"Sam Shipper and the Rock: Fiction Writing 101" by Lynn Levin

Lynn Levin

Lynn Levin

Lynn Levin is a poet, writer, and translator. Her newest poetry collection, Fair Creatures of an Hour, was a 2010 Next Generation Indie Book Awards finalist in poetry. Her previous collection, Imaginarium, was a finalist for ForeWord Magazines 2005 Book of the Year Award. Lynn Levins poems have appeared in Ploughshares, Boulevard, Washington Square Review, Southwest Review, Per Contra, 5 AM, Boulevard, Mad Poets Review, and on Verse Daily and Garrison Keillors radio show, The Writers Almanac. She teaches creative writing at the University of Pennsylvania and at Drexel University where she also produces the TV show The Drexel InterView.

Sam Shipper and the Rock: Fiction Writing 101

We daisy the desks into a circle, and speak of desire death-strong,

gasoline of plot, poison that sucks the fictional character:

Humbert Humbert mad for Lolita

or real-life Rebecca burning for Benjamin.

The idea of hot, heavy, Wusthof-sharp desire


appeals. Everyone's buying the whole yearning thing

until tower-tall, crew cut Sam Shipper, a computer genius

who will probably have an operating system

named after him and big bucks, speaks up.

“What about real people who don't know


what they want in life? What about Camus's Stranger?

The guy just goes with the flow then

there's that part about the indifferent universe.

We're all condemned,” Sam presses, “to roll a rock

up a mountain, see it fall, roll it up again.”


So I'm sitting there like a chimpanzee in makeup and earrings –

having aped the party line on fiction writing.

But Sam Shipper, existentialist?

Hard to see him in Les Deux Magots or Café de Flore

squeezed into a black leather jacket


passionately arguing the absurdity of life

over fantastic brain-opening espresso.

“What can you yearn for anyway in a meaningless world

behind which all is collapse and nothingness?

As Camus says in The Myth of Sisyphus:


the problem of philosophical suicide

is something every lucid person must consider.”

Just then the classroom lights wink out.

Listening to Sam we're still as paint –

the motion sensors think: no one's home, lights out.

“Hey, we're still here!” I mock yell, and we all wave


arms wildly over heads so that we look

like golden agers doing the hokey pokey in our chairs.

“Duder, you have so much to live for. Don't give up,” pleads one classmate.

“Yeah, man. That's a permanent solution to a temporary problem.”

“Trust in the Lord,” says a religious person. “No seriously.


God has a purpose for us. We can talk after class.”

“It's the serotonin,” drawls somebody.

“Yes, Meursault, the absurd hero,” I break in

desperately trying to steer us from the personal

then fall to thinking of my own college days


when the great questions throttled with the strong grip of youth

and I didn't know what I was going to do with my life –

just that the Vietnam War was so terrible,

passionate protest the only truth, and I too read

of the back-rolling rock, the plague, the rats, the happy city.


A week later Sam Shipper's midway into his short story.

His eyes are deadly blue, mood likewise.

His hero, Will Webster, standing in the middle

of a deserted landfill, is about to push the button on his suicide vest

when Will realizes the air's choppy with seagulls,


turkey vultures, ground churning with rats –

loathsome varmints yearning to dive

into the succulent sack of chemicals that is Will Webster.

Hero decides he does not want to be gnawed and pecked.

So where to? Sam asks.


Second try. Now Sam's struggler is Phil Flintlock,

soldier of fortune, out to assassinate the hairy nihilist

in the caves of Tora Bora. Only it's like Whack-a-Mole out there.

All those caves, all those fighters. Mountains lousy with boulders.

Then Phil Flintlock begins to doubt his mission:

how to be moral andan assassin…


A few days later, third go. New character is Cal Caruthers.

Exhausted middle-aged. Between wife and work

his desires are mostly the desires of others. At a loss,

Sam gives Cal an avatar in SecondLife.

In-world he's Ugga-Dugga, chief of a tropical island.


A good chief, Ugga-Dugga

wipes out crime, disease, hunger.

Noone's lonely. There's leisure galore.

“Cultivate your gardens!” he exhorts his citizens.

But everything's too perfect.


Folks are bored out of their gourds.

And the next thing you know,

Ugga-Duggasees people with clay on their hands –

each humming his own tune,

each building his boulder.