try to think of no one in particular.

Right after the Virginia Tech shooting, I was at a laundromat in Detroit, working on a little something while I waited for my clothes to dry. The attendant asked me what I was all about, and I said, “I’m a writer.” “Uh oh!” he said. “I’m scared of you!”

That’s right! He should be.

A lot of writers are just bad, which is a comfort. It’s the ones teetering on mediocre that are so upsetting. I imagine them spending hours alone, hunched over a desk in a lonely attic spitting out hackneyed prose, pitifully disconnected between their own ambitious thoughts and whatever magic spark it takes to engage an audience. Then one day they leave the attic, and snap! It’s finally time to share, and the audience is not moved. This is how people get killed.

Never mind the obvious fear that I’m the person I just described.

I remember this story from an undergraduate workshop I took at Wayne State. We’ll call the author Tom, out of respect or whatever, but also I can’t remember his real name. Tom was around 30. He was trim with short dark hair, forever clad in pastel polo shirts. He was a real blank canvas. He was the kind of person you picture when you’re trying to picture no one in particular.

The story’s protagonist resembled someone very much like the author who had a conspicuously close relationship with his sister. The workshop conversation went something like this:

“Does anybody else think it’s weird that he brushes her hair for a really long time in this scene?”
“I don’t think it’s normal for grown up siblings to brush each other’s hair at all.”
“There’s definitely a sexual undercurrent between the brother and sister character. I wonder why it’s here or what it contributes to the present action of the story.”
“I don’t think the incest is doing anything for the story and should be removed.”
“Nay, I think that without the incest, the story is nothing, and if anything, it should be amped up or made more explicit.”

As it turned out, Tom had not intended for us to read any funny business into the sibling’s relationship. What we’d done instead is shine a flashlight on deep-seeded perversions in his psyche for 45 uncomfortable minutes. This was only the first round of workshop. He never came back to class after that, although his spirit lived on in our memory.

Say your brain is a big house with many rooms. When you write a story, you’re saying,  ”Come take a tour of my house.” Maybe you’re not prepared for brats in your workshop to go exploring beyond the parlor, kicking doors open down hallways you thought you’d made clear were off limits, but that’s what brats do.

I envy people like Tom. I bet he went home, boarded up the room filled with creepy thoughts of fucking his sister, and he’s never been back to it.

I wonder if he still writes. Eh. Who knows. Maybe we were wrong about everything and the brother and sister really were just good friends.

5 thoughts on “try to think of no one in particular.

  1. There was some Zen teacher, came over early on.. in the 70′s or something. Gave this teaching in a college cafeteria or something. Everyone was geeked, real live zen master, you know? So he started teaching:
    “If you have started on this path, my advice is, don’t.” Pause for shocked gasps. “But if you have started, finish it.”

    You’re right, you nailed it exactly. Writing, really writing, has to come from those back rooms you want nothing more than to board up. That’s the only place the real stuff *ever* comes from. That’s where it lives.

    Tom was a fucking loser. Writing. Isn’t. Easy. Don’t start, don’t start if you can’t ask yourself, “well jeez, do I daydream about fucking my sister? That gives me a great idea for a character!”

    Most people can’t handle that. They will never be writers, they’ll never be _artists,_ not they way you are. Heh. They way *I* am. I’m dragging the unwritten into being, and I will do what it takes. I couldn’t turn away and still be me.

  2. I love the writing/house analogy – think it’s very true.

    When I look back on the first poem I wrote (aged 10, for a class), the writing seems to so completely synch with everything I write about now as to suggest the permanence of brick and stone. I wrote about a piece of chocolate decorating itself in shiny wrappers so as to be very attractive, then in the last lines realising, as it hears the footsteps of children coming its way, all the preening will lead to it being eaten, ‘and so its life would end’. It’s a cold harsh universe, said 10 year old me.

    Luckily I’m quite happy with my perversely morbid personality.

    But workshop can destroy some people, and it’s a hard process to witness, sometimes. Like when the professor says ‘this is just shit’ to the sensitive young man clasping his arms around himself in fear.

  3. Durban, if you’re saying that I myself also have closed off rooms in my house brain… I mean. yeah, probably. It would be insane for me to deny it, would it not?

  4. Hacky writing is only one of the most irritating things about writers’ groups and workshops. Another is self-congratulatory dime-store psychoanalysis.

    Tom may well have some deep, dark thoughts about a sibling he isn’t ready to confront. Or maybe he quit the workshop because he didn’t want to suffer a room full of total strangers taking something he’d intended to convey genuine warmth between siblings and making it seem perverse.

    I’m going solely based on what you’re describing here (Tom is cast as a square because of his average/dull personal style), don’t have the benefit of having been in the workshop, and haven’t read the poor bastard’s submission, so I get that it’s likely I don’t know what the fuck I’m talking about. But I do appreciate the irony of Patrick calling the guy a “fucking loser” in the midst of all that other elitist chin-stroking bullshit he’s espousing. If you think yammering on about mundane inner torment legitimizes your writing, I’ll have to respectfully disagree.

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