Colonel Mustard in the Hall Closet with the Traumatic Childhood Memory #FLASHBACK2SCHOOL

Essay Prompt: “Write an essay somehow inspired by super-huge mustard”

As students of writing, we are constantly reminded that we should try to write an hour each day. And if we can’t manage an hour, we should still write a little bit each day, even if only in the twenty minutes that exist between our alarm clock and the breakfast table. The best reason I’ve ever gotten for this advice (thanks Aaron Reynolds!) is that we sometimes, without even realizing it at first, find inspiration in the most mundane, everyday moments: that routine trip to the dentist, the leaky bathroom faucet that needs to be repaired, a freeway traffic jam on the drive home from work. Over time, I’ve come to realize how true this is. Because many of my best stories were indeed inspired by major life-changing events, like international travel, natural disasters, and hospital stays. But sometimes these stories—including the novel that I’m currently writing—are stitched together from much smaller details. Sometimes we even find inspiration in containers of bulk-size mustard.

Allow me to explain. In May 2012, two separate “everyday moments” happened. Those led to the beginnings of a complex novel-in-progress, which then branched out to a comic series and a trio of short film scripts. But first, I went home for a couple weeks after my first year in grad school. One afternoon, I was having a conversation with my mother about smoothies when my dad misheard us (as he often does) and thought we were discussing movies (as we often do). I went scrambling for a pen and a piece of paper, and the seeds for my hybrid invention known as the Smoovie were planted. Fast-forward another week or so, when I was back in San Francisco for the summer. A few friends and I decided to head to Golden Gate Park during the 75th anniversary celebration to participate in the festivities.  As the evening wore on, we decided to buy food at one of the booths. The cheapest item was an extremely overpriced hot dog, which I purchased and then topped with condiments from the self-serve table displaying bulk containers of ketchup, mustard, relish, and the works.

Another week later, my summer class (the now-retired “Brevity,” taught by the incomparable Cooley Windsor) began. For my first piece, I wrote about a Smoovie that featured two dinosaurs fighting over a single foot-long chili cheese coney. It’s a fragmented, non-linear narrative that reawakens a boatload of childhood trauma for our protagonist and ends in a sinister shot of a Tyrannosaurus Rex, teeth-bared, a smear of mustard on his chin. This short piece, combined with a flash fiction piece I had written a year earlier, was the basis for this novel, which spans the course of 21 years in one boy’s life and has now grown to 65,000+ words and counting. Never mind the fact that I started such a project in a class called “Brevity,” though the story’s humble yet defiant beginnings do continue to amuse me. (Thankfully, my professor was equally amused.) The realization that a simple container of mustard could have started it all is even more intriguing. And what if I hadn’t ordered a hot dog that night? What if my father hadn’t made a comment that gave birth to an idea, which then gave birth to a disturbing, prehistoric progeny with a penchant for carnival grub? It’s likely the novel would still have existed in some shape or form as I continued to be inspired by uneventful occurrences that happened to me later that year. But it’s likely that it would’ve been vastly different in many respects. Would it have been worse? It’s impossible to say. Maybe I would’ve been hit in the head by a golf ball that summer and been inspired to even greater heights.

Nevertheless, it’s in anecdotes like this where we realize that art does imitate life. All these random, inconsequential moments lead into other random moments, causing greater moments that branch off and later prove to be life-altering—the collective whole adding up to more than the sum of its parts. Writing consistently every day ensures that we don’t let these moments slip by undetected, that we look more carefully at the things we initially deem as unimportant or uninteresting, that we allow ourselves time to be inspired by the ordinary before discarding it from our brains at the end of the day.

I know all this. I know now why the daily ritual exists. And yet, full disclosure: I still don’t write every day.


Note: This is the final essay in a 3-part blog challenge inspired by this NYT article about the new wave of creative college admissions essay prompts. Read more about the rules and logistics of the challenge and my reasons for taking it on in this previous post. There, you will also be able to find links to my other essays and those of my friends when they become available.

* Find out how Ren and Elizabeth were inspired by super-huge mustard, and thanks for following along with us this week! I have more blog posts planned for the end of the year, including some Top 10 lists (who doesn’t love lists?), so keep on keeping on.

Robots, Dinosaurs, or Aliens…? #FLASHBACK2SCHOOL

Essay Prompt: “If you could be raised by robots, dinosaurs, or aliens, who would you pick?”

This may come as a mild shock—because it’s something I’ve never discussed openly before—but I was raised by humans. (I know, right? Humans? Like, who does that anymore?) I can’t say that I had a particularly unique childhood; in fact, aside from a few aberrational occurrences, it was downright ordinary.  I was your typical ‘90s kid in America: I grew up watching The Simpsons on T.V. and wishing I were a Mighty Morphin’ Power Ranger (I had the lunchbox!) so I could communicate with a floating head and a perpetually high-strung robot by talking into my wrist. I wore troll doll barrettes in my hair and had a small collection of pogs, even though I had no idea what to do with them (they were just cardboard circles with pictures on them, right??). I thought Goosebumps and Animorphs were the “bomb diggity” as far as book series went, and yes, I even owned my share of toy dinosaurs. And yet, despite these shared experiences, I know a great number of other ‘90s children who were also raised by humans but had vastly different upbringings.

The problem with the essay prompt at hand is that it seems to assume all robots, dinosaurs, and aliens are created equal.  This is simply not true.  If pop culture has taught us anything, these three categorical groups of “species” really come in all shapes, sizes, and temperaments—more so than even humans. Can we compare the irreverent and alcoholic Bender of New New York (Futurama) with the sleek, Peter Sarsgaard-voiced robot helper in the film Robot & Frank? How about the slimy aliens in the sci-fi comedy Men in Black with those angst-ridden heartthrobs that appeared on the WB/UPN teen soap Roswell? Not to mention the dinosaurs in a horror thriller like Jurassic Park versus the anthropomorphic ones in the children’s animated feature The Land Before Time? This is, of course, just my personal speculation, but I’m guessing their respective parenting techniques just might differ.

Robots. Dinosaurs. Aliens. Oh sure, we all have our preconceived notions about what these terms might mean—a free-association snapshot that immediately comes to mind despite any differences that might exist. A robot might be nice to have as a legal guardian, for example. They might be smarter than your average human counterpart, able to compute complex and difficult calculations in a fraction of a second. They could double as appliances or electronic devices. You might even be able to program it to do exactly what you want! However, there is also a good chance that the robot will be emotionally stunted and unable to think outside the ol’ circuit board.  On the other hand, an alien might also be nice to have as a guardian. Think of the intergalactic travel and the ray guns and the alien powers! But an alien would likely have its own languages and cultural customs. It might be difficult to assimilate back on Earth someday. And I can’t honestly think of any pros when it comes to being raised by a dinosaur, but I can think of many cons: dark ages, cannibalism, sheer intimidation factor, not to mention the difficulties of communication. (Just how many things can “RAAWWWRRR” possibly mean, anyway?)

But at the end of the day, if I had to choose one, I would probably choose to be raised by aliens. I’ve always wanted to know what it’s like to be abducted by a strange beam of light emanating from an unidentified aircraft. Preferably one that is commandeered by Kang and Kodos because them two aliens have got it going on. (I just hope they don’t decide to eat me.)


Note: This is the first essay in a 3-part blog challenge inspired by this NYT article about the new wave of creative college admissions essay prompts. Read more about the rules and logistics of the challenge and my reasons for taking it on in this previous post. There, you will also be able to find links to my other essays and those of my friends when they become available.

* Whew! I just barely got this in on time! (Just like high school and college!) Read what Ren and Elizabeth had to say about the robot/dinosaur/alien debate!