Writing Sample

by Jamie Iredell

Author’s Note: Students in the University System of Georgia must take and pass a Regents’ Exam in writing. I’ve taught a Regents’ Exam prep course, and in freshman composition I have generally been required to teach students how to pass this test. There are 635 approved essay prompts. When a student takes his Regents’ Exam, a random selection of four of these prompts shows up on the test instruction sheet. From these the student chooses one prompt.

As a writing exercise—warming up before jumping into whatever book I’m working on each day—I’ve been randomly selecting a prompt from the list of approved essay topics and writing a short essay—about the same length that an actual Georgia college student might compose when taking this test.

I don’t know if I’ll end up writing 635 essays, but this is a start. I’m calling this project “Writing Sample.”

 

DISCUSS THE INFLUENCE THAT ADVERTISING HAS HAD ON YOUR LIFE OR THE LIVES OF YOUR FRIENDS.

As a child my lunchbox was cast from tin and depicted a Confederate Flag-bedazzled Dodge leaping over the following: a police car, a Southern Belle, a fat man. Evenings I sat cross-legged before a television that spouted Dixie and Waylon Jennings. My Hot Wheels rattled across the kitchen’s linoleum, smashing into one another, though none dented.

In middle school my sister’s bedroom walls were held up by posters of the New Kids. I got an earring. My father laughed and said, “You look like a girl.” I bought a pair of British Knights and kept them white with cheap leather repair. Their tongues flopped over the cuffs of my black Levi’s. I watched that movie Colors with Sean Penn in it. I got into exactly three fights and earned a single bloodied lip.

In high school Randy turned me on to weed and Nirvana and flannel and Mountain Mike’s Pizza (all you can eat Wednesday nights, after the parking lot bowl we smoked). Just as quickly Randy turned to Too $hort and The Ghetto Boys and DJ Quick rapping about da bombud while Randy and I did the same on video, my parents’ camcorder, me in his bedroom, spitting on his new carpet.

I followed suits into college, paying my way by slinging said suits at the Men’s Wearhouse. My Givenchy, Louis Roth, Pierre Cardin, and Hugo Boss came 40% off.

I found a bar. The bar became the new job. I’ve been swilling Pabst Blue Ribbon ever since.

I don’t have cable television. I hardly drive. A billboard passes by the train’s or the bus’s windows, and my head’s in a book. I haven’t a clue who sings anything. I don tennis shoes (New Balance). Sometimes I still hum Waylon Jennings, ‘cause I’m a good timin’ man.

 

WHAT INFLUENCE SHOULD STUDENTS HAVE IN THE DETERMINATION OF COLLEGE POLICIES? EXPLAIN.

The college president offered to his students an opportunity: thou shalt vote for the proposed hike in tuition to pay for the college football team’s expansion into a Division I football program.

The students all agreed and vote went to ballot.

The tally resulted in said football program’s expansion.

Some students dropped out, unable to afford their classes, unwilling to take out more student loans, scholarshipless. The college president commiserated, however, unapologetically offering that “there are plenty of opportunities out there. This is America!”

Money funneled into the athletic director’s office. The athletic director in turn tossed money to the head football coach, who hired a new assistant, new offensive coordinator, new defensive coordinator, new offensive lineman coach, new defensive lineman coach, new defensive back coach. The head coach’s staff swelled, became a department.

The stadium, likewise, swelled to fill the teeming football fans that the college president wrung his hands over, hoping the public would worm in, eager for the smacking of shoulder pads and helmets, lips around the meat of hot dogs.

Fall came, leaves trailing behind the bumpers of cars along avenues—something television commercial-like. The college president’s desk was built of money. His cigar smoke swept out his office door. His receptionist developed asthma.

Christmastime found gifts—footballs, college football sweatshirts, t-shirts, caps—dispersed.

Tax season overtook the town, the college, the head football coach and his immense staff, the college president, the ousted and remaining college students. Everyone at a loss: not an accountant to be found in town. In fact, mathematics itself had disappeared. The populace counted in footballs, in sixes and threes, the ubiquitous point-after, the simplest digit of them all, incomprehensible, to put the two together. That, the college president declared, is a safety.

 

IF YOU COULD BE A FICTIONAL CHARACTER WHO COULD WALK OFF THE PAGE OF A BOOK, WHAT CHARACTER WOULD YOU BECOME AND WHAT WOULD YOU DO? EXPLAIN.

Sometimes I have dreams—some in the nighttime and some in the day—that I am a Marvel Comics mutant. I suppose I have these dreams—fantasies—because I was—am—a comic book dork. I’m not the kind of comic book dork that I know some comic book dorks can be. I don’t own many comic books. In fact, I can’t remember the last time I bought a comic book. I might’ve been fifteen, and rounding out my collection with the last issue of the limited series run (four comics) of Wolverine’s solo series. But I don’t think I’ll talk about being a character like Wolverine, because everyone wants to be Wolverine. They made all those movies and everything.

I suppose I would want to be someone like Iceman. I mean, he’s a pretty powerful mutant and everything—Omega Class, even. Here I tell you that I’m not a comic book dork, but I know what an Omega Class mutant is. Maybe I wouldn’t be Iceman, but instead Storm. She can control the weather, or she could when she had her powers, but she lost them. Well, she regained those powers, so in the sense that a character can be “living,” she still has them.

If I had power over weather, I’d make the days in Atlanta cooler, and not so muggy. Sometimes I’d cover the sky with a lid of fog. That’s because I’m from the Monterey Bay Area in California, and I’m not from Atlanta. I like living in Atlanta, but I miss home. The weather in Atlanta pretty much blows. You can manage a significant amount of time outside for approximately one month out of the year: two weeks in fall and two in spring. The summer’s too goddamn hot and full of humidity and mosquitoes to do anything outside. When I first moved here, just sitting around on someone’s porch, I kept a rag tucked into my back pocket that I withdrew and swiped across my brow, soaking up the sweat. Then I’d twist and drain it, like I was washing someone’s car. Last winter a snowstorm crippled the city for a week and a half. Car tires spun on the ice on Peachtree Street as I sidled past engulfed In the fur-lined jacket I bought In fucking Siberia (no joke), careful not to slip to my ass on the encrusted sidewalk.

If I was Storm everyday would be overcast, because I love those days. Gray with the lights on inside. A bowl of soup. I’ve never seen Storm eating soup, but I would do that on the overcast days I’ve created. If it was part of Storm’s power, I’d make myself a boy, and I’d make my mother young and capable of caring for me, because Lord only knows now that—Jesus, could she ever take care of an infant or a toddler? She can’t even handle her gin and tonics.

But really, I’m not that much of a comic book dork. And I suppose most Atlantans would be chagrined at such prepostorousness. I don’t know what they’d think of this in Monterey, as if that could matter, since I don’t live there anymore and, basically, you have to be wealthy to live there at all. Really, all I want is to have my mother be there, because I’m desperate for her to take care of me.

Jamie Iredell is the author of Prose. Poems. a Novel and The Book of Freaks. His writing has appeared in many publications, among them The Literary Review, Opium Magazine, and Gigantic. He was a cofounder of New South, and is fiction editor of Atticus Review. He is Art Director for C&R Press. He lives in Atlanta, and teaches writing at Savannah College of Art and Design.

If the prompt were “Discuss the influence of compression on your own writing and writing career?” what would be your answer? In the beginning were the words. Lots of them. I imitated Kerouac, Steinbeck, Hemingway, Bukowski, each a lesson. Kerouac made me paint lavish pictures, focus on sound, breath, each utterance a blowing, a la horn, like some crazed hipster dingle-dodying his way through a jazz number, dig? Steinbeck made me sentimental and nostalgic for our mutual home: California’s central coast. The people working the fields, their hands roughed from hoe and shovel, were my childhood’s parents. Like those callused hands, Hemingway and Bukowski tarnished my sentimentality, or traded it for what seemed to be a tough exterior. My sentences grew short. I didn’t care.

It had to have been poetry, maybe Shakespeare, where every utterance flits like a bird full of metaphor—some mixed. Conciseness gobbled up my excess vocab. I steamrolled both verse and prose, paved them to smoother roads, a drive towards clarity.

Then I became a teacher. I read my students making my early mistakes. They try to sound the way they think a writer ought to sound. I pummel into them the uniqueness of their voice and perspective. Keep it simple and clear, I tell them. I teach from guides like Strunk and White, or from language snoots like David Foster Wallace or William Zinser. DFW? you might say: the opposite of brevity. But brevity’s not the issue, I’d respond. The man could write a sentence. Keep it simple. Keep it clear. Let not the convoluted twists of academese tie your fingers to the keyboard, nor the doublespeak of political correctness wind your syllables into a heady roar, for the simple, concise, specific, and—yes—compressed ideas wrought through language have been and always will be that which turns the phases of nations, the hearts of the public: the clarion call of irony shining through in all things short.

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