I worked on this for hours last night, fine tuning it for review. I had eight copies printed out, stapled, ready to hand around the group. Everyone had their masterpieces as well, A4 sheets of paper, some plastic-sleeved, some dog-eared, most creased by being tossed about in their bags on the train; all accompanied by a big smile and a desire to astound.
The teacher, a bespectacled old man with cancerous looking moles on his bald scalp and a wispy sort of beard that grew in three-or-four-hair patches like lemongrass, asked me to hand my sheets around and for me to read it out.
My forehead started to glisten as I fretted the reading-out experience. I hated public speaking and even more so hated public reading. This thing that I had somehow fallen into, writing, this thing that I did primarily to amuse myself, stories designed with me as the only and incredibly devoted reader, was now being exposed to the public. I’d poured my heart and soul into this work, something I’d started long before I’d applied to be in this writing class, although I pretended that it was something fresh that I’d cooked up for the assignment. Reading it out was like holding my child out over a five storey drop and asking for the pedestrians below to catch it.
I began to edit in my head, right from the first sentence, substituting pronouns for names and names for pronouns if I felt I was being repetitive, but not making changes drastic enough to render the text which was handed around unfollowable. Out of the corner of my eye I could see the teacher’s placating nod, his soft eyes trying to comfort me. He’d seen people nervous before. It was ‘okay’. Some people in the workshop would close their eyes taking in the mellifluous sounds of the spoken word like it was a jazz club reading or something and my lungs felt like their capacity had shrunk by a good 90%, and my personal but fictionalised story about the death of my first wife was released into the wild.
Polite golf clapping followed the close of my first, albeit conclusive, chapter. The teacher sucked in a big breath and said, “Thank you very much. So guys, any comments for Alan?”
“I liked it,” one of the students said.
“So did I,” said another.
“Yes, I really like that one, it was good, yeah,” said a third.
“It had this sort of, you know, I liked the voice, that melancholy, you know, I think that was pretty good.”
“Yeah the voice was nice.”
“Oh yes, it was. Wonderful voice.”
“I did notice one thing, though,” the person who said they liked the voice first went on, “There was a spelling error on page three. I think you left an extra ‘o’ off the ‘to’.”
“But that could be a stylistic thing for the character,” someone said. “You know, he’s grieving, I mean, the last thing I’d be thinking if someone close to me died would be whether all my I’s were dotted and my T’s were crossed. At least that’s what I thought.”
Everyone chortled in learned agreeance.
“Maybe,” the voice-lover said, “But aside from that, it was very good.”
“Oh yes, very good.”
The teacher leaned back in his chair a bit causing it to creak. The chairs in the community college all looked from the 1970’s and were in serious need of replacement or, at the very least, some WD-40.
“Any other comments?” the teacher said. “Some constructive criticism perhaps?”
“Oh yes,” one student said, “I liked it, I liked it a lot, but I feel like I didn’t really get a sense of who the character was, I mean, we get don’t get a lot about his life besides his wife dying, I mean, this is a first chapter from a larger thing so you probably get to know the character a bit better as you go along, but a scene where he’s at the funeral for his dead wife doesn’t say very much to me, you know? I don’t know, maybe you could do something like that book, oh I can’t remember what it’s called, I forget the name, I’ll let you know what it is if I remember it, but he is writing about something similar and he handles it really well, I’ll email you. But other than that I liked it.”
“I liked it too.”
“Yeah, I liked it a lot. It reminds me of what I try and do, you know, that sadness thing, like, people at their worst moments, and it’s similar to my piece in that way, like that’s what I write about, although you’ll see that when we get to it, but yes, it was good, I liked it, I think it’s got a lot of potential.”
The teacher nodded understandingly. Everyone started collecting the sheets of printed out paper together, ready to hand back to me, and the teacher asked if there were any other comments and it was plain to see that nobody really felt like saying anything more, and the teacher thanked me for my story and asked another student to hand her piece out to everyone. My story came back to me and I leafed through the pile of sheets for the written commentary. Someone underlined the line: “Everybody felt black that day,” a line that made me cringe as I was reading aloud because it was so heavy-handed, and the underliner wrote “This is good!” with a smiley face next to it, and at the bottom of the page: “Keep going I would love to read more!” – the I in ‘going’ dotted with a love heart. Everybody had circled the to/too mistake or underlined it, but later on reassured me that the story was good and told me how much they liked it. Someone circled a little paragraph about how getting dressed in the suit for the funeral felt like a ritual of finality and wrote underneath it, “Oh I can really relate to this! Very good!”
By the end of class, through everybody’s workshopping I counted 71 verbal uses of the word ‘good’ or ‘like’ in the context of review; four instances of people who could really relate to the main character; two instances of people thinking the story was really interesting; five times they liked the voice of the piece (mine inclusive); one occasion of someone not understanding the ending but thinking it was really good anyway; seven times they corrected typos, once per student; two instances of someone mentioning Twilight; one person who wanted the author to put a nice quote1 at the top of the page to tie the story together; two times that the author was asked if their story was based on personal experience;2 three times asking the author what they meant by this line and then commenting that, once they understood, it was good; and, finally, seven times, on every single goddamn story, seven times where the teacher did not intervene in the pantomime of insipid comments and shitty feedback, not lending his supposed expertise to anything, letting the students do the work for him, sitting there nodding and earning his paycheck.
1 One of the city’s major newspapers has a Word of the Day column that aims to expand the vocabulary of the general public to try and counter the bad reputation it has for being tabloid and exploitative and the root of all political and social dumbing-down. That afternoon, when I was thumbing through it in the newsagency at the train station waiting to leave, I found out that the paper’s word of the day was ‘epigraph’ and so the student had made the criticism just to use the word in class to sound smart. By the way, the story which needed an epigraph was a dumb affair about a kid who went on an incomprehensible nostalgic rant triggered off by seeing a rusting and discarded pogo stick lying in New York’s Central Park. The voice was apparently really good and everyone liked it, except for the grammatical error on the first page where he said ‘he were jumping’ instead of ‘was jumping’, and the student explained that as being an editorial hangover from a previous draft where the main character remembered a bunch of kids jumping on pogo sticks instead of just one but thanked everyone anyway for the feedback.
2 Both times the answer to this was yes and caused an outpouring of emotion and self-aggrandising speeches, aimed more at a therapist than a class of writing students, each student having struggled through some tough times and serious shit, and who all coincidentally felt like writing was a way to cope with how awful the world was, a way to deal with said tough times and said serious shit, with all the requisite sniffles and deep emotional breaths to give themselves a little more steam to make it to the end, the ol’ tug at the heartstrings, my cynicism saying it was to score points with the geriatric tutor, although more likely it was a desperate need to fit into the mythological school of hard knocks that everyone seems to think writers graduate from, just because Edgar Allan Poe had some bad days in his life.