Help for Heroes – Or How To Realise an Idea

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I was standing on the platform waiting for a train to take me to another city. A woman in her thirties walked past me. Her style and the way she walked, proudly, made me think she was an advocate for something. She was wearing a black hoodie with a text written in white on it that said Help for Heroes.

Still with minutes left to kill before the train would arrive, my mind started thinking about the words it had seen. Help for Heroes sounded exciting and immediately a thought, an idea, started forming inside my head. What if there was a person in the world who would not be a superhero herself but would come to the aid of superheroes – in a way, she would be the superhero of the superheroes?

How would the story look?

For instance, would the hero of this story, the helper of the superheroes, have an office where she would sit on one side of the table and Hulk on the other, the green giant holding back tears because the puppies were just so cute so he got distracted and that’s why he failed to save the world? And the helper would tell Hulk that ”Hey, puppies are your soft spot, Hulk, and you just have to learn to be okay with it. It’s unnecessary to keep putting energy on wondering how the hell the puppies ended up in the warehouse in the first place. More important is to discuss how you can deal with your weakness and make it into a strength.”

In that moment, I got into the wonderful wheel of spinning on ideas. It’s a great feeling and for me, it’s one of the best things about writing – coming up with ideas, creating more ideas around them and creating a new world of everything that is exciting. But then I got hit by a wall – a wall I’d like to call too mainstream. While standing on the train platform, I saw the whole Help for Heroes enterprise build in front of me – the movies, the comics, the miniature toy figurines. And that made me realize that my idea was so identical to so many of the superhero movies and books that are published today – and in that moment, the idea lost its appeal.

And that made me think of this: if I wanted to make the idea wonderful and unique, I’d have to find a way to use the idea in an unexpected way. But how does one realise an idea without it becoming a copy of everything that already exists? How to make an idea unique?

Learning from Others

This question of realising ideas has been boosted by the literature I’ve come across during the past month. I decided to alter my reading list and switch from adult books to young adult literature. So, in the library, I walked to the young adult section and picked out books with a catchy name and an interesting back cover.

I like YA as a genre; the books tend to be hopeful with a valuable lesson to learn and the characters can be great role models for young readers (and why not for older readers as well). But the best part, what I noticed while browsing the shelves, was that the ideas for YA don’t seem to have any limits. I mean, speed dating in space? I’m in! People having nine lives instead of one? I want to know more! The ideas are daring and awesome – and I was intrigued to see how the idea would take form in the story.

However, as fun and even a bit crazy these ideas are, when I started reading the books I noticed how the idea only takes the book so far. These novels were built on a good idea but had such weaknesses that exhausted the power of that idea: there were too many characters or they were too weak; there were too many subplots that didn’t seem be important for the main plot; the storyline was foreseeable which made it boring and so on.

It feels like many books are built on a great idea – but the execution doesn’t do justice to that idea (or vice versa but that’s another topic). So, how to write a story that presents the idea in the best possible light?

Make It Your Own

As there are certain ingredients needed to bake a cake, so are there for writing a novel. The story gains a good deal of structure when it follows the classic story structure of a hero’s journey. A story needs a set of characters and some subplots to engage the reader and create feelings of excitement or sympathy for the characters.

But a writer needs to find a way to make the novel stand out from all the other novels that are written. It is said that every story is unique because no one will write the story in exactly the same way as you do. And it’s true. But on top of the things already mentioned, the idea that gives life to a new novel needs to be realised in a way that will leave people, in some way or the other, amazed and surprised.

How to do that? I don’t know – but I can guess. This is what I’ve come up with:

  1. Don’t get too excited creating tens of characters and subplots for the story just because they give a fun twist to it or show new sides of the idea. Instead, focus on crafting a strong storyline that thrives on the idea without becoming too much of everything.
  2. Don’t cut the corners while crafting the storyline, i.e. don’t settle for the typical, foreseeable story structure most of us have learned to recognize. Instead, try to analyze the story structure points in a new way, in your way. Can a mentor be something else than a person? Can ’the darkest moment’ be interpreted in a different way?
  3. Think about the idea through your own values or the life lessons and experiences you’ve gained. What values or lessons do you want to pass forward to the reader through the story you’re writing? For instance, in Yellow Tails I’m trying to show the reader the difficulty of change – something I’ve learned first hand. This will make the story even more unique because it becomes more like you.

So, sure, your story needs structure, characters and subplots to work and realise an idea – but do a favor for yourself: don’t cut the corners while working on your idea. Do the analytic work. Kill your darlings. And make the idea work for you; make it your own.

To come back to that moment on the train station: although the primary idea for Help for Heroes feels very mainstream, I’m certain that I can find the twist that makes the story more complex, unforeseeable and, most of all, unique. But to manage that I need to be willing to do the thinking work it requires. We’ll see where it will take me.

***

How do you go about when realising an idea?

Still Life Sunday: A Moment’s Notice

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31 A Moment’s Notice

I was in the middle of an article about the new education reform when a short clink sound of the letterbox interrupted my reading. Frowning, I looked at the table where a low pile of letters had dropped through that same letterbox only a few hours ago. Did they deliver mail twice nowadays?

Leaving the newspaper on the table, I walked out of the kitchen to the entrance hall and crouched to pick up the freshly delivered letter. The light blue envelope felt smooth under my fingers, the surface reflecting the light in the ceiling. The envelope had our address on it but the first line told it was meant for my wife to read and not for me – or us.

I turned the envelope to see if there was a return address on the backside but there wasn’t, of course not; mysterious, hand-written letters like these never had return addresses.

The letter was thick, heavy with information that was not meant for me.

There was no one in the yard and even the street looked deserted as I peeked through the window in the door. Neither the mail-carrier or the mysterious letter-carrier could be seen, but then again, of course not. Why would the person stay around to see if the letter found its receiver? If there was a doubt about it, he or she would have rung the doorbell and given it to the receiver directly to be sure. But this person didn’t; clearly, he or she was certain that the letter would be opened in the right hands.

“Darling!” I raised my voice so that it would reach my wife who was brushing her teeth in the bathroom (or more likely in the bedroom, staring out of the window naked, because that was just one of her quirky ways of being). “Come downstairs, will you?”

While waiting for her, I returned to the kitchen. The newspaper was left on the table, the political article completely forgotten. My curiosity for the letter’s content exceeded greatly the new education reform which was still in the planning phase and might not even see the light. My eyes were focused on that envelope that now leaned against the vase of colorful Spring tulips. Who had written her a letter and why?

When my wife walked into the kitchen, fastening the silk belt of her dressing gown and her brown wild hair still all over the place as it was in the mornings, her eyes locked on the letter immediately. She let out an excited shriek, as if she knew exactly what the letter held, and had been waiting for it.

“It came after the usual mail delivery”, I said and took the letter into my hands, looking at it again. “It’s for you. What is it?”

My wife walked to the table and reached out her hand towards the letter. As I gave it to her, I noticed the slight quiver of her hand and the eager way she grasped the letter. Suddenly, I felt a twinge of doubt in my chest. This letter seemed so important to her – why hadn’t she told me anything about it?

“Honey?”, I tried again, as I hadn’t gotten an answer on my question. “What is this all about?”

“Oh”, she said, her eyes gleaming with excitement as she looked at the address written on the envelope. “It’s a…”

She sighed as if she didn’t know how to explain.

“I’m getting worried”, I said and chuckled gently. “What is it, an invitation to Hogwarts?”

My wife gave a small laugh but didn’t answer. She turned the envelope and opened it gently, careful not to break the paper. I watched her take out the letter, the many pages folded in half, and followed the movement of her eyes as she began reading the words. It seemed as if she had forgotten me, as if she was completely unaware of the fact that I, her husband, was there, and had asked her question.

She stood in the middle of the kitchen, her feet bare and probably getting cold from the cool kitchen tiles which she usually disliked – but she didn’t seem to mind. Clearly, there were more important things in her mind right now. But what? The curiosity inside me was slowly turning into a worried doubt. A fear for the anonymous writer and what he or she had written on those pages my wife was now eagerly reading, page after page, was starting to get a grip of me.

I wanted to know but at the same time I wondered if I really wanted to – if I really wanted to make my life shift, because that’s what it felt like in that moment as I sat on the kitchen chair, looking at my mesmerized wife.

After five long minutes, I started getting tired of my own restlessness and my wandering eyes that tried to focus on the newspaper again but glanced at my wife’s face every fifteen seconds or so. I stood up, took the one step to my wife and covered the content of the letter with my hand. I saw the handwriting – a woman’s, surprisingly.

“What is this letter?”

My voice was harder now as restlessness had taken the place of my earlier patience. My will to understand and accept the letter and its content had turned into a steady determination to know what was written on those pages.

“Well?”

My wife seemed to be struggling with words. She seemed enchanted by the content in the letter, couldn’t take her eyes off the pages although my hand was covering it.

Just as I was about grab her arm to get her attention, her eyes focused on me.

“I’m sorry, honey, but I need to leave for a few days.”

“What?”

“Right now. I’m sorry, I really am. But I need to go and pack, I’m in a hurry.”

Her voice was filled with hopeful determination which should have meant that I had nothing to worry about. But from what I knew, I had everything to worry about. I tried to follow in my wife’s steps out to entrance hall and the stairs but she closed the door to the kitchen behind her. And although it wasn’t locked and I could’ve easily followed her, I stayed put. I felt numb, powerless against that letter. What the hell was happening? In the corner of my eye, I saw the envelope that was still on the kitchen table. I didn’t want to touch it, not even look at it. The whole thing felt cursed.

Only a minute later, I heard my wife rush down the stairs. I waited for her to come to the kitchen to explain or to say goodbye at least, but I only heard the outdoor opening, the empty coat hanger clanging a few times against the wall, and then – the outdoor closing.

I watched her from the window. She didn’t take our car. Instead, she started walking briskly down the street towards the main road, carrying with her a backpack and, on her arm, her light blue jacket.

She didn’t look back. When I couldn’t see her anymore, I felt a silence take over the entire house. I was alone and had no idea why.

Still Life Sunday: The Staring Contest

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30 The Staring Contest

“It is told that Archimedes was taking a bath when he realized that the volume of irregular objects could be measured”, I tell to the backs of the students sitting in the classroom.

Then I prepare myself to sprint from the back of the classroom to the front, saying – – “And this made him leap out of his bath tub and run naked through the streets of Syracuse yelling Eureka! Eureka!” – – the last two words come out as a yell which makes some of the sleepier students jerk back in their chairs in surprise.

As I halt into a stop right before hitting the blackboard, I get a surprised laugh from my audience of 8th graders. I chuckle. The Eureka sprint works every time, and every time I feel a small sense of pride of the fact that I’m able to make someone as dull as Archimedes of Syracuse into a memorable, impressive character.

The same love that I feel for natural sciences can rarely be seen on the faces of these acne-colored, insecure faces of teenagers who sit here simply because they have no other alternative. Many of these kids couldn’t care less about Archimedes, Einstein or even Hawking – but they have to because the state and the school curriculum dictate so.

Therefore, the best thing I can do for these youngsters is to make these classes on electrons and neurons and what-else into something fun and memorable.

“This discovery helped Archimedes friend Hiero detect a goldsmith’s fraud. The bastard was supposed to make a crown out of pure gold but had replaced some of it with silver. Thanks to Archimedes and his method, the poor goldsmith probably lost his life.”

Once again, I’m able to trigger some smiles and even laughter. But I can feel how I’m already losing my crowd: the wandering or glazed gaze, the restless hands already starting to close books and putting away pencil cases, prepared to escape the room the second the clock rings. There’s only five minutes left of this class, so I’d say it’s understandable.

However, in this group, there are two girls whose gaze never leave me during the class. They never pack their bags before the class actually ends. Even now, with only a few minutes left of the class, they sit still and observe me.

They might not be the brightest future physicians of the group but they are the only ones who actually focus on what I try to teach. Their gaze is only lost when they scribble long notes to each other – probably boy trouble, the desperate search for Prince Charming, and when he is found, the constant questions about what this and that means. Although they shouldn’t, I let it happen. They are teenagers, after all.

Especially the other girl, the slightly less talented of the two, has an especially intense gaze I’m not able to look away from once I get caught. Her eyes follow mine as I walk around the classroom and mine follows hers when she gets distracted. And then, when I stand in front of the class and she’s paying attention, we lock eyes again and don’t let go.

I’m aware that our eye contact can be interpreted in many different ways, some of them less fortunate. But her gaze is truly active compared with all the other kids in this class, and I’m drawn to those eyes because of that. I’m searching for an active listener, and she pays attention; is actively present here in this class room. For me, that’s exactly what I need to keep on going with my goofy interpretations of Archimedes and other famous people.

I am not making up these entertaining scenes for her, for sure, although her smile brightens up her whole appearance. But kids like her make me feel like I’m not doing it all for nothing. Kids like her make me feel as if I’m making a difference; I’m making learning difficult things fun.

“So, from now on, if you hear someone yelling ‘Eureka!’, you can tell them to take their clothes off to make the discovery even more authentic.”

Then the bell rings, the classroom fills with movement and the rustling sound of paper as if I had pressed a magic button that defrosted them all. Many of the students wave goodbye and leave – the last joke hasn’t made its way through their brain because of the ticking clock on the wall. But I get a smile, from whom else but the most attentive student in the class.

“See you on Thursday!” she says, the smile still bright. I wave, smile and then focus my gaze to my notes on the table. I’m finally able to draw a breath and recover from that intense staring contest of the past 45 minutes. But I wouldn’t change it for the world.

Still Life Sunday: Meeting a Stranger

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29 Meeting a Stranger

I look at the elderly man standing next to me in the line. He is wearing a long, brown jacket that matches his thick beard of the same color. His eyes wander around the café we have walked into, resting on the flower arrangements that somehow don’t seem to fit in with the rest of the interior.

“Is it true you wrote most of your book here?” I ask, unable to control my curiosity.

I can see this man sitting at one of the tables, reaching his hand to a pile of notebooks to check some timeline or other detail from the history; the black coffee getting cold as it waits for its drinker’s attention. The wrinkles on his forehead bear the signs of deep concentration, of thoughts working hard on tricky plot lines that need to be aligned to build a cohesive storyline.

He nods and points to a table next to the railing. From there one can observe the life on the lower floors without being seen. I should have guessed: the favorite place of a writer.

“Not even once did I have to sit somewhere else”, the man says, his thoughts trailing somewhere back in time. “I almost think the workers in this café kept the table empty for me, so that whenever I came I could sit at that table.”

He looks forward to the counter where a young man is taking orders from a customer.

“But time has passed and none of them work here anymore. Or Frank does but he has become so old he does only one shift a week, and even that he does just for fun.”

I love listening to his calm voice, somewhat strained with age and thought. I’m actually supposed to be choosing what I want to eat and drink but I can’t focus on the colorful pieces of cake in the glass cabinet. Instead, I observe him with fondness, unable to believe that it was only a week ago I managed to gather my courage and talk to him.

I had been bumping into him for weeks. For years, I had been a fan of his work, of his words, of his way of creating magical entities that were turned into books. Never ever had I imagined I’d have the opportunity to talk to him or even see him in real life – but suddenly I had.

The first time I saw him was in the library. I knew it in that instant who he was and followed him while he browsed through the History section (of course).

The second time was in the traffic lights. He was on one side, I was standing on the other. It was a sunny day and light was in his eyes, but I observed him while the light was red, and, as the light turned green, observed his quick steps.

The third time, the time I finally walked up to him, was in the food market. He had been examining the oranges and I thought it was an opportunity good enough to say something. So I did. I presented myself, told him I was a fan of his books and then, without even panicking about it, said I would love to sit down with him for a coffee sometime and talk about writing.

“You’re a writer yourself, are you now?” the man had asked, raising one of his eyebrows in a friendly manner. I nodded and told him about the book I was writing, gave that elevator pitch I had been working on. It seemed to make an impression because the old man took out a small notebook from his brown jacket pocket, scribbled a date, a time and a place and ripped off the page, giving it to me.

And here we are. He seems to be deep in his own thoughts but I don’t mind the ticking of time, the minutes already wasted on silence instead of spending them exchanging thoughts on writing and on being a writer in this hectic, money-driven world.

But then, quite suddenly, he wakes up from his thoughts and grabs my hand with both of his hands and shakes it in a way that feels desperate but in a relieved way. He looks into my eyes, properly for the first time after the food market talk, and his eyes are filled with warm gratitude.

“I really appreciate this, I do”, he says. I don’t know what to say so I just stare at him, trying to keep myself calm and keep his gaze, let his hands hold my own, still shaking.

“Is there a problem, miss?” the café barista asks, looking at us nervously. His eyes dart to the old man and I realize he doesn’t recognize him, doesn’t know he is the great writer, the regular who made this café famous.

The situation probably looks strange to an outsider, too: why would a young woman and an old, rather shabby man go for a coffee? I hate to say it, but the old man’s brown beard and jacket make him look a little bit like a homeless person, so I’m not all that surprised. But – –

“No. Everything is fine”, I say with confidence, and then add, slightly nervously: “He’s my… mentor.”

I glance at the old man to see what he thinks of my words. He releases my hands – but the gratitude in his eyes does not. In that movement, I see his loneliness – the loneliness of being an old unmarried man, of being a writer, of the preference for isolation. And instead of bearing the weight of loneliness, the man only wishes to have someone to talk to, to pass on his wisdom to.

“I think I’ll take a piece of lemon meringue pie”, I say, looking at the barista who now tries to hide his embarrassment with a neutral expression. The old man looks at me and I nod to him.

“And he will take one as well.”

The man smiles and I smile back. We are both amused for our similar taste for sour in desserts.

Who knows who of us two needs the other one more?

Still Life Sunday: Unable to Connect

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28 Unable to Connect

The forest is dark but the sky is clear with stars. I stand in the snow, holding a phone in my hand. Behind me, the camp fire lights up the night and laughter from the people around the fire reaches my ears. I turn my face up to stare at the sky and the stars, then I look at the fire and after that, forced, my gaze turns down to the phone.

I hesitate to take off my gloves to dial the number.

My muscles feel heavy and tired after today’s hike but my mind races like a wild horse on an open field. Instead of the luxurious relaxing feeling of a good day’s work, I feel anxious and ashamed. The conversation from just moments before has left my body burning.

“What does your second child do nowadays?”

 “She’s finishing her Master’s Degree. You know, writing her thesis.”

 ”Oh, she’s come a long way! What is she writing about?”

 “Hmm, I’m not sure. I think it has something to do with communication?”

 “Does she plan on graduating this Spring?”

 “Um, I don’t know. Probably.”

 “What does she plan to do after that?”

 “I… I don’t know what she’s been planning. But then again, who knows what the kids think and do nowadays?”

I had always been sure I would be able to give equal affection, curiosity and discipline to all my three children. I had brushed away the talk about how the second child tends to get the least attention because the first child is the rebellious rule-breaker and the third the slightly spoiled because of her youth and take all the attention they can get.

I had been sure it was just talk.

And suddenly, here I was, in the middle of nothing, realizing how little I knew of my second child. How I had fallen into the stereotypical pattern and failed to give equal affection to all three of them.

After the conversation, there had been no more questions because everyone had realized I didn’t have any answers to give. In the silence that followed, I had reached out to my backpack, taken my phone and walked away from the group, saying I needed a moment for myself. Now, I look at the phone and finally, after several moments of hesitation, take off my gloves and press the home button, making the screen fill with light. I have 72% left of the battery, enough to make a call.

My body is filled with a mixture of cold and grey shame, a feeling of loss and wonder. I feel a strong need for compensating for all these years of failure, a need for fixing everything. I try to understand what has led to this moment in the woods, to this burning sense of shame in my body. Where did everything start to go wrong?

The screen goes dark. I press the home button again. Now the battery says 63%. It doesn’t like the cold. I don’t like the cold. In fact, I’d rather be at my second child’s door right now, ringing the door bell, asking if I can come in for a cup of tea and a friendly talk. Would she let me in? I really don’t know. But I could call her instead.

I could call her, but the battery on the phone keeps on announcing dropping percentage. Soon I won’t be able to call her because there won’t be enough power left to make one.

I could call her. I should, I really should. But what would I say?

I stand in the snow, thinking about calling her, searching for the right words to begin with. I almost find the courage to do it, but then the cold starts to creep into my fingers and toes and neck, and I shiver. I slip the phone into my jacket pocket and walk back to the people and the fire. I feel disappointment and anger with myself but can’t help but think

if there’s even a point in trying?

Even if I could call her or walk to her door, I wouldn’t know what to say. Because how do you pick up the conversation after ten years of hollow small-talk?

Still Life Sunday: The First Day of a New Life

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The First Day of a New Life

He had laid in bed for almost thirty minutes now, his eyes open, watching closely the shadows that moved on the ceiling. He felt awake, more awake than he had ever been before but something, maybe the realization itself, kept him under the blanket. The warmth gave him a sense of safety and he was almost afraid to put his bare feet on the cold wood-paneled floor. Because if he faced the cold, it would mean he accepted the mission, the new truth of life.

That was the reason to why he was still in bed: he wasn’t sure if he wanted to accept it. Was he willing to let go of his former beliefs and values and face the new, slightly colder world?

Everything around him seemed to be proof of the fact that he, actually, was ready.

Yesterday, his car had been towed away from the parking space outside his apartment after he had ignored the many parking tickets for five weeks in a row.

It was a matter of hours when the electricity would be cut off. If he would get up now, he thought to himself, he might have time to brew himself some coffee and take one last hot shower.

And everywhere his gaze focused in the room, he saw the signs of a new life waiting for him to take the first steps:

His clothes in the corner of the room were still unwashed and would stay that way until he would find the time and energy to take them to a laundromat or buy completely new ones.

His backpack, leaning against the only chair in his bedroom, smelled like mint-flavored cigarettes.

The red sneakers had muddy smudges on them, telling the tale of the most wonderful and horrifying night of his life that had happened only a few weeks ago and had been the very first chapter of his new life.

He had made an active choice to let everything go this far and he wasn’t planning on tracing his steps back. He had no intention to pay the electricity bill or get his car back. He didn’t care too much about leaving the apartment, even though it had been his home for the past ten years and held many dear memories to him.

Although everything remained, nothing was the same. Not to him, at least, not after that one night. And nothing would especially be the same, if he would get up now, face the hardness of the floor and brew one last cup of the finest espresso one could get his hands on in this town.

His smartphone beeped. One new message.

It’s time.

The words made him spring in action: without even thinking of it, his feet touched the floor, he made his bed one last time, put on his light jeans and a dark green shirt, and packed the rest of his clothes in his backpack. The process felt quick, easy and painless after the many minutes spent in doubt – the text message encouraged him to stop thinking and get moving.

For one last coffee from the former life, he walked to his fridge: instead of an espresso, a store-bought cold-brew would have to do for now. Drinking the mint-flavored coffee in large gulps, he stood for a moment looking out from the window to the street.

He saw the green van park on the space his car had been towed from only sixteen hours ago. It waited for him. It was time to leave: both physically and mentally.

A moment later, as he closed the door to the apartment behind him, he thought of the physical space he was leaving behind but also of the person he was leaving in there, trapped with the old memories, values and structures.

For each descending step, he took in his new identity and his new mission.

The front door of the green van was already open, the empty passenger seat waiting for him. He nodded to the man behind the wheel he had never seen before, placed his backpack on the floor between his feet and shut the door.

“You’re M, right?” he asked the man, somewhat nervous but at the same time exhilarated.

“Yes. And you are Mr. White”, the man answered him.

After that, they didn’t speak a word. But for Mr. White, it was enough. His new identity felt already a natural part of him. As the miles passed, he felt the old values drain from his body and a new determination fill his mind.

Mr. White wasn’t sure if he would still be alive after the mission was completed. But it didn’t matter because the new truth he had decided to take in made him feel more alive than he had ever felt before. It was better than a hot shower, a strong espresso, and clean clothes.

It was, after all, nothing less than the truth.

Still Life Sunday: The Sound of the Ocean

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26 The Sound of the Ocean

”Write about your favorite childhood holiday!”

I glance up from my notebook where I’ve been doodling cute animals and old-school road trip cars for the past fifteen minutes to see if my teacher in her colorful clothes and sunny demeanor is serious. She is.

“Come on, go for it”, she says, smiling reassuringly. A photo of a palm beach is reflected on the whiteboard. “Surely you all have a pleasant vacation memory stored somewhere inside your mind. Write about that vacation, the excited feelings for all exotic, the smell of good food, the wonder of all the new things you saw!”

I glance to my sides to see how other people feel about this writing exercise. To my surprise, they seem excited: a warm, happy expression on several faces, a pen ready in hand to start writing. As the teacher urges us to begin, the others hunch down over their notepads and start combining words into sentences. I, however, keep my gaze forward.

I try to think of something, anything vacation-related but nothing comes to mind.

“You have twenty minutes!”

Twenty minutes feel like an eternity when you have nothing to write about. I suppress a sigh and lower my gaze back down to the doodles on the page. If it were an option, I’d do nothing for the following minutes except maybe doodle some more, but unfortunately it isn’t an alternative. The teacher wants us to return the paper on our vacation memories in the end of the class.

It’s not that I’ve travelled and it’s not that I don’t remember anything from those travels. But I don’t have a favorite vacation, per se – because all the vacations were the same. To the same island in the Canary, to the same family hotel with two swimming pools and a gigantic breakfast buffet with chocolate croissants and with the same group: my family and no one else.

I glance at the timer the teacher has projected on the whiteboard. Fifteen minutes left.

The thing is, nothing special happened during those vacations. My mother only wanted to lie in the sun and read books, take a break from the realities of life and her work. My sister wanted to swim in the pool. My father didn’t enjoy the sun very much so he stayed mostly inside our hotel room, listening to Elvis on a portable cd-player. So, I just wandered around, sometimes swimming, sometimes reading, asking for money to run to the local shop on the other side of the street to buy ice cream.

Ten minutes left. Crap. A feel a slightly panicked tremble as my hand clenches the pen I’m holding. If I don’t start writing soon, I might fail this class. As sunny as our teacher is with her colorful clothes and white Pepsodent smile, she’s also extremely strict about how she wants her students to perform.

Suddenly, a memory comes to me. It’s from my family’s very first trip to the Canary Islands, some twenty years back. I almost sigh in relief, bend down over my notebook and start scribbling feverishly, putting down the words faster than they come to my head.

In Tenerife, with only a few days left before we would leave to travel back home, I became friends with this girl from Denmark. She was sweet and kind with a long, blonde braid and blue eyes, like a true Scandinavian. We went on imagined adventures together, searching for secrets and mysterious cats around the hotel area, avoiding our parents who, we decided, were dangerous prison guards searching for us.

The last day, after only a few days of adventures, she gave me the most beautiful seashell. It was light-colored and reminded me of her. I wondered why she wanted to give it to me – maybe it was a sign of trust and true friendship but as we could barely communicate with each other, I couldn’t ask.

With a combination of sign language and some Danish words, she told me to press the seashell against my ear and hear the sounds of the ocean. I did and she watched me do it. I only heard a quiet, ambient sound that didn’t resemble an ocean in any way, but I smiled and told her it sounded amazing, just like a real ocean. She seemed extremely satisfied which made me happy despite my tiny lie.

However, when she left to eat lunch with her family, I hid the seashell in the playground sand. I can’t explain why, but I did it. I left it there and went to pack my things, to have one last lunch at the hotel bar where all the workers knew some words of my mother tongue, before we would leave.

And just as I can’t explain why I hid the seashell, I can’t explain why I in the last minute went to the playground to get it back, to take it with me back home. Luckily, it was still there. I cleaned it from the tiny, irritating sand pebbles, and put it in my pocket to take it with me back home.

“Time’s up! Return your writings on my desk now, please!”

Nineteen years later, I still have the shell. It sits on my bookshelf, and sometimes I put it against my ear to listen to the sounds of the hollow arc. It doesn’t sound like the ocean. But I’d like to know why the Danish girl thought it did.