A couple of weeks ago, I went to the Surrey International Writers Conference, which is not the same as the Surrey Internal Writers Conference, which is what I keep typing and which sounds like something from a Catherynne Valente story and hence something that I would very much like to be part of and which also reminds me of some sort of shadowy grad-school memory of hearts autopsied to reveal gems embedded in them or little poems about Jesus. (Sometimes I sharply pine for those deeply odd Californian days, during which I would spend hours not surfing but wrestling with medieval oddities involving wombs and maps and saints and terror. Motherhood in the suburbs has, of course, only the terror to recommend it. I digress. BUT ONLY SORT OF. Read on.)
Back to Surrey.
In front of me at the Master Class led by Donald Maass was a woman who nearly made me lose control of my bladder. (Those of you under 40 or childless might not understand. The rest of you? Yeah, you know what I'm talking about.)
This woman, built like a cathedral, struck terror into my heart. Instantly. It was like love at first sight except for the part about it being a cold visceral chill. Hmmm. Maybe a lot like love at first sight. I'm actually fascinated by these "at first sight" moments, mostly because I'm pretty much always wrong. If I hate someone at first sight, I wind up marrying them (or promising to do so, another story for another time--or three) or realizing that they're the best friend a teenaged girl being threatened with boarding school could ever have. Love at first sight? That equals RUN RUN BRAVE HEART, RUN LIKE THE WIND.
Crap, I'm digressing again. It's little wonder I cannot write my way out of this novel in progress.
SO: buttress lady, terror. Why? you might ask.
It wasn't the way her chair kind of moaned "help me," not the pencils jabbed into her unkempt half-updo, not even the purple terrytowel sweatshirt that reminded me of the very late 1970s. Who doesn't have one of those?
It was because she reminded me of my homicidal grad-school stalker.
Here's the poop: UC Davis, California, 1989. I'm walking with my pal along one of the jasmine-scented pathways that make Davis its perfect hippie self when in a heartbeat I go from being a regular old just walking along minding her own business kind of person to a sprawled upon the pavement, all limbs akimbo plus also her neck, books strewn everywhere, and being looked down upon by common geese kind of person. That's quite the transition. The perp? A solidly built female, clad in a camoflage jacket, on an old-fashioned Garry bicycle. She didn't stop to see if I was okay. Val and I laughed it off and then went about our day of being very serious graduate students, scoffing at people's delusions about Foucault and grading very harshly those among our students who split their infinitives. Such were the preoccupations of the philosophically anxious.
I was to become more anxious still. Over the next five weeks, Lumpy McCycleston wiped me out four more times, all over campus. Rising groggily from the pavement, all I registered in each instance was a purposeful set of shoulders and air-fluffed hair that could have done with a foil treatment and maybe three inches off the ends.There was something about her determinedly pumping legs as seen from behind and from the ground that reminded me of animated dinosaurs--not the plant eaters, the big awful snarling rippers of bronto flesh kind. The fear I felt was cold and true--and the hilarity of the situation only intensified the sickness in my stomach; if she killed me, finally, or paralyzed me, or ruined my peaches and cream complexion with a road rash, it would be only a story sniggered in bars by beery undergrads. So much for intellectual ambition--I was marked as a campus footnote, a stain on a bike path where plastic flowers lay discarded for only a semester. I should go home now. I should buy a plane ticket home.
We never did discover who my stalker was. The beautiful blonde police
girl couldn't stop laughing as I described my plight but dutifully went
through the roster of my former students with me, trying to discern who
among them might have gained 50 or 60 pounds and been dissatisfied
with their grades. And then I got married and moved to Los Angeles,
where the threats were more serious, if considerably more slender. Ever
after I've wondered who she was, why she wanted me dead, and why she
didn't look into some deep conditioner.
And when I sat down at that Master Class, my eyes bright with purpose but slightly unfocused as middle-aged eyes tend to be, the first thing I registered once composed was: three inches of unkept hair, square shoulders, thighs built for terror. In an instant I was back on the pavement, contemplating winkie beetle pheremone trails and asking myself and the heavens again "Why me?" Suddenly I was feeling small and forgotten--this time, by a publishing industry who had never heard of me and never would. I should go home now.
I learned a big lesson that night about story-telling. Some of it was from Mr Maass, an insightful person; most of it, though, was from re-experiencing terror, 20 years and 1500 miles later, thanks to the split ends and solid calves of a complete stranger. You might as well write for your own pleasure, because you have absolutely no way of knowing how anyone else is going to respond to what you put out there. To whom else do split ends and generous thighs spell soul-killing defeat, grazed elbows and the end of all ambition?
Apart from Kate Moss, maybe.