The Writers Workshop At Lake Manitoba

Submitted into Contest #238 in response to: Set your story at a silent retreat.... view prompt

12 comments

Crime Contemporary

 A grin exploded across his face as Harold Jones walked through the rows of desks to the front of the class to receive his award for the best story of the day.  He could be a great writer, knew he had amazing stories stacked up inside him like shelves in a library, but just couldn’t get them them.  He had always known this Writers retreat, held at the historic Arts Building at the University of Manitoba, would be the key to unlocking his success, and he finally was on his way.

The writers gave up technology to create stories with paper and pen only, in absolute, and total silence. Harold had applied for years, until a series of suspicious deaths in the area had tamped down demand, and they finally accepted him. The irony of having to go on a silent retreat to get the words out was not lost on him.   He turned to gloat at Michal, who had won the award both the previous days. Michal avoided him, jealous maybe, his eyes on his faded trainers, so Harold nodded to the rest of the class applauding. He graciously accepted his reward from the teacher, Michelle, a gold chocolate bar.   Harold had to admit his first thought was to eat it. He was starving, and though he felt he had won, guilt pricked him about how he cam by the idea, and he considered if this symbol should just disappear. 

When Michelle rang the dinner bell, Harold was ashamed when his mouth started to salivate. He followed the class to the cafeteria. His stomach rebelled at the sight of the brown rice and vegetables, but he took a tray anyway, placed it next to his chocolate bar and moved into the small outdoor patio for a seat. 

He saw one in the shade and headed for it.  Kicking the leg of the bench trying to get his sore hips down far enough, he fell into the seat, clanging the tray on the table. That's when he saw Michal across from him. 

‘I beat you Michal!’  The words rang in his head, eyes blazing in joy, and it was almost as good as saying it out loud. Then he worried, does he know? Harold gave him a sideways glance, would he say anything?

A rumble broke the silence, a Harley Davidson motorcycle roaring. Harold looked down at his belly, then ducked his head slightly as the other writers glanced up from their bowls in the small patio.

That must have been when Michal stole his chocolate. 

                After the first day of the Workshop, the rule against talking wasn’t as hard to follow as he had thought. Harold didn't know anyone here, authors from both the US and Canada, and he understood the hand gestures and nods of the simplified sign language, most of the time.  But, in shock at the no phone, no computer, no talking rules on the Writers Workshop pamphlet, he had missed the section that the meals were vegetarian-only.

Harold enjoyed the bean soup for lunch yesterday, a marvelous first course, he decided, until he found out it was the only course.  He skipped the boiled vegetables and mushrooms over gluten-free pasta last night, filling up on famous Amos cookies instead from the tiny Snack and Sundries shop.   And the dorm room, designed for young, limber college students, tortured over-weight, middle age writers.  Harold had not fallen asleep without TSC encouraging him to buy the latest kitchen appliance in 10 years, and the narrow bed in the monk-like cell had more lumps than the porridge served in the morning.

Harold’s editor Laura, had said he needed to start something new. Harold’s current novel was, in her words, ‘insipid, uninspired, and unsellable.’ Harsh words, but of course she technically wasn't his editor yet, though he had hope.

He had met Laura, an editor at a large online publishing site, through a friend of a friend.  He got her personal email address with a promise of a follow up date to a Taylor Swift concert.  The concert tickets, as fictional as his stories, got Harold’s foot in the door, and he had been peppering her with chapters from his novel ever since, a dark thriller/romance titled ‘Last Night at the Lake’.   Laura had encouraged him to take a six month- long course, and never call her again, but Harold thought a week was just the right length to fine tune the heretofore hidden talents buried somewhere inside of him.  

By the third day of the Workshop, he began to worry.  His few ideas floated away like the clouds of curdled milk in his coffee.  The sight and sounds of the authors furiously writing around him didn’t, as advertised by the organizers of this Writers Workshop, inspire him to the ‘Best Writing of his Life’, but instead made the point, as sharp as his unused pencil, that while they had stories to write, he did not.

The tablet arm desk groaned in pain as Harold twisted to get comfortable,  eyes glancing at the clock to confirm the hands did actually move.  He did not fit into the desk like he did the last time he had regularly sat in one, 20 years ago in college, although he rarely sat in one then, skipping class like a spinning stone on Lake Winnipeg.  He tapped his pencil on his mostly blank paper. He did have some ideas, but tossed them out one after the other.   Weak characters, pathetic plots, and half written, rejected story lines flew around him in a storm of dejection.

His uncomfortable creaking caused a sharp glance from Michal, in the next row over, a sneer of annoyance communicated his thought clearer than any word.  Michal, rumored to be the greatest writer in North Central Canada, turned back to his own desk, and began scribbling again, his pen smoothly writing on the paper in front of him, stacking completed sheets on one side, only a few rejects ending up in the trash bin between them.  

Harold slammed his palm into his forehead. He had to do something, he had put so much work into getting here. Harold glared at Michal, seated right next to him, a human printer, writing without pause, ink flowing like a river across his page.  

Harold knew he shouldn’t have pulled Michal’s discarded papers out of the trash, he shouldn’t have read the small, perfect script.  He only wanted to see some bad writing, typos at least, to find company in his misery, at least that's what he told himself.   But reading them only made it worse.  No typos, no cross outs, only elegant, dramatic sentences.  The story snippets were all crime stories,  oddly funny, and insightful like Harold wanted his stories to be.  Sparks flew off the page, until the mystery would end without a resolution, or have an ending, without a beginning.

In one of the murder mystery stories, half written, the characters were at a crossroad, stuck.  Harold saw something.  He saw how the pieces that Michal had begun in the first half of a story could be tied together and completed in the second half.

 Should he ask Michal to use it?  Harold tilted over as close as he dared.

‘Hey, hey! Could I finish this story idea?” He held the paper up, his voice barely discernible above the pens writing around them.

Michal turned, his dark eyes wide, eyebrows raised, then back to his desk.

What did that mean? Harold leaned over to confirm, but Michelle saw him move, her eyes staring red laser beams of warning.  Harold sat straight up. Definitely a yes.

He read the story again, and then, copying the scrap of a story in his own scrawl, he crumpled the stolen page tight into his pocket.  He continued, the spark of an idea growing into a small fire, and then a beautiful flame, warming him with its intensity. The story moved fast, until the earned twist landed with a click, solving the mystery with an unexpected character, to have a deeper meaning than ever expected.

The time flew by, and he had just finished in time to turn it in, posted on the wall to be read by the rest of the class.  The other writers milled around, reviewing each submission.  That story had been the best thing he had ever written, and he had stolen most of it. Well maybe just part of it, but still the guilt toyed with him. He had changed the names, was that enough?

Sitting at the outdoor patio across from his rival, Harold saw the glittering gold foil of his chocolate bar, on Michal’s tray. His award!  Somehow Michal had reached over and stolen it off his tray.

Harold pointed at the chocolate, mouth open in shock. Lightheaded from not eating, Harold’s rage flicked on like an industrial boiler, roaring inside of him.

 Michal just smiled, popped his eyes wide in that curious expression, and put his head down to slurp a spoonful of his soup.  Harold pounded the table and pointed again at the chocolate. 

“That is my chocolate!” Harold huffed, a fiery breath of anger, leaning across the patio table. Michal looked up, shaking his head from side to side. 

The entire class, filling the patio turned, eyes sharp and accusing.  Michelle two tables over had her long slender finger over her lips.

Harold pointed at his chocolate then shouted in a big open mouth, soundless- ‘Mine!”

Michal gestured to Harold’s chocolate bar and then to Harold with his head tilted sideways, a query twisting his face. He had a dark threatening look in his eyes.  He picked up the bar and moved it away from Harold and closer to himself.

 Michal must be toying with him, he knew Harold had stolen the story, and this is his revenge. Anger boiled up in Harold, an over-cooked soup, frothing in big bubbles overflowing any control he had. Both hands slammed on the table, “No!”

Michelle appeared as if an apparition, one hand on Harold’s shoulder.

“SHHH!”

Harold tried to make his case, pointing at the chocolate, and then at himself, repeating the words “stole my chocolate!”  over and over in soundless mouthing.

When they both, their heads synchronized in shaking side to side, refused, Harold realized they were both in this against him, vengeance for a plagiarized story. 

Michelle smiled and patted Harold on the shoulder.

Michal had opened the bar, and now chocolate covered his teeth, in a shit-eating grin. 

Harold, open mouthed in shock, watched the last of his chocolate bar disappear, his fists squeezing so tight they turned white.  He moved to leave, away from the table, away from the humiliation.

That’s when Michal put his hand out, resting it on Harold’s forearm.

“Good story.” He mouthed.

Harold swung then, toppling Michal, the table, and any chance of getting published in The Lake Manitoba Press.

Under the table, before he was pulled up by the rest of the class, Harold saw the glittering gold foil of an unopened chocolate bar.  He picked it up, pocketing it for later.

Another story idea popped in his head, of a suspicious death at a Writers Workshop.

He opened the chocolate bar as he planned it out. This would be his best story yet.   

February 23, 2024 19:42

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12 comments

Jack Kimball
21:41 Feb 29, 2024

Marty B, this was a hilarious read. You must have been the perfect candidate to attend detention in high school. Reminded me of ‘Breakfast Club’ which I bet you could write a better screenplay for. I loved this line, ‘Harold had applied for years, until a series of suspicious deaths in the area had tamped down demand, and they finally accepted him.’ Talk about subtext! And yes. We will all miss Michal, kind of. ‘Michal, rumored to be the greatest writer in North Central Canada, turned back to his own desk, and began scribbling again, his ...

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Marty B
22:22 Feb 29, 2024

I appreciate the high praise! The Dude abides

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Michał Przywara
00:57 Feb 27, 2024

Ha! Fun story, and I'm not sure why, but the setting feels very familiar to me :) It raises interesting ideas though, about the nature of theft in art. Namely, where do we draw the line? On some level we're all “stealing” from prior work. Most of us probably use quotes from Shakespeare or whatever else without even knowing it, just because it's become so prominent in culture. So where does finishing an unfinished story fall? Is that theft, or is it a prompt? I guess it's probably one of those things that varies from situation to situatio...

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Marty B
16:35 Feb 27, 2024

I have a pile of 1/2 (or less) written stories, that have fizzled out and could be spectacular borrowed as a prompt for the next writer. In this story, Harold's guilt shows how he thinks of it , as pure theft. Glad to see your name pop up, Many on this site are borrowing from the the greatest writer in North Central Canada ;) Thanks!

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Karen Hope
12:10 Feb 26, 2024

This is funny, well written and relatable. I love “Anger boiled up in Harold, an over-cooked soup, frothing in big bubbles…” We’ve all been there!

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Marty B
18:25 Feb 26, 2024

Our emotions get the best of us all, especially when I'm hungry and somebody steals my chocolate! ;) Appreciate your good words! Thanks

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Helen A Smith
17:32 Feb 24, 2024

This was hilarious Marty. Rounded off my last journey of the week on my train home nicely. I was laughing aloud. Hugely entertaining and highly creative use of the prompt.

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Marty B
23:08 Feb 25, 2024

Your comments made my day! Thank you love to get laughs especially on trains ;) Thanks!

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Alexis Araneta
13:25 Feb 24, 2024

Hahahaha ! So fun, this one ! Beautiful way of setting up the story. Watch out, Michal (also, couldn't help noticing the names of some of my favourites on this platform being used. LOL !)

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Marty B
23:09 Feb 25, 2024

Yes, a few Reedsy writers made an appearance. Watch out your name might crop up next ;)

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Mary Bendickson
06:45 Feb 24, 2024

Death by chocolate? Thanks for liking my 'Hammer Down '.

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Marty B
23:09 Feb 25, 2024

Maybe the best way to go!

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