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Trapped Inside the Alternate Reality of Ray Nelson's Kitchen

11/22/2013 02:53 pm ET | Updated Jan 25, 2014

I recently ran across a box of my old short stories. I wrote them so long ago I have no recollection of having written them. So it's kind of like reading something another person made up. And I guess, looked at one way, I was another person.

My significant other said, "These are good, you should publish them."

I mean, sure, I guess, but how does someone do something like that? To me it's kind of like taking a trip to outer space... sounds exciting, but how do you get there?

I figured Google might know, but sadly, it had no answers. So I turned to God instead, checking my local Unitarian Church's website. They did have an answer for me. A group called Writing for Publication. It said nothing else about the group, but I figured since writing was what I had, and publication was what I wanted, the name was right if nothing else.

The group was held in someone's private home. When I knocked on the door, an older gentleman answered, introduced himself, and let me in.

It was a nondescript house in the Bay Area and besides this teacher there was one other student who read pages and pages from his novel sitting around the teacher's kitchen table.

This Reader didn't seem particularly interested in us being interested in his story. He also wasn't particularly interested in getting the feedback the teacher would break in to give him.

The only thing he was interested in was reading. It was fascinating actually. Since the story was incomprehensible, I couldn't focus on that. So the focus of my attention became trying to figure out what psychological force was driving the Reader to read.

He had all the voices of the different characters going. It was like he was performing a one-man show, but it was just too sad for him to perform it alone. So there we were, the teacher and I, bearing witness to this guy's alternate reality.

The story was set in space, but as near as I can tell, the characters did finally make it over to Planet Earth. (Hard to say, it was rambling, think Star Trek meets Curb Your Enthusiasm but without the humor.)

I thought, wow, there's a distinct possibility this story might never end. The teacher had already tried to break in several times, but the guy was unstoppable. In fact, my imagination started working overtime, like maybe we were all stuck there together in a kitchen in some strange universe from which there was no exit.

I jotted down an excerpt from the story. It went like this: "I was a strong swimmer as a child, 500 years ago, but that was in warmer and friendlier seas."

Finally the teacher cut in. "Okay, I'll stop you here."

"But I have another chapter," the Reader pleaded. "Can I just read one more chapter?"

"No, because we have a new person here tonight. So let me give you some feedback."

The teacher said, "You need to put your characters in more trouble. Also, it's not clear to me if your spaceship can talk."

Yeah, I thought, that was super unclear to me too. Can his spaceship talk? And as I was pondering this important question, the teacher turned to me.

"So... tell us about yourself."

"Oh I... I ran across a box of short stories, so I thought I'd try to work on them."

It wasn't a response destined to elicit much enthusiasm, but it was the best I could do after being hammered by that grueling reading.

The teacher said, "You need to write the book you want to read. What do you really love?" he asked.

"Uh," I choked again. How do you answer questions like that? Chocolate. My mother.

"This is the same question I asked Anne Rice many years ago," my teacher said. "She was teaching at San Francisco State and she was trying to write some serious academic book. 'Well, what do you love?' I asked her."

Here my teacher paused for dramatic effect. "And she told me, :To be honest I just really love stories about vampires.' 'Well write those!' I said to her. And that's how it all started. In fact she was sitting in that very chair you're sitting in now!"

Now, I'm a skeptic by nature, so I didn't believe Anne Rice had known him, let alone sat in my chair, but it was an interesting yarn nonetheless.

"So what will be your topic? What will be your style?"

"Well, my style is kind of hyperrealism, so real it's fake."

"Sounds difficult, sounds very, very difficult to publish something like that. What you need to do is put your characters in trouble. Start them out in trouble from the very beginning. A death even."

The night ended, I made my way home and went straight to Google for some answers. Turns out my teacher, whose name is Ray Nelson, had known Anne Rice, at least according to Wikipedia. He has also collaborated with Philip K. Dick, the famed sci-fi writer who wrote the book that the movie Blade Runner was based on.

Not only that, but according to both my teacher and Wikipedia, he invented the now-famed propeller beanie the new googlers (Nooglers) have to wear. I'll have to interview my new teacher about these things.

The only thing is, my new teacher's not my teacher anymore. He canceled the class because, between me and the Reader, I guess there weren't enough pupils to make it worth his while.

But even though I only attended one class, the altered reality of that kitchen altered my reality just a bit because I started writing a science fiction story. Or who knows, if I keep going through my boxes, maybe I'll stumble across one I already wrote as a child, "500 years ago, in warmer and friendlier seas."

Either way, I'm definitely gonna be putting my characters in some trouble.