Still Life with Tornado
- Pages: 320 Pages
- Publisher: Penguin Young Readers Group
- Imprint: Penguin Books
- ISBN: 9781101994900
An Excerpt From
Still Life with Tornado
Nothing ever really happens.
Or, more accurately, nothing new ever really happens.
My art teacher, Miss Smith, once said that there is no such thing as an original idea. We all think we’re having original ideas, but we aren’t. “You’re stuck on repeat. I’m stuck on repeat. We’re all stuck on repeat.” That’s what she said. Then she flipped her hair back over her shoulder like what she said didn’t mean anything and told us to spend the rest of class sorting through all the old broken shit she gets people to donate so we can make art. She held up half of a vinyl record. “Every single thing we think is original is like this. Just pieces of something else.”
Two weeks ago Carmen said she had an original idea, and then she drew a tornado, but tornadoes aren’t original. Tornadoes are so old that the sky made them before we were even here. Carmen said that the sketch was not of a tornado, but everything it contained. All I saw was flying, churning dust. She said there was a car in there. She said a family pet was in there. A wagon wheel. Broken pieces of a house. A quart of milk. Photo albums. A box of stale corn flakes.
All I could see was the funnel and that’s all anyone else could see and Carmen said that we weren’t looking hard enough. She said art wasn’t supposed to be literal. But that doesn’t erase the fact that the drawing was of a tornado and that’s it.
Our next assignment was to sketch a still life. Miss Smith put out three bowls of fruit and told us we could arrange the fruit in any way we wanted. I picked one pear and I stared at it and stared at my drawing pad and I didn’t sketch anything.
I acted calm, like I was just daydreaming, but I was paralyzed. Carmen looked at me and I shrugged like I didn’t care. I couldn’t move my hand. I felt numb. I felt like crying. I felt both of those things. Not always in art class, either.
When I handed in a blank paper at the end of class, I said, “I’ve lost the will to participate.”
Miss Smith thought I meant art class. But I meant that I’d lost the will to participate in anything. I wanted to be the paper. I wanted to be whiter than white. Blanker than blank.
The next day Miss Smith said that I should do blind drawings of my hand. Blind drawings are when you draw something without looking at the paper. I drew twelve of them. But then I wondered how many people have done blind drawings of their hands and I figured it must be the most unoriginal thing in the world.
She said, “But it’s your hand. No one else can draw that.”
I told her that nothing ever really happens.
“Nothing ever really happens,” I said.
She said, “That’s probably true.” She didn’t even look up from the papers she was shuffling. Her bared shoulders were already tan and it wasn’t even halfway through April. I stood there staring at her shoulders, thinking about how nothing ever really happens. Lots of stuff has happened to Miss Smith. I knew that.
My hands shook because I couldn’t draw the pear. She looked up and I know she saw me shaking. She could have said anything to me then. Something nice. Something encouraging. Instead, she repeated herself.
She said, “That’s probably true.”
So I stopped going to school.
It’s true about the letters they’ll send when you stop going to school. After a week or so they come after you and make you meet with the principal. But that’s happened before, just like tornadoes, so it didn’t impress me. My parents escorted me into the school building and they apologized a hundred times for my behavior but I didn’t apologize even once.
I couldn’t think of one reaction to the meeting with the principal that was original. Apologizing, crying, yelling, spitting, punching, silence—none of those things are original. I tried to levitate. I tried to self-combust like a defective firework.
Now that would be original.
Read more about this book and author