At thirty minutes before the start of the tournament’s first bout, the gymnasium floor bustled with activity as fencers ran laps, stretched on the floor, and engaged each other in practice bouts, the buzzing of scoring machines rising on occasion above the susurration of voices.
Calling Annie a confident teen did not adequately convey her self-assurance. She would contact boys for dates before they worked up the courage to approach her; she anticipated and completed work for her classes before they were assigned; she only applied to one college, knowing she would be accepted by that school. While her peers used their past experience to guide their actions, Annie acted from a more proleptic instinct, certain in the memory of her future success.
Continuing my series of posts on how to participate effectively in a writing group. In addition to having the right focus and not giving empty praise, it’s also important to recognize who actually wrote the story or article you’re critiquing.
You’re the Reviewer, Not the Author
Every writer has their own style, and will not always make the choices you would have made. They’ll introduce plot developments you think are too extreme, or not extreme enough; their characters will speak in ways that don’t fit with their background; their language will be too pedestrian, or overly sentimental.
You don’t have to like it — and if you don’t, you should let them know, and explain why the writing doesn’t work for you. There’s nothing wrong with an honest, informed opinion.
But there’s a trap to avoid, one I’ve fallen for more times that I care to admit. Too many times I’ve written comments containing one of these phrases:
I would have…
Instead of doing this, why not…
What you really need to do here is…
By making these types of comments, I’m showing the choices I would have made as the author of the work being reviewed. They are similar to editorial changes, but editors make changes to maintain consistency with the style of their magazine or publishing house. In a writing group, comments like these actually usurp the role of the author — this is how you should have written this.
It’s hard for me to refrain from this type of criticism, because I often see simpler or more elegant alternatives in the work I review. But it’s not my role, and it doesn’t help the author. As a reviewer, I’m responsible for showing the author what does and does not work in the style they’ve chosen to write. It’s their story, not mine, and the different choices I might have made as the author are completely irrelevant.
When reviewing a story in a writing group, identify what the story is attempting. Focus on the execution, how well the story accomplishes its tasks. Praise where appropriate, criticize where necessary. But above all, acknowledge the authority of the author to write in their own style.
A few weeks ago, I began an exercise from a fiction writing workshop, using entries from over three decades ago in my journal as my starting point. This lead to the creation of a fictional couple, Merry and Bernie, and vignettes from their marriage.
The first and second vignettes were promising, but my final entry was disappointing. When they’re left with themselves after their youngest child leaves for college, their struggles need to be more dramatic. Bernie needs to resent being tasked with obligations he never wanted, and Merry has to fight against the restrictions imposed on her intellect and desires. Both need to think about the lives they could have lead, and come to terms with their abandoned ambitions.
But as much as I want to explore those ideas, now is not the time for completing this project. I’ll set it aside for now, and return to these two very interesting characters when I want to further develop their rich voices.
In my latest effort to promote Friday Fictioneers, I’m providing links to ten really good story titles for this week’s competition:
The seaplane descended towards the lake with deliberate intent, like a hawk hunting a mouse in a field. The floats hit and skidded across the water, leaving a wake no higher than most power boats.
The propeller came to rest, and a canoe with two paddlers approached the plane. A woman stepped out of the pilot door, and handed packages down to the canoe.
The rear paddler waved, and the woman waved back before stepping back into the plane. The canoe paddled away, much slower than it had approached earlier. Before they reached shore, the propeller twirled back into life.
Yes! My entry for this week’s Friday Fictioneers is exactly 100 words!
Merry stepped onto the concrete deck in the rear yard of the home she shared with her husband Bernie. Although they had celebrated their silver anniversary that spring, the couple were still getting used to living alone together, after their youngest child had started college at the end of August. Each had hobbies and activities that kept one or the other of them out of their house nearly every night. Dinner conversations were often awkward. Especially over the past two weeks.
Bernie was sitting on a deck chair, his head titled over the chair’s back, as if he saw something of interest in the starless sky of the warm Chicago evening. Knowing her husband was easily startled when lost in thought, Merry scruffed her feet along the deck, making a noise she expected Bernie would hear. He did not acknowledge her approach, but just as she was about to clear her throat, he sat upright, and turned to his wife.
“How was the meeting?”
“Very meeting-ish,” Merry replied. “The Christmas play will be the 10th, instead of the 17th. What did you have for dinner?”
Bernie shook his head, and raised the plastic tumbler in his hand. “Wasn’t hungry. I was actually watching the news, until I heard your car pull into the garage.”
“I see. How’s your hero today?”
Bernie drew in his breath, and his face filled with disgust, as if he were about to spit. “For Christ’s sake, Merry — ”
“And now you’re even talking like him.”
“You said it yourself, it was a choice between two evils, and I chose the lesser. If it makes you feel any better, he didn’t win Illinois — ”
“He’s the president, Bernie. Or will be, in a few months. You’ve been calling him a charlatan for two years, right up until a few weeks ago. And people like us helped him get elected.”
“I thought you voted — ”
“Voting has nothing to do with getting someone elected. Don’t tell me you don’t understand; we’ve been members of this church for two decades, and from the moment we joined you’ve complained to me about the conservatism, the implied endorsement of candidates, the subtle political agenda. We’ve supported an environment that was complicit in the election of that amoral sociopath — ”
“Enough!” Bernie stood up swiftly, the tumbler falling from his hand and bouncing off the deck as he turned to face Merry. “I did a protest vote against the Clintons. And if I thought there was any chance Trump would win, I would have voted differently, even though as far as the Electoral College is concerned, my voting either way meant nothing. But that was yesterday, Merry. It’s time for us to move on.”
“Agreed.” Merry hugged her arms across her chest. “And that’s why I resigned from the Events Committee this evening.”
Bernie’s eyes narrowed, and he leaned towards his wife. “Resigned.”
“Yes. And I’ve decided it’s time to leave the church, as well.”
“Leave?” Bernie’s hands raised to his temples. “You can’t — Merry, we’ve been there twenty years. Our children grew up there.”
“Don’t you dare use our children against me. They’re adults, and can make their own decisions on where to worship. And if you want to continue going there, that’s fine too. But I’ve made my decision. I now realize I’ve spent too many years in our comfortable suburban home, watching too many melodramas in my comfy recliner, as the world around us fell into madness. I need to fight for a better world, rather than just enjoy the fruits of our own good fortune.”
A low-flying airplane soared high above their heads. In a neighboring home, a garage door began its mechanical descent to the concrete floor. The headlights of a car shown onto the back yard, until the car went further down the street.
“Merry.” Bernie held out his arms. “There is no place I want to go, where you do not feel welcome.”
Tears falling from her eyes, Merry stepped across the invisible wall between them, and let Bernie embrace her. They stood on the deck of their comfortable home, a house filled with more love than equity, and cried, both of them, in the dark of a cool autumn evening.
[A continuation of a writing exercise begun last week. This entry is from Merry’s journal]
Bernie’s drinking again. He’s not even trying to hide it anymore. He goes up to his study after dinner with a can of beer and gets on his computer. He comes down one or two times in the evening, to get more beer.
I went to his office door last night, after the children were in bed, and Bernie had just come down for his fourth beer (he often drinks more on Saturday nights). I tapped on the frame, and asked if I could come in.
“I keep the door open so you and the kids know you can always come in,” Bernie said. “So you’re asking permission tells me you have something you think is important to say.”
“I do,” I told him. “I’m worried about you.”
He pointed to the beer can on the desk, next to his keyboard. “I know, I need to cut down.”
“It’s more than just the drinking,” I replied. “It’s your mood, in general. You’re so short-tempered with me, and the kids. Most evenings we have to walk on eggshells around you, afraid the slightest little provocation will set you off.”
Bernie nodded. “I’m sorry. Work’s been really difficult lately.”
“I know, Bernie. I used to work in IT myself.”
“At least you had the sense to change careers.” I could hear the self-pity in his voice, and knew he was headed to a dark place in his mind again, and might not come out of it for several days. I didn’t want him to go there, so I told him again that he should go back to graduate school, and finish his doctorate. He said he didn’t want to go into teaching, but I told him that wasn’t the issue.
“I don’t want you to get your doctorate so you can become a professor of literature,” I told him. “I don’t care if getting a PhD does nothing for your career. This isn’t about getting a better job, Bernie, it’s about you accomplishing a goal you’d set for yourself from the time before we were married. You’ve never forgiven yourself for not completing your graduate studies — so why not get rid of that guilt, instead of hiding from it.”
Bernie looked at me a long moment. Then he shook his head. “Merry — the day we decided to have children, was the day I decided to put aside my selfish ambitions. My family’s the most important thing in my life.”
I walked over to him, and laid a hand on his shoulder. “I don’t think going back into graduate school will change your priorities. You’re too good a man for that.”
He grabbed my hand, and held it up to his lips. After a gentle kiss, he released his grip on my hand. “A couple nights ago, I read my journal from those two years in graduate school. You know what I saw?” I shook my head. “Loneliness and fear. Those were probably the worst years of my life, and I don’t know if I can face going back.”
“But you wouldn’t be going back, not in the same way” I replied. “Me, the children, our church — you’ll have support that wasn’t available to you.”
When he got up from his chair, I knew Bernie was done talking. “It’s late, and I’m tired,” he told me. “I don’t want to miss church again tomorrow. We can talk more, after dinner tomorrow. Does that work for you?”
I pulled him up to me, and kissed him. I didn’t want to tell him about my own misgivings about his returning to graduate school — I don’t know if he’ll find what he’s looking for. All I know, is that he needs to find some reason to stop spending so much time up in his office.
I almost said no.
That night Merry called and invited me over, for popcorn and “Star Trek.” I already had one foot out the door of my apartment, headed towards the elevated and another night of drinking with my graduate school buddies. Curious I still call them buddies, seeing as I haven’t seen any of them since the wedding seven years ago.
Merry and I had been dating for a few weeks, and I wrote in my journal how much I enjoyed being with her. But I also wrote that I didn’t think I could ever be anything more than a good friend to her. There was Ginny, as well; I was attracted to her in a way I didn’t think I could ever feel about Merry, and Ginny was going to be at the bar that evening.
It wasn’t a voice a heard, a call from the clouds, but more of a feeling that came to me when I heard your offer to watch the adventures of Jean-Luc Picard and Lieutenant Commander Data. Ginny will never be interested in me. The other graduate students think I’m an intellectual light-weight. Why do I want to waste another evening with people who don’t care about me?
And that’s when I heard myself saying that I’d be right over.
I waited until we were engaged before telling you how much I wanted to kiss you that night. And I’m really glad you waited just as long to admit how you wanted me to force my lips onto yours.
We were so awkward. Neither of us had been in a relationship before, so we had no idea what to do. I’m glad now that we were patient, letting each other grow accustomed to these new feelings.
Sometimes I wonder if I should have remained in graduate school long enough to get my doctorate, but the decision seemed right at the time. I didn’t need your insight to realize the toxicity of that environment, but your support made it easy for me to turn down my assistantship after completing my masters. And how long would I have been on that acne medication if you hadn’t convinced me how belligerent and despondent I’d become since starting the prescription? I was a wreck, financially and emotionally, when we started dating; how long would my misery have continued, if I had listened to my darker instincts and pushed you away?
I was driving home drunk, hoping to get pulled over and have a DUI put an end to the sham of a life I was leading. I can only thank God for sending you into my life, Merry.
Three kids, a home in Naperville, and major career changes for both of us. You were just as wise to end your divinity studies (you’re wonderful Merry, but you are not a minister) as I was to give up on the world of trade journals for the more challenging, and lucrative, field of information technology. Now that we’re done churning out offspring — yes, we’re done, Merry — I’m excited for you to find your new passion.
Ten years ago, before the night of that call, I couldn’t imagine being where I am today. There are times I feel I couldn’t possibly be happier.
And yet… it’s not that I’m dissatisfied, or want any more out of life. The only way I can express how I feel, is to say that I have a compulsion to be different.
Too often I feel like a face in the crowd, a robot, a clone. Just another middle-class WASP from the suburbs. And yes, that feeling is most powerful when we’re at church.
That’s why I’ve been writing fiction lately, to express that side of me. I focus on outcasts and outsiders, characters who see things differently. Who want to believe, but struggle with faith in the face of reality. I know you keep asking me why I keep with this theme — what am I trying to prove? And all I can say is, please believe me when I say I don’t know. I’m not trying to make a point in an intellectual sense; I’m trying instead to express, to evoke, an emotion. How I feel about faith in this day and age.
I know you think I’m a pessimist, that I look for reasons to doubt. And yes, maybe I think too much, make things worse for myself. I’ve always been my own worst enemy.
But this is me. I am the skeptic, the devil’s advocate. I cannot accept without first scrutinizing. There is room in God’s kingdom for questioning as well as belief.
So I will continue to write, continue to question.
But Merry, my love for you is as strong as it was when I proposed to you that night at the lakefront. I will never turn my back on you, or our children. You are my rocks. And I can’t imagine being happier anywhere else.
I’m in my third year of graduate school, a year of coursework away from starting my dissertation. I drive down to campus for a night of reading academic journals, but on the way to the library I meet four other graduate students (two I liked, one I despised, and Ginny, whom I have yet to realize has no interest in sleeping with me), who talk me into having a drink.
We go to a bar, cracked linoleum floors slick with grease and watery beer. Offer an opinion on Dukakis or Derrida or something like that, a Miller Lite argument, jocular and ill-informed, fully krausened and beachwood aged, utterly devoid of logic. The silly-jism is rejected with the mocking disdain it fully deserved.
Parked two blocks away. Stagger past the elevated station, consider riding back. How man, four? five? “You all right?” Hey pal, you’ve had more than any of us. See a crack in the sidewalk, place my right foot at the start, extend my arms wide — eloi eloi lama sabachthani, muddafugga — and walk across the crack like a canyon-spanning Wallenda. Don’t miss a step. All right, one. Close my eyes, extend my right index finger, pull back my hand, touch my nose. Bitchin’!
Get in the car. Five stoplights in the city. Can’t go too fast, or too slow either. Stay way behind whoever gets in front of me. Whatever you do, don’t swerve. Pass the fifth light, steer into a wide curve leading into Evanston. Nobody beside me… think I’m still in my lane. Three additional lights, two stop signs. Driven this road long enough to rely on muscle memory. After the third light, hang a left onto my street. Pull into the alley behind my apartment, find my spot. Made it.
Step into the apartment. Cold night, so my glasses fog when I get inside. Take the glasses off, put them in a jacket pocket. Look around; roommate’s home with parents. Alone, in the dark. Take off the jacket, hold it in right hand. Think about trip home. If a cop stopped me, would have been a certain DUI. Lose license, hefty fine, night in jail. A swift end to the life I’d been living.
I realize that’s what I had wanted. And I failed, just like I was failing at everything else.
I lift the jacket above my head, and fling it down on a metal chair. It’s not until the next morning that I realize my glasses, stored in a pocket, had been shattered.
Between January 1987 and November 1990, I did not wrap my car around a tree, get tossed out by any of my roommates, lose my graduate school stipend, have my stomach pumped in an emergency room, get fired for showing up late to work, have a sexual harassment complaint lodged against me, stumble into Lake Michigan and drown or suffer some other embarrassing accidental death on the streets or rail stations of Chicago, or have my ass kicked within an inch of my life by someone who decided I needed help with my self-destruction.
Which demonstrates yet again that it’s better to be lucky than good.
Life is composed of a number of transitions, and this one was a doozy. A curious five-year spiritual journey had ended at the same time I started graduate school. I was faced with a entire series of new experiences: managing my finances, sharing an apartment, teaching, working as a proofreader. I also declared myself ready for a serious romantic commitment, despite my fear of commitment. I wanted love, demanded it of the world, without knowing how to offer it.
I was also on an acne medication which has been linked to an increase in depression. An increase in alcohol consumption, a prerequisite for graduate study at my university, most likely compounded that side effect.
There were many new challenges to face at the start of my graduate studies. And a combination of poor decisions, bad luck, and unfortunate timing led me to a dark mental state which I never hope to visit again.
Her name was Meredith, but everybody called her Merry.
Actually nobody called her Merry, because her name wasn’t Meredith, since I’ve never known anyone named Meredith in my life. Meredith is a fiction, an amalgam of several women I knew at this time. Some of what will be written about Merry is based on reality, and some of it is entirely fictitious. , Merry was created in the hope that none of the women I actually knew at the time will be embarrassed at seeing herself in this melodrama.
Merry was from Nashville, and we didn’t attend the same college. She had moved to Chicago after graduation, and was a member of the church I attended between my undergraduate and graduate students. We became friends through the church’s young adult programs, but after I left the church I didn’t see her for two years. Towards the end of my first year of graduate study, we wound up on the same bus rout. I found Merry to be as bright, articulate, and fun to be around as I remembered, and we exchanged phone numbers.
We saw each other a few times over the course of six months. We enjoyed each other’s company. She knew I had left the church, but didn’t press me for an explanation; she saw I was struggling with dark emotions, but offered support rather than judgement. The problem, though, was me. I was desperately lonely, but too afraid to let anyone see how much of a mess I was. And she was committed to a church I had sworn never to visit again.
I stopped calling Merry. She left a couple messages I didn’t return. Perhaps Merry realized how messed up I was, and stopped calling because she knew what I needed at the time was not a girlfriend, but professional help, or maybe she decided it was time to move on. Whatever the truth might be, all I know for certain is that, after a few more random encounters at libraries and grocery stores, I haven’t seen Merry in over three decades.
After four years of stumbling, I finally got myself straightened out. I went into counseling for my depression. I switched my acne medication, and moderated my alcohol consumption. I got a job, which provided the stability I desperately needed. I started dating, and enjoyed learning about the women I met. By the time I met the woman to whom I’ve been married for a quarter century, I had controlled my self-destructive impulses.
I don’t believe in looking back, and wouldn’t change a thing if such an impossibility were available. So in order to complete the writing exercise I was recently assigned, I’m going to create another fictional character, one who’s much like me but managed to not push Merry away. Let’s call him Bernie, and imagine he allowed Merry to help him get straightened out a few years earlier than when I actually did. I want to see where Bernie ended up, after deciding to turn left instead of going straght.