18 December 2010

A Guy Walks Into a Writers’ Group

Filed under: Fiction, First Lines, Reflections — ktismatics @ 9:22 am

Tonight will be my second visit to a writers’ group.

This fall I was reading a thirties noir novel on my deck when a passer-by stopped to remark about how odd it was to see anyone reading, let alone a man. He was even more surprised when he found out I was reading fiction. It turns out that this fellow, who recently moved into the neighborhood, taught comparative literature at a nearby university before retiring. He also writes creative nonfiction and poetry. I told him that I write too. Oh really? You should come to our group, read something you’ve written to us. I recounted my prior fairly-recent experiences with public reading and a local writers’ group, which I recounted on the blog at the time. He found the tale amusing, and asked to read the short story I had read to the group. He loved the story, and suggested that I try it out on his group at the November session. I did: the rest of the group liked it too, and we engaged in some lively discussion about it.

It’s a small group that’s been meeting for years. The current lineup consists of my new neighborhood friend, a novelist, and two poets, all of whom have taught or currently teach literature at universities. So I’m sort of the odd man out in terms of literary background, which makes me a bit apprehensive. But they didn’t rub my aesthetic ignorance in my face, and when I asked what were surely naive questions about literary allusions they didn’t ridicule me (at least to my face). The group meets monthly, so the format doesn’t really lend itself to workshop-level craftsmanship. I’m not exactly sure what its point is really: to give each person a few minutes in the spotlight, to encourage one another in their lonely writerly endeavors, to wine and dine in convivial company — those seem to be the main benefits. I’m not sure this is the sort of thing I’d like to participate in long-term, but I will go again tonight.

In a recent post I presented a short chapter from the second part of a novel I’m currently writing. I gave my neighbor friend the first three chapters of the first part, which he also liked. He has encouraged me to read these chapters to the group, but I think it’s a bit much. I’ll probably read only the first chapter, which is almost exactly the same length as the ten-minute “Looking Up” story I read previously. Here’s the beginning of that chapter — you’ll note that it incorporates the strange graffiti stencil I posted about earlier this week. I have a couple of questions about this bit, mostly concerning the reference to Bass Ale (too obscure or precious?) and the abrupt shift in voice/tense. On Monday I’ll report back on the group.



The dining room looks inviting, but today it’s the bar that calls to you. Maybe you don’t want to hear the hostess pose the inevitable question – “Just one?” – in that reflexive tone of pity and scorn. There is no television perched up in the corner replaying football highlights, no rock oldies blasting on tinny speakers – only the classic silent aesthetic of bottles and glasses and polished granite. A long mirror stretches across the back wall; there’s even a bowlful of clementines on the bar. When the young woman in the black velvet jacket asks what you’d like you don’t have to think twice: a bottle of Bass, please. As she pours you take a closer look at the ornate pendant suspended from the black ribbon encircling her neck. It appears to be an iconic image, although the coronet perched atop the leering holy man’s head and the five-pointed pinwheel he wears above his breast betoken no familiar theology. Some new-age mystic no doubt, maybe even an ironic citation of mysticism. Most likely she spotted the medallion at a consignment store and thought how good it would look with her black jacket.

The beer has been poured, and now you realize that you’re standing there staring at this young woman’s chest. She, who has surely dealt with your type before, asks if you’d like to sit down. Glass in hand, you step awkwardly around the two patrons to your left and take a seat at the end of the bar. She slips a coaster under your glass and holds out a menu. Scanning the daily lunch specials you see something you’d like. As you wait for the opportunity to order you can’t help but listen in on the two men’s conversation.

“Two guys walk into a bar,” says the first guy.

“Already heard it,” the other guy says.

“But there are a million guy-walks-into-a-bar jokes,” the first guy, feigning offense, retorts.

The second guy folds his napkin and sets it next to his plate. He stands, takes his wallet out of his inside jacket pocket, lays down a twenty. “You’ve got to realize, Stephen, that in my line of work you hear them all. Just this morning there’s this client in my office, some guy getting sued for divorce, wife caught him with the other woman. So this client launches into the Two Guys setup, and I just rock back in my chair and smile. Oh I’ll laugh when he’s done all right. Hell, I’m on the meter. He tells me the joke, then he tells me where he heard the joke, and I’m thinking to myself, this sure is an easy way to make an extra five bucks.”

Stephen pulls a thin roll of bills from his jeans pocket. He peels off a five and tosses it on the bar in front of his lawyer friend. “Okay, I’m paying in advance. So there’s these two guys. They walk into a bar…”

“That should cover the tip,” the lawyer says with a wink to the barkeep. Donning a pair of sunglasses he strides toward the door, the other man following closely behind.

*   *   *

Stephen Hanley shaded his eyes with his hand as he stepped out of the cool dim sanctuary of Rik’s Café and into the midday glare. A block later he and Martin Drake paused to watch a dreadlocked girl tapdance, accompanied by an old hippie banjoist’s competent rendition of O Susannah. Even though the two buskers had set up their show on a grassy patch, the rhythmic chatter of the dancer’s feet sounded distinct and sharp. Stepping closer, Stephen saw that she was performing her act on a four-foot-square piece of hardwood, hinged in the middle for portability. Martin tossed a few coins in the bowl, then the two men continued their postprandial stroll. Two blocks toward the foothills, where the downtown walking mall turned back into a residential street, stood an old two-storey frame house that had been converted into an upscale office duplex. “Drake and Daniels LLC, Attorneys at Law,” announced the discrete sign posted above the left entryway. “Let’s do this again,” Martin said, his eyes hidden behind the dark lenses, and Stephen couldn’t help but wonder whether Martin’s invitation reflected the casual professionalism which his old friend seemed to slip on and off as easily as his Wayfarers.

Stephen had parked in one of the reserved spaces behind Martin’s office but, since he had nowhere in particular to go, he left the car where it was and walked back into downtown. He was exploring without curiosity the side streets branching off from the pedestrian zone and peering into the rehabbed frontier-era storefronts when a sign caught his eye. Black print on a four-by-six white index card, stuck with yellowed tape to the wall, the sign certainly wasn’t designed to grab the attention of the passing window-shopper. It read…

*   *   *

20 Dec — Well if you must know, the Bass Ale refers to this painting by Manet:

* * * * *

17 January update — Courtesy of Kenzie, here’s a screengrab from the latest Simpsons’ episode. Probably if I had taken this variant of the Manet to the writers’ group no one would have admitted knowing anything about Mr. Burns.


1 Comment »

  1. I was going to put an image in this comment but I don’t have the technical skills to do it, so I added it to the bottom of the post.


    Comment by ktismatics — 17 January 2011 @ 2:05 pm

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