Tag Archives: lust

This post is “lovely”

Someone said it at lunch. A student. I can’t remember now who. It was a warning to vulnerable, over-sensitive student-writers with flimsy self-esteem: “You gotta toughen up for these workshops.”

Twenty years ago when I took my first writing class at a college in North Jersey run by Dominican nuns, I would have agreed. Sister Bridget was a fairly kind-hearted woman but she’d rip you to shreds in front of your peers if you failed to put together a story with some semblance of meaning. But times have changed and now, successful writers with huge credits to their names (New York Times book review, New York Times Op Ed section, Granta, Harper’s, three published books, etc.) forewarn their workshop groups to be “compassionate,” “sensitive,” and to “discuss the piece’s finer points.”

We don’t want to offend anyone, now. Do we?

Here’s my gripe: The pros, who are all having nightmarish flashbacks of their MFA workshop experiences are applying these nicey nice terms (Great, Lovely, Has Potential) to everyone’s work. It’s not just my stuff that’s “great.” It’s John’s, and Jane’s and Larry’s and even Juanita’s who’s never taken a writing class in her life. We’re all “great,” and “lovely.” And there’s no distinction among us. And while this is great and lovely for our self-esteem (God forbid anyone’s sensitivities are offended) it doesn’t do squat to help us learn, grow or trust the validity of our professors’ opinions.

Granted, I’ve only been to three workshops so far this summer, but inevitably, they all begin with the same recurrent address: “First off, let me say that overall, this was a lovely piece of writing…I really enjoyed the bit about the blah, blah, blah, and I love the way you intuited blah, blah, blah…Also, I think you have a lot to work with here as far as blah, blah, blah goes.” If we’re lucky, the lecturer says this: “I have one criticism…”

Inevitably, when I’ve been workshopped previously, that “one little criticism,” no matter how clearly it comes across (which, usually it doesn’t because no one wants to offend me), no matter if I take notes and write it down in my binder and later, circle it and put arrows around it to mark its existence, goes in one ear and out the other. It evaporates. I’ll tell you why. Because I don’t want to be a writer that has to go back and edit her work. I want to be a writer who delivers a work of art on the first draft. I want to be the diamond in the rough. I want to be a star. And forgive me if I’m wrong, but I think others are like this too. Heck, who doesn’t want to be told that what they’ve created is a flawless shiny ball of fuzzy perfection?

But the trouble is, none of us are perfect and only maybe one or two of us (yes, that’s it) have submitted a publishable piece that has real potential at the moment it is being workshopped. And we as students know this. We have to read all the manuscripts as well and comparatively speaking, we all know what’s crap and what isn’t. So two things occur: cognitive dissonance—we recognize something as being black, but then we are told it’s white, and an internal prompt to follow the herd and be nice too. No one wants to offend anyone else. No one wants to step up to the plate and go against that social construct known as correctness (political correctness, social correctness, etc.). And why should we? We’re taught, so as to bolster our self-esteem of course, that Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury was rejected 20 times before someone published it, or that no one wanted to publish Bukowski for years. Not only that but the very nature of art and creative writing is subjective. Who’s really to say what’s crap and what’s not? And who am I to be so presumptuous?

And yet, this is our business. This is our life’s work. There is standard in the industry that, as students, we need to know if we are to attempt to reach it. My guess is that Obama will not “gently suggest” to McChrystal that he should resign. My guess is that Ben Bernanke got where he is by virtue of a lot of hard knocks and struggles, not by a gently cresting sea that propelled him forward with “First off, let me say that overall, you’re a lovely person…”


In yesterday’s workshop I felt Big Brother was watching, controlling what we said and how we said it. And we were not given enough credit for trying to be humane on our own. We were forced into using words like “lovely,” “great” and “nice,” even if we didn’t mean it. Everyone was on guard. Even men like ______ held back their idiomatic language and bold criticism that for an entire year, inspired me to work harder and strive for better.

I am not suggesting that we denigrate or disparage individuals. There’s no place for “you suck.” But work is another matter. Work cannot be taken personally, despite the fact that it is the product of the individual. Work is in the public realm and when you put it there, it is up for criticism.

There was this kid yesterday whose piece was about to be discussed, until we were reminded to be nice. He spoke up and said, “I can take it,” but by then it was too late. Instead of a more accurate discussion of his work, he got the “this is lovely” version. And to add insult to injury, everyone talked it to death out of nervous energy. Truth is, it wasn’t bad. If he held his focus, if he removed the immaturities and judgments in his voice, if he tightened up a few parts and expanded on others, it would have read better. Would he believe me amid the phoniness that ensued? Could he trust anyone brave enough to tell him the truth? I don’t know. I hope so. Because that’s what will make him a stronger writer. And if he’s able to identify with and trust the judgment of people whom he admires, he just might be led in the right direction.

Teachers have an ethical responsibility to students not only to foster an environment conducive to learning, but to tell the truth. We need to know when our work works and when it doesn’t. The problem is, no one wants to suppose that there is one truth or that they have the right to judge. And maybe there isn’t one truth, and maybe they don’t have the right to judge. But someone needs to step up to the plate an offer up what’s known as an OPINION. Because there is a standard of good writing, and opinions count, and if a teacher is not willing to cultivate someone’s work, a student has to be willing to seek out the truth, even if it hurts. As for me, I’m looking for the truth in magazines. One thing I can be sure of is that the publishing industry isn’t afraid to tell me if my work sucks or if it truly is lovely.

The Look of Lust

This is the “look” I usually go for, and the very one I need to stay away from.


Repent, repent

November, 2002

I’m asking you.  God or man. Is it so much that I can’t understand the truth. I mean, I’ll survive this. I’ll be better tomorrow. And even better the next day. Today is hard because I’m still a little hung over. Eventually, life will go back to the mundane and I’ll be unsatisfied again. At least that’s what I keep telling myself. Unsatisfied but alive. I really got knocked off my ass, that’s for sure. But I don’t doubt I’ll be better tomorrow. It’s just this nature of mine. I’d forget everything if I could, but my nature keeps seeking to solve the mystery. I keep asking all these questions and coming up with no answers. Everything’s so exotic and convoluted. I’m wondering why [the lover] and [the husband] have both said to me that I’m so intimidating. Smarter. Better. What does all that mean? I don’t know. It sounds like a cop-out. It sounds like I’m doing something seriously wrong. It sounds like that’s the fashionably polite thing to say to get a woman off your back. I don’t know. I’m trying not to care. But it’s not working. I’m going nuts thinking that I wore the wrong shirt, or that I said the wrong thing. That I said too much, or not enough. It would be so easy to pinpoint the exact moment when it all fell a part. But my shame is keeping me blind to the fact that maybe there was nothing there to begin with. I was lonely. I came on too strong. Worse yet, I feel a sudden need to repent for my sins, repent for being something and someone I so desperately want to be but can’t. He would have got it up for Courtney Love. That’s for sure. Maybe even Pink. So, I’ll wear rocks in my shoes or something. Flog myself.  Tonight, maybe, I will sleep on a bed of nails. 

And then, here I am at home. Breaking glass, and [the husband] is crawling on his knees, not judging me, not asking about last night, just picking up the mess, and I’m crying, thinking, now there’s a man who really loves me. Attentive. Attentive. Repenting for his own sins. But then I stop, and say, Bullshit. Don’t believe the lie. See? My brain is working against me. It’s saying that I’ve been a damn fool all my life to have such expectations of men. [The lover] was right. There’s nothing below the surface. But still I keep digging for the mystery. [The husband] was right, he said, This is me. I’m a simple man. But I said no. There’s more to you than meets the eye.

Sadly, I realize it’s my imagination that needs a restraining order.

But there’s hope, yet.  I’ve got the teetering side of what looks to be a balance somewhere inside me. I’m not completely lost in the darkness.  Something in me knows that there is no mystery. The mystery is that there is no mystery.  But it’s cold on that side. It’s dark. It’s stark. It doesn’t tell a very exciting story. In fact, it hurts. It’s the dead-calm voice of a man I desired last night saying, sorry, I’m just not attracted to you in that way.  And it’s the eyes of a husband saying, I may not be him, but at least I am real.

Our datin’ parts was doin’ the talkin’

About 10 years ago (yes, I was still married), I was crazy about some guy name Kirk that I transcribed an entire conversation I had had with him once— possibly for the sake of a Linguistics course. Nothing ever came of he and I. But I ended up having this great conversation. Makes me wanna go find him and have another one.





T-Oh hello.


T-Yes, it’s you.

K- Yes, your friend, Kirk. I was going through my list of missed called and I didn’t recognize your number so I figured it was you. Either you, or my loan officer.

T- Or a bill collector?

K- Yes. Something like that.

T- Well, this is actually disappointing. I’m kind of upset that you called because I just finished writing you this really great e-mail.

K- Oh. Well, yes. Please. You can still send it. I’d like to read it very much. So how are you?

T- I’m fine. How are you?

K- Great.

T- Did you just wake up?

K- Um. Yes.

T- Lucky you. I’ve been up since 5:30 this morning.

K-Oh yes. Cleaning out garbage pails, and sweeping the chickens off the porch.

I imagine you to be that kinda woman. Cleaning out gutters and stuff. Doing woodsy things. Wearing overalls, and a flannel shirt.

T- Yes. That’s me. I don’t even shave my armpits.

K (Laughs). Well, that’s real nice. I don’t shave mine either. Looks like we have something in common.

T- Yes. I believe we do. So, I guess we could maybe get together some time?

K- Well, yes. That’s why I called. What are you’re plans today?

T- Well, today, no. Today is bad for me.

K- Oh, yes. I understand.

T- I have like three kiddie parties to go to.

K- Three what?

T- Kid parties? You know, children? Like I’m going to slip into a clown suit and go to a party with kids.


T- I’m just kidding.

T- SO we could go into Philly, unless you feel more comfortable out of the city.

K- Oh, well, yes. I’m in Princeton during the week, and during the weekends, I’m in Philly. But what would be less driving for you? I don’t want to make you drive too far.

T- Philly’s good for me. It doesn’t really matter. It’s probably best in Philly. So, do you live in, like, two places?

K- hesitates. I summer in Philly.

We laugh.

K- I winter in Princeton.

T- OK. That’s very lucky of you to have so many places to live. No children. Nice little job. Free spirit.

K– Laughs. I once used to have to take care of a child.

T- Your own?


T- Do you have children?

K- Well, that depends on what you mean?

T- Did you plant the seed and create someone?

K- No. Nothing like that. I have no children, like that. But, I, umm…

T- Oh, I almost forgot. You’re biologically inconsequential.

K- Increasingly.

T- Oh. Careful. When you say stuff like that to me, I know where it comes from.

K- (Embarrassed.) Oh gosh. Yes. That’s where it’s from. I can’t believe you remember that.

T- Well, that’s the pivotal word in that piece. What kind of a literary critic would I be, if I didn’t remember that word. I would hope that you’d trust me…you know…to, uh.

K- Yes, trust you. I do. To what?

T- To place your work.

K- Yes. Oh yes.

R walks in and yells that I’ve left the door open. Wonders why I’m in the garage talking on my cell. Good question.


T- Um, I can’t really talk now.

K- Oh, I understand.

T- Can I maybe e-mail you on Monday what I wanted to e-mail you and we’ll go from there?

K- Yes. But I won’t be in on Monday.

T- Don’t tell me your company is giving you off for Martin Luther King’s Birthday!

K- Yes. I will be observing the good Doctor’s birthday.

T- Oh gosh. Well…then I’ll write you something on Tuesday.

K- OK, but I might not be able to respond right away.

T- Oh. I see. Well…

K- But, no. I would like to hear from you.

T- Okay. Then I’ll send you a mail and we’ll continue talking about it then…

K- Wait. I don’t understand. So, what is it that’s expected of me on Tuesday?

Am I supposed to answer a bunch of questions?

T- laughs. Yes. I have a form you’ll need to fill out before we can proceed.

K- laughs. So then, it can wait until Saturday?

T- Yes. Most of what I have to say can always wait.

K- OK then. Well, I have a couple kiddie parties on Saturday morning, but we’ll meet after that.

T- Perfect. Because that’s generally nap time around here.

K- Yes, that’s right. I knew that.







Letter to B

Dear B,

First of all, it was VERY difficult for me to read your work objectively because I know the story so well. Over all, it’s very YOU. Your voice comes through and the emotions of Ann are very true to how you felt them. But i think this is the trouble. I think (and we’ve discussed this before) that you wrote it too closely to how you lived it. If i read this completely objectively (or try to), Tom is using Ann. He could care less about her. You can add things like his tenderness to the mix, but overall, you haven’t convinced me that he’s looking for anything but a fling. Not only that, but he’s brutal. He bruises her. He knocks her off the bed. He shoves her. He doesn’t look at the care she took in selecting her undergarments, he sleeps through all the noise she makes, until he is directly addressed. He doesn’t TALK to her at all. Basically, the reader will define him as a beast. That being said (and all that is FINE, until…), you then try to add a touch of personal, deep, tender sentimentality by drawing on the fact that Ann’s husband recently died. When you give her this sort of complex emotional issue but throw her into bed with someone who is clearly using her for sex, it undermines the dynamics between the couple. It makes him look more like an ass and it makes her look foolish, used. I know (as we have talked about your plans for this piece) that you wanted it to be more of a feminist thing, where she is trying to experiment and “find herself” by being fly-by-the-seat-of-her-pants by having a fling. I know that Ann is back in the “singles” world and doesn’t really know how to be or what to do. But you don’t give her enough admirable qualities. The allusion to the bruises is stellar. But when she “snuggles” with him at the end, I cringe. By then, I am embarrassed for her. 

I’d really like to see you take this piece further, I would definitely like to see more character in the characters. I don’t really know them. I want to know them. I want to know more about HER. It’s OK that he is brutal. And i like that about him. But she is the one that i need to know more about so that I can have either sympathy, empathy or hope for her- not humiliation. I don’t think that was your intent. 

This one is for you


I have seen the look of want in your eyes and so i took you to my room last night where i dreamed up dreams of devouring consequences. We were out to dinner. You in a suit. Me in a vintage cocktail dress, heels with straps around my ankles. You ordered french wine for the table because you recalled that I lived in France back in the eighties. Cliche. But polite.

It was mention of the fact that you knew tiger lilies could be eaten that undid me.

I suddenly saw you in a new light. Not that deadpan, emotionless, punctured soul you come off as being, day by day, in the drabness of your conventional life. But a sensual man. Unafraid of the world and the knowledge that we are all so delicate. 

Besides, your eyes screamed: I am lonely. I haven’t had a home-cooked meal since last December when she left me for that fuck. 

We didn’t go out dancing. Or see a movie. We ate and talked and talked and talked, sitting across the table from one another. I watched your lips, mostly, glide across a set of perfect teeth. I measured the possibility of your kiss.

And when there was that moment, late into the night, sitting in your car listening to Grace Jones’s La Vie en Rose, parked outside my house, the burden of newness no longer upon us. When we arrived at that place that comes instinctually between new lovers, to kiss or say good night, I reached out the tips of my fingers and drew an imaginary line toward the door, and said, come in.