I was transported back to the year I spent in Iowa City by the experience of reading John McNally’s hilarious satire of the writing workshop life, After the Workshop. Among McNally’s targets are writer’s envy and block, drinking, and posing. He gives his characters invented names, but the reader will feel he recognizes a few of them from life, and this, of course, is a guilty pleasure. But the setting is “real,” the real Iowa City, its bookstores and bars, which I know, and its Olympian workshop, of which I know only the myth to which McNally’s portrait adds.
One time my wife and I were at Prairie Lights, one of the great independent bookstores in the country, when we saw that one of my favorite writers was going to be reading that very night. We had our oldest son with us, third grade at the time, and somehow bribed him into attending. On the way up the stairs to where the reading space was I ran into an old friend from graduate school (I won’t identify him by either name or genre, but this is otherwise not intentionally fictional). This was at least ten years since I had last seen him and we were now many miles from Utah where we had been students together. Things were already going bad for him before we all left Utah. He married, and divorced in a matter of weeks during grad school. He suffered dire health problems that required a kidney transplant, but promised no guarantees.. I never knew who actually graduated and who didn’t; it was hard to tell, there were so many steps in the process. And I didn’t ask now.
He continued to tell me tales of woe, not in a self-pitying way but more in a this-was-what-has-happened way. In truth, he didn’t seem like the same person at all. I remember him cashing his student loan and hopping on his motorcycle and making a beeline to Wendover, Nevada to play blackjack with every last cent. I remember his work appearing in prominent literary magazines. His gorgeous wife of a few weeks. Now he was living in some small town, sleeping on a couch in his mother’s basement. He had completely abandoned writing. Words, he said, don’t make sense to me any more.
I was depressed by this chance encounter and mystified at what I might do to help him, not that he was asking.
He went to the reading, too. For some reason, the writer was not happy to be reading. She was almost hostile, particularly in the question and answer session after the reading. The whole night was depressing, and, after that, I never saw, nor heard of, my friend again. And seeing the writer in person poisoned her work for me and I haven’t returned to it.
One time I was watching my youngest kid playing on the playground that is right down town in Iowa City. I noticed that the adult sitting next to me was a writer I admired who taught in the Workshop,. I introduced myself, told him I admired his work. We chatted, watching the kids. In the end we agreed that he should come visit at the campus where I taught , a small state school across the Mississippi in Illinois, two and a half hours away. We set it up.
He arrived late, but happy. We went out to eat where he ordered an enormous steak, easily the most enormous steak I had ever seen, and he insisted on leisurely eating every bite. We were late to the reading. Halfway through the piece he was reading he grew unaccountably bored with the story, stopped abruptly, and said something like, “Let’s just talk.” It was very strange. And after that night I never saw him again either.
I was in a restaurant downtown, waiting to rendezvous with my wife midday while our kids were in school. She was in graduate school and I was commuting back and forth between Macomb and Iowa City. It was hectic time. I don’t recall the name of the place, down on Linn St on the south end of downtown. It had large plate windows facing the street. I noticed Frank Conroy, the director of the Writers Workshop at a window table. He left the restaurant before the woman he had been eating with. From the sidewalk he stopped in front of the window where his friend was still seated and kissed the glass, passionately, in front of her face. Then he walked off, smiling, scarf trailing in the breeze. I never saw him again either, but that was because he passed away not long after. His writing, I am happy to report, is as lovely as was the man himself.