The Writing Class
By Jincy Willett
St. Martin's Press Copyright © 2008 Jincy Willett
All rights reserved.
M. J. Andersen
Carl and Suzie Hammond
Dick and Diane Longabaugh
Ward and Joanne Willett
who slogged through unfinished drafts (of a mystery novel, knowing that for years they wouldn't even find out who for pete's sake did it) and were cheerful and encouraging and gracious about the whole thing. I wouldn't have been.
Sven and Kristin Nielsen
for help with all email and Web site stuff, and who remain entirely blameless for any remaining bloopers.
who know why.
The Fat Broad
Lumbers into class five minutes late, dragging, along with her yard-wide butt, a beat-up vinyl briefcase stuffed with old notebooks. A contender once, it's obvious, she's got great hair, long and wavy and thick and white gold, but she's pushing sixty, pushing two hundred, and she wears polyester fat pants and a Big & Tall man's white long-sleeved shirt with the sleeves ragged and rolled up. Here is a woman who does not give a rat's ass.
She sits down behind a rickety desk in front of the whiteboard, upends the briefcase, and spreads out the notebooks and papers in a neat line, like a magician's row of cards. She's the teacher. But I knew this. How? Because she's the only person in the room who isn't nervous.
Because she's the dominant male.
She looks up and counts us with her eyes. Seven. She heaves herself up on her feet and addresses the whiteboard with a green marker:
Fiction Writing Workshop
And she follows it up with the numbers of her home phone and cell phone, which if I turned this into a novel or esp a screenplay I'd have to represent as 555-something, which is foolish, which is stupid, but there you are, this is the world we live in, soft and womanish and lowest common D.
I, of course, am not nervous. Yes, I am. Why? I've done this before. I'm a workshop vet, Purple Heart and Silver Cross. I've shown my stories to pretentious morons from sea to shining sea. I've been encouraged by twinkly grandmas, torn apart by gynecologists, talked down to by insurance salesmen.
Write what you know
The interesting thing about women, they get past a certain age and they might as well be men. The Dominant Male. Title? Idea for story?
BY TWINKLY GRANDMAS
Six more trickle in. The fat broad looks up with studied disinterest. Yes, studied disinterest. It's not a cliché because these workshop instructors don't get paid if they don't fill their quotas. The quota here is ten; any fewer than that and it's no go, we get our $$ back, the fat broad goes hungry, which would do her a world of good, but never mind. So behind her pleasant, scary face the gears are whirring and grinding. I've got to keep ten of these people. Not much breathing space. It's time to go into my dance.
And will she dance with me? Will she walk across that floor, past the losers and wannabes, the loudmouths, the grandmas, the housewives with a million stories in them, the math teachers whose characters for God's sake wake them up in the middle of the night — will she pass them all and pick me? And will it be a fun dance? Will she tell me I'm talented and brilliant and that it's just a matter of time and perseverance, and will she know what the hell she's talking about and will she have any idea how much fucking time and perseverance I've put into it already and will she look right at me and lie and will she for Christ's sake help me out or
2 more, more noise in hallway, here comes another, that makes 16, she must be breathing easier, the bitch
Or will she condescend me to fucking death like that pompous twit at Irvine and that pompous twat at Berkeley or look right through me like Professor Twitmore Fucking Twatface in Chi with his Recommended Reading list and his fucking Strunk & White
WRITE WHAT YOU KNOW
WRITE WHAT YOU KNOW
WRITE WHAT YOU KNOW
WRITE WHAT YOU KNOW
WRITE WHAT YOU KNOW
WRITE WHAT YOU
The Fat Broad speaks.
This is a fiction workshop. We will meet once a week for nine weeks, counting tonight, at the end of which time each of you will have written at least one piece of fiction and submitted it to the group for critique." Amy paused a beat, as she always did. "So anybody who thought this was a balloon winemaking class better throw dignity to the winds and beat feet."
Somebody tittered, but the rest was silence, except for the drone of that cheap standing fan in the back of the room. It was way past time to tweak the speech; balloon winemaking used to get the big laughs. Amy had a thought. "You do know what balloon winemaking is."
A generically lovely young woman raised her hand. "Isn't that where they like sail over the vineyards and sort of check out the vines?"
Amy sighed. "Balloon winemaking was a sixties thing. You mixed wine in a bottle, stuck a balloon over the neck, and watched it ferment."
"Yeah," said a guy in the back row, "and after a couple of weeks you got to watch it explode all over your garage."
Big laughs. Blessings on thee, little man. He didn't look quite old enough to remember the sixties, though. Only Amy in all the world was that old. Older even than this stocky, balding little guy with a great wide mouth like a frog. Maybe she could get a routine going with him, a little break-the-ice patter. Maybe he'd help her work the room.
She made a little show of studying her pre-registration list, which she would turn, before the night's end, into her own mnemonic cheat sheet. Froggie, she would pencil in next to his name. Amy had a poor memory for faces, let alone names, and needed all the help she could give herself. "And you are ...?" She maintained eye contact and let her mouth hang open expectantly.
Froggie wiggled bushy eyebrows and smiled a secret smile.
Oh crap. "You want me to guess?"
"Nah. You'd never do it. I'm not on your list."
That's what you think. Amy shifted in her squeaky chair, raised her voice. "Which brings me to the list. I have here, in my hand" — she waved the pre-registration list — "a list of known ..." If they didn't remember the sixties, for sure they wouldn't know the fifties. Although, now that she was beginning to look at them individually, clearly there were a few old enough; one woman was more than old enough. "And first among the boring tasks before us tonight is checking your names against this list. Since there are ten names here and sixteen people in the room, my lightning powers of deduction tell me that at least six of you are window shopping." Hands started to go up. "Shoppers who decide to stay with us will register between now and next Monday."
"What if we're undecided?" Froggie again.
"We offer this course every quarter. Winter will come around before you know it." She gave him her frostiest smile, which was unwise. She needed the money; she couldn't afford to alienate potential students (customers, the university extension people called them); and Froggie wasn't really out of line. But she hated first nights, hated not knowing if she'd have enough people to run the class (she'd never failed, in fifteen consecutive quarters, but there was always a first time), hated most of all having to work a cold room. In a few weeks' time she'd feel comfortable with these people, and most of them would like her. Right now she wanted them all to buzz off.
Two hands shot up close together. Amy smiled vaguely in that direction and rattled her damn list. "When I read your name, please tell me if I've pronounced it correctly. Between me and the registrar you've got about a fifty-fifty chance." Dead silence.
Amy focused on the first name, which was, of course, surreal. "Tiny Arena?" Amy had long ago learned, from a student named Mary Louise Poop, to keep incredulousness out of her voice and face when reading the class roll.
Sure enough a hand went up, connected to a pale, morbidly obese man in his sixties. Even seated he was clearly way over six feet tall. "Tiny Arena?" Amy asked again, gently, and the man gravely nodded. She relaxed. "You know, I've come across your nickname in fiction lots of times, but in all my years of teaching, you're my first real-life Tiny."
"Actually," the man said, and his voice trailed off into a mumble. He had eyes like Amy's basset hound, red-rimmed, lugubrious. Tiny = Alphonse, she wrote.
"I beg your pardon?"
"Tony," the man said. "Actually, my name is Tony."
"But they call you Tiny?"
"I'm awfully sorry." Then why in hell did you nod your head yes, you big dope? Somebody giggled. Not Tony Arena. Amy broke a sweat and kept going, even when she saw the next name. Straight-faced, she looked out over the crowd and said, "Harold Blassbag." Jesus.
"Blass Ball," enunciated a visibly annoyed man in the front row.
"Sorry, Blass Ball," said Amy. Blassball? What the hell kind of name was Blassball?
"Blass Ball," said the man, even more put out.
"Blass ..." Oh for god's sake. "I'm sorry. Could you spell it?"
"B-L-A-S-B-A-L-G." He was a slight, fine-boned, annoyed man in a maroon running suit, which would come in handy when he ran back to the registration office, Tony Arena in tow, to demand both their refunds.
"Thank you. Sorry about this. And pronounced Blass Ball?"
"Suggestion!" Froggie waved his hairy arm in exaggerated, locked-elbow fashion, like a small child who has to go to the bathroom. "How about we turn off this fan? It's making a terrific racket back here."
"Please," said Amy, and in a click a terrible quiet descended over a room she had previously thought merely tomblike. "And I'll tell them to put a second l in your name, Mr. Blasbalg."
"Harry," said the annoyed man.
Amy cleared her throat. "Ricky Brizza?"
"Three for three!" cheered Froggie, to scattered applause.
"That was my line," said Amy, who felt already as if she and Froggie had been mortal enemies in another life. "Buzza," she said sadly.
"B-U-Z-Z-A. You got it." The young man smiled at her in a kindly way. "But you can call me Brizza if you want." He looked like a Norman Rockwell paperboy all grown up, eager and full of energy. He was going to stay. And he had short-clipped blond hair, not exactly a buzz cut, but it would do.
"No," said grateful Amy, "I will call you Buzza." She scribbled on her list, fixing Buzza, fixing Tony, decorating Blasbalg with obscenities. "Next," she said, "we have, arguably, Dorothy Hieronymus."
"Here." A plump, pleasant-faced woman about Amy's age raised her hand. "I use dot," she said.
Amy nodded as though this made sense, because by now she basically didn't give a shit. Uses dot. "Tiffany McGee." The pretty blonde girl with the winery balloonists. Of course her name was just fine. "Sylvester Reyes." Tall, tan, fifties, hiking shorts, sitting in the front row with his legs spread wide. Why did men do that? Simple comfort? No way. "Call me Syl," he said.
Amy shook her head at the next name. "I'm sorry, ladies and gentlemen, but as God is my witness, the next name is Marvy Stokes."
General hilarity. She was working the room at last. Sure, they were laughing at her, but the laughter seemed pretty companionable. This could turn out to be a good group, what with the shared experience of watching its instructor make an ass of herself. What price dignity? Nine hundred and thirty-five dollars a quarter, no benefits. "You're my first Marvy, Mr. Stokes," said Amy.
"And you're my first writing teacher," said Marvy, a Hawaiian-print shirt, chest-hair kind of guy in his forties. "Actually, it's Marvin," he said.
"Hence Marvy," said Amy.
"Got it. Frank Wasted?"
"Wah-sted," said another running-suit man in his thirties, this one bright orange. He'd beat out Blasbalg in a sprint: he looked like a lifetime member of Gold's Gym. Maybe a founder.
"Wah-sted," said Amy. Why the hell not? "W-A-S-T-E-D?"
"There's another A," Wah-sted offered, reasonably.
"Right before the first one."
"I can't stand it." Amy put her head in her hands. The laughter was delighted, unforced. They were bonding.
"W-A-A-S-T-E-D." Muscle Man ticked off each letter on a stubby upraised finger and smiled agreeably. "See?"
"As in aardvark."
"Edna Wentworth?" Gray hair, thick and permed; polite smile.
Amy shot a look toward the speaker, who turned out to be Ricky Buzza. "I beg your pardon?"
"She's coming. She's late. She's a colleague of mine." She's more than that, thought Amy, watching Ricky Buzza turn pink.
"So much for the list," she said, and turned it over so she could write on its back. "Now for the shoppers. Starting here" — she said, pointing stage right — "would those of you whose names haven't been called out and mangled please identify yourselves?"
A handsome, patrician man in a gorgeous cream-colored cashmere sweater raised, not his hand, but a single index finger, as though summoning a waiter. "I am Dr. Richard Surtees," he said.
Well, whoopee. Amy flashed on an old joke, one of the sort where, given a famous line, you were supposed to fabricate a question that changed its meaning. Line: Dr. Livingstone, I presume? Question: And what is your full name, Dr. Presume?
An equally handsome woman to his left, mid-forties, skinned-back chestnut hair, smiled at Amy. "Ginger Nicklow," she said. Their looks were similarly classical, but the similarity stopped there, and clearly she was unconnected, other than spatially, to Dr. Richard Surtees. She had a thrift-shop elegance about her that beat hell out of wallet-elegance.
"Pete Purvis," said somebody somewhere. Amy looked up but couldn't find him. "I'm here," said Pete Purvis, and sure enough he was, a pale young man in a green sweatshirt, squarely behind poor Tiny. Tony. Amy could just see his upraised hand.
Two hands went up in unison, side by side. A couple in matching T-shirts and jeans. "We're the Boudreaus, Sam and Marilyn," said the man. "We're not staying," said the woman."
"Do you want to leave now?"
The Boudreaus shrugged and shook their smiling heads in unison. The first class was free, and clearly the Boudreaus never turned down a freebie.
A tall, slender young woman stood in the doorway, panting.
"Tiffany Zuniga?" asked Amy unnecessarily, as Ricky Buzza was making a clumsy job of clearing his stuff off the chair next to him. When she didn't notice him he patted the seat, thumping it hopefully, like the tail of a happy hound. Taking pity, Amy pointed him out to Tiffany II, who sat down without acknowledging him, whipped a steno pad out of her backpack, and held her pencil poised above it, ready to record Amy's every luminous word.
Amy cleared her throat. "Either one of you is lying doggo," she said, "or I can't add. I've got fifteen names now on my list and there are sixteen of you."
"It's me," said Froggie. "I was on the fence."
"That's perfectly all right, but I'd still like your name."
"I'm not so sure," said Froggie, grinning.
"Rumplestiltskin?" asked Amy.
"Charlton Heston," said Froggie.
Amy just stared.
"Really," said Froggie. "My mother was a religious nut."
"Charlton Heston," said Amy. She massaged her eyeballs as the class bonded joyously all around her. It was early for break, but what the hell. "Take five, everybody. Take twenty. When you come back, we'll get down to business. Be prepared to tell us what books you like to read, and what you hope to accomplish here in the remaining weeks." Amy always got them to name their favorite writers: it was a good icebreaker, and it helped her sort them out in her head. A depressing proportion of writing students didn't actually read much fiction, but few would admit it. Instead, they'd usually profess a deep love of one or all of three writers: Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Updike. Amy had no idea why these were the safe names for nonreaders. Perhaps this would make a good list for her blog.
Charlton Heston walked up to her as the rest filed out. "Can I get you a cup of coffee?"
"Is your name really Charlton Heston?"
Amy sighed and found herself smiling up at him. "You can get me a beer."
"How do you take it?"
"Black," said Amy.
Class List Cheat Sheet
—took off during break — kill me now
HAROLD BLASBA — LG —lawyer!!!, HARRY, likes King, Grisham, Turow, zzzzzzz
RICKY BUZZA —young — 25? — blond buzz cut — reporter North County Times — thing for Tiffany Z — Palahniuk, Bukowski, Pete Dexter
DOROTHY HIERONYMUS —matron — clueless Margaret Dumont book-club type, "I read everything" esp UPDIKE (prob Nora Roberts) — "DOT"
TIFFANY MCGEE —blonde airhead, "I don't read a lot but I wanna write"!!! (Continues...)
Excerpted from The Writing Class by Jincy Willett. Copyright © 2008 Jincy Willett. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
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