Friday, December 2, 2005

Writing in Gotham


The enthusiastic words were printed on a worn piece of translucent computer paper, one thick crease running through its center, attesting to the thousands of sessions and people before me that had read the greeting. The paper, in turn, was taped to a finger-smudged glass door—the entrance to a fancy Gramercy Park elementary school.

This was my first attempt at any sort of post-collegiate organized writing instruction. I had dressed up for the occasion, deciding to wear a silk pencil skirt, fitted black wool sweater and stilettos. I can still hear the heels clicking on the linoleum floor of the skinny little hallway. I felt too tall, inappropriate—as if my head was going to pierce the corkboard squares of the low-lying ceiling. Cut-outs of 5 year-old hands decorated the walls.

With my usual healthy dose of egoism, I had placed myself in “Advanced II Creative Writing,” classroom cap, 15 people. Shit. There was going to be no blending in with the masses if the masses were a mere handful of people. Why had I chosen the advanced class? Why wasn’t I drinking a nice Cote du Rhone at “Pastis” on that blisteringly cold January night instead of affixing a nuisance of a nametag to my nice sweater? But, somehow, I maintained the broad smile, thanked the woman at the makeshift registration desk and pressed the “Gotham Writers” pass into the palm of my hand. Here we go…

I stepped in the door and it was like all the classrooms before and smelled like Elmer’s glue, worn wooden floors, chalk dust. The people, however, were much different. There were no overly-dressed, self-conscious twenty-somethings like myself. I quickly took in the group before me: a graying seventy year-old woman, a pocket-sized man in Converse sneakers and a bad leather jacket, several frumpy, middle-aged men, a tall, pretty woman with a strong face and broad smile, a strawberry-blonde in her early forties with a classic, unforgettable face (delicate silver jewelry on her ears, wrists and fingers). I felt silly in my SoHo get-up so I slid into some 8 year-old’s desk and began pulling out a multitude of pens, pencils, notebooks—anything to distract myself from the hell that was sure to come. Two minutes until class was to begin. The class grew quiet. Pencils sliding across desks, papers shuffling, one loud clock ticking…the door creaked open.

“I hope you didn’t come for praise,” the man’s voice boomed as he crossed the threshold and strode to the front of the class. He commanded attention and moved to sit at the teacher’s desk, but, certainly he couldn’t be the instructor, I thought. The man was gorgeous with a full head of curly dark hair, a perfectly pronounced Roman nose and chiseled jaw. “I’m not here to tell you what’s good about your writing, I’m here to fix what’s bad. If you have a problem with this, go back down to the registration desk and get your refund. Now.”

With a face like that, he could shred the chapters of my life story and I would still come to back for more, I thought. I settled myself into the miniature desk and began to imagine what our children would look like…

“You. What are you doing? I gave you a timed assignment.”

“Me?” I said, with widened eyes, still thinking of our blonde, curly-headed children.

“Yes, you. Five minutes and then we’re reading our passages out loud. Get to it.”

“Umm, sorry, get to what? What exactly was the assignment?” No one looked up from their furious scribbles except for the dwarf in red Converse.

“Throw the reader into the middle of a dramatic scene. No build-up, no preliminary, just action.” He smiled kindly and then hunched over his notebook with all the intensity of a physicist on the brink of discovering cold fusion.

“Thank you,” I said. And, then, I did it. I was hooked. I wrote a scene about my mother and when I went to read it aloud I almost cried. The intensity of our teacher, Peter, the dedication of my peers, the stories I had to get out, to tell to someone.

This was my day. The day I set out to become a writer.

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