Sunday, June 14, 2009

Ken's Class (June 2008)

There was this writing class I took in Philadelphia in the carefree 90's single days. It was called “Writing Short Stories,” and promised to introduce us to all the basic components. Plot. Characters. Dialogue. All the usual suspects.

The thing is, we were no strangers to The Short Story by then. Myself, I’d minored in fiction writing in college and had notebooks and floppy disks all over my apartment filled with fits and starts of Lorrie Moore/Raymond Carver wannabe attempts.

And my classmates were no different. There were lawyers, computer programmers, actuaries. There was even a state representative who showed up occasionally (the same one who appeared on the old "TV Nation" with Michael Moore and Crackers the Corporate Crime Fighting Chicken. Anyone? Anyone?)

We knew our writing was competent but mediocre. We needed those day jobs, and we’d given up on whatever delusions we’d had of writing as a career. But still, sometimes we just needed to step away from our cubicles and dip our toes in the creative realm again. And Ken, the teacher and ringleader, made us feel like we were writers for real.

How to describe this man? Overflowing with merriment and charisma. Laugh lines and an ill-advised mullet. Cackled at his own jokes, but most of them were funny enough that you could forgive it. Wide-eyed sincerity. He could make you believe that he was your best friend; that if you Needed to Talk he’d drop everything for you. Clearly it was fake, but not in the sleazy way it probably sounds. No. I believe it was fake with the best of intentions. I believe he really wanted to be that close with each and every one of us. He wanted to be that important in his students’ lives. Jaime Escalante of the disillusioned yuppies.

His approach to the class was thankfully more workshopy and less pedantic than the catalog described. You handed in a story when it was ready, and the following week everyone critiqued it. Aside from some folks trying to out-do each other with clever illuminations of how much something sucked, the critiques were quite helpful. And the stories were often really good. Every night after class, Ken invited us all to join him at a nearby bar that featured paper placemats with illustrated cocktail recipes.

People stayed in Ken’s class for years. They might still be there for all I know; I just Googled him and it looks like he’s still teaching it. Good for him. I took the class about four or five times myself. I wrote stories in much the same way my 4-year-old paints in preschool: with the immediate gratification of splashing color on a page, saying “Look what I did!” to a small appreciative audience, hanging it up to dry and forgetting about it. There was no purpose but the process.

Oh..and… (um… /preschool metaphor)… The guys. Those beautiful, sensitive, funny, quirky, wish-I-was-a-writer guys. There were always at least two or three crush-worthy ones, and the setting was perfect for hook-ups. You’d read each other’s stories and talk about them at the bar after class. Maybe move to a different table. Maybe walk each other home. Et cetera.
In retrospect, it must have been pretty obvious that many of us were looking for companionship. But these were the days before, people. We pretended not to notice each other’s thinly veiled desperation, because we were all in the same boat.

A friend of mine actually met her first husband in the class. Me, I didn’t fare as well. There was a promising date with a cool bespectacled 30something architect, followed by weeks of no phone calls, followed by a tolerable, reluctant one-nighter. I saw him a year later at Ken’s Christmas-in-July party (oh, you heard me) with his Laura Ashley-and-pearls-clad fiancée and he pretended not to know who I was.

There were dates and make-out sessions with a sweetly clueless 40something social worker who I probably could have long-term-relationshipped with. But something inside me slammed on the brakes. We became friends for a few years after that, but his disappointment became an overriding theme and we gradually lost touch.

And then there was the wildly insecure, emotionally sadistic 40something artist/bartender who blamed his erectile disfunction issues on my lack of appeal. He’d call me at work to break up with me, then end up trying to seduce me over the phone. He’d disappear for weeks, then show up lurking around my apartment building to kiss me on the neck. And disappear again.
You lose some, you lose some. Que será.

Ironically, while I was dealing with my motley bunch of suitors in the Writing Short Stories class, Mr. Black was taking Writing the Novel down the hall with a friend of mine. We would eventually meet at her party years later. And the rest, oh it’s just history.

Anyway. I’ve taken other writing classes since then, but nothing has come close to matching the real sense of community in Ken’s class. But lately I’ve been noticing some similarities between that class and our little Offsprung community. Think about it. Dynamic ringleader, check. Wacky group of undiscovered moderately talented intellectuals, check. We’re not desperately seeking romantic companionship anymore, but there’s still that need for creative expression and a connection with other humans who appreciate us on a different level than work or parenting allows. Hmm…

Or maybe it’s all just a bunch of stuff that happened. I don’t know. Homer sleep now.

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