The thirteenth post in The Education of a Writer (TEW) series.
Everywhere you looked, wood. Dark red wood. Like blood. Wood on the ceiling, wood on the floors. The chairs, the tables, the columns, the bar counter, the stairs, the railings, the toilet. All of it made out of wood. Dark red wood. Except the windows.
This is where we met. A small group of writers … in the empty upstairs … our court of critique. A mild aroma of sour beer. A retired ad executive, a gal in PR work, an ambitious English Literature graduate student, a doggerel-loving dwarf with eyebrows the length of my pinkie. He was a mischievous dwarf, up to no good, quite jealous of what I wrote. Quite jealous of my ambition. He was accustomed to getting all the attention. I got along with everyone else.
Every Thursday evening we sat around the long blood-red table, stained and chipped, on the thick matching benches. During Spring we opened the windows, looking down on table red umbrellas and hairy diners. We listened to the sound of the poodle parade passing by or feisty diners gulping handfuls of oysters and chips.
The night before we met we would send everyone something we wrote. And we were to read and come prepared to talk about what we read. We brutalized each other every week.
This was the time that I wrote about the Clorox bleach bottle love affair, the hitch hiker haunted by a creeping hand, the stupid story about a man named Lubo who fell in love with a bathroom stall door. The dwarf, who, coincidently, was named Lubo (and was a snobby creative writing graduate), scoffed at my work. Every Thursday evening he pointed out that I would be shunned by any self-respecting graduate creative writing program.
I insisted I wasn’t interested in a creative writing program. He rolled his eyes, stood on his chair, and churned out a litany of reasons why to get a Masters in creative writing. My prospects would look grim otherwise. Perhaps so, I countered, but I had no desire to follow the rigid and hollow strictures of academia. I suggested we go out back so I could kick him in the teeth. He snarled and said I should rethink everything.
I exploded, “I am everything!”
The PR gal, she was a southern lady, with thick curly hair, a drawl in her voice. During her time with the critique group she built a formidable body of poetry and short stories. The dwarf said she was Gone with the Wind, but without the “gone with … just “the wind.”
The ex ad executive (the one who told me, “Maybe you should write about your children — maybe you wouldn’t be so violent and gloomy. Wait … never mind.”) loved Charlie Chaplin and anti-capitalism rants. One week the dwarf wagged his finger in the ad executive’s face and said creating Budweiser and Geico ads had ruined his brain and now he was doomed to churning out dried scrambled eggs for stories.
The ad executive stood up and slammed his Cardinals baseball hat on the table. He said he had enough, but the dwarf snarled, “What are you going to do … kick me out?” The ad executive stomped into the restroom. When he returned he was smiling.
The dwarf wrote the nastiest stuff. About defecation, about menstruation, ear wax. If it came from the human body, he wrote about it. He also wrote about geometric shapes. (Do I need to explain why?) The dwarf, however, couldn’t stitch a doggerel together to save his life. Yet, he was well loved in St. Louis, due mostly, I am sure, to his short stature (isn’t he adorable) and long eye lashes.
Also, he was doing some kind of performance art. It seemed he was reading his poetry publicly three or four times a week. I went to go see one of his readings and discovered the secret to his success. It was his outfit, a rogue look amounting to a see-through skin suit, apron, and a bouffant that looked like a bag of apples. I left feeling sad for the dwarf.
During our critique time I would go hard on the writers … cruel … suggesting my brutality was a sign of affection: “I wouldn’t be so hard on you if I didn’t think you had promise.” Except for Lubo. “Yeah, didn’t get around to reading yours. Maybe next time.” There was never a next time.
One strange fact about this group was that nobody drank alcohol — except me. I would pull off two or three sour ales in the evening — wide eyes, brimming with ideas, ready to fight anyone, leaving behind roughly seventeen dollars per visit. Everyone else sipped water, nursed a basket of limp fries. Every time I went for a beer I would ask, “Anybody want a beer? I’ll buy.”
But no takers.
This baffled me. I expected to stumble out of the bar every Thursday evening, laughing my head off with the others, bouncing our heads off of the wall, but no. I was the only one laughing and bouncing my head off the walls. They just solemnly slipped out. Had someone changed this age-old custom on me when I wasn’t looking?
This was largely a time of heightened sense of self. An unproven view of my genius. A false estimation of what I could achieve — look, I wrote a story about a Clorox bottle that loved the guy who bought him, for goodness sakes! What wasn’t I capable of doing!
I felt I’d reached a level of proficiency that excelled those around me, but each week I was disappointed that no one recognized my genius. Perhaps they didn’t recognize it because they weren’t smart enough. Or weren’t enlightened. Or they did recognize it, but refused to acknowledge it (for some petty reason). It didn’t matter — I felt myself a genius. And the lack of recognition a form of persecution and validation.
But I still had a long way to go. I knew that much. Every morning I would awake and think about the sacrifices I would need to make to achieve great status. To get that book deal. That Pulitzer. The Nobel.
Frankly, it was quite frightening what I was willing to do for fame.
Image source: Porcelain