I am an only child. While that condition freed me from the torture of childhood sibling rivalries and out-right fights, it also sentenced me to some very isolated car rides on family vacations. Sure, I had the vast back seat of our Mercury Grand Marquis to myself, but I found books to be the best way to occupy my time on our annual trips to visit my grandparents outside Pittsburgh. It became tradition to visit a bookstore in Orlando before departure and again in Pennsylvania before our return trip. I always thought it was a treat; in hindsight, I’m sure my parents figured a trade paperback was far more economical than a prescription for tranquilizers.
My father is an engineer by trade and a science-fiction fan at heart. (Is that a diplomatic way to say he’s a lovable dork? I sure hope so.) His notions of properly raising his son included an introduction to Star Wars and Star Trek films in much the same way I imagine other young boys were told how to properly throw a football or change the oil in their cars.
“This, son, is what we call a good movie.”
His point about Star Wars never stuck. I have lingering memories of passing through the living room, my father’s rapt attention aimed at the desert scenes from one or another of the original trilogy. But somehow, nothing about those passing snippets was ever sufficient to capture my interest. They didn’t seem real enough. I knew it was all fantasy, and I didn’t buy in to the drama that made the films what I now recognize to be good storytelling. They were those weird movies dad watched any time they were on television, but that developed no chronological cohesion because of their fragmented entree into my awareness.
But then there was Star Trek. Yes, I am about to argue that Star Trek is realistic. Hear me out. I had seen an episode or two of the original series (with Kirk, Spock, and the like) and was neither really impressed nor repulsed. The production quality was a little on the low-budget side, but I could understand the stories they were telling. I never really understood the soft focus and close-ups on the hapless nurses and damsels in distress, but the situations surrounding those stereotypical visual decisions resonated. I recognized the hope in a better, more equal, more advanced society than the one we have. I recognized the boldness of, in the 1960s, presenting bridge officers who were either black or Russian. And I knew it shouldn’t have been a big deal, but society made it so.
Star Trek had enough reality in it to draw me in. And when dad sat me down to watch my first televised Star Trek feature film, we found something we could connect over. I think my first was The Wrath of Khan. “Now, son, there was this genetically enhanced man whom Kirk exiled to Ceti Alpha Six…” This film had a backstory. It had social commentary. And the movie itself was compelling. I was hooked. A short while later, another station aired the time-travel-derived, humorous film The Voyage Home—you know, the one with the whales. “In this one, son, they get a bit silly.”
It was around this time that I was also turning into a ravenous reader. In late elementary school, I had learned that books could provide an escape without having to leave the house. Starting with my father’s Hardy Boys books, I saw the appeal and learned to rely on books for relief and distraction. That relief was particularly helpful on those two-day road trips to visit family up north. By the time I was in middle school, I never took a trip without a miniature library in tow. And, thanks to my father’s “proper upbringing”, those books were often Star Trek novels. The familiar characters became almost a surrogate family, and if I didn’t keep reading the novels, I might lose touch with what they were all going through. My ever-present Star Trek novels became my safety blanket as I made the transition into high school, driving, and perhaps, adulthood.
Fast-forward to last weekend. I attended a writing-pedagogy conference in Gainesville at which I and ten of my peers from UCF presented our ideas about teaching and studying writing. After the brief conference, a few of us adjourned to the Swamphead brewery for some decompressing before the tedious trek down I-75 and Florida’s Turnpike. I had the chance to chat socially with a couple of my co-workers with whom I’ve shared little more than passing pleasantries. Two of the questions they asked me struck me as deceptively simple and unexpectedly engaging. I also discovered that my answers to the questions connected in ways I did not expect.
Question 1: If you could get paid to write anything at all, what would you write?
This question caught me a bit off-guard. I tend to think of myself as a teacher more than a writer. Well, a teacher, and a student, long before a writer. So the things I write generally fall into categories like “syllabi”, “assignment sheet”, or “blog post”. The thought of writing for profit, more than the free-to-do-whatever element, completely threw me. My knee-jerk reaction response didn’t have to wait for hindsight to sound horrid. Right out of the gate, merely uttering the words embarrassed me.
“I think I’d start with a crummy Star Trek trade paperback.” Apparently, my shame knew no bounds that day, because I continued, stupidly. “I think it’s because I feel the community gave me so much as I was growing up, and I’d like to give something back one day.”
Okay, so while this might all be true, it pains me to think that the first thing that comes to mind when responding to a hypothetical, sky’s-the-limit sort of question makes me sound like I’m striving to become the bottom of the barrel in literary terms. Yes, I actually used the word “crummy” to describe the book I hoped to write.
One of my companions, John King, brought his supportive and patient soul to bear on my response. He injected far more enthusiasm in his reply than I provided in my initial answer. “Okay, so you’d like to write genre fiction?”
Genre fiction. That almost makes it sound dignified. I think it’s something that has pre-made characters and regular, familiar situations, making the actual writing easier, and rather than denigrating my idea, he elevates it with the term genre. Bless you, John.
Question 2: If you could create and teach any course in the world, what would your class be about?
Having no pre-made answer to this question readily available, I stalled. Trying desperately to appear genuinely interested in what my companions had to say—which is only overstating reality just a bit, as I was actually curious—I deferred to their interests first, insisting that they share their answers and allow me time out of the spotlight.
In truth, I had absolutely no idea what my answer would be. I’ve spent my career as a teacher working with freshmen on improving their writing and researching skills. Every class I’ve taught has been institutionally predetermined. Indeed, on my phone interview last week with Humboldt State University’s English Department, I felt most foolish when asked what prepared me to teach graduate seminars. I came up with little more than “I’ve taken a bunch” as my rationale. Way to win them over, Friend.
So here I am, trying to think of the course that would make me happiest. Stall tactics only lasted so long, and I had to respond. “It would be a class that explores the threshold between reality and fiction, exploring the space where we can suspend disbelief and accept something we know to be fake as being actually real.” I then offered a brief anecdote about a friend of mine who works for Disney and was spending a day taking pictures and signing autographs on behalf of Pluto, Mickey’s dog. I stopped by while in the theme park and said hello to the pup. It was apparently time to go, so Pluto grabbed my hand and pulled me along as he walked behind a wall and out of sight of the general public. Once on the other side of the wall, my friend starts to talk to me. I look over, and I see Pluto’s face, but I hear something that is distinctly not Pluto’s bark.
That’s the moment I want to study. No dreams or illusions were shattered—I knew exactly who was doing what in the scenario—but the reality and the fantasy collided and could no longer co-exist. I couldn’t accept the fiction while hearing the fact. It unsettled me more than I expected, mostly because I had known for decades that the characters in the parks, well, weren’t characters. I’ve always traced this happy acceptance of the unreal back to the Looney Tunes cartoons I saw as a child. Knowing that the ACME Black Holes owned by various characters didn’t exist did nothing to stop me from wanting one. A quick check on a globe was enough to show that, if Bugs Bunny were to dig through the center of the earth, he would not end up in China; yet I didn’t care. I accepted the fiction for the sake of the story. I did so willingly, consciously, and completely.
Should have seen it coming
My answer to the first question, that of what I’d like to write, should not have surprised me as much as it did, especially in light of my answer to the second. Because I consciously occupy this space between fact and fiction, wanting to write about the Star Trek universe would seem awfully familiar to me. I would cross that space by making the fictional universe real enough to write about it. By creating the genre fiction with which I’m so familiar, I could bring to life a reality that exists in my head.
[Image is a screenshot from the very excellent short film The Black Hole. Take three minutes of your life and go watch.]