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Vol. 3, No. 4

How to Tell a Story
by Margo Rabb

~

When I reach my apartment, my mail is waiting for me. There are the usual bills, a postcard from a friend in New York, and three envelopes addressed to me, in my own handwriting: SASEs. Rejections.
    I send short stories out like a banshee. At the moment, I've got stories at eleven places, like little children at foster homes, trying to get themselves adopted. Right now "The Gift" is at three magazines, "The Flight" is at four, and "Deer Bay" and "Longing" are at two places each.
    The first two rejections are printed notes, the usual "Thank you for your submission but we have no use for it, blah blah blah," one with a Sorry! scrawled next to it, to which I want to scrawl back Fuck off! on the little note and return it to them. I have a file of all the rejections I've received so far, a big fat stack of notes and slips, some of which I've gotten back after a magazine has kept a story for two years. Once I received a note stapled to a soiled, crumpled copy of my manuscript, from the Partisan Review, explaining that their basement had flooded and my manuscript had been submerged under a foot of water; another favorite, from The Paris Review, apologized for the delay in my story's return, but it had been "misplaced" for six months under an intern's bed.
    The last of today's notes, which I open now, is from The Lion. It's handwritten:

    Dear Anna,

    Thanks for your story, "The Flight." While a bunch of us here loved it, the final decision of the editors went against publication. We see too many stories about death, and are looking for something fresher. But please send more work. I enjoy reading your stories, and I hope to publish something of yours soon.

    Best Regards,

    Tom Westlake

    I hope to publish something of yours soon. Tom Westlake. Oh, Tom, what do you look like? Are you single? I'm in love with you, and I will marry you and have your children if you will please, please publish my story.
    I take out "The Flight" and reread it, striking out entire pages and writing one more, and before I know it two hours have passed and there's a knock on the door. Leslie, Lily, and Josh are standing there.
    "We were worried about you, when you left so quickly and didn't come to the bar," Lily says, and Leslie adds, "We thought maybe Chester tried to rape you, but then we realized he wouldn't have the equipment for that."
    I smile and say I'm okay. I can't bring myself to tell them what Chester said to me, but I show them Tom Westlake's rejection slip, and everyone agrees it's certainly encouraging, there's no doubt, and Lily gives me the latest creative-writing-program news: "The word at the Lamb was that they're going to have Bruce Ryan judge the Harden Prize--it won't be decided by the faculty at all."
    We walk to the reading together. "You should submit that story from class today," Josh says.
    "Or just give Bruce Ryan a little extra attention tonight," Leslie says. "Wonderbra time."

 

~

I'll tell you something: there's a fashion problem plaguing writers. Bruce Ryan is wearing a Hawaiian shirt with four buttons undone, and his chest is covered in so much gray fluff it looks like a limp squirrel is napping between his pecs. He wears the kind of tinted eyeglasses serial killers wear, and a glittery bracelet that I think I saw on Puff Daddy at the Grammys. Someday, as a public service, I'm going to start my own company, Makeovers for Writers. Perhaps I could get NEA funding. Or at least a guest-speaking spot at Bread Loaf.
    Ryan is reading a new story, which unfortunately bears no resemblance to his previous work; it's about a lecherous history professor with a predilection for groping female students. I wonder if this is autobiographical. The fact that our future in the program lies in his hands is not a comfort. I glance around the auditorium. In the back two rows sit the fiction faculty: there's the director of the program, Frank Ogden, who, according to program legend, punched out the former director in a fistfight; his wife, Karen Warren, who looks like she's perpetually sucking a lemon; Charles Chester, who towers over everyone because he's perched on his hemorrhoid pillow; Christopher Mann and Joseph Wilson, whose stomachs protrude so far past their shoes it appears they've eaten all their remaindered books.
    I know I'm harsh. You must, dear reader, be thinking: She's judgmental, our storyteller. She's an unreliable narrator.

There are too many characters.
    Too many red herrings.

She should've started on page 10.
    The reading finally ends, Ryan climbs down from the stage, and Stacy kisses him on the cheek. She scrambles off to prepare for the party, and a tanned, hefty man with a face like a baked ham slaps Ryan on the back, fraternity-brother style. Eventually, the two men make their way to the back of the auditorium, where Leslie, Lily, and I are standing. Baked-Ham Man sticks his arm out at me. "Carlos," he says, and shakes my hand too tightly. "And I guess y'all know Bruce Ryan."
    We introduce ourselves. "You probably know Carlos already too, though you don't realize it," Ryan says. "The character Costas in Lancet and Plum?You're talking to him."
    I remember Costas from the book--daring, emotional, sympathetic. I hadn't pictured him looking like something from the meat case.
    "Hey--you girls like a ride to the party with me and Ryan?" Carlos says, and before we know it, we're all piling into Carlos's red sports car.
    Ryan opens the door to the front seat for me. "You," he says, poking my arm. "You're a good writer."
    "But you haven't read any of my work," I say.
    He clutches my arm firmly. "I can tell."
    Up close, Ryan's face looks like it's made of leather. He's lizardy. Worn. Thin. He spits when he talks. As we drive to the party, he lets loose a litany of non sequiturs: he used to be macrobiotic, but now he eats only green vegetables and steak; he will work only with female editors who are under thirty-five; his ex-girlfriend tried to kill him by poisoning his gin and tonic; girls in one-piece bathing suits should be arrested for prudishness. The man needs a verbal editor, and then he needs to be knocked in the head. How's it possible that he wrote such a beautiful book?
    Carlos drives at about eighty miles an hour. "So you girls are writers, huh?" he says. He seems to get a kick out of this idea, as if we're a circus act.
    "We are," Leslie says, giggling. When any powerful man is present, Leslie's entire frontal lobe has a meltdown. "What do you do?" she whispers to Carlos.
    "An editor at Harvard Press," Ryan answers for him. "I got him the damn job." Ryan flicks Carlos's hair three times from the backseat, like a Boy Scout secret signal. "He's looking for new writers, girls, you know."

I'm in the front seat, next to Carlos, and as if on cue, Carlos pinches my knee. I gape at him, and in the backseat I see Ryan, who's sandwiched between Leslie and Lily, squeeze them both simultaneously. I can't believe this is happening. It's The Benny Hill Show, set in academia. All three of us women sit in their car, motionless, stunned, disgusted.

As we cruise through a stop sign, Carlos squeezes my knee again, and leaves his hand there. "What the hell are you doing?" I say.
    "What do you mean?" Carlos asks, offended.
    "Get your hand off my knee."
    He looks at Ryan in the rearview mirror and rolls his eyes. "Jee-zus," he mutters, and ignores me until we reach Stacy's house.

When we get there, I think of leaving immediately, but I'm strangely drawn to this scene. I'm perplexed by how this man whom I once idolized for writing this amazing book--a book I read three times, which I slept with under my pillow--could be . . . a creep.

Everyone's here at the party--all the students, and the faculty. The faculty seem impressed but intimidated by Ryan; they gaze at him, surrounded by his harem of aspiring-writer girls, like the wallflowers staring at the popular kids at a school dance. I find Josh and tell him about the knee-pinching. He's too shy to go beat Carlos up, which would be the proper male thing to do, so we amble around the yard, observing. An MFA party is like a chemical experiment; you never know what new material might form. It's only been going on five minutes, but already almost everyone seems drunk. Leslie strips down to her bikini and swims through the pool. Calvin and Helen wrestle by the palm trees.
    Around midnight, the faculty leaves; the students get in and out of the hot tub to talk to Ryan and his sidekick Carlos. The hot tub has become Ryan's office, his own version of Fonzie's bathroom. Ryan's wearing skin-tight Speedo bathing trunks, which reveal far more than any of us want to see; his chest is puffed out, his legs spread as if this is a Playgirl shoot. I haven't exchanged a word with Carlos or Ryan since we were in the car. Josh takes his shirt off awkwardly; he's built like a Calvin Klein model but seems nervous about baring his body. He voices what I'm thinking: "This man is judging us. Let's go in."
    "I love that one story, of your wife, when she first becomes ill . . ." Lily is saying to Ryan as the water gurgles around her skirted bathing suit.
    "I don't have a wife," he smirks. "I've never been married. It's bullshit! All of it. You kids. It's a fucking story. Have you ever heard of make-believe?"
    Howard, perpetually sober, is perched on the edge of the tub, fully clothed, with just his feet dipped in. His hands shift clumsily, as if he wishes he could be taking notes. "What is it that made you become a writer?" he asks Ryan in earnest.
    "To get laid!"
    Even Howard seems depressed by what Ryan's turned out to be; he soon leaves, looking mournful and dejected, and Lily goes with him. Not long after, there's a commotion in the house; Stacy investigates, and reports that Calvin, Leslie, and Brian have wound up in her bed; she has to get them out. Josh gets up to make himself another drink. This leaves me alone with Ryan and Carlos. I'm quiet, not wanting to say anything to them, sitting far away from them at the opposite end of the tub. I repeat to myself that my status in the program is in this man's gnarly hands.
    The two men are quiet, too. Carlos stares at me for an uncomfortably long time.
    "Hey, I know who she is," Carlos says, suddenly. "I know who you are. Stacy mentioned what you write about--I knew I recognized you. That girl from the Globe. The plane-crash girl. God! I can't believe I remember that. Your parents were blown up," he says matter-of-factly.
    Blood rushes to my head. Ryan's gazing at me, sickly amused. I'm nauseous and dizzy; I want to throw up. I'm sure that tomorrow I'll wake up and know exactly what to say at this moment, but right now I can't think of anything.
    I stand up and silently leave. I walk slowly toward the house, dazed, not knowing where to go.
    Josh sees me. "Are you okay?" he asks. He sets down his drink. "Do you want me to take you home?"

I nod. We're quiet for most of the drive, until Josh says, "You know, I think Ryan lied to us--I read in a magazine once that he was married, and his wife did die, just as she does in his book, but he doesn't like to talk about it. It can't be easy to have thousands of strangers knowing the most intimate details of your life and thoughts. It almost justifies him being an asshole."
    "Almost."
    We reach my house; he turns off the ignition. "It's all true in your story, isn't it?" he asks.

"Some things." I don't feel like talking about it now. Josh is one of the few people in the program whose stories aren't exactly tragic--he's written about losing a bike race, and his parents missing his soccer games, and having ex-girlfriends from families less wealthy than his. And now that he's driven me home on two occasions, the entire program will be convinced we're having a full-fledged affair. I'm not even sure I want to kiss him. He's almost too good looking, too pretty--teeth so white they're distracting.
    "Do you know what Leslie said about you once?" he says. "`I envy her,' she said. `I envy her being free.'"
    "What does that mean?"
    "Not having parents. No one yelling at you to get a normal job, no one sending those not-so-subtle hints that you're not good enough, `Why can't you get an MBA or go to law school or med school or at least go for a Ph.D.? How will you ever make money? What are you going to do with your life? When are you going to grow up?' My parents say it all the time."
    I want to say: Do you know what it's like, whenever someone mentions parents, family?How often it comes up in casual conversation, at parties, on trains, whenever someone asks why I don't fly; even on my computer, when I begin a letter with "Dear," Microsoft Word automatically suggests "Dear Mom and Dad" to save extra typing. How every time I go out with a new guy I ask him, What do your mom and dad do?, secretly hoping he'll say at least one of his parents is dead (or both--maybe both--then I'd really fall in love).
    There's a huge gulf between the words I think and the words I want to say. So I sit there, unsure of what to say or do, until he clasps my hands and kisses me, pulling me toward him in the front seat of his Ford pickup.
    I know I've become a writer when I think, while we're kissing, Well, whatever comes of this, I can always put it in a story.

 

~

The Harden Prize is announced, and Howard's won it again, so all of us, except Howard, are commiserating at the Slaughtered Lamb on a Sunday night, staring into our beers.

"Sometimes I wonder why I'm doing this," Calvin says. "Sometimes I don't know why I'm in the program."

"I hate how we call it `the program,'" Helen says. "It sounds like AA or something. I was at the food co-op the other day and this guy said, `You're in the program, right?' People around me looked at me like I was nuts, like he'd just asked if I was in a cult or something, like the Scientologists or the Moonies."
    Josh offers to drive me home again, but I live nearby, and I tell him I'll walk. I feel like being alone. I keep thinking about what he said, that night in his truck, about people envying me; I can't stop thinking about it. An answer to it has been welling up in my head, and I have to get it out, I have to write it down. It's almost 2 a.m. when I get back to my house, but I can't sleep. I take out "The Gift," cross out the ending of the latest draft, and write:

    The summer after the crash, I spent two weeks with my boyfriend Colin, my first boyfriend after my parents died--he invited me to join his family on their vacation to the South Carolina shore--and his mother looked at me so queerly when she met me, cocking her head to one side and squinting, almost suspiciously, and asking for "facts" about my family history, as if I was a foundling her son had adopted, a charity case. During that week there was a hurricane warning, and she was disturbed that no one called to ensure that I was fine. She couldn't fathom that I had no relatives; she came from a Southern clan with four generations still living. "Nobody's phoned you the whole time you've been with us!" she said one night, tactlessly, distrustfully, warily. At nineteen, legally an adult but still a teenager, I had no grownups checking on me, no one for her to okay things with, to get approval from. At the end of the week, I overheard her talking about "my son's girlfriend" to her cousin on the phone. "Colin has such a big heart!" she said, as if it required a particularly large heart for me to be loved.

    After that summer I returned to school, and life went on, and eventually I got used to explaining to new friends and boyfriends and teachers and employers that my parents were dead. And through those years I never cashed that money order; I kept it stashed in the pages of my journal, waiting for the time when I could look at it and not double over in pain. It's stashed in my journal still.

    I don't know where these paragraphs have just come from--I've barely thought of this old boyfriend, or his mother, or those weeks in South Carolina, for five years--I never even knew why I'd kept that money order all these years until I saw the reason before me on the page.
    I think now that my writing is as dear to me as a family would be, and crazy as that sounds, I think writing requires the same kind of attention, of commitment, of love, that people do. To be faithful to a story even when it fails me, to come back to it again and again when I worry that I may never make it work, that it may always disappoint me, that everything I've put into it could be lost--to know this, yet still keep writing--what could that be, if not love?
    And I think, maybe, that none of us really knows--not Ryan or the faculty or any of the students--how to tell a story. Because when I sit down, like this, in the middle of the night, pen in hand, something outside of myself tells me to keep going, for hours, to never, never stop . . . until it's not me writing the story anymore, but the story writing me.

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