“The Wall that Jimmy Built,” by Jennifer Perov

Jennifer Perov came to me through a different route than many of my students. While I teach some writing classes at Ball State University, the bulk of my teaching happens in the Digital Media Minor, an interdisciplinary program I run that combines emerging technologies and storytelling.

I love my work in that program, but I spend very little time actually teaching storytelling because we spend so much time trying to get the students to understand how to use basic technologies and how to work together in project teams to create big digital prototypes (which for us take the form of interactive websites and transmedia stories).

When Jen was introducing herself in my social media class, I found out she came to us from the Creative Writing program. Immediately, I was interested.

Today I’m happy to introduce Jennifer to the rest of you as we publish her piece, “The Wall that Jimmy Built,” which follows the demise of her relationship after her boyfriend’s sister died unexpectedly.

As with many of The Invictus Writers’ work, Jennifer’s story is a difficult read about two people who are struggling to figure out how to make sense of a situation that has little sense to it. This is a story about what it means to learn how to life again.

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Normally I require that students involved in The Invictus Writers project have some experience with me as a teacher. In Jen’s case, I knew that her training in the Creative Writing sequence would more than prepare her for what we were going to do.

At the same time, I recruited her (and David C. Ake) to lead a second project, writing an interactive, transmedia book, The Avenue of Truth, as part of our Transmedia Indiana project.

Professors are sometimes selfish in that way. Whenever we find exceptional students, we grab them and hold them tightly because we know they are few and far between.

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We make assumptions about our students. This is human nature. We fill in the blanks to create fictionalized versions of the people with whom we interact. As such, we’re oftentimes surprised when those expectations don’t match up with reality.

Jen turned out to by “My Kids,” a distinction I give to the students who gravitate to my projects, and who end up taking on the mountain of work I give them without batting an eye. (At least in my presence.)

If I’m a pain in the ass as a professor, I’m doubly bad when we’re doing professional work. I don’t answer questions such that aren’t relevant to the project. (In the Finding Forrester  vernacular, I only answer “soup questions.”) And I send work back relentless until there is no more time to do any more revisions.

The students who become part of that cadre of overworked storytellers share a bond regardless of where they come from or what they’ve done before. In many ways, Jen and Dave were cut from the same cloth even though several years separated them. They both came from small towns, and each doubted their ability to write. (They both shared a love for guns, too, although only Dave took me shooting.)

Unlike Dave, she was a bit quieter. A little less quick to take a leadership position (in some measure because she was younger than everyone; she graduated early). A little bit less likely to offer up her opinion unless she was asked.

Slowly I got to know. She lived right behind me so she was oftentimes the first to show up for Invictus Saturdays. That gave us a few minutes to talk before anyone arrived, and it wasn’t uncommon for her to linger at the end. And we spent a great deal of time together while finishing up The Avenue of Truth, even if most of it was online as we wrote and edited.

It was those times that she would tell me about life in her small town, her father, shooting guns, and sometimes about the relationship about which she was writing.

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I ask my writers to tell the most painful stories of their young lives. I ask them to reach into their guts, pull them out, and expose them to the world. I ask them to sit down and talk with the people they will write about. I ask them to share those stories with each other.

Then I ask them to share those stories with you.

This is maybe the most difficult thing they have done at this point because they are — through our writing process — forced to look at the world in ways they hadn’t done.

As I watched Jen in her last year with me, I had the pleasure of watching her begin to grow. She became more confident in what she was doing, at least outwardly. (I suspect she may have been that way inwardly already.) By the end of the year, she would happily tell me when I was wrong about something or when she disagreed with me.

She wasn’t the young girl who followed me around during my projects. She’d become a young writer who was on her way to finding her voice.

She’s graduated now, and living back at home while she plots her next move. We’ve had a few conversations, but I suspect I’ll hear from her after she’s already made her decisions.

I suspect you will hear from her again as well.