It was the fall of 2006, and I had just met the devil. The devil wore long skirts and cowboy boots, and her name was Maggie Fournier. Maggie was the last in a long line of academic rivals, but in time she would be a lot more than that. At times matchmaker, often a thorn in my side, theological opposite, and secret lover, Maggie Fornier and I paradoxically hated and wanted each other at the same time. Our relationship was to affect my life in a very profound way even to this day.
French Canadian Women and I have a very bad history together. I lost my virginity in Quebec to a stripper with fake breasts on a dare a few years before I met Maggie. I had equally bad luck with them in between. The year before I met Maggie, I'd gotten involved in another twisted relationship with Catherine, a preppie with too much makeup and an eating disorder, with an equally soft last name, though I didn't go so far as to sleep with her. Maybe it's the Catholicism. Maybe it's something else. I don't know. Like many things that happen in college, Maggie Fornier was a very bad idea that seemed like a perfectly good one at the time.
Every word Maggie uttered was like a photon from the sun. It had been forged deep in the core of her mind and spent an achingly long journey escaping. There was nothing spontaneous about the way she talked: every line was rehearsed a thousand times in her head if she said it once, every thought lingered over and second-guessed, like she was a character in a movie and not a real person. She was also drop-dead gorgeous: strawberry-blond, with a stocky swimmer's frame, ample breasts, and nearly picture-perfect curves. Her eyes were like beads of amber they were such a light shade of brown. She dressed like a Victorian might if they had been transplanted from the late 1800s directly into the early 2000s with little or no period of transition: long skirts, tall boots, long sleeves and high necklines, but always a flair for the dramatic and feminine that never quite managed to become modest. She was a mystery, she broadcast to the world. A forbidden tome. Come and read her.
I met Maggie at an undergraduate fiction writing workshop class at UNH, though we'd had several mutual friends for some time and each recognized each other by face from somewhere else. I actually wasn't supposed to be in the class -- I had transferred into this division due to a scheduling conflict. The class was, in a word, cutthroat. Fiction-writing classes tend to amass collections of egos, and at least at the time I was no exception. There were about fifteen of us in the class and we all had a chip on our shoulder about something. Our professor, who I'll refer to here as Adam, was a well-known and award-winning writer of literary fiction. I had been to other writing classes before, but this was the big time. My writing repertoire was just beginning to blossom, and the summer before I had embarked on a massive creative binge. In fact, by the time it finally petered two years later in 2008, I would have written well over two million words spread across close to fifteen manuscripts. I was going to kill, I thought to myself. I had it made. This would be a coronation. The women would adore me. The men would fear me.
Let's just say that Adam was not so easily impressed. It was only the second week when I was singled out for particularly harsh treatment, and he began to push me. Tough love, it's called. True, I was one of the better writers in the class, but I was not the universal object of adoration. And let's face it, I had no idea how to write anything but a first draft, and my characterization sucked. To Adam, writing was all about language. I would argue that a story is first and foremost a story -- language can only be built off of it, but I can't blame him for the bias. This was after all a writing class, and writing was what I needed to learn. And Maggie was the best writer of them all. If I thought her speech was beautiful, when she was actually able to take the time to fully meditate on what she wanted to say, she could produce some truly spectacular prose. I fully admit, I was jealous. To make matters worse, it seemed that for every time Adam harped on me about one shortcoming or another, he would lavish praise on Maggie.
So Maggie and I became rivals. We really didn't like each other. To each of us, the other was arrogant, unduly harsh, and a perverse slow motion train wreck the other couldn't help but stare at. We fought. We screamed. We snarked. And then one night it all boiled over, until Maggie was in the living room of my crappy little apartment and we were making out. For two glorious weeks we saw each other in secret, a forbidden relationship culled from the sauciest of romance novels. Then it ended as suddenly as it had begun. She dumped me. There is more to this story than that, but I don't want to detract from my thesis, and the particulars are irrelevant. We had used each other up, and managed to deeply hurt one another in the process. Maggie and I both meant everything we said, and when the end came, we meant to cause pain. We never publicly acknowledged our affair, and no one from the class ever found out until much, much later. It was like a fever or a prolonged dream. In those two weeks we had taken each other apart, deconstructed ourselves like we would to a Flannery O'Connor short in class, and then one morning we woke up next to one another after a particularly wild night, fully disassembled. Love, lust, whatever it was, it had burned itself out, and after a brief fight she walked right out my door without another word. I had never felt so empty, and we still had five more weeks of class together.
For most of my adult life, Maggie has been something of a mystery to me. Understanding is the key to acceptance for me, regardless of motive or reason. The world can be a pretty stupid and fucked up place sometimes, and I'm cool with that, I really am, as long as I know why. But I had never really fully explained Maggie to myself until now, and I realize now that she is at the core of a problem that has been nagging me for some time.
I have never taken criticism particularly well. For better or for worse, I am narcissistic in a way that makes me feel unsually sensitive to others' opinions of me, and by extension my writing. Adam was of course right about everything -- and for every time he pointed out yet another mistake or flaw he followed it up with a way to fix it, which I responded to. He listened to me rant. He listened to me rave. We conferenced, and conferenced, and conferenced. The man devoted dozens of hours of his own time to helping me. But still, at the end of the day all I felt was shitter and shittier.
I am also a terrible judge of my own merits, and I've all but given up trying to apply any metric to my accomplishments in life. If I can find a way to diminish the good that I do, I'll take it. So, truly, it was a miserable semester, even as I slowly began to pull my writing together. I should have taken it as a good sign when I was invited into an advanced graduate form and theory class, but by then it was hard to shake me from my funk. After the sucker punch of my two weeks with Maggie, it was hard to find anything good in either myself, the class, or the world. I withdrew -- into my writing, into my fantasy life, and away, and only the chance meeting of Kari three months later ever pulled me out. Had she not, I'm not sure where I would have gone. I suppose I'll never know.
There's nothing new to the notion that my writing reflects my state of mind. It is in many ways the crucible of my illness: both an expression of it and the primary vehicle for its treatment. But that medicine is also in its own way a form of poison, because success in writing is not based upon one's own judgments, but rather the opinions and judgments of others. To that end, I have a very hard time. It's difficult to be a famous author if you have that much trouble even showing your work to others. But even still, that in and of itself is only a symptom. If I second-guess everything I do and constantly need validation for everything, how am I supposed to get anything done? If Maggie and Adam and that class represented anything, it was doubt. Doubt in my confidence, doubt in my talents, doubt in whether I even deserved to be loved. I wish I could say that I'm over it, but I've struggled with all of these things to this day. Maggie hurt me. She had gotten deep down to my core, seen who I really was, and rejected me for it. I had largely rejected her too, but that made it no less traumatic. We finished the class, and spoke sporadically from there on out, but we had nothing more to say. I haven't seen her in years.
As for Adam, I probably haven't been very fair to him. He gave me the kind of gift that only comes a few times a lifetime, even if I couldn't see it for what it was at the time. It absolutely hit home. I think there is a very human tendency to believe that fluid, transitory things are in fact permanent, and that includes our own identities. I am not who I was in the fall of 2006, but that is one of many images I still see when I look at myself in the proverbial mirror, with the ghosts of that class and Maggie right over my shoulder. So let this be my beginning. I am acknowledging our time together for what it was and moving on. There is no profound realization, no great dramatic breakthrough. It is what it is. That's all I'm going to say on the subject.