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Vol. 3, No. 4

How to Tell a Story
by Margo Rabb

There are three things I've learned, so far, in my graduate creative-writing program:

  1. Deny, at all costs, that your fiction bears any resemblance to your real life (First Commandment of the MFA program: Autobiography Is Sin);

  2. Sleeping with an attractive male classmate who is widely admired by fellow students will yield positive feedback on your stories (attractive male will comment enthusiastically, and admirers will echo his opinions);

  3. Tequila shots in the women's bathroom before class enhance your ability to stomach painful criticism of your stories.

It's my third semester in the Master of Fine Arts program at Southwestern University, which is also known as the Master of Fucking Around, a term affectionately coined by one of our prominent male graduates, whose first book advance was larger than all of the faculty's salaries here, combined.
    Today, my story's up in workshop. It's called "The Gift," and is about a nineteen-year-old girl whose mother and father die in a plane crash twenty miles off the coast of Maine. Coincidentally, my parents died in a British Airways crash off the coast of Maine five years ago, when I was nineteen. Half the workshop knows this about me; half doesn't, including Charles Chester, the professor. In our private, pre-workshop conference fifteen minutes earlier, he'd stared down his nose at me and asked, "Is this autobiographical?" His thin arms twitched under his camel-colored, elbow-patched cardigan, which he wears every day (do they give you a crate of those the moment you receive tenure?). Chester is rumored to be around fifty, though he looks ninety. He carries a doughnut-shaped hemorrhoid pillow around with him everywhere, to sit on during our three-hour class. Rumor has it he was once nominated for a National Book Award; I've searched for his books in five bookstores, and all are out of print.

"No," I told him in the private conference. "It's not autobiographical."
    If the pre-workshop conference is like being massacred slowly and having your inner organs scrupulously probed and dissected and analyzed, then the twelve-person workshop is like being a piece of raw steak fed to starving bears, all of them clawing you, chewing you up, and then spitting you out. And afterward, you're supposed to say "Thank you."
    As the workshop of my story begins, everyone searches Chester's face for a verdict of what he thinks of the story. He's frowning; this, to my peers, is sufficient proof that my story sucks.
    "It's just not believable. I mean--a plane crash?" Howard begins. Howard is the program prodigy. The faculty cream over him. They give him prizes. Awards. Nominations. Scholarships. His last story was about a pedophile who set fire to his own arm hairs. An allegory, the professor had called it.
    "I think the plane's okay, the problem is there are too many characters. Why do you have both the parents die? How 'bout one?" Stacy asks. "One would be more real. Less dilution of tension. Also, you could probably begin the story on page ten." Stacy has four standard comments: Too many characters, Start on page [5, 10, 15, or 20], That's a red herring, and Show, don't tell. She offers these comments in different random combinations, like lottery numbers. She's learned them in classes at Southwestern and the University of Iowa, where she received her previous MFA (several students in the program are working toward their second degrees, putting off the collective nightmare of having to get a regular job). "Also, you mention this gift thing and then you hardly discuss it directly again: total red herring," she goes on. "And I think you need to show the plane crash. Show the suffering, the terror. Make us cry."
    "It did make me cry," Lily says, nearly whimpering, which is her usual tone of voice. "I think it's so sad. I mean, God... it's a gem. A real gem. Don't change a thing." I would hug Lily, except she's said the same thing about everyone's stories; we've all written gems.
    "Anna, could you please read that page we talked about in our conference, aloud?" Chester asks.
    "Okay," I say, trying not to let my voice waver. I'd rather uncap my pen and impale myself in the eye than read this story out loud. Reading a story I've written is like confessing, like being on The Jerry Springer Show, except the other guests punch you verbally instead of physically, and instead of breaking up the fight the professor nods encouragingly and takes notes.
    "This is from, umm . . . page three?" I say, my voice sounding like a ten-year-old's.

    My fifth day in Deer Bay, I received a letter, a plain white business envelope with no return address. For five days I'd been numb, walking around the streets of this town like a zombie, pacing aimlessly alongside all the other surviving relatives who'd been flown in, along with a bevy of grief counselors, by the airline. There were over a hundred of us "next of kin"; we gathered each morning by the shore to watch the divers try to find the remains of the plane. Every day I stared at the ocean, entranced, as if I expected my parents to miraculously emerge out of it, saying "Oh hi, Amy, we're so glad you waited for us . . ." as if they'd survived the crash, the days in the ocean, safe in an underwater Atlantis, and were just waiting for the divers to rescue them and bring them ashore.

    The days in Deer Bay had been so bizarre and surreal that I didn't even think it odd, at first, to get this unmarked envelope delivered to me there, in the middle of nowhere. The envelope was postmarked from Boston; I'd never even been to Boston. Standing outside the post office, I tore it open: it was a money order for $500, made out in my name.

    It took several long minutes for it to sink in: that article in the paper. Someone must have read it, that piece in the Globe--I'd done an interview, they were profiling us, the surviving relatives; every day there was a new write-up on one of us. They'd run my picture two days before with the caption Amy Appel, Orphan Girl, like I was some kind of musical being advertised, or photo study, or curiosity, or freak. My fingers trembled on the envelope--to think of myself as the kind of person someone read about in the paper and felt so sorry for, they'd send money--it made me angry, to be the object of pity, and frightened, too. Against my will, I'd become a different person. I had no other family, no siblings or aunts or uncles; all my grandparents were dead. The world I'd always known had ended, now, and this week in Deer Bay was the knife that slowly carved my life in two.

    "It's like a cheesy TV movie," Brian says to the class, avoiding eye contact with me. "If I saw it on channel nine, I'd turn it off."

"I agree--and the setting has to go. Why Maine? I could see this set in Germany, and maybe during another time period, like during the war," Calvin says.
    "That first line--`My fifth day in Deer Bay'--it rhymes. My first thought was, What the hell is it, a sonnet?" Howard adds.

The comments go on. I half listen to Sam, the oldest student and a Vietnam vet, who agrees with everything that's been said and wants more action, action, action; Helen, Sam's twenty-two-year-old wife, who compares every story to Raymond Carver's; Leslie, bra-size DDD (she informed everyone at the first party of the year), who wants a sex scene. Then there are the silent students, such as Josh, who sit there, as always, in speechless disapproval, as if the story isn't even worth a disparaging comment. Josh drove me home from a party once, earlier this year, then invited himself in for a glass of water, read the spines of all the books on my shelves, gazed thoughtfully at the posters on my walls, kissed me on the cheek, and then practically flew out of my apartment, leaving me thinking, What the hell was that?
    Despite the "autobiography is sin" clause, I know so much about these twelve people it's horrifying. It's too much, more than peers should know: that Lily was molested by her uncle (four stories); that Sam attempted suicide twice (three stream-of-consciousness pieces); that Leslie's father was an alcoholic (a novel). I know these things are true, because I'm the one who's asked, at parties and bars after class: Did that happen for real? And the answer is nearly always an embarrassed yes.
    Chester interrupts my thoughts and says, "I think this selection Anna has read illustrates the difference between sentiment and sentimentality. Brian likened this story to a television movie. Why? Let's discuss this concept--sentimentality."
    Everyone stares at the ceiling.
    Surprisingly, Josh speaks. "I disagree," he says, and shrugs. "I disagree with everything that's been said. I don't think it's sentimental, I think it's emotional, and the emotion works, considering the subject. The whole story works--I feel for this girl, this narrator, Amy. That her parents died is totally believable, and heartbreaking, too. The tension of receiving the money . . . it's a complex, moving story, and I don't think anyone's given it enough credit here."
    Miraculous: I can't believe he just said that. Josh comments so rarely that whenever he speaks, everyone listens, and his approval of my work causes a ripple effect.
    Stacy pauses, then says, "I do like the description of the town--there are some nice details there."
    A few moments later, Calvin adds, "And yeah, the letter . . . the idea of the letter, that someone sends her this gift that she doesn't want . . . it's not a bad premise."
    A few other people offer some semi-compliments about the story's meager merits; they stare at me, surely thinking I've slept with Josh, viewing me with a new admiration.
    Meanwhile, I can't believe that anyone, besides Lily, has actually said something positive about my story. The only time someone's ever said "I think this story works" was when Leslie wrote "Triple Irony," last spring--soon after she'd announced, to a group of us at a local bar, "I want to write a story about a ménage à trois but I've never had one, can anyone help?" During the workshop of that story, Brian and Calvin drew comparisons to Chekhov.

Chester ignores the positive commentary, and as the workshop winds down he embarks on a monologue about the horror of comma splices, then reminds us that there's a reading tonight by Bruce Ryan, who recently won the Pulitzer Prize. Everyone's going to this reading--we've been talking about it all semester. Ryan's book The Lancet and the Plum, a collection of short stories about being a military doctor in Vietnam, is taught in all the craft seminars; it's one of my favorite books. Rumor has it that his next novel, which isn't even completed yet, has already been sold for over $1 million. Everyone's so excited, nervous, and frenzied about meeting him, it's as if the messiah's coming to town.
    "Don't forget the party after the reading, at my place," Stacy announces to the class, and passes out a map with directions. Stacy's convinced that she and Bruce Ryan are going to have an affair; she's been E-mailing him all year, since she met him at a reading he gave in Iowa City last summer. "He's really an amazing guy, he wants to spend time with me and may even mention me to his agent," she's told us.
    Today's class ends just in time, as my pre-workshop shot of tequila is wearing off--Leslie and I had brought the flask, lime, and salt shaker to the girls' bathroom earlier, as we always do. Everyone adjourns to the Slaughtered Lamb, which serves free happy-hour food on Wednesdays. It's our Wednesday tradition: murder each other in class, then celebrate. As I pack my things up, Josh says, "I really did like it, Anna, I think it's an amazing story," and says he'll wait for me in the hall, to walk to the bar.

I'm emboldened by Josh's response, and surprised that I've survived yet another workshop in one piece. I'm also angry at Chester for making me feel horrible about the story for no reason, and I tell him, when it's just he and I left in the room, "Well, some people liked it. You know, I think I may submit this story for the Harden Prize."
    The awarding of the Alice Harden Prize is the most significant event of the program: it's $2,000, and based on the story we submit for it, all forty-seven of us fiction writers are ranked from best to worst. From that ranking, it's decided who gets teaching fellowships and nominations for national awards and publications--and, more important, it represents wholehearted approval, and recognition that the winners have talent, and an actual chance of becoming writers.
    Chester stares at me. "I don't know if it's such a good idea to submit this story for the prize." He sits on the corner of his desk. I wonder how his hemorrhoids are doing. "At least not without a lot more work," he says.
    "I've worked on it so long, though. Really--this is like my hundredth draft. And some people, well, one person in workshop definitely liked it . . ."
    "Anna, I have to tell you this. Whatever's happened in your own life"--he stares off at the blackboard, as if this is painful for him, talking to me--"does not necessarily make a satisfying story. Because a thing, an emotion, an event, is true in life, doesn't mean it will be true on the page. If you're going to be a writer, you should know what it takes--an ability to create an imaginary world, to separate your fiction from the facts of your own life."
    He says the word writer almost mockingly, the way one might say movie star.
    I gaze down at the floor. I sometimes wish that, instead of writing fiction, we were doing something hopelessly esoteric, like writing linguistic analyses of sixteenth-century pig Latin, because then there wouldn't be this tiny chance of making it. Because that's the hope we all have, buried in each of us, somewhere: we all want to make it. Past winners of the Harden Prize have gone on to publish stories in The New Yorker and The Atlantic Monthly and Harper's; they've won Guggenheim, Lannan, and NEA grants and PEN/Faulkner Awards; they've been to MacDowell and Yaddo and Bread Loaf; they've had their pictures in Poets & Writers and their books reviewed in theNew York Times, and have even, now and then, appeared on the bestseller list. They've achieved my dream--not to be famous, or rich, or eternally remembered, but just to make a living as a writer, to keep telling stories for the rest of my life.
    "I thought . . . " I say, "I'm just trying to tell a good story. I just want to . . . you know, keep doing this, writing stories, till I can make a living at it--that's all I really want."
    He raises his eyebrows, as if I've just told him all I want is to fly to the moon.
    "Anna, I'm going to tell you this, because no one else will. Before you make a mistake in planning your future. I don't know if you have what it takes to be a writer. I haven't seen one story of yours which has shown the potential to be published. Frankly, I haven't seen a sign of that ability in your work."
    I flinch; it's almost as if he's slapped me, as if he's kicked me in the stomach. This is different from the disparaging comments on my stories: this is my whole goddamned life.
    "I'm simply telling you this so that you can make appropriate decisions when planning how you will--as you said--`make a living,'" he says.
    I don't know what to say. What can I say? "Well, huh." My face is hot; I look at my shoes and my watch and say, "Oh! Gotta go!" and bound out of the room and down the hall, past Josh and the lingering crowd, down the stairs and into the relentless southwestern sun, and I'm crying, weeping, because it's my heart that's just been trashed and trampled and critiqued, and because everything I've written is true, everything I've ever written is true.

 

~

It's not the Alice Harden Prize I've got any chance of getting, but the Weeping Prize, The Girl Who's Cried Most in the English Department. I walk the six long, sun-cooked blocks to my apartment, trying to gather myself back together.
    I've attempted to write stories that aren't about losing my parents, about death. That aren't about orphans, or plane crashes, or lost love and feeling alone in the world--and I can't. The events, characters, and dialogue in my stories are only impressions of real life, but the emotions are completely, unmistakably mine.
    And the thing is, it's not like I can just make myself stop. It's like a need, a compulsion, to write-- a constant feeling, whenever I go into a bookstore, of wanting, more than anything, to read a story that will comfort me, a story about a girl who has no parents, who finds herself weeping, for no immediate reason, while standing on line at Safeway or Epic Café or while walking down the street. I want to read about a girl who feels she'll never get better, she'll never survive, and she's not quite an "orphan" like in Great Expectations and Oliver Twist, and she's too old for The Secret Garden and too jaded for Anne of Green Gables, and it seems there's no one else in the world like her, no one else who's felt this. And of course I can't find that story, that book I so want to read, because it doesn't exist, because it's in my head. And what else can you do, then, but write it down?
    Ironically, it's not such a comfort once you do write it down--it's usually the opposite. One night in Maine, one of the grief counselors gave us notepads and said, "Write out your sorrow--it'll soothe you." Nancy, who was twenty-three and had just lost her husband and two-year-old daughter in the crash, shouted at the counselor, "Are you fucked?" And I think Nancy was right; it is kind of fucked, dredging up all the pain over and over, remembering how I identified my mother only by her watch, and my father, by his college ring. Sometimes, at night, I lie awake worrying that the Greek myths are true, that like the dead warriors in Hades, fated to live for eternity with their bloody war wounds and torn clothes, my parents are now left somewhere with their bodies destroyed beyond recognition, forever. Sometimes I even lie to people, and tell them my mother died of cancer and my father of a heart attack, because I'm too embarrassed that my life's a newspaper article, because I can't deal with the fact that I found out my parents had died not from a phone call from the airline (I had to call them, and it took hours to officially confirm) but because I saw the crash reported on a news break, interrupting a Sting video I was watching on MTV.
    Why can't I stop writing? Because life can be so absurdly sickening that I have to rearrange it, alter it, turn it into fiction.

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