Bucks County Writers Workshop
by Dolores Mentis
The general indifference to Francis' protagonist deeply hurt the writer. He tried to explain but according to the rules of the game, one could only listen and make a cursory comment or two at the end of the evaluation period. You were not permitted any disagreement with what was said by a reviewer. The only clarifications allowed were those asked for by the evaluator. Those were the rules of the Essex County Writers' Circle.
Francis wrote a story about two mentally damaged friends. One protagonist recovered faster than the other. But the character named Robert, who was much sicker than Monk, the black protagonist who had one his balls shot off in Vietnam, had both of his testicles intact but was much less a figure of a man. He even went through a homosexual period before marrying. Many of the reviewers had no patience with his dalliance with homosexuality. His intellectualizations aroused an even more virulent form of hostility in two members of the group. His subsequent courtship with Elizabeth read like a flat soda. Of course, Francis had no appreciation of women, hardly aware of the interpersonal aspects of sex even though he was preoccupied with sex and orgasms. He was sexually obsessive-compulsive and sexually abused as a child.
Francis had written a sexual melodrama, which was stillborn. He wanted to tell the Essex group so much that was coming, which would even explain the most esoteric plot points when the leader of the group stopped him mid-sentence, "We are not interested in your philosophy, or reasons for writing. We want a good story. That's it in one sentence. The story should hold our interest at every turn and the mere suggestion of an explanation indicates to me that you do not believe in the power of your story to communicate all that you wish it to say. If it is not communicated in the twenty-five pages you submit to us, there is nothing to add." There was a triangular shaped window next to the ceiling where God resided. The light through this window shone on the leader's face, the dwindling light of a summer's day. Dominic looked divinely authoritative in the glow of twilight.
In the shadows, Francis was gloomy and despairing. Seated at tables, which could have been bingo tables in another setting, upon mauve rugs and the mauve surface of the tables and chairs - adding an air of tempered banality - the writers sat like jurors in a debating competition. When Francis went home he cried. For the fourth time he wrote a letter of resignation to the leader, expressing his loss of faith in himself and in his ability to write fiction. A member of the group, whom he had befriended, called his piece of writing moribund prose. Francis knew he wouldn't say much to his friend because this friend had so much of his integrity bound up in being honest. His friend was a lawyer and how many of them ever reach this goal? This lawyer had decided sometime during the practice of law that he had not wanted to become the wrong kind of lawyer.
Oh fuck, thought Francis, it's like the old saying, there's no one more moral than a reformed whore, except maybe a good girl in a roomful of whores, and his lawyer friend was really committed to being a good girl. Another wrote that he thought AIDS was a scourge sent by the Almighty for God knows what reason and he said, "Call me medieval!" Francis called him medieval and wondered what the Almighty had against children and Africans. A physician in a loud, stentorian voice said that people in real life did not speak the way the college students in Francis' story did. Francis never quite understood the stridence in the good doctor's voice. Francis said, "When you were in professional school learning how to become a doctor, didn't they talk that way? In the Liberal Arts College I attended they spoke exactly the way I wrote it. They were intellectuals and very well read. Sound bytes had not yet taken over colloquial English. Beside all of this, there was the Vietnam War going on which would consume many members of the class. Nothing like a war to get you thinking and discussing seriously the human condition."
At home Francis read the doctor's further comments. There she accused Francis of trying to shock her. Francis wondered how could he shock anyone with masturbatory sex and light gay porn. After all, didn't the doctor make her living looking up peoples' asses and down their throats? Francis wanted to ask her if anyone ever farted in her face, like Stuttering John asked Yogi Berra. Now that would have shocked Francis. Of course, she would have responded like the great Yogi. "Who the fuck let him in? Who is this nut," just like Mr. Berra said.
Then Dr. and Mrs. Lancaster, who usually spoke with one voice, gave Francis a split decision. For some reason Dr. Lancaster thought publishers were looking for writing with a voice like Francis' strong one. Lady Lancaster thought the scene on the beach where the protagonist falls in love with Elizabeth was lacking in intensity and therefore uninteresting.
Then Francis recalled Mary Nell Myers! Now Mary Nell, well, Mary Nell found the words, after a period of stuttering and sputtering. She called the work sui generis. (Latin for of its own kind) Francis looked around the room and read the faces, what the fuck is sui generis. One writer was confused enough to ask if that was a pig call. Mary Nell then said, "Let me put it another way, the characters keep coming." Everyone chuckled because there was enough coming in the piece to warrant interpreting her remark as a double entendre. But she continued, "I didn't mean it like that. It's like a doll factory. One character keeps coming out, followed by another. There never seems to be a lack of material or characters. Please take all of this as a compliment."
Several anonymous crowd voices shouted, "Francis, shut up. Remember the rules," but the leader's ominous voice cut through all the others. Like the voice of God from the clouds, "Please abide by the rules of the circle." He silenced Francis. Dominic was the lord of this realm.
Francis, the unpublished author, also took Winston Churchill's big black dog home with him. He had always failed the group whenever he attempted to become serious: teenage rape, autoerotic asphyxiation, murders by vehicle, pedophilia, the more serious concerns of Western literature. He was only taken seriously when he was funny, and once in a while he was very funny, not witty, but outlandish, slap stick, carnivalesque funny.
Francis couldn't fall asleep. He tossed and turned until his wife threw him out of bed at three A.M. On the couch, after e-mailing his resignation, he finally went to sleep and had a dream: A dog was barking incessantly and he turned around to the source of the sound and a pit bull tried to attack. He yelled at the dog to stop and defended himself as best as he could, flailing his arms like when you walk through a swarm of mosquitoes. Then the dog stopped and put her paws on her hips and said, "So you think you're a writer? Well, my shit's more interesting than your angst and intellectualization. And people don't want to read about come in the mouth and sperm in a milk tray. And that fairy crap, is Robert or isn't Robert gay, is you or isn't you gay? We all say, not that there is anything wrong with it, but you better believe it matters, it matters in Nossex County. You got to know the territory." The dog had a deep voice like Bea Arthur. She had her arms perched on both his sides of her hips like a bitch arguing with her neighbor across a fence. Francis started to cry. The bitch continued, "Like Mozart said, 'Your characters shit marbles when they speak.' Don't you listen when people talk? Get real, you're deaf and dumb!"
Francis panicked and yelped in the dream: reality, but not too much, ricocheted in his brain, back and forth like a gun shot in a hangar, reality but not too much, reality but not too much. He awoke from his fitful sleep, perplexed by the dog. He wondered if she didn't make sense. But why a dog, that sounded like Bea Arthur? In all such situations when confronted with a possible revelation, he ate. He ate hard pretzels with mounds of mustard and diet coke. He rummaged through the refrigerator like a dog in a trash can.
Earlier that day he had had an upper GI exam because he choked at almost every meal for the past thirty years and his wife Mary finally made him do something about it. They made him drink about three pounds of barium. Francis had a pressing urge to eliminate. When he did it was like marble chips and Francis moaned. Why was everything so hard for him? When he looked at what he had made, he wretched because it was white. Oh my God, I have no friends, I shit white and a dog gives me instructions in my sleep. Now I am nauseous because of this diet coke and hot mustard. He returned to the couch with self-pity deep inside him thicker than a barium cocktail. Sleep overtook him.
Upon waking a happy thought occurred to him. He saw the stack of papers, almost a ream, filled with nasty comments and corrections. He picked them all up and threw them in the trash. Fuck them and their criticism! No more rewriting to suit their whims. One of his most hated chores was deciphering their illegible script. They wrote like doctors and lawyers, which was a stupid thought because more than half of them were doctors and lawyers.
This led him to a meditation on why someone with a rich career in medicine or law would want to write. He would ask them or observe closely enough to come up with the answer. Why did he write? He wrote because he was interested in expressing the sublime, the ineffable, the beautiful and the touching and poignant aspects of human life. The transcendence in everyday reality, the humorous, the triumphs over despair, that completed his list. If he were a composer he would have wanted to write the second movements of symphonies, or the most emotional and Romantic expressions from early to late Romanticism: The Adagio from Mahler's Tenth, the Mystic Chorus from Mahler's Eighth, Beethoven's Ode to Joy, or Richard Strauss's Der Rosenkavalier Waltzes. For all of these professed high ideals, to a certain type of observer he was perverted and prurient. But he saw no difference between cupping a bride's ass and two college boys, alone on a train feeling one another's asses with the same sensuous cupping motion. This inability to differentiate between acceptable and unacceptable social conventions got him into deep trouble with the censors: the Catholic Church in his brain, the suburban consciousness of his reading circle and his own conventional scruples. As much as anyone he wanted to know why he so often transgressed the boundaries and why he offended so many.