“Writing without the intention of publication is a mild form of paranoia.”
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
“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
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
“–and so, if people are paying for nonfiction these days, you make up a
nonfiction and falsify volumes of spurious documentation to back yourself
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
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
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
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
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
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,
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
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, Salon.com,
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]