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At the Creative Writing Workshop
An article by Tom Bradley

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Books by Tom Bradley:

Acting Alone

The Curved Jewels

Killing Bryce

Black Class Cur


“Writing without the intention of publication is a mild form of paranoia.” –John Braine

For non-academic reasons, which I will reveal shortly, my young nephew Biff was allowed to graduate a bit early from high school. Now he’s a sort of freshman at a large public university in far-western America. He’s a barely matriculated back-of-the-classroom lurker, a mere arriviste teenybopper, with an undeclared major yet.

And he can’t imagine how, but last semester Biff found himself suddenly a made-member of a glamorous creative writing workshop, otherwise reserved for MFA candidates in the English department. Presiding over this weekly dream-salon was a literary superstar whose agent had somehow allowed him to be flown out all the way from Manhattan.

Like any red-blooded American boy, my nephew Biff has always kept an eye out for the main chance. So he decided to grab this apparently accidental opportunity to transform himself into a card-carrying creative writer.

His classmates (if I’m not presumptuous in using the term) are the future Creative Writing Industrialists of America, and they’re working on fictional dissertations and metafictional theses, sans footnotes. These people are right on the verge of finding literary agents, for Christ’s sake, and I can only assume that my nephew was cast among them, like an earthworm among rainbow trout, through some clerical error in the registrar’s office.

Biff is used to being out of his educational element. He’s lower middle class, but had to go to a rich kids’ parochial college preparatory institution because his mother teaches there and the exorbitant tuition-fee was part of her salary. This led to conflicts of the socioeconomic sort, and Biff is just emerging from a four-year hell, bearing the soul scars to prove it. He feels the necessity to get revenge on his former tormentors through immediate worldwide fame.

He reckoned this glitzy creative writing workshop would be just the ticket. In fact, his whole shaky sense of self-esteem was riding on it. So he was understandably nervous the first four or five sessions he attended. I happened to be in America at the time, and he begged me to come along to lend moral support, just in case any sophisticates started being mean to him. Biff anticipated a replay, on the collegiate level, of his secondary-school agonies.

Now, I’m a good uncle, very avuncular, full of kindness and a keen sense of responsibility, so I agreed. I would tag along and sit in, as that most problematical creature in all academe, an “unregistered audit.”

Each time we penetrated the hallowed groves, the main thing I noticed was the silence. There was no talking or moving or breathing. The sixties were over, the barricades that I dimly recall from my own acne years had long since evaporated, and almost nobody in this hopelessly reactionary cubbyhole of the New World was prepared, quite yet, to take on the W.T.O, the I.M.F., the World Bank, or McDonald’s. So finding topics of conversation was very difficult for the young people. Besides, this particular university is located in cowboy country, ancestral home of the taciturn type. Papa Hemingway pinched his tight lips shut for the last time in the general vicinity, and, of course, that only serves to exacerbate matters.

This is not to say, however, that all was somnambulism and futility on campus. The pair of us, my little nephew and I, scuffed along a linoleum corridor lined with sheepish deaf-mutes, it’s true; but we were on our way to link elbows with a “community of writers”–for that seeming oxymoron is how Biff’s classmates liked to think of themselves.

Most of them–or, at any rate, a solid majority of the post-structurally inclined–prided themselves on being part of the first major overhaul of the disposition of literature since Dr. Johnson and his compeers sounded the rallying cry: “That man is a blockhead who ever wrote except for money!” Those venerable Londoners, once and for all, had done with patronage, and placed the professional writer at the beck and call of the anonymous arbiter of taste, the “common reader”–a coinage of the Great Cham of Literature himself, and an expression of faith in the very book-buying public that had made possible the famous New York author’s presence on our remote campus, for which everyone was duly grateful.

But these creative writing grad students, particularly the hermeneutic ones, represented a further step in the evolution of the species. With them, there would be no more coffee houses, nor royalties, nor flat kill fees. This new generation would replace such with seminar rooms and stipends and two free contributor’s copies. They had a sense of being at the apex of the wake. They were forging, in the smithy of their electronic literary magazines, the uncreated conscience of their guild.

These unacknowledged legislators no longer needed to fret about that lack of acknowledgement, because they were on fellowships now, and, if everything went well, would soon be on salaries outright, tenured to boot. And this lifetime support would remain forever unconnected with the reception of their works, if any.

Furthermore, as this was a public institution, Biff’s classmates were one rung higher on the evolutionary ladder than their coevals in the private university across town. Their situation was even more consistent with the leftist ideal, which remains yet the default mode of most members of humanities departments, regardless of their opinions about how, or whether, to hawk words. These matriculators were pursuing their terminal degrees with state funds. The power structure was reimbursing them to tell the truth, or at least to say nothing recognizably heretical (the path of choice for most of them). They were writers paid by the government.

Biff heard me expound upon this heady prophecy as we approached the venue, and it made him feel intellectually inadequate. He’d been sort of planning on made-for-TV movie deals and cherry-red vintage T-birds full of naked star-struck groupies–the sort of thing that would make his prep-school enemies sit up and take notice and writhe with envy.

Following an impulse which, I confess, was not unmixed with gratuitous cruelty (I’m a good uncle, not a perfect), I whispered Keats’ words of small comfort into Biff’s blushing ear. “We’re going among the ‘hierophants of unapprehended inspiration, the mirrors of the gigantic shadows which futurity casts upon the present.’ I sure as fuck hope they like your stuff, kiddo.”

With nervously perspiring little fingers, Biff squeezed the xeroxes of the sci-fi detective story he was intending to share with the community of writers. His creation was starting to get soggy around the edges. It was one of those futuristic fictions which feature lots of computers, all very powerful, but they look like old-fashioned Royal Standard manual typewriters with clunky black-and-white TV sets teetering on top of them, and everything is very shabby and dark, with irregular splashes of hot pink and phosphorescent chartreuse. Literature like that sells well, Biff figured, and detective stories do, too. “So, the two combined should sell twice as well as each other,” he explained to me in a self-conscious whisper, accompanied by the sort of shrug that can only be produced by plebeian shoulders.

Over the previous four years, this unhappy youngster’s class-consciousness had been developing simultaneously and on a parallel tack with his sexuality, such as it was. And his sexuality, of course, was permeated, stunted and bent by the so-called “drug culture.” His toadying to the rich preppies had taken the form of romantic yearnings for inclusion in their after-school orgies; but this faculty brat was just too uncool to ever get in on the fun. Occasionally, just to get him off their backs, they’d toss him some low-quality dope, or even poison. Usually it was the children of people like lawyers and dentists who sold my nephew the life-threatening stuff.

Biff might get some harmless oregano, worthless malt sugar or baby laxative, or else out-and-out rat poison, which produced convulsions and images of Grunewald’s Temptation of Saint Anthony for eight to sixteen hours at a stretch. He accepted it gratefully, with a big grin, because he’d been told this type of thing makes you more spiritual. But he wound up ingesting it all by himself in his basement bedroom on squalid Dimple Dell Drive.

So that was the emotional baggage, or maybe backpack, with which the frazzled kid was saddled as we slunk down the beige-speckled corridor toward the place of enlightenment. (“Down” is here used idiomatically, for we felt as though we were going uphill, as on one of those ramp-like approaches to the summits of ancient temples.)

As we drew close to the classroom, Biff heard something insensible to my own benzedrine-fried skull handles. It gave him serious pause. “Shit-mucus,” he murmured, making me wince.

He dragged me to a halt, and I froze obediently, as at the signal of the point man on jungle patrol. Biff cocked both translucent blue-veined ears at ninety-degree angles to his buzz-cut.

The juxtaposition of the classroom door with sounds coming from the other side was downright freakish. On every session before today, the workshop had been just as silent as the rest of the university. This might seem paradoxical for a place where tuition was supposed to be taking place, but wordlessness reigned in that room. A certain garden on the far side of the Wadi Kidron had not been more silent, early in that sleepless Passover night of long ago. And it wasn’t just one of their number who wept tears of blood. They all did, watching their famous teacher, this significant Manhattanite of Letters, as he wrestled with his tongue-tied demons, all the while stroking abstractedly his well-trimmed dark-brown beard. His eyelids twitched. I think he wore contact lenses.

One expected orotundities to issue from such august lips. And they eventually did, a few months later in his career, when he returned to his amply blessed region of the United States and blossomed personally. He was to become a regular literary lion, and even gained a reputation for having screaming matches with other well-thought-of novelists at PEN meetings. However, at this stage in his career, the National Book Award-winning scribe was a very quiet type, with pain and sadness in his face, and seemed to have reached a brooding place in his intellectual and artistic development.

The older students sometimes wondered, in whispers, on those days when he didn’t show up on time, or not at all, whether he had arrived at some deep and advanced notion of the utter inutility and inscrutability of words, the inherent oppressiveness of language. Maybe their mentor was registering a silent protest in the face of the Universal Gab. And what more powerfully piquant place to express this mute cosmic disgruntlement than within such a haven for unmeasured logorrhea as a seminar, a symposium?

In any case, the MFA candidates were content to sit and witness this widely acclaimed genius bathing in the Ganges that noiselessly flowed inside his own quiet self, for ninety minutes at a stretch, every Thursday morning, when he remembered to show up. It was enough simply to be in the presence of a man who commanded such admirable sums up front as he was rumored to have gotten in exchange for agreeing to conduct this single workshop.

“Sucking Christ-hole,” Biff whispered. “We’re late as pecker-snot.” (Either I’ve lived a sheltered life, or the younger generation has coined these expletives since my exile.)

Biff cracked the door, ever so slightly, and prayed with success for no hinge squeaks as he slipped part of the flange of his teen-oily right nostril through, opening a tiny line of sight. Peeking over his shoulder, I could not make out the possessor of the mysterious voice, but only one or two students (mouths shut, eyes downcast in humility).

My nephew was trying to gag down an accelerated pulse rate, and nearly fainting from the effort. What was needful and urgent today was to make it crystal clear to the workshop’s fabulous teacher that at least one adolescent frosh-boy in this town was old-fashioned, and intended to live up to the Johnsonian ideal of serving the book buying public at large. Biff wanted to be a royalty-subsister, hence his choice of genres. He wasn’t, like so many of the other students, a whored-out hireling of the government propaganda machine, a bought and paid-for Big Liar, a la Minister Paul Joseph Goebbels. He was no fellowshipped academic. Royalties and advances against same, and proceeds from the sale of spin-off rights, and movie and mini-series deals, especially–these were Biff’s fondest goals, not a federally-insured pittance and a tenured trammel on his pen. He would never be ashamed to bathe in swimming pools full of filthy lucre, just as the visiting headliner was doing.

Biff was assuming that the latter, though willing (if not obliged by necessity) to milk provincial universities like cash cows, felt no surplus affection for the parasites he found fastened to their udders. And Biff was secretly hoping to impress him with his weaned self, and to get a recommendation to his literary agent.

My little nephew needed the unqualified blandishments of the New York literary set in the very worst way. During his very brief tenure on the planet, he had already ruined his eyes and wrung out his young personality with various cut-rate chemical compounds. He had sapped himself of what little physical vitality he’d possessed in the first place, so that he just got even more lower-middle-class-appearing than before, more repugnant to the wealthy youngsters–the standard vicious cycle.

“Guzzle some dog smegma,” moaned Biff in anguish. “The funky clit-twirlers have started workshopping without me.”

Just listen to the mouth on this little pill. Is that the idiolect of someone with a trust fund? He was just too obviously a hereditary member of the rabble, his Idaho peasant ancestry too much in evidence, the vestiges of unself-consciousness too evident in his behavior. Once in a while, during his imprisonment in the mahogany halls of the college preparatory institution, he would forget himself and laugh with his mouth open, as he used to do before he got his pubes and his class-consciousness; and that was enough to convince the supercilious preppies that he was not deep down jaded like them. So they treated him with open contempt, and occasionally used him as a source of mild amusement.

One of their favorite pastimes was to get him wrung out during his mom’s lectures. Right before her eyes he would almost OD on spurious mescaline–or even genuine angel dust on one late occasion, when she almost allowed herself to notice something.

“Biffy, sit up straight!” she’d cried, “Wake up!”

And everybody laughed openly, the bankers’ children, the politicians’ children, the surgeons’ and corporate executives’ sociopathic children.

And Biff–well, he was only a teenager, after all. He checked his fly to see if it was open. He ran his fingers along his neck to see if any zits were bleeding. He thought the others were laughing at these traditional teen things, instead of at his bright red eyes, his strychnine stupor alternating with shudders, his cold acid sweat, his unconscious moans and teeterings in his chair. Biff didn’t know any better. He wasn’t much more than a child at the time.

He worried about acne even while he was afraid to close his eyes because gravity was twisting somersaults in his mom’s classroom, and he was in the stratosphere, at the lip of a sucking flat-black vacuum, and his mom was asking him who wrote “Kubla Khan” and on what occasion was the poem written, Biffy? Biffy? Wake up, Biffy! Unslacken your jaw! Stop drooling! And his muscles and sphincters had meanwhile turned to crackly gray newsprint, and the psychiatrists’ children could tell that Teacher was about due for another “checkup” at Our Lady of Sorrows, from the frantic way her voice broke when she cried, “Biffy? Biffy!”

And now, only a few months later, right here in this university seminar room, sat an authentic member of the Northeast Coast Liberal Intellectual Establishment, who, on a whim, could reach down and lift the wretch up and out of all that humiliation and misery, and place him high above the rich fuckers’ snickering heads. I could understand why Biff was being so cautious about choreographing our grand entrance into the workshop.

I was unable to see the great author within the angle Biff had allowed us through his tiny separation of door from jamb. But my nephew must have suffered a strychnine flashback or something, involving a full-body spasm. (Is there such thing as a strychnine flashback? There must be, since the kid never managed to get his hands on proper acid.) Or maybe he was just visited by an especially severe attack of eagerness to learn–for he suddenly jerked his head forward, and made the other flange of his nose pop into the crack, opening a wider view into the enclosure, giving us a look at the teacher in his special chair. The far-famed lips were moving.

And, I must confess, at that moment, for the first and last time in my long-petered-out academic career, I regretted my unpunctuality–because the voice which greeted us through the frosted glass and maple veneer was none other than you-know-who’s.

Yes, this was the legendary day the legendary author separated those much-photographed jaws and actually said something. We were bearing aural witness to his sole utterance amounting to more than a partial mouthful of syllables, perhaps only the second or third complete grammatical construction to exit those iconic lips since they’d ventured west of the East River. And it sounded rehearsed. Clearly this statement must signify a home truth dear to the heart and methods of a successful artist.

The air was thick with the sounds of ballpoints and pencils transcribing the pronouncement verbatim. He was propounding his personal creed and artistic manifesto–and Biff and I had missed the first part. We’d arrived too late to burn the entirety of this revealed gospel onto the walls of our very ventricles.

The collegians were breathing hard, diverse buttocks scooted way forward on seminar chairs. Their idol, their solid-gold calf, was finally starting to open up. Their vocations were on the verge of being endorsed forever.

“–and so, if people are paying for nonfiction these days, you make up a nonfiction and falsify volumes of spurious documentation to back yourself up, and–”

Biff chose that moment to come barging in.

And the English Department never treated my nephew the same after that day. It was a public university and bound by regulation; otherwise, as punishment for interrupting their celebrity guest, they would have found a way to make sure, if this young hoodlum ever did get around to declaring a major, it would not be English–because he caused the delivery of the oracle to stop in mid-phrase, never to be taken up again.

As we tentatively ushered each other across the vestibule, the famous novelist clammed up in mid-sentence and re-focused his eyes on their wonted cynosure, his navel. Everyone else stared at us with that diluted sort of indignation available to academics, making it ever so slightly difficult for me to concentrate on our choice of seats–which, as any experienced workshopper will tell you, is all-important.

But there was one person in the room who heard no mouths pinching shut any tighter than usual, who saw no mismatched pair of interlopers wandering among the creative writers–because this person was busy grasping the opportunity of the resumed silence to assert her ample presentation self.

She was a local woman called LurLeen, and she made frequent unannounced visitations upon various high-level humanities seminars, today being her first appearance in the workshop. She could seriously talk, this LurLeen, on the phone as well as in the flesh, and had thereby achieved everyone else’s dream: a literary agent had recently signed her on as a client. That lent her an air of real authority, which opened big doors for her.

Young Biff had heard of this LurLeen, who shared his values and ambitions. And he was very eager to have her look at his futuristic detective story. He was sure she’d be bowled over by it, and would use her preternatural gift of gab to help him get the main man’s attention.

You see, not every reveler at this party wanted to overthrow the Johnsonian ideal. Biff wasn’t the only one motivated by greed. There are very special incentives for the LurLeens of this world to remain faithful to the old post-Augustans and their credo about blockheads writing for no money.

In this epoch of American literary history, for serious writers willing to engage the Great Cham’s “common reader,” there are opportunities to garner good emolument, such as two million dollars as an advance against royalties on copies sold. Such splendid figures often constitute the cornerstone of the publisher’s entire ad campaign, which might even, in circumstances of extreme good fortune, include national television spots. Plus these novelists, having been translated whole, like Elijah, to such heights, are guaranteed the chance to see their creations interpreted cinematically by skilled screenwriters and talented directors in the employ of major motion picture studios. It’s a flowering of literature.

That “two million” (sufficient, if they were sesterces, to purchase two seats in the Roman Senate) happened to be the magic figure associated famously with our teacher. It had become proverbially part of his name. You could almost see that many zeroes when you looked in his dark brown eyes. At any rate, I could, that day, see a multiplicity of ciphers, strung from his lashes.

As he never said much than “Um,” and remained otherwise inscrutable, I was unable to determine whether the famous writer had asked LurLeen to swoop her large buttery presence down and fill up today’s class with sound as a personal favor to him so he wouldn’t be expected to do anything for yet another period, or whether she’d volunteered, in hopes of return favors of the Manhattan kind. She already had an agent. What other sort of favors might she have expected?

I don’t know whether the renowned novelist expected and appreciated, or was surprised and irritated by the wall of contralto sound. Personally, I found it numbing, in an oddly pleasant way. But then, I live in a state of habitual and near total nervous exhaustion, like any Yank worth his salt.

I found myself looking forward an hour and a half of humming oblivion, Mommy reading Tommy a bedtime story, something milky from Milne, my brain switched off–well enough aware, at one level, of the untenable admixture of personalities in the room, but still so frazzled as to be soothed by–

Oh Timothy Tim
Has one red head.
And one red head
Has Timothy Tim.
It sleeps with him
In Timothy’s bed.
Sleep well red head
Of Timothy Tim.

It half-occurred to me, as my heart and respiration rates began to settle down for the first time in about eighteen months, that LurLeen wasn’t really reciting from “Now We are Six,” and that she must be soliloquizing on someone or other’s work, and I dimly wondered whose it might be.

“Your imagination,” LurLeen seemed to be saying, “works well enough for the current marketplace, but you use too many adjectives and adverbs! You should try counting them sometime and see how many you use. And restrain yourself, because, after all, writing is a pure act, and not just wallowing in pleasure like a medieval mass or a gothic cathedral or something like that. Plus you need much, much, much shorter sentences and just a whole lot more dialogue, especially in the part where your space-detective has problems operating the computer with the keyboard like a manual typewriter.”

I sat up straight. Afraid to look at my little nephew, I fixed my eyes on the seminar table. Only in imagination could I inspect his face. Internal injuries were indicated: tears of blood traced the convexities of his cheeks.

Meanwhile, LurLeen continued. “This above all: my literary agent said you have to create characters that you, and your reader, aren’t intimidated by. As a matter of fact, to be on the safe side, you should only write about people that you can condescend to. I mean, not feel contempt for, but gently patronize. Then, for sure, you’ll never put any literary agents off, because everybody likes to feel superior, right? Except not too superior, or else your readers will start feeling snooty and stuck-up, and they’ll stop reading.”

Strychnine, they tell me, is one slight twist of a single molecule away from lysergic acid diethylamide, and can occur easily in a slightly bad batch of the psychedelic. In fact, substances of these general categories tend to occur side-by-side not only in prep-school bio-chem textbooks, but also in nature, as in Biff’s beloved peyote–one bubbling up in tufts from the other. A mystical substance, this strychnine, and Biff would dignify his eight-hour seizures by telling everybody that they were “relivings of the birth trauma.”

“Yeah, sure,” sniffed the well-formed upper-class boys and girls, exposing their expensive orthodontia in little sneers. “Relive your birth trauma in Mater’s Intro to Wordsworth, Coleridge, Keats and Shelley.”

“I guess,” LurLeen was saying, “it all boils down to morality, doesn’t it? If you steer clear of any notions of good or evil, and things like that, and avoid telling stories where those questions pop up, then nobody will feel like you expect them to feel uncomfortable with life. Make your story like a warm cup of cocoa in a clean, comfortable kitchen, with a few of your calmest friends sitting around and just chatting and being happy about their gentle, easy lifestyles. You have to like your characters, and that means they shouldn’t do anything you’re not prepared to do yourself, like take psychedelic drugs just to mention just one of the more obvious examples.”

In the twisted, upside-down world of American adolescence, it is a form of social climbing to methodically granulate your central nervous system with controlled substances. Young Biffy liked to make himself look “burnt.” And he couldn’t wait until he got some knuckles on the backs of his hands, instead of just four dents in the baby pudge.

Maybe it was a psychic projection on my part, but I was sure I could see, on the back of the young left hand grasping the arm of the seminar chair next to mine, white knuckles underneath hair follicles that bristled like Prince Arjuna’s. As the ancient Hindu texts relate again and again, one physical symptom of horror which cannot be faked or deliberately induced, not even by the most skilled yogin, is goosebumps.

And the hands never lie, in any case. Ask Zsa Zsa Gabor, whose face was rebuilt more times than Rome by some of the greatest manipulators of matter since Michelangelo, but who could do nothing but wear eighteen-button evening gloves in her declining years.

My nephew, by contrast, had been taught that a post-James Dean teen should be sedulous about hastening his own declining years, anti-Zsa Zsa-wise. And it had occurred to him that daily target practice with a nice new sidearm might make his hands look more mature, if not patrician. He began searching the web for items that packed a bone-wrenching kick, and storing gun catalogues in his locker at school. And that’s when his mom’s boss, the principal of the college preparatory institution, decided that Biff had been prepared enough, and such a bright boy should be allowed to graduate early and go to the university, way across town.

As I feared to look above his wrist joint, I took a good look at what lay below, and it seemed as though he’d been putting in extra hours at the police firing range, free of charge, under the kindly eyes of our local men in blue, here in this extreme occidental state where it’s legal for someone only a few months older than this semi-gestated emotional cripple to carry a concealed firearm.

What would his parents say to me, when I brought him home all reamed out inside, especially if he’d committed multiple homicide in the meantime?

“It’s a kind of balance, my literary agent said, and she’s the expert in the art of fiction. You ought to see the house she lives in! On the cool, crisp shores of Montauk Point! My literary agent knows a whole lot more about art than you or I can ever hope to know! And she said that most white males, like you, shouldn’t bother trying to communicate with something other than their you-know-whats (tee-hee!)–”

Whole morning chapel services sweating rancid teen hormones in a preppy blazer too pricey for his mom to have bought under normal circumstances, trying to suppress, or at least fold in half, those spontaneous stiffenings of the “you-know-what” with which teen boys are traditionally afflicted in such situations. Fair enough: we’ve all suffered so. But compound that with the writhing, like a “dweeb” or a “feeb” or a “scrote” (if those are remotely current terms), under the influence of the same poison that the people in Agatha Christie books kill each other with.

“–should just forget some of your macho self-importance and try to feel, and you should learn about relationships, and also buy and study the novels of–”

LurLeen cited a lot of names which I didn’t hear.

“–and try, really, really, really try, to pay attention to what these women are filling your American sisters’ hearts with, year by year, day by day, and–”

Where’s it written that only high schools get shot up? I was sure I could feel the heat of humiliated pimples blushing across the space that separated us. I still couldn’t look at his face, but kept inspecting the ample billows of his baggy teen-style clothes, looking for the outlines of a Glock or Uzi or whatever’s currently de-rigueur amongst the younger set. One of my butt-cheeks started involuntarily scooting and squinching in the opposite direction, dragging its puzzled mate along the particleboard surface of my seminar chair.

I heard his chair squeaking, and assumed he was having another of the ersatz acid flashbacks, a rat poison seizure, right here on the premises of the land-grant institution of higher learning. My buttocks were both cooperating now in their flight impulse. I tried to anchor myself to the seminar table. I could see my fingernails leaving ten trails of curly shavings as they scraped along the surface–and it was formica veneer, to the best of my recollection.

But gradually I noticed that the squeaks were more regular in rhythm, and somewhat less emphatic than most central nervous system death throes. So I forced my eyes to budge a bit, and saw that his pudgy right hand was not quaking, but writing.

The grotesque little shit was taking notes. He was sucking it all in like rat poison, with an eager smile on his kisser. He was revising his story on the spot, and being so enthusiastic about it that the joints of his chair ground together with sympathetic vibrations every time he dotted an “i” or brought a sentence to full stop.

And mine weren’t the only eyes lifted to witness this phenomenon. For the first time, our famous visiting author unglued his gaze from his own belly button, and he smiled at my nephew, who shot smiles at LurLeen, who reciprocated, and so on, in a triangular trade of unctuous literary leers conducted way over the rest of our heads. The multitudes of ciphers began to dangle from two other sets of eyelashes.

And then, to my further astonishment, the novelist’s first glance was accompanied by his second spoken phrase: “Pass me that, Jasper,” he said into my ear, quietly enough not to interrupt LurLeen’s homily.

Biff started handing him revised pages, via me, his old uncle. This had turned into a workshop for real.

“My agent always says that contemporary fiction has to be written in ‘real time.’ What does that mean, this crazy book-biz term? Well, I’ll tell you. Real time means it takes the same number of minutes to read the story as it would to perform the actions depicted in the story. And that means it’s best to just show every-day experiences with every-day people chatting about whatever plops into their minds, and let your modest sincerity, not your invention, hold the reader’s interest. Plot only makes people think you’re showing off, and we all resent a show-off, right? Being manipulated and led around by the nose into places you wouldn’t otherwise go, don’t you just hate it? Well, literary agents do, too!”

In the end, when the bell rang, it was not Biff who was left alone, shunned, to wobble home from school on strychnine-palsied knees like a “spaz” or a “morfadyke” or a “dip-wad.” It was his poor old Uncle Tom, because Biff was going out to do lunch with LurLeen and the famous novelist among the fashion boutiques in the student union building. He was already mastering a professional-sounding laugh, and the sun sparkled off his teeth.

The ungrateful child had no time to associate with me further during the remainder of my visit to the Home of the Brave. He didn’t even see me off at the airport when I had to return in my usual terminal obscurity to Far Eastern exile.

Last week, here on my bleak and remote Patmos, I got a letter from his mom, thanking me so much for taking her baby to the story-making class and introducing him to his nice new friends. She enclosed a photo of herself in the new dress he had just bought for her–way too nice to wear to work.

Also enclosed was a polaroid of her bright boy. The smelly wad of syphilitic rectum scabs was in his bedroom, flopped on his bed among the gun posters, happily glancing through an especially splendid set of galley proofs. His publisher seems to have lavished special care in designing the text of Biff’s upcoming book. The pages gleam with their own clear light, pure and uncut.

Copyright © Tom Bradley 2001

This article may not be archived or distributed further without the author’s express permission. Please read the license.

This electronic version of At the Creative Writing Workshop is published by The Richmond Review by arrangement with the author.

Tom Bradley is the author of five books: Acting Alone, The Curved Jewels, Killing Bryce, Black Class Cur and Kara-kun/Flip-kun. Various of these novels have been nominated for The Editor’s Book Award and The New York University Bobst Prize, and one was a finalist in The AWP Award Series in the Novel.

Tom’s essays and short stories appear in such magazines as McSweeney’s,, David Horowitz’s FrontPage, Exquisite Corpse, Killing the Buddha, and Michael Rothenberg’s great BIG BRIDGE.

Reviews of Tom’s books, links to his online publications, plus a couple hours of recorded readings, can be found at his website:

He can be reached at [email protected]


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