The Situation and Story:
Survival of the Writer
Fiction by Helen Peppe
You nod pleasantly to the other five students. You are happy, eager to be part of another writing workshop. Today you will receive comments on two of your stories, you are anxious to hear them, and make changes. Reader response, feedback, and fresh insights are valuable even when you can’t assimilate them into your text. You settle yourself to take notes and open yourself to listen.
She is cute with a big smile, petite and in constant motion. The attack is swift, takes your breath away. Nouns, verbs, adjectives, and gerunds are put into an order that is confusing to your ears. Disarming you with her cuteness, this fourth semester workshopper sinks her teeth into your story’s content and begins to shake it and growl like a predator who wants you and the rest of the class to surrender to her writing expertise. She takes your favorite parts of speech and transforms them into weapons, deviating from the usual predator prey relationship. She doesn’t hunt the weakest or the oldest. Instead, she dominates the workshop leader, her exposed cleavage tumbling toward him. You recognize her sexual power, her youthful energy and need to be right, as she works to expose how bad your stories are, how painful it was for her to read them. You don’t respond to the aggression. You don’t defend yourself because workshop policy states that “you remain silent during discussion of your work so you will learn as much as possible.”
The authors of the writing program’s handbook emphasize ethics, mandate kindness, second readings, and thoughtful comments, but just like the prescriptive you must observe the speed limit on the narrow, curvy road, you must wear your nametags, and you must not use racial slurs, this predator’s remarks are sharp like a comma that splices the heart of two sentences. You sink low in your chair hoping that if you play stoic the flinger of sharp words will tire and move on. The person next to you whispers that this student who tests your loyalty to the program is actually from a different genre. The yearning for zombies and exploding heads is in her blood. You haven’t read books about monsters and stuff of the supernatural since you were a teenager. But you don’t say this. You are silent during the assault because you follow rules. You never considered not wearing your name tag. It is your nature to drive safely and avoid crushing chipmunks. You never use the words “bitch” or “fucking” but both occur to you right now.
This predator seems emboldened by your silence. She doesn’t think you’re getting how vivid she is and how dull you are. Because this isn’t just about plot, voice, style, and tone. You must listen to me. You need fire and crackle. I barely could get through your story it was so bland. Your words fall tragically flat. Reread my story and you can see how I make the words come off the page. I’ve been published many, many times. If I picked your book off a shelf, I’d put it right back. There was this one I wrote…And then you stop listening. This has always been your survival method. You go to a special place in your head where you can’t hear anything unpleasant. You hope the workshop leader will hear your repeated plea: Speak! Something! Say anything! You exhort him to interrupt her speech of me, me, me that reminds you of the Muppet, Beaker.
This student’s declaration of personal greatness yanks grimly at your gut, not because you are worried about getting published but because there might be others like her. You assume, instead, that she is, as many predators are, skilled in the art of hyperbole, and this relaxes you briefly.
You experience a desperate need to get up and run, as all prey does when playing dead or freezing doesn’t succeed. But there are rules and you must stay. Even as you think of this irreconcilable conflict that has the word “but” in it, the predator tells you that you overuse the word. Take it out, she says. You don’t even use the word correctly. I have a writing exercise for you: Drink a pitcher of margaritas and try again. I read your story and it made me sad because it could be funny. You don’t understand humor.
You wonder if alcohol might loosen your tongue and relax your rule following ways so that you could tell this singular predator exactly what you think. You have been using your brain power like a Jedi novice, willing the workshop leader to interrupt this dark side rant. Maybe instead you should refocus on collapsing her chair. You make a note to speak with your mentor about adding fantastical elements to creative nonfiction. Control of the Force would be a good character trait for Esther, the narrator and protagonist of the story under discussion, and she is a lot like you.
Esther has three young children, three part-time jobs and a husband named Douglas who enjoys pornography, jelly doughnuts, and painting the house. In real life he’s very lazy and fat, and you do any painting that needs to be done, but you want to avoid clichés and tired adjectives, so you show jelly dripping onto
muscled pectorals as he paints the ceilings one-handed. Esther is desperate to
escape from the sounds of her children fighting and from Douglas’
muscles that, and she knows this is her imagination, judge her left-over
pregnancy fat each time they flex. She decides to pretend symptoms for a
bladder disorder and fabricates visits to a doctor followed by a diagnosis of
interstitial cystitis. This will require
more time in the bathroom, alone moments with the door closed. In preparation Esther
buys a flip lock for the door of her sanctuary and installs it herself. This is
to guard against one of her children learning how to straighten a paper clip to
disengage the knob’s built-in privacy lock. She also buys a new toilet seat.
One with a special cover that doesn’t slam but slowly sinks to a close. It’s
important that the telltale clunk of the lid meeting the ceramic bowl doesn’t
betray her. And she’s tired of Douglas
slamming the seat in an exaggerated gesture to show he’s not leaving it up.
This desperate woman stocks the bathroom with Lindt’s hazel nut dark chocolate squares and Godiva bars filled with soft caramel. She hides them in a paper bag behind the laundry detergent above the washer. When she does this she is sadly aware why this is such a good hiding place. She also brings in a small bookcase and fills the top with the Diana Gabaldon Outlander series. She will physically be in the bathroom, but she will in truth be with Claire and Jamie in
Broch. No one but her daughter, age seven, wonders why there is a new bookcase
in the bathroom. She asks but doesn’t listen to the lie that is told because
she is busy arranging her Nancy Drew books on the bottom shelf. Scotland
Esther finds it easier to lie than she thought she would. She lies so well that even she forgets she doesn’t actually have interstitial cystitis. Her words effortlessly leave her mouth to settle on her husband like the jelly from his doughnuts, “I can’t believe I have to pee again when I just went,” and she goes into the bathroom for the second time in thirty minutes. She takes out her bag of chocolate, careful to cover up the sound of crumpling paper by setting the dryer to tumble press. She removes
briefs from the end of her bookshelf, then opens her book, and begins to
disappear. But before she can feel the pleasure of discovering how Claire is
going to react to Jamie’s secret wife, the cat wraps its dark length around her
ankles, circling tightly. He rubs his head aggressively against her calf. Esther
tries to nudge the black feline away from her, but Beast is used to rough attention
from kid hands and begins to purr. His purring is so loud that it mixes
chaotically with the dryer and the distant noises of children and television.
Your mind returns to the workshop. The predator-like student doesn’t approve of Beast and offers cutting edge criticism for deleting him. She displays her short hair first behind her ears and then in front of one eye, grabs a mint from the almost empty basket on the table, and says in a tone that indicates a string of exclamation points, You don’t need the cat! The cat is an extra character! The cat is completely unnecessary! Leave him out! Her redundancy and her volume increase in her effort to pound into your soul how stupid you are to give Esther a pet cat. What is it doing with her in the bathroom anyway? That’s just weird! Extremely creepy! You actually were worried that someone might not understand the cat, but
means dark. The cat is black. Both trap Esther whose name means hidden. You had
introduced Beast on the first page as lying across Esther’s face in the
morning, nearly suffocating her. Esther awakes with Douglas
snoring beside her, his leg heavy across her abdomen.
Another student, an older soft-spoken woman, interrupts tentatively, “But I see Beast as symbolizing Esther’s captivity. And I like his name.”
You want to reach out and hug this small beautiful woman. Instead of backing off your cat, the predator comes at you from a different angle: You should never say nearly or like you were suffocated. Say you were suffocated. Well, I think because I’m not allowed to talk, that would be a different story, wouldn’t it? Esther would be dead in the first paragraph. But you don’t defend Beast’s placement on Esther’s nose or even defend his existence. You feel bad for him because he is real. He is your cat after all, and even though he does trip you and get black hair all over your couch and your sweaters, you love him and wouldn’t cut him from your life. You are suddenly exhausted. Period. This extroverted, grinning girl has caused your brain to slowly shut down like Esther’s new toilet seat.
The first semester woman who spoke quietly gains strength. “I think you might be missing the layers of this story,” she says. “The story isn’t just about a woman who likes to pretend to pee so that she can read and eat chocolate.”
“Yes,” a second semester student agrees. “The basic premise is the need to escape. The cat symbolizes imprisonment. Esther can’t get the cat to leave even though she pushes it away.”
You begin to awaken more fully. The herd still has some life in it. They are struggling to their voices. “Do you think,” this second student says. “That you might not understand the cat because of the genre you come from?”
You can’t believe she said it. The words hang in the air for a minute like an arrow. They hold center stage before the predator slaps them to the floor. I know good writing when I see it and I know bad. You think of Leon Russell’s song, “If There was no Bad, You’d be Good.” You wish there was no bad.
“Okay,” the workshop leader says. By now you’d almost forgotten he existed. “Why don’t we take a look at the language?” He flips through pages: “She uses the same words to describe the cat as she does
maybe that’s not enough to draw the parallel if all of you didn’t get it.”
Your last mentor advised you to cut the line: “Beast is just like
You sit there and wish for a piece of dark chocolate. The chairs are close together, and the rung under the table prevents you from stretching your legs. Your tailbone is tingling from sitting too long and your bladder is full. The battle of whether you should keep or cut the cat continues but you don’t listen because you no longer care about the cat. You are thinking survival thoughts only. You don’t want to fight. Instead you count the minutes until you can flee and find a flushable toilet. There aren’t enough in this old house that has been chosen for graduate workshops and presentations. Your mind is aching from the siege it wasn’t prepared for.
Finally, the subject and predicate, “Let’s take a break,” find a way into your consciousness, and you run to get in front of the other students who are stampeding out the door. You can feel the predator somewhere behind you. You zigzag around other students, swerve into the small corridor, and jog down the narrow staircase to the bathroom that is in a secluded spot off the kitchen. Hidden from the main part of the house, few students know about this small restroom. It has a privacy lock and a slide bolt, a crucial element of your situation and your story from the beginning, to the middle, to the end.