John McNally: After the Workshop

A Deleted Chapter

The only public reading of my fiction I ever gave was at my undergraduate university.  I was a senior and had been invited by the creative writing faculty to pair up with the new fiction writer-in-residence, a recent MFA grad from SUNY-Buffalo named Colin Granville, whose first book had just been released by the experimental publisher Fiction Collective.   What they say about the fear of public speaking being worse than the fear of death is true: From the moment I accepted the invitation, I had hoped something dramatic and unexpected might happen, like a car running over me, or one of the many bars I drank in to implode, crushing me like an insect.  But I wasn’t so lucky.  On the day of the reading, I looked through all my clothes, mostly old T-shirts full of holes, and pulled out a sky-blue sweater my mother had given me before I’d left for college, the only item of clothing I owned that could even remotely be called “dressy.”  The sweater was too tight – I’d gained over forty pounds in four years from an unremitting diet of hot dogs and beer – and the fabric was a kind of synthetic that made my skin feel as though it were crawling with fire ants.   Before the reading, I sat with my buddy in his LTD and quickly chugged three lukewarm cans of Milwaukee’s Best.

The piece of fiction I decided to read was the story I eventually used to get into Iowa, the one about the optometrist with the failing eyesight who mistakenly shows up at a gathering of Optimists.  What I have since learned, having attended hundreds of fiction readings by writers both good and bad, is that it doesn’t take much to entertain an audience at a literary event.  A few funny lines of dialogue, a linear narrative, a nice turn of phrase every now and again, a moment of recognition by the narrator and, in turn, the audience – and you pretty much have everyone eating out of your hand.  In other words, the bar is low.  Very low.

I didn’t know that back then, of course.  I stood nervously behind the podium, needing to piss from the three beers I’d slammed and feeling the need to rip off my sweater and run screaming to the nearest shower as I read my short story to an audience that, unbeknownst to me, I was winning over sentence by sentence, paragraph by paragraph.  The student reader was normally the warm-up act for the professor, and yet, by the close of my story, the audience rose to their feet and applauded.  A professor who didn’t particularly like me – she had even accused me of plagiarizing my William Blake paper, incredulous that I could possibly have written it – was wiping away tears between her clapping.  A girl I had known from several of my classes but, out of a crippling shyness, had never spoken to approached me afterward to ask what my plans were for later that night.  Within twenty minutes, I had achieved a kind of fame that an hour earlier I could only have dreamed of, and I was so flush with exhilaration that, as I sat listening to Colin Granville’s story about a man who thinks he’s a monkey who thinks he’s a man reading Darwin, I thought for certain I was coming down with the flu.  I sat off to the side on an old, stained couch, where the student readers always sat, and tried to concentrate on Granville’s story but couldn’t follow it.  It wasn’t funny; the story jumped back and forth in time; the reader couldn’t see anything because so little of it had been dramatized; and no character came to a larger understanding of him- or herself.  At the end of his story, if it could even have been called a story, the audience offered up a polite applause.  Afterward, as a crowd gathered around to tell me what specifically they had loved about my story or to tell me that they’d had no idea that I could write as well I did, Colin Granville and I made eye-contact across the room.  He raised his eyebrows up at me, as if to say, You won this time, but don’t think it’s always going to play out this way!  I smiled in return, but he simply turned away, toward his girlfriend, the only person who had joined him after the reading.  By semester’s end, after he and his girlfriend had broken up, Colin could be found sitting in local bars, sporting a long beard, sipping port wine and smoking, to the other patrons’ chagrin, Virginia Slims.  Later, after I was living in Iowa City and attending the Workshop, I learned that I was the last student at my alma mater ever to read with another faculty member, for fear that such an event might repeat itself.  When I typed Granville’s name into GOOGLE, all I found were used copies of his only book for sale, along with a few scathing reviews calling him “the next John Barth wannabe.” I may have felt a twinge of satisfaction, but now, twelve years later, I shivered at the thought of our reading, as one might shiver opening a casket only to find one’s own self lying inside, unfinished manuscript clutched in one’s stiff fingers, no one waiting in line to view the corpse.

***

John McNally is the author of three novels: After the Workshop, The Book of Ralph and America’s Report Card; and two story collections, Troublemakers and Ghosts of Chicago.  He is also author of two nonfiction books: The Creative Writer’s Survival Guide: Advice from an Unrepentant Novelist and Vivid and Continuous: Essays and Exercises for Writing Fiction, both published the University of Iowa Press. He has edited, coedited, or guest edited seven anthologies. John’s work has appeared in over a hundred publications, including the Washington Post, The Sun, San Francisco Chronicle, and Virginia Quarterly Review. As a screenwriter, he has a script in development with the producer of Winter’s Bone. He’s an Associate Professor of English at Wake Forest University and on the Core Faculty of Pacific University’s low-residency MFA program.

08 2012 02

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