I always pictured myself reading an excerpt of my next great novel to a room filled with a hundred strangers, a thousand even. These thoughts and pictures in my head formed at an early age. My middle school English teacher, Mr. Dodge always secretly praised my work, mostly after class when the other students could not notice. I preferred it that way and he respected my wishes. We lived in a time where everybody was great at everything, so he would also praise my bitter rival, Susan. She felt like my rival because she received the most amount of praise and all the girls in the class loved her. I never shared in their admiration, and after reading most of her stories, I was left disappointed and underwhelmed. All of her stories were centered around all the typical Hollywood platitudes about romance and dreaming of a perfect textbook life. Like watching reruns of popular Sex and the City episodes.
Even at a young age, I recognized what made writing great and what was simply boring. As the years went on, I continued to spend most of my time writing short stories. Short stories would later lead to my first novel, published at age 19. The first taste of the writer’s dream came during my first real book reading and signing in the local bookstore. Four people showed up, including my mother and older sister. I knew from that moment that writing was going to be it for me, those four people appreciating something I created fueled my inspiration like a great burning fire within me. My parents were supportive of my dreams but urged me to take up accounting in college, partly against my own will. It made sense, accounting was a respectable job and it had been in the family for a few generations. My father was a licensed accountant, handling taxes for rich people. You would be surprised how stingy rich people can be when it comes to taxes. I suppose that is why they are rich in the first place.
College was easy enough to allow me to write in my spare time. To be completely honest, my spare time outweighed my serious time or class time, whatever you wanted to call it. During the first two years, I wrote two more novels but never published them. I started feeling that my writing was becoming stale and began searching for inspiration, as a writer often does. Countless statistics and accounting classes have a tendency to disrupt your creative writing skills. I spoke to the editor of my first novel and he quickly suggested I attend a writer’s retreat, in Ontario, Canada. Normally I was skeptical of such retreats, but this one looked perfect. It consisted of a group of cabins in the woods, placed in a circle on top of a small valley with a large fire in the middle. The landing page promised the perfect environment to let your inner writer roam free. I scrolled down, ignoring most of the small print on the page and paid with my credit card. The rest of my classes that week flew by, my mind was already inside the cabin, writing away, writing the next great American novel. It was going to be glorious.
I spent Friday afternoon packing as quickly as possible and I drove into Canada in my Ford Pinto, for only the third time ever. The drive itself was rather uneventful and fueled by energy drinks and 90s stoner rock and my mumbling along to the lyrics. I wondered what kind of people would be there and if the environment really would be perfect for writing. The brochure kind of reminded me of an environment Stephen King describes in one of his books. Many hours later, after battling sleep and dealing with a radio station change due to switching countries, I arrived at the retreat. I slowed down and headed down a dirt road, there were very few lights to guide the way as I followed a series of winding paths into the dark forest. I parked my vehicle in the small parking lot, the lines had faded and it seemed like a free for all. I began imagining what the others would be like based on the vehicles as I passed them on the way to the main hall. Hippy, rich kid, Rasta guy, punk rock. I entered the small building and proceeded into the main room, my small suitcase followed closely behind. The walls were covered with various posters promoting plays, comedy events, other writing retreats and writing fairs. None of the names rung a bell as they were all Canadian. I am sure they were all a big deal around here or maybe not a big deal at all. The group looked up and began facing the entrance as I entered, they looked like they were in a deep discussion.
“Hi there, welcome, you are the final member to join the retreat.”
“Thank you, I hope I didn’t ke — ”
My heart skipped a beat while scanning the room. There she sat, amongst them, seeming as normal as ever. It was Susan Birch.
“Sorry, you hope you didn’t what,” the main instructor asked.
“Yea, ehhh, I hope I didn’t keep everyone waiting.”
“No of course not, we have just been sharing stories so far.”
I moved closer to the group, her stare could be felt on my back, it cut right through me like a cold blade. Our guidance teacher, named Emily began explaining what was going to be happening for the next few days. Her slim figure was eaten up by her red sweater, one you would see at Christmas, except stylish and missing Santa Claus. She had medium length dark hair, worn with long bangs almost covering her face. I suppose she was young but also old enough to know a thing or two about writing. She began explaining what our days would look like with an air of positivity I had not seen before in a long time. We were to stay here at this retreat for the next six days, spent mostly in solitude in our own personal cabins. Her reasoning was that writing was mostly a lonely personal affair. The cabins were set up outside along the base of a small valley, eight of them in total. Each cabin was to be inhabited by our group members, to be used as a writer’s retreat for the majority of the day. In the small valley, a large campfire stood, its great fire towering over two meters tall at night. We would meet there for dinner in the evenings and discuss our writing, life or anything else that we felt like discussing. The writing would take place in each cabin, with the door closed. Each cabin equipped with enough to live and to maximize the flow of our creative powers, as she liked to call them. The way she explained it gave me a sense of hope, the hope that my writer’s block would be smashed and that a great story would unfold. I stole another glance towards Susan, who returned a genuine smile in my direction. That emotion confused me as it was not something I saw from her before, certainly not towards me. I looked down, pretending to look at something near my feet, perhaps she was scanning the wall behind me. Emily’s speech came to an end and we all headed outside to be appointed to our cabins. The moonlight illuminated the clearing in the woods, creating some kind of mythical vibe as if the moon was pointing us to our respective cabins. There was complete freedom to choose whichever cabin we wanted and we quietly choose our own. There was no need to be picky as they were all identical. It was hard to be picky because they were exactly the same inside and out. I picked the last cabin on the right.
It had everything you would expect, a large furnace, a collection of wooden furniture, a cozy bed with many books outlining the walls behind it. The energy in the room gave me an immediate boost. I decided to start writing right away as the ideas began flowing out of my head. I had to make sure to get all my ideas on paper before they floated out into the dark night. The night quickly progressed, the faint conversations and giggling I heard before came to an end. I felt a certain competitiveness, even though that was not the focus of this retreat. I wrote until my hands hurt and I fell asleep on the sofa.
We were all awakened by the swinging of a large bell near the entrance hall. Breakfast was delivered at 9 AM sharp and consisted of eggs, bacon, sausages, hash browns and tater tots. It reminded me of the Mcdonald’s breakfast I used to eat on a weekly basis during school, which became one of my rituals. My diet had changed drastically since then. My friends were always baffled how I stayed in such good shape all that time. I sat down with breakfast and began writing again. My story was about a successful lawyer who seemed perfect on the outside but slowly succumbs to his murderous evil impulses. Within a few moments, I heard a loud knock on my door. It was 10 AM. I headed to the door and summoned as much enthusiasm as I could, hoping it was Emily.
“Matthias, it’s been a while, it’s great to see you,” Susan Said.
Her voice carried a lot of positivity. Susan wore a loose-fitting flowery dress, revealing a moderate amount of cleavage, just enough to make me forget her in middle school. She definitely had filled out over the years.
“Hey, you’re right, I don’t think either of us expected this.”
“You look great,” Susan said, she squeezed my arm.
There was an awkward silence, a moment of mutual attraction washed over us.
“Well, are you going to make me some tea?”
I threw some wood on the fireplace and began boiling water. Susan had not changed a bit, she began rambling about her struggle as a female writer and author, never once stopping to hear what I had to say about it or to share my opinions. Susan had written three vampire-themed young adult erotic books so far and she felt disappointed by the writing world for not publishing her work. I had to suppress the urge to throw up in my mouth as I listened on. Before it was time for me to start telling her about my recent years, she got up and headed out the door, she claimed she had a brilliant idea for a story. She told me to remind her to give me a free copy of her latest work, they were in her car. What little attraction and likeness I had for her evaporated as she headed into the cool forest air. Memories of her terrible romance writing in middle school crept back into my mind. I checked the clock, it read 1.31PM and sat down on my writing chair. All conditions for great writing existed in this place, the website was spot on. I continued my story, developing on my main character. He was a highly functioning, respectable lawyer at one of the best firms in the city and he was about to make partner at a record pace. Over the years, however, multiple members from his firm disappeared for various strange reasons. Freak accidents like a skiing accident in the Alps, and a horrific car accident. Had it not been for the firm’s amazing achievements, such as winning high-profile court cases, this news would have been of significance. I decided, after some time, that I had done enough work for the day and began looking forward to dinner time. The organization regarding food was meticulous, each of us receiving a piece of paper with all the possible food choices for each day. I decided to keep it simple and checked the same box for each day. This box was for chicken, steamed vegetables, and baby potatoes.
We all gathered outside around the campfire, food in our laps, and began sharing the stories we were working on. I kept the details of my story mostly to myself, I never had the urge to share it all. This was mostly due to the fact that I was on to something great and I feared it being stolen. As the trays we were eating from became slowly more barren, I realized that about half of the group did not do any writing yet, which created more reluctantly in sharing my own work. This part of the group also did not indulge in their vegetables, I wonder if there was a correlation. Emily finally stood up and got our attention, the group went silent.
“This is the end of the first day and I want to share with you some thoughts about trusting your gut as a writer and writing freely.”
Emily educated the group using quotes and teachings from many of the greatest writers of the past century. The information was well thought out and relevant for the entire group. I looked around the campfire to see how everyone was responding and spotted Susan, on her phone. She seemed disinterested.
“Susan, you seem a bit distracted, why don’t you read us your opening paragraph and the group will give you constructive feedback,” Emily asked.
Susan shot up, her posture changing to a more active one, life being shot back into her.
“Yea I would love to, but just remember that it is my first draft.”
She stood up and began reading with great enthusiasm, like an author who was sharing her work at a book reading. I imagine the audience here was her biggest so far.
Emily read her opening paragraph, which read like any page from Fifty Shades of Grey, breaking all the rules of good writing, rules Emily just spent an hour going over. I started feeling bad for all of the feedback she was going to receive from the group but then I realized they were eating it up, even Rasta guy. The women especially let out ooehs and aaahs as Susan finished. My face began to redden. I wanted to scream out and let her know that she was a poor man’s version of whoever wrote Fifty Shades of Grey. I wanted to let her know that “his throbbing member” was not acceptable literature. I wanted to let her know that “10 things I hate about you” made fun of this very line in their movie. I remained quiet until it was time to give my feedback, the group had just finished universally praising her, like she was J.K Rowling. After collecting myself somewhat, I responded.
“I think you need to avoid writing that reads like something E.L James would write,” I said.
“Well, I don’t think you know what the genre entails, this is how you write vampire teenage erotica,” Susan said as she passed me a look of pure evil and disgust.
She had more to say.
“I have written three novels, just trust me on this. You always were jealous of me and it shows even now.”
“It’s just some constructive criticism Susan, that’s all.”
I looked around the room, hoping for some sort of agreement, most of the group seemed to agree with Susan, her writing was genius. I quickly excused myself, dinner was finished and I had overstayed my welcome. The safety of my cabin was a welcome feeling. I continued writing, but this time a new story entered my mind. Starting another story seemed dangerous since I had a good thing going but I followed my gut feeling. I wrote until about 2 AM, the story spilled out of me once more. The days more or less went by exactly as the last and consisted of awkward critique sessions, heated discussions, and meals that consisted of exactly chicken, seasonal vegetables and baby potatoes. Susan never visited again and I never shared any real details of my story to the group.
The program brochure stated that we would all read our first five pages of our work on the final day. We all gathered around the campfire outside, once again. I felt eager to share what I had been working on, it was nearly a fully finished first draft written at a record pace, a pace even Lance Armstrong would be proud of. Emily thanked us for participating and mentioned something about our group being unique and full of talent. I wondered if she said this to every group that came through this retreat. Eager to share my writing with the group, I volunteered to go first. It was the first time I took this kind of initiative when it came to sharing my writing. I stood up with full confidence, the words began spilling out.
“It was a hot summer day spent at the local swimming pool. Was I there to swim, exercise or simply gaze upon the boys on the cusp of puberty? Maybe both. I had my eye on Damian, he hit puberty before the rest of them and always wore tight yellow trunks, revealing his bulging member. I imagined myself being taken by him in the boy’s locker rooms during closing time. My hormones were raging uncontrollably.”
I finished reading the first pages of my story, made up five days ago in my cabin, it was my secret project. The group loved it, but especially Emily. Susan was not amused, turning red before I finished my passage. I decided from that moment that I would publish this piece of art, just to see if I could, just to spite Susan. The focus of the group shifted entirely to me, they had decided it was great. It got to the point that I almost forgot that this was one big elaborate joke. Emily gave me some of her contacts, she had published a total of seven novels in her time. Within a few months and a few edits later, I was ready to be published by a popular and well-known publishing house. The deal I got with them was quite lucrative. I decided to add a final touch to the acknowledgment page of the book. It read like this.
“For Susan, you inspired me”
I had the first printed copy sent to her house. The book sold 50,000 copies in the first four months. It was a huge unintended success.