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The Fiction Issue 2015

'Mr. Creativity,' by Deb Olin Unferth

A short story about reinventing yourself, optimism, and jobs nobody wants.

This short story appears in the June 2015 Fiction Issue of VICE Magazine.

If, one day, a man were to appear on campus, summoned by the college president, a man in a generous suit, old enough to have had a long career elsewhere but young enough that it was not yet time to retire, and announce that his charge was to increase creativity, and that to this end he would go on a little tour of the departments, have lunch with the department heads, meet in small groups to solicit opinions and ideas, and in this way determine how creativity might play a bigger role, then how delighted the professors would be and how eager to meet and participate. But perhaps they would not be delighted and would suspect that the man was there to spy and to think of more jobs for them to do, add to their workload with his "creativity" ideas, or, worse, could decide they were inessential, uncreative employees, and the professors might ignore him as best they could, put off meeting with him, laugh at him when he left the room, loud enough that he might hear a trace of it as his steps echoed away down the hall. Besides, what does that mean, "increase creativity"? They might call him Creativity Man or Mr. Creativity and stubbornly give him no ideas or ideas that were ridiculous to throw him off, ideas that he'd then chase for weeks, only to present to the president, who would raise one eyebrow, tent his fingers, and frown.

But if, the year before all this, the man himself, Mr. Creativity, had been living far away, on the other side of the country, when his wife of 20 years had left him, and his employer of 12 had let him go, and his kids had gone away to college, then he might look to places he'd never lived, jobs he'd never held, with trepidation but hope. He had not wanted to make trouble, but he'd been in such a low state when his old friend from high school, now the president of a college all the way on the other coast, asked him to come, doing Mr. Creativity a turn, in honor of their long friendship, showing in him a faith that he, Mr. Creativity, no longer expected from others and didn't have in himself. He had welcomed the chance to go east, restart his life (by God he could do it—hadn't he done it before?), and who knew, maybe he'd meet someone, a woman he could grow old with. Among so many faculty living in that cold region, in that small town, there must be one who is divorced, or widowed, though of course one didn't wish such a thing on anyone.

So it was with this determination—not quite enthusiasm but the sheer human stubbornness that causes those worse off than he to grasp hold and climb back into the world of the living, "optimism" one might call it—that he snapped the suitcase shut and readied himself for the flight.