Raw Material

A short story

He always told them the same thing to begin with: "Try to avoid falseness and strain. Write what you really know about. Make it new. Don't invent melodrama for the sake of it. Don't try to run, let alone fly, before you can walk with ease." Every year he glared amiably at them. Every year they wrote melodrama. They clearly needed to write melodrama. He had given up telling them that creative writing was not a form of psychotherapy. In ways both sublime and ridiculous it clearly was precisely that.

The class had been meeting for fifteen years. It had moved from a schoolroom to a disused Victorian church. The village was called Sufferacre, which was thought to be a corruption of Sulfuris Aquae. It was a failed Derbyshire spa. It was his home town. In the 1960s he had written a successfully angry, iconoclastic, and shocking novel called Bad Boy. He had left for London and fame, and returned quietly ten years later. He lived in a trailer in somebody's paddock. He traveled widely, on a motorbike, teaching creative writing in pubs, schoolrooms, and arts centers. His name was Jack Smollett. He was a big, shuffling, smiling, red-faced man, with longish blond hair, who wore cable-knit sweaters in oily colors and bright scarlet neckerchiefs. Women liked him, as they liked enthusiastic Labrador dogs. They almost all felt—and his classes were predominantly female—more desire to cook apple pies and Cornish pasties for him than to make violent love to him. They believed he didn't eat sensibly. (They were right.) Now and then someone in one of his classes would point out, as he exhorted them to stick to what they knew, that they themselves were what he "really knew." Will you write about us, Jack? No, he always said, that would be a betrayal of confidence. You should always respect other people's privacy.

In fact he had tried unsuccessfully to sell two different stories based on the confessions (or inventions) of his class. The students offered themselves to him like raw oysters on pristine plates. They told him horror and bathos, daydreams, vituperation, and vengeance. They couldn't write; their inventions were crude, and he couldn't find a way to perform the necessary operations to spin the muddy straw into silk, or turn the raw, bleeding chunks into a savory dish. So he kept faith with them, not entirely voluntarily. He did care about writing. He cared about writing more than anything—sex, food, beer, fresh air, even warmth. He wrote and rewrote perpetually in his trailer. He was rewriting his fifth novel. Bad Boy had been written in a rush just out of school and snapped up by the first publisher he'd sent it to. It was what he had expected. His second novel, Smile and Smile, had sold 600 copies, and was remaindered. His third and fourth, frequently rewritten, lay in brown paper, stamped and restamped, in a tin chest in the trailer. He didn't have an agent.

Classes ran from September to March. In the summer he worked at literary festivals, or at holiday camps on sunny islands. He was pleased to see the classes again in September. He still thought of himself as wild and unattached, but he was a creature of habit. He liked things to happen at precise, recurring times, in precise, recurring ways. More than half the students in his classes were old faithfuls who came back year after year. Each class had a nucleus of about ten. At the beginning of the year this was often doubled by enthusiastic newcomers. By Christmas many of these would have dropped away—seduced by other courses, or intimidated by the regulars, or overcome by domestic drama or personal lassitude. St. Antony's Leisure Center was gloomy because of its high ceiling, and drafty because of its ancient doors and windows. The students had brought oil heaters, and standard lamps with imitation stained-glass shades. The old churchy chairs were pushed into a circle under these pleasant lights.

He liked the lists of their names. Sometimes he talked about how much Nabokov had got out of the list of names of Lolita's classmates, how much of America, how strong an image from how few words. His current class ran

Abbs, A deacon in the C of E
Archer, M estate agent
Armytage, B vet
Forster, R out-of-work bank teller
Fox, C eighty-two-year-old spinster
Hogg, M accountant
Parson., A schoolmistress
Pearson, A farmer
Pygge, G nurse
Secrett, L intermittent student, daughter of
Secrett, T living on alimony (her own phrase)
Silver, A librarian
Wheelwright, R student (engineering)

The most recent work they had produced was

Abbs, Adam A tale of the martyrdom of nuns in Rwanda
Archer, Megan A story of the abduction and prolonged rape of an estate agent
Armytage, Blossom A tale of the elaborate torture of two Sealyham dogs
Forster, Bobby A tale of the entrapment and vengeful slaughter of an unjust driving examiner
Fox, Cicely How we used to blacklead the stove
Hogg, Martin Hanging, drawing, and quartering under Henry VIII
Parson, Anita A tale of unreported, persistent child abuse and Satanic sacrifice
Pearson, Amanda A tale of a cheating husband hacked down by his vengeful wife with an axe
Pygge, Gilly Clever murder by a cruel surgeon during an operation
Secrett, Lola The nervous breakdown of a menopausal woman with a beautiful and patient daughter
Secrett, Tamsin The nervous breakdown of a feckless teenager with a wise but powerless mother
Silver, Annabel A sadomasochistic initiation of a girl sold into white slavery in North Africa
Wheelwright, Rosy A cycle of very explicit lesbian love poems involving motorbikes