Saturday, March 30, 2013

Feeling like worms

I knew it was a contemptibly writerly thing to think, but the fact that there was noplace for me to sit at my new favorite bar near where my new weekly short-fiction workshop meets seemed like a portent of how the entire night was going to go. That's all my fault; in my previous post about last week's workshop, I started out by painting the scene for you of me there at this new favorite bar in my low-cut black dress, drinking cucumber-soda-and-champagne cocktails alone next to a taciturn businessman, looking across the bartender's workspace at myself in the mirror on the wall, hint of cleavage and cheeks flushed from the booze. It was the sort of Narcissus-esque, self-infatuated post that my old friend X. would have criticized me for, and not without reason. I mean, it was a little nauseating. 

It's just that my experience at the workshop that night last week surpassed anything I would have even dared to daydream about happening in such a scene, so maybe some dopey, superstitious part of me thought I had to knock back a couple of Jewish cocktails again this week for good luck. I bustled in, surveying the bar and seeing that the stools all had butts on them (except for the stool next to this one Asian lady that had a purse on it in that clearly "reserved for my late friend" sort of way). I looked to the little area just beyond the bar where a small table and chairs were also taken. I somehow caught the hawk-like, imperious eye of the manager -- I remembered him from the last time, his micro-managing, taskmaster style and the eye rolls of his bar and wait staff -- and explained the pickle I was in. "I don't want to order any food, just drinks... Could I sit at a table and order drinks?" I tried to somehow not sound like a lush. 

He said, "Do you have a reservation?" Alas, I did not. So I left, feeling obscurely judged, as if he knew that the reason I wasn't going to order any food was because it would dull the buzz from the booze. As if he knew that I could just as easily have made do hooking up to someone's keg out in an alley, that I hadn't really come there specifically for his establishment's exquisitely curated "ethnic" fare. 

I sulked off down the street until I saw a big sign saying "Dirty Martini." I thought, "Well, either they have booze, or that is just about the cruelest case of false advertising I ever did see." I walked in -- and it was awful. It was the opposite of DGS Delicatessen, my friendly little Jewish bar and restaurant. (Oh hey, I just now noticed, when kindly Googling DGS's website so I could link to it for you, that the bartender in the homepage photo is the chick who was indeed behind the bar both times I was there. Check out the cocktails on their Happy Hour Menu -- one of them is made with pickle brine and cream ale!) I'm not a snob or anything; I'm the type of person who will eat food that I've dropped on the kitchen floor, with a shrug and a "God made the dirt and the dirt don't hurt" sort of gustatory ethos. Also, I'm quite easily impressed.

But Dirty Martini was huge and characterless, with those high ceilings that render the acoustics such that you can't hear what the person next to you is saying -- it just gets swallowed up in this amorphous cloud of ambient sound. There were giant screens showing a bunch of different basketball games, or the same basketball game, I didn't care which. I sat next to two old Southern men who seemed as closed up as a lizard soaking up sun on a rock. After my second or third (of four total... I think) grapefruit-juice-and-vodka cocktails, I tried to engage them in conversation. The white-haired one next to me said he was a retired school principal, and that he and his somber pal had come here from South Carolina to see the DC sights. (He was a little too quick to mention "my wife," and I wondered with incredulity if maybe he did that just to be safe, just in case I might get the wacky notion of hitting on him. I mean, he was a former principal, and I was sitting there in a vaguely schoolgirl red-plaid skirt.) 

A roly-poly man with thinning black hair and a baggy suit, who appeared to be the owner or at least the boss of everyone working that we could see, came over and said, "I'm going to charge these guys extra for sitting next to a beautiful woman!" I was flattered and laughed in that "Aw, shucks; how you do go on!" kind of way, but after he walked away, the Jerry-Sandusky-looking guy next to me scoffed and said, "Yeah, he's workin' the room." Which was of course true, but he was supposed to pretend that what the manager said was true. It's a complimentary lie, but without certain complimentary lies, civilization as we know it breaks down, or at the very least is a less pleasant state in which to spend one's days. Way to break down civilization there, Jerry-Sandusky-principal dude. 

I drank four drinks, I ran up a respectable tab, I sent a few drunk text messages to my boyfriend, I paid my tab, I hurried down and around Dupont Circle to the writing group, making it on time but just barely. 

This time a few folks were already inside the "preparatory school" where the workshop takes place (I believe C., the group organizer, used to be a teacher there so they let her use the space). C. was there, and K., and J. I went back to the Xerox machine and made copies of the piece I'd brought -- a short non-fiction vignette called "Unemployment, third month," about the bleak period of my life immediately after I returned home to Virginia from San Diego -- heading on back to the copier like some workshop long-timer. I was drunk as hell by that point, but I seem to recall C.'s seeming mildly pleased at my knowing the drill, Xeroxing the story myself. I reckon if you're any kind of group organizer or moderator or facilitator, you appreciate when other folks do something once in a while, instead of staring at you blankly and waiting for you to put on a show. 

I don't remember feeling embarrassed about being obviously drunk; I guess that, by this point, all that vodka had numbed me to any sense of self-consciousness. Which was the whole reason I drank in the first place that night, and is the reason I drink any time. My memory of that workshop session is Impressionist-painting-style in that I remember dots here and there, and I can take a few steps back to see what it looks like when I put them all together, but they aren't solidly connected. I remember that three people brought writing -- me, J., and another guy whose name I don't remember but who, so far, has been the only non-white person I've seen there (he's black). 

We read my story first; J. was the one who read it aloud. I remember thinking that she didn't sound as absorbed in it as she'd been when she read aloud my micro fictions that were such a hit last time. I remember a general feeling that the group was underwhelmed. And of course, just as she began to read the last paragraph -- a key emotional point, and the most stylistically original part of the story -- someone walked in late, the guy whose name I can't remember. So its power might have been blunted by some of the members looking up and away from the story to wave and say, "Oh, hi!" and say that it's been a while but they were glad he had come back. 

There was silence, and then J. -- whom I've grown to like and respect and who seems to me now less, well, lawyerly than she did when I first met her -- said something nice about how the details in my writing make my stories "relatable." Someone -- C., I think -- said that they liked "the car metaphor," referring to this part in which I talk about the car constantly on the verge of being out of gas, the "low fuel" light glowing. And then some of the members began -- or so it had seemed in my drunken, over-sensitive, nerves-on-the-surface state -- to slowly pick the piece apart by asking what had seemed -- in my drunken, pouty, defiant mode -- like disappointingly conventional, textbook-checklist questions. 

We discussed whether the story had an "arc" (C.'s watchword). C. wondered what the protagonist's "motivation" was (to which I thought, but did not say: "To get a job, duh"). The nameless dude wasn't sure whether some of the repetition was intentional, for effect (it was; everything in my writing is intentional), and they suggested an alternative spot at which to end the story which, I felt, would have transmogrified it into some hideously conventional and artless diary entry. C. suggested that we know more about what the protagonist's career aspirations are. I was jotting down notes, as I did the last two times. But this time, instead of dumbfoundedly writing, "I broke the writing group" (because no one had had any criticism last time), I wrote down such appallingly bratty things (no one could see this except me) as, "[Name omitted for this blog post] = bitch," and "[Name also omitted for this blog post] = idiot." Mature, I know. 

I have my Xeroxed copies of the story -- my copy with the drunken scrawls, as well as everyone else's copies with their notes, some praising and some constructively critical -- in this black plastic folder I bought at Kinko's a few hours before going to the workshop, in a tote bag with a teenager-y owl pattern on it that I'd bought at Claire's Accessories at Union Station during my lunch break (so I could transport the bottle of red Spanish wine, my divine offering unto the group, incognito, without looking like a hobo or a freak on the Metro train to Dupont Circle). But I don't want to look in there. I don't want to see the ugliness seeping out in the blue-ink scrawls I made on the pages of my too-precious-to-me writing. 

At some point I got up and went to the bathroom back by the copier machine -- yep, right in the middle of the discussion about my own story. Part of it was that I'd drunk so much (I was also drinking a sloppily poured cup of the wine I'd brought to the workshop; I was the only person drinking it) that my bladder was full to bursting, but I'm sure that another petulant part of it was that I was getting irked by their seemingly trivial quibbles with my piece. I rudely bustled off, like some kind of sociopathic freak, and let them discuss my story while I went back there, then I came back as if nothing abnormal had happened.

After what had felt like too much time dwelling on nit-picky and irrelevant could-be-improved points about my writing, we switched over to looking at J.'s piece. I remember being glad that she had brought something, that she had been willing to make herself vulnerable in that peculiar way that you only are when your lovingly chosen words are laid bare on the page and open for public evaluation. I'd had this idea that she was like C. and came only to spout teacher's-pet criticisms but not to be criticized. That gladness alone went a long way in my reception of her writing, which was very good, although I had a few thought about how to improve it. (It started with something like, "It all began the night of the accident;" I guess I was thinking something along the lines of the admittedly standard writing-group line, "Show, don't tell.") Most of all, though, I remember silently seething as group members praised specific lines in the story. Again -- a paragon of enlightened maturity was I that night. 

Next up was a piece by the nameless-to-me-now new fellow. I remember the group members looked at me, and someone (probably C.) said, "Christie?" as an invitation to read aloud his story, being the newbie and never having read anyone's story aloud here before. I was drunk off my ass, but at least I had the wherewithal to know it, to worry that I was too drunk to do a good job reading his story, and to make some sad, valiant attempt to read it in as clear and sober and "perfectly fine" a voice as I could muster. My voice felt thick, and like an unpredictable element, a hyper dog on a leash weaving into oncoming bike traffic. I remember thinking that I was somehow, through some act of mercy from the universe, doing an OK job, loud and imbuing the words with the appropriate enthusiasm and poignancy and gravitas. I remember that the dialogue was smart and tough and what booksellers would call "urban," full of street slang, and that I had to read aloud the words "fuck" and "pussy," and had to assume the voices of characters very unlike me. I remember thinking that I was doing an OK job of all that, and when I was done the guy thanked me sincerely and said I had read his story well. 

But I also recall the sensation of some of the group members -- K., maybe C. -- peering at me sideways as I read, probably knowing that I was drunk (my cup of dark red wine occupying the folding chair beside me). I wondered if they were thinking of how changed I was from the meek, mousy girl who'd come in stone-sober that first time. My voice croaked out ravaged, raspy; I sounded like some boozy old broad who has lived some life, honey. I guess the longtime shy, sober chick in me was fascinated by this, in some surreal, out-of-body-experience kind of way. 

My memory of the end of the workshop is spotted with dark holes -- like how, in movies, sometimes there's this dramatic image of someone holding a film negative up to the light, and it curls up and becomes punctured and crinkled and black. I remember that I left the bottle of wine and the red plastic frat-party-style cups on the table, and C. genuinely effusing that it was "so sweet" of me to bring the wine. I remember walking out with K. and asking him, "Do you ever leave here feeling like your writing sucks?" And I remember his saying that yes, sometimes that happens to us all -- he said, "Last time you had us all feeling like worms." I was struck by this, both the niceness of his saying that and the quick, apt, memorable, writerly image he came up with right there on the fly. 

I remember walking down the streets near Dupont Circle crying, headed for the Metro station and calling my close friend/soul mate Kier. I was crying -- not weeping, not even covertly sobbing, but actually hysterical. It was the booze, of course, exacerbating the sensitivity I have to being told that I'm anything but a genius at the one thing in life that I do well. He stayed with me on the phone as I rubbed my SmarTrip Card on the top of the Metro turnstile, as I switched on and off of three different trains. I don't remember doing all of that -- but I must have, because eventually I got home. I remember crying in my seat on the train and ranting on the phone to Kier about the "stupid writing group" that "doesn't know jack shit about writing," and people politely staring, and... I remember getting very snotty. Not as in snobby, but as in, well, literally snotty. It was not exactly my finest hour. 

Back home, I saw in some mirror that I had cried off all of my eye make-up (quite the accomplishment considering that I wear two kinds of eyeliner -- liquid on top and pencil on the bottom -- mascara, and eye shadow, and that's not even counting the make-up I put on my eyebrows; I did not cry so hard that my eyebrow make-up came off). I made a drunken post on Facebook; I deleted it. I made another, only slightly saner post on Facebook -- I am posting it here in all of its spectacularly petulant glory:
"The moral of the story for me tonight is: 1) my beloved, trusted, brilliant writer friends (ahem, Dave) know more and have a much more valuable perspective on writing matters than some stupid random snooty group that meets in DC and asks the same old textbook-checklist questions about every single goddamn story without ever owning up to the fact that a story makes them *feel* anything; and 2) if I have to drink alcohol in order to feel comfortable around *any* group of people... that's a red flag, or a fuchsia flag, or a whatever flag, that something about those people gives me the heebie jeebies, and I should either be OK being sober around them, or else I should just go home. It is *never* worth it to bomb my poor liver with booze just so I can feel cool around a bunch of stupid snooty folks."  
I deleted that one, too. But not before at least two friends saw it, because I later received private messages from them. One said that she could relate to the having-to-drink-around-certain-groups-of-people-being-a-red-flag thing, and another guy -- a real, published author whose recent political-science book has been noted by the New York Times -- said that writing groups never really did anything for him. And, to my amusement and delight, he also said this: "And while this may not be very PC to say, the fact that you got drunk before the meeting strongly suggests that you're the only real writer in the group." I have some very good friends. 
I also sent a drunk e-mail to D., with whom I might share this blog link. We had exchanged a few e-mails, ever since my micro fictions went over so well and group members who hadn't been present to hear them (including D.) e-mailed me personally to ask if they could read them. I liked his chatty, irreverent tone and wrote back to him -- I always like it when someone's able to have a little fun with e-mail, and doesn't just stick to the conventional, "Nice to meet you! Keep on writing! Cheers!" mode of correspondence. Folks who can truly be playful with e-mail seem to be too few and far between. 
I told him that I was sorry, but I was pretty sure I wasn't going back to the workshop. I severely regretted the e-mail in the morning, feeling that I had surely crossed some grave line into impropriety. Also, at that point in our exchange, I had already e-mailed him last -- sending another e-mail, without the neat symmetry of tennis-style back-and-forth, made me worry about being some persona non grata in his inbox, like some sort of incipient stalker (the e-mail I'd received from my ex-friend X. was/is of course still stinging). So I sent him a quick, sensible-sounding note to say that I apologized; I'd been drunk, I was over-reacting, I would in fact be going back. 
To my surprise, at about the same time I received two e-mails from him. One urged me to let him convince me to give the group another try. The second one -- written after he got my "that was a drunk e-mail" message -- reassured me that he'd felt like the group lush before my arrival (he would always bring red wine, and people would just give the bottle to him at the end of the night, to finish off or carry down the street), so he joked that he'd appreciate someone else bearing that mantle for or with him. He also seemed to appreciate that I'd sent him the drunk e-mail; it made him feel included in the night's events even though he hadn't been there. I'll definitely write him back, and hell, I'll probably even give him this link. And tell him I'm sorry for posting my candid impressions of him and everyone else on here.
So I'll go back to the workshop next week. I'll openly consider what people have to say when it's something less than effusive praise. But I'll remain aloof to it all, floating above it, like some patient on a hospital bed who takes temporary leave of her corporeal form for a time before getting sucked back in. I'll go, because I've had tremendously encouraging experiences there, and because I've met wonderful new writerly folks -- and because I have to thicken my skin somehow. It might be hard for me to believe, but I am not exactly God's gift to readers of literary short stories. 
Not yet

1 comment:

  1. I always find myself so deep in thought and imagery when reading your stuff.

    I didn't see any of the FB postings. Maybe you need a support group and not a critique group? You couldn't pay me enough money to share anything I've written for feedback with anyone except the anonymous internet!