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"The Workshop" by Lori D'Angelo

Clive Owen, a former acrobat who’d stayed in shape, came to graduate fiction workshop each week in an azure-colored leotard. The only benefit to this was that he still had a nice ass and when he passed Lucy in the hallway by the vending machine during their fifteen-minute break after buying the same semi-cold Dasani bottled water, she was able to get a look at it. Otherwise, when he was trying to talk about his favorite author, Dickens, who he happened to like because of his circus-like characters, Lucy found his attire distracting. When he attempted to wax eloquent about the genius of Oliver Twist, she found it hard to keep a straight face. 

Mitch Johnson, a philosophy professor and an auditor, tended to quote Marcus Aurelius whenever he could. This week, when peace and love reefer-smoking Kevin who’d lived in Africa for two years and mentioned it every chance he got, said that he thought that tongue-pierced feminist Virginia’s piece was filled with too much anger, Mitch, who insisted on being called Dr. Johnson, had countered, “In the words of Marcus Aurelius, ‘anger cannot be dishonest.’ ” 

They were on their fifteen-minute break now, and Lucy waited by the vending machines for Clive to get his water and show off his ass while pretending to look for quarters. Once Clive put in his perfectly crisp dollar bill, Lucy bought a Diet Coke so people would think she wasn’t just hanging out—yes, people talked about these things— then she headed to the two-stall women’s restroom. She had made it through the first hour and a half and they still had not workshopped her story. The thought of getting ten people’s contradictory and confusing suggestions on it made her hands sweat.  

Lucy was writing in the tradition of Hemingway and Carver. No one except Kevin, who completely misunderstood Hemingway’s influence on her work, ever seemed to realize this. Or if they did, it didn’t cause them to alter their comments on her story one bit. Rachel P. Holmes, who insisted on being called by her pen name Julie Woods, wrote on Lucy’s manuscript time after time in green pen, “Great dialogue, but I think this piece needs to be more descriptive.” Sometimes she added a smiley face. Rachel/Julie’s comments could have been worse. At least, unlike Mitch Johnson, she didn’t quote Marcus Aurelius. 

The fiction writing teacher, Jane Weatherall, who used to be an art critic, was okay but a little quirky. Sometimes, she told them off-the-wall stories that had nothing to do with fiction. But they were funny nonetheless. For example, one night, Jane explained that she used to wax her eyebrows, but then, one day, she got annoyed because she couldn’t sculpt them into the perfect shape as Michelangelo had done with his David, so she shaved them off. To achieve the perfection that nature had denied her, she drew them in with a thin brown eyebrow pencil. It was two shades darker than her natural dishwater blonde hair. On the first night of class, Ms. Weatherall, who had told them to call her Jane (or better yet Annie, after nonfiction writer Annie Dillard whose precision she admired) said that she had only one rule, simplicity. Dr. Johnson raised his hand to say that Marcus Aurelius valued simplicity. Jane, who had worn a jumpsuit that was totally inappropriate for a woman her age, told him that he did not need to raise her hand.

Lucy’s face fell when she realized that this workshop would be like all the others she’d had, and she’d be lucky if she got even one or two useful comments from anyone other than maybe the teacher. Despite her nymph-like appearance, Lucy still held out hope that Jane would live up to her reputation of being able to see to the heart of a story. Lucy’s ex-boyfriend, Brandon Justice, who had dropped out of the program last year and now made crystal meth in his garage, a venture he said was more profitable than writing anyway, had told her through tears that Jane had a wonder woman-like ability to help writers see the truth. Lucy had believed him at the time. But she now had her doubts about his credibility and, in fact, his sanity. She’d last heard from him two weeks ago when he’d asked her if she’d wanted to come over and get high. Lucy had politely declined. 

Now, near hyperventilation, Lucy ran into Virginia at the sink in the women’s restroom.  Lucy noticed wearing a black T-shirt with bitch in pink letters. Lucy wondered if her wardrobe consisted of anything other than T-shirts and jeans. So far, she had worn one that said Bitch, one that said Muscle-Woman, and one that said She-Ra, Princess of Power. Lucy did not think that Virginia was wearing a bra and she tried not to stare, tried not to see if she could catch the outline of her nipples. It wasn’t like Lucy was a lesbian or anything. She was just wondering. 

“Hi,” Lucy said. 

Virginia just stared at her. 

Lucy tried again. “So did you like the reading for this week?” 

“It’s okay, not as good as Woolf.” 

Lucy couldn’t help wondering if Virginia was her real first name or if she, like so many writers in this class, altered it for effect. Lucy didn’t ask, instead she snuck a glimpse at Virginia’s mood ring, which was currently purplish blue, and then Lucy studied herself anxiously in the mirror. She had washed her black hair today so that it wouldn’t look limp when everyone looked right at her and told her the 99 habits they thought her work sucked. 

Lucy put on cherry lip balm. Virginia surprised her by asking if she could use it. “Um, sure,” Lucy said. Lucy couldn’t help wondering where her mouth had been. After Virginia left the bathroom, Lucy wiped off the top of the lip balm with a brown paper towel. I need to go back in there, Lucy told herself as if she was a soldier preparing to head back into the combat zone. I need to go back in there. I need to go back in there! Lucy thought of what they had told her at the relaxation class at the college: deep cleansing breaths, deep cleansing breaths. Aw, hell, Lucy thought, I should have brought a paper bag.  

Lucy wasn’t the last one to make it back into the too-hot, moldy-smelling classroom. That would be the skinny boy in the corner whose name she could never remember. The one who picked his fingernails until they bled and who wrote the most amazing lyric pieces. He never put his name on them though and because of that, he, unlike the rest of the class with their loud personalities and copious comments, remained singularly anonymous. Also, unlike most of the others, he seemed to care more about working on his writing than talking about his writing. 

“Okay,” Jane said, once the skinny boy returned and took his usual seat by the malfunctioning dragon-breath-spewing radiator heater, “let’s talk about Lucy’s story. Do we have any volunteers to begin the discussion?”

Please, please anyone but. . . .Lucy thought. 

Kevin began speaking and Lucy thought, damn.

“I feel like this story is perhaps a homage to Hemingway’s under-read novel, The Green Hills of Africa,” Kevin said. 

What on earth was he talking about? Lucy wondered. She had set the story in Seattle. She thought this was clear given the multiple references to the Space Needle. 

“How so?” Jane asked. 

“Well, Annie,” Kevin was such a suck-up, “I think that hunting is an underlying motif, a troupe if you will, since it appears that Deirdre’s fear of tall buildings may actually be a latent fear of animals such as African Elephants, scientific name Loxodonta Africana, in that on page five of this story, the narrator mentions that her father had once asked her if she wanted to go fishing and she said no.” 

Because she was a vegetarian! Lucy thought. This was the part of the workshop where the author was supposed to be quiet, so Lucy said nothing. Lucy hated Kevin’s comments the most. In addition to bringing up Africa, he always pretentiously quoted from books on writing. In his comments on her last story, he had referred her to Beatrix Smith’s book, What Goes Up Does Not Need to Come Down: A Metaphysical Look at Fiction Writing.  Because Lucy was a hopeful person, she optimistically checked this book out of the library. After waiting a week for the book to arrive by interlibrary loan, Lucy picked it up. Her first instincts had been right. The book contained useful tidbits of information like, “Avoid abstract language whenever possible. For example, never use the word spot. Blemish or stain is much more precise. Think of all the bad fiction that could have been avoided if the author had only stopped to apply this simple principle.” At this point, still sipping a latte that was scalding the hell out of her tongue , Lucy was tempted to hurl the book at a wall. But this might damage the overpriced $500 blob painting by some struggling local artist hanging there.Also, Lucy knew that if she damaged or lost or forgot to return a book that she’d gotten through an interlibrary loan, she’d be paying off the fine until the day she died. Actually, if she died and had not paid off the fine, maybe the debt would be passed on to her husband, if she ever married, or her child, if she happened to be fertile. She did not want to burden future generations of her family with this kind of problem. So she restrained herself, put the book back in her book bag, and wrote a scathing review of it on She was the first person to review it.  She couldn’t help wondering if Kevin had even read the book or if he just got half the stuff he put in people’s comments from searching Google and then cutting and pasting. 

Virginia was next to comment. When she spoke, she sat erect like she was trying to win the best posture in a fiction workshop award and Lucy could now see that she was not, in fact wearing a bra. Lucy wondered if this was a secret trick that feminists used to attract men. She looked at Virginia and tried to pretend that her comments might be mildly useful. They weren’t. 

“This story,” Virginia began angrily beating her hands against her notebook as if it was a man trying to accost her in a dark hallway, “makes Deirdre look like she’s weak and pathetic. Why does she need Tom? What does Tom do for her? On page 18, she gives him a blow job, and then what, he can’t even put the seat down?” 

Lucy tried to remember if she had even mentioned Tom’s bathroom habits in the story. She was hoping for some commentary on the blow job scene but from someone other than Virginia. Oh, who was she kidding, did anyone in this stupid class ever give her helpful comments on anything? She pretended to take notes and tried to remember. Jane did, sometimes. That suggestion given on her first story in which she’d said that maybe she should cut the last line was mildly helpful. But that was about it. Oh, and sometimes circus-Clive had some good insights. That was on the days when he didn’t over-reference Dickens. Circus-Clive raised his hand. Lucy prayed that today would be a good day for him.  

“I liked the way that the author utilized the concept of outdoor space on page 12,” Clive said. “It was light and airy, kind of like a trapeze ride.” Oh yeah, Lucy remembered, and when he wasn’t mentioning the circus. Surprisingly, Dr. Johnson, who was wearing a brown plaid blazer with patches on the elbows, had something useful to say, for once. He said, quoting Marcus Aurelius, of course, “I think that Deirdre’s struggle to find her self-identity is a compelling one because, as Marcus Aurelius says,  ‘It is not death that a man should fear, but he should fear never beginning to live.’ ” Still, Lucy couldn’t help wondering, doesn’t he read any other philosophers, or does he only teach classes on Marcus Aurelius? What would those classes be called, Lucy wondered. Would they have titles like “Marcus Aurelius, The Early Years” or “Marcus Aurelius’ Greatest Hits”?

When Lucy read other people’s stories, she at least tried to be helpful. She wondered if any of her classmates read her stories with the same attention that she did, or were they just complete egomaniacs? As Lucy scrawled notes in her notebook like, “Please somebody get me out of here,” Rachel P. Holmes/Julie Woods offered a variation of her stock comment. She said, “I liked the descriptive section on page 12 in which the narrator describes the Seattle skyline. I think the story would be better if the rest of it included more parts like that.” 

Even Jane, who was pretty patient with this bunch of weirdoes, seemed to be growing tired of this awful discussion. “Does anyone,” Jane asked desperately, “have anything to say about say about something such as say plot or character?” 

“I liked the dialogue,” Julie offered. 

“Okay, great, thanks,” Jane said and proceeded to add that she thought that maybe Lucy should intensify the internal conflict, which seems at times to be murky. 

But how do I do that? Lucy wondered. 

When Jane asked her if she had anything to say about her story, any questions, Lucy merely shook her head. “Thanks, that was really helpful,” Lucy lied. Only five weeks left, she thought. Lucy had heard that Patrick O’Malley, the fiction teacher next semester who was also a Joyce scholar, was a really good teacher and that he had a way of actually getting people to say useful things about other’s stories. This, however,  had come from her meth addicted ex-boyfriend and Lucy had recently come to doubt Brandon’s credibility. She had also come to doubt the wisdom of getting an MFA. Maybe she should just drop out, get a job. She heard that she could make more working the night shift at the 7-Eleven than she did as a GTA teaching freshman composition to kids who didn’t see why writing was necessary when they could just upload what they wanted to say using digital cameras.

When Lucy got home after completing the dreaded hour and ½ bus ride, she looked through her written comments. Honestly, she wasn’t expecting much. Mostly, it was just the same crap people had told her in workshop. There was one thing that stood out. As Cleo, her cat, in an affectionate mood came and cuddled against her, Lucy stared at the handwritten loose-leaf note in disbelief. “Hey Lucy,” it said, in bleeding black ink, “I really liked your story.” It was signed Paul, and Lucy realized that it must be from the skinny boy who never said anything. But this time, she saw, he had marked up her manuscript, filling it with both checkmarks and helpful suggestions. This, Lucy thought, was the most useful thing she’d ever gotten from anyone in workshop. This was, after all, why she’d wanted to become a writer in the first place – so that someone would read her story and think that it was worth writing.  Lucy tossed the rest of the comments in the trashcan, but Paul’s she kept and hung on her wall.  She put it right next to the Hemingway quote she had taped up about the iceberg principle.  

Lori D'Angelo is a grant recipient from the Elizabeth George Foundation and an alumna of the Community of Writers at Squaw Valley. Recent work has appeared in Anti-Heroin Chic, Beaver Magazine, Bullshit Lit, Chaotic Merge, Ellipsis Zine, Idle Ink, JAKE, One Art Poetry Journal, Rejection Letters, and Voidspace Zine. She lives in Virginia with her family.

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