Fall 2010, Volume 9

Nonfiction by Tamara K. Adelman

Showdown at Sagebrush

She’s sipping coffee, eyes darting like someone in REM sleep. I first met Merrill at the Albuquerque airport, all gray skin and the skinniest legs I’d ever seen. She almost didn’t make it, said her dog got sick last night—he might have Lyme’s disease—she took him to her parents’ house at one in the morning, and then drove to LaGuardia.

Merrill wishes she’d been better able to prepare for her class with Robert Boswell, the author of The Heyday of the Insensitive Bastards. I am the opposite: Completely prepared. I tell her my piece is perfect. I wrote it weeks ago, it’s exactly the 4,000 words suggested, and I brought fourteen copies, collated and stapled, so the rest of the class could critique it.

You never know, she says, try to keep an open mind.

Open mind? What does she know about me? I’ve just come from Ironman France, not my first triathlon, where I was overcome by exhaustion and humbled by failure and still had the courage to write about it. And she’s complaining about her crappy dog-sitting arrangement and inability to properly prepare for a workshop that everyone signed up for weeks or months ago?

I’d spent the last six months in my apartment—when I wasn’t training for the Ironman—amassing a significant amount of work, honing my skills, and perfecting my craft. I designed a spreadsheet to keep track of my submissions. So, no, I would not be keeping an open mind. My mind was made up.

My writing experience at that time consisted of being editor of The Charter, my high school newspaper, having a travel piece published in Waterski, and a story about finishing an Ironman race had been chosen for an upcoming issue of an online literary magazine. The Taos Summer Writer’s Conference was my chance to get feedback from, and rub elbows with, successful authors. Well, one author anyway. After researching the available mentors, Mark Sundeen seemed worthy. He’d written for Outside and The New York Times Magazine. He wrote all the fundraising e-mails for Howard Dean’s campaign from a trailer in Moab, Utah. Well-rounded, qualified, but also cute, Mark was about my age, and smart—his parents were teachers, he had good genes.

When it’s finally time to board the shuttle, Merrill holds up the works, digging through her sloppy bag for cash to pay for the ride to Taos that the rest of us prepaid with our credit cards. She falls asleep in the back row within minutes.

The Sagebrush Inn is old and quaint, but not charming or efficient. They told me I was the first to book my room back when I’d called, but somehow in the process of booking everybody else they lost my reservation and had no place left for me. I remain calm, leave my bag behind the desk and head to the opening night dinner. Mark, the leader of my workshop, is in the buffet line: blonde hair, blue eyes, and a beard, he looks like a farmer from the Midwest. Grabbing a plate, I introduce myself. He asks for information he should know from the e-mails I’ve sent him, like where I’m from. We’re both from California, me for the last five years, and he originally. I don’t know if I was looking for a boyfriend or a mentor, but my heartbeat shot up when I saw him.

There are twelve writers in our group, “The New Nonfiction: What magazines are buying and MFA programs aren’t teaching” sit together. There’s Nancy, who offers to share her room in case they don’t come up with mine, and Hans from Texas, who already has a movie deal for his book about being a shill for an exclusive dating service for rich women. Mark sits across from me and after dinner reaches over with his fork and eats my desert. He must like me.

The title of the workshop makes me feel that just by picking it, I saved 30,000 bucks on an MFA, and later I realize that it was meant to make me feel that way. This is probably how the folks who voted for Howard Dean in the primary felt. That Mark is good. He had a 100% query-to-published-story-ratio.

He wrote a couple of books too, in addition to the e-mails, articles, and the title of the workshop. The first is about living in his car while driving around Nevada, California, Arizona, and Colorado, which I enjoyed, and the second is about bullfighting, which I found tedious.

When the winner of the D.H. Lawrence Fiction Award is announced after dinner, and it’s Merrill, for a book as skinny as her legs, I am shocked. She has a book? She’s a real writer? She stands, and she’s turned gorgeous. Now, I recognize her from the event flyer. She’s done something with her hair, put on a summer dress, makeup too.

Turns out she’d gotten a free ride, a scholarship to this thing. I paid 600 bucks.

Later, I find Mark at Wally Lamb’s reading and wonder if I should sit with him, but decide, instead, to sit with the Texan, who I’m already sick of because it’s way too easy to get attention from him. After twenty minutes, it seems clear that Wally Lamb is going to read his entire book out loud, so I leave to see if they’ve found me a room and spot Mark and Merrill sitting together, chatting it up.

I’m upgraded to a suite which they tell me to keep quiet about. I don’t get too excited, this place probably wasn’t posh back in 1923, when it opened, and it certainly hasn’t gotten better with age. The main design feature seems to be the parking lot in the middle. There’s no good place to hang out, to congregate, as I’ve heard writers do. Thankfully there is a bar.

Having retrieved my bag, I stop for a well-deserved drink and meet a woman who looks more like a CPA than a writer, but there’s a conference nametag dangling around her neck. It says “Naomi” and she’s in Robert Boswell’s class. There’s someone in her class who didn’t send her work in advance like they were supposed to and—wait a minute—is her name Merrill? Yes, Naomi says, and when she did finally submit something, it was in yellow ink so nobody could read it.

It’s hard to wheel my suitcase on the gravel as I search for my room, and now it’s dark. Mark and Merrill stop me. Do you know if the bar is still open, Mark asks. It just closed, I say. They want to know if I have a car. I give Merrill a glance, we rode in on the bus together, for God’s sake, am I that forgettable? Later, in my room, I decide not to let this Mark and Merrill thing affect me. Screw them.

I can’t teach you to be a genius, but I can teach you to be clear, Mark tells us the first day of his workshop. Writing is timeless rather than convenient, he says.

I’m nervous but volunteer to go first and have my story critiqued. We’re not supposed to say anything until the entire discussion of our work is over.

I am stunned that my perfect piece contains two typos and a cliché. There are two older gentlemen in the class, and one of them says the guy I wrote about is a total jerk, and the other one, who’s being anthologized this fall, says I can really write. I take this to heart as it’s my only praise.

Mark’s feedback is more critical. He says, I admire the emotional honesty in your essay, but there’s a lot of projection and self-help language in it. Insights are more interesting if they are about the author and not the person she is writing about. I put my hand over my mouth. He says I should make it funnier instead of making the reader uncomfortable, since he can’t tell if parts are supposed to be funny or sad. My shoulders rise to my ears. He highlights a couple of unfortunate word choices in the story. Like when I hug the main character long enough to feel something. I pull the hood of my sweatshirt up.

If I wasn’t uncomfortable enough reading the part of my essay about sexual text messages, Hans, the Texan, asks me for my cell phone number before class is over.

After class, I take my lunch to my room and sit out on the balcony where I read the comments written by the other writers, rewriting while everything is fresh in my brain, weighing the ending, which some people really liked, but Mark thought was a band aid. Nancy leans out from her balcony. She asks if we can talk later. Her makeup is smeared; she’s been crying. I can’t believe what Mark said to me, she says. Give me an hour—I’ll meet you in the parking lot, I say.

On my way to meet her, I pass by the small swimming pool with green water and floating brown leaves. I find Mark tanning his shirtless chest, his face covered with a towel. It’s funny to see him there though the fence, an Outward Bound-type of guy, sitting on a slab of cement. I’m out of my element too, maybe I should just stick to triathlons where being obsessed is rewarded. Ironmans are hard, but this writing thing, the pace is killing me. And whatever is going on with Mark, that’s even worse. I tell Nancy he’s just picking on us because our writing is good and he wants to help us make it better. He may be smart, but he’s mean, she says.

That night, at Mark’s reading, there’s an empty Negra Modelo bottle under his seat when he stands to recount a tale of cleaning the bathroom on a rafting trip. He’s got an ability to glamorize the scatological. The next author has a softer voice, and I don’t pay any attention until he says, It was the kind of day that made me want to stick my dick out the window and fuck the world. That gets everyone’s attention. At first I think, these readings are a shock competition—one-upping the dropped jaw. But then I realize I am acting the same way. It’s my competitiveness that seeks approval from a guy like Mark, but yet here I am engaging in a secret showdown with Merrill.

When it’s time for the reading by Elizabeth Strout, this year’s Pulitzer Prize winner in fiction, her section stands and applauds. What she reads is dignified, I am grateful, and I wonder if maybe I should have been in her group. Of course, then I would have to write fiction. I look around the room of three hundred people and can’t spot anybody from my group.

Outside the auditorium, Mark looks down at the empty spot on the table where all of Robert Boswell’s books have sold. I wish I could write like that, he says. Naomi told me that Boswell is on to Merrill. Even though I never cracked his book, I think he deserves to have sold every one of them.

After class, Nancy wants to invite Mark to join us for dinner in town. He’s reluctant—which I knew he would be—but I assure him we will act normal and not spend the whole time asking him about writing. The Sagebrush is outside of Taos, so Nancy’s rental car comes in handy. As we’re loading up, Mark spots Merrill across the parking lot. Hey Merrill, he says, come with us! I don’t want her, she’s not part of our group. She says maybe she’ll come later, get a ride with somebody else. I’m momentarily relieved. Mark and I sit in the backseat.

Mark asks me, So, do you ever date younger guys? I say, It seems like a good way to feel like an old hag. The occupants of the front seat laugh. This is kind of what I wanted, him to ask me personal questions, but I feel uncomfortable. He adds, I ask because my girlfriend’s thirty-one. She’s a vegetarian and has a garden.

No wonder he’s been eating meat all week.

We arrive at the place that’s supposed to have the best margaritas in town. Mark and I each order one and I ask him if he wants to split a beer, too. I order a Negra Modelo. He looks at me like I am completely crazy and seems relieved when Merrill arrives. She orders a drink.

So Merrill, I say, tell me about this community where you’ve been living. She’d mentioned something about a writers’ community that sounded like it was in a field somewhere. Oh no, that would be telling, she says, and turns around to talk to somebody at a table behind us.

For our entertainment, she produces her cell phone—Here’s a picture of your teacher, she says like she’s some kind of expert. It shows Mark standing in front of a street lamp with moths all around him. They must be hanging out every night. She announces she’s going to smoke a cigarette, and Mark says, I’ll go with you, and jumps up. He won’t split a beer with me but there’s appeal in sharing a smoke with Merrill? Go figure.

Merrill says she forgot her wallet, so Mark says, I’ve got you, but I lend her a twenty instead. I hate her; I don’t know why I want to lend her money. It’s my way of controlling things, I guess, of keeping her away from Mark, of pretending that as a female I am her ally.

Mark promised to give us each twenty minutes alone with him to discuss our work. My turn comes after dinner, back at the Sagebrush, at a table outside of the conference center. I bring a stack of papers—all my writing. Maybe you could be more thorough, Mark says, making fun of me. I definitely should have picked a female instructor.

Merrill walks by, says she’s going to the hot tub, does anyone want to join her? Mark seems anxious, he wants to know where Nancy is, who is scheduled next, like he can’t wait for our meeting to be over. I want our time to count. I haven’t made any progress all week.

At lunchtime on the last day, Merrill reads a selection from something she’s working on, but first she asks the audience if anybody knows an obscure piece of trivia about a gun that will legitimize her story. She’ll give a Rockstar Energy Drink for the answer. She holds the black and gold can up, so as to entice us. There is an awkward laugh from someone in the audience.

As Merrill reads, she provides a commentary on her own delivery. If she says the word whir, she emits the noise and then says, weird. We laugh at how unprofessional she is, and when she’s finished she slinks off the stage, looking back, as if uncertain. But really she’s a fox crossing a suburban lawn, sure and stealthy. Mark is waiting for her at a table, and I get up and ask her if she’s got that twenty dollars she owes me. Oh, I’m not like that she says, and winks at me, but doesn’t give me the money.

The week in Taos was nothing I hoped it would be. I don’t feel inspired; I’ve not written a word; the cute guy ignored me, or worse; and I’m out 20 bucks on top of the conference fees. I could have stayed at home and gotten rejected in my own mailbox. Merrill got everything I wanted, and she didn’t seem to try. I ask my classmates what they think about their week. Apparently no one idealized Mark as much as me, but they all seem happy. Sure, they would have liked to do more writing, but they seem confident they will. I wonder. I feel like I missed something, like I’ve been had. I still don't know what magazines are buying that MFA programs aren't teaching. I feel like I did at my last race, like I'm on the wrong side of enchantment.

At the barbeque on the last night, Mark excuses himself early to get some rest, he’s exhausted from teaching. He promises to say good-bye to us later, before he gets a ride into town for his flight the next morning. A few of us move our plastic chairs over to the fence to get a better view of the sunset. Hans had to leave early—he had a date lined up in Santa Fe so our group is minus one, if you don’t count Mark, who I thought was missing the whole time. I think he’s just shy, Nancy says.

An artist once told me to stick around for a few minutes after the sun sets. Thatís when the interesting things start to happen, he said. He was talking about the light. Thatís when I turn and see Mark, dressed in black, his blond hair glowing, wheeling his suitcase away. I am the only one who sees him leave.


BIO:  Tamara K. Adelman is a massage therapist, triathlete, and freelance writer living in Santa Monica, California. She has a B.A. from George Washington University. Devoted to training and traveling, she has competed in Ironman races in Brazil, South Africa, the Canary Islands, and Europe. Equally devoted to developing her writing, she has attended the Taos Writers Conference and is enrolled in the Creative Nonfiction Certificate Program at UCLA. As a freelance writer, her work focuses on travel, fitness, and action sports. She can be found most days looking out at the Santa Monica Bay, as she writes the next story or trains for the next raceóin passionate pursuit of perfection: the finish line. Her work has appeared in Toasted Cheese Literary Magazine and Waterski