Saturday, December 15, 2012

My new short fiction & non-fiction workshop

In the spirit of keeping up a little momentum (signing up with a new temp agency that focuses on matching creative folks up with paying projects, assignments, and jobs; dumping out all the trunk booze), I have now joined a great short-story writers' group and workshop. This is a group of literary-fiction and non-fiction writers who meet once a week in DC to share and discuss their writing. I sent a request to the moderator through Meetup last night, and received a nice "Welcome back!" message this morning.

That's right -- welcome back. Because you see, when I wrote a post about the DC writing life yesterday and said that the only writing group I had ever participated in was that one I went to with my dad, the one with the "Don't piss me off or I'll put you in my novel" T-shirt-wearing girl and the sci-fi writers... I was wrong. I had somehow forgotten a supremely encouraging experience I had a couple of years ago with a guy named Joe whom I met on OKCupid when looking for like-minded friends in the DC area. (My boyfriend actually recommended the site as a good place to meet cool, smart, fun, often irreverent people. Or at least, it was back then. I haven't logged in for more than two years now.) How could I forget a positive experience that I had sharing my writing with people in this area, you may be forgiven for wondering? Eh, you got me. I blame it on the booze. My memory just ain't what it used to be.

So this guy Joe and I exchanged a few quasi-witty, snarky, borderline-batshit messages and decided we were simpatico. We hung out exactly three times. I think the first time was when we went to see these Oscar-nominated foreign short animated films, all played back-to-back at the E Street Cinema or one of those cool, arty theaters they have plenty of in DC but that are harder to come by in NoVA where I live. (With the exception, of course, of a few places such as the Arlington Drafthouse and Fairfax Cinema Arts Theatre.) The second time we hung out, I tagged along with him to this writing group, so named because they met (and still meet) at a "preparatory school" in DC. I brought along copies of a couple of my stories, not sure what to expect. I mean, a lot of my stuff is quickly written off as "weird" by many people expecting a more traditional storytelling style, the kind used for stories that I tend to categorize as "entertainment" rather than art that's trying to do something new. Also, I'd had that bad experience with the other writing group. Still, I went along. Because hey, you never know.

Joe seemed to have known the group's organizer, C., perhaps because they'd exchanged a few "Welcome to our group" messages. He had just moved to town from Hawaii (he was a former Navy cryptologist) and was at that time immersing himself in all that the DC-Meetup scene had to offer, from writing groups to gatherings of coffee enthusiasts. He'd brought a snippet of a longer piece he'd been working on. We all sat down at a table in what felt like a classroom in a historic building, about five of us there that evening, and went around in an orderly circle, each one of us sharing writing and then the others musing aloud about it, offering constructive criticism and asking questions.

Right away I was impressed. The other members were smart, and irreverent, and very good writers... except for poor Joe, who was more dabbling in writing for the moment on a lark, and who'd penned a story that was trying to be a black comedy but offended some of the group members. I couldn't remember just now exactly what his story was about -- but a search through my gmail for the name of the school where the workshop meets jogs my memory. From an e-mail I sent to a friend shortly after the writing-group meeting:

"This was my first real writing-group meeting. They loved my stuff -- the literary-snob, hard-to-impress group moderator said my writing had a real 'voice' and 'attitude,' was reminiscent of Dorothy Parker (I've never read anything of hers), '...each piece is so short yet has a complete story arc!' (I thought, 'Uh, it does? OK, well, cool.') Then poor Joe read his story. It was about a couple, one of whom is a serial killer. It included a scene in which there's a dead kid in a freezer. The group was basically all girls and Joe. This maternal group of chicks did not like the murdered-kid-in-a-freezer story. (To Joe's credit, it was a vaguely 'Dexter'-ish, black-humor thing he was going for, an extreme example of a bad relationship between the guy and the girl covering up for him -- but that seemed lost on the group except for me.)"

I'm excited to go back. I only didn't go back because of laziness, I think, and possibly also a little bit of fear and maybe even some arrogance sprinkled in. (Imagine me throwing my empty vodka glass against the fireplace screen and screaming, "I don't need you! I don't need anybody!") I can't wait to sift through my massive archives (that's not bragging; I write a lot) and pick out stuff to share next time. Also, all group members are eligible to enter an annual short-story contest (I think maybe the entry fee is waived for members or something) whose prize is $1,000. The next meeting is in January.

I've pasted below the three pieces that I remember sharing that night. The first two -- hmm, maybe the third as well -- were published on my writer friend Oliver's Moustache Club of America site. "What matters" was, in fact, my subversive response to Oliver's telling me that a girl in one of his writing groups complained about how in his stories there was "no physical description of the characters... I want to picture them, to see what they're wearing!" Well, here ya go, babe. (I can be kind of saucy sometimes.) Also, the third one is non-fiction and based on an actual dinghy ride I took with a wacky stranger to his ramshackle boat he lived on out on the San Diego Bay, back during my colorful four months of living out West.

What it is

I brought him to a pizza place to break up with him.

He loved pizza. It didn't love him back, and neither did I, but I guess one-way love is better than no-way love.

I watched him dig into his pie. He was a big eater, and had ordered a pie all for himself. It was covered with anchovies and onions and smelly things.

I had ordered a small side salad. I couldn't eat much. I always feel queasy when I have to deliver a blow.

"Mmm... mm rrowr rrowr rrowr rrowr, mmmphlet mphlet," he said and laughed.


He gave it another go. As he spoke, I looked into his churning, cheesy maw. Imagine a washing machine but full of melted cheese instead of socks and towels.

He wiped his lips with a thin cheap napkin. It left a greasy smear of a kiss-print.

"Sorry," he said, his left cheek full of chewed-up mush. "I had my mouth full."

"Oh, did you now?"

"Yeah. Heh."

"So what were you trying to say?"

"I said, 'I really love you.' "

I let my plastic spork drop to the table in our booth. He was grinning and clueless.

I saw his eyebrows go up a bit at their centers, awaiting my response.

In the kitchen in back, a cook twirled dough in the air. The cook was boisterous, singing about what it is when the moon hits your eye like a big pizza pie.

"That's amore!" he bellowed, spinning the dough round and round.


What matters

“Sweetheart, there's something I have to tell you."

The mom was wearing a burgundy paisley dress that fell to about mid-calf-length. The sleeves were three-quarter-length, so they stopped right at about halfway down her forearm. The dress was made of a stiff sort of cotton, or maybe a cotton blend. It had a little rounded collar, what you might call a Peter Pan collar if you were writing a description of the dress for a catalog.

“Oookay, shoot.”

The daughter was wearing low-rise blue jeans that flared out at the bottoms of the legs and had a smattering of silver studs decorating the pockets. At the store where she’d bought them, the style was called “Diva.” She was also wearing a little pink T-shirt. You might call it a baby tee if you were writing a blurb in a teen magazine.

“Honey, I’m just going to say this. You’re adopted.”

The mom was wearing loafers with a low, chunky heel. The loafers were brown leather, from the Stride Rite store, bought for their comfort. They were sensible shoes. The mom was also wearing pantyhose; on the box, it said the color was “nude,” a sort of suntan brown.

“Mom… what…”

The daughter was wearing white sneakers with thick soles, almost like platform shoes, trendy among her peers at her junior-high school.

“Dad and I were friends with your real mother. We are friends with your real mother. She’s someone you know… someone you know quite well.”

The mom wore her shoulder-length medium-brown hair in a low ponytail. She wore glasses with discreet rims, so that you mostly just saw the glass lenses, which were reflection-proof, so you almost didn’t see the lenses either.

“Who is she?”

The daughter had purple polish on her nails, and it was chipped. Her brown hair was long; she was growing out her bangs. Her T-shirt said “Boy Magnet” on it.


He said it didn't matter

"And even tho' we ain't got money,
I'm so in love with ya, honey..."

He sang these words to me while rowing us in a little dinghy. A dinghy is a small boat, but it's also a funny word that sounds like a you-know-what. 

We had both been talking about how we were broke. It was a glorious night in a big city that had a bay in it. We were in that bay, in that dinghy.

It had been there in a cluster of dinghies floating in the dark, at the edge of the ghetto part of the bay.
The people who live on their crappy boats farther out use the dinghies to get to their bobbing, creaking homes. No one guards the dinghies, so we had taken ours for free.

It was wild. We were both a little drunk. He was rowing us, gliding us across the water, which was black with red and green sparkles on it, reflections of the city lights.

It was a wild, crazy time, just after the Great Recession had started to eff up people's lives, and I was out of a job, and he said that it didn't matter, and that he loved me. He loved me even tho' we ain't got money.

He pretended we were in Venice, in a gondola, and he sang to me in fake Italian, too.

It was wild and crazy and romantic. Except that I didn't love him back, because he was a toothless old wino, and I was not a toothless old wino, and I just wanted to make it back to the shore alive.

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