Mark is out there somewhere. I don’t know where exactly, but he’s there. Maybe he’s spitting in a milkshake he’s making at Burger King, or fishing in a creek in Taipei, or sitting in despair in his basement wondering what he’s done to deserve the life he has. Maybe all of these. Regardless, he’s out there. And goddamnit, he’s a better writer than me.
Let me put this in perspective. Almost 20 years ago, at the age of 14, I knew I loved writing. It was liberating to go into my own little world and muck about, far away from the teachers and bullies and chores that pervade the life of an American adolescent. Writing provided me with little escapes, and I frolicked in them, spurred on by compliments that were elsewise held back by those I admired. And I got cocky.
A teacher told us of an assignment where the goal was simply to write a three-to-four-page short story. The best one would be showcased in an art exhibit at the county fair. At the time, the task seemed monumental (which is laughable today), but I was bound to rise to the occasion. Calling forth every crazy idea that came to mind, filter be damned, I threw together a story about a man who, after massive experimentation, had gained the ability to adapt to whatever situation he needed to escape. If he was burned, his skin would turn to steel. If he was struck, spines would grow on his body. It was random and fun and I wielded a hubris for this story that was as laughable as the challenge of the three-page story is today.
And I lost.
In the same class as me was Mark. He was thin, with pale skin, acne, a pinched voice, and black, wiry hair, a born victim of ridicule in the ridiculous atmosphere that is high school. And somehow he’d won. This wasn’t possible. I had this. I’d owned this story. Surely the teacher was mistaken or Mark had cheated or aliens had switched the papers or something. I had to find out how this had happened. So I asked him to let me see it. He was a friendly acquaintance, in spite of stealing my glory out from under my feet, so I, still confident, asked for his paper. Sonofabitch.
Ten years later I’d find out a simple rule. There are three kinds of artists in this world: those that have talent and don’t give a shit about technique, those who lack talent but care for the technique, and the Masters of Their Craft. Because talent is relative, all you can do is strive to become the latter. Otherwise, your projects are fundamentally masturbatory. It’s in our social contract that no one likes a jerkoff. Apparently, someone had told Mark this already.
His story was perfect. The scene setup was impeccable, giving incredible detail to his science fiction world, a world he’d plucked from the ether and wrought into a reality hardly discernible from our own. The dialogue was crisp, fascinating, and enlightening without a hint of smugness. The plot was strong, belying the seeming fragility of the author, with decisive action and characters that were fully round by the finish. He was a better writer than me. And I was forced to admit it.
A few months later, the wanton cruelty and criticism of high school got to him and Mark shot himself with a rifle behind the bowling alley, just a few dozen yards from the very school that spurned him. All of a sudden, yet somehow like clockwork, everyone claimed to have been his friend, like the school wasn’t finished draining the boy of what made him, what had defined him, and what sent him to pull the trigger. And, like clockwork, the impact he’d supposedly had on people eventually faded with his memory and he was lost in the nothingness he’d felt for so long.
But that’s not entirely true. It doesn’t matter what I write. It doesn’t matter if I carve every drop of marrow out of my bones and lay it in black and white for all to see. It doesn’t matter that I’ve studied so many books on writing (which is exactly as boring and tedious as it sounds). It doesn’t matter how often I publish or how many people know me for my craft. There will always be someone better. They may be tailing a perp down a back alley in Australia or losing a pie eating contest to a woman half their size or bagging my groceries, for that matter. One way or another, Mark is out there somewhere.
Featured image: Screengrab from trailer for King Kong vs Godzilla (1962) courtesy of Wikimedia Commons via public domain.