Gwenevive Oliander was not born with that name. It was one she had chosen for herself in anticipation of her exciting career as a world class novelist. She had yet to achieve that distinction, but on every story she crafted and tossed into the mute void her distinct pen name was written atop.
Eventually she began even to introduce herself that way, with a flick of her hair and a faraway gaze that might give the distinct impression of important thinking. She glided about in large colorful eyeglasses and wore various scarves that seemed to her to suggest an air of the literary, and to each person who would listen she explained her ambition to write the ultimate story.
“It will mean something different to each person,” she announced to the city bus driver.
“Every time you read it something new will awaken in you,” she told the clerk at the corner store.
“It will be simultaneously about you and someone you might know,” she added with a clever wink to the children walking home from school.
She had such a clear picture of this budding story that it seemed to be bursting from her, yet the moment she sat down to write, only ordinary words came from her busy fingers. It seemed a cruel joke. She had plenty of passion, which she knew to be an authorly trait. Tons of ideas tangoed through her mind and ran day-long cha cha lines. She had a fabulous pen name. All of the ingredients to her world-class future were there, but something stubbornly blocked her from achieving it like a big, cold block of ice, or a massive wooden building block or a… well something blocky, anyway. And big.
The solution came to Gwenevive in a morning thought, somewhere between tooth brushing and finding matching socks. She had to embark upon a quest! A hero’s quest filled with peril and helping hands, and some crucial pivotal near death experience that would change her forever and she’d come back with gifts and new tools and as a new person and she was going to be late for work, she realized. She finished dressing in a rush and only later discovered the mismatch to her socks. It seemed an author-like thing to do so she decided never to wear matching socks again.
At work she had to go by her other name and conduct herself in a generally non-authorish way, but there was one co-worker who supported her future career with enthusiasm. Her name was Kim but when they sat together on their lunch break Kim became Swan Ponylily and Gwenevive was able to be herself.
“You absolutely do need to go on a hero’s quest,” Swan agreed vehemently. “You have to find your voice.”
“I’ve written stories,” Gwenevive reminded her friend somewhat saltily.
“Well sure,” Swan said, “but none this important. You’re talking about a story that’s exactly what everybody needs to read, and won’t be the same experience for anyone who does. Can that kind of thing even be done?”
“I intend to be the first,” Gwenevive declared.
“I imagine you will,” Swan said. “You know, you should talk to Poppy down at Reread Books.”
“I’m looking to write a story that’s never been written before,” Gwenevive scowled. “What would a used book seller be able to do to help?”
Swan shrugged. “You need a hero’s quest,” she said. “It has to start somewhere. Poppy knows everybody who has anything to do with literature.”
That evening, Genevive paid a visit to Reread Books and explained her quest to Poppy. The owner of the used book store was youthful and filled with passion for all things literary. At once she bounded down the narrow isles of her store in search of a thin cloth-bound book which she handed to Genevive.
“If you’re looking for words that are experienced differently every time they’re read, you must read this. It’s marked for four dollars but I’ll give it to you for two. Professional courtesy,” she added.
“I’d been hoping you could point me to a world-famous author or something,” Genevive said, eyeing the little book of poetry with unease. What was poetry but rhymes and riddles?
Poppy smiled craftily.
“Tell you what,” she said, “there’s a writing circle that meets here every Tuesday night. I don’t know about world-famous, but there are some published authors who attend. Come join them tomorrow. They’ll probably be able to help. And I really recommend that book,” she added, pointing to the small collection of poems in Gwenevive’s hand. “I still revisit it, years after my first read.”
Gwenevive arrived to the already in-session group later than she had intended. She’d taken extra time in choosing just the right writer’s scarf and the most jauntily unmatching of her socks, and quite honestly had lost track of time in so doing. Her entrance fell flat like a pancake dropped from the top of a skyscraper and then run over by a steam roller. A piece of paper stretched to mere fibers. A… really especially flat thing.
Annoyed gazes greeted her as she sank into a cushioned seat with an apologetic smile. A man was reading fiction filled with emotional tension. His fingers trembled around the paper that he gripped too tightly and he often ran out of breath at the end of his sentences, having to gasp to refill for the next one. His story was flat with unmemorable characters, she thought. He had a couple of descriptions that Gwenevive wished she’d thought of, though. When he was finished everyone sat back and breathed as if that were the next item on the agenda. Deep breaths, noisy breaths, sighs, long meaningful inhalations through the nose, all seemed welcome and expected. Gwenevive’s yawn, however, was noticed with disapproving glares.
Next she had to sit through each person taking a turn pointing out all of the great features of the man’s story and making watery suggestions. With that round finished, she was finally allowed to state her purpose.
“I like the idea that you’ve come to us on a quest,” said the obvious leader, a woman with closely cropped gray hair and an extremely colorful scarf. “That said,” she said, her pant legs rising up just enough when she crossed her legs to reveal mismatched socks, “what you’re trying to achieve is the goal of every writer, and only the greatest have achieved anything close. That’s one in a million. You’re more likely to win the lottery.”
“I’ve got to say,” added the next man, twizzling his wiry beard thoughtfully, “I’m published, agented and doing fine with my writing.” He adjusted his scarf. “I can tell you with certainty that even if you were to create this masterpiece, it’s meaningless unless you can get the attention of the right people, and that has so much to do with chance. It isn’t enough to write the ultimate fiction. You’ll have to market yourself. Build a following. Prove that you have a viable platform. Even then, if you’re no good at writing queries, synopses or the like, well, it doesn’t matter how good your story is. It won’t be published and it won’t be read outside of your friends and family.”
By the time Gwenevive left she had little idea why she had ever bothered pairing words together into sentences, let alone telling stories. As if to amplify the message of defeat, she only noticed the blaring horn just in time to scurry out of the road mere inches ahead of an oncoming car. She hadn’t noticed rain but somehow a puddle appeared in time for the tires to kick up a muddy spray. She slumped onto the curb and considered weeping, except she found her eyes stubbornly dry.
A few minutes later Gwenevive stepped into the harsh lights of a diner and slid into one of a long line of empty booths. Every speck of mud stood out in the uncompromising glare of what she supposed was intended as cheery ambiance. She felt pathetic and deflated like an old balloon, or a soft tire, or… oh never mind.
A shadow gave respite to the mud stains and she glanced up, hoping for a middle-aged waitress smacking gum and sporting a slightly pink beehive hairdo. What she got was a mousy woman who was obviously self-conscious about a cute overbite. Her eyes were soft and instantly likable and the way she held her pen made Gwenevive guess that she was close to her next allotted smoking break.
“What can I get for you?” she asked. She said it in a soft, conversational voice, not the throaty smoker’s rasp Gwenevive had half expected, and utterly lacking the stereotypical “sweety” or other saccharine endearment that seemed institutional for a late night diner.
“Cup of coffee,” Gwenevive instructed, eyeing the table to gauge the cream and sugar supplies, “and a half stack of waffles.”
“Cup of jo and half stack,” the waitress repeated, scratching a few lines on her receipt pad. “Anything else?”
“You have anything to soothe a frustrated writer’s soul?” Gwenevive quipped, managing what was probably at best a sickly smile.
The gaze the waitress gave her was kind, and held more understanding than she’d expected. The girl strode away and was back a minute later with a carafe of coffee and a mug.
“My boyfriend’s a writer, too,” she said as she poured. “He comes in here a lot when he’s working on ideas.”
“Has he ever had a group of writers kill off every dream he ever held?” Gwenevive asked gloomily.
The waitress thought about that for a second. “As a matter of fact, yes,” she said. “He went to a lecture a while back. It was billed as getting published in the children’s literature genre. He said it was just speaker after speaker telling the room how statistically none of them had a chance of ever getting anywhere as a writer, let alone in the children’s genre, and that each of their rises to success had to do with time, place and who they knew.”
Gwenevive blinked up at her waitress, who seemed to emit a faintly angelic glow with all of the bright lighting behind her.
“What did he do?” she asked.
The waitress shrugged. “He ignored them,” she said. “That’s the trick, you know. Just… write. If the worst thing that will happen is that nobody will notice, then, oh well. That’s the worst thing that can happen.”
“But I’m trying to write the ultimate story, one that’s exactly the story that each reader needs to read,” Gwenevive said, her despair robbing the last words of their tone.
The waitress shrugged again. “Just write it for yourself,” she said. “Tommy says that no matter what he means to write, people always interpret it differently than how he meant anyway. It used to worry him but now he says he likes that. He says it helps him to understand his own stories in new ways.”
When the waitress returned with the waffles Gwenevive made an effort to read her name tag.
Later that night, while pulling her keys from her muddy coat, Gwenevive discovered the small cloth-bound book. She rolled her eyes, remembering Poppy’s insistence that poetry was the thing she needed. Still, feeling duty-bound to make her purchase worth-while, she sat down and read through it quickly, in the same manner one might approach a bandaid that needs to come off or jumping into a just too chilly pool. By the second poem she had slowed. By the third, she was savoring the majesty of the dance when a word becomes thought and explodes into meaning. When at last she closed the small book tears trembled over her bottom lashes and a smile lit her heart.
“Oh,” she said to the room.
Through the next day a feeling of existing among the clouds traveled with her. Swan even noticed, and when she asked what had changed, Gwenevive decided to choose only one word to make her reply. She’d been thinking about how beautiful it was, that play of blank space on the page while a handful of words nestled at the center. Words that would change you. So sparing. So impactful.
“Hope,” she said with meaning.
Swan’s eyebrows tried out several angles before she shrugged and dug into her sandwich again.
That night a new writer settled down at Gwenevive Oliander’s writing desk. She wore no scarf and her feet were bare, tucked up under the warmth of her legs. A mud-spattered jacket that had not been cleaned rested nearby and her eyes frequently revisited it, softening when they did. Her fingers could barely move fast enough to express the thoughts that flowed. They were plentiful, but in a way they were sparing, too. Impactful.
In the early hours of the morning, rubbing her eyes and trying to avoid the disapproving stare of the clock face that was all too eager to remind her of her obligation to appear at work in a handful of hours, she moved back to the first page, blank except for its title. She created a new one just after it and sat back with a smile of satisfaction. She added a few final words.
“Dedicated to Susan and to her Tommy, to Poppy and Swan. Without you, I’d still be talking about the writer I intended to become.”
Written by W. C. McClure. This may be shared (and please do); just please be sure to share it in its entirety, unaltered (and including this fine print), with credit given to W. C. McClure. This is a work of fiction. None of the characters or events depicted are meant to represent anyone or anything this side of dreams. Comments are welcome! Also, please help support this indie author by telling your friends about the excellent short story blog at
http://www.farsideofdreams.com and buying W. C. McClure’s books at http://www.wcmcclure.com. Thanks for reading!