I had a problem. A serious and difficult problem that I wasn’t going to be able to solve without help. Most folks round here, when they have a problem, they write about it. They put it in their journal and wait for the comments to roll in. You get sympathy, you get advice, you get encouragement. It’s a diverse crowd, and sometimes you have to separate the wheat from the chaff, but there are always gems in those comments.
Only I couldn’t discuss this particular problem in my journal, not without exposing myself to loathing, ostracizing, perhaps even exile back to Blogger. After all, I am the new kid on the block. Who could I turn to? And then I remembered. Reaching for the phone, I dialed Charlie.
“Yo. Joirnalscape Tech Support. Charlie here.”
“Hello Charlie. This is Harry … I mean, Phoeniceus calling. You may remember me. I called you months ago about my problem with the font sizing?”
“Font sizing? Hmm. Oh, yeah! Da guy with the widgets. Mr Type A personality himself. How’s it going Widgetman?”
“Not so good, Charlie.”
“You got trouble with da ladies? There’s lots of them around this joint, if you haven’t noticed.”
“Yeah, I sort of noticed.”
“That’s OK. Look, keep it simple. Bring ‘em flowers every once in a while, pat ‘em on the tush so they know they’re appreciated, and if they get too demanding, ignore ‘em for a bit.”
My liberal sensors were flashing ominously, but I had to remind myself that Charlie has never led me astray before, that eventually he comes around to the right answer. I took a deep breath and counted to ten.
“Charlie. Are you married?”
“Well, no. Was. Was married. What’s your point?”
I said nothing, waiting. In the background, I heard his TV playing. DVD reruns of soap operas. Days of Our Lives. General Hospital. I couldn’t tell which one.
“Look, this is Tech Support, not Dear Abby here.”
“Charlie, my problem isn’t of a romantic nature.”
“You ain’t got no romantic troubles.”
“My friend, you are either lying or dead.”
“Look, Charlie, I called you about something else.”
“This isn’t gonna be about widgets is it? Cause I’ve had enough of that.”
“I promise, Charlie. No widgets.”
“OK.” I hear the chair creaking, a thump which I take as the sound of a foot being put up on a desk. “Shoot.”
“Well, you know I’ve been doing some fiction writing on the side.”
“Yeah, you and every other blogger from Banghor to LA.”
“And you know I was looking for some critiques. Because I’m learning to write in a vacuum here. I read every book on style and grammar and prose and 25 tips for success and that sort of thing, but it only gets you so far. I want to get good, so I need feedback. I can’t drop 25 grand on a MFA program, and even if I had the money, I don’t have the time, you understand?”
There was a long silence on the line, and I heard a man’s voice in the background, panicked, shaken, She’s burning up! We can’t just let her die. What can we do?
“Charley? You there?”
Creaking sounds. I heard his feet hit the floor. “Meet me at the cobana.”
“Five minutes. Up at the cobana. Buy me a beer. I can’t sit here and listen to you whine about writin’ problems without a beer or two.”
Five minutes later I was sitting in the shade of a palm-thatched pavilion, sipping lemon soda and watching the sea gulls fight with the flies over a few crumbs of toasted melba and brie. The sun was ferocious, but the ocean was cold. In the shade, I almost shivered when the breeze blew from the water.
And there he was, Charlie, not quite what I expected. He had gray hair in the two-day shadow on his chin. He walked stiffly with a cane. His belly had gone soft, but he looked like he was once a powerfully built kind of guy, if a little on the short side. He wore a large black Hawaiian shirt with enormous white printed flowers all over it. His hair was cropped short, military style. That was my first impression – ex-military, retiree, and I guessed divorced, not widowed. I shook his hand, prepared for the bone-crushing grip, but I was surprised by how soft his fingers were. His large hand engulfed mine, like he wanted to test my mettle, but there wasn’t hardly any strength there. He settled into his chair with a grunt, just as Manuel came by, starched towel over his arm.
“Genteelmen,” he said.
“What can I order for you, Charlie?”
“Coors, light. Doc says I got to watch my cholesterol.”
“Manuel, una cervaza Coors Light para mi amigo y un otro limonade para mio.”
Charlie leaned back in his chair and turned his head toward the sea, but he was stealing glances at me, observing me with one eye while relaxing with the other. Was he sizing me up? Manuel put our drinks on the table, but he didn’t touch his.
“So you hablo the espanol, eh?”
“This is the internet, Charlie. I can search foreign word dictionaries as well as anyone.”
“But I bet you was in the Peace Corps. You look like a do-gooder. No offense.”
“None taken. French West Africa, not Latin America. I didn’t finish my tour. Didn’t have much to do and didn’t like wasting my life and other people’s tax dollars. Not the proudest time of my life. How about yourself? Let me guess – retired army NCO?”
“Nah! I did a tour in Iraq as a military contractor, technical staff. Got sent home early with a check for five grand and a piece of metal in my leg. That was in the early days when they still gave you the check.”
He reached for his beer. It was so cold that when he popped the top off the bottle little veins of ice formed inside. Almost immediately a fly crawled in and drowned. He waited for it to sink to the bottom before taking a swig.
“So where were we?”
“I was looking for feedback on my writing.”
“OK, before you go on, let me ask you something first. There’s two kinds of writin’ groups in the world. There are the wine and cheese groups. They get together, shmooze a bit, praise each other’s work and give lots of encouragement. On the other hand there are the cigarette and stiletto groups, where they don’t waste time. They really rip your work apart until it’s a bloody dissected corpse on the table. So what kind of feedback you looking for? I’m betting you’ve never puffed a cigarette in your life.”
I knew exactly what he meant. “Stiletto, definitely. I’m new at this writing stuff. College and grad school was all mathematics and computers. I’m starting at square one, reading all the books, writing every day, but I need some honest feedback. Something I can use to improve. You’re right, I don’t smoke, but I’m serious about this. I want to get published someday.”
“Got ya. Go on.”
“So I did a sort of swap with someone. You know, you critique my work, I critique yours.”
“You scratch my back, I scratch yours. You sure this isn’t a lady problem?”
“Can I just tell you the story without the interruptions?”
“So she critiqued my work. She loved it. Raved over it. Gave me just a dozen mild slaps on the wrist for this and that, and praised the rest in a general sort of way. Thought I was … gifted. Great for my ego, but I can’t say I learned anything.”
He’s nods, swills his beer, and a little too much sloshes down the wrong pipe. His bends his chin to his chest to stifle a coughing fit, while his hand circles in the air to let me know I should continue.
“Then she sends me her story. It’s one fifth as long as mine, but I spent two hours going through it. It had soul, you know. It was a sweet little story, but I thought it needed a lot of work, and I mean a lot. Pretty poetic images that didn’t make any sense. Lots of contrived sentences that were hard to read. Dangling participles. Poor parallelism. Dependent phrases and clauses with nothing to hang on to. You know what I mean?”
“I have no idea what you’re talking about.”
“Yeah, well, neither did she. She kind of fell to pieces when she read the critique.”
“Yeah, got it. It’s a dame thing.”
“We’re talking Venus and Mars here. Only you, my friend, are out on Jupiter. No, you are beyond Jupiter. You’re not even on a planet anymore. What is it they’re calling Pluto these days? Whatever it is, you’re out there with Pluto.”
I leaned back in my chair – slouched really – and stared daggers at him over the top of the glass bottle in my fingertips. “I think you’re missing the point.”
“No-ho-ho my friend. I got it exactly. How many negative things did you say about this woman’s work?”
“I haven’t made an accurate count.”
“Excyoose me,” he says, but I can tell by his half-smile that he is amused, not offended. “Roughly how many, Widgetman?”
“Roughly? A hundred.”
“Right. And how many positive things?”
I scratched my nose, hoping it looked thoughtful. “Three, maybe four. But they were really nice things, and …”
“Widgetman, you’re batting under 0.040. That’s not minor league. That’s not even little league. That’s not much better than I did with my wife and you can see I’m not married anymore.”
“Oh, it gets better.”
“Yeah, she wrote about it in her blog, and … ”
He started laughing then. Really laughing – a drunken, blue collar, throaty roar, slapping his open palm on the table, startling the seagulls. They flew away, laughing with him. I grinded my teeth waiting.
“Are you through?”
“Too much! What did she say?”
“She was as even handed as she could be considering that everything else in her life fell apart that week. I get the sense that something disastrous happened to her that she didn’t want to talk about, something that made my current problem look like childish, runny-nosed whining. She had the good grace to keep my identity anonymous, and she prefaced everything by saying how much she respected my writing, which of course only made everything worse. She told everyone – and Charlie I don’t have to tell you that we are talking about the entire wired internet world – that I only had negative things to say and I left only 5 out of 1500 of her words unscathed.”
“Widgetman! What a sweet talker you are.” He was clearly enjoying himself.
“I hasten to add that all of this is quite exaggerated.”
“I’m sure. What did her friends say?”
“About what you expect in the comments. People saying what a jerk I was, that she should tell me to F off, that I had S for brains, that sort of thing. The usual profanity.”
He stopped smiling long enough to look disdainful. “What’s with the initials?”
“This is a PG blog, Charlie. I don’t do profanity here.”
“Hah! No S? You’re F-ing with me.”
“You sure these people don’t know you?” he asked.
“They all know me, Charlie. We’ve been commenting on each others blogs for months. I’ve got over 7,000 curiosities served in half a year.”
“No, I mean, have they figured out that’s it you who did the critique?”
“Don’t know. I feel like my picture is on the dart board and they are all lining up with poisoned shafts. I just don’t know if it’s my photo up there or a blurry silhouette.”
“Did you say you was sorry?”
“Yes, of course! I wrote her an email right away, but she hasn’t read it yet. She told me she’s not quite ready to deal with it. Of course, she’s sorry everyone’s saying all these mean things about me – she tried to make it clear she respects me – but ..”
He was looking at me, taking everything in, didn’t shift his gaze away, and then his closed hand was clenching the air in front of his face, and a buzzing noise, that I hadn’t been aware of until that moment, stopped. It happened so fast I didn’t even see a blur. No sign of effort or awareness in his face, as if his hand did the work without wanting to bother his brain. He lowered his fist gently to the table.
“OK, I got the picture. Look, Widgetman, are you ready to hear the truth. Because I’m gonna give it you straight.”
“Yeah, that’s why I called you. Shoot.”
“You’re too honest.”
“I’ve been told this before.”
“Women do not want honesty. They want fantasy. They want to know how great they are, how much you love them. They don’t want people pointing out their flaws.”
“What makes you think men are any different?”
“Pffff,” he dismissed. “Men deal with reality better.”
“No they don’t. Men don’t deal with it at all.”
“Exactly. Same thing. Let me ask, did you get any negative critiques on *your* story?”
“Yes, lots. Not from her, but from other people. People liked it, but they also trashed it.”
“And did you write about this on your blog?”
“No, why would I?”
“Exactly. Why would you? Even you, a cultured, over-educated, Peace Corps kind of guy – you’re still a guy. You don’t go expressing your “feelings” to everyone, certainly not to the whole world on the internet. But she did, because that’s what women do.”
“I don’t buy it, Charlie. Yeah, ok, even if men and women are different like you say, we aren’t talking about ordinary women. Some of these Journalscape women – I believe the expression is ‘they can take care of themselves.’ I would not want to meet them in a dark alley. They would just as soon kick my ass.”
“You forgot your abbreviation.”
“Sorry. Kick my A.”
“Yeah, they would. But first they would write about how angry and hurt they were. And then afterwards they’d go write about how satisfying it felt to do it, and maybe a week later they’d add how guilty they felt in retrospect. I mean, what did you expect this woman to do? ‘Thanks for trashing my piece?'”
“Yes. I mean, No. I mean …. I expected her to do what I do when I get a critique. Go through it point-by-point, decide if she agreed or not, and then write another draft. A better draft. I go through a dozen drafts like toilet paper, you know?”
Charlie didn’t answer. He opened his hand again, and a small fly wobbled out and buzzed off into the distance. He turned his head to one side and watched it trail away like a crow considering a shiny bit of metal.
“OK, it’s not a Venus-Mars thing. I was right the first time – it’s a Pluto-Earth thing.”
“How do you figure?”
“Look, I get calls all the time from folks who don’t know squat about computers, much less web pages or HTML or such. That’s why I’m here. They just want to tell their friends about their day and not have to deal too much with the internet. But some of them want to write fiction and poetry, and of those, some even do it a little bit. If they ever finish a piece, they show it to friends and family who coo over it, but it usually doesn’t go any farther. Nothing wrong with that. It’s a hobby, you know what I mean? You with me so far?”
“OK. The fun part is over. Now comes the drudgery. The rewriting. Not many people have a stomach for it. Some people will go over it once, maybe twice. There aren’t a lot of people who will do more than that. And even if they do, they don’t enjoy it. It ain’t fun. But you, my friend, are part of that very strange and sick breed, that one-billionth of a percent, that actually enjoys the rewriting. I bet you even enjoy it more than the first draft.”
I shrugged. Whether I enjoyed it more than the first draft, I didn’t know, but I did enjoy it.
“Sure you do,” he continued. “You were serious about the stiletto thing. So, my advice to you is don’t be critiquing no one’s work, and I mean no one, male or female. Because no one really wants to hear it.”
I put down my unfinished lemonade and stared out at the sea. There was no breeze right then, but I shivered. For a middle aged man, I still spend a lot of time feeling naïve. “Well, I hate to admit it, Charlie, but that was worth another beer.”
“Thanks, but I have to get back to my soaps. They’re marooned on an island, and Laura is dying of some rare tropical fever and the guys, you wouldn’t believe it, they dig a pit with some drift wood, start a fire in it, heat some rocks, bury the whole thing, and lay her over it in blankets trying to sweat it out of her.”
“You really like those soap operas?”
“Oh yeah. Talk about writing. Those guys just hack out their hour-long stories, minus the commercial breaks, day after day after day. And it sells, you know? They sure don’t have time for critiques. Which reminds me. I would advise you to give yourself deadlines, because otherwise you’ll be lucky to finish maybe one story a year, if you don’t worry it to death first.”
I stared at him blankly. A man can only take so many revelations in a day. “I guess I owe you two beers now.”
“I’ll collect later, Widgetman. See ya.”
He levered himself out of his chair with his cane and walked back inside.
Reprinted with kind permission of the victim.