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December 14, 2010

CAN WRITERS BE PROPHETS?



Have you ever heard of the Infinite Monkey Theorem?  It states that if you set a monkey in a chair in front of a computer keyboard  (or as originally expressed: “in front of a typewriter keyboard”), and allow that monkey an infinite amount of time, it will almost surely type the complete works of William Shakespeare!  

When my science teacher back at Holy Family High School told us that, of course, we laughed, not because we rejected the theorem, but because the image of a hyper monkey scratching its armpits in between pecking away, one key at a time, was too funny for words.  Now, looking back to 1958 and Mr. Sabello’s revelation, I suppose the image that popped into our teacher's head was a classroom of monkeys scratching our armpits in our infinite endeavor to type an acceptable term paper.  That would explain the hint of a grin on Mr. Sabello’s face.

But I digress a bit.  The title of this piece is “Can Writers Be Prophets?”  It’s not about monkeys at all, but there is a connection, albeit flimsy, I suppose.

If writers, over the span of a lifetime, produce, let’s say, 1,000 stories, can at least one of those fiction pieces predict the future?  One in a 1,000, I believe, would support what I have named “The Lifetime Writer/prophet Theorem.  

What got me thinking about this new theorem was my own realization that in approximately that many stories which I’ve written, three of them were prophetic.  Three of them in a sense came true!  Did I know this at the time I pecked away on my Remington typewriter?  Did I say, like Archimedes, “Eureka!”  Did I feel the glow that comes from an epiphany moment?  Did I say to myself, “This story will foreshadow a future event and you will be hailed a prophet in the writing community?  Hardly.

In 1952, I wrote a story called “Carolyn,” in which the protagonist, whose name I do not recall (maybe it was Benjamin Shaba, one of my many pen names in those early days), was an infantryman fighting a war in 1967 in…(drum roll here!) Iraq!  Why did I choose for my setting a country in the Middle East?  Who knows!  Since when does a prophet understand these things?  Did St. John know what he was writing on that lonely island of Patmos?  Did Nostradamus say, “Okay, today I shall pen a quatrain about the Kennedy brothers?"  Did Edgar Cayce, the sleeping prophet, know what he was predicting while he lay on a couch, talking in his sleep?  

Did I know in that year in June a Six-Day War would rage in the Middle East between Israel and a few hostile neighboring nations?  I was writing a love story, mostly letters of correspondence between a soldier and his fiancée Carolyn, while the bombs bursting in air were not deterrents enough to keep him from writing love letters from the heart.

In 1960, I was a sophomore at the University of Miami, where the unkind joke is, if you attend there, chances are you are majoring in Basket Weaving.  I never found that slur very amusing, despite my student participation there being, in any stretch of the wildest imagination, even remotely academic.  I cut classes so many times that when I entered the classroom, the students, and even the professor, would give me a hearty round of applause. Maybe they had thought I’d dropped out.  Drowned on the beach.  Drank myself into a beer stupor, collapsed in some alleyway, and got devoured by nibbling rats.  They were happy to see me.

Anyway, back to prophecies.  Though I hardly attended classes, I did write a story I submitted it to the campus Tempo Magazine, which they not only accepted, but had one of the art students illustrate “She Never Travels Alone.”   I purchased ten copies, only one of which, to my knowledge, remains extant and that is to my right at the moment on my bookcase shelf.

In “She Never Travels Alone,” my character is an irresponsible, reckless, ne’er-do-well, modeled after the writer of the piece, so it was easy to dash off lines since I had so well taken to heart the old Greek aphorism “Know thyself,” about all I learned from Philosophy I.  

My character brazenly tells his boss, a fellow named Dunhill, to shove the job where clocks don’t get punched, and then walks out into the warm Miami air.  That was in 1960.  Here comes the fulfillment of that prophecy.  In 1991, I got a job working as an account executive for a mailing list company in New York City.  My boss, the owner of the company, was Mr. Dunhill!  Wait, there’s more.  Business got slow and the boss had to give the boot to one of his four account executives.  

“Why me?” I asked Mr. Dunhill?

He smiled the way a cat smiles after he’s eaten your favorite canary.

“Because you’re the only one who came to me each year, demanding a 20% raise.”

“But you only gave me 5%!”

“Five percent each year for eleven years adds up,” he said.

So in anger, despite my liking the guy up to that point, I rose from his office chair and said in my best I-don’t-give-a-crap voice, “You can shove this job where the sun won’t shine!”  He reached across the table and shook my hand.  “Loretta, will give you your severance check.”

Now would you call my story prophetic or what?

And now the third time this writer was at the same time a prophet occurred in a story I wrote in 1973.  It told of an attack on the United States of America, but not by fanatical terrorists but by invaders from outer space.  In my story they zap the Empire Building in New York City, along with the artistic work of art, the Chrysler Building.  I chose those two since they were so highly recognized as reflecting the Big Apple.  The Twin Towers never entered my mind, so the prophecy was not as accurate as it could have been.  

Now that I am a much older writer, I have put it all together and I don’t like what I’m finding.  Three of my stories have proved prophetic (several hundred others the critics would consider "pathetic").  I don’t know how many other fiction pieces will in time join the ranks of my so-far three.  

I have written stories about a world plague caused and spread by Chihuahuas; a popular vampire elected President of the United States; Satan appearing live at Radio City Music Hall to premier his hit song, “Burn, Baby, Burn!”

I’m thinking to myself, Hold off on the grim and deadly.  Stop writing stories that are cataclysmic, catastrophic, post-bellum, post-diluvian, post-nuclear, post office takeovers by zombie e-mailers, post-Armageddon, Post-it’s contaminated with anthrax!  No more!  I shall not write about the hideous, the unclean, the giant man- (and woman-) eating ladybugs; the mad scientist who, by mistake, invents the Crime Machine that spits out new and undetectable ways to not only break the law but completely destroy it. No nursery rhymes gone horribly wrong; no Miss Muffet torn apart by blue-berry-loving spiders; no blizzards of cockroaches showering down our heads.  

Writers are prophets and that’s a pity.  We need to be careful what we put down on paper.  It could one day bite us where we sit.  Our hands are tied.  Only the unconscionable among us writers would throw caution to the wind and take their chances predicting, or what is exponentially worse, bringing a future disaster to fruition by first giving it life in a story!

A new year is dawning.  I shall repent by writing only happy poems that sing and dance.  My flash stories will be decently dressed.  My story plots will circumvent cemeteries.  They will divest themselves of blood-curdling screams, bodies hacked for the heck of it, nations itching to press the red button that launches missiles.

Knowing now this hard-to-ignore connection between writings and future events, I shall cease and desist from further negativities.  All my writings will feature sparrows and petunias.  My stanzas and paragraphs will tell of Utopian tomorrows where war is unheard of.  A future where people revive that old custom of wearing flowers in their hair…flowers everywhere.  My stories will show protagonists and antagonists loving one another, settings of sun and calm waters, enough peace to go around.

There is another old adage that claims “Three’s a crowd.”  Well, I’ve written three stories that came true and three is quite my limit.  

Let me warn those of you who find pleasure in penning horror stories that could end up in our future.  You’re playing with fire, so knock it off!  

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Salvatore Buttaci, author of Flashing My Shorts

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