I was at a bar, one night in college, with some friends and we were having drinks and listening to a local band. It was me, my roommate Patrick and his friend Warren. Warren played in a number of bands around Oxford. He wrote and played mostly his own songs.
We sat drinking on stools with our backs leaned against the bar and listened to the band play. The place was packed with people. Every seat was taken and people stood around in pockets talking, smoking and drinking as the band played.
Warren was sitting between me and Patrick shaking his head with the music. The band was good. Damn good. The three of us kept nodding to each other about that fact. And when the band finished their set the place was dead quiet except for Warren. He clapped and whistled and then suddenly, he quit.
He looked over at me and said, “I thought you liked these guys?” I said I did. “Then why don’t you clap for em? They just played their hearts out. Man, don’t be like these other assholes that are too cool or too scared to acknowledge that they like something. I’m tellin you, that little appreciation is all those guys are playing for and even when they get it right, they don’t always get it.
“I’ve always had this fear of some young kid getting up there on stage and just nailing it. I mean, he plays better than anyone’s ever played and sings a song like no one’s ever heard but it’s for the wrong crowd on the wrong night. And nobody listens and nobody claps and nobody in the place even looks up from their drinks. So, the kid packs up his guitar and amp with the belief that he just doesn’t have it. Otherwise, they would’ve clapped for me, he thinks.
“And the kid goes back out in the street and never plays again. Just becomes an accountant or something. But he doesn’t just lose out. We all do because his music would’ve changed everything. Inspired people to change or to just go on or hold on or whatever. But because of that crowd, he bows out.
“I think about that all the time. Especially on nights like this. How many Dylans and Claptons or whoevers got missed and quit, figuring that they were just deluding themselves? All I’m saying is always clap for the band.”
About five years later, I went to a Georgia Writer’s Association (GWA) meeting here in Columbus. I wanted to be a writer and had been reading everything I could get my hands on. From books about writing to the classics. But it wasn’t enough. I wanted more of the writing world and found out about the GWA meetings at the public library and went.
The meeting was on a Saturday morning and I didn’t expect more than five people total to be there because I didn’t know anyone else who wrote. So, I figured there would be one or two people from the GWA and maybe some students, somebody from the library and me.
There were fifteen people in the room when I got there. I’d brought in a few copies of one of the stories that I was working on with the hope that we would read and talk about each others work. Most of the people looked to be in there late forties to early fifties. And were filthy. All of them looked like they just rolled through a greased dumpster. There were only two older guys that looked to be in their seventies, from the GWA, and me that didn’t have the Pig Pen look going.
The man sitting directly across the table from me had his gray hair plastered to his head in strips, like shark teeth. And between each tooth I could see his wrinkled skin. He had wild bushy eyebrows and smelled like cigarettes and gasoline. He kept talking to a lady in a moth-eaten sweatsuit about who was more overrated, Hemingway or Tolkien.
The GWA guys passed around a sign-in sheet and said that three published authors were coming speak shortly and pointed out the coffee in the back of the room. A few minutes later, a lady with the library came in and introduced the authors.
The first was a black lawyer from Atlanta whose father was assassinated for his work in the Civil Rights Movement. The second was an attractive woman who had written a mystery novel involving archeology. The third was a professor that had written a non-fiction book about the Civil War.
They all gave pretty much the same short speech that promoted their work, encouraged us in our pursuits as writers and noted the fact that part of their daily writing routine was to get up every morning and take shower and shave.
They left and the GWA guys asked if anybody wanted to read some of their work. The guy across from me said he did and explained that what he really wanted to happen this year was to get published in Harper’s or the Atlantic or any of the other heavyweights. He wanted to be taken seriously in literature and get paid to be there. And then he started reading the only copy of his story called The Shifters. It started with a man in a bar telling a story to a stranger sitting next to him.
Now, when you’re in a room full of people that’s facing each other instead of the reader, it can be difficult to focus on what’s being read because you keep making eye contact with other people. So you miss things and have to piece things back together. And that’s what happened to me.
After about ten minutes, I’d put the story back together. The narrator was a bounty hunter that was after who killed his wife and family. But the problem was he didn’t know who they were, only what they were. And they were shape-shifting vampire vixens from outer space.
This was the story he wanted to send to the most elite literary magazines out there and would be taken seriously for.
The narrator been killing them for years, the vampires, and selling the platinum deposits found in their dead skulls to keep his work going. It was all he had since they’d killed everybody he cared about. It was revenge. Pure and simple. Just keep killing until they were dead. All of them. All over the world. And after years and years of fighting he’d done it along with thousands of others just like him. They’d eradicated those big tittied bloodsucking bitches that stole his reasons for living.
But he was still alone and felt no joy from stopping them. Nothing. He still ached for his wife and children. The world was in ruins and most of the human population was dead. Bounty hunters were no longer needed and he’d grown old.
He has no one, no job and no options. All he has is his gun, a bullet and one choice to make.
The GWA guys asked if anybody had anything to say and the mob started firing away. Where’s the plot? Ok, no one would listen to a story for that long in a bar and everybody knows that frame stories suck. Don’t you know that when metamorphs die that they return to their original gelatinous form and leave no skulls behind?
They went on and on like that as the bushy eyebrowed author slumped down in his chair. And for the first time in a long time, I thought about Warren. So, I said, “There is a plot and it’s a good one. The guy is faced with the oldest question we have, whether to live or die. And frame stories do work. Look at Heart of Darkness and Catcher in the Rye. They started the exact same way.”
Here I was comparing The Shifters to two of the best novellas in the English language. No one in the room disagreed with what I said. They just kept repeating their original statements over and over again. The thing that shocked me is that not one of them said anything negative about the premise of the story. It was all directed at the details.
So, finally I looked at the man across from me. The guy who considered Hemingway and Tolkien overrated. The guy who hadn’t had a shower since the last time he got caught in a rainstorm. The guy who wrote a story about shape-shifting vampire vixens from outer space and said, “I really liked your story.”