I tried to write a story set in Walla Walla. I drafted it in 2016 in the dusty, light-filled loft of the house I rented with friends in my hometown of Kansas City. I started with something that happened to me two years earlier: I was an AmeriCorps volunteer in Walla Walla. I volunteered in a community garden for part of a summer, watering rows of vegetables at dusk. The garden became the center of my life for a few short weeks, and then it was over.
I wrote about a girl younger than me, a listless and privileged student at Whitman College, watering a community garden because she has nothing else to do. She feels as though she’s failed at everything and has nothing of merit on her résumé. She does only three things: work in a restaurant, go for long runs, and water the garden. She’s lonely and carries on flirtations that never go anywhere. Like most first drafts, I wrote it, didn’t think about it, and sent it to a few good readers who could help me figure out what I was actually trying to say.
I’m not sure who my other early readers were or what they said. I remember only what my friend Michael said. I met Michael years earlier when I was still an undergraduate student and he was the editor of the literary magazine where I worked. We had different tastes and different writing styles, but he could simultaneously champion my writing and point out weak spots with grace. I sent him a draft of the Walla Walla story, and the response he wrote back surprised me. In essence, he had noticed a persistent problem in my writing and gently wanted to speak to it.
“I’ve noticed that your protagonists are passive and often don’t drive the plot of the story,” he wrote to me in an email. “Things happen to them, and they respond. But they don’t make mistakes. They don’t make choices. Stories are most interesting when we can see people having flaws and acting on those flaws and dealing with the repercussions.”
I sat with this critique for a long time, unsure how to pinpoint the feeling that rose up. Not insulted or offended, exactly. Not ashamed. Not angry. Rather than directly address this critique with my writing, or with myself, I put the Walla Walla story away.
I used to say I was the good kid. My older brother and sister were the bad kids. By “used to say,” I mean I only stopped saying it a few months ago. I was on the phone with my mom, pacing the square perimeter of my kitchen, thinking aloud while she listened patiently.Anecdotes are not an essay. Memories are not a memoir. I needed a narrative. I had no narrative.
“Nick and Kaitlyn weren’t that bad,” I said.
I listed off their teenaged transgressions as best I could remember. Nick called Mom a bitch one time when she took away his car keys, a story she laughs about now. Kaitlyn once left the house during a fight without telling my parents where she was going, so my mom drove around looking for her. Typical underage partying and the occasional smuggling of booze. I once found a bright green bottle of sour apple liquor in my sister’s closet and reacted as though I’d discovered a bloody dagger. Mostly, my brother and sister were mouthy, defiant, just plain mean; mostly, they grew out of it.
In contrast, I had been the good kid because I never partied, never lied to my parents about where I was going, never got grounded, never brought home a boyfriend they worried about. Never did anything, really. I clung to this idea of being the good kid well into adulthood. I was still thinking about it in the kitchen, on the phone with my mom, in my thirties.
“They weren’t really bad though,” I said because I could only process what I was thinking by repeating myself. “Nothing they did was truly reprehensible. But they were so mean to you, Dad, and me. And I think I wanted to be good to get back at them.”
I kept thinking about badness and goodness as separate boxes, easy categorization, us versus them. Did I want to be good to please my parents, to ensure they would always love me? Was goodness, for me, actually a weapon instead of a glowing, ideal state of being? Did I only want to be good to prove to my siblings that I was better than them? I paced the square of my kitchen again and again.
In Walla Walla, I taught at the school for bad kids. At least, that’s what I was told by locals, especially the middle school students I saw when I volunteered at the YMCA. No one wanted to end up at Lincoln High School, they told me. It’s where the criminals and the rejects and the drug addicts and the retards went.
Lincoln kids weren’t that bad either, though no one had the same story. It was more accurate to say, Lincoln was a school for kids who needed more attention and who didn’t fit comfortably in a traditional high school structure. At Lincoln, the classroom setup was loose, the lesson plans hands-on yet flexible. There was no homework. Students were expected to be present in class and follow through as best they could. Some students had special needs and benefited from smaller classes and a low-stakes learning environment. Plenty of students came from stable families, but plenty more witnessed abuse or drug use at home. Some students were in recovery, others were actively using, and some were on probation for juvenile offenses and eager to turn their lives around.
My AmeriCorps “co-teacher” job existed so I could assist with classroom management, which translated into me watching how students interacted and behaved. If someone seemed rankled enough to start a fight or withdrawn enough that they stared off in a trancelike state, I would pull them aside to talk one-on-one. The time I described as “teaching” on my résumé was actually spent listening to teenagers talk. I heard run-of-the-mill tales of heartbreak, confusion, and angst. And much worse.
I was doing good at Lincoln. Giving my time and energy to an underserved population, being a mentor and role model to the so-called bad kids. I was a good person, doing a good thing, and that was an easy story to tell.
I started my MFA with a memoir idea in mind. I wanted to untangle the year I spent in Walla Walla, which I often referred to as the best year of my life. Besides teaching at Lincoln, I thought, I had a lot going on. It was my first year outside of college, the first year I lived outside of Missouri, the first year outside of an unhealthy long-term relationship. I was going to school in Spokane, only three hours away. I wanted to excavate the feeling of purpose I had that year, and once I left, the purposelessness of the years that followed. I had another rough idea about seeking out some of the students I taught, interviewing them, seeing where they were now. Put together, maybe it could be a book.
A documentary about Lincoln High School exists, but I’ve never watched it. It follows three students and three teachers and outlines Adverse Childhood Experiences (or ACEs) and the effects of long-term trauma. Lincoln was one of the first schools in the United States to implement a trauma-informed education model, to determine students’ needs based on their ACEs score. Occasionally, I’ll get a message from a teacher or social worker friend who is watching the documentary. They’ll say they saw me in a few scenes. Yes, I was there, I confirm.
Most of the documentary was filmed the year before I volunteered, but they reshot one classroom scene with me in the room. I was sitting at my desk the day they filmed. I’m in the background, listening to Erik, one of the teachers profiled, watching as raptly as the students. I’m saying and doing nothing, but I look like I’m part of something.
Throw out whatever book idea you brought into the MFA program, one of my nonfiction teachers advised in my first year. She didn’t believe any of us should be writing a book when we were still learning how to write essays. At first, I rolled my eyes at this. But as graduate school wore on, whenever I revisited the idea of the memoir, I froze. I stumbled on the ethics of writing about the lives of my former students alongside my own comparatively small problems. Questions of privacy arose, considering their school environment had already been placed under a microscope in a documentary. I reflected on examples of do-gooder narratives gone wrong. I cringed at the masturbatory idea of “making an impact.” I couldn’t ask anyone to measure that for me and was afraid of measuring it myself. I questioned whether I had done anything at all.
I threw the memoir away before it even started.
What if I removed Lincoln and my students entirely from this narrative? What would be left of this year, the best year of my life? I returned to the montage of scenes that play in my head every time I think about Walla Walla:
My friends taught me how to run. I scattered wildflower seeds into open soil. I wore my hair super short. I became a vegetarian. I either didn’t sleep well or slept too much. I got depressed, then ran my way out of depression. I showed up on my friends’ doorsteps without asking if I could come over. I picked up nonfiction books from the library and wondered if I could write about myself someday. I walked to 5:00 a.m. yoga classes where I would sometimes want to cry in the back row. Afterward, as I walked home, I would pass by the fogged bakery window and watch the bakers make bread as the sun rose. I ran by myself, ran with friends, ran on the outskirts of town, past golden fields and toward blue-gray mountains. I collected props for the musical at the high school and waited in the wings dressed all in black. I helped build a float for the annual Christmas parade, bundled up, my hands frozen. I met a guy online who lived two hours away, got love-bombed and dumped in less than two months. My friend Laura baked me a break-up cake with “fuck it, you’re awesome” scrawled in green icing to comfort me. I set up a Valentine’s Day dance at the YMCA that no one showed up for, so my friends and I danced in the empty gymnasium instead. I let my friends take care of me. I went hiking. I went camping. I ran some more.
Anecdotes are not an essay. Memories are not a memoir. I needed a narrative. I had no narrative.
I tried rewriting the Walla Walla story. My protagonist had a new goal: get a job after graduation, though what she “wanted to do” was still vague. By the middle of the story, she had another goal she didn’t tell the reader: sleep with the married man who lived next door to the community garden. Now my character wanted something. She was making decisions. She was doing a bad thing, sleeping with a married man. Eventually, the married man would help her get a job after graduation, and she felt weird and guilty about it. That was the end of the story. Another draft complete.
Once a year, Erik told me, he taught sex ed. It wasn’t technically part of his science curriculum, but with the number of unplanned pregnancies among our student population, it was worth repeating. I sat at my desk for two days, listening to freshmen boys giggle and watching junior girls stare into space. I was uncomfortable because a high school sex ed class revealed the holes in my own understanding of birth control. Thanks to twelve years of Catholic school abstinence-only education, I knew roughly how to use a condom and that I could ask my doctor for the pill. But now there were more options for safe sex, most of which were available around the corner for free at the student health clinic. You could get a tiny hormonal implant in your arm? You could get a monthly shot? NuvaRing existed and could be stored in your refrigerator? IUDs weren’t going to kill you?
You’d think I would have learned some of this in college, but I wasn’t interested in having sex with my long-term boyfriend for reasons I wasn’t ready to unpack yet. First, I had to start with the humiliation of being a twenty-three-year-old virgin sitting in a classroom filled with sexually active teenagers who already understood everything their teacher explained to them.
My friend Clare told me about a meeting with her thesis advisor where he said she needed to write dialogue in an argument between two characters instead of summarizing the scene. She realized she consistently relied on summary whenever two characters were in conflict. She never wrote out the argument, never let the reader see an exchange of harsh words. Her thesis advisor observed that sometimes we avoid writing down whatever makes us most uncomfortable in our personal lives.It was my fault that there was no story to tell, no narrative.
I had met with her advisor the year before, when he gave me feedback on a draft of the Walla Walla story. He noted that I skimmed over the sex scene between the protagonist and the married man: it happened, and that was that. He told me I needed to write a few more descriptive lines, nothing explicit, but something to put us in the scene. The protagonist’s choice to sleep with the married man was what the entire story led up to, and the reader needed to see it.
By accident, I realized, he had given us the same advice. I never wrote sex scenes. The camera panned away or jump cut to another scene entirely. I was in my late twenties by then and no longer an embarrassed secret virgin, but I still rationalized that most sex scenes didn’t need to be written out to advance the plot, so why bother including them? But this was what the Walla Walla story needed. I wrote about the noise of the air conditioner in the bedroom and the careless way the married man handled my protagonist, much to her disappointment. The fiction teacher said it was an improvement.
Darin Strauss was a visiting writer during my first year of graduate school, and he led a workshop for two of my classmates’ essays. He wrote both fiction and nonfiction, like me, and noted the difficulty of accessing our thoughts and feelings as we revisit events in our lives. If he got stuck writing a scene in an essay or memoir, he said, he liked to write it in third person. The distance from first person, from himself, actually made it easier for him to recall what he had been thinking and feeling.
She wasn’t sure how or why she started talking to the tall blond actor in the lobby of the theater. She was there for a rehearsal of Grease, the musical Lincoln would put on at the theater the following week. He may have been there to prepare for his touring play that night. They talked long enough that he said he could get free tickets to the play if she brought a friend. She came back with a friend, still thinking this was a ruse of some kind. He had a small part in Richard II, only appearing onstage near the end in a regal period costume.
Afterward, they went to the only moderately cool bar off Main Street, where more of her friends showed up to drink beers with the rest of the cast because there was nothing else going on in town that night. She kept asking the tall blond actor questions about Shakespeare.
“I’m tired of Shakespeare,” he said. “We need a new Shakespeare, you know? Like where’s the next modern Shakespeare? It’s time to move on.”
At one point, her friend Joanne mumbled, “He’s a classic Seattle bro.”
This was probably true, but she didn’t actually know what a classic Seattle bro was like. She just cared that a hot actor wanted to talk to her.
They ended up at the house where the actor was sleeping in a guest bedroom, and he invited everyone to the hot tub. She drove there with a few friends stuffed in the back seat and probably said out loud, “Am I actually going to do this? I don’t get into hot tubs with hot guys I don’t know.” Giving herself a firm shake of the shoulders. A reminder of who she was.
It was February, with snow on the ground, and they could look up and see the bright scatter of stars overhead. She watched her plume of breath rise, ears ice-cold as her body stayed warm underwater. They all took turns telling stories, only half listening to each other. The actor put a hand on her thigh. Then his fingers ran along the line of the swimsuit, tracing, then pulling the fabric. She edged away from his touch some moments, leaned into it in others, unable to make up her mind. At some point, she got out of the tub and went to the bathroom wrapped in a towel, dripping on that stranger’s floor. She caught sight of her smeared mascara in the mirror. In the hallway, she ran into the actor. Over his shoulder, she could see his bedroom, understood the unspoken gravitational force of her following him and closing the door. But she was the driver, and her friends wanted to go home. Wet swimsuit soaking through layers of clothing, she drove across town again with her friends drowsy in the back seat. A ribbon of dawn stretched across the windshield, and soon she would sleep for hours.
That afternoon, the actor texted, asked her to come back. She sat on her bed. She had a decision to make. Her options were limited. She was probably not going to have sex with him, though he thought otherwise. She could still try to have fun, but everything would stumble to a halt as it had the night before. Or she could decide to go and keep going and do something bad, something she knew she wasn’t supposed to do. Either way, he would be gone by the next morning, back to Seattle.
“Sorry,” she texted him, “I’m busy tonight.” She stayed home, and it was another sex scene that never happened.
I shifted around details in the Walla Walla story as it went through countless revisions, but the basic plot did not change. In the most recent draft, two other readers pointed out to me: You told us the married man had an open marriage and suggested his wife knew that he slept around with college girls and didn’t care. Were the protagonist’s actions really so transgressive then? Did she really do something so bad?
With frustration, I returned to the weak point Michael had shown me years earlier. My protagonist was making choices now, but she was off the hook thanks to the wife’s knowledge and blasé attitude. She didn’t even actively seek out the married man. He just kept appearing before her, presenting an opportunity, which she took. Something happened to her, and she responded. The circumstances were muddy but not that bad. Now the tension was gone, the stakes too low—choose your favorite plot-related craft cliché—and I was stuck. I put the Walla Walla story away again.
I wrote the scene with the actor in third person. Flipped it, rewrote it in first person. I got stuck on this scene because it connects with embarrassing clarity to other moments in my early twenties when I reverted to a default Goody Two-Shoes setting. From a fiction standpoint, this scene is the most out of character thing I did while I lived in Walla Walla, and yet the ending was so perfectly in character. An opportunity had presented itself. I had an option to do something, to take some sort of action, and I did nothing. I stayed home.
I berated myself endlessly: It was about passivity. It was about inertia. It was about avoidance. It was about me choosing to do nothing, like my characters so often did. I refused to do something “bad,” uncomfortable, or out of character. It was my fault that there was no story to tell, no narrative.
I took the Walla Walla story to a writers’ conference, where a semi-famous short story writer told me she admired it. One of the first things she said was, “I have so much sympathy for your protagonist.” I scoffed involuntarily, both flattered and confused. I said something about how lost my protagonist was, how she never seemed to know what she wanted. The short story writer looked at me, and her face asked me why that wasn’t worthy of sympathy.
Maybe all the revisions had worn me down; the endless questions of whether the story suffered from a problem with plot or a problem with character development. I was so desperate for my protagonist to be active instead of passive, likeable yet capable of making mistakes, that I stopped thinking about who she was and only considered what she did. Likewise, I was sick of looking at myself, or the version of myself who lived in Walla Walla, and making the same demands. I was sick of asking myself why I did or didn’t do something, and whether that something was good or bad, and what that something meant in the grand character arc of my life. I was sick of thinking about craft terms that led me nowhere.
At the conference, the short story writer shared another piece of advice for the Walla Walla story. She told me, “Write past the ending. When you think you’ve reached the end, write ten more pages. See where it takes you.”
I switched the scene with the actor from first person back to third person again. I created some distance from myself and returned to the moments after sending the text telling him I would stay home. Instead of ten pages, it only took me a few sentences.Choosing to do nothing can still be an active choice.
In this reexamination of actions, events, and choices, I had forgotten how it felt when I laid down alone in my bed that night. How much I laughed at the thought of having sex with a stranger who thought Shakespeare was overrated and who had probably recycled that line again and again. How relieved I felt knowing I would never hear from him. How I streamed Lilo & Stitch and laughed at the juxtaposition of possible outcomes for that evening—watching an animated children’s movie instead of haphazardly losing my virginity. No moral barometer had informed me. No societal expectations about sexuality had influenced me. I wasn’t thinking about being good or being bad. I didn’t want to have sex with him, so I didn’t. That was the ending of one story and the beginning of another, one where I was an agent in my own destiny, someone who knew what she wanted and who felt at peace with herself when she shut off the lights and went to bed early.
At the conference with the short story writer, I was around two years and five drafts removed from the advice Michael had given me about the Walla Walla story. Their advice was not directly in opposition; Michael preferred an active protagonist whose mistakes spark tension, whereas the short story writer didn’t mind a lost protagonist stumbling through the dark. You could write this off as an issue of style and personal taste. But when I reached out later to Michael to ask him about passive protagonists, he did remember saying this but wanted to add a postscript. “Looking back, I can see how the advice I gave you was gendered,” he acknowledged. The traditional reverse checkmark structure didn’t apply to my story, he noted, but that never mattered to begin with. Time had passed. He was a different reader and writer now, and he would have understood this story from another vantage point.
As much as possible, I try to resist the binary thinking of my youth, and so this essay cannot define good writing advice versus bad writing advice. I do, however, believe that writing advice usually says more about the person giving it than the person receiving it. Countless times, I sat in workshop and listened to peers offer some version of “this is what I would do” or “if it were my story” in response to my writing, while I sat in silent confusion. A response centered on their voice and their perspective, replacing the voice and perspective offered on the page. For me, or anyone with people-pleasing tendencies, this was the primary danger of workshop—the temptation to bow to the influence of the group or one particularly outspoken person, instead of relying on my gut. Now, even farther removed from graduate school, I see this is not simply a workshop problem, as well-intentioned teachers and mentors can lose sight of the writer in front of them in their haste to mold. If nothing else, I’ve learned to give and receive writing advice with great care.
The only absolute I will offer is: all writing advice is about cherry-picking and timing. I’ll take this now, though it may not be relevant for another five years. Or I’ll reject this now and remember it in five years and wish I’d taken it seriously. Or I’ll take this now and will spend five years unlearning it. Five years from now, I’ll be so terrified of being passive, I’ll forget how to feel sympathy. Five years from now, I’ll be so stuck on following the right advice, I’ll let dozens of drafts lie fallow, victims of decision paralysis. Five years from now, I’ll hold a tin can up to my ear, the string leading to the house next door in my mind, and the girl who lived in Walla Walla will wave at me from the window and say, “See what you did? See what you were always trying to do?”
In drafting, I have a habit of writing stand-alone lines and letting them float at the end of the document. Threads or trains of thought that I hope I can fit somewhere, cut and pasted, as I build the structure of an essay or a story, decide what stays and what goes. Sometimes these standalone lines are questions addressed directly to myself. Others act like thesis statements searching for a home. Some stand-alone lines now:
When I did nothing, I could be good, because in doing nothing I made no errors and therefore could not be criticized.
There’s room for accidents and acts of God in literature, and there’s room for human error too.
When did I start making my characters have sex with someone they shouldn’t in order to create tension?
Consider that in Walla Walla, you were taking a break from writing fiction and trying to read and write nonfiction, even though you didn’t know what you were doing, and you thought that if you were going to be a nonfiction writer, you needed to have an interesting life and do something that would make for a good story.
Growing up, goodness existed in the context of doing what I was supposed to do according to someone else, someone who never seemed to be me. (Maybe like listening to advice from my writing teachers?)
“The year I lived in Walla Walla was the best year of my life” is not an essay.
Choosing to do nothing can still be an active choice.
“The Nothing Essay” by Maura Lammers appears in the latest and final issue of The Gettysburg Review.