Everything I Know About Telling a Good Story
And the unconventional way an introductory writing workshop at a New York university taught me.
This is a love story that is not about love. First love is wonderful, then it is hard, then it is devastating and finally it is over. That’s all you need to know about love. It’s how every love story starts and ends. But now, after being alive for 26 years, now that I have finally absolved myself of the delusion that everything happening to me is happening for the first time in the universe too, I cannot will myself to write a story about love.
Billions of people have fallen in love before me, and billions of people will fall in love after me. They have moved to new cities under the impression that they are the first to find pieces of themselves there in everyone they meet, or they have cut their finger slicing a lime to make a margarita at sunrise and somehow believed that no one had ever felt the way they did inside that moment - special. Yet, nothing that’s happened has never happened before. Now that you understand that nothing in this story is unique, I present to you a love story that is not about love.
I have written this story many times. I have torn it up and started again. I want to tell you how it really happened but I have trouble remembering because Klonopin causes long term memory loss. Or was it short term. See? I’ve already forgotten.
Certain parts are clear to me, so enduring in fact, that they have found a permanent place in my mind. Then I recount them out loud, and John tells me, no, it wasn’t like that, it actually happened differently. Yet, if these stories live in my brain as perceptibly real as the moment I’m living in now, how can I listen when John discounts them as unreliable? Memory is a fickle thing, but mine has never faltered.
Le Clos existed in a series of uneconomical buildings that occupied each corner of 68th Street and Lexington Avenue, which were all connected with Sky Bridges. The East building, which used to be a church, had been completely modernized inside, with the whitest walls and oversized Mac desktops, so big I still cannot imagine what a screen of this size is necessary for. Outside, the past. Inside, the future.
I received so much financial aid and grants to attend Le Clos that I was actually making money from the government to go to University, my financial aid surpassed the tuition cost. Every semester I pocketed close to $2,000 that was left over from my aid. I guess by New York City standards, that’s how poor we were.
At a school like this one, nobody had to asked each other who they were, they seemed to already have an understanding. I didn’t belong, but my presence was enough to convince my peers that I did. They thought I was like them.
During my sophomore year of college, I continued learning how the rich behaved so that I could too act rich. See, I was not born into any particular class and it was my decision early on in life to insinuate myself into the upper class, like a spy, so that i would have an advantageous position of attack.
I began to see myself the way that my peers saw me, well-heeled and very nonchalant about it. This was a fair assumption to pass onto anyone who was attending this particular University because it was an expensive school on the Upper East Side of Manhattan.
I had moved to a big city from a small town on Long Island, and discovered an intimate secret, a truth and purpose that allowed me to fall in love, so many times, with everyone and thing around me. But it only felt like a secret because no one was talking about it outright.
It seemed that everything happening in the world, was happening inside Le Clos, and if that was too exclusive to be true, at least inside the city of New York. When someone mentioned their past lives in Chicago, or Cleveland, the places from whence they came, Le Clos students scrunched their foreheads trying to understand. That there is life outside of Le Clos? People living. Imagine that.
At the time, however, I was 18 years old, seeing shrinks for no good reason, I went to the gym because I thought no one would like me otherwise. When I had nothing to do I smeared different products on my face, unsure what I hoped would happen as an end result. I believed that other people had a clearer idea of what they were doing, and didn’t worry so much about why.
Because of a late birthday, I was the youngest in all of my classes. I was the youngest at every job I had ever worked, because I was “ambitious.” I was the youngest at parties because I was “mature.” I had retained this feeling of being the youngest, regardless of my age.
It was only after I met John that I began to experience recurring moments of lucid clarity that contradicted this perpetual youth. Feelings I once struggled to articulate became concise words that had already done the leg work for me, so now I could survive by saying much less. I was convinced that time alone granted me this gift.
I had to take a creative writing class in my second year because I had decided at that point that I was going to major in creative writing. If you are considering doing something like this, I advise against it. You can either write or you can’t, and studying it doesn't help very much either way. If you are going to study something, study a skill, a technique. Learn how to do something incredibly well, like program a computer or engineer new technology. But don’t study writing to make money. Writing well is the furthest thing from a financial endeavor.
Creative Writing 101, as it was affectionately called, was an introductory level course. Meaning, we were a room full of freshman, unfamiliar with not only each other, but also ourselves. I was surrounded by the rarest species of people; people who were born and raised in Manhattan.
Moments later, a figure corresponding in both appearance and demeanor to my idea of an urban lumberjack, walked into the classroom, out of breath, discombobulated, and attached to the bluest pair of eyes I’d ever seen. Peeking through the square pocket of his shirt, the top of a Marlboro box. Only visible if you were really looking. Before he spoke, I noticed that he had a unique ability to cut silence with his presence alone. I was previously under the impression, that such a thing was impossible. But what did I know? I had barely been in the city for 20 minutes.
I listened to this figure introduce himself. He told us he was from North Carolina, but staying with his Uncle in the Rockaway’s for the semester. He hated taking the Long Island Rail Road, he said, which I hated too. I loved the way he said things, and how he really looked at you when you spoke, as if you were saying something incredibly interesting, even when you weren’t. He was like a child, transfixed by tiny details. Maybe that’s why it never bothered me that John was my writing professor.
The orchestration of the rest of the class was this: John asked us to sit on our desks in a circle, if we wanted, because then everyone could see each other and have a conversation. This was very bohemian, if I understood bohemian. And wasn’t it weird the way they arranged classrooms, so that everyone just stares at the back of one another’s heads and speaks into thin air? He had a point.
It was his first semester teaching as an adjunct professor in the Creative Writing MFA program. I stopped listening at this point because I started doing math, and the solution here was that if he was a first year graduate student straight from an undergrad program, he had to be as young as he looked.
John assigned This is Water and Consider the Lobster and loads more David Foster Wallace because that was his favorite. It wasn’t so much a class in creative writing as much as it was a class in John Trotta and the works he liked. I read everything through his eyes, wondering what he liked about it.
When we received our first writing assignment, which was simply to start a story with the sentence, “Who else knows about this?” and keep writing for 2 pages, John told us to text him if we had questions, for a fast response. It felt alien to call a professor by their first name but I put it into my phone that way anyway.
The next afternoon, I moved around my windowless apartment on 66th street, cell phone in hand, waiting for a message from John but I didn’t give him my number so there was no way. The ceilings were low and the kitchen wasn’t a kitchen it just existed in a corner and was called a kitchenette. Nothing suited me in New York until I realized that nothing suited anyone in New York, at which point I started accepting things like kitchenettes, brushing arms with strangers on the subway, and God, I really missed driving a car.
High on one large Americano, I ignored assignments for classes like statistics or political science, the kind you actually had to study for, and I wrote a love story called Penny and Jack for John’s class. The main character, Penny, takes her honeymoon with her best childhood friend Jack, after her fiancé backs out of their wedding the evening prior. The story mostly takes place in Stockholm.
When I read the first draft of Penny and Jack aloud in workshop the next day, John said he liked the way I wrote, he liked my voice. The idea that someone might like my voice, or that I even had one, was big news to me. I trusted that whatever he said was true, and I didn’t know a lot of people like that - the kind you can trust straight off the bat. The kind that saw no benefits to lying.
When our second class ended, I waited for everyone to leave and handed my assignment in last. John looked at the cover page with a familiar look of wonder. He asked if I noticed how Evgeny (an outspoken Russian-American student who would have been annoying if not for his ability to provoke good conversation and fill a quiet space) mentioned Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman, whom he called simply El Chapo, in every workshop, regardless of the subject. Nobody else seemed to notice this, or to think it was funny, but John and I did.
The first time John and I met outside of class, I was already sitting down at a tiny table at Grumpy’s, the coffee shop inside the Le Clos East lobby, patiently drinking an Americano without a lid, when he arrived. I didn’t know what to do with my hands. I wished I could be cryptic, but I never learned how.
I had sent him an email yesterday asking if he would meet me for a coffee so that we could talk about revisions on Penny and Jack. I wanted it to be my thesis, I told him, but I needed help firming up the characters. He said yes because he had too, it was part of his job.
“What are you drinking?” he asked without saying hello.
I had to look at the color of the drink before responding, “Americano.”
He raised his eyebrows, in a state of perpetual fascination. It seemed to interest him that I was drinking watered down espresso.
I thought it to be a grimy habit, but I craved cigarettes when I saw them in John’s pocket. This is why people start smoking, I thought to myself.
John read my revisions, he wrote in the margins. I watched him.
Finally, he asked, “What color is Penny’s hair?”
“I don’t know, blonde.”
“So she's more or less based on you?”
“Oh, no.." I laughed, looked around for someone to agree with me.
“I have face framing highlights. But I’m brunette.”
"I didn't consider that."
Penny was brash and quirky but she had my brain. While her thoughts were mine, she reacted to them the way I wished I could. Apparently young writers insert themselves into their stories without knowing they’re doing it. Maybe old writers do too. But when you’re young, it’s really obvious.
Next, John suggested that I stop using my characters names in the dialogue so much. When I asked why, he said, “Because people don’t actually use each others name in real world conversations, do they, Kalina?” And even though I understood his point, I couldn’t help but love the way he said my name.
This developed into ritual. An hour before class, John and I would meet at the same table in the East lobby. He would pay for my americano’s even though I asked him not to, I assumed maybe that was just what teachers did. I would ask him things like, what does fin de seicle mean? And he would drone on and on about the inherent evil in celebrity news magazines then send me a link to a short story from the Paris Review called When I Look at a Strawberry, I See a Tongue.
Later, I would spend hours trying to figure out what the story had to do with our conversation, and he would say that it just reminded him of something and he wanted me to read it.
Even things that repulsed me when other people did them, like talking about laundry or saying the word “mildew” seemed fine on his accord. There was never an agreement made to walk to class seperately after having coffee, but it was an unsaid understanding that we seemed to have. If we did ever run into someone from the class, we told them we were working, which technically wasn’t lying.
For this hour at Grumpy's, I had John’s undivided attention. The moment I sat down in that classroom at 12:15PM on Tuesdays and Thursdays, I was demoted to 1/15th of his experience. This went on and on for weeks until I couldn’t think of any more questions. And even after that, it went on.
Walking down Madison Avenue as a big group, on our way back from Central Park, where John would sometimes hold class for “fresh air” but mostly so he could “chain smoke,” he reached into his backpack, exposing a mess of papers, most of them crumbled or dog eared, and handed me a magazine in which he recently had an essay published, something that involved whiskey and the South and there was a gun. We had spoken about it the day before and I insisted that he let me read it.
When Evgeny looked back at us mid-sentence (something about El Chapo I'm sure) with an expression that clearly required a response, John just said, “Sorry, I’m listening,” and I liked the way I appeared through Evgeny’s eyes in that moment. Having a secret, even one this insubstantial, thrilled me.
“Do you think we could get in any trouble for this?” I asked.
“For what?” he asked.
I took this in. John had a point. Nothing had happened that was wrong or even frowned upon. We were only having coffee to talk about writing and sometimes ourselves. Something that must happen often in College.
“Nevermind,” I said, flipping through the magazine.
A week later, John and I moved our meetings off campus - to a dark bar called Lazy Point. Blackout shades on the windows that made it feel like always night time. Tiki memorabilia and exotic plants. John, alone, slouched over the far end of the bar. He was, when I walked into the bar, the only paying customer there, which meant it was either very early to be drinking, or it was a Thursday.
Seeing John there, before he saw me, was like seeing a polar bear in the dessert or a bird in the ocean. Had John always looked this out of line with the rest of the world? Or were things already shifting for me, the dumb litter of planet earth transforming into a different place altogether, where meeting your English professor for a mid day drink was normal, even a little bit funny.
A bartender with curly blonde hair and thick-rimmed eyeglasses paced back and forth every once in a while to let us know she was there. Something reggae played softly in the background.
“What are you drinking?” I examined him.
“Beer,” he said curtly, not specifying a particular brew, so I ordered a margarita with the curly haired girl using a very bad looking fake ID that a friend of a friend made last year and dropped off at Dylan’s Candy Bar in exchange for $150. It had my real name on it.
“Whats up?” I asked. John looked at me like he resented that I was asking him what was up. As if he could not fathom that I had come all this way to discuss what was up. “So a shot of tequila?” I said, clapping my hands together.
“Tell me, what are you, 20?”
“19. 20 in two months.”
He thought about this for a moment, finally assumed a defeated position. His jaw tightened.
“You can’t even drink legally.” This seemed to upset him the most.
“I can drink illegally,” I pointed out, but he didn’t laugh.
“You’re young,” he said. The implication was that this was a bad thing.
“So are you. I’m not that young. I’m a sophomore. That’s a normal age for a sophomore.”
“I hadn’t thought about it,”
“Maybe not.” Then, after a pause, “How old are you?”
“27,” he said, as if this was bad news he had received only recently.
“Right,” I said nodding, energetically.
“You don’t act like it,” he said finally.
I already knew that.
After two margaritas and half a page of editing, John finally said, “Can I ask you something?”
“You won’t freak out?”
“Okay. Just confirm you’ll take this within a certain context.”
“It’s just that…” he stopped.
“It’s just what?”
“And you won’t speak of this. Not until the semester ends, and even after that.”
Finally, he said, very gravely, “I don’t know what are we going to do.”
I blinked. “About?” The next sentence would leave me with a headache that lasted 24 hours.
“About the sexual tension between us.”
I put one elbow on the bar, rested my head in the palm of my hand. We stared hopelessly at each other for a few hours. Actual time: 30 seconds, but I would like to imagine that it took longer than that… that I had to be pursued as delicately as a valentine. But I was a restless target. What were we going to do? I closed my eyes, feeling caught under the weight of something heavy but invisible.
When I opened my eyes, I expected to be back in my bed on 66th street, waking up from a dream, disillusioned again. But I was there, across from him, drinking a sticky margarita with one hand pressed upon his knee. I leaned onto his shoulder, this was allowed now. He touched my back, this was allowed too. There was nothing to talk about, so we just sat very close together and sometimes he would say something like, “Come here,” or “It’s okay.” Existing in the same air space felt like enough.
We heard the creak of the large paneled wooden door. A couple walked in, two guys, well manicured and young, and they took their seats on the opposite end of the bar. John removed his hand from the small of my back slowly, like any sudden movements would set off a detonator.
The next morning, my skull on fire due to a hangover caused by 4 cheap margaritas, I wrote. I wrote deeply and madly and I could not stop. I wrote Penny & Jack and then I read it back through John’s eyes, the way I read everything now, imagining what he would think of certain sentences and phrases.
Tuesday arrived on schedule and I dreaded the idea of returning to a room in which other humans disrupted the space between John and I. I could barely sit there at all. Evgeny wrote a story about his girlfriend cheating on him. I didn’t read it, but that’s what I heard it was about. When it was my turn to speak, I told him that I liked it.
“Anything more constructive?” John prodded. I found it hard to look at him.
“I said…” a hint of a clench in my jaw, “That I liked it.”
“Did you read the story?”
“I read it, and I liked it,” I lied.
John turned away from me and began speaking to the room, “This class isn’t going to work if you guys don’t read the stories. Your peers are doing you the favor of reading your work and they deserve the same respect in return.”
I made eye contact with Evgeny and something weird, something a little too intimate, passed between us, so we both looked back at John.
“So this is me… officially being stern. If you haven’t read the story, don’t come to the workshop,” he said, then he dismissed the class. Students started shuffling out sullenly. Eventually the room emptied. Arms crossed, slouching deep in my seat, unmoving, I glared at him while he collected his papers.
“I’ve made everyone too comfortable,” he finally said without looking at me.
“What’s wrong with being comfortable?” I asked.
“I’m not doing my job anymore... Actually, I'm doing it badly.” He stood there deciding what to do. “I’m not supposed to be your friend.”
I don’t want to be your friend, I thought restlessly.
“This job is… important,” he said, “I have to locate some integrity.”
I unfolded my arms, stood up, straightened the desk back to it’s original position. I picked up my bag. I imagined the things I could say, inspiring myself with fantasies of power so profound that always ended with John “wrapped around my little finger.” This lasted only a moment, was followed by one minute of pure, unadulterated silence, and ended with me closing my eyes so I didn’t have to see him leave.
I wandered around the library on what was left of my morning americano. I revised Penny & Jack so that when Jack confronts Penny about their love for each other, she denies it completely and they go the rest of their lives silently loving one another. I was creating worlds in which characters suffered the same way I had suffered. That is what we were all doing.
There would be no happy endings in my stories, I decided. That would be my thing, no happy endings. I looked up and there was an eskimo looking man sliding into the seat across from me at the tiny wooden table where I was sitting, chewing a twizzler.
“Hey Evgeny,” I said.
One student at the table across from us was on this midterm study schedule that involved having a tiny loud alarm clock go off every 15 minutes.
“You look like hell,” he said cheerfully.
“I am tired.”
“Then get some sleep. Isn’t that way people do, who are tired?” He had the kind of Russian accent that didn't come from Russia - just from a Brighton Beach household with Russian parents.
Involuntarily I shook my head, realized something, then nodded. I could not help but notice, for the first time, that Evgeny had a perfectly symmetrical face.
“I got the cure for what ails ya,” he said, collecting his things. “C’mon.”
“I doubt it,” I said, laughing a little.
“I know the bartender at Lazy Point, free drinks.”
“The blonde one? With suspiciously curly hair?”
“So you’ve been.”
“Once,” I lied. “I’ve got class in an hour,” I lied again.
“How about after?”
“I’m slammed,” I said, closing the textbook I had been staring at and standing up.
“Just tell me what’s going on between you and John Trotta and save the bologna for lunch.”
No hesitation, I sat back down. I looked around the room to make sure no one had heard.
“What’s going on with me and John?” I repeated his words back to him with accusatory intonation, feigning disbelief.
“You don't want to tell me,” he said, innocently.
“Who else knows about this?” I whispered.
“You, me, John. A curly haired bartender. And God.” A pause. “You never heard stories that start with young girls dating their professors and end very badly?”
“I don’t watch lifetime television for women.”
“Forever.” (Actual time, 3 weeks).
Three drinks later at Lazy Point and before I even noticed I was telling Evgeny something like, “Hey… I know that pursuing John is batshit, but I can’t … seem to help it… I also can’t handle being in the same room as him… it’s like… I go to the class, I don't understand. So I don't go to the class, I still don't understand. Did he ever … even believe that I was --”
“Talented? A good writer?” It was a habit of Evgeny’s to guess what you were going to say, then say it with you. It didn’t mean he agreed.
“He understands…” my voice quivered, regained composure, faltered again, “We understand each other … he knows parts of me that… no one else does… he’s seen the real me… and everyone else in this school, they’ve only seen… who I’m pretending to … be…” I took another colossal sip. “Listen… I don’t come from … money… but I’ve always been… good… at pretending — “
“Do you like him?” Evgeny interrupted, “Or do you like that someone got to you?”
“I don’t understand.”
“That someone told you that you were talented.”
“You’re losing me.”
“I’m not making this up. People discovered it in the 19th century.” He was Freud in an Adidas tracksuit.
“Maybe if you let someone see you, really see you," he paused to blow some air out of his mouth in the most dramatic way I've ever seen. "The way John see’s you… then poof, John is no longer necessary.”
“Poof?” I emphasized, “What does poof mean?”
“Poof! Gone. You move on.”
“No poof. Please, no poof,” I begged.
He motioned for me to go on. In intervals, I told him everything, the meetings, Lazy Point, the sudden reversal. A part of me sensed that there were parts of my story that Evgeny already knew. I don't know why he cared but he did, and at the time it didn't strike me as curious or confusing that someone I barely knew cared about my personal life, I was just grateful that anyone at all did.
The following week was the last week of classes. It was our last chance to workshop our thesis papers, a 15-20 page culmination of all that we had learned in Creative Writing 101. Our classmates had all worked from an earlier piece they had written that semester, extending it into a longer story via our workshop. But Evgeny had written something entirely new. He was commended by John for how industrious this was.
I was grateful to have Evgeny in class. It had been lonely harboring a secret for most of the semester on my own. When it came time for Evgeny to present his thesis, I genuinely looked forward to seeing what he had written, I’d always thought him one of the better writers in the class.
“This is a love story that is not about love,” Evgeny started his piece. A terrific opener, I thought to myself. Words floated out of his mouth, sweet and round like honey, perfectly timed head tilts that matched the cadence of his voice. “First love is wonderful, then it is hard, then it is devastating and finally it is over. That’s all you need to know about love.”
Wait a second, I knew this story. What was I to do? Evgeny had changed our names but every other detail in his piece was true. It was the story of John and I. Everyone else in the room seemed to disappear. It felt like just the three of us.
In Evgeny’s recounting, the student loved the professor more than the professor loved her. In the end, they become strangers again. A happy ending had never crossed Evgeny’s mind, he said, it just wouldn’t have been believable. He had taken every detail I recounted to him at Lazy Point last week, and (amazingly) transcribed a beautiful 15 page story out of it. My first emotion was anger but my second was admiration of the Russian work ethic.
Before his story was through, I felt tears building behind my eyes. I left quickly, and kept my eyes on the linoleum floor. I didn’t know where I was going but I knew I couldn’t stay.
Seconds later and Evgeny was already trailing me.
“Lara, it’s fiction - it’s creative fiction,” he was saying.
“Oh it’s creative fiction? You wrote this piece of creative fiction to share with us? You imagined it all up in 8 days? Huh, you piece of shit?” I turned around to face him, I felt my eyes dampen.
“Nobody knows its you.”
“I know its me. He knows its me. You know its me.” That might as well have been the whole world."
“It’s not personal. It makes a great story.”
I blinked, maybe he was right. It did make a pretty good story. •