By Michael Conniff
I don’t know what took me so long to get wise to crowdsourcing my stories.
Maybe it was my old-school notion that writing a story actually required an individual person to do the work. (How quaint!) Maybe it was all those writer’s workshops inevitably dominated by the loudest know-it-alls with the worst ideas.
With the eye of pumping up Michael Conniff’s Community, I tried something new after 40 years of writing all by my lonesome: I asked my readers for help. I was not expecting much—maybe a few minor suggestions and a typo or two—but instead multiple readers demanded what now feels like a whole new story.
In brief, OPTION RIGHT 1.0, my first attempt, was an effort to conjure a story out of something that happened to me as a sophomore on the varsity football team in high school, when I managed to throw three consecutive interceptions on three consecutive plays. (Take a moment to think about that, sports fans, because it is all but impossible.) This was 1969 at Canterbury School, a private Catholic prep school in New Milford, Connecticut, in the midst of the national debate about the Vietnam War between peace-loving Doves and gung-ho Hawks. My friend Steve Adams and I were the only two sophomores on the football team. The upperclassmen loved Steve but my complete lack of deference to their seniority left me all but unloved.
I also sucked as a player. That did not help.
Full disclosure: I was a lousy quarterback. My arm strength was middling even though in my freshman year I had thrown at least a dozen touchdown passes running the halfback option for the Thirds Football team. Because no opponent had ever seen a halfback option, the receiver was always wide-open and I completed every single one for a touchdown. It was hard to miss.
The head football coach seized upon me to make the jump to the varsity as the backup quarterback because of all those touchdowns—and the two summers I spent as a ballboy for the New York Jets, the first and only time the Jets ever won the Super Bowl, thanks to Joe Willie Namath. But my throws to those wide-open receivers—and my expertise picking up jocks in a National Football League locker room—were the sum total of my football experience as a QB. Unless you counted the fact that I grew up next door to Frank Gifford, a star for the New York Giants, and proudly wore The Giffer’s number 16.
I had all the makings of a quarterback without any of the skills.
When I came into the huddle for Canterbury School against Suffield Academy in the second half we were already in big trouble. Our star fullback, the great and powerful Cal Calhoun, was knocked out for the season with an injury, replaced by Jack Haire, who would go on to become Time Inc. chief of corporate sales and the president of Parade Publications. Jack was maximum tough—like Jimmy Lee, our wingback and the late vice chairman of JP Morgan Chase—but he was no Cal, and we were in deep trouble, trailing Suffield late in the second half with our 5-0 season going down the drain.
Both my interceptions were nullified by penalties, so I had not one but two chances to redeem myself. After the first interception, scorn blended with skepticism from the linemen in the huddle; after the second, their negativity morphed into visible bile. I felt like they were giving their extremely mean Suffield counterparts a pass right into our backfield.
I was getting creamed but I had one consolation: after the third interception I was so pissed off I sprinted downfield and made the best (and last) tackle of my life.
The next week we also lost our last game of the season to our arch-rival to end up 5-2—a huge disappointment—and I never even got up off the bench. The following fall I switched to soccer, where the hippies played in the fields of the Lord. Soccer was all about the liberal Sixties, and the Canterbury football team was living in the conservative Fifties. I found a home with the Doves in soccer for the next two seasons, and we won almost all our games. Football, with the Hawks under a new head coach, won only one game the next year, while the Vietnam War got even worse.
So that’s the background for OPTION RIGHT 1.0 pre-crowdsourcing: prep school, football, and the politics of war.
My readers rode to the rescue. Some said they would not change a thing in my short story, but the rest—including two fiction writers and one political pundit—proffered advice I put to immediate use.
“The football coaches come across to me as caricatures,” wrote one reader kind enough to comment. “Stoney is a dolt. Mr. Wright is a right-wing nutjob. I suppose that’s the extent of how most kids see coaches, but I think you’re going for more than that.”
A second said: “I would tone down Mr. Wright’s political speech. Keep it, but just tone it down a bit to make it more natural and believable.”
In their wisdom these readers hit the nail on the head: the problem with the story was the head coaches—and their politics.
In OPTION RIGHT 1.0 Stoney is indeed a dolt, based on a real coach who was not the sharpest tool in the shed; in 2.0 I based him on another teacher, known as “Rock,” who did in fact teach theology and talk about sex like he invented it at an all-boys school where no one knew better.
(Ironically, the fictional name Stoney preceded this switch, so maybe I had Rock in mind all along.)
With Stoney in a better place as a character, my readers forced me to look at the bigger problem of Mr. Wright, the head football coach at my fictional Kent Abbey. In 1.0, he teaches a history class about the Maginot Line in France during World War I; in 2.0, he is now teaching American History, specifically a class on the Vietnam War, where his son is fighting as a Green Beret. That adjustment was driven by something dire that happens to his son before the big game against Valley Episcopal, a scene that marries the war to a prep school football game.
Thanks to these readers, I’m close to the goal line, with the nose of the ball at the one-yard line. But I’d welcome any more suggestions on all of the above. With you help, OPTION RIGHT 2.0 is better than I ever thought it could be. It may not take a village to write a short story, but it sure helps to have a crowd.