Creative Writing Workshop
University of British Columbia
This is a description of a workshop class from MEN AS VIRGINS, Chapter 8, Keith, the Canadian Aventurer
In a long narrow room, about 11 of us sit around two wooden tables pushed together, graduate and undergraduate creative writing students at the University of British Columbia. The tall, narrow, ivy-framed windows invite in much Vancouver light. We students introduce ourselves by sharing our writing backgrounds. Pat, the woman on my right, looks disdainfully about the group as if she has stepped from Vogue and thinks she will eavesdrop on the proletariat. You sit across the table, more than six feet tall and lanky, a mop of wavy blond-red hair atop your Scottish face. You look as if you have just rushed from bed, without time to wash your hair, brush your teeth, or find clean, unwrinkled clothes. You tilt your chair on its hind legs and stare wild-eyed at everyone. You leer at the introductions when you catch my eye, but then it is your turn. Your bravado-infected voice gives way as you straighten your chair and hunch over your papers. You care less about the hello-business and more about writing stories and getting on with it.
The class gets on with it.
The first of my two-part sex-Mafia-insanity-murder-Chicago story premieres in class. “If that’s what you think of sex, I pity you,” Janis says, her everyday mascara sheltering her pink dresses and feminine powers. My eyes widen. We are friends, the only two women graduate students in our class. I once thought she was ‘fluff ’ as Vogue Pat affectionately calls her but helped me appreciate her. I turn to Pat sitting next to me. Once I had asked her if she would stop wearing designer clothes and wear jeans so I would feel more comfortable with her. She did. When I visited her at home, she confided the Vogue image was right: she had been a model when younger. She is the opposite of our fluff friend: hard, brassy, bitchy and articulate. She is also deadly honest and direct in her criticism, when you can draw it out of her. Often she remains silent in class. What does she think of my story?
“It’s obscene,” she judges. She puffs on her cigarette which is in an ivory holder because she is trying to stop smoking. She closes her eyes and won’t meet mine. But she no longer intimidates me.
“Where is it obscene?” I demand.
“Page 14, second paragraph from the bottom,” she says without opening her eyes.
A hush descends upon the classroom: the two star critics are at each other’s throats. Although she is an undergraduate, she is older, sophisticated and respected in class. She personally has told me she thinks everyone there is an idiot, except for a few exceptions, notably herself, me and Fluff. She has belittled their “small Canadian minds” when they criticized her story of a woman who loves a drug dealer who changes his identity to escape the law and her. For some reason, they couldn’t understand the reality of such a possibility.
I find page 14, second paragraph from the bottom. Read it. Look up from my stenciled copy of the worksheet. “I don’t see how you can call one paragraph obscene when the only ‘obscene’ word is ass,” I say carefully.
“It’s not the word. Anal intercourse is obscene.”
“I don’t know how any of the sex relates to the story,” another woman is saying.
“You mean you want me to edit all the sex scenes?” I ask in horror.
“They don’t really add much to the story,” she says.
Class is nearly 90 minutes long. Forty-five minutes pass, then 60. You break the spell when someone asks for your chauvinistic male opinion. Since there are so few males in the class, and you are notorious for your sexual views, everyone awaits your response. Your legs are stretched straight out in front of you, the gambler look in your eyes as you balance on the chair’s legs, “I think it’s fine writing. Enough action, slick and smooth writing. I liked it. A lot.”
The uproar begins again, with an attack on you, but you hold your ground and defend your position, while smiling warmly at me.
I don’t understand what is happening. I finally ask the questions I had hoped the teacher would initiate but hasn’t. Was the plot believable? Were the characters realistic, convincing? I receive a few answers. “Was the dialog all right? Don’t you see the purpose of the sex scenes in developing plot and character?”
Janis looks towards my end of the table, “I’m sorry, Zola, about what I said earlier,” she says with none of the usual fluff in her voice. The class holds its breath. Janis’s criticism is always accurate, but usually given gently. She often avoids saying anything negative by not responding. When cornered for an answer, she politely excuses herself or mentions minor problems.
“I wasn’t responding to your story earlier as a story,” she says now, looking at everyone around the table. “Like others here, we responded to our own sexual feelings this story evokes. I was wrong. If you really want to write this kind of story, do so. If it’s important to you, write what you feel is honest. I see what you meant to say now, but I was blinded by my own feelings when reading it. I’m sorry.”
The class is momentarily silent. Then the denials begin and I can’t listen. I look towards you. You grin, try to comfort me. I wait for Pat to explain her harsh judgment. She wrinkles her patrician nose, runs her hand through her short, curly hair, having abandoned her long hair because a lover complained it got in the way during fellatio.
“I still think it’s obscene,” she says, lighting another cigarette.
The Chicagoans is my story of a woman’s search for truth amid the dirty sheets of promiscuity, love, written with the intent to reveal the underside of human nature: the soft belly of the spiritual when linked in bed once the lights are switched off and all the books and movies I know change to mornings scenes.
I wanted to elucidate what happens inside each body, not the seminal and vaginal exchanges, but the mental twisting of two strings tuning to each other’s souls, joining in their deepest male and female selves into one flesh. I wanted to explore that adventure – to bring the darkest secrets to light and then share my visions: the kaleidoscopic images that are Chaos when I enter, but Art when I transcribe them. I felt like Vespucci of the orgasms, the Columbus of the shores of flesh and spirit, the third eye Indian initiation of spirit passing through flesh - but only through flesh.
“It’s obscene,” my classmates say.
“I like it. Smooth and slick, lots of action,” you say.