John Bennion writes novels, essays, and short fiction about the western Utah desert and the people who inhabit that forbidding country. He has published a collection of short fiction, Breeding Leah and other Stories (Signature Books, 1991), and a novel, Falling Toward Heaven (Signature Books, 2000). He has published short work in Ascent, AWP Chronicle, English Journal, Utah Holiday, Journal of Experiential Education, Sunstone Magazine, Best of the West II, Black American Literature Forum, Journal of Mormon History, and others. He has written two contemporary young adult novels, Born of Ashes and Snake in Eden. An associate professor at Brigham Young University, Bennion teaches creative writing and the British novel. He has made a special study of the late Victorian and Modern writer, Thomas Hardy. As a teacher, he specializes in experiential writing and literature programs, including Wilderness Writing, a class in which students backpack and then write personal narratives about their experiences; and England and Literature, a study abroad program during which students study Romantic and Victorian writers and hike through the landscapes where those writers lived. (BYU Faculty Profile)
John Bennion is also the guy who set me up with creative writing. I’ve taken three classes from him and am always blown away by his insights, his compassion, and his patience. He is an amazing writer and an amazing person.
I want to write about nothing.
I am tired of subjects and issues, of serious writing that has important, adult purpose. And I sure don’t want to write about my New Year’s resolutions, no matter how frowny and brow-knitted Carol gets. So writing nothing will be like soaking in a hot bath and letting my mind go wherever it wants. Free reign, no strings attached. Sometimes when I don’t plan, something surprising comes up. Like the time I set out to write myself toward New York and I ended up in the Utah desert.
So I sit at the computer and close my eyes. Have you ever tried writing with your eyes closed? It can be very relaxing unless you doze off while you’re typing and then you might the nalk ;in “eina; #;“* lkn aonek aoneka n. Or you might channel a spirit, or type a dream vision.
Wouldn’t that be something?
But I don’t want to write something, I want to write nothing, just put my fingers on the keyboard and see what will appear: I’m hungry right now, so I think of a huge buffet, with all kinds of food: green olives stuffed with garlic, spicy shredded beef tortillas, angel food cake slathered with strawberries and whipped cream, sun-dried tomato hummus on toast, kippered snacks on saltines, which was one of the foods my father loved. I’m not sure whether I like the kippered snacks, which smell like the bottom of a tackle box, or whether I just like remembering being with my father in the cab of his old truck. He passed across the kipper can and I scooped out a crackerful of those tiny fish, letting the grease drip onto the seat of the cab, or down my chin, which I wiped on the bottom of my tee shirt. And I think of a time when it was dark and raining and my father and I drove past Simpson Springs. We got out of the truck, took off our clothes, and jumped in the swimming pool that used to be there. We couldn’t stand on the bottom because of the broken glass, but we treaded water holding our faces up to the rain.
I don’t think we even ate kippered snacks that time, but we might have and I’ve just forgotten. Kippered snacks, honey roasted cashews, hot fresh corn cobs dripping butter.
I’m not the cook today but I’m typing this while I’m waiting for the cook, who is Christopher, waiting for him to GET BUSY and PUT SOMETHING ON the %$*& # stove. (I guess I must have dozed off there.) While I’m waiting for him to call me for dinner, my stomach hurts because all I had for lunch was a little piece of stale apple pie, half a toasted cheese sandwich, a couple of half-cooked broccoli in a baggie, two pieces of Sees candy which Doug from down the hall gave me, and some soda that I found in the Comp office fridge, so I’m thinking about food. It’s as if I’m wandering across a desert, nothing but sand forever. I crawl over a huge dune and there is someone on the other side sitting at a table, and he pours me a glassful of this red, red juice. I take a sip and discover that it’s pomegranate juice. To the side of the table is one of those glass cases like in the supermarket with rotisserie chickens inside, which are so tender because this little motor rotates the chicken, and the steamy juice just keeps dripping all the way through. So the man and I are eating cantaloupes right off the rind, and fat plums, and the orange and purple juice drips down our chins and slathers our fingers. I take a bite of chicken and a bite of grapes, and a cracker with Swiss cheese and a little avocado on. This man and I talk about how much we enjoy working in our yards.
“Last week I found a hole in my back lawn,” he says to me.
“Big as a swimming pool?”
“No a small one dug by a gopher, so small a child could hardly fit her fist down inside.”
- “A little hole like that isn’t much of a problem,” I say.
“But seeing the hole in my perfect Kentucky bluegrass, I said a bad word and swore—.”
“Redundant? What are you going off about?–and swore I would fricassee that %$*& # gopher. But worse than that the next morning there was a huge hole, big as my head, right where the gopher hole was.”
“Clearly. He was hunting for the gopher, wanting the gopher for a snack. A small juicy gopher snack.”
“Maybe to put on his rotisserie so the gopher would turn round and round and the juice would soak through.”
Taking a handful of chocolate-covered macadamia nuts, the man goes on: “And so the problem of ethics came up, whether it was right or wrong for the badger to eat the gopher, or whether I was messing with the natural order of things to help the gopher, which would, you know, keep the badger from having his backyard barbeque.”
“Isn’t this the gopher you swore and swore to kill?”
“Which just proves that life is a tangle of wrong and right choices, and who can tell them apart? Not me for #;“* sure. So anyway I stuck a hose down the badger hole and turned it on full, and before I could say, ‘French cut green beans with almond slivers,’ that badger came roaring out. Mad as, well, mad as a wet badger, and he was clacking his teeth in a vicious way. So I leaped straight for the lowest branch of my maple tree, scampered up out of the reach of those sharp, shark-like teeth. Couldn’t get down for at least three hours, when finally the badger wandered back down his waterlogged hole.”
“Going after his kippered, gopher snack.”
“I was in that tree so long, I almost didn’t make it to our luncheon.”
“Which would have been a tragedy. Pass the pickles, please.”
So that’s what happens when I set out to write about nothing. Something always comes up and gets in the way of nothing.
Oh, and there’s Christopher at the door, “There’s food,” he says.
Maybe I’ll try again tomorrow.