The Writers’ Conference


They were in a drab classroom facing each other on oversize student desks, a slight man whose large head gave him the appearance of a gnome, and a middle-aged woman whose dark roots were beginning to show beneath her ash blond hair. The only light in the room was filtering in through two narrow rain-spattered windows. The man’s name was John Warrenton. He was a published novelist on the staff of the Clymer Workshop, and he’d had the unhappy task of telling the woman sitting opposite him, Rose Ann Bethune, that in his judgment her novel simply didn’t work. Their conference, for which she had paid a substantial fee, was nearly over.

“I’m sorry I can’t encourage you with this novel,” he said. “Family sagas are difficult to write, and the characters in the family you’ve chosen to write about are so… so despicable, to put it bluntly, that they’re almost unbelievable. I can’t imagine that anyone would want to spend time reading about them.”

“Faulkner’s characters weren’t exactly sweethearts,” she said in a soft drawl that contrasted sharply with the hard consonants in his Yankee speech.

But you’re no Faulkner, he thought, checking himself before the words flew out of his mouth. He rose to indicate that the conference was over. Then, feeling that he had to give her something positive to take away from their meeting, he said, “You’ve written some fine sentences.”

She took the manila envelope from him that contained her manuscript, ignoring his outstretched hand. Don’t cry, she kept telling herself, don’t cry, don’t cry, don’t cry…

And she didn’t cry until she was outside in the rain.

Rose Ann walked with her head down so no one would see her weeping. Privacy, she wanted privacy; she hadn’t had a private moment since the conference had begun with the exception of time in the bathrooms, and then almost always pressured by the awareness of people waiting their turn on the other side of the door. She knew that her roommate, Francine, was in their room waiting for her. She couldn’t face Francine, she couldn’t face anyone.

She started down an unpaved road behind the theater that she’d noticed yesterday. The novel had taken up her whole life. It had become the reason for her existence, the only thing that truly mattered. The novel had given her something to look forward to, the promise of a new beginning where she wouldn’t have a husband who cheated on her, children who didn’t call unless they wanted something, a mother whose demands were unending. She could free herself from all of them.

Writers were supposed to write about what they knew. That’s what the books said. Warrenton said her characters were so despicable that they were almost unbelievable. He was wrong! She had depicted them as they were, generations of liars, cheats, petty thieves—mean-spirited people who inhabited the twisted branches of her family tree.

Rain started coming down heavily. She saw a large garage ahead that had a green tin roof and two sets of double doors, one of which was open. Hurrying toward the building, she slid on a muddy patch and lost her balance, landing on her side. She got up slowly, testing to see if anything was broken. Then she looked at her blouse and khaki slacks, slick with mud, and broke into choking sobs at this final insult.

Ordinarily the pattering of the rain against the tin roof would have soothed her, but her sobbing was wild now, beyond containment. She walked around the equipment in the building—a tractor, riding lawnmowers, a snow blower, a large blade for snow removal—without any of it registering. But when she saw a coil of rope hanging on a metal hook that was attached to a sheet of pegboard behind a long workbench, she stopped. That was it, she thought, that was it. It was all there for her: the rope, the exposed beams, and a stool next to the workbench that she could stand on.

Her weeping stopped as she concentrated on making the slip-knot noose, convinced that fate was telling her what to do.

Frank Stryker, the caretaker at the Clymer Workshop, found her less than a half hour later. He had come in to get a snake to unplug a toilet in the main building, the Tabard Inn. The color vanished from his ruddy face when he saw her hanging from an overhead beam near the workbench. “Jesus,” he said, backing out the door. A heavy-set fellow, he half-walked, half-ran to the director’s office in the Tabard Inn, forgetting about the snake and the plugged toilet.

The director of the conference, Colin Rafferty, insisted upon going back to the building with him. “Aren’t you going to call the police, the rescue squad?” Stryker said, still out of breath.

Rafferty looked at his watch. It was five fifteen. If he waited to call, the people attending the conference would be in the dining room when the police and rescue squad arrived. He could direct their vehicles away from the Tabard Inn so conference members wouldn’t be aware of anything amiss. “Frank, I take your word for what has happened, of course,” he said. “But it’s my responsibility to see the tragic incident before making the calls.”

Stryker understood. The director was going to do his best to keep the incident quiet, like other incidents that had been quickly swept away.

Rafferty almost succeeded. Rose Ann Bethune’s body was circumspectly removed, and the only people the police questioned were Stryker, the writer John Warrenton, and her roommate Francine Shaw. All three were cautioned by Rafferty not to discuss what had happened with anyone because of the upsetting effect it would have on the conference, but it was impossible for Francine.

She was close in age to Rose Ann, and the two roommates had bonded from the first day of the conference; not only did she find it impossible to hide her grief, she didn’t feel right lying to people when they asked for Rose Ann, so she told a few of them. Those few told a few more, who told a few more, until finally everyone at the conference knew that Rose Ann Bethune had committed suicide by hanging after her conference with John Warrenton.

The following year there was a new director at the Clymer Workshop, Roy Talbot. The novelist John Warrenton wasn’t asked to return.

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Book cover showing an aspiring writer walking alone at writers’ conference with manuscript papers flying around her.