“Well,” I say to the woman sitting next to me, “It feels like you just had a lot of fun with this.” I smile. I think she wants me to say more. I simply can’t.
“But is it commercial?” an older man in a hat asks.
“Absolutely,” the author replies. “Fifty Shades of Grey was originally Twilight fanfic.”
When I entered the cafeteria a half-hour before, I felt nothing but complete terror, even though I was just here for an experiment. I had agreed to join a writers’ group comprising people I had never met, and submitted an essay for the other members to critique. Yes, I was scared. Writers can be too easily insecure and Hunger Games competitive when hierarchy is being established in a room where more than one of them is present; it’s like watching wolves hashing it out to establish dominance before tearing into a fresh kill. It is rarely pretty, and someone usually gets too drunk and is found hours later unconscious and uncomfortably close to a litter box.
I know this because I am a “writer.” By trade, occupation, tax returns, whatever. My background, in a nutshell: journalism school, columnist at a large daily paper, self-published my first book after years of rejections, fired from the newspaper the same week that book unexpectedly landed on The New York Times best-seller list. I’ve seen my books do well; I’ve seen my books sputter and sink. It’s how I’ve made my living for a long time. At the cafeteria table in downtown Portland, I don’t have any of that history. I don’t have a bio. I am simply a girl named Laurie who is waiting for her essay to be led up to the workshop altar.
So, sure, I am frightened beyond belief, but in the meantime, we’re still discussing the commercial value of the Harry Potter porn, which I am having trouble grasping.
“By commercial, do you mean publishing this?” I ask earnestly. “Because there might be some copyright issues with characters created by someone else.” Like the richest, most famous author on Earth.
“I checked it out,” she assures me. “It’s a gray area.”
“Oh,” I say.
“You sure do use the word ‘pussy’ a lot,” the man in the hat comments.
“I’m playing off the cat in the room,” the author defends.
I am still feeling a little faint when we move onto the next writer, another older man with thick glasses who shows the group a book cover of two pretty young girls and a dog in a hat.
The older man in the hat takes up the charge. “You lost me when the dog is writing a letter to the girl about how she needs to open herself up to people more,” he says to the older man in the glasses. “Dogs would never do that. A dog needs to earn your trust. That’s dog nature.”
“No, no, no,” the man in glasses says. “I don’t agree. You forget that the dog is her dad, but her mother is a robot, so she has the DNA in her too that has no emotion. Her dad is just trying to balance that out.”
“I think your cover is awesome,” I say.
The man in the hat is not giving up. “I also don’t understand why the dog is suddenly putting on a sports coat,” he says, looking annoyed. “Where did the sports coat come from?”
“The dog wears clothes,” the man in glasses says, clearly irritated. “That’s clear from the beginning of the chapter.”
The next writer who is up is a woman about my age who wrote about a film consultant/demonologist who I suspect is about to have sexual relations with a lady ghost. But I like it. There is not a single cat in the whole thing.
Others, however, find fault in several paragraphs, calling them “info dumps,” and I have to ask what that is, too. Apparently, it’s when a writer gives information in a block, otherwise known as “backstory.”
“I love the part when he blurts out that he used to be a priest,” I say. “I was surprised!”
The woman looks at me and smiles. No one agrees with me.
Now it’s the man in the hat’s turn.
“So while I think that your opening paragraph is great with description of the sunrise, the next paragraph had such a vivid image with Mamoud removing his bronze, unadorned helmet,” the man in the glasses asks the man in the hat. “Maybe you could switch those paragraphs, and open with that picture?”
The hat goes quiet, although his eyes dart to the man in the glasses.
“No,” the hat says.
“Why are the two clans at war?” I ask. “I would love to know that right up front so I can understand the conflict better.”
The hat laughs at me. “You have to read the whole book to find that out,” he discloses.
“Oh,” I nod.
“I loved the image of the slaves gnawing at the hides,” the Harry Potter lady says.
And then it’s my turn. I brace myself, already nervous, for the oncoming barrage. All faces go blank when Harry Potter asks for comments on my piece.
“I didn’t read that one,” the demonologist says.
“I didn’t either,” the man in glasses says.
“I only read that copy you had,” the man with the hat says.
Harry Potter crinkles her brow and shrugs. “Well, I glanced through yours, and had a problem telling where the rising and falling action was, but I guess I didn’t upload it to the website. Maybe we can do yours next time.”
“Oh,” I nod.
And with that, everyone puts their notes away and the demonologist closes her laptop. Several people stay behind to chat, but I stick my folder in my bag, say “thank you,” to Harry Potter and then leave, feeling vastly insignificant and with a terrific sigh of relief.
Laurie Notaro is the author of a bunch of books, including It Looked Different on the Model. She lives in Eugene and will not leave the state of Oregon until she sees Bigfoot. Her new book, The Pottymouth at the Table, will be published in May by Simon & Schuster.