David Bersell’s “Dear Chris Crutcher”

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We are honored to host an essay from Issue 4 alumni David Bersell’s new collection The Way I’ve Seen Her Ever Since out now on The Lettered Street Press.

Read “Dear Chris Crutcher” below.

Dear Chris Crutcher

My name is David Bersell and I am in the seventh grade. You are my favorite author. I’ve read all of your books. Running Loose is my favorite. When the runner found out his girlfriend died in a car accident I felt terrible. But I also felt good. Like I was him. I read Stotan first. I picked it up at the library because of the swimmer on the cover. My brother started swimming in high school and got eighth place in the breast stroke at State’s. I play backup point guard on my school’s basketball team. Some of your book covers don’t make sense. There’s a hurdler on the front of Chinese Handcuffs but the main character does triathlons not hurdles. Also I was wondering if you’ve heard of Walter Dean Myers and Carl Deuker. They also write really good sports books. My school’s having an Author Fair and I picked your books for my project. I need to write a summary and draw a scene for each one. I think I’m also going to pick my favorite characters and write your biography. Usually I don’t try at school. English and Gym are the only classes I like. I read in an interview that you used to hate school too. You said you picked your college because you went to look at all the catalogs in the library and it was the only one that was red. The rest were black or blue. When I was in fifth grade I forgot I had a book report due so at the start of class I scribbled down a report for an imaginary novel. I remembered a cover I had seen about a math nerd so I made the story about how he has no friends but then he wins a math competition and gets to go to Washington, DC and the kids at school think he’s cool. My teacher gave me a B. I think I’m going to try writing a book soon. In class during notes and every night before I fall asleep I imagine stories.

Your fan,

David

David,

Thanks for taking time to write your responses to my stories. Sounds like you (and your brother) are quite an athlete. It also sounds like you have already figured out some of the things I figured out to get through school with minimum effort. That works, but I should let you in on a secret. Someday there will be something you really want to go after and you’ll find yourself putting your entire intellect into it. Trust me. You’ll love it.

I know what you mean about some of the covers. I complained about that hurdler on Chinese Handcuffs, too. So much that they changed the cover.

I have read a lot of Walter Dean Myers. He and I know and respect each other a lot. Don’t know Carl Deuker as well, but I hear great things about his work.

So, good luck with your writing and your athletics. Sounds like you have a lot going for you and you know how to enjoy it.

Sincerely,

Chris Crutcher

Dear Chris,

I was barely friends with Steve—spring track, he charged the hurdles with anger, then lay in the grass, listening to Hendrix—and I only knew Carl because I had a crush on his ex-girlfriend.

We were seventeen.

That means I loved them.

The next weekend, Carl and Steve’s friends gathered at the crash site to drink in their honor. I wrote a poem, and when that wasn’t enough, I wrote a short story, imagined the violence.

The road curves to the left, but the car speeds ahead, no swerve, no breaks. It only takes a second. The metal and plastic and rubber blasts from the ground. I know this is supposed to be sad, but isn’t it also magical, the car transforming into a spaceship, Carl and Steve alive and weightless for one more second, angling up from the earth, shooting higher, through the branches and swallowed moonlight?

And I know the spaceship doesn’t stay up. I clipped the photographs from the newspaper. I know about the graceless fall, the snap of foreheads against windshield, the after.

But what if Carl and Steve were driving even faster, what if the tires kissed the rounded incline of the road’s edge just right, what if the exhaust malfunctioned at the perfect moment so the pipe sucked blue fire into the night?

What if the Carl and Steve kept flying?

Picture the car rumbling through our atmosphere, above our houses and hideaways and parents pouring coffee and sighing, all our dogs and Saturday mornings, Carl and Steve curling around a cloud of purple gas with the bass turned up, Carl and Steve nodding at the rind of the universe, how cute, how fragile, Carl and Steve closing their eyes and waiting for whatever mystery comes next, all those minutes, all those galaxies and unlived lives, all that open space, hanging like a sail, waiting to be filled.

Chris, you were right.

When I was seventeen and couldn’t sleep, I read passages of Less Than Zero, by Bret Easton Ellis, aloud in my bedroom. “The water turned colder, raging, and the sand became wet, and Blair would sit by herself on the deck overlooking the sea and spot boats in the afternoon fog.”

And when Ashley had a nightmare, or I was too sad to speak, we read The City of Women, by Sherod Santos, a lyric collage about ex-lovers and divorced parents, one more time. “Who we are is composed of what, perhaps only what, we can never reclaim form the rubble.”

I owe so many: Another Bullshit Night in Suck City, We the Animals, Chloe Caldwell, Major Jackson. “The Fourth State of Matter.”

My friends.

I teach at summer camps and in high school classrooms because I know how writing can be a superpower for the adolescent and hungry.

Is that why you write Young Adult?

After I read at a teen writers workshop, a student asked why I always wrote sad stories.

I said, “I don’t try to be sad, just realistic.”

Then she said, “Isn’t it sad how love’s dead?”

She meant it.

“There’s love, just not how you think,” I said. “It’s there, it’s just hard. Like writing. It’s hard, beautiful work, but it’s worth it.”

“But there’s no romance.”

“No, there’s romance, too. Believe me. You just have to wait.”

She told me about watching her little sister grow up. “The loss of innocence, it’s already starting,”

I wanted to cradle her and stop telling stories, but I knew protection was a child’s myth, so I needed to write the truth. I needed to describe the pain, because there is always pain, and the glory, too, crafting pieces into a quilt, a window and a mirror, my love.

Chris, I’m sorry this is so belated: thank you for writing back.

All the best,

David

bersell book

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Editors’ Note for Issue 3

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The following is the full Editors’ Note for Issue 3:

“Anxiety can either cripple or drive you.

It can drag you down like a stone, trapping you on the murky psychic riverbed to choke on seaweed and self-critique. It can be the palm that holds you underwater, screaming bubbles and scratching at the invisible force. It is the sound in the distance, the figure in the dark, the uncertainty of the answer to a difficult question. It is the thing that stops you from enjoying any taste of success by planting the thought of a more satisfying success just ahead yet unseen. It is FOMO and the neighborhood watch and small town racism and narrow-mindedness in all forms. It is the smoke break and the bitten-up fingertips and standing on the back porch at 4 am.

It can also be the motivation that forces you back to the surface, making you flap your arms until you figure out how to turn slapping hands into a doggy paddle into smooth strokes propelling you for as long as your mind muscles allow. Anxiety can feed off fear, turn frustration into fuel. It can be the foundation for great innovations, inspired music, transcendent literature. It is that thing that must be alleviated through expression, the need to take some internal pressure and spit it out into the world so that somebody else can chew on the idea for a while. It is the desire to find solutions.

The tricky conundrum is that anxiety can also suppress that expression, trapping everything inside your skull. What if what I think is stupid? What if what I made isn’t good? What if what I did isn’t important? What if people laugh in my face? What if they laugh behind my back? What if they laugh in the comments? What if nobody cares at all? Anxiety can be completely paralyzing to creativity, killing all motivation before the process has even begun. The effect can be especially fatal if the primary motivation is to create something impressive or cool in the eyes of others instead of trying to give a voice to that gnawing thought in your frontal lobe.

The real trap is allowing anxiety to breed off itself, choosing activities and developing habits that perpetuate rather than alleviate that stress weighing on your brain and strengthening that pressure pushing down from a place unseen. This seems to be the elemental basis for addiction, whether it be to drugs or beauty or success or anything else. They all appear born of the idea that acquisition or achievement of some formless, yet theoretically attainable, thing will take away the “bad stuff” i.e. the generalized anxiety associated with just being alive.

The catch of course is that if a little is good, then more must be better. And so we overdose. We want so desperately to relieve that near constant anxiety associated with not feeling good that we cease to even let the uncertainty enter our lives by developing habitual coping mechanisms. We get high. We apply makeup. We work to exhaustion. We check our phones incessantly, hoping for communication from a friend/acquaintance/news source/etc. We make sure the boogiemen of doubt and depression don’t creep into our minds by making sure every crevice is filled with entertainment or consumption or communication. We are constantly doing regardless of what is being done. Some may say we do these things to feel good, but it seems more likely we do them to not feel so bad. And there is a difference.

This magazine itself probably started as a way to relieve some anxieties we hadn’t wanted to face yet. Anxieties about achievement and value and creativity and success and death. The fear that we were just floating through life thoughtlessly, consuming without creating and, thus, feeling empty and unsatisfied. A looming uneasiness that we were stagnant, being pushed in directions we didn’t want to go because we were ourselves directionless. Neither of us had dreams of starting a literary magazine. This isn’t a career move or a resume builder. This isn’t about social capital or appearing intelligent to our peers. This isn’t self-worship. This is two lost people on a park bench. This is sure why not. This is screaming into the void.  This is the need to do something.

The pieces of writing included in this issue are great examples of why we chose literature as our something rather than another medium. They make us feel connected to the authors, the world around us, and ourselves. They are nuanced and subtle yet moving, just as the more vivid parts of life often are. They relieve some of our own existential anxieties by giving us proof that people are finding ways to live despite the ever-present pressures. They inspire us to try and do the same.

Above all, they make us feel human and unalone. We hope they do the same for you.

Kathy Klimentowski/Nick Rossi
Chicago/Nashville, October 2015″

Sobotka Issue 3 Editors' Note