I am fifty-six years old and I have gone back to college to get an MFA. The last time I slept in a dorm room was thirty-five years ago, and when I am assigned my room, I fancy myself as a nun might, plodding serenely off to an austere, chilly room in the convent. Nothing could be further from the truth, of course. Dorm rooms may be Spartan, but dorm life is not. Dorm life is noisy, messy, mysterious, and unnatural. For example, there are seven women in my room right now and one of the women is weeping, really and truly weeping. She is also drinking wine straight out of the bottle, which I have only done once in my life, just to see how it felt.
The weeper had a bad workshop today. She is crushed, so she says. Being older than her I doubt it. She doesn’t yet know crushed. Crushed is when you have to tell your children, ages eleven and twelve, that you and their father are getting a divorce. Crushed is a sister with a lupus. Crushed is all four days of Thanksgiving weekend alone.
But I listen and put on my sympathy face. This is something I excel at. Being a Virgo, one of my main attributes is that I empathize with others. People want to tell me everything, even complete strangers, especially complete strangers. They zero in on me with laser-like precision, even on a bus. Even when I stare intently at a fire hydrant and pointedly display body language not conducive to starting up a conversation.
The Weeper swigs another gulp or two out of a green bottle. Her teeth are stained red from the wine, and her fingertips are orange from Doritos. The ectoplasm in the dorm rooms has invaded us and made us revert. We have left everything behind for ten days to learn to become writers, but instead we have become college students. Besides the drinking and the eating of junk food, we also use foul language constantly. And these are people (myself included) who do not normally talk in the lingo of drunken sailors (not to disparage that group).
We say things like, “It’s colder than shit.” Or, “It’s fucking freezing.” Or, “These are fucking great chili fries.” No shit. We are like enlisted men on leave, only our leave is from our families and jobs. We have had to be good for so long, and now no one is watching.
. . . . .
We sit and drink and share our stories. One woman’s husband left her for another man. In twenty years of marriage, including two now-teenage children, she never knew he was gay. We have a new game we play with her now, this woman we have only just met. It’s called “gay or not gay.” A gay woman in our group had a partner leave her for a man also, kind of a reverse of the other situation. Her big question to the group one night (we were drinking of course) was, “How many of you here have been with another woman?” Being women, we all looked at one another shiftily and then a hand went up. Nervous laughter. Two more hands. I wasn’t shocked, although I’ve never had the urge. To each his or her own, I say. Mine is the opposite problem. Chug-a-lug.
I am second oldest of our entering class of twenty-three, a fact which makes me both nervous and cocky. At my stage in life I have nothing to fear and nothing to lose. We new students travel in packs, just like we used to back in the day. We gossip about the younger women who sashay their saucy asses and bare breasts about, even in this glacial hell. I feel sorry for the mistakes they will make that we have already made.
Rumors fly, but not about us.
. . . . .
We complain about the dining hall food, but we eat a lot of it. Things we would never eat at home, because we are always on diets. Waffles with purple syrup, biscuits with gravy, chocolate pudding with whipped cream, breaded cutlets of some brown meat or another. We huddle together over this inappropriate food, nervous, eager, and yearning. We are so obvious.
. . . . .
In line for breakfast I found myself next to a Literary Legend. I thought to myself I am eating pecan pancakes with a literary legend! The thought made me hyperventilate a little, like I’d just sat down on a carnival ride that I knew was going to turn upside down in a minute or two.
Of course, I wasn’t really eating pecan pancakes with the literary legend. He sat with the teachers, the real writers, and I sat with my new best friends.
Literary Legend can kiss my fucking ass, says The Weeper. He is her workshop leader.
. . . . .
I may or may not have sent the following e-mail to my children: Hi guys, I’ve started my new writing program. You would be so proud of me! I thought of you both while I was in the parking lot of the state liquor store yesterday afternoon loading up the trunk of my car with various boozes for my dorm-mates. I thought, “If my son and daughter could see me now, loading up the car with booze to take back to the dorm…” At least none of us is underage! Love – Mom
. . . . .
The workshop is the main topic of conversation here. As in, “Have you been workshopped yet?” Or, “I’m a fucking wreck. I’m being workshopped today.” Or, “My workshop proved what I knew all along – I am fucking piece of crap.”
The workshop is the mainstay of programs like this. Where your work is read and commented on by your teacher and the other students in your workshop. Out loud. While you sit there silently, looking like you care what they say. When you are really thinking I’ll show them all when I win the National Book Award.
As I mentioned, a bad workshop can cause a person to drink wine straight out of the bottle. I saw this with my own eyes. And so much more I saw. I wrote it all down.
The essays and short stories of Kathy Stevenson have appeared in an eclectic array of magazines and newspapers, including The New York Times, Newsweek, Red Rock Review, Chicago Tribune, The Writer, Philadelphia Inquirer, South Boston Literary Gazette, Los Angeles Times, Clapboard House, and many others. Kathy is a frequent contributor to newsworks.org, the online news source for WHYY (NPR) in Philadelphia. She earned an MFA from Bennington College. A link to her essays can be found at: www.kathleenstevenson.blogspot.com