Three Versions of the Same Review

ONE

I was working nights, and struggling. Starving for your art is not romantic. I don’t recommend it. I finished a story, a good one, and sent it out to a magazine, hoping it would be accepted.

A guy I knew at work started up a conversation. White guy, older than me but with a strange child-like lightness about him, like he was trying to listen to you while he was listening to something or someone else. He had read a few books, and he asked me if he could see the story. I said he could if he would tell me what he thought about it after.

I brought the story to work the next night, handed it over. He had something on his mind and was mildly dismissive — he said something like “I’ll get to it if I get the time.”

I was not young at the time. My writing has meaning to me, even if it doesn’t mean much to other people. It’s something writers have to deal with, but sometimes we forget that all of us are dealing with things that are very important to only ourselves. Most things we deal with are like that. I went about my work, probably dealing with an unruly storage room or distributing material.

A day or two later, the man called me over. He told me he liked the story. He had written down his thoughts, and handed the paper to me while telling me elements he liked about it — the main character, the details. His observations were sharp; he picked up things I hoped would come through in the writing, and a few things I was thinking about, but did not consciously emphasize.

He got the story. He processed it, wrote down his thoughts, and both evaluated and encouraged me.

TWO

I hated zombie stories. I thought they were dumb and too often just recycled the same handful of ideas. They were so popular, though they were waning in popularity. This was more than ten years ago.

I made up my mind to write a good zombie story. If they’re so damned easy to write, I told myself, then write one, and sell it.

I tried to think of an angle that would make this more than just a dumb zombie story, so I first figured out what were the clichés I most hated. Easy: Most zombie stories were like Dawn of the Dead fused with Aliens. Guns, blood. Who gives a damn?

You didn’t see many zombie stories about kids. Of course, there were SOME, but not so many that I was rolling my eyes at yet ANOTHER zombie kid story.

“Alicia’s Schoolmate” emerged quickly. I thought of a little girl who didn’t know that she was becoming a zombie. Where would a person in the flu-like stage be drawn, if she were a young, frightened person?

Once I figured that out, the whole story came in one long session of writing. I polished it, and that was it. (I subsequently tightened it up, but it’s 90% of that first writing session.)

Some people at work knew I wrote. Most had absolutely zero interest in my side gig, probably because I am hard to get along with. Most people who reveal that have a romantic view of it, being the mysterious lone wolf, apart from the pack. Most of us are just misanthropic assholes who are working on things but will die without working them out satisfactorily. We can’t get out of our own way, and that doesn’t get resolved in the first season or at the end of two hours.

A guy at work who I’ll call Jim was a bit off, himself. He came from money. I didn’t. He wasn’t some bleeding heart. Jim didn’t seem more or less compassionate than me. A lot of people avoided him. He had a bit of the snob about him.

Some nights he was just a flat-out asshole. I needed the job, and could be replaced.

Folks at work were, by and large, assholes. My boss didn’t tell me about certain aspects about the job upfront, which led me to making some of the errors that eventually cost me my job. I’m not trying to blame someone else for losing my job, but saying it was all my fault wouldn’t be accurate, either.

Among the people who worked there were a guy who bailed on me when I got in trouble over something he had done. Another was a guy who sexually harassed women at work.

Jim and I talked sometimes. We weren’t great friends, but I liked soft-spoken, educated people who didn’t shoot you down for having middle-brow or low-brow tastes. I’m comfortable saying Jim thought I wasn’t up to his family’s level, class-wise. Still, I was what passed for someone who knew a little about art and fiction (not literature).

He asked to see my work. I showed it to him, and he gave me feedback. Eventually, I sold the story.

Jim’s comments showed I was communicating to someone through my writing. You have no idea how powerful a moment it is when your feelings about the quality of your own work match those of someone else, when your work has been accepted as good by another person.

It didn’t matter who Jim was or what life had given him, or what he had done. He was a person who enjoyed my work.

THREE

I wrote a story about a girl in trouble. I didn’t overthink it, but I only went at it when I had a general idea of what I was trying to get across. It was a story about an abandoned girl who makes a friend. The friendship ends. I felt good about the story.

I’d decided, after being injured on my last job, that if I didn’t have the education or experience to get a real job, a career, and I wasn’t going to be the next bestselling millionaire writer, I was at least going to get a job that contributed something to someone else. I worked four or five nights a week at a homeless shelter. I’d been working five minutes on my first shift at the shelter when I knelt in cold snot.

One of the clients was Jim. He was maybe in his thirties or early forties, but his gaunt face and long graying hair under his wool hat made him look much older. He spoke like he was distracted, rarely meeting my eyes, but you could tell he had a point and was getting to it as best he could. I didn’t feel impatient with him because I knew he wasn’t just babbling. He had obviously gone to school and had an education in his past life, before he became homeless.

He came from money. He had gone to school. How did someone like that end up like this? Looking at him gave you some evidence to go on, but who can know, even if the other person tells you their version of events?

We talked about writing. I think Jim thought I was writing New Yorker-style contemporary fiction — we might have discussed a Dante translation I’d recently read, or Chekov. When I finally told him I write “Twilight Zone-type” stories, he looked disappointed. He tried to keep up his level of interest, but at the very least, he was not depressed.

Still, he offered to read “Alicia’s Schoolmate.”

I brought in a copy.

It was a “wet” shelter, meaning every client, male or female, was an alcoholic, going to AA when they weren’t wandering the streets. At the beginning of the month, when their S.S. checks came in, some of them would pool their money, get a crummy room, and stay there, getting drunk until they fell asleep. The first few days of the month we had plenty of beds at the shelter. At the end of the week, we were full up, and stayed that way for the rest of the month.

I don’t remember if Jim had booze on his breath one night or another, but chances are he was boozing. In the main room, as the clients flowed in when the sun was going down, there was a dense feeling of happiness. It was like the clients were all looking for a reason to be happy, because they were miserable after being out all day with nowhere to go.

One guy talked about getting his own room. He met with the volunteers who helped clients with housing, and he was awaiting the day he got the news: Do I get an apartment with a roommate, some stability, help with my monthly check, something like a normal life? The day came, he went on the interview. That night, when I asked if he got the room (I’d been clued in that he was almost guaranteed to get one), he grinned…and waved it off.

“What do I want to go all the way over there for?”

It’s close to public transportation. It’s your own place, with a roommate, supervision, help. Security.

He fumbled with an explanation. He just didn’t want to live any other way.

Jim waved me over to the table where he sat. He said he read my story. He handed it back, in its envelope. It was a manila envelope, two blank sides. As he told me how much he liked the story, he took something out of his pocket. He pointed out the things he liked and offered me a folded piece of paper. He had written out his thoughts.

I unfolded it and saw his writing, which was hard to read but not impossible. I turned the paper over, because the writing was not in straight lines. (I think of this sometimes when I read the suggestion to not limit yourself by coloring inside the lines.) His scrawls were tough to read, but the sentences were well-written, his observations sharp. He noticed details. He got it.

I thanked him. He thanked me.

Then he backed up his wheelchair. Jim had lost his legs when he fell asleep and was run over. On another occasion, he had been set on fire. He was drunk both times.

Jim came from money. He was educated.

Jim was an alcoholic. He was almost burned to death. He lost his legs.

When I think of him, I picture him in his wheelchair, but that’s not how I remember him — the wheelchair guy. I remember the written review.

He had two sides of a manila envelope to write on, but he didn’t want to presume that I was giving him the envelope to write on. I might need it to mail out the story. I didn’t even expect more than a few words about how he felt about my silly zombie story, but he took my work seriously, and wrote down his feedback.

He didn’t have blank paper, but he got a pen, and he wrote his review on a page torn from a magazine, a car ad with lots of white space. His critique filled all that white space, leaving not a thumbnail-sized spot clean. He had a lot to write, and he found a way to write it. He communicated, and I heard him.

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