A Visit to a Minor Past

(This essay is one in a series of pieces about what I am reading during National Short Story Month 2011. To see a list of the stories, visit What I’m Reading During National Short Story Month 2011.)

May 23, 2011

Her flat startled her in some way. She stood in the doorway and thought about the strange ways she’d grown up inside these rooms. She had experienced ecstasy, small pieces of love, and some loneliness here. Past experiences became animate objects and seemed to look down on her from the corners of the ceilings.. . . There were people everywhere. Lucy got drunk on them. There were friends of hers from minor pasts that she’d forgotten about — it’s funny how many pasts a person can have and it still makes only one.
                 —Evelyn Conlon, b. 1952
Irish fiction writer
from “A Little Remote,” in Taking Scarlet as a Real Colour, The Blackstaff Press, 1993

First, the news. I have been admitted to the 2011 Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference. If you’ve followed me for a long time, especially on Twitter or Facebook, you know how distracted I become this time of year, especially since the Tribulation of 2009, when I was initially rejected and not even wait-listed, but then invited to participate. Notification is made in “late May,” and from about May 15 on, Bread Loaf’s decision is all I can think about.

My notes indicate that I made myself sick last year, in part by ingesting large quantities of Diet Dr. Brown’s Cream Soda as a tranquilizer, even though I had eliminated aspartame from my diet just after Christmas, and had become hypersensitive to its side effects, notably anxiety and fuzzy thinking. I went into this Bread Loaf Notification Season dragging the tail of a depression that thudded into my life and my psyche in March. I employed the oft-prescribed self-help strategies of exercise, breathing, yoga, and talking to friends (thank you! you know who you are!). Nevertheless, I became irritable and annoying, finding fault where otherwise I might have overlooked a perceived offense and confronting the offender.

In order to keep myself focused on moving forward with my work, I enrolled in an online workshop. This had been suggested by a panelist at a one-day conference I attended in April in Washington. She said that while it is important to read widely and much in published work, apprentice writers like me should also maintain contact with those who are at the same level as we are. Published work shows us a piece at its highest level of development. Apprentice writers like ourselves make the same mistakes we do, and in studying how to help classmates climb out of the holes they dig for themselves, we get insights into how to fill in our own.

I had studied with this workshop leader before, in 2009, when I took the failed Bread Loaf admissions piece to him as a way of getting back to work and in hope of figuring out what was wrong with it. That had been a good experience, and I expected the same this time. To my consternation, however, the workshop leader posted remarks about my story that were not craft-based (analyzing characterization, dialogue, word choice, etc.), but reader-response based (e.g. “This character reminds me of a guy who lived above us when we were first married.”). And to make matters worse, his reader response completely misunderstood the nature of my story, and led the conversation in a direction that was less than useful for me.

He knew that I was upset. (Probably the “WHAT???” I placed in response to a remark that made no sense to me gave him a clue.) He wrote to me off the discussion page to apologize, and I responded with details about exactly why I was unhappy with the way things were going with my story. In getting at the heart of my anger, I remembered Evelyn Conlon, whose tutelage had not served me well in 1994.

That was the year I spent part of the summer in Dublin. I enrolled for a writers’ workshop sponsored by an American university and held at the Irish Writers’ Centre in Parnell Square. Participants stayed in private homes and rooming houses around the city. My accommodations were in Goatstown, a suburb south of Dublin. I had a single room at the top of the stairs. You had to turn the hot water heater on before you wanted to take a shower. Every morning I had to pop the battery out of the ticking clock in the kitchen while I had my C&C. A poet staying there marveled at the fact that anyone would get up early and write for an hour or so before breakfast. (She was kind of dippy.) Another poet and her come-along husband left early because the trip turned out to be too much walking for them, especially for the man, who was then about the age I am now. A University College student from Korea had the corner room. He did yoga in the garden every morning. The woman who ran the place got around town on a motorcycle.

The structure of the program was not unlike that of Bread Loaf, except instead of having a single workshop leader, there were five different ones who came one after the other, each of them addressing two student manuscripts, leading discussion, and providing annotated comments in a private conference. I was assigned to Evelyn Conlon (you can follow the link to her site to learn something about her), a writer I had never heard of. She wasn’t part of the program staff. Instead she came on the tenth day of  the experience, a sort of visiting professor who would lead a workshop, conduct a class, and then give a reading.


he experience was, to say the least, unsatisfactory. Nine years later, in another workshop where there was a bad fit between me and the leader, I was asked to “write a scene involving a character based on someone in this workshop.” Here is what emerged, pretty much a verbatim rendering of what happened that day in Dublin, Evelyn Conlon’s similar unpleasant qualities grafted onto the Bread Loaf faculty member:

Siobhan Fitzhugh arrived on the fourth day. Everything about her was soft and sagging except her hair, which was cropped short and spiked in that butch buzz favored by menopausal women. Squat and square, she stood rather than sat at the head of the table, drew some papers out of her satchel, squared them, and said, “Well, let’s begin.”


She first asked each of us to say our name and where we’d gone to school. She frowned when Peter, first chair to her right, said “Slippery Rock State College.” Her frown deepened through the recital of small regional colleges even most of us had never heard of. She wrote the name of each school beside that of its graduate on her class list. The frown lifted when Lisa, fourth from the end, said “Vassar.”


“Ah, yes, Vassar,” said Siobhan Fitzhugh with relief.


We went around the table again, this time giving the title of the last book we’d read. This information too she wrote down. What on earth is she going to do with this information? I wrote in the margin of my notebook page, and elbowed the man sitting beside me. He shrugged. When we’d all responded, she launched into a narrative of her background, her education, the forces that had led her to become a writer.


Only a half hour of the session remained. “Well,” she said. “Let’s have at an exercise, shall we?”


Peter, whose manuscript was up for critique along with mine, looked at her with astonishment, then over at me.


“Miss Fitzhugh,” I said. “What about our stories?”


“What about them?” she said.


 “You’re supposed to take them through workshop today, mine and Peter’s.”




 “Yes, you know. So we can get feedback and comments on our work from you and the others.”


 The frown came back. “Oh my dear.” she said. “I never read nor comment on student work. It’s just too, well, inept.”

I had bought Evelyn Conlon’s collection of short stories, Taking Scarlet as a Real Colour, on the first day, in anticipation of my experience of having her as my tutor. I’d expected to attend her reading, and to ask her to sign the book for me.

I didn’t attend her reading that night. I didn’t get the book signed. And I never saw Evelyn Conlon again. I threw the book into my suitcase and hauled it home with me, unpacked it, and for the last seventeen years moved it from shelf to shelf as my fiction collection grew. But I never opened it.
Until today.

The story is well-plotted and well-paced. The language is elegant without being flowery. An explicit sex scene between Lucy and the man she meets in London, the kind of prose almost impossible to craft well, is beautifully rendered:

He wanted to put out the light.
“Why?” she asked.
“Because if I  make love with you without the light on, the dark will never be as bad again.”
. . .
 It seemed as if cloudy bits inside her head were melting, her blood was wet, slipping into places that had been dry for a while.

I loved my time in Ireland. Reading the fifty or so pages of the journal I kept while I was there took me back, reminded me of small details I had forgotten. Mementos of the sojourn hang on my walls  — a framed copy of a Louis MacNeice poem that includes the thought “[Dublin] was never my town . . . but yet she holds my mind,” an aerial photograph of the Liffey showing the bridges you can cross in a zig-zag hike, and one of the lake isle of Innisfree. I still have the bus pass I used, and when I saw the movie version of A Circle of Friends, I recognized the bus stop Minnie Driver uses as one I used too. I sometimes think about going back, about going back to the island of Iona, not all that far to the north. But knowing how way leads on to way . . . .

I’ve grown as a writer and a workshop member since that experience in Dublin, when I was capable of not much more than a reader-response overview of ways in which I “liked” the story. I did endure another unsatisfactory experience at Bread Loaf in 2003, but I will never again remain silent while something like that happens, to me or to anyone else. And whereas I think Evelyn Conlon was just unaware of what she was supposed to do with us, Lynn Freed at Bread Loaf knew exactly what she was about. I have forgiven Evelyn Conlon. The other one, not a snowball’s chance.

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