Spring 1991, Volume 8.1
The Visiting Writer's Workshop: A Story
Ron McFarland (Ph.D., U of Illinois) is Professor of English at the University of Idaho. In 1984, he was named Idaho's first State Writer-in-Residence. His books include The Villanelle: Evolution of a Poetic Form, Composting at Forty (poems). He is currently completing a novel, a new collection of poems and a collection of short stories. He is the co-editor of Norman Maclean (1988).
Read other work by Ron McFarland published in Weber Studies: Vol. 12.1 (poetry), Vol. 15.2 (poetry), Vol. 17.0 (essay), Vol. 17.1 (fiction), Vol. 19.3 (fiction), Vol. 22.2 (essay), Vol. 23.1 (Fiction).
No more certain as to the whereabouts of his next meal than he was as to that of his next novel, Ryder Hunter eagerly snatched at the two-week workshop in fiction writing at the small former teachers college in a north Idaho milltown. It would pay five grand plus expenses. He was not keen for workshops, but his novel was going nowhere, his "mate," as he liked to call Carolyn (he admired the emerging Australian writers), had left him for an associate prof in electrical engineering, and he needed the bucks.
He much preferred reading gigs, a quick $200 or $500, quaff a few with the profs, grad students and groupies at a local dive, then off into the sunset. He would always gear himself up with one (no more) shot of J.D. and a good dinner—no gorging before a reading, but no privation either. After the reading he would, as expected, throw all moderation to the wind and drink himself into a profoundly deserved oblivion. By the next morning the profs and students would have returned to their business, forgetting all about him and leaving him to his own devices for getting out of town.
Sometimes he wondered what would happen if, instead of nursing a restorative breakfast and then slipping past the city limits, he were to just hang around for a couple of days. Suppose he were to drop in at Professor So-and-So's office, the guy who had been so cordial the night of the reading, who had said it was one of the best, one of the very best, who had bought the first round. Or suppose he were to look up the blonde grad student whose bare leg had contacted his so warmly under the table at least a dozen times that evening. He'd never done it. Somehow the rhythm of the event seemed always to require that he exit the premises the day after.
He had run a few workshops before, had taught a couple years at a junior college after receiving his M.F.A., so he had some credentials to back up his handful of published stories and moderately successful, fairly well reviewed first novel. Still, he was a little surprised to see this two-week stint come through, and he was very grateful. It struck him that it could lead to something, a network of similar opportunities perhaps, so he determined not to screw up. Not that he'd screwed up in the past, except maybe the one bit in Ohio, but frankly he had forgiven himself on that. He had simply misread the woman in the first place, and in the second place there was no way for him to have known she was the department chairman's wife.
Fortunately, Hunter had come across an essay concerning nontransference in a recent edition of the AWP Chronicle, and he had committed the post-Freudian lore of Dr. Robert Langs to memory. Standing now at the mirror in his Best Western suite, he stared thoughtfully at what he saw before him, a good-lucking sucker, he had to confess, inching into his thirties, single and in good shape, and oozing integrity, warmth, genuine concern, strength, and wisdom. It was a good combo. "Talent," he said aloud. He would add talent to the list. He was modest enough, though. He would not say "genius," after all. Add "hard work," too.
Some of Langs' advice was easy, much of it self-evident. It came with the contract, came with the territory, like #5, "a defined fee." He kept coming back to that one. Five thousand dollars for two weeks of not terribly taxing work, to be rounded off on the second Friday by a public reading. The defined fee was good. He could live with that. Also the limited number of students. He would have no more than fifteen, most of them especially selected by the resident creative writing faculty, which fortunately consisted of only a single writer, a poet of no significant reputation. The poet, whose name was something odd that kept slipping his mind, had a haggard look about him. Ryder could imagine him handling the increasing stream of creative writing students, from neophytes to promising prospects for some M.F.A. program. He was probably immensely popular with the students, genuinely committed to both his teaching and his own work, and totally neglected by most of the lit staff.
"Time's a bitch," he said early in his first session.
He was supposed to meet the class five nights a week, a two-and-a-half hour block, in a sterile and windowless classroom. He would be available at least two hours a day for conferences. It was a crock.
"We'll work something out," he said.
"Cool," piped a girlish voice that came from a dim arc of the circle where two or three sorority sweatshirts clustered. They all appeared to be tri-delts.
He intended to lay down the rules in the first session, keeping in mind as many of Dr. Langs' valuable suggestions as he could, though feeling free to adapt them slightly to meet the demands of the real world. It struck him that the good doctor had been a touch too clinical. It struck him that what might go in seminar or in therapy might not work in the harsh light of the writing work-shop. Best, then, to decode certain portions of Langs' teaching frame. Life, after all, was not a dream.
"Attendance," he said next. "You've got to be here and you've got to participate. No deadwood. Two absences and you're out. No excuses."
"I got a wedding I've got to go to on Thursday," blurted a punked out brunette to his left. Her hair and make-up contrasted strikingly with her plaid cowgirl shirt, tight bluejeans, and high-heeled shitkickers.
"Well," he sighed, "I guess that'll be okay. Just try not to miss any more sessions."
"But I'll be gone Friday, too," she moaned.
"Okay. Grades." The class fell silent. "They say I gotta give grades." Grumbles, groans. "No sweat. Everyone gets an A as long as they do the work, come to class, get involved." The general buzzing resumed.
"Tests. No. Your responsibility is to turn out one pretty well finished story, and of course to contribute your suggestions to others in the class. Any questions?"
"Mr. Hunter?" It was a large bearded man who looked to be about sixty.
"Ryder," he admonished. "Call me Ryder."
"Yeah, Ryder. Look, I'm hoping we can get into our writing here. Last time we had a workshop this woman gets us reading all sorts of crap that didn't have nothing to do with what I'm trying to work on, see? I mean I think this Alice Beattie or whatever, her stuff's okay, but it don't speak to me, see? I got this bunch of stories about when I was working for the Forest Service, see?"
It was not an easy night, but it was their opener, so Ryder Hunter felt justified in wrapping up early. He collected a handful of manuscripts (apparently no one had informed them they were to have a sample of their work on hand), and then he headed toward the motel. He was not too surprised to see three of the graduate students sitting in the Sagebrush Lounge by the time he got there. The tall sandy-haired fellow and the chunky blonde were apparently an item. He had misgivings about the young woman with long dark hair that fell in voluptuous waves around her nicely curved shoulders and ample breasts. He discovered that he had been mentally writing her into his novel from the moment he saw her in class. She wore a dark green dress of some flimsy sort of material that seemed almost to be alive.
Inevitably he thought of #8: "The student-teacher relationship and interaction is confined to the work of the class." He had underlined those very words in Langs' article. The present situation did appear a bit compromising, but then the classroom was not a clinic, after all, not a therapist's couch, "and not a temple either!"
Ryder was surprised to recognize that he had actually uttered the last phrase aloud. "The classroom," he said, clearing his throat, "is not a temple." Everyone laughed and he ordered another round, instructing the waiter to put it on his tab. Clearly #8 would have to be adapted.
By the third session, the workshop was running smoothly enough. They were "into" one another's work, and most of the class members were experienced. They knew the routine. It was that session, though, which was visited by the director of the graduate program in English, unannounced. Ryder felt uncomfortable about it, but there was nothing he could do. He'd met the director, whose name he had promptly forgotten, the evening he arrived. In fact the graduate director had taken him to dinner that evening, so a connection of sorts had been made. Besides, the guy was docile enough. He sat out of sight in a corner of the room and took notes for a while, then began surreptitiously to read a Kundera novel. He left at the break without saying a word, though he did seem to nod his head as if to say that it all seemed shipshape.
"He always does that," one of the tri-delts said. It was either Chris, Mindy, or Kris. He knew he would never be able to tell them apart, even when they dressed differently.
Ryder was well aware that #2 had been breached, but he also knew that an old pal was passing through on the twelfth, and he had already agreed to let him sit in that evening. He had planned to cover up the incursion by introducing his friend as a writer himself, which was true enough, though he wrote poetry.
The next night, which figured, Ryder told himself after it had blown over, the fourth night, just long enough for everyone to start getting familiar, M.K. Osgood, the former lumberjack and Forest Service worker, exploded. Ben, the tall, sandy-haired grad student, said something innocuous enough about a passage in Osgood's story, which had to do with shooting pheasant over a stubborn black lab, but M.K. took it personally. The old timber tramp let loose a string of mother-cursing expletives that had the unusual effect, not of eliciting an angry retort, but of dissolving the grad student to tears. It was awful.
It turned out that Ben's mother had died of cancer the preceding year. In the tremulous hour that followed, virtually every member of the class divulged personal confidences that made a shambles of ideal #3 if not of #6 as well. Ryder felt that the air definitely needed clearing, so he suggested that they meet the next time not in the austere cement-block confines of Classroom Building #214, but in the more intimate and convivial setting of the Blue Butterfly Coffee Shop just off Main, and perhaps they could start at three or so and run till whenever. It was going to be Friday anyhow, and that would be a good way to wrap up the week. People could just leave whenever they had something on.
Back at his motel room, Ryder glanced over Langs' list of ideals for the teaching frame, and he had to confess that he was surprised to see he had overlooked a couple of items pertaining to #1. Even #9 would now be in jeopardy. But there was nothing he could do about it now, except, of course, to make sure they all stuck to the task at hand.
Under the circumstances, of course, that proved impossible. After a few futile efforts to get the workshop to focus on the manuscript on hand, Ryder gave up. Four people never showed up, including Ben, whose story he had photocopied for discussion. Jeanie Hale, who wore her striking green dress again, informed him that Ben was "blown away" and might not come back. He was real sensitive, she said.
Ryder could not exactly account for how it was that the whole session gave way to his own anecdotes about teaching and writing, wandering around the country, his hopes and ambitions, his struggles to get into print, his high school football career, his useless agent in New York, his now deceased relationship with Carolyn. It just happened. He suspected that it had much to do with Jeanie and Fran, the two grad students, buying him bottles of a rather potent Danish malt called Elephant. It went to his head with astonishing speed.
"Let me pay for that," he objected when a third round of brews and an extra large pizza suddenly appeared, but the remaining half dozen or so members of the workshop would not hear of it.
Fortunately, he was able to excuse himself from the rest of the evening's festivities. Some were headed to a movie and others to a party at Jeanie and Fran's. Jeanie was vociferously disappointed at his withdrawal, but her urgency only convinced Ryder that his decision was sound. Back at his motel, he soon found himself throwing up and then passing out on his bed, which pitched and bobbed like a rubber raft on the high seas.
The next morning, in the cold clear light of Saturday, he assessed the damages. At least #12 was still reasonably intact: "no physical contact between all concerned." Of course Ben and Fran were an exception, but that had been going on before he even got there. Also, he might have some hope of regaining lost ground, particularly if he could reassert #7: "a clear definition of the role requirements of teacher and student, without role reversal." They had come perilously close on this score, but Hunter congratulated himself that he had said nothing directly on the issue, though he did believe deeply in the premise that teachers learn from their students. Best to leave that matter tacit, he told himself. And then, of course, there was good old #5, "a defined fee, etc."
Without going into the gory details, perhaps it is sufficient to say that a quiet tapping at his door that Saturday night was to mean the irrevocable undoing of ideals #8 and #12. He had decided to treat himself monkishly that night, to stay in his room with his J.D. and whatever college football games came his way, but it was not to be. It was that green dress.
The remaining week of the workshop was a blur of stories, passion, tears, revisions, and confessions. Ryder Hunter felt himself beloved in a way. He felt he had influenced these people and their work. Yet he could not help feeling, as he wound up his reading that second Friday night before a small but enthusiastic audience of students herded in from survey classes and a sprinkling of profs (not including the graduate director), that indeed his integrity and wisdom could be called into question. He was satisfied, though, that his warmth and genuine concern had been proven, and maybe even his strength.
The chairman had told him he'd heard great things about his residency, and at the reception following the reading at a local bookstore, M. K. Osgood gripped his hand as if he were setting a choker and thanked him for all he had done. Whatever that was, Ryder thought. He said good-bye to the green dress later that night, and the next morning he ate alone, putting down a considerable breakfast of scrambled eggs, sausages, and hash browns. He felt that he might have a couple ideas for the novel, and in his coat pocket he definitely had a check for five thousand dollars. The "defined fee" had been paid.