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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.

~

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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