The Writing Assignment
"To be honest," Ian said surveying the remains of his breakfast, "I had forgotten how ghastly it was." He looked around as we all nodded our heads. "I mean, when I sat down and read it again even after all these years, I had the desire to rush down and start tap-dancing on his grave." There were murmured assents around the table.
"Still, he was young then," Sam pointed out, "He did get better and in the end out-produced us all"
"Not that publishing is a measure of success." Harold quickly put in causing a flurry of smirks.
"No, no, of course," Sam soothed. "Still one has to admire a published output that takes up about sixty linear feet." His eye twinkled, "And that in perfect-bound trade paperback form."
"And it all started with this," Ian said waving a few sheets of mimeographed paper. "I could strangle the bastard if he hadn't died last year. "The last offer I got on it was thirty thousand dollars -- from that Australian guy."
"I'm sure there's a reporter out front who'd be willing to goose it up ten percent or so," Harold said looking glum. He peered out the window of the Copper Fox's dining room at the reporter-covered lawn. "Think we should see how much we can pump them up to?"
"We were all teachers at that workshop," Sam said, "It was his first try at writing. And it was awful. Frankly, if all he had done was to keep writing after what we said to him, one after the other, I'd admire him. The fact that he went out and became the most prolific writer of his age is just the icing on that. The kid followed his dream."
"It's true," said Harold, "And afterward, we all liked him well enough. I like to think something of what I said helped him find himself, though to be honest, not a single year goes by that I don't wince when I think of the things I said to him that summer. I've been teaching that workshop for the last twenty-five years and I don't think I've ever spoken to a student like that again."
"I've never been able to go back to teaching," Ian said quietly. "Any time I think I have something to say about writing, I remember that summer and it all goes away." He looked around the table, "He was awful, right? I mean, I read this again last night and I can't think of a word I'd retract about it. But then I read that third chapter from his last book and it was -- sublime. It's the only word."
"Yes," Sam said, "that was a great chapter. Perfect imagery. Perfect structure. I don't think there's a soul who's been able to read that chapter and put the book down. It forces you on to the fourth chapter as the fourth pushes you on to the fifth. And then, just as your biological functions start to insist you stop reading, he graciously lightens up the tension so you can have a break. It's a marvel."
"You went to the bathroom between the fifth and sixth chapters too?" Harold asked astonished.
"Well, I actually went to the fridge for a soda," Sam said, "but it amounts to the same thing." Reverent silence as we each drank our coffee.
"What I don't understand is how word got out about this first writing assignment of his." Harold said. "Six months after his death my phone started ringing off the hook. I'm so glad I called you fellows; if I thought it was only me, I might have given in."
Ian said, "That television reporter from Boston told me it was because of something in the will. We each got a bequest, right?" Ian paused and surveyed his companions, "Right. A percentage of each year's royalties with a subtle mention that we were witness to his worst writing. Of course, everyone put it down to self-depreciation, but someone at the law firm sold the information for $50. The information, mind you, but not our names. They still teach ethics at Harvard. So the reporter started to dig and came up with Steggles." Everyone suddenly looked like they bit a lemon.
"Steggles!" Sam said, "I should have known!"
"Well, the first reporter asked Steggles about it and after he ascertained how much had been paid for the first part of the story, he charged $100 for our names."
"Now you have to give Steggles his due. He charged the first reporter $100 for the information. But then he started calling around the newspapers and sold our names for $200, $500, and if he's to be believed $1,500 to various other news organizations. But what he didn't have is this," Ian waved the papers around again. On the lawn, a few camera flashes went off. "Each of us has a copy because we were teaching that year. But Steggles was a student and didn't get a copy. He just knew that the copies existed."
"Well, they won't exist much longer." Harold said firmly. "It's just about 10:00. Time to go down to the graveyard and burn these."
"Right you are," said Paul.
They got up, put on their coats and left. The town had become famous along with its famous author and everyone turned out to mark the first anniversary of that author's death. It was a pretty good "do" considering. Schoolchildren sang and the mayor read a well-written speech, other famous authors spoke and the publisher took the opportunity to mention that a commemorative series of hard cover books had been issued. Toward the end, the former workshop teachers spoke in turn about ducklings and swans, respect and privacy, practice making perfect and hard work overcoming adversity, then they fed the papers they carried into a flaming brazier (neatly folded with the writing toward the inside in case of telephoto lenses.) TV anchormen nattered on about the burning of the famous author's first work -- reputed to so astonishingly bad that it could derail sales of his later work. Some reported it as censorship, some called it conspiracy; only one noted that he wished someone would do the same for tape of his first broadcast.
It was a lovely day and the old friends returned to the inn and picked up their bags. They stood for a moment in the parking lot reminiscing again when Ian said, "We should do this each year."
"What? You mean meet here at the Fox and talk about old students?"
"No, I mean spend an evening of fellowship here each year and then go down to the graveyard and burn copies of that old writing assignment." He looked around at his friends, "You don't mean to tell me I'm the only one who made a photocopy?"
Harold's face flushed red.