters are ignored. Spanish is a more transparent language, and I appreciate that now.

I didn't really say, "Yes, it is based on Albert Camus' The Stranger."

Instead, I said, "Yes, it is based on AL-bert KAY-mussus The Stranger."

Melissa laughed. "You mean al-BEHR ca-MOO?" The witchiness that I found charming the night before seemed much less pleasant now.

Any coolness I may have established the evening before vanished. "So that's how you say it," I fumbled. I explained that I needed to meet my friend James before the keynote speech that afternoon, and I excused myself.

I did not see Melissa again.

A few weeks after school was out, I bought a copy of The Stranger. That was my revenge: maybe Melissa and her friends knew how to pronounce Camus, but damn it--I was going to read the book!

I read it, but I still didn't feel cool.

[Edit: James Wilson tells me that I have it all wrong! Manuscript Day was a separate event, and that the young lady with her fancy French pronunciation was at a different event, a weekend arts conference, where they gave us different purple t-shirts. This makes more sense, now that I think of it, as the charcoal sketches would be out-of-place at Manuscript Day.]
Tags: albert camus, books, cool, high school, manuscript day, stuart dybek, the cure, the stranger, western michigan university, william blake

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