“Be Nice To Me Tom, I Have Cancer”–An Inside Look at one of NYC’s Most Well Known Writing Schools

“Be nice to me, Tom, I have cancer,” she said seconds before I gave her my honest opinion.

No one laughed at her comment. The tension was thick as she threw me a wink and a smirk. I wasn’t known for being diplomatic. My critiques were blunt, harsh and honest.

I thought, “I’m supposed to watch what I say just because she has Stage IV breast cancer?” If she was in a wheelchair and couldn’t speak I’d give the same feedback. This was a writing class, not a charity event. It was my turn to tell her how I really felt about the 20-page scrap she’d handed out the week before.

“I only had 48 hours to throw something together,” she added.

I shook my head and thought, “I should get paid for my feedback.”

******************

Classroom #1

I enrolled in my first memoir writing class in January of 2012 and immediately googled the teacher. I expected a boring curriculum vitae about a literary genius. Instead, I found pictures of a woman sporting a tattoo of a flower from her elbow to her shoulder. There were numerous articles about how Mayor Bloomberg yanked her from the Bronx school system because she had written about her former life asPetro #4 a sex worker and published it in the Huffington Post. She was on the front cover of the Daily News and the first page of the New York Post. The further I explored Melissa Petro, the more uneasy I felt. In the year that followed, she’d plastered episodes from her sex life in online mags such as The Rumpus, xoJane, The Friskey, Salon.com and others.

I thought, “Oh shit, what am I getting myself into?”

I’d been writing short stories for decades. I craved interesting memoirs and well-written fiction. I’d read books by Frank McCourt, Jeanette Walls, Augusten Burroughs, Paul Auster, Pete Hamill, Roth, Salinger, Hemingway and others. I felt it was time to take my writing to the next level.

“How is this woman going to teach a Saturday morning memoir class on a topic other than sex?” I wondered. A family member phoned me and said, “Get your money back! She’s teaching a writing class? What the hell is this school thinking?”

Petro #2 I pictured a ditzy tramp in a tight black mini-skirt, red pumps, hot pink lipstick and dangling earrings giving us raunchy lectures on plot and dialogue. My stomach felt queasy. I’d never known a prostitute or met one for that matter. But Petro was a former hooker. A “hooker/teacher” as the papers referred to her. I’d try one class and make a decision to stay, or get credit for another class. It turned out, I didn’t have an issue with the teacher; it was the quality of writing that irked me.

Each week, three or four students were assigned to hand out a 20-page excerpt from a longer piece of writing they’d been working on. It didn’t matter if the piece had been revised or fresh. The following Saturday, we’d critique it. The author being “boothed” or “critiqued” couldn’t speak until the end. After the second session, I couldn’t wait to read a segment from someone else’s life story. But, in my opinion, what I ended up reading was worthless babble with a slew of grammatical errors. Not one writer bothered to edit his work. Some of the students were graduates of Columbia, Harvard, and Barnard. How was that possible?

One woman traveled from Rye, NY and brought her laptop to class the first week as if to say, “I’m that good.”  Her writing stunk, not from content, but from the overuse of smelly adjectives. I read through this mess as an osmagogue of malodorous, smellsome, graveolent and frowsty lexemes stung my eyes.

Another highly medicated lady conjured up some comedic nonsense that in my opinion, made no sense. She fancied herself the next female David Sedaris with dialogue from therapy sessions she had kept while tripping on mushrooms. No matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t make myself care how often she laughed and rolled onto the floor in front of her shrink, one time ripping her jeans at the crotch.                                Devil #1

A woman from Trinidad handed in a piece from a memoir about raising a son who had been diagnosed at a young age with schizophrenia. She described the exorcism performed with someone yelling about a devil. “Devil! Come out of ma son! You gittin’ all angree and causin’ him da bad life.” The first ten pages were one long sentence with no periods, commas or quotations.

I said to myself, “What in God’s name am I reading?”

I do not consider myself a master of the English language, but if you say you’re a Harvard grad, how do you have the audacity to show up to a writing class and hand in this crap? Petro gave us the standards on feedback.

“We’d like to keep this a safe environment. We’ll start out with two positives about the writer’s piece, and then two suggestions for improvement.”

I wasn’t sure how the class would react to my “constructive criticism” but I didn’t care. Safe environment? Why? If I had to slog through this gunk for eight more Saturdays, then the writer would have to listen to very little positive reinforcement. It wasn’t because I disliked the person. I wanted the author to realize, that in my opinion, if you wanted to be a writer, take it seriously. Practice your craft.  It seemed that Petro and I were on the same page for the remainder of the course, only her feedback came across as much more professional.

A few writers handed in readable pieces that I enjoyed. Some of the students appreciated my feedback. They loved that I told my perspective. Most didn’t and took it personally. One lady yelled out, “You’re the Simon Cowell of this writing class!” It puzzled me that the majority of the class would praise a piece of writing that was so bad, you could smell the rotten egg odor emanating from the page. What were they afraid of, hurting someone’s feelings? My work was critiqued twice. I nodded and thanked the class but took the reviews with a pound of salt knowing that, in my opinion, half the class was illiterate.

After our final session, I thanked Melissa. The feedback she gave on my memoir was very helpful. She inspired me to keep writing and even forward a small piece I’d written for a homework assignment to some online magazines. It was published in the April 2012 edition of parentingexpress.com. Parenting Express

Three weeks later, I entered Advanced Memoir on a weekday evening with a different instructor. I had googled him and saw that he’d published a memoir. I was impressed. The first day he jotted down some authors on the marker board and asked if we’d read any of their work. I was intimidated. In the class, there were 12 writers I’d never met, two who came to the first session with handouts for feedback the following week. One by one we introduced ourselves to the class. Some had taken this teacher as many as five or six times. One gentleman was in his ninth consecutive session with the same teacher. I couldn’t wait to read his work.

Since this was a more experienced group (so I thought), I anticipated quality writing in the form of pristine manuscripts and page turners. Instead, I was handed, in my opinion, more rolls of toilet paper stained with Toilet paperrun-on sentences and misspelled words. Each week I’d hear the same garbage, “I loved this piece” and “This story moved me in so many ways.”

I thought, “This crap moved me as well, from the kitchen to the bathroom with stomach cramps.”

My feedback hardly varied. I was just as brutal with my comments. When referring to the person being boothed, we had to use the word “author,” one of the teacher’s strict rules. He’d often interrupt my train of thought and ask what I meant when I said “the author’s intro put me to sleep” and “the dialogue is lame.” Some of the writers were a bunch of zombie-like neophytes when it came to the written word and I was embarrassed to be in their company. The last class couldn’t have come more quickly but I needed to keep writing. I enrolled in another writing class with the same instructor.

 

*********************

 

The second she started to cry, I heard my name in the plethora of sobs.

“Tom! Do you realize I’m writing this for my daughter so she has something to read when I’m gone….”

She wailed as three women ran behind her and hugged her as if to say, “He’s an asshole, don’t worry about it.”

I had made a friend in the class, Xiomara Maldonado, soon after the term began. We messaged back and forth a few times and started a friendship. It was in that fourth class, the night of August 2nd, that hell broke loose. The woman with Stage IV breast cancer told the class that because she had volunteered to switch booth places with someone else, she had had to quickly conjure up a piece of writing to hand in. That’s all I had to hear. She got an earful.

“First, I didn’t understand any of it. Not sure where you’re going with this. If this is part of a bigger piece, you need to sizzle us at the beginning. There’s no character development and the dialogue is just plain horrible…”

I went home and emailed Xiomara. She said I needed to be more diplomatic in my approach. We practiced back and forth. Somehow, I couldn’t imagine that happening. I received an email from the teacher. In some ways, I felt terrible. I emailed an apology to the student. She sent me back a “go screw yourself” message. The teacher emailed us, frustrated.

 

Massage Therapist #1Two weeks later another woman handed in an odd piece of writing written in the 3rd person. It was about her after-hours occupation as a massage therapist offering happy endings. She didn’t prep us. I thought the writing was plagiarized from a romance novel. That’s what I told her. The following week she never showed.

After the woman with breast cancer left on a vacation for South Africa and never came back, the massage therapist dropped out. The final showdown came after the sixth class. I had critiqued a piece of writing from a woman who had broken off a ten-year relationship with her boyfriend. It was a one-sided rant about her long-time nebbish.                                                                                                                          Tuna Fish

She slandered him by saying, “You called me to ask me how to open a can of tuna fish. I’m on a date, you prick.”

I ripped it apart saying I wanted to hear his side. Most of her dialogue was written out of frustration. It was far from believable. She stood up after class and began a heated argument with the teacher. It got loud, then louder. I left when the walls began to shake. I received an email from the instructor the following morning telling me never to take his class again.

I wondered if I had done some emotional damage to some students along the way. Could it be that I was discouraging the next Dave Eggers? I even imagined a hysterical young girl calling her parents after class and hiccupping into the receiver.

Luggage“Ma! I was a creative (hiccup) writing major. Who (hiccup) is he to tell me…”

But then again, in my opinion, these three women did have excess baggage. They were a group of disturbed women who should have never been in a writing class. I’m not one to hold back. If you hand in an unpolished manuscript, I will shred you, but in a way I feel will make you a better writer. That’s what people needed to understand.

 

I took a different teacher next. I’ve stuck with her and the same school because I’ve made some very dear friends in her classes. I’m sure there are those who don’t want to see or hear from me again. I’m fine with that. The handouts I read weekly are still laden with bad sentence Orange Is the New Blackstructure, raunchy distasteful content and grammatical errors. Two of last term’s students handed in 30 page single-spaced bore-fests. How does that happen? An author was formally invited to one of our classes last term. She had written a book that will soon appear as a series on Netflix. Only eight out of 14 students showed that night. Where is the respect? I shook my head and shrugged my shoulders.

After the term ended, I made suggestions to the school on a written evaluation. In my opinion, students should have to hand in a 10-page piece to be critiqued by a board of writing teachers, and wait to be appointed to the next level. I’m at the point where the only feedback I care about is the teacher’s.

I’ve since read my second instructor’s memoir and enjoyed it. I emailed him afterwards and he responded favorably. In my opinion, the dirty air has been cleared. I’ve kept in touch with Ms. Petro ever since that first class. Xiomara and I are still the best of friends. If you want to be a writer, hug that keyboard every day. Pound those keys. Keep rewriting until your fingers bleed. Take a writing class and be a perfectionist. Learn to take criticism, even if it’s harsh. It hurts, but there may be a kernel of truth in it that will make you a better writer.

Winston Churchill  In the words of Winston Churchill, “Criticism may not be agreeable, but it is necessary. It fulfills the same function as pain in the human body. It calls attention to an unhealthy state of things.” Now that’s nice.

Look What The Cat Dragged Out

LaSalle St #2

It seems like only yesterday that I moved from Long Island into my girlfriend’s studio apartment in Manhattan on the outskirts of West Harlem on the Upper West Side. My building sits between Amsterdam and Broadway, on the safe side of the street, barricaded in with, maybe twenty or so security guards. It’s across the street from the General Grant Housing Projects. Why would I risk my life and move into a neighborhood where I can’t tell if it’s gunshots or fireworks? Why would I subject myself nightly to hearing a man from 13 stories up blare out of a mega-phone, “Stay in your car.” It’s hard to explain. Since high school I’ve loved the sight of Times Square, the thunder of Broadway, the sizzle of excitement. I’ve always wanted to live here, regardless of the neighborhood. Public transportation has become my way of life now and I like the fact I can order food and have my laundry delivered and never have to leave my apartment. I’ve always loved the bright lights and have gotten used to the roar of the subway. It’s the people on my floor that I’m not so sure about.

Lady and Dog#1I saw Ramona the other day. She’s this short, doughy woman with thinning light brown hair and glasses in her mid-sixties who lives at the end of my hall. Somehow she’s always in eye view. It’s almost as if she sniffs my scent as I exit my studio. Most of the time she’s either waiting for the elevator with her dog Dirty Harry, or waddling down the hall ready to spill the latest saga of her chaotic escapades into my tenuously tranquil life. Sometimes she’s outside, rain or shine, shuffling down the path of least resistance. Nevertheless, she’s everywhere. Once in awhile her gossip makes me laugh. Other times I’m not coherent enough to even concentrate on her senseless babble. But, she’s nice so I try to listen.

This time she stopped me as I was heading to the subway to inform me that she had enrolled herself in BarberShop school. I stood there smiling as she walked away. “Yoga or Tai Chi” I thought to myself. But, BarberShop school? Before I continued my getaway she blurted out, “It’s the only way I’ll meet a man!” Somehow I can’t picture this lady giving a clip, shave, and an Aqua-Velva spritz to an older gentleman on a humid Saturday afternoon.

“Now that I’ve razored your scalp, will you go out with me?”

The following day Ramona told me she hired a woman to organize her closets. What does that mean? I imagined a female lumberjack in black high tops and a ponytail banging nails and ripping out floorboards. Ramona, her assistant, had a ruler between her teeth rolling in drywall, and Dirty Harry was covered in wood chips.

Then I thought, “If it’s closet space you need, why not stuff the dusty clothes into garbage bags and ship them off to the Salvation Army?”        Closet #1

Plenty of the financially less fortunate could use a smock or an old pair of baggy jeans, even if it is stenched in dog breath. I believe the organizer was going to gather and toss thousands of wire hangers Ramona had kept in boxes at the bottom of her closet. Don’t they have programs on TV about people like this? The stuffer was a woman she plucked from the depths of Riverside Park on the Upper West Side. In a matter of minutes, the good Samaritan must have been knee deep in Ramona’s dirty laundry and agreed to do this task somewhere in the neighborhood of three times without pay. Why would a stranger volunteer such a service? “Our dogs seem to have a chemistry,” Ramona explained. A chemistry. So, two dogs sniffing each other’s private parts in a park brought the hoarder and her helper together?

Then she stopped me in Met Food, our local supermarket to tell me she’d received an anonymous letter in the mail. The sender was foolish enough to scribble a return address.

“He said I was an effigy of the devil!” she cried.

Devil #1 I cracked a smile and held back a chuckle. “The devil?”

“What kind of a human would forward a letter like that?” she asked me.

Maybe Dirty Harry had crapped on the sender’s shoe by accident. Or maybe the letter writer became subjected to an earful of her mindless chatter and got offended at something she said. I shrugged, shook my head, and told her that the sender was probably drunk or stoned. She changed the subject and once again I was lost in her one-sided conversation.

 

I thought about Adele the other day. She was the 89-year-old Jewish lady with the white hair, walker, raspy voice, and coke-bottle glasses, who lived next door. Adele reminded me of an older Anne Ramsey in “Throw Momma From the Train,” only a tad nicer. I never knew Adele existed until the day she rang my doorbell. Unbeknownst to me, she’d been friendly with Jan, my girlfriend, for a few weeks when she decided to           Anita #1welcome herself into my life. As soon as I opened the door that afternoon, there she stood, sideways, hunched over, clutching her walker, in a white cloth nightgown, glaring at me as if I’d eaten her last chocolate chip cookie. We stared each other down for a few seconds, and then it happened. In a deep gravelly tone she belted the words, “Where’s Janice?” leaving out the “r” in a fairly heavy New York accent. I didn’t know how to respond, so I stared.

“Who are you?” she barked.

“Tom,” I replied.

“Well, where’s Janice?” she repeated.

I shrugged and with that, Adele wandered back to her apartment slowly hanging on to that walker for dear life.

A week later the bell rang and I just happened to be home alone again.

“Yeah, where’s Janice?” she snapped as I answered the door.

“Not here,” I told her.

She eyeballed me. I smiled. Then her gruff voice echoed in the hallway,

“Who are you again?”

“Tom, the boyfriend,” I answered.

She gawked at me for a few seconds and then decided to disrupt my evening with the Knicks.

“Tom, the boyfriend, could you help me? My remote is broken. The TV doesn’t work.”

Remote #2I agreed and told her I’d slip some shoes on and come right over. Adele’s pint-sized television had to be twenty years old and sat on a wooden table that was older than that. The volume was cranked up to the highest decibel, because apparently she was hard of hearing. Because of her poor vision, the TV remote was twice the size of a computer keyboard. I wondered how she was even able to lift it when attempting to change a channel. I mean, this contraption mirrored a heavy piece of slate you’d find in a quarry. Each number had to be eight inches in length, four inches in width. The sight of it was comical. I laughed. Then she belted out over the loudness,

“What’s wrong?”

I pointed the remote toward the tube and pressed the number three.

“Nothing,” I yelled.

And with that, the television was fixed.

As I was leaving she grabbed my arm, breathed in my face and said, “Tom, the boyfriend, can I give you some ice cream?”

Two weeks later I was back inside Adele’s neatly cluttered apartment taking the batteries out of her over-sized remote as this time it wouldn’t work at all. I took the elevator down, hopped over to Duane Reade, spent six dollars on double A’s and all was well.

Now she began spewing out phrases from her scratchy voice when I entered and left such as, “Come in, my good friend Tom” and “You’re a doll.”

Adele was in her wheelchair one night when she saw Jan by the elevator. She told Jan to lean down into her face.

In a soft, hoarse tone she whispered into Jan’s ear, “I love him, he’s such a mench.”

In a matter of weeks I had gone from “Who are you?” to “a mench.” What a priceless turn of events. Adele passed away about six months later. I think about her all the time.

 

Christie Smit #2I knocked on Chloe Stack’s door the other day. She’s the quick-witted, energetic, pretty African-American woman with a big chest who wears lots of jewelry and lives across the hall. Her quips are so instantaneous that sometimes I think they’re rehearsed. I could be at my mailbox, meandering down Broadway, or throwing out the trash. There she is, smiling and passing me, and at the same time tossing out some dig such as, “Who cuts your hair, Ramona?”

One morning Stack and I walked out of our apartments at the same time to go off to work.

She glanced at me and in seconds shook her head and uttered, “Look what the cat dragged out.”Black Cat #1

I yawned and with morning tears dripping from the corners of my eyes, responded, “How do you do it?”

As the elevator door opened she asked, “Do what?”

I answered, “Think of this shit. It’s like your brain is on cocaine.”

She smiled and as we hit the ground floor she threw her black leather bag over her shoulder, winked, and chuckled, “See you later, cowboy.”

I had accidentally locked myself out of my apartment one night throwing out the garbage. I’d forgotten to unlock the doorknob as we had a plumber come in to fix a bathtub incident that day. In a daze the door slammed behind me and by the time I realized the door was locked, my own private hell had broken loose. On the stove was a pot filled with water, the gas light on. The plan was pasta, not leaving my keys inside the apartment.

There I was, standing in the middle of the hallway, swearing under my breath, “Oh shit!”

20130314_201638I took the elevator down only to find the lobby empty. Where are the security guards when you need them? I rode the elevator back up and knocked on Stack’s door.

Through a tiny opening she stared at me, “What happened now?”

I stood there silently as this may have been the first time I’d ever knocked on her door. It felt strange.

“Speak up sonny, I’m not here to schmooze,” she told me.

“I locked myself out and…”

As I continued, she opened the door, mumbled the word “figures” under her breath, let me in, and was dialing security. It was only the second time I’d been in her place. There was no dust, not a spec. No newspapers, magazines, strewn clothes anywhere, just a 60-inch flat screen that looked like one giant piece of glass. At one point I thought about emptying a bag of chips onto her floor, and then eating them in front of her.

Still on the phone she turned to me and wanted to know, “Hey, hot shot, what letter are you in?”

I stared dumb founded.

“I guess the drugs have kicked in?” she asked.

Then I realized and smiled. “Oh, letter, OK, E.”

She hung up, plopped herself down on the other couch, threw her legs over the top and sighed, “So, what’s your poison, dude?”

I wasn’t thirsty so we sat and made small talk until security arrived. He opened my door and I immediately unlocked my doorknob as Stack and Mr. Security stood in her doorway and flirted. I scampered back into the kitchen and breathed a sigh of relief as the pot of water had just started to boil.

Stack had a 6’5” firefighter boyfriend for fourteen years. That’s right, fourteen years. No marriage, no kids, fourteen years. Talk about longevity. I’m not sure what ladder he affiliated himself with, but for some reason he was always here, and not out hosing down a luncheonette somewhere. The firefighter had size 18 shoes. They weren’t shoes really, they were muddy clodhoppers. They took up the entire welcome mat. We always knew when he was here. We saw the hoppers and heard his deep bass voice echoing from inside. I think I might have seen him twice. Both times he nodded. Several months passed and I hadn’t seen the big shoes or Stack in quite a long time. Ramona chewed my ear off one night and told me that Chloe and the firefighter were over. I guess there was no more spark. It’s been awhile since then and I rarely ever see Stack anymore. It’s sad because I miss her snide commentary.

 

20130314_201239“Choo Choo” Charlie crossed my mind the other day. I pictured him getting off the elevator with his 10-speed bike, wearing his psychedelic helmet and shorts. That’s right, shorts. He wore them even in the dead of winter. I’d see Charlie in the lobby or outside in sub-zero weather, there he was, in shorts, with his bike. That bike was Charlie’s life. I never saw him without it. But, what made Charlie so unique was that he didn’t work. He was a stay-at-home-Dad who took care of the kids, well, tried to. They used to run up and down the hallway and scream until all hours of the night and Charlie was summoned by his working wife to keep them under control. They’d play kickball, softball, dodgeball in the hallway. Their cackles were so loud our apartment door used to shake and balls used to crash into the wall just outside our door. I mean really, isn’t that what the great outdoors is for?                                                                                                                                                                                          Bicycles in Hallway

Charlie used to park his 10-speed in the hallway which was fine, until his working wife parked her bike next to his. Then one day as I got off of the elevator I saw the two bikes and a card table. The following day, a coffee table was thrown into the mix. Before long, half of their three-bedroom apartment was stashed at the end of the hallway. We were waiting for the book-shelves.

I said to my girlfriend Jan, “What the hell are they doing down there?”

They weren’t renovating. I mean, the guy didn’t work, so what was all of that shit doing in the hallway? And the shit kept moving, closer and closer to our door! I expected one day to come home and find good ol’ Chuck just outside his door, in a recliner, smoking a stogie watching a football game on his sixty inch plasma that he hooked up to the ceiling. The kids didn’t care. They were chasing each other underneath tables and slamming into lamps. Even Chloe pulled me aside one day and said, “That family’s a fire hazard!” Then one day, it was all gone. I stood, stared, and wondered where all the junk went. Days turned into weeks. I ran into Ramona who told me that Charlie and his family were packing up and moving to Israel. The moving trucks came and good time Charlie and his bike were no longer around. The hallway was quiet.

It doesn’t end there. The cat fights from below are horrific. God only knows what these women are fighting about. Every night it seems the same two women step out into the darkness and bark at each other. I just hear voices. You’d think by now they’d have figured out who the father was. Sometimes I hear screams, like someone has slipped off a balcony and is hanging from an air conditioner for dear life. I rush to the window, but all I see are lamp lights and television screens across the way, inside other apartments. I don’t have any idea where these voices are coming from.

Marbles on a floorFor the past two days I’ve heard something drop on the floor above me which just happens to be my ceiling. I’m assuming it’s a marble. Why would someone drop a marble onto a wooden floor? Is that normal? Then the damn thing starts to roll and I’m following this thing with my ears. I’m up and walking across the apartment following a marble. Suddenly, it sounds as if the same marble careens off of a table and smacks itself into something. I’m in the bathroom shaking my head. Should I take a broom and bang on the ceiling? I mean, what the hell are they doing up there? How am I supposed to sit still? The other day I had to crank the volume on the television because two cop cars decided to chase their suspect down Amsterdam Avenue right outside my window. I couldn’t hear myself think. Then, out of nowhere, a moth and a dragonfly decided to battle it out on the kitchen light. I must have left the window open by accident. The dragonfly was as big as bird. It scared the shit out of me.

The other day, someone from our floor taped a note to several apartment doors. The writer bitched more than once that someone pulled down the metal handle and stuffed the garbage chute with an oversized bag, then walked away without making sure the bag slid down the chute. The concerned numbskull who penned this prose stated that if it continued, they would complain to management. They also said they’d tell the office that they’re living with a bunch of “pigs.” So, now I’m a pig living on the same floor as the devil. Only in New York.

Pig #1Devil #3