Ever read a book, or even a short story, and hit a scene that just doesn’t quite work for you? Something’s just not right, but maybe you can’t put your finger on it. Or maybe you’re thinking, “you know, if the main character just masturbated in here somewhere this would be perfect.”
Okay, me neither.
But that is the feedback I got from someone in my writing workshop this week. I wasn’t quite sure how to respond to that. I think I actually laughed out loud the first time she said it. After the second, third, and fourth times she reiterated her point I just bit my tongue and thought, “well, lady, don’t be offended when you buy the book, but he’s not going to be doing that.”
Here’s the setup: Del Tanner, an aspiring minor league ballplayer, is having trouble sleeping after stranding the tying run by lofting a lazy fly ball to right field to end the game. He’s just barely survived the final round of spring roster cuts, courtesy of a serious injury to another first baseman who was competing for the same job. But he came close enough to unemployment to realize he needs to step up his strength and conditioning routine, something he didn’t put much effort into his first two years in pro ball. Making matters worse, his roommate is entertaining his girlfriend in the living room, and their voices are coming right through the thin wall, complicating Del’s efforts to drift off into dreamland.
My classmate found it incredible that Del didn’t love himself to sleep. She thought it was such a natural turn of events that she knew it was going to happen. He’s frustrated. There’s an attractive gal in the next room. Duh! With every line she read she was sure she was getting closer and closer to him reaching down and relieving some of his tension. And then the scene ended with a PG-13 rating, to her great disappointment.
I have to say, the possibility of turning my lead into a chronic masturbator never occurred to me. Not once. Even after three days of letting that commentary sink in, I’m no closer to sketching a box of Kleenex on his nightstand. It’s just not that kind of book.
But I give her credit for being willing to throw something unconventional (well, unconventional to the rest of us, though I guess it’s the norm where she’s from, as she mentioned being raised with three brothers, who apparently had a hard time controlling themselves) out on the table. Because much of the feedback offered up in workshops like this one is tame enough to be almost useless. It takes about three classes (out of eight total) before most people are willing to say anything more insightful than “I liked it.” I’m guilty of it too. You don’t want to hurt anyone’s feelings, so you have to first get a read on their personality, and that takes a couple weeks.
Then I, fairly or not, tend to play to the level of my fellow writers. If someone doesn’t bother writing many/any comments on a piece I submit, I don’t expend as much effort on theirs as I otherwise might. If someone’s writing is horrendously poor, I don’t bother with a lot of serious critiquing, either. At the risk of sounding full of myself, what’s the point? Some weeks there’s a lot to read, and I’ll devote more time to those who seem to take things more seriously.
But even then I’m not likely to fly that close to the sun. Or the moon, or Mars or whatever planet you have to brush past to want to toss out suggestions like having someone’s main character wank off in the middle of an otherwise completely wank-free scene.
Of course, it kicked off quite the discussion in class, with our teacher nailing it by saying virtually all self-gratification in books or movies is done with a comedic touch. I thought of the contest on Seinfeld. Or Eric Forman getting busted after being inspired by a photo of Jackie’s mom on That ‘70s Show. Or Judge Reinhold thinking of Phoebe Cates in Fast Times at Ridgemont High. Or Ignatius Reilly in his disgusting bedroom in A Confederacy of Dunces.
I wasn’t going for a laugh with Del. He’s stressing out. He can’t sleep. But he’s still the master of his domain.