Why I failed Introduction to Writing Fiction
I grew up in aworking-class family that emigrated from Manchester, England to the UnitedStates when I was a few months shy of turning three. Over the years, my parentshad become acclimated to American culture, but neither of them had anyexperience with the American educational system. They never thought to save forit, as they didn’t know the system for setting up a college fund; anyway, wewere so poor, whatever college fund I might have had would have beencannibalized so that we could eat during those months that my dad didn’t work.
From the moment Ientered college, I lived on Pell Grants, financial scholarships, meritscholarships, loans, and, of course, work. The year I worked thirty-five hoursa week waiting tables on the graveyard shift of a twenty-four-hour diner inSeattle’s U District was also the same year I decided to take a creativewriting course. I remembered writing my first short story in the crack of lightof my bedroom door, late at night, when I had been eight.
Before college, I hadbeen encouraged by many of my English teachers to write fiction, for which Ishowed early talent, but which I had restricted to doing in my spare time. Myfather’s expectations were that college would lead to my getting a professionaldegree. He emphasized my love affair with writing was a nice hobby, but that Ishouldn’t think of it as a career choice. So I enrolled in one of the mostrigorous programs in the liberal arts—Comparative History of Ideas, amulti-disciplinary, cross-disciplinary program that emphasized understandingthe history of human ideas through the various means by which it could beexpressed. He hated my major, but I quieted him by telling him that it made agreat preparation for law school.
Still, in the fall ofmy third year, I took the plunge and signed up for a fiction writing course. Ididn’t know it at the time, but the professor who taught the course—a tall,handsome woman whose silver hair was complemented by her all-blackwardrobe—was, in fact, famous, a winner of many book prizes in her genre, whichwas science fiction. It helped to explain the awed expressions on some of myclassmates’ faces when Jane Redstone lectured. I soaked up the lessons onstyle, participated in the discussions of short fiction that she held up asexemplars of good work, and looked forward to the Monday, Wednesday, and Fridaymorning class meetings.
At night, I came onmy shift at 11:30, joining another server who had been on the floor since 4:00p.m. and with whom I partnered for a half-hour of transition time. She left meat midnight, and I spent the next six hours alone, when my transition partnercame on at 6:00. I would work with her on the breakfast rush until 6:30, whenanother server would show up and I was then free to go. I never felt unsafe—boththe cook and the dishwasher were male—and knowing they were back there gave methe freedom to be myself with the customers.
The rhythmic chaos ofthe after-bar-closing rush would eat up ninety minutes, until by quarter tofour, the dining room would be empty. At some point, I could expect city policeand university cops to come by, grab a big table in the back room, and sit anddrink coffee on their breaks. Most of them were old enough to have fathered me,but it was I who fussed over them, bringing them coffee and some food to getthem through the last four hours of their shifts.
If I finishedvacuuming the carpet, sweeping the floors, wiping down the espresso machine,making the glass on the front door sparkle (until the next time someone pushedthe door open with his hand on the glass instead of on the handle), and doinginnumerable other tasks I didn’t get paid for, I could sit—always at thetwo-top table against the window facing south, my head just below the hangingneon sign that proclaimed that we were “open”all night—asI pulled apart the stack of coffee filters, turning them from a thick blockinto the sheer filters that I scooped coffee into, preparing fifteen to twentyof them so that when the breakfast shift showed up in the beginning of thatrush at 6:00 a.m. they didn’t have to worry about running out of coffee. I dida lot of their prep work for them, again, for the buck twenty-five an hour thatrestaurants paid their tipped employees.
On quieter nights,when all of my prep work was done before 3:30 a.m., I would sit in the samewindow, a book before me, and I would read Augustine or Nietzsche,write stories in my journal, and stare out at the rain-soaked road that rotatedsmeary green, amber, or red as the traffic light at the corner kept a steadytime. After work, I would walk the three blocks to my tiny studio apartment,grab a couple hours’ kip followed by a shower, and then head off to classes. Istayed sane by running as often as I could, and by running in the myriad 10Kraces that organizations used to raise money. I had a drawer full of raceshirts, although my race times always put me in the middle of the pack.
It struck me thatworking the graveyard shift in an all-night diner might provide a perfectsetting for my first writing assignment, a short story of five to seven pages.It took me several shifts and a couple of days’ worth of breaking my regularcycle to complete. I chose to leave work and head straight to a coffee house,where I would drink two to three times my usual morning espresso serving. Onthe morning it was due, I stood in a line in class, waiting to hand ProfessorRedstone my pages. Ahead of me in line was a male student trying to bargain formore writing time. She gave him until the English office closed at 5 p.m. thatday, and I watched as my classmate opted to skip class to go somewhere to tryto bang something out. I remember thinking that if I could get my story in ontime, he could not possibly have an excuse.
In the story, I stolethe detail of the traffic light and the location of my favorite table, but Iinvented the two characters who inhabited the tale. The first was my narrator,a senior in college, pulling an all-nighter for a paper due that day. I was notso much interested in the college student pulling the all-nighter, but in theother character I had invented, a middle-aged woman whom I imagined to beperhaps forty-five with red hair. She distracted the college student becauseshe sat at a table performing the kind of side work I did in my job. She wasmarrying ketchup bottles: that is, pouring a half-bottle of ketchup intoanother half-bottle of ketchup to make a whole bottle.
Her name was Meg,short for Margaret. She wore a wedding ring and smoked cigarettes as sheperformed these rote tasks that everyone who had ever worked in a restaurantwould recognize. Sometimes, when I had let myself dream that I could prove myfather wrong, and make a career out of writing, my fantasy would include buyinga cottage on the Washington or Oregon coast, living alone with a cat or two,with the occasional man for company, but spending my days staring out at theocean, listening to the thunderous breaking of the Japan Current against thewild beaches of the Pacific Northwest, and writing. Just writing. When thatlife called to me, I would soon have to push it away as if it were an insistentkitten looking for attention, because I recognized that it could only ever be afictional existence.I gave the waitress my fantasy. I made her ring a ruse, protection from malecustomers who thought it okay to get handsy with a woman taking their orders.That detail came from my life, too.
After the initialrush of having gotten the paper done by deadline, whatever thoughts I had aboutmy short story were soon taken over by the familiar doubts that told me thateven thinking I had any talent as a writer was the selfish ego of a person whothought too much of herself. As much as I wanted to resist my father’sprescription for my college career, the idea that I could create a life as awriter was something that I knew only someone with real talent couldaccomplish. In my father’s world, which still bore the markings of the classsystem he had fled seventeen years before, thinking that you were better thanthe life you had, which had actually allowed him to escape, was also a betrayalof one’s class. If I thought that I was talented enough to be a writer, wasn’tI really rejecting my working class heritage? Hadn’t my grandfather been aCommunist and a union organizer who had been beaten by the police in labormarches? Hadn’t my grandmother helped to build Spitfires during the War withwhich Britain had been able to resist the Luftwaffeduring the long months between May 1940 and December of 1941? Just who did Ithink I was?
At the beginning of aMonday class, Professor Redstone began to talk about the overall quality of thenow-graded stories, which was “mediocre.” She said a few stories had shown realpromise, even talent. When she began to read from one of these stories, my facecaught fire and I hoped that it wasn’t blazing red. I recognized the words asmine. She had liked my use of details in my descriptions, and she read out notonly the description of the traffic light, but also from the scene when Meg haddescribed her cottage by the sea.
At the end of class,we all approached the lectern to collect our papers. As I claimed mine,Professor Redstone held on to it and began to talk.
“Lorraine,” she said,as she placed my story on the lectern, and began to grab her notes in order tostuff them into her REI backpack. “I saw something in your story.”
Awkwardness tangledinside me. I tried to think of something to say.
“That is very nice ofyou to say,” I said. “But I really don’t think it was that good.”
“Don’t.” Theinterruption slapped me. She smiled. “Why do young women always do this? It’sokay to take a compliment. Anyway. I’d like to speak to you in my office, talkabout what other writing courses you’ve taken.” It didn’t seem like the rightmoment to tell her I hadn’t taken any other courses. “My office is inPendleton, 228-B. I have hours today starting at one today. Can you come by?”
I nodded. “I get outof class at twenty to one. I can be there.” I knew I must be dark as a plum.That kind of attention scorched me with embarrassment, and all I wanted to dowas to walk over to the Boiserie and drink coffee and hide for a couple ofhours. I had already decided that I would skip my art history class. I was tooflummoxed and it seemed the safe option was to go sit somewhere and calm down.
It was still a fewminutes before one, but my anxiety had flared during the walk and I hopedProfessor Redstone would be okay with my knocking on her door early. A fewseconds later, the door opened. I noticed how small I was compared to her—shehad at least six inches of height on me—and when she first made eye contact Isaw a flash of confusion, as if she didn’t remember who I was . I could hearthe cement block that had formed in my gut shift against the rock floor—acrushing sound that sent a chill down my legs. But then she smiled and I feltthe blood begin to flow in my body again.
“Come in,” she said,gesturing toward the chair next to her desk. I heard the loud click as anelectric kettle turned itself off. “Would you like some tea?”
This is civilized,I thought. I knew from reading academic novels that such things happened atEnglish universities. “Um. Do you by any chance have milk?”
“Of course,” shesaid, grabbing a school lunch-tray sized milk from beside the kettle.
“So, I wanted to getto know you better,” she said, pushing a pile of papers out of the way to makeroom for the tea she set before me. “I liked the message of your story.” Shesat down in a chair, not the work chair behind the desk, but one a few feet tomy right. She was using a magazine for a tea coaster, the cup sitting on thetitle, something d Time I could makeout.
“Thank you,” I said.I took a sip of tea and tried not to grimace. Earl Grey. I fucking hated Earl Grey tea. It tasted posh. We drank brickie teaat home. “This is great. It must be nice to be able to make your own. I spend afortune on my coffee habit.” I stopped. You’rean idiot. I thought. Just shut up andlisten.
I missed whatever shehad just said, so intent had I been on castigating myself. I hoped she had notjust asked me a question. I took another sip of tea, forced myself to smile.
“I work at theUniversity Diner,” I said, hoping that what I was saying was somehow relevant. “I’vebeen working graveyard since the beginning of fall quarter. I keep thinkingthat I could write a book about the people who come in there. You know, some ofthe guys who hang out there during the day have been customers since the dayIrv opened the place. I don’t work the day shift that often, but every time Ido, it’s always the same guys, playing Go! or speed chess. Irv always wants usto turn and burn the tables so he can make money, but there’s like six or sevenguys who I’m just supposed to let sit there, as long as they buy somethingevery hour or so.” I forced a laugh. “Yeah. So coffee’s ninety-two cents andthey always give me a buck and tell me to keep the change. I actually make moremoney off the drunks at closing time, Professor Redstone.”
“Huh,” she said. Shelooked bored. “Oh, you should call me Jane. Yes. Well, I’m sure there’smaterial there. No, I meant, what you said about men.”
I tried to keep myface neutral. I had no idea what she meant.
“I can’t tell you howawful it is most of the time. All these young women constantly writing abouttheir relationships with men. I know they’re smarter than that, but they’restuck back in some 1950s housewife model. I feel as if I’m still back the wayit was when I was an undergraduate. You know. Women at college to get their ‘MRS’degree. I don’t understand why any woman would want to spend time with any man.I read your story and thought, ‘Thank Goddess.’ There’s just so few of usaround here. It would be fantastic to be part of a college that only acceptedwomen students and employed women professors.”
The rush of acid intomy gut was sudden. “No, I agree,” I said. “I love school. I really, really lovelearning new things. I’ve been doing a lot of intellectual history withProfessor Geist and I really love it when I find these women philosophers thatno one has ever heard of because, well, you know, ‘Anonymous was a woman.’ Itwas Emma Goldman who said that right? No. I mean Virginia Woolf? But, yeah. It’sjust so important to me that I get taken seriously as a student. You know, mydad was the one who told me that I should never let anyone tell me that Icouldn’t do something because I was a girl.”
Her chair scraped thefloor as she moved closer to me. Something familiar tugged at me. Shewas bigger than me. I had been in this place before, but with men. I smiled.
“You remind me of anex . . . friend,” she said. “She was petite, like you. And I used to get a kick outof watching men trying to push her around because they thought she wouldn’t beable to handle it. You should have seen…” She stopped. “I should probably savethat story for some other time. Somewhere more private.”
Sexual tension has aweight to it. It’s a delicious sensation, I think. When you know that he knowsthat you know what you’re both feeling. The times I had been in that place andhad felt my body soften, could feel myself become lithe, sinuous, breathe backat him the air I imagined had just been in his body. I was twenty, but I knewthese feelings. Intimacy has a color. It’s inchoate, but it’s not imaginary. Ihad been sleeping with men since I was fifteen. I tended to not date men my ownage, but men who were ten years or so older than me had always seemed to loveme. Even now, the guy I was seeing was one of those students who had returnedto school. He was thirty-two.
This was different. Ihad never had a professor come on to me. I told myself that I was reading toomuch into what Professor Redstone was saying, that she was really just talkingabout the kind of feminist utopias that I had read about in my women’s studiescourses.
Jane moved her seatso that our knees were inches away. “My office is not conducive to having anintimate conversation,” she said. “Youknow, I loved the character of the waitress in your story. What was her name?
“Meg,” I said.
“That’s right. Meg. Ihaven’t been with a man. Ever. I knew right from the start that I loved women.”
I am a terrible writer. I’m such a terrible writer that shethinks I revealed myself as a lesbian in my story.
“I am a greatbeliever in women mentoring each other,” she said. “I think you have a lot ofpotential. I’d love to take you out to dinner. I’m busy tonight and tomorrownight, but Friday night I am free. What do you think?”
Professor Redstonedid not move. I hated myself at that moment. I hated her for putting me in thatposition. Why was it always the people who knew about power and sexism whopulled this shit?
“Well, okay then,”she said, standing up. “I’ll wait to hear from you on Wednesday. We can talkabout writing and I can recommend some of my colleagues you should work with.”
I knew there would beno dinner. I knew there would be no recommendations. I had made myself intosomething I hated in order to avoid her pass. When men made passes at me, Ilied to them, too.
I wanted to go back,ask her if we could start again, ask her if she could tell me how much sheloved my story but take back the other stuff. I knew if I told my dad thisstory, he would get mad on my behalf, maybe even say something to someone atthe college. But he would tell me that this was proof that I shouldn’t go intowriting. Artists were terrible people. Hadn’t he told me that? Weren’t theypeople who didn’t make a contribution to society, according to him?
I knew I wouldn’ttell anyone what had happened. And I knew that I could never go back to thatclass. And I couldn’t ask her to sign a withdrawal slip because then she wouldknow.
The only class that Ifailed during my entire academic career is “Introduction to Writing Fiction.”The one undergraduate creative writing course that I took is also the onlycourse for which I did not receive college credit.
I read a couple ofyears ago that Professor Redstone had died. Her obituary said that she had beena champion of women writers.
With the exception of my own name and that of my familymembers, I have changed the names of the persons involved in this story. Allother details are true.
I was learning about theory, especially the works of Derrida and Foucault. Iwasn’t good at it, although I was learning. Sometimes, especially on the fourthor fifth night of the schedule, I would find myself staring at the neon sign,wondering why open was inquotation marks, as if it might be a philosophical matter of what the word“open” meant. I wondered if this is what Derrida meant by “erasure,” as if byproving it I could prove to my friends that you couldn’t use any of that“theory stuff” outside of the classroom.
It had taken me a while to notice that virtually everyone I read was male.While I considered myself a feminist, I hadn’t protested the lack of femalevoices until we read Rousseau, whose misogyny shook me and caused me to write apaper in which each time the writer used “he” as a pronoun to represent“everyone,” I wrote “(sic)” after the end of each sentence. The fecklessteaching assistant who graded that paper wrote a long comment condemning me forthis infantile act, and I believe the poor grade I received was due to how muchI had annoyed her.
I also admit that I wasn’t above mentioning my graveyard shift job as a pleafor sympathy when I did need an extension.
Writing that sentence flooded my nose with the scent of Heinz 57 ketchup,still, for me, the standard by which all other ketchups, catsups, catchups, aremeasured. The restaurant refilled Heinz bottles with Heinz, and not, as lessscrupulous places did, with bargain brands.
I didn’t know anyone who had that kind of life. My parents didn’t have friendswho were creative, except for one, my dad’s best friend, an Irishman with ninechildren who painted these fantastic paintings that my parents longed to buy,except that he was able to sell each one for more money than my dad made in amonth. But the nine children thing was most definitely not part of my fantasy,and even so, I knew that if I were a woman with nine children, there wouldnever be time to paint. He painted and held down a full-time job because hiswife did all of the other things that needed to get done. I had figured out, orhad learned from reading books such as Tillie Olson’s Silences, that such a life was only available to women who had noother responsibilities.
Lorraine Berry writes about a variety of topics — many of them books-related — at outlets such as the Washington Post, The Guardian, EssayDaily, and a number of other places. She is interested in issues that confront working-class artists. Berry was born in Bury, England and emigrated to the United States as a girl. She has been a passionate follower of Manchester CIty FC since birth. Berry is currently at work on a novel. Follow her on Twitter @BerryFLW.
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“Migraine is deceptive pain. It lies when it begins, and it lies about what it signifies. It signifies nothing.”