Today we’re happy to share an excerpt from Tendency columnist John Minichillo’s (How to be a Better Teacher-Person Through Apathy), The Last Workshop. The famous writer is dying — maybe — and this smart, funny, and sharp novel follows the alumni of the Deep South Writers’ Workshop as they struggle to internalize the end of the writer’s career.
The chancellor of the university and the provost were in the back of the chancellor’s wife’s Mercedes, with the air conditioning blasting, as his student intern drove them up to the rose garden in front of Alumni Hall, the most iconic building on campus, with the dome and the bell tower, and four groundskeepers who tended to the rose bushes. The chancellor rolled down his window and shouted at the grounds manager, “Ready by spring break, Al?”
Al held up his fists to indicate the anticipated size of the blooms by then, “They’ll be this big!”
“Perfect,” the chancellor said and he rolled his window back up. From spring break to the end of the year was when they had the most prospective students visit with their parents, and the mothers always loved the rose garden. Winning over mothers was the key to the next year’s enrollment. There was nothing quite like a mature and well-tended rose garden to make those parents feel good about spending tuition dollars, and the chancellor and the provost sat parked in the Mercedes a while longer to watch the men work.
The provost was reminded of something and he perked up, “There are some alumni planning a reunion of sorts over spring break.”
“The rumor is that the head of our writing program has a terminal illness, and so this a great opportunity for us to get out front in terms of hiring.”
“A writer. A famous writer.”
“Like Dean Koontz? Someone like that?”
“Not quite that famous. Ideally, it would be someone young who had won an award.”
“Like a Pulitzer?”
“Not a Pulitzer. Maybe a finalist for a Pulitzer. We want name recognition but someone who also needs a job.”
“I see. What are those books all the kids are reading?”
“No, the other one.”
“Who am I thinking of,” the chancellor asked the intern.
“Hunger Games?” the intern said.
“That’s it. We get the Hunger Games guy.”
“She’s a woman, and still too famous.”
“We could poll the students. Send out one of them Survey Chimps.”
“Our writer hasn’t died yet, so we can’t do that.”
“Have you got any ideas?”
“I don’t have a list or anything,” the provost said. “I was thinking a woman, probably black, maybe Latina, or Hawaiian. Or you know, lesbian.”
“We can’t get the Hunger Games guy but we can find a semi-famous black lesbian Latina?”
“I think we probably could.”
“That would look good?”
“We’ve had this white guy running things since the seventies. I think it would look great.”
“We’d get more applications?”
“Probably the same number of applications.”
“But it would look good.”
“It would look great.”
“Who do we put on this? Who do we know who reads?”
“We need to keep it hush-hush until we can actually make an offer. But we can Google around and make initial contact, try to gauge interest, that sort of thing.”
“And these black lesbian Latinas would want to move to Mississippi?”
“They would want to run the Deep South Writers Workshop.”
“Is that what we call it? Has a nice ring, don’t you think?”
That evening as the sun made its descent, the famous writer went to his writing workshop with a heavy heart. His agent had called him to tell him about the rumors. He had always been superstitious and this news, out of the blue, that he was terminally ill, from his agent of all people, was not a good omen. He drove his MG with the top down an extra loop around the university drive without pulling into the usual parking lot because he wanted to experience the first lights of spring as shown by the diminished coverage of the wardrobe choices of the young women in flip-flops snapping along to and from class. He would miss all this, if he were to die, the grand history of the school represented by the iconic Alumni Hall and its cupola, the falafel place on the corner where they knew him and gave him twice the allotted portion of diced tomatoes, and the parade of beautiful hardly-dressed young women. He remembered then, that he was an atheist and would have no experience of missing anything. It would all be black. Or not even that, an unknown unknowable black. No experience of anything or even an awareness what an experience was or had been. He’d be gone, zip, zero. But at least he’d said what he wanted in his books. Or good enough. Or not even that, but he was glad he’d written them, even if the critics weren’t. Maybe they’d wake up to him once he was gone, though he doubted it, because he didn’t even see all that much value in what he had written, at least not when confronted with the black unknown unknowable.
Finally, he parked. He contemplated making an appointment with his physician, to be on the safe side. And he cheered up somewhat as he walked toward Nathan Bedford Forrest Hall, where he’d held his workshops for decades, a humanities building like all humanities buildings, old and utilitarian, unattractive and either too hot or too drafty, with scattered unmatched desks, rooms that always had at least one flickering buzzing neon light, and dusty wide aluminum blinds that tended not to work. They would sit around a wide conference table and he hadn’t read the stories, but tonight at least he had a good excuse and he could make use of the rumor to direct the discussion back around to himself, and his legacy, which the suck-ups would know exactly how to defend, which he needed to hear, because someone out there was spreading the rumor that he was dying, and if he didn’t find the silver lining, the weight could drag him down.
As always, he was late, and they’d been sitting around waiting for him. He’d forbidden them to talk about the stories to be workshopped before he arrived, but he suspected they’d been doing just that. They all had guilty looks, especially the suck-ups, and so he chose to take whatever they’d been talking about head-on, and he opened with, “The news of my death has been greatly exaggerated.”
They got the reference. If there was anything they were good at, it was catching these types of allusions, but they didn’t get the context and so he’d started the workshop by creating an uncomfortable air. This meant they certainly weren’t the source of the rumor, these fourteen amateurs who came to him because they wanted to write. Their puzzled looks gave away that they hadn’t yet heard.
“Someone’s been saying that I’m sick and I’m going to die.”
They looked at each other, shocked, and none of them knew what to say. One of the suck-ups took a shot, “But you’re not, right?”
“I may be. I don’t know.”
That wasn’t the response the suck-up had anticipated.
“Would you be interested in meeting graduates of the workshop,” the famous writer said. “Some of the writers from way back? From twenty years or so ago? They seem to want to workshop for some reason.”
They had no interest in this at all. They liked each other well enough but throwing older writers into the mix with their own baggage seemed like more than any of them should have to put up with. They were paying to be here, after all. Were these new / old writers going to show up and take workshop time for free? A few shrugged their shoulders because the famous writer waited for a response.
“My agent might also be coming. If we let this rumor run its course, you’d get to meet the great Austin Goldman. How does that sound?”
They understood that what he offered was something exceptional, but none of them was ready as writers for what he’d meant to convey with that opportunity, especially the suck-ups, who were at least more socially inclined to take advantage of a situation like that. They looked at each other and shrugged their shoulders again.
“It could be fun,” the famous writer said.
This was a word they’d learned not to trust coming from someone who had earned the nickname Bobby Knight, and they were mostly wishing that this proposed reunion would not happen, and that one of them would muster up the guts to say so.
“They want to do this over spring break,” he said, and this lifted the mood in the room immediately. “I suppose some of you have plans.”
Yes, yes, yes, they all had plans, and everyone in the room talked about going home for a week, or flying out to see a boyfriend, or hiking, or visiting kitschy tourist destinations to blog about, or they were going to L.A. or New York, because they were writers, and those creative crucibles were the natural habitats of writers, and they should start getting used to the air out there.
“Get your parents to come here,” he suggested. “What’s to see in New York?” he surmised, though he knew, and he wished he were the kind of writer to run a workshop there instead of here, though sleepy Mississippi had it’s undeniable charms, not the least of which was the brushing off of inappropriate teacher-student sexual relationships. Not that it couldn’t happen in New York or L.A, but he’d be far more likely to be sued or reprimanded and dragged down for it. Here, he only had to deal with his girlfriend, who refused to marry him despite his constant begging. He wasn’t ready to be married. He had been married, twice, and had fucked up before, and there was no reason to believe he wouldn’t again. Marriages could be open, he suggested. No, they could not, she told him in no uncertain terms, and she remained his girlfriend, who he saw mostly on weekends, though tonight he was sure to turn the rumor of his dying and the depression it stirred in him as a way of getting her to cheer him up with orgasms. The plural was maybe too optimistic but he was a writer, after all, and he had every intention of working toward the plural. This rumor was a first, and he didn’t suspect he’d encounter the likes of it again.
This is where his mind was when the students talked about the stories they had written and handed in that week. He was able to follow that one story was about a dentist who had enacted some kind of scheme to get rich off of gold teeth that didn’t make sense to him, and when there had been a lull in the discussion, he tried to make his overarching sense of disbelief known without revealing how little he knew about the story. The last thing he wanted was to have the writer blurt out, despite the no-talking-rule, that the scheme had been explained in plain prose on page two, exactly as he’d always told them to do. And so he gave off a negative vibe but danced around the details, and it worked, since one of the suck-ups recovered for him.
“He goes through dental school,” the suck-up said, “and he supports his dentistry practice, with several people working for him and all this expensive equipment—and he’s going to get rich on gold teeth? It doesn’t make sense.”
“I for one was able to suspend my disbelief. It’s a kind of fable, and for me that’s what made it rewarding. I don’t think it’s meant to be read realistically.”
“He’s a dentist,” the famous writer said. “He’s not an alchemist. Money is money. Why go chasing after gold?”
“I would love it if he were an alchemist.”
“I kept expecting him to sell cocaine. Don’t they have access to cocaine?”
“And laughing gas.”
“But that’s harder to sell.”
“So I see him trying the thing with the gold teeth, and it’s not working, and so he starts selling cocaine, and also he starts using cocaine, and that’s when he spirals down.”
“He doesn’t spiral down. That’s not the same story. I think we need to honor the writer’s intentions.”
“The writer needs to demonstrate that he knows about dentistry before we honor anything. It’s his job to win us over.”
“I hate going to the dentist.”
“I was hoping he’d do more with that. Keep the reader in a state of anxiety.”
“That’s kind of a cliché, isn’t it, being afraid of the dentist?”
“With good reason.”
“What if we just took all the gold teeth out of the story? What are we left with then?”
“But that could be good. It would have a sense of ennui.”
“I’m tired of ennui.”
“It wouldn’t be funny.”
“It’s not funny now.”
“I thought it was funny.”
“Nobody else did. Did anyone else think this was funny?”
“It could have been funnier.”
And the conversation went on like this for another half hour before the famous writer stopped them to read from his notes aloud, as a way of summarizing their assessment of the story and wrapping up the discussion. Then he added, though he’d given no indication during the entire class that he’d felt this way, “I thought it was a fine story. You should send this one out.”