I was a lonely writer in a strange new city. The Internet told me joining a book club would solve all my problems. But the Internet has never had to read historical romance about Hitler or earnestly discuss “The Help” with joyless Midwestern housewives.
I walked toward the back of the Barnes & Noble, through fiction, through mystery, and then to the table set up behind the religion section. A giant display of graphic novels lined the back wall, framing the man who sat at the head of the table. He wore a shirt that read, “Resistance is Futile.”
I stopped. All of the members of the book club I was there to meet were men. They were all middle aged. If I turned toward the Joel Osteen book display and pretended to be reverent, maybe I could sneak away. I had graduated from college only eight months prior with an English degree and the vague notion of becoming a writer. Thanks to my liberal arts education, I was prepared to write, but I had no idea how to actually get published. I found myself Googling “how to be a writer” at two a.m. The first result was an article giving me good advice, like “write” and “join a writing group or book club” so I could “meet other writers and learn from them.”
So, here I was. I clutched my Emily Bronte tote bag to my chest. Inside were the first chapters of a conceptual novel about a woman who lies on a couch for so long her skin grafts to the cushions. She befriends the face in the wall outlet, who narrates a portion of the book. Then, she uses astral projection to tell her dead sister (twist!) how much she loves her.
I didn’t think these men, with their jowls and cargo shorts, would understand the nuances of my work. I stared intently at Joel Osteen’s glossy gaze as if he held the answer to everything I wanted to be.
I had talked to Randy, the head of the group, on the phone three days earlier. He seemed very excited for me to come. “We don’t get a lot of new people!” he said. I laughed. He didn’t.
Randy spotted me. “Are you Lyz? Come sit by me!” The orbs of his cheeks spread wide. I could smell sweat and new books. Next to him, a man wore a black baseball hat with Captain Kirk on it.
There were six men there — all pale with thick necks. On the table in front of them were carefully worn Moleskines, stacks of printed manuscripts, uni-ball pens, and copies of a historical romance novel.
I suppose in that moment I could have pretended to be someone else. I could have looked confused and said, “I’m sorry, I’m Lydia and I’m here for a Joel Osteen book.” But I didn’t. Instead, I did what the Internet article had told me to do. I joined the book club.
The Peerless Pens met every week to discuss their writing, and once a month they discussed a book. The book was usually historical romance; a few times it was a novel based on “Star Wars.” I never read the books. During the discussions I drew pictures of angry pens in the margins of my notebook, and listened to them discuss the character of the ample-bosomed bar wench or if an android was truly capable of being “fleshed out” on the page. I didn’t want to be overtly rude and I tried to politely skip book night, but if I wanted to be workshopped I had to come to every meeting. Those were the rules, Randy told me. I confirmed this on the Peerless Pens’ aging Geocities website.
* * *
I moved to Cedar Rapids, Iowa because that’s where my husband found a job. I was an English major and he was an engineer. He found his dream job building autopilots for airplanes and I had no competing offers. So, there we went. I spent my days going to the gym at nine in the morning to work out with the retirees. Then, I went back to the apartment and applied for every job I could find. By two p.m. I would either walk across the street to the coffee shop to read, or drive around town, tracing my route in the map in the back of the phone book.
On the days when there were no new jobs to apply for and no resumes to follow up on, I would write. I kept track of my word count in an Excel spreadsheet, tallying my weekly totals and creating graphs that charted my progress. I mailed out manila envelopes full of short stories to every literary magazine I could find.
The rejections came in thin envelopes bearing my own handwriting. They were the ultimate betrayal — rejection by my own past self.
If this was what it was to be a writer, I thought, maybe I should have gone to law school. I asked Google more questions:
“How do you get published?”
“What is a query letter?
“If your writing is rejected does that mean you will die cold and alone?”
The Internet assured me that failure is part of the game. I just had to find my tribe. I had to find my voice. I had to join a writing group or book club, the Internet said. Talking about writing will be good for me, the Internet said. Not once did the Internet tell me that I should walk through my apartment complex coming up with metaphors for the soul-sucking attributes of vinyl siding or eat a whole container of Oreos while watching “Criminal Minds.” Those were the things I really wanted to do.
This wasn’t the first time I moved somewhere new. This wasn’t the first time I tried to redefine myself. For the first twenty-two years of my life, I lived in five different homes in three different states. But in each of those moves, my seven siblings provided my context. In Texas, Minnesota and South Dakota, I was Noah’s big sister. I was Jessie’s little sister. I was the one who looked like the girl version of Zach. I found my identity in envying Ruthie’s hair and in fighting with Becky. I was the sister who couldn’t do her make up quite right, who needed Cathy to help her accessorize. I was the only one who could sing all the verses of “Jimmy Crack Corn” for Caleb. With so many siblings you’re always staring at fractured versions of yourself; it’s easy to forget what you look like without the fissures.
This move to Iowa felt like the first chance I had to start over, alone. I had my husband, Dave, of course, but even he was still kind of a stranger; our entire three years of dating had been long-distance. When he wasn’t working, we spent time together learning one another: I didn’t like ketchup. He hated all mustard but honey mustard. He’d never willingly eaten soup. I liked to eat the un-popped popcorn at the bottom of the bowl. Those early days felt like I was explaining myself over and over to anyone who would listen. And I felt alone. I just wanted someone to understand my hatred of American cheese without me having to say a word; to know that I loved books, without constantly marveling at the stack I checked out each week from the library. I wanted community, familiarity, I wanted my context given to me by the people around me.
* * *
Tribeless, voiceless, jobless, I stumbled into the Peerless Pens and I stayed. I stayed because I missed my brothers and sisters so much I could feel a hard, cold ache in my gut. I stayed because I didn’t know how to be any version of myself without the looking glass of community.
I soon learned I wasn’t actually the only woman in the group. Stacey, who was a professional belly dancer and marketing manager, often came to the group. She wore skirts flecked with gold and hoop earrings that tangled in her complicated copper hair. Stacey skipped book night. She instead chose to come when she had something to workshop. This was a violation of the rules. But no one had the guts to hold her to it. They were afraid that she and her belly button piercings might flounce out and never return.
She would sit down and purse her lips around a pen — a cheap kind. Something white that clicked. She clicked it with her tongue, leaving lipstick marks on the barrel. Randy opened the group by asking everyone to share their accomplishments. We went around the room — I had nothing to share. Just some rejections from literary magazines. Randy said rejections were something to celebrate. But I wasn’t so sure. I kept them to myself. Mitch heard back from a science fiction magazine, a rejection, but it was personal so he was celebrating. Carl was starting to publish his fiction on his blog and he hoped to turn it into a literary magazine. He thought everything out there was too mainstream. Steve looked at Stacey and announced that he had just outlined a new novel; a historical romance about Hitler and a gypsy. “Their love will stop a war,” he said. “I thought that could be the tagline.”
I snorted. Everyone looked. Stacey narrowed her eyes. “I think it’s a good book. It will sell. Everyone loves Hitler fiction.”
“Come on,” I said. “Who?” It was my sixth month in the group, and I didn’t feel any more like a writer than I had when I started. In fact, the members chided me for my “immature and derivative prose.”
“Derivative of what? Or who?” I demanded.
Mitch had sighed. “Everything.”
Now, Steve’s eyes disappeared behind the thick hairy ridges of his eyebrows. “I for one read a lot of Hitler fiction.”
“Well, I like it” Stacey pulled her hair back from her neck, releasing her earrings. Randy changed the subject. That night, he walked me out.
“I can see you are really ambitious,” he said. “We are more into this for the love of the art — the true love of books — you know? That’s what we want.”
I nodded. “I love books too. I just wish we could read something besides romance.”
Randy nodded. “Ah, yes. Okay. I’m going to get some coffee. Have a good night.”
Three days later, Randy emailed me to tell me the meeting time had changed. The next week, it was canceled. Then everyone left for Christmas. Then I heard nothing. I emailed Stacey to ask her if I had somehow missed an email. She never emailed me back.
Six years after my last meeting at the Peerless Pens, I read an article about the members in the newspaper — “The successful book club” as they were heralded. One of them had a “highly trafficked weblog” another member had self-published his fan fiction and was “widely read.” That’s when I understood they’d kicked me out.
* * *
To fill the emptiness left by the Peerless Pens, I started my own book club. The premise was that we would drink wine and read a book. We would meet monthly. My friends Jon an Andi were in. They had another couple, Will and Sue, who seemed interested. Andi assured me we would get along. “Sue is also a writer,” she said. Our first night we met in Andi and Jon’s apartment, sampled wine and talked about Freakonomics. For the next month, I picked Philip Roth’s Plot Against America. No more romances for me.
At our second meeting, we mixed martinis and sat to discuss the book.
“What did you all think?” I asked.
Sue coughed. Will patted her back. She coughed again. Jon started to say something about Philip Roth naming his character Philip Roth, but then Sue coughed a third time.
“Are you…” I began.
“Why is there so much masturbation?”
Sue was a teacher. She wore cargo capris and her thick brown hair escaped from its ponytail.
“Maybe it’s a metaphor?” Andi offered.
“For sin?” Sue snapped.
Jon laughed nervously and began talking about Charles Lindbergh. Pretty soon, we were talking about everything but the book.
Three months later, it was my turn to pick the book again. I chose Ken Kalfus’ A Disorder Peculiar to the Country.
Before we could even pour our drinks, Sue was coughing into her napkin. We were at her house this time. She was serving lemonade and vegetables. I felt a tension the whole night as we crunched carrots. I thought the tension was the lack of booze. “Wasn’t this supposed to be a booze and book club?” I whispered to Andi in the bathroom.
She grabbed my hand. “Look, Sue’s really nice,” she said. It was like she was apologizing.
Twenty minutes later, I sat on the sagging microfiber couch, watching Sue cry.
“All this masturbation is causing my mind to sin,” she said.
The book had another masturbation scene, which I was unaware of until I actually read it. But I thought it was funny.
“It’s satire,” I said.
“Sin,” Sue sobbed.
“Suck it up, it’s just masturbation,” I said.
The next time we tried to meet, Sue refused to return my emails. Andi asked to meet me for coffee. She told me that Sue had started her own book club with some other couples who had been interested in joining our group. “There’s no alcohol and they’re reading The Help,” Andi said.
“It’s fine,” I said. “Sue can’t handle real books anyway.”
I drank my coffee and changed the subject. But in my stomach, my cold fear lay heavy. I had been in town two years now. I’d made my way through two jobs and, besides Andi, I had no friends. Nothing of mine had been published. Twice I had applied to the Iowa Writers Workshop, just twenty miles away. Twice I had been rejected. And now I had been rejected by not one, but two book clubs.
* * *
When my family moved from South Dakota to Minnesota, I told people at my new high school that I had so many siblings we’d accidentally left one in Kansas City on a family vacation and never went back. When a mutual friend asked Zach if that was true, he immediately said, “Yes” and pretended to tear up. “I’m so sorry,” the kid stammered as my brother walked away wiping his eyes. We hadn’t even rehearsed it.
I tried telling that joke to people in Iowa, but all I got was polite laughter. When someone asked my husband if it was true, he just rolled his eyes. “No.”
Not long after our second book club ended, Dave and I went to Kansas City for Thanksgiving with my family. They had recently moved there and I hadn’t seen their new home yet. My first morning there, I went to the bathroom and found it crowded with sisters in various stages of undress, the sound of hair dryers and the smell of burnt hairspray. When I walked in, Becky sighed. “Don’t wear that top with those pants! Ruth, let her wear something of yours.”
Cathy said nothing; she just grabbed an eyeliner pencil and started fixing my eyes for me. I hadn’t remembered they were broken. When I moved to Iowa as an adult, I thought I wanted to be an independent woman, a creative writer, someone bold and strong. But in the humid haze of the bathroom, in the middle of the light-hearted bickering, powdering and accessorizing of my sisters, I just wanted to come home. I just wanted to be able to be — not be someone else, not be someone better or someone new. I just wanted to lose myself in the warm, beautiful, fleshy organism of my sisters.
When I came out of the bathroom, my hair was curled and I was wearing someone else’s clothes. “You look different,” my husband said. “You look like your sisters.”
Family is a double-edge sword. You cannot reinvent yourself with them, they know you too well. But they do know you. And there is a comfort in that. You are the quiet one. The bad dresser. You are the bookish one. The one who owns no jewelry. In a family you are another finger on a hand. But in a family, that is all you ever are. Once you become the sad one, you will always be the sad one, even when you’re happy. By the end of the week, I felt safe, happy and claustrophobic. I wanted to go back to my home, the place where it was possible for me to be more.
* * *
I still don’t know if the third book club kicked me out because of my writing or my side dishes. They called themselves The Eat/Read club. They met once a month for a small potluck and a book discussion. I had been invited by a co-worker when she found out I did some freelance writing.
“We have another writer in the group too!” She said. “You’ll get along great.”
The first book we read was The Help and I brought a homemade challah loaf and sun dried tomato dip from “The Barefoot Contessa.” Ina Garten, I knew, would never let me down.
“What is this?” I heard a woman in line say. She wore a pale blue polo and khaki capris. She looked around. I said nothing. At that point in my life, I hadn’t been to many potlucks as an adult. But I knew that the goal was to have food so good everyone asks for the recipe. I imagined their shock in discovering that it was the new girl who had brought such a simple and delicious meal.
“She’s so insightful about literature and her challah is amazing,” I imagined them saying to each other after I left.
The woman poked her finger in the dip and licked. I tried to hide the smug smile on my face. She picked up a napkin and spit into it.
“This is unusual,” she said pursing her lips. I had lived long enough in the Midwest at that point to know that “unusual” was passive aggressive for “This tastes like shit.” By the time we sat down to talk about The Help, only three people had sampled my dip and I was angry.
“Does anyone want to start the book discussion?” our hostess asked. She turned to me, “Lyz, you’re new, want to start us off?”
“The book is… unusual,” I said and pursed my lips. They knew what I meant.
It’s not that I don’t like The Help, per se. It’s just that, no one liked my dip — which was magnificent, by the way. Only one person tried the bread. And absolutely no one bought my arguments about white women with savior complexes.
The next month, we discussed Eat, Pray, Love. I brought a watermelon and mint salad.
“Oh, Lyz” said a woman, “I can always count on you to bring unique food. That must be a writer thing.”
In lieu of a comeback, I bit into a brownie. They were good. The bitch who had just burned me made them. I didn’t know if I could win, so I ate another one.
This time, no one asked me what I thought about the book, but I told them anyway. I don’t remember what I said exactly, something about superficial self-help. Something about white privilege. Whatever it was, when I brought home a full dish of watermelon salad that night, I knew I wouldn’t be going back. My instinct was right — those women never spoke to me again.
When my husband came home, he found me sitting on the floor, eating watermelon and mint and drinking wine straight out of a bottle.
“I’m never going to find my tribe,” I told him. “And it’s my fault because I’m not a nice person. I couldn’t even pretend to like The Help just to make friends.”
He grabbed a fork and ate watermelon with me, picking out the mint.
“I’m a writer and I can’t even hack it in a book club!” I drank more wine.
By this time we had been in Cedar Rapids for five years. I had made some friends. But I still felt lonely. My few published clips were on a website that had just been shuttered. In lieu of getting anything published, I’d started a blog. That Internet advice, I decided, was garbage.
A few months later I would get a job working as an editor for a love and relationships website. Three months after that, I would get accepted to a low-residency graduate program in Boston. I would visit Boston twice a year. Going there would feel like going home — a home where people wore black jeans, swore, and drank a lot of whiskey, but home nonetheless, where I would be a writer because I was among them.
But at that moment, sitting on the floor of my house, eating terrible salad and drinking cheap wine, I was a failure. A writer who couldn’t talk about books. A reader who couldn’t write. I lay on the carpet and began to cry.
“I’m a failure,” I said.
My husband started scratching my head — a gesture he’d learned will always soothe me.
“That,” he said, “is such a writer thing to say, don’t you think?”