Prolific young adult fantasy author Michael Grant wrote a short story in 1962 about moving to France

Michael Grant

Michael Grant

Michael Grant is one of the biggest authors of fantasy teen novels and children’s books around, having written over 150 books. What, you couldn’t manage 160?

He and his wife Katherine — then publishing under the J.K. Rowling-style name K.A. Applegate — co-wrote the Animorphs fantasy series, about a group of five teens who use their secret ability of transforming into animals to battle an evil invading alien life force, which was even made into a television show on Nickelodeon. (Video of the pilot episode here.)  As most kids who grew up in the ’90s like myself can attest, “Jake, Rachel, Tobias, Cassie, Marco, and Ax” ranked just behind “Harry, Ron, and Hermione” on the list of favorite ’90s fantasy book heroes.

Some of Grant’s other best known series include the Gone series featuring the books Gone, HungerLiesPlagueFear, and Light. It’s a six-part saga about a town where everybody over age 15 vanishes, and presumably the oldies radio stations start playing songs from five years before. Grant also wrote The Magnificent 12, a four-part series that can best be described by the description on the series website: “Only one thing stands between her and the destruction of the human race—a team of twelve twelve-year-olds. So humanity is basically out of luck. It’s clearly hopeless.”

But he wasn’t always penning fantasy and science fiction, as our entry today showcases. Then known as Michael Reynolds, at age seven in 1962 he wrote a short story on the typewriter. (Kids who may be reading this because they’re a fan of his, a typewriter was basically a really old-fashioned computer that couldn’t do anything except type.) Entitled “My Last Four Months,” the story chronicled the preparations for his family’s move to France, inspired by his real life living in both the U.S. and France while being raised in a military family. A picture of the original typewritten version is below in this post, followed by the story in text form.

Michael Grant, middle row, left, with glasses, in school in France

Michael Grant in France at around the time he wrote the story, fourth one in the middle row, wearing the glasses.

Grant had this to say about his original piece as well as advice for young readers who want to become writers or authors:

Interesting. Not sure my style has changed that much.

Here’s my advice for aspiring writers:  Writing is a job, and it’s work. If you don’t want to work, if you just want to call yourself a writer, do something else.  This is a job for people who work at it.  That said, if you have talent, and if you acquire the basic skills, and if you’re willing to work hard, and if you’ll also learn about the business, and if you will stand back up every time you get knocked down, you can succeed in writing.  And then?  Best job on earth, people. I work three or four hours a day, sitting in a bathrobe on my deck, and I make more than the President of the United States.  I know: it’s insane!  But first came the hard stuff.  Don’t forget all that.

Follow him on Twitter @MichaelGrantBks, like him on Facebook at TheRealMichaelGrant, and check out his website with the “The Donald” style name TheMichaelGrant.com. Now for the story:

Michael Grant - My Last Four Months - 3.3.1962

completely original excepting last 2 words.

the author’s second work

March 3, 1962

MY LAST FOUR MONTHS

One day, on the way home from school my mom told me that she got fired. But she seemed perfectly calm and happy, for only one reason: because she was happy. Because a drunkard, her boss, had fired her.

Me, half scared out of my wits, started thinking of all kinds of weird things to get money. The next morning I got a letter from my dad who had been stationed in France. We always thought that the Army was going to send money to go over to France, but in the letter it said that we were going to have to do it on our own because there was a ban that no dependents could go overseas until they paid for it with their own money. This just added up to more trouble. No job, no money. No money, no trip.

So, this put us in quite a spot. The first place we went to was our Grandma’s to try to borrow some money from them. They said they’d give us as much money as we needed, but that we’d have to pay it back when we got back to the States.

Now, we got the money, but there was still something else that we had to do. And that thing was the passports. So, one day I had to tell my teacher I would be out until about 12 noon. So, we went to the passport station and got a passport. Ten days later we received the passport. But when I saw the passport it didn’t look like it was worth 850 dollars. The cover wasn’t even genuine leather.

Now there was one more thing I had to do. Shots! So next day we went to the health center and I hated shots. When we got in my mom had to give me a good tranquilizer pill. But then we found out that the health center couldn’t give us those shots. And besides, my shots already covered enough time so it was a big waste of time.

Then I went over to my Grandma Marcus’s. As soon as I got over there I went straight to Channel 2 on the television. I came in on this war picture, but of course, there came a time when my mom had to drag me away from the television and into the car.

Then came my last day at school. At the end of school they gave me a book and a good-bye party.

And then, we had another goodbye party. That day just happened to be the day that I wrote this story. We had everything you could think of eating.

This looks like the end of this book because this is the first and last day of me writing this book. The only thing else that I can tell you is that we’re going on the plane in two more days. This is going to be the end of this book because there’s no more to tell. Bon Voyage!

Michael Reynolds

Pulitzer Prize winner and Washington Post columnist Gene Weingarten wrote a haiku about life in eighth grade English class

In honor of Gene Weingarten's haiku in today's post, here's a haiku for this photo caption: Gene Weingarten sits Staring contemplatively At the camera

In honor of Gene Weingarten’s haiku in today’s post, here’s a haiku for this photo caption:
Gene Weingarten sits
Doing his best impression
Of Rollie Fingers

If you’ve only won one Pulitzer Prize in your life, you might want to skip this post because it may hurt your ego.

Gene Weingarten is the winner of two Pulitzer Prizes for his work at the Washington Post, where he now writes the weekly humor column “Below the Beltway.” Recipient of the National Society of Newspaper Columnists 2013 Lifetime Achievement Award, Weingarten is one of America’s most acclaimed columnists of the past few decades. His book “Fiddler in the Subway” compiles his best writings through the decades… and is, quite simply, one of the best books I’ve ever read. Five of his best include:

  • “The Great Zucchini,” a profile of DC’s most popular children’s magician who hides a dark and secret past.
  • “None of the Above,” a profile of Ted Pruz, a normal guy and swing-state undecided voter chosen at random in the weeks before the 2004 election, a piece which ends up revealing great insights into the voters who decide the leader of the free world.
  • “Fatal Distraction,” a sobering look at loving and well-meaning parents who accidentally leave their children in locked cars with the windows closed. One of the saddest articles ever, but should be required reading for all new parents.
  • “The Armpit of America,” where Weingarten spends a week or so living in Battle Mountain, Nevada, which had been named as “the worst town in America.”
  • “Pearls Before Breakfast,” a 2007 article in which Weingarten set up a social experiment. World-renowned classical violinist Joshua Bell played anonymously as a street performer in a Washington D.C. metro station to see whether people would pay attention when he was not in prestigious concert halls and everybody was hurriedly on their way to work. My favorite excerpt:
    • “There was no ethnic or demographic pattern to distinguish the people who stayed to watch Bell, or the ones who gave money, from that vast majority who hurried on past, unheeding. Whites, blacks and Asians, young and old, men and women, were represented in all three groups. But the behavior of one demographic remained absolutely consistent. Every single time a child walked past, he or she tried to stop and watch. And every single time, a parent scooted the kid away.”

Weingarten is currently at work on his next book, all about the date December 28, 1986. What happened on that day, you ask? Nothing in particular — he selected the month, day, and year from random out of a hat. His author page can be found here and followed him on Twitter @GeneWeingarten.

Now here is his submission, featuring an early piece of his which is not only the shortest one the website has published so far, but also the shortest likely to be published even if this website continues for decades! Gene will take it from here:

When I was in eighth grade English class, the teacher introduced us to haiku.  I suspect that all eighth graders are introduced to haiku: It is easy to understand, and deceptively simple to do.  (It is hard to do with skill, but that is irrelevant, in eighth grade.)

We were assigned to write one overnight and bring it in the next day, to be graded.

I spent some time on this.  I was a morbid little guy.   What I came up with was:

As death draws nearer

Like an eagle hunting prey

Life becomes dearer.

I was pretty proud of this poem.   I guarantee you it kicked the crap out of all the other kids’ poems.   The teacher graded me harshly, and held it up as an example of what not to do.  Why?  Because I had rhymed it.   Haiku is not supposed to rhyme.

To this day, I hate haiku, and all un-rhymed poetry, and fucking rules.

The Atlantic writer Derek Thompson’s college article comparing the Middle East to a college bar scene

Derek Thompson photo

Derek Thompson is one of the top writers for The Atlantic magazine and website, where over the past few years he has become perhaps one of the most entertaining yet incisively thoughtful commentators analyzing current events. Currently a senior editor writing his first book to be published in 2017 on the science of pop culture hits, some of his most popular articles include:

  • The print magazine’s July cover story A World Without Work, about the possibility that increased mechanization and automation could produce a future where there are few occupations that humans could do better.
  • The Secret Life of Grief,  an emotionally powerful piece shortly after the untimely early death of his mother from cancer, a half-personal half-academic article on what psychology research reveals about the grieving process and how much it did (or didn’t) apply to Thompson’s personal case. “I cried often, but privately, in the stairway at work, on the train behind a pair of sunglasses, and in my apartment, indulging a memory behind a locked door.”
  • On Repeat: Why People Watch Movies and Shows Over and Over, which features perhaps my personal favorite example of Thompson’s writing: the two paragraphs about youthful nostalgia beginning with “A year ago, at my college reunion…”
  • The Greatest Good, about which charities and non-profit organizations are the best to donate to. Worth reading all 4700+ words, but the one sentence summary is that Thompson estimates the best charity (combining bang for the buck with worthiness of their mission) as being the Against Malaria Foundation.
Derek Thompson looking suspiciously at his enemies. Oh yes, "CBS This Morning," he knows what you're up to.

Derek Thompson looking suspiciously at his enemies. Oh yes, “CBS This Morning,” he knows what you’re up to.

For his A Step In The Write Direction selection, Thompson at age 29 provides our first writer young enough that their “long time ago” writing sample was still during the Internet age. I’ll let him explain in his own words the backstory behind his November 2007 article, after which the article is posted. You can read in its original form on the website North By Northwestern by clicking the title or else by reading the text pasted below that:

I chose this essay from my college website because it’s sort of the best representation of my voice. When I read it, I can hear myself. That probably sounds conceited. But I think developing a strong sense of perspective in writing is one of the hardest and most important things for writers — particularly online writers today — to do. One of the challenges of digital media is that writing about current affairs on the Internet is one of the most competitive industries ever. There are literally hundreds of millions of people around the world with access to most of the information that you have, and yet you have to say something new and distinct. Information is a commodity. What’s scarce is personality and the perspective that comes from your experience, your voice, your chair. And my favorite writers are those with clear voices that don’t use style to obviate substance.
I was a politics and international affairs writer at Northwestern. In my senior year, I left the newspaper and started writing for a new website called North By Northwestern. My editor pushed me to be interesting and weird. This was in late 2007, and the Middle East was in chaos (unfortunately, this is a timeless clause). I wanted to find a weird metaphor to explain the region. So I picked The Keg, a famously terrible dive bar in Evanston, and built an extended metaphor about the Middle East as the bar — with Iraq as a young coed with a weak “constitution,” Saudi Arabia as the bouncer, Iran as the BMOC quietly ruining Iraq’s night, and so on. It was ludicrous, glib, occasionally smart, and loaded with way too much figurative language. In other words, at 21, I was way too proud of it.

Just when you thought the Middle East couldn’t get any more confusing, you open a newspaper. The White House is talking showdown with Iran, Gen. Pervez Musharraf declared martial law in Pakistan and Turkey has considered invading northern Iraq just as Iraqi civilian deaths started falling. You could be excused for asking what the hell is going on.

So here is your one-stop explanation of Middle Eastern geopolitics. All politics is local, and the politics of the Middle East is even more local than you might expect. Skip your Middle East history lecture and take a closer look at The Keg, on Sherman and Grove. Maybe it’s the liquid resources, but Middle Eastern politics bares a striking resemblance to bar politics, with a few exceptions: angry dancers lob missiles instead of punches; the taps lead to oil instead of alcohol; and the carbombs are real.

Boys and girls: Welcome to The Powder Keg.

Let’s begin with Iraq, since it’s the hub around which our Middle East policy whirls. Iraq is the girl you saw from afar and thought, “This is so easy, I’d be crazy not to do it.” You throw a bunch of drinks at her, such as Fire and Ice, B52s and more than a few carbombs—although she had a few before you arrived. But before you can even try out your new pick up line (“So I hear you like bath parties?”), she’s toppled.

Now you’re in for the close-up, and you realize this couldn’t have been a worse idea. Not only does this girl have more domestic issues than a Democratic Candidate Forum, but also after repeated trips to the restroom to check on her, you can hear your money being flushed away. You once had historic visions for this hook-up, but you’ll settle for any kind of exit to keep your dignity. It’s probably your fault for messing her up so bad, but you go ahead and blame it on her weak constitution, anyway.

You’ve also probably heard about Iran, Iraq’s long-time adversary who is allegedly building nuclear technology and sending troops into Iraq to stir up civil war. We all know Iran — he’s that twit hitting on the girl you’ve already targeted. While Iraq’s teetering around the bar, Iran is still supplying bottomless drinks with a fat wallet. He doesn’t outright declare his intentions to make this a war over a girl, but since he and Iraq share a long history, he knows how to manipulate her. In fact, you and Iran have been enemies for a long time.* The bottom line is that he hates you, and you still think he’s a coy meany.

*You once played an awful trick on Iran when you convinced your friend to date him just so she could pilfer alcohol from his room and bring it back to yours. He returned the favor by stealing your M Bass guitar and keeping it hostage for a few weeks, which blew up your Sha Na Na cover band. I could go on, but the history of drama is pretty complex.

Pakistan is a military dictatorship that denies civil liberties, houses terrorists, bleeds nuclear secrets and cancels elections. Why are you friends, again? Because Pakistan is the bartender of the Powder Keg. Of course he’s a jerk — you’d be testy too if you had his job — but he’s a jerk you need. With one hand on the Jagermeister machine and another on the beer tap, he’ll provide the assistance you need, but at a price. He overcharges and makes his own bar rules, but what else are you going to do — reach across the counter and take things into your own hands? You need him, so you don’t provoke him. Oh, and if he sees you in cashmere, he’ll kick your ass.

Turkey is an odd bird—a secular constitutional republic bordering Iraq with a history of good relations with the United States. That means Turkey is Iraq’s less attractive, but more level-headed, roommate. Since you’re old friends, you initially wanted to get to Iraq through Turkey. But to your surprise, she said no (don’t good roommates allow this kind of thing?). Since then, you’ve strained your relationship with a series of petty and not-so-petty fights with Turkey. She’s mad you tried to use her to get to Iraq; she’s pissed at Iraq for not respecting her private space; and she’s going through some inner turmoil.

And there’s Israel, your precocious freshman brother. You bought him a fake ID so he could go to bars with you, but the regulars don’t think he belongs. Sometimes, Israel does things that really piss you off, and you wonder if bar life would be easier without him. But you stand up for him, because you come from the same family and share similar values. You have to admit that he’s pretty advanced for his age. But he’s got an uncanny ability to piss off every person he meets at the bar. Most of them outwardly hate him. Others pretend they don’t recognize him.

Finally, you can’t talk about The Powder Keg without talking about Saudi Arabia. Like Pakistan, Saudi Arabia is our friend by necessity; not by choice. Despite housing the world’s most dangerous terrorist cells, the Saudis are the gatekeepers of the oil reserves we need. In short, they are the bouncers of the Keg. You tell people that you’re friends with the bouncer, but let’s be honest, you don’t want to know what he does in his personal time. He’s a jackass most of the time, he’s easily bought off, and lately he’s been letting in some truly shady individuals. But the bars have the precious liquid you need, and what else are you going to do? Supply your own? Don’t be ridiculous. With nothing but Busch in the fridge back home, we will rely on The Powder Keg for a long time.


You can follow Derek Thompson on Twitter along with his other 30 thousand+ followers at @DKThomp, on Facebook at DKThomp86, or find his archive of articles for The Atlantic here.

Tonight Show writer Michael Jann’s first humor column: “Dear Uncle Bart”

Michael Jann with Jay Leno

Michael Jann was a 22-year comedy monologue writer for The Tonight Show with Jay Leno and Emmy-nominated writer for Jimmy Fallon. Writing from 1992 through the show’s finale in 2014, Jann wrote more than a hundred thousand jokes, of which Leno told more than ten thousand. (Seriously.) As part of Fallon’s monologue team, he was nominated for Outstanding Writing for a Variety Series at last year’s Emmy Awards, though Jann and the show lost to The Colbert Report.

Recently he has also begun writing comedy film screenplays with his girlfriend and screenwriting partner Michele Jourdan. Two of his scripts — Laughing Stock, about a down-on-his-luck comedy writer who takes an exotic vacation, and Cathouse, about a software salesman who gets more than he bargained for when taking his virgin stepson to a legal Nevada brothel – are both currently being considered by major Hollywood studios.

Michael Jann at 22, about the same age he was when he wrote his first humor column.

Michael Jann at 22, about the same age he was when he wrote his first humor column.

But even the biggest names have to start somewhere. Jann’s first-ever entry into humor writing came in 1979 during his junior year at University of Connecticut, when he wrote a column for UConn’s humor newspaper The Forum of intentionally bad advice called Dear Uncle Bart. Jann writes of that early experience:

Long before I became a Tonight Show writer, I was a wildlife biology major at UConn during what felt like a golden era of comedy: Animal House was in the theaters, Woody Allen was in his prime, SNL had just launched — and I wanted in. I was too shy to be a performer (and probably not funny enough). But I loved to write, and I had a good idea: a fake advice column for the school paper in which I’d write fake heartfelt letters from students, and answer them myself with the worst advice imaginable. (It was also a way to flirt with girls — the name on the very first fake letter, “Donna”, was a girl in the next dorm I was in love with.) The column was an instant hit on campus; I was ecstatic. And I vividly recall my seminal moment: bounding up the steps of the Student Union one late fall afternoon, clutching my latest batch of “Uncle Bart.” I stopped at the top step, and realized: “I’m running here for no pay, and for no grade — and I’m SO happy! I want to do this for a living!” 100,000 Jay Leno / Jimmy Fallon monologue jokes later, I look back at this first effort, and I think it holds up pretty well! But what’s interesting to me is I can see clearly my career-long style of comedy writing: My method has always been to state something that’s not true, and pretend that it is, and keep a straight face. (“Childhood obesity is getting worse. I saw a kid in the park today crying that his hula-hoop was too tight.”) Today, my favorite comedy is “The Onion”, whose writers do exactly that…

Below is a PDF scanned copy of the column as it appeared in the print version, which you can read by clicking on the title below, or below that you can read the text itself:

Michael Jann 1979 humor column – Dear Uncle Bart

The Forum

April 2, 1979

 

Dear Uncle Bart

 Dear Uncle Bart:

I’m so upset! Somebody stole my typewriter from my room. I just don’t understand how anyone could do such a thing. It’s not very valuable, and it’s sort of broken. Whenever you push the “t” button you get a capital “T” instead. But it doesn’t bother me at all, because of sentimental reasons. My grandfather (God rest his soul) gave it to me, and my grandmother gets a big kick out of reading the letters that I send her, big “T”s and all. It’s such a shame that some creep had to steal it. Whoever you are out there, I hope you feel guilty right now, you stinking lousy piece of garbage! Thank you for printing this letter, Uncle Bart.

Donna Whitbeck

A.   Any time, kiddo. You’ve said iT all. IT’s a sad world we live in when privaTe properTy isn’T respecTed.

Dear Uncle Bart:

I heard something I can’t believe. Maybe you can clear this up. Last month, after the UConn basketball team beat Harvard, did Harvard protest the game? I heard that in the locker room after the game the Harvard team typed up an eight page protest in which they quoted Descarte! What gives, Uncle Bart?

Mark Cattalina

A.   It’s no joke, Mark. It’s Ivy League basketball at its best. I spoke with regional director of the referees, and learned that Harvard almost won the appeal. Their contention was that “we don’t exist, how can we be sure we lost the game?”

But several UConn players were quick to shoot down that argument by gesturing about their shorts, and insisting that the Harvard players “Descarte this!”

 

Dear Uncle Bart:

I’m a 6th semester student here at UConn, and I’ve had about all I can take. The whole education process here is warped! The emphasis should be on learning and practical application, but all these teachers seem to care about is picky little details. I think there must be a better way to gauge what we learn than by forcing us to answer those multiple-multiple choice questions on the pickiest little things. Before I go crazy, Uncle Bart, I have one question: Why are the teachers here so damn picky, and will things ever change?

Russ Stratton

A.   That’s two questions. You said one question. Work on it.

Dear Uncle Bart:

My husband and I need your help. We have two children, a boy 11, and a girl 9. They are impossible to control, they fight and scream all day long, and even when they’re getting along they drive us crazy. My husband doesn’t like to come home right after work anymore. I’ve been so irritable, I need 3 or 4 drinks before dinner. It’s affecting our marriage, Uncle Bart, do you have any solutions? Even a suggestion? Even when we go out there’s a problem – it’s almost impossible to find a sitter for such brats. How can I control them?

Desperate

A.   Your troubles are over. Send now for “Uncle Bart’s Embalming at Home Kit.” It’s fast, it’s easy, and it works! Keep the little rascals still for as long as you want. Remember, embalming never killed anyone. Send $19.95 to C.D.C. c/o Uncle Bart, and if you order now, I will also send you, absolutely free, a “Sew Their Lips Kit.” Kids… who needs ‘em?

Dear Uncle Bart:

I need help. My roommate has a cat, and kittens (real cute!), but sometimes when I get really mad at my roommate I put the kittens in the freezer for hours. I know it’s wrong to take it out on the kittens, and I’m trying to stop. I’ve got to stop this because it’s wrong, and if I ever get caught I’ll be put away for… Oh no! Don’t print this letter or I’ll be found out! I’ll stop, I swear, just don’t print this letter! Please!

Begging You in Buckley

A.    I hope the proper authorities read this, and put you out of business for good.

Dear Uncle Bart:

We have a problem. My wife Jane invested $2,500 in a full-service commercial bank at 6% interest compounded daily, and she also invested $4,000 in mutual funds that are increasing in value at the same rate as inflation. She is worried because the in-laws (my folks) are coming to dinner tonight and my dad always tries to convince us to put all our money in a savings and loan association at 8% interest compounded monthly. Should she call him “Dad” or “Tom,” and should we take his advice?

just wondering

A.   You vermin! So now you’re trying to get me to do your Accounting 131 homework! You think you can fool me just by dressing it up with a few in-laws? Do it yourself you sponge, and while you’re at it, grow up!

Dear Uncle Bart:

I need your help. My new roommate has got to be the biggest loser on campus, and I’m stuck with him. He smells. And he sneezes all the time, and he vocalizes them like this: Aaachooweeee. He’s a slob too, and he has war pictures on the wall. War pictures! Whenever I have a girl in the room he won’t leave, he just sits there and tries to tell us about the Blitzkrieg. How can I get him out of here for good? Would Student Affairs be able to help?

Hateful in Hilltop

A.    O.K. Hateful, you’ve got a good case for Student Affairs, but first you’re going to do some digging. Get some dirt from this guy’s past. Was he ever a child molester or a math major? Call up his folks, they might want to help. They might want to put their little Lord Fauntleroy out of business for good. I know mine would.

Dear Uncle Bart:

I’m a 6th semester student, and the father of four. What are contraceptives?

Dante Gallucci

A.   Contraceptives are small devices that may insure your academic career. They aren’t hard to come by, but they can be expensive.

Bestselling author AJ Jacobs’s short story at age 10 “The Gerbil Caper”

 AJ Jacobs picture from LinkedIn

AJ Jacobs is a New York Times bestselling author and editor at large for Esquire Magazine, but perhaps a more accurate job description would be that he does whatever the heck he wants and writes about it for millions of readers. Most known for his “stunt journalism,” his most notable experiences have included:

His next book slated for 2016 publication is called It’s All Relative about his attempt to construct the world’s largest family tree. Using an online tool called WikiTree, over the last several years he’s proven familial connections to more than 7.1 million people. (Including me — AJ and I are 29 degrees of separation apart, through a common ancestor born 1605 in Norway named Anneke Jans. Seriously.)

AJ has graciously agreed to provide the first-ever contribution to A Step In The Write Direction, with a short story he wrote at age 10 titled The Gerbil Caper.  The tale centers on an engineer assigned to design a super fast engine for the world famous auto racer AJ Destroyer. Despite the project’s three billion dollar budget, the engineer Charles Goodham comes up with a better idea: using his daughter’s pet gerbils to run fast inside the car’s wheels. But will it work?

Here is what AJ wrote about his story from back then:

When I found this story in my mom’s attic a year ago, it was a surprise. I had no memory of writing it. I had no memory of the plot, in which race car driver puts super-strong gerbils inside his car tires, and the gerbils run so fast he wins the big race.

Reading it made me wish I could go back and give the 10-year-old A.J. some feedback. For instance: Your story sucks ass.

I’d probably be a little more nuanced with my younger self. Let’s start with the good news.

  • The penmanship is awesome. I wish I could write that neatly now.
  • The story has a lot of dialogue, which keeps it moving at a nice pace.
  • The bulleted list in the middle is a nice touch. Always good to break up the format, I think. (As you can see, I still enjoy the bulleted list.)
  • There’s some good dramatic tension as we wait to see if the gerbil car will be ready in time for the race.

The not-as-good news:

  • The first line is about the weather “It was a gloomy day,” which is never a good strategy, as the Bulwer-Lytton Fiction contest shows us every year. You lost me right there.
  • The prose gets quite purple. “The alarm clock ticket in its usual menacing way.” (And even then, did alarm clocks still tick? I think I had a digital alarm clock.)
  • The main character Mr. Goodham is kind of a dick. He yells at his daughter, he repeatedly calls his partner “stupid.” He shows a stubborn lack of emotional growth. He learns no lessons. He’s a dick start to finish. The race car driver is also a jerk – he wins by intentionally causing his opponents to crash into each other.
  • The character names are a little on the nose. A.J. Destroyer. Dave Rubbish.
  • There is no discussion of the profound consequences of discovering super-strong gerbils. This is a massive breakthrough. Why doesn’t it occur to Goodham to bring it to the attention of scientists and the NIH? Maybe develop drugs to stop muscular deterioration and slow down aging. Instead, just wants to win his little car race.

But again, nice work with the handwriting. You should have kept that up.

Below is a PDF scanned version of AJ’s original handwritten story from 1978, which you can read by clicking on the title below, or below that you can read the text:

 

The Gerbil Caper

A.J. Jacobs

Oct. 30, 1978

            It was a gloomy day, Charles Goodham was walking home after failing to invent a superfast motor. The world-famous auto racer, A.J. Destroyer, has asked the Brile Motor company to make him a race car. In exchange he agreed to give the company 3 billion dollars. Charles Goodham has been assigned to design a motor within a week of the race; Tomorrow it would be 8 days till the race.

He reached his house and entered, he was soon in bed, tired. But he couldn’t get to sleep. The alarm clock ticked in its usual menacing way. Time went by quickly. Still Mr. Goodham couldn’t get to sleep. His thoughts were on the motor when a crash sounded in Jenny’s (his daughter’s) room. Mr. Goodham jerked up as Jenny half flew, half ran to her father.

“Th- th- the ger-ge- I- I- I-, th- they–”

“I can’t understand a word you are saying!” said Mr. Goodham impatiently, for it was 3:00 A.M.

Jenny paused for a minute, “Y- you know th- the gerbils I got today at- at that tiny little shop owned by that crazy little man?”

“Yes, go on,” said Mr. Goodham in a dull tone.

“Well, they just broke through the wall of the cage, and then they picked up my bookshelf and threw it across the room. They are weird! My gerbils are superstrong!”

The next morning Mr. Goodham was arguing with his boss, “But I tell you boss, my daughter has superstrong gerbils!”

“So, what of it,” yelled his boss.

“Well, maybe we could think of something to use them for. They are kind of an important discovery,” said Mr. Goodham timidly.

“Do you want your million dollar raise,” asked his boss in a menacing tone.

“Yes,” was the small reply.

“Then get to work! And invent a superfast motor for Mr. Destroyer!!” he actually screamed. “You’re already late and after that you can fool around with hamsters.”

“No, gerbils,” said Mr. Goodham.

Shut up!!” Mr. Goodham’s boss was obviously very nervous about the race and about the fact that the motor wasn’t built yet.

The days went by quickly. Mr. Goodham had not made the motor yet and his boss was threatening to fire him.

“You’ve got yourself in big trouble, Goodham,” it was Mr. Goodham’s partner, Dave Rubbish. Mr. Goodham called him ‘Stupid.’

“Be quiet,” said Mr. Goodham. He glanced into the corner of the room. A mouse scurried into the hole. “Oh, God! I forgot all about the gerbils. Lucky that mouse reminded me… Now, what can I do with gerbils that are superstrong? Hmmmm.” Mr. Goodham was dissolved in thought.

Dave Rubbish broke in, “The only thing that gerbils do is eat, and run in a little exercise wheel and make it go around. Anyway, why are we talking about ger–”

“That’s it! That’s it! Run, wheel, make it go, wow! You’re a genius, Rubbish! Stupid Rubbish is a real genius!”

“Huh, wha–”

“Listen, Stupid. You said that gerbils run in wheels and make them go. So we put gerbils in the wheels of a car and make the car go!”

“But, Mr. Goodham, gerbils aren’t big enough to make a car go!” ‘Stupid’ seemed almost proud of his observation.

“Look, I’ve got that all figured out. My daughter’s got superstrong gerbils, so they can run in the wheel and make the race car move at 120 m.p.h.!”

“Wow, neato, cool!”

“Shut up, and go tell Steve the manufacturer to make a car like this.” Mr. Goodham made a list:

 

  1. Light frame
  2. Hollow wheels so my daughter’s superstrong gerbils can run inside
  3. Button which gives food to the gerbils so Mr. Destroyer doesn’t have to make pit stops to feed them.
  4. Steering wheel
  5. Brakes
  6. No engine. Not needed because the gerbils make the car go. ‘Stupid’ ran out forgetting the list.

 

He was back in 30 seconds. “Where’s the list! Where’s the list!” Mr. Goodham handed him the list and ‘Stupid’ was off again.

When he was back Mr. Goodham questioned him, “How long did Steve say it would take him to make the car?”

“Soon,” answered ‘Stupid.’

“How soon?”

“Very soon.”

“What day?!” Mr. Goodham yelled.

“I think he said something about Sunday, at noon,” answered ‘Stupid.’

“Oh, no! The race starts at 11:45!” cried Mr. Goodham as he dialed Steve’s phone number. “Hello, Steve. This is Mr. Goodham. I just wanted to make sure you couldn’t get the car in by 11:45 on Sunday.”

“I get it in as soon as I can,” replied Steve and hung up. Never was a talkative guy, thought Mr. Goodham.

It was soon Sunday morning. Everyone was excited. Banners were up everywhere.

Mr. Destoryer and a man in a suit were walking towards Mr. Goodham and his boss.

“Hello,” said Mr. Destoryer, “this is Mr. Willow, my lawyer.”

“Now, Mr. Destroyer,” explained Mr. Goodham. “The car is a real winner!”

“How does it run?” asked Destroyer.

“Superstrong gerbils run inside the wheel. No pit stops needed. Just press a button and that gives them food!” exclaimed Mr. Goodham.

“Mr. Willow,” asked Mr. Destroyer, “give them the details.”

The lawyer started up, “Well, first of all if Mr. Destroyer gets the car after the race has started and he has that your car company will be sued 10 million dollars. Also if–”

“Now, now,” interrupted Mr. Goodham’s boss. “I know that if Goodham says this car is good, it’s good. Right, Goodham,” he said allowing Mr. Goodham.

“And now,” the announcer started and everyone fell silent, “before the race begins, I’d like to introduce to you the contestants…. Al Munster who drives a red Porsche. Fred Schirk who drives the lavender Pontiac. Mortimer Lazi, who drives the…”

“Get me my car and I’ll be happy!” yelled A.J. Destroyer.

“It’s gonna come,” assured Mr. Goodham.

“And to begin the race we have Robert Pumpkin singing our national anthem.” Robert Pumpkin was on the fourth line when there was a flash and some smoke rose from one of the cars. “It seems we have had some difficulty with Mortimer Lazi’s motor and he will not be able to race,” said the announcer.

“Hey, I wasn’t finished!” yelled Robert Pumpkin and he continued.

“And 10 seconds till the race. 9… 8… 7… 6… 5… 4… 3… 2… 1… and they’re off!” yelled the announcer. The cars zoomed by.

“Where’s my car!” yelled A.J. Destroyer.

“Where’s his car?” repeated his lawyer.

“It’s coming!” yelled Mr. Goodham’s boss. The cars zoomed around again. 5 minutes passed by when finally a short car pulled up alongside them.

“Is this it?” asked A.J. Destroyer.

“Yip,” answered Mr. Goodham. “Remember, no pit stops needed. Just press this button every 50 laps.”

A.J. started up. He was way behind every other car. The car in first place was trying to lap him. Luckily A.J. was a good driver. He wouldn’t let him by. This made the first place driver very tense. The first place driver put on a burst of speed and crashed against A.J.’s rear. This didn’t bother A.J. for he didn’t have a motor to blow up.

On about the 50th lap the first car still hadn’t lapped him. Then the second place driver started to gain on the first place driver who was still trying to lap A.J. A.J. made a short stop. The second place car skidded and crashed into the first place car. They both got out and shook their fists at A.J. A.J. pushed the button that fed the gerbils and took off. All of the cars were running low on gas and made a pit stop. This was when A.J. took the lead.

It was the final stretch. A.J. was in the lead. He had no worries because he had an easy win. A fan jumped out on the track. A.J. screeched out of the way and skidded over the finish line. The gerbils had won for A.J. and Mr. Goodham would get a million dollar raise!


AJ and his wife Julie have three sons, 11-year-old Jasper and twin 9-year-olds Lucas and Zane. You can find more AJ at his official website AJJacobs.com, on Facebook with over 165 thousand followers at AJJacobs, and on Twitter at @AJJacobs.