SOMERVILLE, Mass. Like many professional writers, Maggie Turbek can recall with clarity the first time she set crayon to paper with the thought of becoming a writer. “I wrote a poem when I was four,” she says. “A butterfly/fluttered by,” she adds with a bare trace of wistfulness in her voice that is far outweighed by her air of bitter resignation, like the relative volumes of vermouth and gin in a dry martini. “Now, whenever I get feelings of nostalgia for my youthful drivelings, I lie down until they go away.”
Turbek: “Stop whining, start writing!”
It’s that hard-nosed approach that has attracted a hopeful group of students to her intensive summer seminar, “Get Over Your Damn Self,” a ten-week course that tries to convert into productive professionals mid-career writers who showed promise when young, but have failed to fulfill it as adults. “I don’t want to hear what your fourth-grade teacher thought about your writing,” Turbek says with all the sympathy of a Marine Corps drill sergeant. “I want you to crank out something today.”
Turbek knows whereof she speaks, having received a $700 check from The Atlantic Monthly for her first short story in 1969, then getting “a swelled head,” as she puts it. “My first story was . . . okay,” she says in a voice that sounds a note honest self-appraisal. “The next one, and the one after that, and the one after that, were all pretentious crap.”
“Maggie may be tough, but at least she’s unfair.”
The hardened professional offers stalled scribblers a round-the-clock social media monitoring service to keep them on the road to success by preventing their eyes from looking back on their youthful potential. “I need someone to keep me focused,” says Todd Ewshak, a thirty-something young man who says he’s been “shut out” of several markets that would once consider his story pitches. “I used to at least get chilly, disdainful rejections,” he says. “Now–nothing, not even an ‘out of the office’ reply.”
Tonight finds Ewshak “blogging” about the current friction between President Trump and various news outlets he dislikes, and the negative impact this has had on him personally. “It is not hyperbole to say that the current animosity of the White House towards the press is the cause of almost daily attacks on journalists around the world,” he taps on his laptop. “I remember when I was editor-in-chief of Tiger Tales, my high school newspaper, and we took on a hidebound, repressive dress code a new principal had imposed.”
The blog “post” comes to the attention of Turbek’s young assistant Lorna Twellman, a recent summa cum laude graduate of Tufts University with a B.A. in English, who uses an internet-sweeping algorithm to scour social media sites and writers’ discussion boards in an attempt to keep Turbek’s clients from wasting their time mooning about the past. “Maggie, I think you should probably check this out,” she says as she cuts and pastes Ewshak’s maundering reflections, then forwards them by email across the cramped office they share.
“Ooo–you were editor-in-chief of your high school newspaper. And I should give a shit because?”
“Who is it?” Turbek asks as she puts on a pair of reading glasses she bought at Walgreens for $12.79 earlier in the day.
“Ewshak,” Twellman says, then returns to her work, hoping to avoid shrapnel from friendly fire Turbek has been known to discharge when particularly annoyed.
“Oh for the love of Mike,” Turbek mutters when she sees the sentimental–and self-regarding–reflection the young man has posted. “I’ll take care of it,” she says, sternly but calmly.
Turbek checks her class roster and composes a message she sends to the young man’s email address. “Todd–hear me out: Nobody gives a rat’s ass what you did in high school. I don’t care if you got an A in journalism, or a cool letter sweater that you gave to your girlfriend. YOU’RE SUPPOSED TO BE A BIG BOY NOW!”
“Blunt trauma to the head often helps erase youthful memories, so try falling down stairs.”
There is no response at first, but after a moment Ewshak replies. “Sorry–I know the rule. If it didn’t appear in a newspaper of general circulation–not a student rag–it doesn’t count.” “Attaboy,” Turbek replies. “Writers WRITE, they don’t waste time perusing their yearbooks for autographs from girls who gave them hand jobs.”
“Sheesh,” she says to Twellman. “We’ve got a ways to go with that kid.” The young woman smiles politely back, then clears her throat to deliver more bad news. “I came across another one,” she says, then forwards a link to a social media comment by Lisa Atwater-Kent, an M.F.A. who has so far found only temporary office work since graduating from the University of Massachusetts-Seekonk last spring.
Turbek squints as she tries to read the text on her outdated phone, then screws her face up into an expression of disgust. “Dear God in heaven,” she says after reading Atwater-Kent’s humble-bragging about her early writing success. “Is electro-shock therapy still legal?”
“I don’t know,” Twellman says. “Why?”
“Because it may take a 220 volt charge to erase a memory this pathetic,” Turbek says, then fires off a text message to the straying student. “Lisa, dear, I don’t think you’ve been paying attention. I know when you were 14 you placed a short story with T-Zone, the “New Yorker” of adolescent complexion problems, but that was eleven years ago! Time to man or woman up, whatever your gender du jour is.”
Passenger pigeon delivering rejection notice from Atlantic Monthly in 1867.
A little row of bubbles appears on Turbek’s phone, indicating that her student is preparing a response, then a brief text reply appears. “Sorry Maggie,” it reads. “Still traumatized by the zit I got right before senior prom.”