Junior year in college, my girlfriend Laura and I both applied to get into the Big Writing Class. There were always more applicants than seats in the BWC. I don’t remember exactly what I wrote as my sample, but I remember it was something dreamy and shaded in mystery. It took place in the woods. There was fog. And there were unicorns.
Meanwhile, Laura wrote a piece about a writer who noticed that he had a freckle on his right ear. This sent him into a tailspin. I remember one line of dialog in particular—it was something like: “How can I be a writer, if I can’t even notice details on my own head?” And I remember that line because I had said that line, one angsty afternoon, looking in the mirror, spotting that freckle, and going “What the hell?!”
So my unicorns didn’t make the cut. Laura’s piece was great, and she earned a chair. And let’s take a moment to appreciate the awesome meta-ness of the situation:
Laura had written a story that drew from a real observation. Meanwhile I had zipped past a detail in my own life that was literally (literally!) about noticing things, and opted instead to write, well, goofball nonsense.
To be fair, it wasn’t the fog or fantasy that made my piece bad. My mistake was writing a story without a true moment or feeling. Growing up I’d had the idea that the only writing that counted was 100% imagined, and that led me down this fanciful path. But the lesson I took away from the class I never took was that details matter, and that in art, drawing from reality is more than fair game, it is the game.
(And that’s why I hope you enjoy my novel in progress, about a unicorn named Dan who wears glasses. Boom!)