Writing Coach Helps Rookies Forget Past They Never Knew

SOMERVILLE, Mass. When asked her age, Maggie Turbek doesn’t duck the question so much as turn it into the sort of ironic understatement that characterized her youthful literary efforts. “Let’s just say,” she tells this reporter, “I don’t have to worry about planning my 75th birthday party anymore.”

Despite her advanced age, however, she’s still working “fully part-time” as a writing coach for twenty-to-thirty somethings who are having trouble getting their careers started. “I’m sort of a tow truck for kiddos who are stuck in the mire,” she notes as she stubs out a menthol cigarette. “They call the auto club when they’ve got a flat, they call me when they can’t figure out how to shift a point of view.”

Turbek: “Stop whining, start writing!”

 

Turbek’s intensive summer seminar–“Nostalgia Ain’t What It Used to Be”–started yesterday and the ten-week course aims, in her words, to “deprogram young people who insist on being old before their time.” The symptoms, she says, include a preference for black-and-white films over more recent Hollywood products; vinyl records over CDs or streaming music; and “vintage” clothing from small boutiques instead of the practical slacks and blouses she buys at big-box retailers. “You’ve got to live in the present,” she says. “It’s the only time slot that’s currently available.”

Twellman: “Maggie, some loser is getting soppy-eyed about ‘Casablanca’.”

 

With her assistant Lorna Twellman, a recent summa cum laude graduate of Tufts University with a B.A. in English, Turbek keeps a lonely watch as her protegees get bogged down in dreams of the past–Paris in the twenties, New York in the fifties–instead of focusing on the here and now. “I don’t want to hear how you wish you could be at Les Deux Maggots with Hemingway and Fitzgerald and Seabiscuit,” she says over the crackling of a bag of Fritos, a salty treat she became addicted to as a young reporter, working the night shift listening to a police scanner. “I want you to write about what you see in front of your ink-stained nose today.”

One of her customers is Tom Blewart, a chronic backslider with a fixation on the society dances of the thirties. “Has there ever been a better Big Band than Ozzie Nelson’s?” he asks on a writer’s forum called peninhand.com. “Imagine dreamily dancing with your date at Rutgers beneath the moon over the Raritan!”

“Maggie’s tough, but at least she’s unfair.”

 

“Maggie, I think you’d better come here,” Twellman says in a subdued voice after excusing herself for interrupting.

“Who is it?”

“Blewart.”

“Not again,” Turbek groans. “Who does he think he is–James Branch Cabell?”

“I don’t know,” Twellman says, before yielding her ergonomic chair to Turbek.

Turbek scrolls all the way through the comment, which goes on for several paragraphs of purple prose, before declaring “I’ve seen enough” like an election-night pundit.

“BLEWART!” she types aggressively in all-capital letters below his comment. “Open up a window and let the smoke from your lavender-scented cigarette out!”

The comment shows up in a little bubble beneath the on-line maunderings that have set her off, and the blocked young writer snaps to attention and inhales before sheepishly replying. “Sorry, Maggie–I got carried away. I’ll try to focus on my history of fraternity initiation rituals of the twenties and thirties and not–”

“Is ‘Bullfeathers’ the word you’re groping for?”

“Yes, that’s it–thanks, Maggie. You’re the best.”

Ozzie Nelson Band: Doesn’t get any hipper than this.

 

Turbek returns to the manual typewriter that she used to write her first novel in 1965 and resumes work on her long-delayed second novel, “Under the Rhododendrons,” a bittersweet coming-of-age tale that she hoped to get published before she turned thirty. “I don’t like being a writing coach,” she says, “but it pays the bills.”

Rhododendron or Japanese movie monster?

 

She has laid down sufficient exposition–“A lost art with all these M.F.A.s running around without poetic licenses”–for a chapter in which the heroine is ravished by a lawn maintenance crew member and is about to begin dialogue that exudes complete satisfaction when Twellman interrupts her again.

“Do you remember Fawn Weingold?” she asks discretely.

“The Brandeis gal who will only listen to Patti Page?”

“That’s the one. She’s off on a tangent about the TV shows of the sixties.”

“But she wasn’t born until 1990!” Turbek snaps, eliciting a helpless shrug of the shoulders from her assistant. “I’ll take over,” she adds before wheeling in front of the office’s lone computer monitor.

“Was Deputy Dawg the last honest cop?” she sees on the screen. “Back then, before Watts, and Detroit, and the Democratic Convention of 1968, it was possible–if just barely–for an American to believe in law enforcement.”

 

“Sweet Jesus, Mary and Joseph,” Turbek moans, apparently feeling the ill effects of the academic woolgathering seven miles away. “You’d better call one of those ‘Ubers’ in case talk doesn’t work and I have to go strangle her.”

Turbek takes a breath, then begins to type: “Fawn, dear–where exactly were you planning on hawking this little masterpiece: The Journal of Animation Sociology?”

The young woman is taken aback by the brusque comment but recovers in a moment and begins her apology. “I . . . well, nowhere, Maggie.”

“You’re damn right, nowhere–now get to work on something another human being might actually want to read, so I can get on with my life.”

“Will do,” the young woman replies, then adds–to Turbek’s distress–a “smiley-face emoji” that only deepens her foul mood. “Those who can’t write–emote,” she says, before rising and performing a few stretching exercises that fail–miserably–to brighten her mood.

 

Turbek lights another cigarette and settles in to review her bank statement, but loses concentration after a few minutes and stares off into the middle distance to brainstorm how to get her heroine and gardener out from under the bush where she has thrown them together. “I suppose they could just get up and dress like they were checking for ticks,” she muses under her breath when her reverie is interrupted again.

“You were editor of your high school newspaper? I should give a shit because?”

 

“Do you have a second to look at something by that Chapman guy?”

“The failed novelist?” Turbek snorts, referring to a man not much younger than herself who she agreed to take on as a special student despite his low prospects for success. “Well, as long as his credit card goes through, I guess he’s entitled.”

Turbek puts on the reading glasses she bought recently for $17.99 at Walgreens and, to her dismay, sees the seventy-something client going off the rails in pursuit of his pet theory that the word “jazz” is a corruption of a word for “horny” that was imported to Africa by Dutch settlers in 1652.

“Criminetly,” Turbek mutters when she sees the convoluted argument take shape. “There’s no rest for the weary,” she says, sternly but calmly, then takes over the keyboard with an air of resignation.

Passenger pigeon delivering reject from Atlantic Monthly, 1867.

 

“Are you going to send out at least ten query letters today, or are you going to waste your time looking at Lafcadio Hearn’s correspondence on microfilm?” she types below the comment on jazzwritersforum.com.

The seventy-something writer stops typing for a second, then downshifts to full contrition mode. “Sorry, Maggie–I was just tracking down a lead I found late last night.”

“You’re not going to finish your bucket list chasing every little rainbow you see on the horizon.”

“I know–I’ll get on QueryTracker as soon as I . . .”

“NOW!” she snaps, and the comment thread ends T.S. Eliot-style, not with a bang, but a whimper.

“I can’t stop them from leaning over the ledge of the past and looking down,” she says drily as she crumples up her snack food bag and throws it in the trash. “But I can at least try to grab them before they jump.”

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