WRITERS GROUP 101: A Satiric Look at Writers Groups Everywhere
By Tom Nussbaum
Max, a spry octogenarian with mischievousness in his eye, handed the mobile microphone to the grisly-bearded, bald man. “Hold it like an erect penis and practically kiss it as you speak,” he instructed the first-time attendee.
“OK. If I have to. But I haven’t actually held an erect penis since…Oh, that’s probably none of your…. Well, my name is Leonard Watkins. I’m a just-retired plumber from Ashtabula, Ohio and my wife Gwendolyn and I just moved here. I’m not a writer, but I’ve always wanted to be. Maybe listening to your work will inspire me.” Watkins sat down as sprinkles of applause welcomed him.
“Are there any other new people?” Diana, the facilitator of the Lakeside Organization of Writers, or LOW, asked. It is a rotating position, dependent on availability, ability, and doctor’s prognosis. “Yes, over there, Max,” Diana added, directing him to an unsteady wooden picnic table across the patio. As Max crossed in front of the standing microphone facing the group, a sharp shriek of electronic feedback screeched like a banshee regurgitating a tainted potion. It ended, however, as Max neared the table and handed the mobile-mic to a rotund woman with weary eyes.
“Oh, my. It is very phallic, isn’t it?” She giggled. “Hi. Jeannie Delman from Pocatello, Idaho. I wrote a little in high school. Poems, a short story or two. I was told I was good. I even won the award for Best Poem in our literary magazine my senior year.” Pride coated her vocal cords like honey.“ But I had six kids by the time I was 30, so I never was able to follow-up on that important award.” Murmurs of laughter interrupted Jeannie. She looked confused. “Anyway, now that my kids and grand kids are spread all over the country and I’m a widow, I would like to write again.” Scattered applause followed.
“Any other newbies?” The facilitator scanned the crowd of forty or so. “No? So let’s begin. Our first reader is Graham Bjornstrom.”
A tall, broad-shouldered man in his 70s stood and slithered between several tables to the standing microphone. His wavy shoulder-length white hair waved at the attendees as he slid by. He laid several papers on the wobbling wooden podium. “I’m reading a short story inspired by an unexpected e-mail from my long lost high school girlfriend. She’s a recent widow and, well, I’ve been like a widower since my fourth wife, Lupita, ran off with the gardener’s 19-year-old son after her graduation from preparatoria.” Graham cleared his throat. “As I look back over my life of bad choices, sin, and crime,” he began, “I remember…”
Oh, this ought to be interesting, I thought. But a gurgle in my gut drew my attention away from the reminiscing Graham. I don’t feel good. I need to burp. I sat up, trying to dislodge some gas. It did not work. I didn’t belch. I need to burp, I repeated to myself. I pressed against my solar plexus. Nothing happened. Damn it. I need to burp. I looked down, vaguely hearing Graham’s voice. I studied the details of my tennis shoes, the laces, the logo, the tread, the dried dog-do.
A woman’s voice interrupted my thoughts. She was one of the younger people attending, perhaps 45. Maybe 60. “I really liked what you read, Graham. I could feel your dark joie de vivre. You have a way of combining the styles of Victor Hugo, Joan Didion, and Dr. Seuss.”
What? I thought. Are you nuts? Dark joie de vivre? And how do Didion and Seuss belong in the same sentence?
The woman continued. “But you used the phrase “domesticated quadropod” four times, apparently one for each pod. I thought that phrase was irritating the first time. You can imagine how I felt the fourth time I heard it. Why didn’t you just say ‘dog?’ Other than that, Graham, I really liked what you wrote.”
“I used ‘domesticated quadropod’ because—”
“Tut-tut-tut,” Diana interrupted. “We do not reply to critique. We simply listen. No explanations. No dialogue. You know that Graham. In fact, we’ve called you on that rule violation before. Do you want your reading rights rescinded? Now sit down, Graham!”
Diana began to review the group’s rules with frustrated impatience. I heard something about refraining from wearing distracting colors when presenting. And there was something about not calling readers a bitch or an asshole. But I wasn’t focusing on Diana’s comments. Instead, I opened the folder in front of me and tried to study the piece I would be reading later. Trepidation, however, began to set in. I’m not ready to read this in public, I thought. Besides, I don’t feel good. I need to burp.
“Our next reader is Joyce Wilmer,” the facilitator announced. Joyce, who was sitting near the podium, stood and stepped to the microphone. “I’m reading a poem written from the perspective of my dog.” She said this with excitement, as if the concept had never been tried before. Joyce began her recitation. “I think that I shall never see a poem as ugly as a flea.”
“Oh, Lord. Give me strength,” I exhaled just loud enough for the woman next to me to hear. She looked at me like my mother did when I farted during funerals. Not a fancier of poetry, I tuned out Ms. Wilmer. I looked down at my shoes again. I should have worn my brown ones, I thought, as I realized my orange argyles clashed with my blue Nikes. I closed my eyes and pretended I was listening to the canine interpretation of Joyce Kilmer’s “Trees.”
A man’s voice startled me. “Why did you pick that poem to satirize?”
“Because my name is Joyce Wilmer,” the presenter answered, her tone reflecting disbelief she was being asked that question.
It is so obvious, I thought, as a collective “Oh!” reverberated through the gathering.
The woman who had compared Graham Bjornstrom’s work to Hugo, Didion, and Seuss began to speak. “I really liked what you read,” she said. “I so admire how you were able to combine the styles of Virgil, Dante Rossetti, Emily Dickinson, and Ogden Nash.”
What? I thought as several people around me nodded in agreement. Are you people dropping acid for breakfast? I looked down and studied my presentation and gulped some air. God, I wish I could burp.
“Next we have Philip Van der Waal.”
Philip, although clearly collecting Social Security, dashed to the front of the gathering of alleged writers with the energy and excitement of a first-grader. He made no comments before reading. “See Dick run,” he began. “Dick is running with Spot. Spot is a black and white dog. They run fast. See Jane play. She is playing with Puff. Puff is a gray cat. ‘Jane,’ Dick called, ‘where is Sally?’ Jane said, ‘Sally is with mother. She is helping mother bake a cake. The cake is for father’s birthday.’”
I was stunned. What the hell? I thought. Doesn’t anyone recognize this? It’s stolen from the first-grade primer my generation used during the William Howard Taft Era. I looked around. The audience was captured by the reading, mesmerized by the reader’s words. I refocused on the presenter. “Thank you, Mother,” said father,” Philip continued. “Thank you, Sally. This is a good cake. And this is a happy birthday.”
The audience leaped to its feet, applauding and cheering. I should say something about plagiarism but, I need to burp, I told myself. Why do I feel so lousy? Am I sick? Or am I just nervous?
“Comments?” Diana asked as the ovation died down.
“Me! Me!” the woman who liked to compare writers called. Max rushed the microphone to her. “First,” she said, “I really liked what you read. It was so original! Brilliant! I’ve never heard anything like it. I can’t compare it to anything.” She spewed her praise like an erupting volcano. “You must publish that!”
Other listeners made similar comments. Finally, the founder of the group and local magazine editor, Anton Popich Kryzinsky Garibaldi Penn, spoke. “Now that is writing.” His voice cracked with emotion. “As Orb editor, I strive to include articles with appeal to the varied interests and viewpoints of all the people living here at Lakeside. But you, Philip, have finally written something that speaks to a group I have never been able to reach. Trump supporters. Many of them are just now learning to read and that was perfectly suited to them. Send it to me.”
I looked at my watch. I’ve got to be one of the next readers on the list? I thought. I could feel tension mounting inside me. I could feel nerves or something turning my stomach into a trampoline.
“Next up is Reginald Thornbush, a first-time reader,” Diana announced with a comforting smile.
Oh, hell, I thought as I stood. I felt dizzy, and wobbled weak-kneed to the podium. I laid my papers on the wooden stand. But before I read anything, my chocolate-covered donut, chocolate-filled Bismark and three-beer breakfast took one final jump on the trampoline in my tummy and covered my pages of prose and hours of creativity with murky vomit. The only word to come out of my mouth was a guttural “Bleeaaacchhhkkkccckk!”
When I came to, I was propped up on a picnic table bench and Diana was dabbing my forehead with cold water. The microphone stand lay next to me, pinned to the patio by the podium like a spindly freshman high school wrestler crushed by a heavyweight senior. I could hear whispered voices near me. They’re concerned about me, worried that I will be OK, I thought. They’re all so nice, so supportive.
“Philip was wonderful,” a woman bubbled in a hushed voice. “From the perspective of her dog. Brilliant,” a man praised. “I can’t believe Graham poisoned Lupita and that 19-year-old punk.” But in the distance, through my mental fog, I could hear a woman gush into a microphone, “I really liked what you read.”