This story below was excerpted from The Invention of Love by Sara Schaff and reprinted here with permission of Split/Lip Press and the author.
The End of the Workshop
For the first evening of class, The Professor asked his new graduate students to bring in one page of their favorite piece of writing. The students had to prepare a little presentation about why they’d chosen the piece, and that particular writer. The Professor had been giving this assignment for over two decades, and he had liked it initially because the students liked it, and because it often informed their discussions for the rest of the semester. But the reason he still liked the assignment was because he no longer listened while the students talked, and the three-hour class passed by without him needing to prepare anything in advance.
Because he did not listen, he had no sense of how hard each of these new students had deliberated over which writer to talk about. They wanted their responses to feel genuine, yet smart. They wanted their admiration to feel real, and to inspire admiration in their classmates and in their professor, too.
He was not famous, and yet they still believed he was powerful. He had the largest office of all the faculty, and the nicest classroom, with wood-paneled walls, and a large, round wooden desk. All of their other classes were in narrow, fluorescent-lit classrooms, at tables they could barely all fit around.
The students did not yet know that this professor did not care who their favorite writers were, but it would soon become clear.
What these students would also learn, from graduate students who had been in the program longer, was that The Professor had once been almost famous, but had been discovered, after his first successful book, to have little actual talent beyond seeing a manuscript through from beginning to end. (A talent they would, themselves, appreciate in a few years.) And so he feared the talent of others.
The talent of his male students, that is. As for the talent in his female students—he did not fear that at all, because he did not see it. He believed that eventually his female students would marry and have children and possibly teach writing in college, maybe even publish a book or two that would sit quietly on the shelf of a used bookstore somewhere in the country, next to other unremarkable novels by women and forgettable men. If he knew one true thing about his female students, it was that they would never be called geniuses.
One of his female students was talking now about the writer she most admired. Outside the tall windows, the sky took on a burning, golden hue. For the first time that evening, The Professor kind of listened. This student was very pretty. Not especially young—thirties, he guessed, but she had the look he liked: pale, full mouth, dark and thoughtful eyes, the kind of face that was approachable, smiled easily, and was, therefore also unlikely to tell him to fuck off.
Hearing the name of the writer she admired—a woman, a contemporary of his (English, not American)—he let out a chuckle.
The pretty student stopped talking. “Excuse me?” she said.
She looked confused, poor girl. In his most gallant voice he said, “Please. Continue.”
She did. She read the page from one of this writer’s novels—not the most famous one, and not one The Professor had read, but one he knew about. The other students seemed to murmur in admiration of the writing, too. They laughed at the funny bits. He did not laugh, because he did not find the bits funny.
Usually, on a first day of workshop he’d simply watch the pretty students’ mouths. He’d allow his eyes to settle on a girl’s breasts, then imagine what it would be like to fuck her. Before fucking her, he might first tell her about the many students he’d slept with, in his distant past. “Oh! You don’t believe me, but I still have their love letters!” he would say, and it was all true. He knew he looked old to them. But once he’d been young and handsome and everyone had said he was going to be the next Great American Novelist.
Normally, he’d allow himself to simply drift away into these pleasant memories, but tonight he felt a new and unexpected irritation behind his eyes. The writer this girl loved—there was no other way of saying it—was famous. Revered even, in some literary circles. And not just as a fiction writer, but as a philosopher. She was a Dame, in fact, and he had once met her at a conference at Harvard. Quite a handsome woman, good figure. But an unattractive haircut, totally unbecoming and boyish. While drinking her glass of bourbon (neat), she had looked past him, through him, and addressed all her remarks to Seamus Heaney, whom, The Professor believed, was also overrated.
He chuckled again.
Then he realized the room had gone silent. He was still staring at the pretty student’s impressive breasts. So he blinked and took off his glasses and cleaned them with his pocket handkerchief and cleared his throat and knew he had to say something. He normally didn’t say much as students went around on the first day with their favorite writers, who were the writers they wanted to become, or who they wanted their peers to think they might become; even he could see that.
He felt he should say something to this poor girl, warn her off such misguided aspirations. He patted the book in front of him, the book he planned to read from at the end, the big finale. It was a hardcover, the dust jacket removed, so no one could read the title or author’s name. “She could have used a better editor,” he said. “Just pages and pages of draff.” He paused, tapped his book again, grinned suggestively. “But a wild drinker, wild life. I could tell you stories!”
The room was quiet. He cleared his throat.
He nodded at the next student, a broad-shouldered Asian-American man who awkwardly lifted the book he’d had his thumb pressed into this whole time, saving the page, waiting for his moment to read and talk about this particular page and these particular words. He looked first, very briefly, at the pretty girl. And then he began to speak in a voice that was too loud for the room.
The Professor could still tune him out. He thought again of the well-regarded writer he’d just maligned. He did not regret maligning her. But a glance at the pretty student’s face and he could tell he’d hurt her. Her mouth was turned down, her eyes averted. For a moment he felt badly, but then he thought her hurt could turn out to be useful.
He was powerful. But not, when he examined it, in the way he wished to be powerful. He knew famous writers, and he knew rich people. He and his wife were, in fact, very rich, and lived in a beautiful house and traveled frequently to Paris, where they had a second home. The combination of these facts gave him the kind of sheen of the near-famous, the power of proximity. He could get away with what he wanted to get away with because of the idea he might introduce people to either fame or fortune or both. He had done so once, many years ago—with a young writer who had received many awards—and so the suggestion remained (whispered in the halls) that he could and would do so again. He was just waiting for the right one. This girl might do.
He scanned the room. Eight men. Four women. It wasn’t a great ratio for him. The boys looked energetic and hungry. They’d all get together after class to talk about workshop and to drink. He suspected they liked to throw back a few. The women—aside from the pretty one? One was too old, one very fat, and the last one, in the seat closest to him, but with one empty chair between them, was Black.
In her twenties, a beautiful age, but skinny as a blade of grass, no tits to speak of, with a thin, hard mouth.
When it finally came to her turn, he listened long enough to hear her say the name of her chosen writer, and the name at first delighted him—because he knew this man well—then irritated him immediately after.
For it was the name of the man he’d once been compared to most often: lauded New England novelist, master of prose, who The Professor knew for a fact—everyone knew—was a terrible womanizer, even though his third wife was incredibly beautiful, a former student, and totally unsuspecting. The Professor admired this writer, envied him, felt flashes of rage anytime he heard good literary news about the old man with the charmed life. He’d done some therapy about it, mostly unhelpful.
The Professor was rarely compared to the Charmed Writer anymore. In fact The Professor was never compared him anymore, or to any other writer, living or dead.
Without him realizing it, something had shifted in the room. This skinny girl had shifted it.
“I mean, yes,” she was saying. “It’s a gorgeous piece of writing. It’s the story that made me want to become a writer.” She paused, looked around the circle, eyes scornful the moment they glanced at The Professor, and continued, “But when I look at it now, I can see it’s just bullshit. It’s good writing—”masculine” writing, they like to say. But it’s empty. All the women in this novel are just vessels for the men’s sexual desires. They’re not real.”
There were some nods of agreement, even from the male students.
The Professor felt his irritation kick in again. “But that wasn’t the assignment, was it?” he said.
Her gaze pierced him. “Pardon?”
“The assignment was to talk about a writer you admire, a writer whose work you love.”
She smiled. Ever so slightly. When she smiled, he found her lovely.
“Well, I did admire him,” she said. She spoke slowly now, confidently. And as she spoke, she radiated a glowing curiosity—which The Professor only recognized as beauty. “And now I don’t anymore.” She looked at him without blinking. “I thought that was an interesting way to consider the assignment: how what we love changes because what we understand changes.”
The pretty girl agreed. “I love that idea. Who knows where we’ll be when we graduate from here, what our writing will look like, who our favorite writers will be?”
One of the male students, a tall man with too much hair, said, “Plus, he’s a total racist. Have you all read the story about the—”
Students were already nodding vehemently.
Now The Professor felt he had to come to the defense of the Charmed Writer, who he disliked, but whose name did not deserve this kind of attack. The man was a Pulitzer-prize winner!
“He’s a really remarkable man, very progressive. His second wife was Chinese.”
The girl who’d first attacked the Charmed Writer proceeded to—he couldn’t believe this—to laugh.
“Good for him,” she said, still laughing. And then she looked straight at him, and her smile faded. He felt her loveliness retreat. She did not look away. Suddenly he felt too hot, the pain in his lower back flared. He looked down at his shirt cuffs and rolled them up, taking his time. Something else radiated from her now, and he thought it best not to name it.
“Well!” he said. He had to bring things to a close. “I suppose it’s my turn now.”
And so he patted the book in front of him, the one he would read from. “I won’t tell you the writer’s name. Perhaps you will be able to guess.”
The pretty student exchanged looks with the skinny one. He didn’t want to examine the look’s meaning.
Initially, he had planned to read a passage from The Sound and the Fury, the book that had made him want to become a writer. But this afternoon while browsing the shelves of the neighborhood secondhand bookstore, he’d changed his mind.
And so he began to read the opening from his very own first novel, the best book he’d written, and honestly the favorite one he’d ever read:
“The end came unexpectedly for Edward. For everyone else, it came as no surprise.”
The Professor paused. He looked around the table and knew, without a doubt, that his students were not listening to him.
He tried not to mind. He still found the words a beautiful surprise. He sometimes liked to read them out loud, sometimes to his wife, when she would let him. (“A triumphant first book,” a critic had written. The same critic who later said, about his third novel, “A dull little portrait of bourgeois domesticity.”)
The Professor had heard the words of his first book as music when writing them and still wanted others to hear them in the same way. Yet he knew they did not. Because today he had found ten copies—four of them signed!—at the bookstore that he visited once a month with the express purpose of torturing himself.
This music was the opposite of torture. Reading his happy first book—a first edition he’d purchased today for $10!—was like falling in love for the first time. No, it was better than falling in love. As good as the first time he fucked an undergraduate student in his office, her huge tits in his hands, his mouth, her knees splayed on his velvet loveseat. (The second time she had cried and kept her clothes on and left right after.) He could remember the color of her hair (red), but he couldn’t remember her name.
Oh, there was so much he did not remember! So much he did not know! For example, he did not know that wanting something desperately did not guarantee having it. He suspected as much, but he did not know it bodily, because for his entire life he had been given so much in exchange for doing very little, and this was a poor lesson for art.
Even after all these years of teaching, he did not know that wanting his students to revere him would only produce in them unintended effects: boredom, disrespect, and in the worst and most frequent case, hatred.
He could see that in the near future, and for the rest of the semester, he would approach the pretty student at campus literary events and tell her how pretty she looked, how flattering her blouse looked, and then make excuses to touch her: her arm, her hair, her pretty tits. These he would touch through a clever technique he had devised. All the girls wore scarves these days, and he would hook his fingers on either side and slowly adjust, so his hands would graze the contours of a girl’s chest.
Alas, he could not see that everyone he tried this with understood what the trick was. And he could not see they warned each other about it. He could not see that though the pretty and polite student would not report him to the administration for his trick, the skinny student would, after watching him perform it on others.
He already suspected that his irritation with this student would soon turn to disgust. He didn’t suspect that in just two months, another faculty member would confront him about the behavior she reported, the behavior everyone knew about already but only now felt they could talk about (because they had to or else: possible lawsuit). His response? He would tell his colleagues how terrible the skinny girl’s writing was, even though it wasn’t. Far from it! It terrified him how good her work was, and how little he understood it.
He could not see that in spite of his treatment of her, that she would flourish. But not in his workshop, and not in the program. That would prove a disaster for her—alienating, isolating, sleepless—and it would take years to recover. Years in which she would barely write or talk to other writers. Instead, she would hop from job to job: ESL instructor in Korea, copywriter in Seattle, textbook editor in Chicago. But eventually she would gather up the dreams of her former self, sit herself down every evening after work for twelve months straight, and she would write it all: all the terrible and beautiful things in her body and mind, and she would use them to conjure a story that would make her readers weep from joy and recognition and relief.
By then, The Professor would be long retired, and living a life many would envy: expensive and comfortable vacations, beautiful grandchildren, all the time he wanted to write. And oh, he would write. But he would not be happy. Especially the first time he opened the newspaper to see his former student’s name on the Bestseller list. Though he would have forgotten her long ago, her name would ring a little warning bell. And he would be especially unhappy, though still unable to pinpoint why, when he saw the cover of her book in the window of his favorite bookstore in town (not the secondhand one). And when the program invited her to campus to give a reading, the current director would invite him in his capacity as Professor Emeritus, and he would attend, expecting a little pleasant fawning from current faculty and staff, but as soon as he saw his former student sitting in the front row, radiant and holding her glorious book, surrounded by young admirers now studying in the program, he would feel immediately ill and have to call his wife to bring the car around.
For now, though, he was delighted: reading his favorite novel aloud to an audience. He finished reading one page, and then he read another. He could recite the words from memory, but he enjoyed the way they looked on the page: a permanent record of his former mind. He suspected that the students who were pretending to take notes were merely writing their own future novels. But he did not care. He read until he couldn’t anymore, until his eyes were too tired and his voice was thin and the sky outside the tall windows had gone completely dark.
Sara Schaff is the author of The Invention of Love (Split Lip Press 2020) as well as a previous collection of stories, Say Something Nice About Me (Augury Books 2016), a CLMP Firecracker Award Finalist in fiction and a 2017 Next Generation Indie Book Award Finalist for short fiction. Her writing has appeared in Kenyon Review Online, Gay Magazine, The Missouri Review (BLAST), Yale Review Online, Michigan Quarterly Review, LitHub, and elsewhere. A graduate of Brown University and the MFA program at the University of Michigan, Sara has taught at Oberlin College, the University of Michigan, and St. Lawrence University, as well as in China, Colombia, and Northern Ireland, where she also studied storytelling. Sara lives in the North Country of New York State with her husband, the poet Benjamin Landry, and their daughter. She is an assistant professor of English at SUNY Plattsburgh.
Music by Catlofe
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