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.