First you must admit that you need one. Remember, you began writing in bed, in the dark, by flashlight, your blanket tented over your bent knees, your head. Your diary had a plastic cover, a lock with a teensy key that you always ended up losing and had to use a hairpin to open it. But your sisters, your brother, your mother (your father only read The Forward) knew that trick too, so you stashed your diary in the opening left in the back of your closet when the contractor quit. Flash forward and you decide you want to be published. You beg your privacy-violating siblings to read your work (your parents might be dead by then) but they look at you as if you are a Jehovah’s Witness showing up at their door early Sunday morning. You appeal to remote relatives, friends, countrymen to look at your work. You are a woman (or man) stranded on a rooftop; the water’s rising rapidly as you hold a sign up to the sky. Instead of “Save Me,” your sign says, “Read Me,” which, when you’re a new writer, or even an old one, is the same thing. Friends screen their calls, duck when they see you coming, waving your first drafts.
You take time off from your job, get a sitter for your kids if you work outside the home, and as if that isn’t enough money ripped from your kishkes, the two-week workshop you’re taking at a local college is nearly a thousand bucks. The other students turn out to be rich kids whose parents are rabid to say, “Yeah, my son/my daughter failed out of Dopeville U. last semester, but hey, he/she is taking a writer’s workshop this summer.” The students stagger into class late with the bleary look of muggers who spent the night with pantyhose pulled down over their faces so they won’t be chosen in a lineup. Some bring Perrier bottles filled with vodka. Others snack on brownies with suspicious graininess. One girl, the one who sits next to you, has sparkles of vomit in her hair. And then the teacher staggers in, his clothes rumpled, his speech slurred. You think, gosh the poor guy is handicapped. He should have an aide or something, but then you smell his reek—Dewars, the same scotch your aunt guzzled before she was committed. You try to get your money back, but the dean of the summer program shows you the agreement you signed when you must have been drunk. Unless you drop the class before it begins, you have to pay half the tuition. You already took time off from your work. You already hired the babysitter, so you stay. And it’s not all bad. You have a ton of time to read your work aloud because no one else has done any.
You go to a nearby adult ed class that’s made up of oldsters (or at least what looked to you like oldsters all those years ago.) All that is offered is a poetry class. Even though public school ruined poetry for you by forcing you to memorize Tress by Joyce Kilmer and it was always your turn to recite, “A tree upon whose bosom snow has lain,” you sign up. A woman reads her poem about the latest cruise she and her husband took that begins, “Roses are red, water is blue/ It’s our anniversary, year forty-two.” When she’s finished, she throws back her head, back of her hand to her forehead, and sighs, “I can’t believe I’m now a bard.” You had taken it upon yourself to read a handbook of poetry before the class began. So you say, “Perhaps you might try using some off-rhyme or eye-rhyme instead of exact rhyme.” The woman bursts into tears. The teacher raps on the desk. “We don’t comment on the work here. We just listen. This has to be a safe place for all. “Then two gentlemen, one a retired lawyer, the other a retired engineer (you know from the poems they write about their glory days in court/at their office) get into an altercation over a pen. “It’s mine. No, it’s mine.” The engineer spits at the lawyer who threatens to sue. A chair is thrown over. The teacher calls security. The class is cancelled.
Then the internet brings writing classes into your home. You don’t have to smell anyone. You don’t have to hear anyone wail over your critiques. You don’t have to duck. You are back, writing in the middle of the night, your computer lamp shining on your screen, your virtual readers eager.
(Rochelle Jewel Shapiro now teaches online writing classes at UCLA Extension)