Monthly Archives: July 2014

Quid Pro Quo?

Of the many milestones in the life of every novel, short story, or poem, one of the most crucial is the first time a writer allows his or her infant yet already beloved work to be viewed by others. At this key juncture, it is crucial to select the right early readers: literate, compassionate, and totally honest. They must be willing and able to provide specific, constructive feedback in a way that inspires you to keep revising*. In short, your early readers should either be people you trust implicitly, or who you are paying well.

So imagine my surprise when barely an hour after meeting Bill, the newest member of my writers’ group, he sent me a somewhat desperate email entitled “You are well read and I need help!” It said:

I am in a quandary and without someone’s input may have to stop writing until I’m clear. this clarity may never come. I would appreciate it if you would do me the ultimate favor and read what I have … and help me see clearly and focus my direction.

HelpEarlier that evening, the group critiqued an excerpt from Bill’s novel-in-progress about a man obsessed with reading the private diaries of the recently deceased. While his writing style was erratic and difficult to follow – shifting from short, stunted sentences to stream-of-conscious meanderings, and then back again, all within the span of a few paragraphs – his premise was at least interesting.

I’d given Bill what I hoped to be the aforementioned honest yet compassionate feedback that would inspire him to move forward with his work. But now he was asking me, practically begging me, to read and critique the entirety of his novel.

I am frozen, he went on. I realize this is an unusual and off the wall request but I don’t know where else to turn. my friends can’t help. thanks for listening.

I contacted the rest of the group to ask if anyone else had received a similar request. They had not. I wasn’t sure if I should take this as a compliment or feel a little creeped out. Had Bill been so impressed by my critique that he now sought out my unique wisdom? Had I perhaps led him on in some way, been too kind with my comments? Or was he simply desperate for validation, and I seemed the least likely of the group to tell him off?

While the credo of most writers’ groups is for the members to learn from one another, Bill’s distressed email didn’t sit right with me. I couldn’t help but feel a little used. It was like having a stranger at a party strike up a conversation with me only to then ask for an introduction to my best friend. It seemed that Bill was only interested in what I could do for him.

The following day, he sent another email. And then another, this time with his novel attached.

the tenses are all off and I haven’t had the time to do transitions but that’s what you get with a first draft. it’s only 137 pages a quick read. do I cut bait or fill in?

It was at this point that I wrote him back. I told him I was unable to help him, that my hands were full with my own projects at present. I encouraged him to set his novel aside for a little while, until he could come back to it with a fresh perspective. I did not hear from him again.

The other members of my writers’ group decided to rescind Bill’s invitation to join due to the quality – or lack thereof – of his writing and the fact that some thought he had been unnecessarily harsh in his critique of another member’s work. His emails to me, I was told, were the literary icing on the cake.

Although I was admittedly put off by his neediness, I still felt sad for him. We all get a little lost along the way, and can only hope that when we do, someone will be there to offer a helping hand.

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* The alternative to revision is, of course, crouching in a dark corner and drinking gin.

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An Ode to Denny’s

Every suburb has one: that late-night, bad-coffee refuge of shift workers, frustrated poets, and bored teenagers alike. Zim’s. Lyon’s. International House of Pancakes. In my suburban hometown, it was Denny’s.

Denny's Then and Now

My hometown Denny’s Then and Now

A few days ago on my way to visit an old friend, I drove past the Denny’s of my youth. Except it wasn’t there anymore. The building remained, but the illuminated rooftop sign was gone. From across the freeway, I could see the discolored patches on the roof and walls where the cheerful signage had long beckoned passersby to get off at the next exit and come on in.

In my teenage years, I probably spent more waking hours at Denny’s than I did at home, especially on weekends and during the summers when curfews were relaxed and setting an alarm clock for the morning was unheard of. Denny’s wasn’t a place I ever planned to go to, but I always seemed to end up there. It was open. It was cheap. There was nowhere else to go. And most of my friends were already there. Countless times, I eavesdropped on conversations over the stalls in the bathroom only to realize that I recognized the voices:

“Oh my god, John Gorman is so hot in black jeans!”

“Jenny, is that you?”

“Oh my god, Lisa?” (followed by a round of echoing giggles.)

Never underestimate the power of the Mini Moo.

Never underestimate the power of the Mini Moo.

My friends and I gorged on chalky milkshakes and oily grilled cheese sandwiches. We learned how to hang spoons from our noses and build French fry sculptures. We slipped coffee mugs, long-handled spoons, and ashtrays into our purses. We had creamer fights with the Mini Moos* and on a few occasions, were asked to leave for being too loud or too messy or (I suspect) just for being annoying. We drank a lot of coffee, and then couldn’t understand why we felt so shaky and nauseous, why we couldn’t get to sleep…

I recall one evening in particular when my friends and I were a little short on cash, so in lieu of leaving a reasonable tip, we scrawled onto a napkin: Some Tips For Our Waitress, followed by such colorfully reinvented idioms as A man in the hand is better than two in the bush. Certainly our waitress was thrilled by this wit.

When we finally peeled ourselves up from the vinyl booths and made our way home, amped up on coffee and nicotine, I would smoke cigarettes out my bedroom window (sorry Dad!) and stay up until dawn writing absurd short stories about demonic rose bushes and killer cucumbers. I wrote fearlessly and without regard for others. I think it was during this time in my life that I enjoyed writing the most: unfettered by worries about getting published, wondering if my time would be better spent doing something else, or questioning if my writing was actually any good. None of that mattered. I wrote because it was fun. Period.

Although I hadn’t set foot onto my old Denny’s faux tile floors for 20 years, I liked the idea that the generations of bored teenagers that came after me were still haunting those brown vinyl booths and thieving the signature coffee mugs. But suburban teenagers are different these days, so I’m told. A friend with two small children recently complained that she couldn’t find a high school student to babysit, since they all have internships and too many extracurricular activities.

So I guess teenagers don’t go to Denny’s anymore, which makes me a little sad. We have our whole adult lives to grapple with the burdens of ambition and responsibility, but only a few short years to eat bad food, to gossip with our friends over the bathroom stall, to stay up too late. To live fearlessly.

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* Prick a small hole in the center of the sealed cover and then squeeze the plastic cup. This will give you about a three-foot launch radius. Best to test this out in the backyard or the shower.

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