I’m not really cut out for having a nemesis, let alone the literary kind, but I acquired one in graduate school a decade ago, and he’s been difficult to shake ever since. This is in part because he’s gone on to become wildly successful and rich and well-known and I have not. It’s a lesson in humility I do not wish on anyone, and it’s taken me years to get past my pettiness in order to write about it with any semblance of perspective.
We’ll call my nemesis Josh, since that’s his name. He goes by Joshua now — Joshua Ferris — but calling him that makes me uncomfortable, so for these purposes I’m going with Josh. We were in the same class at UC Irvine, two of the six they let in. I was 28 at the time, and possessed a shocking naïveté about many things, including: men, professors, academia, workshops, fairness, and life. I had only been writing a few years when I got to graduate school, and my writing teacher beforehand, the incredible and very talented Lisa Glatt, loved my stuff, and basically just encouraged the hell out of me, often writing “Brilliant” across the tops of my stories.
I sort of thought this is what graduate school would be like.
It was not.
I imagined it would be an artist’s utopia of sorts, with lots of cheerleading and gentle suggestions and group hugs. I also believed it would be the place where I met the love of my life. Not only would I get my MFA but my lifelong search for Jake Ryan would end. (By the time I got to UCI, my quest had morphed into the Search for David Benioff).
This is David Benioff and his exquisite wife, actress Amanda Peet. Benioff went to Irvine, and I therefore believed that at least one Benioff writerly-type dude would be at Irvine, and he would be single and fall madly in love with me. Said dude would then go on to write million-dollar screenplays or perhaps Game of Thrones, while I penned devastatingly brilliant literary novels and taught religious metaphor in the works of Flannery O’Conner to inner-city school children.
As you might imagine, none of the above was the case in my experience. Josh did make me hug him once, but we’ll get to that.
In my first workshop at Irvine, I was slapped to the ground so hard that I went into the bathroom and cried. Cried, people. It was humiliating, to say the least. And so it went. Things were only made worse by the group dynamics and the slow realization that the venerable head of the program, Geoffrey Wolff, had already decided that Josh was The Star, and therefore no one else’s work or opinion had more credence than his did. Except, of course, Geoffrey’s.
And it wasn’t like I was set free when my work wasn’t being dissected, as the only thing more painful than having my writing eviscerated was having to sit there, uncomfortable and sweaty, while the deed was done to someone else. Especially someone I liked, someone I knew was being totally destroyed while I sat there and watched it happen.
Here is where I would like to clear up the falsehood that everything stays impersonal and antiseptic in workshop (at least the graduate kind, and moreover that this is vaguely possible, sort of like the concept of pure objectivity in journalism), the idea that people never go after your stories at times simply because they don’t like you and/or they are trying to impress the professor and/or you skewed their shit in workshop last week, and it’s payback time. Basically, it’s the persistent myth that the person, the writer, can actually be separated from the work. Maybe the first workshop, when you all don’t know one another so well, but then you hang out, you drink, you make out, you realize you are competing with one another for the prize of attention and praise and connections and publication, you have inappropriate crushes on people who are not available but act like they are, and yes, hello, all of that taints your views of other people’s work.
I get it — really, I do. Criticism is necessary, and often it is valid. Also, some people take it better than others. I am the first to admit that back then, I did not take it well. Some of this had to do with the aforementioned naïvetés, some of it had to do with the way Geoffrey ran a workshop. As one dear friend put it: “I already have a distant, disapproving father. I don’t need another one.” Exactly.
Which leads me to the part where Josh became my nemesis. We had been friends up until then, or at least friendly. It happened at the pub, after a particularly brutal workshop of a novel from one of the second year students. It was so terrible, Geoffrey so unnecessarily unkind, that if it had happened to me, I would have been in the fetal position in the corner of the room after the first fifteen minutes. I said as much.
“Well, she needs the criticism,” Josh said earnestly. “I’d love that kind of a workshop. I’d welcome that kind of feedback.”
This from the golden boy whose stories had been universally praised, lauded even, who’d never had one negative thing said about his writing.
What happened next was that I simply lost my shit. Lost it big time, much to the horror of my fellow colleagues. “What the fuck are you talking about?” I said. “You have no fucking idea what that is like. NO FUCKING IDEA.”
Everyone went quiet, staring at the table and sipping their microbrews.
“She should welcome our opinions,” he said, calmly, matter of factly. “I mean, of anyone, she needs the most help. And you know what? Everyone else in workshop says ‘thank you’ when it’s over. Not you, though, you comment and argue. Why can’t you just say ‘thank you’?”
All of my frustration from the previous few months of terrible workshops, not to mention my total loss of confidence, my Daddy issues, and the knowledge that there was no David Benioff II at Irvine and probably never would be, led me to say this: “No one means it when they say it, Josh. No one. And for the record, I don’t give a fuck if you never read or comment on anything of mine ever again.”
I’m pretty sure all the air went out of the room. Josh was red-faced and I was shaking. I felt better for having said it, all-powerful for a moment, and then, well, I cried. Again.
Then Josh made me hug him, and we sort of made up.
But from that moment on, our animosity towards one another was established, and it followed us around for the next two years. This isn’t to say that we were nasty to one another in an outright way, just that Survivor-style alliances were formed, deals were made and workshops remained uncomfortable. Josh continued to be universally praised and my work got mixed to dismissive reviews.
To be fair, sometimes I liked his stories and sometimes he liked mine. His attitude was never malicious, it was simply maddeningly superior. Outwardly, he had not a shred of insecurity. It was hard not to hate him for this. And I will say, too, that he was a man obsessed. While the rest of us were screwing around with our crushes and debating whether or not to use our middle initial when published, he was writing. I mean really writing, all the time, sometimes a rumored fourteen hours a day. (I don’t mean to say the rest of us weren’t writing; we were. If any of my fellow Irvine-ites were also writing fourteen hours a day, my apologies. I, most assuredly, was not.)
I did have one moment of victory, however, in a workshop led by Mark Richard. He did his best to level the playing field and didn’t play favorites; he genuinely encouraged all of our writing. Josh had submitted a piece of the novel he was working on at the time, written from a women’s point of view. She was about to have a mastectomy, the next day in fact, and everything he had written indicated he had no idea what a woman who was about to have a mastectomy would feel like. He also had her referring to her sexual organs as such: “The rusted anchor of my loins.”
I had him. He had written something pretty shockingly bad and I had him. I lowered my sights and pointed out that, purple prose aside, not once in 30-odd pages did he ever have this woman think about her breasts. He had her traipsing around town in the middle of the night, frequenting porn shops and staring at row after row of other women’s breasts but never considering her own. This, I said, was male fantasy, not reality.
Every one was quiet, pondering. Mark drawled, “Josh, you know what? I didn’t think about the breasts either, but she’s right. You need to listen to Abby and have this woman think about her breasts. ”
I smirked, fully satisfied. Josh reddened and sat silent for the rest of the workshop. He was overheard to have said this to Mark afterwards: “Abby is not my audience.”
As we left the workshop, a friend said, “You were totally vindicated. Totally.”
“Yep,” I said — and then it was over. The moment and then graduate school. It would be years before I realized that almost none of it, at least what had happened in workshop, mattered at all.
As we tucked our MFAs into our back pockets, Josh got a fat scholarship none of the rest of us knew we were eligible for and a referral to Geoffey’s agent. I went back to cocktailing and Geoffrey’s comments on my thesis amounted to an abstract comparison to the Newport Jazz Festival of 1955, which apparently he had attended. I still have no idea if this is a good or bad thing.
The summer after graduate school, I managed to get an agent, and in a strange twist of fate, it was the same one Josh had signed with. We shared her for a good handful of years, discovering it early on after getting a group email in which she hadn’t hidden the recipients. Apparently, within hours of receipt, we had both written her and asked, “Um is that the same Josh/Abby that went to Irvine?” Yes, she wrote, and then to me: ” I take it the two of you aren’t friends?” Nope, I said, not even close.
“I’m not surprised,” she wrote back. “You two are such different writers.”
A few years later his novel came out (the one he claims to have written in fourteen weeks, for which he got a rumored quarter-of-a-million-dollar advance), and he was lauded as the Second Coming of Franzen. Nominated for the National Book Award, movie options, publishing in the New Yorker, inclusion in the Best American Short Stories. He’s a fine writer, full of precision and brain, not to mention insanely polished prose, but still: all of the above remained stunning for me and a made me more than a little bit nuts to witness.
What was I doing during this time? Cocktailing. Vaguely writing, working on a story collection that would go absolutely nowhere. Taking care of my sister during her bout with cancer. Josh, meanwhile, could be found seemingly everywhere I turned, and although I had let go of a lot of the animosity in the preceding years, I can’t say it didn’t get under my skin.
When it did, I would try and think about what the agent had said: We are entirely different writers and, as such, weren’t competing at all. I would tell myself that his success had no bearing on whether or not I would have any, and dwelling on it only amounted to a shitload of wasted time and some very ugly mood swings. This worked pretty well, and this is also why, many years ago, I stopped Googling him.
So what’s the point in writing about it now? In talking to my boyfriend about this piece, he said, aptly, “Okay, but here’s the thing — he’s not really your nemesis anymore, anyway. Right?”
And in thinking about it recently, I wonder if he ever really was. A nemesis by definition is a source of harm or ruin or one that inflicts retribution or vengeance, and I can safely say none of these thing were inherent in Josh’s intentions or behavior. He cared more about his own writing than he did about me — than any of us, really — and wanted only to achieve his goal of becoming a successful writer. And well, he has done that in spades. What happened between us was more a function of weird group dynamics and our respective personality flaws than anything direct or deliberate. What I’ve come to realize is that using him as my appointed nemesis served for a long time as perhaps my best reason not to write.
In letting him go, I’ve been left to grapple with only myself and have come to realize that I’m the only nemesis I’ve ever actually had. I’ve been forced to come to grips with what all writers must face at some point: No one — and I mean no one — except for you, and maybe your mother, cares if you write. (And even your mother cares only in an abstract way, hoping that whatever you’re doing is making you happy.) The number of words you manage to put on the page every day impacts exactly one person. You.
In that spirit, I continue to put words on the page and try not to let any excuses or the voices from the past get in my way. As Lisa Glatt sagely told me during my tenure at Irvine: “They will tell you to shut up your entire career. You can either listen to them or keep writing.”
So I write, even if it’s over here in the almost-dark. At the same time, Josh is out there, really out there, with a second novel that was customarily trashed, working on his third with the kind of pressures and expectations I can’t imagine. I can finally appreciate that difference for what it is, and embrace the beauty in being unknown and for the fact that I am still writing. On my best days, this carries with it a freedom that borders on the infinite.