A continuing education class at a large University in New York City. It is a Monday night. The class, “Write, Market, Sell,” is about learning how to write and sell your story. The professor, Warren, is a stressed out, impatient, 50 year old adjunct professor from the main college, who, after teaching for 25 years, is still not tenured. There are about 30 students in the class.
Professor Warren: It’s 7:00. Time to get started. I’ve spent our first three sessions instructing you on how to organize and compose your work, create tension, and show changes in your characters as they develop and grow. And remember, if you only take one thing from this classroom, it’s that when you write, first impressions are everything. Okay then. Tonight it’s your turn. Your turn to read and show us what you’ve done. Who would like to start?
There is a moment of silence. Then finally a young man raises his hand.
Professor Warren: Aah. Yes. Our Englishman. Your name sir.
Charles Dickens: Charles Dickens.
Professor Warren: And what have you brought us tonight?
Charles Dickens: I like to call it historical fiction. I’ve named it “A Tale of Two Cities.”
Professor Warren: Let’s hear it.
Charles Dickens: It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of light, it was the season of darkness, it was the spring of …
Professor Warren: Good god. Let me see that.
Professor Warren walks over to where Charles Dickens is sitting and looks over his shoulder.
Professor Warren: I’ve never seen such a disorganized opening. Such a conflicting train of thought. And this one sentence of yours is over half a page long? We’ve been over this a hundred times. You must be concise. Attract your audience quickly. And never start anything with such a rambling, confused, unfocused statement like this.
Charles Dickens: But I’m trying to express very real and opposing perspectives during a time of turmoil and change.
Professor Warren: What you’re trying to do is totally irrelevant. What matters here is what you’ve written. And your writing violates every rule of composition. Every rule I’ve taught and what this whole university stands for. Do you hear me Charles? Your “Tale of Two Cities” is trash. Garbage. It will never sell. No one will read it.
Student in the class: I agree with Professor Warren. Your whole opening was thoughtless and confusing.
Another student in the class: It made no sense. You’re wasting everyone’s time.
Professor Warren: Okay then. Who’s next? How about the young man from Princeton in the striped shirt? What’s your name?
F. Scott Fitzgerald: Scott.
Professor Warren: Your full name please.
F. Scott Fitzgerald: F. Scott Fitzgerald.
Professor Warren: And what have you written for us Mr. Fitzgerald?
F. Scott Fitzgerald: It’s called “The Great Gatsby.”
Professor Warren: The great what?
F. Scott Fitzgerald: “The Great Gatsby.” He’s a man. A man obsessed with a woman named Daisy.
Professor Warren: Start reading.
F. Scott Fitzgerald: In my younger and more vulnerable years, my father gave me some advice that I’ve been turning over in my mind ever since. “Whenever you feel like criticizing anyone,” he told me, “just remember that all the people in this world haven’t had the advantages that you’ve had.” He didn’t say any more, but …
Professor Warren (Interrupting.): Do you really think readers are going to be interested in some banal, forgettable comments your father made to you when you were a child?
Student in class: Boring. Boring.
Professor Warren: How many times do I have to say this? You must get your reader’s attention immediately. Ten sentences at most. So please. Don’t push people away in your first paragraph with some nonsense your father told you twenty years ago.
F. Scott Fitzgerald: But I have a strong story line. And I think I’ve developed my characters fairly well.
Professor Warren: Mr. Fitzgerald, my friend. Do not take this personally, but I see no talent here. And like I told Charles Dickens. No one will ever read your work. It will never sell. Take this Great Gatsby of yours and trash it. And don’t be afraid to explore other venues. Perhaps a career in business, or maybe hotel management, might be better suited for you.
Professor Warren (Yells out to no one in particular.): Why? Why me? No one listens. No one learns. (Slight pause.) Okay then. How about if we hear from some of the women. You. The young lady in the front row.
Jane Austen: My name is Jane. Jane Austen. I’ve written a novel called “Pride and Prejudice.”
Professor Warren: “Pride and Prejudice.” At least you have a catchy title.
Jane Austen: It is a truth universally acknowledged that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife. However little known the feelings or views of such a man may be on his first entering a neighborhood, this truth is so well fixed in the minds of the surrounding families that he is considered as the rightful property of some one or other of their daughters. “My dear Mr. Bennet” …
Female student in class (Interrupts): Aren’t you implying that all women need a man and that we’re just here for the picking?
Another female student in class: You’re putting down the whole feminist movement.
Professor Warren: How many of you have taken our course on General Logic? Remember syllogisms? The science of logical thinking. Things like. All men are right. All women are wrong. Such generalizations violate correct thinking. And yet, Ms. Austen, your first encounter with your reader is to throw this kind of invalid generalization at them.
Jane Austen: My book has to do with relationships, emotional intelligence, real people. So please, don’t try to lecture me on something like feminism or your misconceptions about what’s valid and invalid.
Professor Warren: Listen to me, Jane. Your book has a bad aura. It gives off the wrong message. And as I’ve told Charles Dickens and F. Scott Fitzgerald, your book is not going to sell. No one will read it. Do you hear me? It’s forgettable. Nothing but fluff. Throw it out.
(He begins to pace back and forth in front of the classroom. He looks distressed and beside himself.)
Okay. Let’s get this night over with. You. The lady in green. What’s your name?
Margaret Mitchell: Margaret Mitchell. I’ve written a novel. “Gone With The Wind.”
Professor Warren (Bored. With sarcasm.): Alright. Alright. Let’s hear this masterpiece of yours.
Margaret Mitchell (Begins reading.): Scarlett O’Hara was not beautiful, but men seldom realized it when caught by her charm as the Tarleton twins were. In her face were too sharply blended the delicate features of her mother, a Coast aristocrat of French descent, and the …
Professor Warren (Suddenly surprised. Interrupting.): What is that huge pile of papers you’re reading from?
Margaret Mitchell: My manuscript. I brought the whole book with me this evening.
Professor Warren: Good God. How many pages is that?
Margaret Mitchell: Nine hundred and fifty nine.
Professor Warren: Nine hundred and fifty nine!? Is this the story you mentioned two weeks ago about some girl living on a farm in Georgia who’s in love with her best friend’s husband? I mean. How do you get nine hundred and fifty nine pages from that?
Student in class: Remember that weird, hippie-type guy from last semester? His name was Leo.
Professor Warren: Yes. Yes. Leo Tolstoy. A strange Russian fellow. Just thinking about him makes me cringe. He wrote over a thousand pages. All about some kind of war and peace. The audacity to think that anyone would want to read a monstrosity like that.
Student in class: Don’t forget Victor Hugo? One thousand four hundred pages about some guy who steals a loaf of bread. And then there was that Fountainhead lady. Ayn Rand or something.
Professor Warren (Loud. Angry.): The nerve of these dysfunctional people. It’s contempt I tell you. Contempt. A slap in the face to every one of us.
Lilly (A young women in class with big chrome earrings and dyed blue hair.): Professor Warren.
Professor Warren: Yes. Yes. What is it?
Lilly: I’ve written something and it’s only four pages long.
Professor Warren: Four pages? You were able to convey your thoughts, tell your story, in just four pages? This is exactly what I’ve been looking for. Tell us Lilly. What is this four page story of yours?
Lilly: It’s about shoes. I work in the lady’s shoe department at Macy’s. Just a temporary job of course. I eventually want to write for People Magazine and the Enquirer.
Professor Warren (Excited. Feeling good.): Shoes? Ladies shoes? Finally. Something we can all relate to. A slice of daily living. And only four pages. Just twelve hundred words. Excellent. Excellent. You’re the future of good literature. God bless you Lilly.
Edward Lazarus lives with his wife, Wendy, in Montgomery Township. They have three daughters. Edward belongs to two Princeton-area writing groups: Read, Write, Share and the Writers Room at the Princeton Public Library. After getting his MBA degree from Michigan State University and serving in the U.S. Air Force, he began his career in accounting and finance at the Port Authority. After commuting in and out of Manhattan for more than 35 years, he is now retired. His story, “Remembering My Experience in the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001,” appeared in the September 7, 2016, issue of U.S. 1.