By Michael Goldstein
By Dennis Romero
By Sarah Fenske
By Matthew Mullins
By Patrick Range McDonald
By LA Weekly
By Dennis Romero
By Simone Wilson
This became my L.A. Writing Club routine. One afternoon for dreaming, another for speedwriting and a third for turning that into sentences. Elatedly show the manuscript to my exhausted, pregnant wife, whose face would confirm that the piece was unintelligible. Then edit through the night, completing in a day and a half what would formerly have taken me a month. I might have had my writing-club epiphany right there.
Even with my wife in labor, a part of me was with the group, whom I cell-phoned from the hospital with the potentially ultimate excuse for bailing out (Benjamin, 7 lbs., 8 oz.). But I e-mailed them my story under deadline and was proud to have done so, devotedly, holding back nothing. I printed out the others’ pieces, too, a neat, weighty sheath — wine from water, manna, fruition out of ether.
All these new soul mates to encounter through the medium of fiction. All these Rorschachs of the psyche. This was the courtship phase — a phase of finding our romantic identity. Nobody had ever been us before.
Randomly, I began with Rhys. Rhys’ e-mail was kind of short.
Rhys, tragically, was leaving the Los Angeles Writing Club. Finished, overwhelmed, face-down at the first hurdle.
Hollis, an actor in his 40s, was mainly in the group to be a good sport to his wife, and his strategy was to pad alongside her, like when Rocky Balboa took his girlfriend to the ice rink. Hollis’ first story was very straightforward. The protagonist talked about majoring in environmental studies, and then he talked about young women’s breasts — and now he had made it to Harvard, where a fellow could surround himself with both: sex and achievement. “And the future sure was looking good.”
I re-read this ending four or five times, rarely a good sign.
Then, terrified of finding nothing nice to say in a critique, I began looking for buried irony. Maybe, I said in my benevolent memo, the narrator’s higher and lower natures had been vacillating. Maybe Hollis had been trying — not quite successfully, but ambitiously nevertheless! — to strike an exquisite tension between man’s drive to be noble and his drive to get laid, never knowing which self merely compensates for the other. Possibly this was satire, even, a speculative send-up of the origins of that stock American figure, the randy public servant. It was all in there, somewhere. You could get some good ideas for stories from reading Hollis’ stories.
Macy worked in talent management, and she was talented herself. Her piece was a sharp, lilting, funny-sad monologue full of chick wit. A male narrator comes to realize that, having made it to Harvard, he is only trying to get even with the high-achieving girl who once dumped him, a wound that even Harvard will never heal. The story read like some of the best work of Lorrie Moore — you could feel the winning hurt in every laugh. Wow.
This guy Hollis did not deserve Macy at all.
Clive’s piece could have been a lost draft of one of the Best Short Stories of 1942: so entertaining and reader-friendly it seemed simply beyond our generation. There were pitch-perfect dialects, authentic locations, historical tidbits about philosophy and plumbing, and an O. Henry twist. (The Harvard newcomer turns out to be the janitor.) His ending ruminated skillfully on the real purposes of philosophy, somehow marrying the story’s practical and abstract layers without either getting in the way of the other.
At least that is the story Clive almost wrote. Because there were sloppy parts, too — almost anachronistically offhanded, as if Clive weren’t really trying, or we weren’t worth it. Whole pages of dialogue were smushed together without paragraphing. End quote marks bumped into the next opening quote marks. And the crucial surprise was detectable, I thought, maybe a half-page too soon. Clive could have fixed all this in an extra half-hour or two. Why didn’t he?
By week three we had our own in-joke tradition: that of the scripted, slightly hammy oral critique. Clive’s delivery was part academic, part BBC entertainment anchor: He kept referring to the exotic setting of my Super Bowl story (for the assignment “The Bully Speaks”) as “an American football match.”
We were at Macy and Hollis’ house in Fox Hills, with Formica and great slab steppingstones and beams and light: an oasis with designer kitchens. A famous writer might live in this house, but only if he got famous before buying it. The talented Macy had angel-fine red hair and marvelous freckly skin and wore cute Capri pants — a vision not of men’s advertising but of women’s, the sort of childlike beauty who wins a husband and designer furniture by preserving her complexion and her heart. She was showing me the yard, because Hollis was still tapping away at the last of his critiques. Hollis, I think, was either barefoot or in a robe — he looked like a boyish Hefner. Clive asked some interesting questions about the landscaping with his hands behind his back until Hollis emerged, papers flapping in one hand, waving hello with the other.
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