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The Workshop
A Story in Ten Parts
by Brian Dear

Originally posted in the WELL's writers conference, 20 Jun 2002

[Part 1]

Jodie Rhodes is a literary agent based in La Jolla, CA. I learned recently that she runs a weekly writer's workshop, a small intimate setting but open to the public, and so last night I decided, what the heck, it's open to the public, fine, I'll take a chance and attend. So I went.

Oh God, what a mistake.

I show up at this apartment/condo complex, find her building, walk up the stairs to her door. I knock. Someone opens the door. As the door opens, I can see a group of people sitting in the living room area. They're all looking at me. It's like I've just walked into the waiting room of a dentist's office. Strike that. A psychiatrist's office.

Nobody says hello. I walk in, and people go back to talking to each other. I pause, still standing, and ask, "Um, is this the Jodie Rhodes workshop?" Someone says yes. I turn to my left and see that over in the dining room area, there's an old lady is seated at a messy table stacked with papers. She's woofing down food from a plate in front of her. Her mouth full, she says, in a gravelly, cranky, I've-seen-it-all voice, "oh you must be..." and I say my name.

"Did you bring your $20?" she says.

"I brought a check."

There's a bespectacled old lady on the couch. I don't know if this couch lady is Jodie Rhodes, or what, but she takes my check, and puts it on a side table where I see a pile of crisp $20 bills.

Minutes pass. I notice everyone's seated clutching laser-printed, double-spaced manuscripts in their hands. The heavyset woman sitting to my left begins chatting with the old lady on the couch. They're talking about movies. The old lady never goes to movies anymore. The heavyset woman is surprised, and says she goes often. The old lady says current movies are too violent. Then she says she has 1300 movies, on videotape, at her home. The heavyset lady is stunned. "Thirteen hundred movies?" The old lady says they're movies from the thirties, forties, and fifties. She says, "there's no swearing" in the old movies. Unlike current movies, she says, "I'm too old for that shit," and laughs.

[Part 2]

A knock at the door. The heavyset woman seated next to me is closest to the door, and she gets up and opens it. Another woman comes in. Everyone recognizes her, and says hello. She immediately sits down. In the heavyset woman's chair next to me. The old lady on the couch points out that that chair is taken. She gets up and gets another one.

The woman in the dining room is still chomping away, shoveling food into her mouth. I look at my watch. It's seven p.m. The woman gets up, takes her plate to the kitchen, and washes it in the sink. She then comes over to a big comfortable chair that's been reserved for her. Apparently this is Jodie Rhodes. She looks to be about seventy. She's wearing a longsleeve shirt and an old pair of gym pants. No shoes. She immediately reminds me of the piano teacher I had for seven years while a teenger. Once again she checks that everyone has paid their $20 before she starts. Then she says we can start.

To her left is the old lady on the couch. She says something like "four". The man on the couch seated next to her says "five". A young man to his left says "three point five." A t-shirt wearing, hacker-type dude to his left says "six". To my immediate right, an elderly man wearing khakis and a blue cotton shirt says "four".

All eyes turn to me.

It's like a secret code. I don't know what my number is. I say, "Sorry, I have no idea what you are all talking about."

Jodie Rhodes grumbles impatiently about how you're supposed to say how many pages you've brought to be critiqued tonight. I say, well, I made copies of the first few pages of my proposal and also the first few pages of chapter one.

Jodie is annoyed. I've apparently broken the rules. Her body language is scolding me as if to yell, "how can ya eat yer pudding if ya don't eat yer meat!?" No, no, no, this won't do at all, she's saying to me. I tell her geez ok fine I'll read the first six or so pages of my chapter one. She looks at me and mumbles something about if we have time, maybe.

The women to my left say their numbers, and then we're back to Jodie. She picks the older gentleman sitting to my right. He hands her a cassette tape, and passes out copies of a few pages of his manuscript. He begins reading.

[Part 3]

There is no explanation of what it is he's reading from. Apparently I'm the only one in the room that thinks this is strange. I'm not sure what his work is, but it sounds like fiction. Something about a group of American soldiers from World War II, who have time-traveled back to 1100 A.D., the time of the Crusades. They meet up with a "German Knight" named "Giliad" or something. The knight and the soldiers converse in an idiomatic, black-and-white-combat-GI-movie-dialog fasion. It strikes me as strange that a) a knight from 1100 A.D. would speak English, and b) would speak it in the same "yo, pass me a cigarette" style as the soldiers. The knight asks the soldiers about what and why they're fighting. The soldiers respond with a long speech about America fighting for "democracy". I tune out.

When the old man finishes, Jodie Rhodes reaches over to the tape recorder and attempts to insert the cassette. She has some trouble. She eventually gets it right. But now she's unable to get it to record. With her spidery, bony fingers she presses down hard on two buttons on the left side of the portable recorder. They won't go down. She tries a few times, and they finally go down. I know tape recorders, I begin to think, and damned if she didn't press PLAY and STOP together. I'm thinking, I am not going to get a taped critique tonight. Jodie doesn't know what she is doing...

She looks at me and says, normally we go around the room and everyone critiques the author's work and then I add my comments. But you can pass if you want, since you're new and you don't know what's going on.

I tell her, "Oh, I have comments!" (I didn't come all this way, pay $20, to say, "pass," lady!) And so I briefly say that I was confused by the dialog and that it sounded false. No way would someone from the 10th century speak that way. And what's this about "kilometers"? Why would a knight speak of distances in such units? Did kilometers exist back then? I rant for a minute or two more, and then indicate I'm finished.

Jodie smiles and says, "You're cool! Good comments! Glad you came!"

Then the heavyset woman next to me says, "Pass."

The woman to her left shares her comments. Around the room we go, more comments. When everyone's done, Jodie reaches for the recorder and rests it on the arm of her chair.

[Part 4]

She then gives her comments, echoing much of what's been said, and suggesting (correctly, I thought) that the author go to the library and read other time-travel books so he understands how different people from different times would interact with each other in a believable way.

Everyone passes their manuscript copies back to the old gentleman next to me. Jodie takes the tape out of the recorder, and marks some notes on a sheet of paper she's holding.

I'm beginning to figure out how this workshop works. I think.

She picks another author to read. It's the heavyset woman next to me. Why she picked her, I'm not sure. I was hoping she'd pick me, since they'd been going clockwise around the room with the critiques, and I was the next person after the old gentleman. Maybe the reading order is determined by the order in which people arrive. I arrived at ten minutes to seven, early, I thought, but I was the next-to-last person to arrive. So many people race to get here early so they can go first? I have no idea.

So the heavyset woman passes her pages out. The first page is page 4, of what I assume is chapter one of her book. She gives Jodie a cassette tape. She begins reading.

This time, we're in a school. The writing sounds like something a child would say. It's the first-person story of a five-year-old girl and her four-year-old brother. She describes, in painfully accurate detail, what life is like for little children on their firstday of school. The teacher's dialog is in "now, class, stand in single-file line" tones that suddenly bring back many memories of my own first-grade experience. Trite memories. Yes, this is exactly how it was, but, why should we care? Page after page goes by, while we learn how the teacher instructed the class to do this, do that.

I'm not getting any of this. I begin to wonder what's going on. The woman next to me continues to read: now the other students are calling her names and picking on her. And now we see how they're beating up her little brother. Then they go home. They're sad. More bad things happen. No mommy.

I tune out.

[Part 5]

She stops reading, and we go around the room, the lady to her left starting the critique, meaning I'm last. Everyone praises her. Says she's come so far. Says how they were so moved by the scene of the children coming home.

My turn. I ask, "Um, I'm not sure who this was written for. Is this fiction? A novel?"

Jodie Rhodes says, "It's a memior."

I say, "Ok, a memior. But I'm not sure what the target audience is. Is this for adults? Young adults? Children? It reads as if it's written for children. Is that intentional?"

I ask, shouldn't there be some dramatic tension in the long scenes about mundane life in a first-grade classroom? I said, "When you say that you peeked over the wall and saw the other kids beating up your brother and calling him names, wouldn't it be more dramatic to say what the names were? Right now it's written like, "mommy mommy they beat him up and called him names."

The heavyset woman listens patiently to me. Her face is bright red. I think she thinks I am beating her up and calling her names.

I stop.

[Part 6]

Jodie has her turn now, once again comments on my insights and expresses her pleasure that I have chosen to attend this workshop. She turns to the heavyset woman. Says she's come a long way. She says how much she was moved by the final scene of the children coming home. I'm not moved. I start rereading the last page, but everyone is passing their copies back to the author, so I pass my copy back too.

The next reader's work is much better. Well-written, needing a lot of editing, but there was a real story this time, refugees in a Italian town during the Mussolini era. Vividly described. Everyone praised the author, including Jodie, remarking about how far she had come.

I begin to imagine the other workshop participants coming each week, paying their $20, reading a few pages that they've slaved over the past week to improve. Week after week after week, until they hear the words "you've come far."

I feel fear.

Next, the young man passes his work out. Garbage. A first-person story of this dude bored to tears and daydreaming in his college astronomy class, complaining about the boring instructor, remarking about all the babes seated near him, wondering why he doesn't just quit college and chase babes full time. Absolute shit. In it he complains about the constellation Orion and says he wishes he could live the life of Jimmy Buffett.

When it's my turn to comment, I mention how I'm a "parrothead", testing him. No-one in the room knows what I mean. I then mention that Orion is actually my favorite constellation and that it's really cool. Jodie laughs. I then say his work sounds like "Bill and Ted Go To College." Everyone laughs. I say I didn't see any reason why a reader would feel sympathy or relate to the narrator. Others agree.

Jodie's turn. She tears the poor guy to shreds. Says this work is garbage. Says the narrator is a lech.

The guy shrivels in his chair.

[Part 7]

The old lady on the couch is up next. "Chapter 23," her first page announces. The title of her book is apparently, "Sweet Surrender." A romance novel. To my eyes, absolute garbage. The most incredibly trite, soap-opera-ish crap you've ever heard.

The comments are polite but highly critical. Nobody cares about the unbelievable characters or the dialog. When it's my turn to critique, I say, "The dialog sounds like it came right out of a movie from the thirties, forties, or fifties."

The old lady looks at me with disgust.

I continue: "I guess I'm not a romance novel type person. I simply couldn't believe the characters or the dialog. It all seemed right out of a soap opera." The old lady fidgets and squirms in her couch seat. She waves her hand as if to say, "hurry up and wrap it up, buster, I'm not here to hear what you have to say, I wanna hear Jodie."

Now it's Jodie's turn and she tears the lady to shreds. "I point out that this stuff is garbage, you correct it, but then you bring back new garbage!" She goes on for ten minutes about how it was garbage. The old lady tried to defend herself, but Jodie keeps laying into her, like grizzled coach berating the player who missed the touchdown. It is a sight to behold.

Shortly afterwards, the old lady leaves.

[Part 8]

Others are leaving as well. It's starting to seem that as soon as an attendee had receives his or her critique, that's it, time to go. It's beginning to seem like I'm going to be picked last. Will anyone still be around?

The man seated next to the old lady on the couch is picked next.

His work is terrific! Incredibly well-done. A scene from his novel, with dialog between two young women, one a singer in a rock band, who's just learned the band has broken up.

Inexplicably, the man is the worst reader of his own work I've ever heard. Perhaps he was shy. Here was this exquisitely well-crafted dialog, passionate, heartfelt, yet his delivery was a mumbled, robotic monotone. Still, when it was my turn to comment, I rave! I tell him this reads like a great screenplay; I'm thinking it's going to be a major movie some day. He quietly says, "Thank you."

Jodie likes it too.

A while later, Jodie gets up to go to the bathroom. The apartment is incredibly stuffy, the air barely breathable by now. Someone opens the sliding glass door. It is now after 9pm. The attendees sit silently, eyes down, waiting for Jodie to return.

I ask the guy on the couch, "Your work was so great. Have you published before?"

"Oh no," he says shyly. "I'm just a wannabe writer."

"How long have you been coming to this weekly workshop?"

"Four years," he replies.

I have the fear again.

[Part 9]

We chat a little more.

He tells me that usually when the workshop goes after 9pm, Jodie takes the remaining, unread manuscript excerpts and promises to email the writer some feedback.

I think, if she tries that with me, I will climb over this coffee table, reach for my check in the pile of $20 bills, and storm right out of this godawful place.

Jodie comes back. She picks the hacker dude. He reads from his novel. It's okay, not some parts simply not believable. Characters doing or saying things that didn't make sense with the setting. This seems to be the theme of the evening.

It is clear Jodie is going to call me last, if she calls me at all. By now, most of the workshop attendees have left. Only the hacker dude and the old gentleman to my left remain.

Finally it is my turn.

I pass out three copies my manuscript excerpt. One to Jodie, one to the old guy, one to the hacker dude.

Jodie takes one look at it and gasps with horror. "This is printed single space!" she yells.

[Part 10]

"Um, no, it's double space, but yeah I guess I did eleven-point."

"My instructions specifically said twelve or fourteen point, double-spaced!" She rifles through the pages, gasping. "Oh," she moans. "Oh! No. No." She's shaking her head.

"I'll only read the first six-and-a-half pages, not all ten," I say. I'd made my chapter-one excerpt ten pages long. About 3500 words.

"No. I'll let you read..." she pauses, going through the pages again, "up to page four at that break."

The good stuff starts after the break at page four. The first four pages are mostly exposition. I am doomed.

"Since none of you know me or have any idea what I am writing, let me at least give you a little bit of an introduction," I say. "This is a nonfiction narrative book on the history of the PLATO system, a computer system you've never heard of, but it's the incredible story of the internet before there was the internet, the web and AOL before there was the web and AOL."

Jodie lets out a "ooooh" sound, suddenly fascinated. She begins paging through the pages again. She's interested.

I begin reading.

"Chapter One: The Conquest of Oldar," I say. "The minute you enter orbit around Oldar, the planet starts shooting at you and your ship's shields begin to weaken. It's the planet's way of saying, "Go away!" But to your Romulan Bird of Prey, Oldar's pot-shots are mere pinpricks. Incessant pinpricks. As long as you keep an eye on your instruments, watching that the strength of your shields doesn't drop too low, this kind of enemy fire is just a steady annoyance."

I continue reading, straight through to the point where Jodie's indicated I have to stop. While I'm reading, I notice the two remaining workshop attendees are packing their things. Squirming in their chairs. Resting their heads on their fists. Itching to get the hell out of here.

Chapter one is the story of Empire, a profoundly influential multiplayer spacewar game that a generation of Star Trek-obsessed computer gamers played all night long every night during the 1970s.

Nobody's buying it. Nobody's laughing. Nobody cares. I see Jodie stabbing the paper with her pencil.

When I'm done, Jodie reaches over and presses the two buttons on the tape recorder, and looks to the two remaining attendees. Neither of them have much to say.

Jodie tears into me. "What is this? You've described a video game!" she shouts.

"Yes, precisely. This is a game."

"Nobody cares! Nobody wants to read about a video game!" she continues, shouting, growling. "Where are the people!?"

She pauses. "This is something new. I've never encountered this before. All night you have made excellent, insightful comments on others' work. So clearly you are intelligent. But this is terrible! It's like you're two different people! How much have you written?"

I tell her half my book is done. I say that I've shown the complete first three chapters to other agents and published writers, and they loved it.

She looks at me, lowering her head into her shoulders, while her eyebrows arch. She isn't buying it.

"It's true," I say. "I'm working with an agent right now who loved the writing and told me it was brilliant and wild."

"I'm an agent and editor, and there isn't an agent or editor in the world that would buy this!" she says.

So it goes for a few more minutes. It is now ten o'clock. Everyone is tired. Jodie is grumpy, exasperated. She flat-out doesn't "get" what I am doing. She takes the tape out and hands it to me. The others hand their manuscript copies to me. Everyone gets up.

No-one is speaking.

I head to the door. "Um, well, thanks for the feedback," I say. She says nothing. I leave with the hacker dude in front of me. He says nothing.

When I get home, I look at my cassette tape. I notice it is about ten minutes into side A. I put it into my tape machine. I rewind a few seconds, then press PLAY. Nothing but hiss. I rewind some more. Hiss. I rewind all the way and play it from the beginning. Hiss. All hiss.

I was right. Jodie didn't know what she was doing.

# # #

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