It was an intensive writing workshop specializing in science fiction and I’d paid over a thousand dollars to be there. I was in my early twenties, completely out of my element, and I’d dropped quite a bit of money to endure utter and complete humiliation.
Nineteen aspiring writers, all in different stages of their creative development, took turns slamming my short story until I thought I was going to simply keel over and die to avoid further embarrassment.
My gaze tracked along the Socratic circle of writers, taking special note of the more smug among them, each laughing and adding their witty quips to the running commentary on my story. Strangely, the well-respected and oft-published professor in charge of this workshop didn’t say a word; I felt as if he were the guard after hours at a junkyard allowing the pitbulls free reign to devour an intruder. Looking to him for help, I realized how alone I was in this strange state.
The story was my homage to an Outer Limits/Twilight Zone type concept updated to include cosmic conspiracy theory and its effects on humanity in present day. It was overly ambitious and beyond my abilities at the time. Apparently, that was a good reason to make fun of me, which all of my so-called “colleagues“ took to with great relish. I’d already been feeling out-classed and overwhelmed by the talents of the mostly older people around me, now I reached a conclusion that filled me with a great sadness: I was no writer. I was a fraud, an upstart who thought he had a talent he did not. When this workshop ended, I would be returning to Michigan to hang up my pens and paper. I would never write again.
If only I didn’t still have a week to go.
I retired to my room that night and tried to come up with a way to exchange my airplane ticket for an earlier departure. It was over. I’d tried and failed and been humiliated by people who should have known better and it was over.
But then, a funny thing happened on the way to oblivion. In the parlance of our times, I decided I wasn’t going out like no punk. That story had been written three years previously and in no way reflected the newer work I’d done. We were charged with doing one rewrite out of three submitted stories and as I told all who would listen, mine was chosen for me.
That night or possibly the night after, the editor from a large publishing house who was one of the humiliators threw a party. At that part he announced that he felt everyone in that year’s workshop was a writer.
“Even me?” I said in a tone dripping with resentment.
He looked at me and smiled affectionately. “Even you, Chris. You just need to live and suffer a little more.”
I was blown away by that. He was right, of course. I was still a kid and was drawing from what I'd seen and read instead of from direct experience. I took that epiphany with me to the computer lab and used it to rewrite my short story from an entirely different perspective. The night of the party some of the other writers apologized to me for their comments, especially when they realized what I'd brought was a first draft. My understanding was we were to bring works in progress, not work we felt confident in submitting to publishers.
"Wow. That was pretty good for a first draft," one of them said. "My first drafts are usually incomprehensible."
Asshole, I thought. Some people would say the same of your second, fifth and tenth drafts.
When I brought in my rewritten version, it was completely different. Where once the story had involved an idealistic reporter's search for the real story of mankind's creation, his wife dragged along for the ride and his ultimate betrayer, the streamlines version merely hinted at the conspiracy. Instead of hitting the reader over the head with ancient aliens and secret cave bases in the desert, this one concerned a Deep throat type informing our hero of the real deal and being met with total skepticism. It isn't until the final pages that the reporter sees something by accident that convinces him of his source's veracity.
Most of them hailed it as an incredible rewrite and much better than the first. One guy, the golden boy of the professor's eye, still greeted it with disdain. But for the first time I noticed something in his eyes: jealousy. The bastard was jealous! He was supposed to be the edgey one.
From that point on, my writing took a whole new direction as I slowly found the voice that had been trying to make itself known for so long. I returned to that workshop three years later and was told by the professor that I had shown the most improvement in a short time he'd ever seen in his life.
Good thing he didn't save me~