Sunday, February 17, 2013

Groucho Marx writing group

At Union Station, on the Metro, all along the streets spoking off of Dupont Circle, people carried roses. Vendors' flower displays bloomed by the escalators. A taciturn Hispanic man in a backward-facing seat carried a half-dozen red ones in a cone of crinkly clear plastic -- maybe he couldn't afford the full dozen, or maybe he felt ambivalent, half-hearted, toward the recipient. The city had a festive aspect, and in the dream-like evening light you could almost imagine you were in some other, more romantic city, in some other, more romantic country, instead of in staid old left-brained DC.

It was Valentine's Day, of course, but I kept forgetting. For one thing, my boyfriend and I don't celebrate it. We were in the quirky-alternative-kids stratum of our high school's social hierarchy -- or rather, in that stratum sort of off to the side of the high-school hierarchy. We didn't know each other very well back then -- he's two years/grades older than I am/was -- but we had enough mutual friends back then that I had no qualms about Facebook-friending him upon my return from San Diego four years ago, back when he was in Baghdad for the second time (working for a civilian contractor this time, and not, you know, in a war). 

At our school, he was helping to create the world's most slyly subversive yearbook -- so sly it flew right under the radar of the yearbook club's faculty advisor -- a year or two before I was writing irreverent, pseudo-love-advice columns and tongue-in-cheek reviews of quasi-Satanic rock bands for the school newspaper. All of this is to say it isn't surprising that we'd grow up to be the kind of adults who would eschew a national holiday that pressures people to make syrupy lovey-dovey gestures. 

It's not that we're heartless. We're not anti-romance; we just prefer to be a little bit original about it, a little bit ironic about it. You know, the quirky-alternative-kid thing. So we celebrate the day before Valentine's Day -- Saint Modomnoc Day, February 13 -- all because at some point during our gradual, long-distance courtship my boyfriend told me about this saint of bees, or of honey and bees, and about how Saint Modomnoc tended beehives and his charges loved him so much they followed him from one British isle to another, a swarm of lovelorn aphids. It's probably not true, but neither is Christmas.

Every year we come up with some sort of dinner and dessert, both of which have honey among their ingredients, and one year I gave him a bunch of bee-themed presents. It's become a thing with us. This year we went out to dinner at Ethiopic, which has, in addition to a glowy and unrushed ambiance, baklava for dessert and honey wine that Yelp reviewers like to rave about, either because they genuinely like it or they just really want to like Ethiopian honey wine so much that they've convinced themselves they do. 

So on Valentine's Day, because I'd already celebrated my private-joke holiday, I would see people dressed in red, including a disgruntled woman on one standing-room-left-only Metro train wearing earrings made to look like those little candy hearts with messages on them, and I would think, "Oh yeah, that's today!" 

About half an hour before my first time attending this short-fiction workshop that meets at a preparatory school in Dupont Circle (well, my first time since the real first time, a couple of years ago), having arrived early to scout the place out and make sure I knew where it was (I hate to be late; damn German blood), I sat and waited inside a Starbucks just down the street. It occurred to me that the writing group was about to meet at 7:30 p.m. on February 14, prime V-Day time, when all the couples in love are supposed to be out at fancy restaurants with diamond rings hidden in the tiramisu, or at least eating cozy candlelit at-home dinners for two (take-out Taco Bell for my friends Shannon and Andrew; I saw the cute photo they posted on Facebook). 

I wondered whether some of the folks who had RSVPed to say they'd be at the writing-group meeting -- assuming they did not celebrate Saint Modomnoc Day -- were poignantly anguished lonelyhearts, shy awkward writers who were unlucky in love, or perhaps mad alcoholic poets whose lovers had all refused to take a back seat when the writers' Muses summoned them to the computer, and therefore the lovers had all left. Although, you know, they could have all been happily single and independent, but I guess I was looking for some dramatic story.

Sitting in that Starbucks, it occurred to me -- just to get corny for a minute -- that on this evening I felt a little as if I were celebrating, perhaps even consummating in a sense, a love affair that I've had going on for a long time. A love affair... with writing. (Yeah, I went there. Hear me out.)

For a long time, mine has been a solitary writing existence -- you might say, a piously celibate one. I'd dipped briefly into the local writing scene before. As I droned on about in a previous post, I shared stories with this particular group one other time, years ago, tagging along with a dude named Joe, whom I'd met on OkCupid, just accompanying him on a lark. It wasn't something planned out or momentous from my end; he could just as well have invited me to go see some vintage kimonos at a museum. It was just something to do; I said OK to be polite.

The group members said nice things about the three short pieces I shared that night. And this wasn't some "kumbaya," everyone's-a-special-snowflake, let's-just-say-nice-things-about-one-another's-writing-and-not-make-anyone-cry kind of gang -- they knew their literary stuff, judging by the somewhat obscure short-fiction writers they referenced throughout the session, and were sharply critical, lunging at any limp prose or logic gaps and calling the writer out for them. 

It was a great and somehow vindicating experience for me, even as they tore poor Joe's story to pieces (more on this later in the blog post). But for some reason, or just no reason, I never went back. I let all those years go by. I went on with my life, writing and posting stories online for my friends to see, never submitting anything for publication, as if my triumphant night with this seemingly random but unquestionably literary-savvy writing group had never happened. 

A few cool writing-related things happened during the intervening months and years. I met a kickass published writer named Will Pham shortly before he moved back to California, and heard him spit out his poetry at a reading at Busboys & Poets in Arlington. I entered a short-fiction contest run by George Mason University's literary magazine, Phoebe, because it was judged by David Means, who wrote one of my favorite short stories, "The Spot." I didn't win, but, you know, goddamn it, I tried. Otherwise I remained in what has always felt like my most natural state -- writing alone in a safe bubble, with no feedback from anyone else, no editor, accepting all of my own stories for publication on my very own writing site where no one else's writings appear and could potentially outshine mine. A solo, downright-hermetic writing life. 

But then starting this blog got me in the mood to do stuff; holding myself accountable here helps. Instead of groaning about the dead-end, low-on-the-totem-pole, substitute-receptionist temp gigs I was working -- I was pushing myself to find something better, and I found it. I started training for a volunteer gig -- something that hadn't even been on my non-existent list of New Year's resolutions, but is instead a new passion that I just sort of fell into thanks to the suggestion of my awesome housemate. I poured out my trunk booze. But if you've visited this blog before, you knew all that. I guess I'm reiterating it here to answer the question that the preceding paragraphs seem to beg for an answer to, which is, "Why now?" 

I should 'fess up here and admit that I put off going back to the writing group for a good couple of months after I found them online again, back around the time I started this blog and was getting all gung-ho about stuff. I don't really know why I kept avoiding the group's weekly meetings. Part of it was surely the fear of going there again but having a less-than-triumphant time. And part of it, weirdly enough, was that I've been solidly in non-fiction mode here on this very blog -- mostly encouraged by wonderful friends who have told me that this blog has helped them in some way. A friend whom I met up with at an IHOP near where she lives told me that she loves my blog, but skips most of the fiction that I post links to on Facebook -- I think she figures that it's all made up, and therefore isn't as factually sturdy or emotionally authentic, as relevant or helpful to her as the "true" stuff is. I started having a mini identity crisis, wondering if I should even write fiction any more. 

What finally got me to get off my figurative ass and go to a group meeting was just that I kept RSVPing "Yes" every week, then chickening out and cancelling at the last minute -- and I started to worry that this was so egregiously rude that the organizer might not let me attend the group's future meetings, even if I felt all ready to go. In the end, it wasn't some divine spark of creative inspiration or surge of literary camaraderie that got me to go, but just good manners.

At that Starbucks just beyond Dupont Circle, I sat in an emerald velvet armchair (the hard-to-get comfy seats were mostly empty because everyone was out engaging in V-Day wining and dining), beneath a tastefully baroque chandelier, and some music was playing that I remember had some sort of angelic vocals going on. I looked down at my dumpy royal-blue Old Navy purse sitting on the floor, the book of Junot Díaz short stories (to read on the Metro) peeking out, at the pile of stapled-together copies of a short story that I'd printed out at some random Kinko's inside some random Hyatt hotel near where I work. I kept checking my cell phone for the time, twenty minutes to go, then fifteen. I felt nervous but I also had the dopey feeling that the writing gods were smiling down upon me, supplying me with this velvet throne, this crystal light, thanking me for finally bringing my stories before the eyes of other readers. 

Of course that's a completely arrogant and borderline-delusional thing for me to think -- but it's true, that's how I think of myself as a writer. I know that I'm good. I know it in my bones, and always have. Maybe sometimes I don't bring my "A game," maybe sometimes I'm a little bit lazy, maybe sometimes a particular type of story just never would have even had a chance of resonating with a particular type of reader -- but I have never doubted that I have it in me to be really good. If and when I miss the mark, I always attribute it to some other personal flaw -- the laziness, a day or period of my life during which I was stressed or sleep-deprived and biologically not at my most lucid and high-functioning, my stubborn refusal to please every possible reader. Never do I think that I'm just not good.

I mean, I could be modest here and say it's possible that I'm wrong. But that would be a lie. It would be a socially acceptable, modest statement that I don't believe.

Which is precisely why it's good that, on Thursday night, when I returned to the writing group led by a chick we'll just call C. and held at the ghost-story-worthy "preparatory school," I got some criticism. I mean, overall the group liked the story I'd brought -- "Just hug them and wave," a story written in what I think of as the "batshit dumbass" style, written that way mostly to amuse my writer friend Oliver, who got the story to run on his The Moustache Club of America site, a satellite site of the much larger and more popular The Good Men Project site. (They changed the title and I was never happy with that or with the widely spaced-out way the story looked on the site; hence my also publishing it on my own fiction site.) For some reason, I didn't tell the group that this was an already published piece. I guess I worried they'd say, "Well, then what do you want from us?"

I guess it's a bit strange that I'd bring that particular story, which has almost no personal or sentimental meaning to me; it was just a snappy, kind of original, style-driven piece that I thought might "play well" in a writing-group setting. The other four group members seemed to agree it was well-written, and they laughed -- like, for-real, belly laughs -- at all the parts where I'd wanted them to. But they didn't just stop there, give me a pat on the head and a Scooby snack, and move on to the next person's story.

Let me take a step back for a moment and explain to you how the group works, and perhaps also provide a quick little cast of characters. The group was created by C. (I have decided to use initials for all of the workshop members, for reasons that I'll probably explain in a future post). C. facilitates the group through the social site Meetup. If you, like me, are mostly unfamiliar with Meetup: You go to the site, which has lists of local meetings and activities, and you can search by area and hobby -- say, Missoula, Montana stamp collectors. Then, if you want, you can RSVP "Yes" to say that you plan to attend a particular group's meeting. The site is synced up with Facebook, so when I join a meeting, my Facebook profile photo and full name appear in the list of those attending. Each group has a little Meetup homepage and discussion forum where you can post messages for group members to see. "Can't wait to see you Thurs.! How 'bout this snow, eh?" or whatever. 

C. never brings her own writing to share. I asked her about this on Thursday, assuming she must sometimes bring something of hers to "workshop," but she said, "No. Oh, god no. Definitely not." She said this while seeming to look inward, as if considering and then immediately rejecting the very notion of this for some reason.

My boyfriend and I watch a lot of Joss Whedon fare, ever since my boo got me sucked into "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" (yes, seriously -- it's a "don't knock it till you've tried it" sort of thing) and "Firefly," and when we ran out of those we watched "Angel" (a Buffy spin-off) and are currently watching "Dollhouse" with our housemate. I mention all of this not to randomly establish my geek cred, but to say that after seeing the character Adelle DeWitt, the quintessentially British and perennially pencil-skirted ice queen who runs a veritable robot-ninja brothel (again, yes, seriously, although the story's more complicated than that), whenever I'd try to remember C., the (totally American) writing-group organizer -- instead I would picture (and hear) her as Adelle. They share a bunch of the same traits. And I reckon Adelle would have had the same response to the notion of sharing some precious scrap of prose she'd crafted, of bringing herself to that compliment-hungry level, of making herself vulnerable and open to criticism. 

During both meetings -- that first one I went to years ago and the one on Thursday -- C. struck me as the kind of person whose approval you want to get, like a favorite teacher or a parent with high standards. Turns out the favorite-teacher vibe is apt; when I Googled-stalked her just now I found a page indicating that she used to be a teacher at the school, the place where the writing-group meetings are held. She's now a community manager with a LinkedIn profile stating that her current field is real estate. Not that we talked about any of this during our perfunctory small talk on Thursday night, mostly because I never know whether to ask about stuff like that. She did inquire about my job, where I live. I would have asked more about her but I got the sense that she's a private person -- but I probably just thought that because of her taken-aback response to my question about sharing her writing with the group. 

I can also see the former-teacher-now-working-in-real-estate thing. She seems like someone about whom you could accurately use the word "soulful," who would really prefer to spend her days teaching and enriching budding minds, but who at some point made the choice to set aside childish or hippie notions of what grown-up life is, and who went into a more lucrative field instead, and stuck firm to her decision -- but who hasn't fully let go of a more idealistic dream, so she sneaks a writing workshop into her otherwise more terrestrial schedule on Thursday evenings. Even on a solitary Valentine's Day, when showing up for the meeting would be a sort of giveaway to others there that you're alone, for that evening at least. She's been doing it every week for years. 

She's only a tiny bit older than I am (again -- thank you, Google-stalking), but authoritative and crisp, not gushing with effusive praise for anyone who simply shows up and spells all the words in the story correctly -- not someone who's going to give you an "E" for effort. Her comments are insightful and devastatingly applicable. For example, on Thursday she suggested that I start my story with a scene I'd originally put in the middle, and at first I thought that was bonkers -- but I've now drafted a new opening to the story that starts with the very scene she suggested as an opener. I trust her instincts, maybe better than I trust my own. Which, I admit, is a pretty weird thing to say about a person I'd only ever been around one other time in my life. 

But back to when I first arrived on Thursday. I stood outside the school, waiting for C. or the other guy who'd RSVPed "Yes" (W., a middle-aged poet-turned-prose-writer with a Sandman's mane of gray hair and the rumpled clothes and shuffling demeanor of a boy who's been dragged to church when he'd rather go outside and play), staring at the elegant old townhouse-style building, feeling as if I'd arrived at the set for a movie that takes place at some fictional East Coast private school. I took a few snapshots for this blog post. 

I wondered if I'd recognize C., waiting as I was for Adelle to show up instead. I wondered if she'd recognize me, either from that time I'd attended years ago, or from the gothy Facebook profile photo (the Meetup site synched up with my Facebook account, so my "face" on both profiles is the same) in which I'm wearing my San Diego T-shirt, a little black blazer that I have since left behind at a nightclub, and heavy black eyeliner around my eyes that are looking away, lying back with my hair fanned out across my garishly printed IKEA home-office rug. 

I heard a chipper (and decidedly un-British, un-Adelle) "Hello!" and saw her approaching from across the street. She clicked up to me, whippet-thin and dressed all in black on Valentine's Day except for red high-heeled snakeskin boots and a strand of red beads around her neck -- saucy but perhaps begrudging acquiescence to this wear-red-or-you're-a-Grinch holiday, her hair cut in a very short bob with a sort of wedge shape. She was tiny, like a person with the kind of ironclad discipline whom you only ever see eating salad and who never skips going to the gym. Like, well, a person who would not give you or herself an "E" for effort. I thought I saw carefully applied lip-liner pencil around her often frowning (later, during the workshop), you-have-to-work-hard-to-measure-up-to-my-standards mouth. I wanted to impress her.

And there I was in my puffy navy-blue winter coat, neither sleek nor classy, the kind of coat a kid would wear to a snowball fight. (And in fact I did wear it during a snowball fight, back during my freshman year in college. Yeah, I've had that coat for a looong time.) I'd put in a long day at work, then hustled over to Kinko's to print out copies of my story, took the Metro over to Dupont Circle, and I looked as frazzled as I felt in cheap black polyester pants with fake pockets (a hand-me-up from my younger sister, surely bought from Forever 21 with her allowance, or perhaps purchased as the bottom half of her then-waitressing-uniform) and a blue-and-white-striped button-down shirt, untucked, with the sleeves rolled up to my elbows, my frizzy long hair pulled into a sloppy, lackadaisical wannabe-bun just to keep it under control, not even trying for sophistication. 

Slung across my body was my derpy Old Navy shoulder bag, which matches nothing I own but is big enough for a book, my digital camera in its zip-up case, a make-up bag, and anything else I might have a reasonable hope of carrying around with me during the day. It's almost a mom purse, big enough for diapers.

Pretty much right away, I think we both realized that we're different types. She greeted me cheerfully, with buoyant hospitality, as she clicked up the steps to the locked front door of the school and fiddled with some keys to let us in. We chatted a bit awkwardly, me in my head-ducked-down, so-not-an-alpha, aw-shucks sort of manner. She led me into a long, rectangular room, which looked like some aristocrat's home library that had been reluctantly converted into a computer lab. Then she took a copy of my story and went off to a Xerox machine somewhere just offstage to make two more copies of my story, because "D. and J. said they might be here, too." 

I was happy to shrug off my dorky fat-suit coat, and I looked at the gilded names on the threadbare antique books on the bookshelves while waiting for Adelle-I mean, C. to return with copies of my story. I feel as if I should remember what books were there, but what I mostly remember is looking around the room at the vintage tomes and portraits of eighteenth- or nineteenth-century people (you know, whenever it was that boys wore breeches and frilly blouses) juxtaposed with about fifteen nice-looking computers at desks all facing the wall around the perimeter of the long room, and thinking, "This school is whack."

W. showed up, and instead of enthusiastically gabbing about what short story each of us was currently working on, or about the usual tenor and protocol of these group meetings, or even about the weather or Valentine's Day, or anything at all -- he avoided my smiling attempts at eye contact and wandered around the room, checking stuff out or pretending to check stuff out until C. got back. He was probably, like me, just your typical socially maladjusted, quietly eccentric writer. I had read and liked his little "About Me" blurb that I'd seen on the group's Meetup page, about how he's been writing poetry for years but " fellow poets accuse me of actually writing prose with line breaks... I thought I'd take out the line breaks and see what happens." So I decided he was probably just "off," the way the best poets seem to be. 

C. returned, with copies of my story as well as a few small paper plates bearing Valentine's Day cupcakes she'd taken from the unlocked, lights-still-on front office of the school. Red velvet, chocolate with purple candy hearts on top. Someone just left them there, out in the open -- they were up for grabs, she reasoned. 

When the other two members showed up a few minutes late, one of them, D., teased C. about the "stolen" cupcakes. D. was an urbane-seeming, forties-ish guy in a nice suit who knows his modern short-fiction authors (he recommended Barry Hannah's "Airships" to me after the group read my story), with a ready arsenal of cocktail-party-conversation smartbombs ready to deploy at any time. He said he'd been drinking wine before the meeting. Around the same time, J., who had the penetrating stare, expensive-looking sleek haircut, and self-assured voice of a lawyer, arrived and sat next to D.

The group seemed split in two -- the cultured, urbane, well-spoken trio of C., D., and J. on one side; and then the conspicuously "weird" W. and me on the other side, nerds sitting at the cool kids' table. And yet, the nerds were the ones who brought writing to the table; the other three just critiqued. 

The way the group works is someone other than the writer always reads the writer's story aloud. C. could tell I was nervous, and mercifully offered to let me go first -- meaning, W. read my story, in a deadpan monotone that I worried wasn't suited to the whimsical subject matter. He had to start over twice, once when D. sauntered in; and again when J. entered, insisting that we didn't have to start over just for her, imperious in the chair next to D., observant like some unblinking hawk. 

I cringed as W. read my story, but I eased up every time the group laughed -- earnest, believable laughs -- at parts that I'd meant to be comical. I hunched over my copy, shaking visibly (both from nerves and the cold seeping in through the window frame just behind me), making a check mark by every point in the story that evoked laughter, making self-critical x's and other little notes at parts that struck me, upon hearing someone else read the story out loud, as needing some work.

W. finished reading -- and then the group fell into the eeriest silence I have ever heard. Imagine being a deaf person inside a tomb, and also imagine that deaf person is the last living creature on the planet Earth, but this was quieter.

For what felt like several minutes, I sat there looking around at all the bowed-down heads, internally screaming What the hell what the hell, until veteran group member D. looked up and grinned and said, "There's always this awkward silence." Apparently the group members always take a few minutes (a few whole minutes of unnerving silence) to digest the story, to look it over and gather their thoughts and form them into concrete feedback for the writer. 

C. was smiling at the pages, murmuring, "I like it..." and D. pointed out that he'd written, "Great!" in many places on his printed-out pages, assuring me that he doesn't normally do that (although I wondered whether all that wine had made him feel magnanimous). W. was quiet, although later -- when everyone handed me their copies with their helpful notes scrawled all over them -- I saw that he'd written "Funny" by a bunch of different parts, and he'd even laughed a few times while reading the story aloud. 

I picked up on what I'm guessing is a pattern, probably not just for this writing group but groups everywhere: First people say what they like, then comes the "constructive criticism" part of the proceedings. J. led this charge, pointing out what she considered to be "logic glitches," and then wondering how "realistic" or "accurate" certain parts were. She zeroed in on (what seemed to me) maddeningly tiny details, such as my reference to grapefruit-flavored Vitamin Water. Apparently J. loves her some Vitamin Water, and she is quite sure that it comes in many fruit flavors but not grapefruit, and this lapse made her question the credibility of the entire story. (Wow, I can't believe that I just deigned to Google this -- apparently there used to be a Cran-Grapefruit flavor of Vitamin Water, but it has been discontinued. I'll have to let her know next week!)

Now, here is where I'll interject and remind you that this was a story written in the "batshit dumbass" style, in a universe that's a slightly skewed, funhouse-mirror version of our own. I gleefully made shit up. It's about a low-level and invisible-feeling mechanic at Disneyland who has to be a substitute Mickey Mouse at the park one day because "the old Mickey got too fat." I mean, that is an inherently ridiculous situation, one that I'm sure would never happen at the actual honest-to-god theme park in Anaheim. I made up all of the specific details of the story, such as the "underground command center" that's the "secret beating heart of the park." I mean, hello, it's fiction, not a documentary.

What I'm saying is -- whether or not it's realistic is a moot point, because it's not meant to be. I admitted to the group that this approach (or non-approach) was "maybe lazy or a cop-out," that it was quite possible I was excusing, after the fact, my having done zero research regarding how Disneyland "works." And at the same time, I feel that a meticulously researched and accurate-to-a-T story wouldn't have the same freewheeling and mildly absurd tone. I feel like too much realism would drag it down, change it into something it's not. It needs a certain degree of pranksterish levity; the reader needs to realize, "This isn't real -- it's a metaphor being used to make a point." Or so I've thought ever since I wrote the story back in August. 

But looking around the room at the furrowed brows, at C. trying to put her finger on why she felt the central character wasn't quite fully developed (I had originally thought that I intentionally wouldn't develop him -- the thrust of the story is that he feels he goes through life as an impostor, forever behind the scenes, inauthentic), I found myself awash in foreign and initially troubling sensations. 

One: I got over my knee-jerk, I-know-better-than-you-do denial and began to trust the group's instincts -- not just C.'s, but those of everyone else who chimed in with J., including D. who referred to Buster Keaton and talked about ways of amping up some of the scenes describing physical comedy. My acceptance of their critiques as valid is especially odd because, as I said earlier in this post, for someone with otherwise-abysmal self-esteem -- I'm obstinately arrogant when it comes to my writing. I mean, a real egomaniacal (but outwardly polite) bitch about it. 

Ordinarily, if you disagree with a choice I've made -- about story structure, a plot detail, anything at all related to something I've written -- I will (privately) conclude that you are the one who needs to change, who needs to mature and evolve in your view and come around to appreciating the genius that I have just presented to you. 

And two: At a couple of points during all of this constructive criticism -- I felt like crying. I kept thinking about that triumphant first meeting years ago, when I'd presented not one but three short pieces, and nobody had any substantial improvements to suggest for any of them. I'd sailed through like some kind of child prodigy or oracle, someone who inhabits a celestial realm above the reach of critical thought. Part of me knew I wouldn't be so lucky again. I think that's why I put off attending another meeting for so long -- that persistent and hardly original thought, What if I suck and I don't know it? 

I felt myself internally cycling through something like the grief stages -- the aforementioned denial, blaming ("It's their fault they don't get it! I should find a better writing group! Hmph, I'm never coming back here again! They can't make me!") -- until I hit the enlightened land of Acceptance. I heard myself meekly agreeing with their criticisms -- thanking them, even! -- and furiously taking notes in the margins of my own printed-out copy. "You're right; I really need to make that more clear." "That's a good idea; I'll try that and see how it works out."

But thankfully I realized, once I'd made it past border control into Acceptance land, that this was exactly what I had wanted -- a group that wouldn't coddle me, a group that would call me on my shit. A group that would stop just short of fulfilling the Groucho-Marxian criterion of not embracing me unquestioningly, not loving me just as I am. I mean, how can you improve if you don't change? How do you go up if you keep telling yourself you're already there, all evidence to the contrary? (Ahem, I did not exactly win that David-Means-judged short-fiction contest, did I?) 

That said, I did feel at home there -- and perfectly comfortable saying such things as, "I don't think soulless people worry about being soulless" to a group of virtual strangers, the type of people who all nodded solemnly and then expanded on my thought with similar pronouncements of their own, as if we were a bunch of new college students who had just watched our first French movie.

At the end of the workshop, I was reminded that, indeed, not everyone was welcome there. As the group members rose from their chairs, after finishing our discussions of first my story and then W.'s brilliant piece (mostly dialogue) about a young boy in the 1950s learning about the "threat" of communism from the paranoid adults around him, C. asked about the other time I'd come to one of the group's meetings. Back then they met in a smaller room and sat around a table; J. had been there that time as well. C. said, "I remember you, but not your story." (Yeah, that was a tiny bit humbling.) C. said she didn't remember Joe, the guy who'd invited me to the meeting, and she seemed to be searching her memory for some little "aha." I said, "Um, he was bald. He brought a story that had a kid in a freezer in it." 

That did it. C. and J. remembered, with hearty distaste -- C. said, "J. was disturbed by his story." So they didn't remember a thing I'd written, which they'd all loved at the time -- but Joe and his dead kid in the freezer, yeah, they remembered that. I felt bad for a moment, as if I'd sold him out somehow, but hey, I hadn't said anything that wasn't true. C. appeared repulsed at the very thought of Joe, and asked, "What's he up to now? In prison?" And I realized, again, that this wasn't a bunch of live-and-let-live Care Bears. These people will judge you. These people have standards, thank you very much. Leave your grapefruit-flavored Vitamin Water and your dead freezer kids at the door.

This group is snobby -- and that's just what I'd wanted. I saw somewhere on the group's Meetup homepage that at some point all members were supposed to submit a piece of writing to C., "to determine if this group is the right fit for you," which is a nice way of saying that you have to be good or you're not in the club. I never did that -- I tagged along with Joe my first time, then after contacting C. a couple months ago she told me to just come right on into their next meeting. But I don't know that I'd like a group that allowed just anyone. 

No story is going to be good to everyone on the planet who might read it. Some of us writing nerds like to do playful things, experimental things, more advanced things with writing style, or story structure, or perspective or any of the other building blocks or bells and whistles. Not everyone is into that. A lot of people want adherence to tradition, they want their soothing and formulaic entertainment. I suppose that I write for people who, like me, find the experiments to be the most interesting. 

The hippie in me wants to write for everyone, wants to believe that a good story is just universally good no matter who's reading it, no matter what their level of education is, no matter whether they've read the works of certain anointed short-fiction writers with the stories in The New Yorker and Harper's. But in order to write a story like that, I would probably have to water it down, stretch it past its point of elasticity just so it fits everyone. One-size-fits-all, like some stretchy, dumpy garment in a Kmart. 

And besides, isn't it insulting to think that, in order for all of humanity to like your story, you would have to dilute it, have to over-explain, have to scrub it free of any obscure cultural references or potentially offensive material? Isn't it more complimentary, more respectful, to give humanity the benefit of the doubt -- to give them a story that's a challenge to wrap their brains around, jarring to their worldview, a shock to their system? I mean, not that every single thing I write does all that. OK, probably most of it doesn't. 

And yet -- just to play devil's advocate with myself here like a crazy lady -- what's my goal in all this? To impress a bunch of urbane, grown-up cool kids -- or to create art that moves people, that makes them think and feel and cry and laugh and, ultimately, feel less alone? Of course it's the latter of those two options (or the last, as my grammarian ex-boyfriend would correct me). But I'm not going to get any better in either of those directions just sitting here in my virtual hermit's shack, writing just for me. "Dear Christie: You're awesome. Love, Christie."

So on Valentine's Day this year I took my lonely writing out on the town, told it, "Put on a fancy dress! My darling, we're going to have a special evening -- no staying home like usual and making piles of dirty dishes, sauce-scummed pots and pans for you to scrub." And I promised we'd do it more often, weekly even. I would take it out dancing, too. I would twirl it around on the dancefloor, spinning and imbuing our movement with all of the accumulated pathos of our life together, and everyone would watch, thinking, "My, what a fiery couple."    

After sharing my kooky I-was-Mickey-Mouse-for-a-day story with the snooty writing group, which provoked discussion of such subjects as "Can a person get too fat for the pants part of a Mickey suit?" -- on the Metro ride home I saw children everywhere wearing those caps with the Mickey ears on them. I asked a parent about this. As fate would have it, there was a big "Disney on Ice" show that night. That is just the sort of odd little private joke that the writing gods would make with me.

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