I sit alone in my writer’s sanctuary, high atop the house, squirreled away from all distractions. My fingers tips beat a lively tattoo on the keyboard. Klickety-klack-klack-clickety. It seems like weeks since I felt the sun’s golden rays. Klack-klackity-clickety-klack. But it’s totally worth it. Uninterrupted, autonomous creative freedom and my powerful short story‘s almost finished. Klackity-clickety-clickety-klack. It’s a masterpiece and can’t wait to see it published. My phone rings, the typewriter bell ringtone interrupts my musings. I look at the phone. Oh, it’s Friend. Great timing. I can tell him I’m almost finished. “Hey, what’s up, Friend?”
“So you’re alive.”
“Very funny. I’ve just been busy.”
That’s why I called,” Friend sounds cheerful, “wanted to tell you I joined a writers group. I think it might be good for you too. You can share your short story with them.”
“Why would I want to do that? “
“To get out of the house for one thing,” Friend chuckles.
“Well, good news is, I’m almost finished, and it’s great!”
“Perfect, because I thought you might want to get some feedback.”
“Feedback? Who’s going to give it to me? Did you join a professional writer’s group? Is an agent there?”
“No, not professionals, just regular folks, you know, your reading public. We all like to write and share with each other.”
I’m not interested and try to blow him off, but he insists. The only way to shut him up is agree to go to his damn meeting.
Next day Friend picks me up. He makes dumb jokes about my looking like Howard Hughes, as we drive to the local Library. At the front desk we stop to make copies of my story. I follow Friend into a small room with a big conference table, surrounded with chairs. Half of them are empty when we take our seats. I look at the other people, a couple of senior citizens, an attractive middle-aged woman, and two millennials. They smile. I smile. Then a woman who looks about sixty, enters with an aura of authority and sits at the head of the table. Friend introduces me to Moderator.
“We’re so pleased you could join us and read tonight.” Moderator smiles.
I feel uncomfortable. It’s been a long time since I sat with a group of strangers, let alone share my creative efforts in public. My fingers drum nervously on the stack of paper. Moderator introduces everyone and says, “Go ahead, Author. Pass around your copies and begin reading,”
Nervousness evaporates when I start. “The Golden Years.” I clear my throat. “Richard thoughtfully grimaced, pondering the terrible weight of the world, he stared through rain spattered panes of dirty glass at trees blowing back and forth, bending beneath the angry wind; all the while he worried deeply about his uncertain future.…” The group follows along as I read with all the feelings that I poured into my powerful short story. As I read I notice some people taking notes, which makes me nervous and my voice falters briefly.
A half hour later I finish. Hearing my prose read aloud I feel even better, confident my fabulous work will soon appear in a literary journal. I look around. The only sound in the room is rustling paper, as the others just sit there, flipping through pages, and making notes. When no one offers me any praise, my stomach goes queasy.
Moderator breaks the uncomfortable silence. “Sounds like a very interesting story…” I wait, feeling nervous, like asking a beautiful girl to the senior prom. “But … who is your audience?”
The question stops me. I hadn’t really thought much about it. “Well … I guess anyone.” I watch her make a note.
Senior One speaks up in a soft voice, “I have a question on page three,” everyone flips their papers, “third paragraph…. Twice you mention Fred.” She looks puzzled. “Who’s Fred?”
“He’s the mean landlord that nobody likes. He motivates Richard, the main character.”
“How do we know that?” Senior Two asks.
“It’s Richard’s backstory.” Defending my work I speak too fast.
“I didn’t read any backstory,” Millennial One says, scanning the pages.
“Well, I know what’s going on. I didn’t think I had to explain it.” There’s a tingly feeling in my face. I hope I’m not blushing.
“As the reader,” Middle-Aged Woman chimes in, “I’m kind of lost not knowing why Richard reacted so strongly.”
“I think that’s obvious. His wife just walked out on him.”
“Where’s that?” Millennial Two queries. “Did I miss something?”
“No, it’s not in here, I left it out because I knew Richard would be upset. After all, his divorce was really messy—”
“How do we know that?” Moderator asks.
“You have secret knowledge,” Senior Two adds, “that the reader can’t possibly have.”
“Don’t you get it?” Obviously they don’t. I better explain what’s going on. “Okay, here’s the deal. Richard was married to Carol for five unhappy years. Then things went bad because Carol was having an affair with his best friend, Armando.” As he speaks he looks at each person around the table. “When Richard found out, he got so depressed he stopped going to work. When he didn’t pay his rent, Fred, the mean landlord jumped all over his case and wanted to throw him out. That’s when Richard figured he should call his ex-girlfriend, Barbara. He thought if she was available he could move in with her. That way he could save his money for his long-dreamed of trip to Alaska and go prospecting for gold.” I sat back, feeling satisfied that I cleared up all confusion.
“O-o-k-a-a-y…” Senior Two says, raising an eyebrow.
I see other people with puzzled looks flipping pages.
Moderator puts down her copy, removes her black-rimmed glasses, and rubs her nose between thumb and forefinger. “You say Richard’s backstory and the angry landlord motivate Richard’s decision to go … gold prospecting in Alaska?”
“Yes. Now do you understand?”
“Well … not really.” She looks down, tapping her pen. “I also don’t understand how any of this relates to what you say about Richard’s mother on page six.”
I look at the page. “Oh that. I was thinking, because she’s a widow, that’s why she offered to cook—”
“But cook for who? Richard?” Moderator asks.
“Well, yeah. I thought that was clear. She’s going to cook for him and plans to drive with her son to Alaska, because there’s nothing holding her back anymore. After all she’s been retired—”
“How old is his mother?” Senior One asks. “I thought she’s a middle-aged woman, because Richard sounds like he’s maybe twenty.”
“Gosh no,” I say, feeling put upon by all these pesky questions. “Richard’s forty-five and his mother’s almost seventy. She always wanted to go to Alaska and prospect for gold, so now she’s going to live out her dream through her son. Don’t you see? That’s how the title fits in, you know, The Golden Years? Get it?” I look around at the bewildered faces. Why don’t they get it?
Friend leans forward on the oak table to address Author. “I’m a little confused on page fifteen. I don’t understand what the elephant has to do with anything.”
Et tu Brute? Friend, of all the people in the room he should know the symbolic meaning of the elephant. I sigh, set my story down, and fold my hands over the papers. “Symbolism. Why it’s as plain as the nose on your face, Friend.”
I guess for emphasis he rubs his nose and continues. “What does an elephant have to do with the rock band?”
“Oh come on, Friend. How many times have I told you I like to use symbolism?”
Friend grows testy. “How does that help me understand this story?”
I look down, feeling attacked, forcing myself not to get up and walk out of the room. Who are these people anyway? What do they know? I bet they don’t even write. They probably just read a lot. Do I have to draw them a picture? “Of course all of you have heard the expression about the elephant in the room.” I look around and see my audience nodding slowly. “Good. So now you understand.” I smile, lean back with my palms behind my head. But, I quickly realize by their expressions they still don’t understand. I sit up straight. “I’ll spell it out for you.” I practically spits the words slowly, like speaking to a child. “When Richard sees the elephant in the circus truck pass by his apartment window, while his favorite rock band plays Too Phat to be an Elephant on his iPod, he instantly sees it as a metaphor for the terrible struggle in his life. He can no longer ignore the central point of conflict he must overcome. His crisis, that which drives him toward his goal. He’s very worried, because he can no longer ignore the elephant in the room. He afraid he doesn’t know how to tell his mother—”
“Tell his mother what?” Middle-Aged Woman asks impatiently.
“He doesn’t know how to tell mother he hates her Tuna Wiggle casserole.” Author scans the faces for a glimmer of recognition. “Don’t you see?”
Moderator looks around and fixes her gaze on Author. “You seem to be spending a lot of time explaining your story—”
“Isn’t that why I’m here?”
“Not really. We’re here to help each other by providing critique on our writing,” Moderator explains. “I want to improve my writing. How better to do that then ask people to tell me what they think and point out what’s wrong? All writers have the secret knowledge about their own story. Readers aren’t mind readers. We’re clearly confused about a number of points in your story.” Moderator taps her index finger on the pages. “I should be able to read this,” she picks up her copy and shakes it, “with no explanation from you and know why Richard hates his mother’s Tuna Wiggle and why that’s important to a story about a man going to Alaska with his seventy-year-old mother.”
Slowly her words penetrate like WD-40 on a rusty hinge. Maybe there’s something to what she’s saying.
“We’ve found that all of us sometimes get too close to our work.” Moderator continued. “If you have any hope of publishing this story, it won’t happen if you confuse the editor. Sharing with others is a way to break from the isolation of writing.” Moderator smiles at me.
A light goes on in my head. Now I understand why Friend wanted to bring me. It doesn’t matter that none of these people are professional writers or agents. They’re my potential readers and it’s obvious my story’s confusing them. I nod my head slowly. “You’re right. Working alone, I’m too close to my story and this is a good opportunity to test read my work before I send it to anyone for publication.” I grin. “Appears I need to do some serious rewriting.”
“I hope we’ve been helpful,” Moderator says.
“Yeah. And I’ll bring back my rewrite so you can find out the truth about Tuna Wiggle.”