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THE WRITING CLASS by Jincy Willet

Is it necessary to have experienced a creative writing class to enjoy this murder mystery?  As a veteran of innumerable writing workshops, I’m unable to say, but would be interested to hear from others on the question.

There is so much to like here, especially the irascible central character Amy Gallup, instructor of said writing class.  Amy had the misfortune of premature literary success at age 22, and now, in her sixties, is reduced to earning her living teaching night classes.  She has given up on writing, except for a blog, just because “she did have to do something creative, even if it was just some little thing, because she was not writing, and not writing was hard work, almost as hard as writing.”  But Amy is SUCH a wonderful curmudgeon, she decides that “If people stumbled across her site, fine, but it would exist without them, just like her books, whose continued presence in the Library of Congress was her ego’s only comfort.  To publish in private:  she flat-out loved the idea.  The title for her site … was :

GO AWAY

which was centered on a plain white page, in 48 point Times New Roman font.  In order to find the second page, you had to click on the period.”

The cast of lovable strange familiar would-be writers is also engaging — and figuring out which one of them is The Sniper was only one of the pleasures of this book.  Even Amy’s cranky old basset hound Alphonse delighted me.

There are times when Willett’s cynicism seems at odds with the lightness of the material.  For example, here are Amy’s thoughts on one of her students:  “Dot was ideal prey for the sort of writing guru who praised everyone’s use of metaphor whenever a metaphor, however exhausted, was actually used.  No doubt Dot had been told more than once that her work was publishable, and Dot, hearing identical assurances given to others, had believed in her heart of hearts that she was the only one not being patronized.  There was a local industry devoted to Dots:  weekend writing conferences, during which the Dots could pay extra to have a real-live literary agent read one of their paragraphs;  expensive weeklong retreats in Anza-Borrego or Julian or Ensenada, where the Dots could locate their inner voices;  and at least three annual fiction-writing contests which the Dots could enter at will, for a hefty fee.  Amy was willing to bet that in Dot’s living room an entire wall was devoted to framed literary awards, including Third Runner-Up Best Unpublished Romance Manuscript.”  Ouch.

For me, the murder mystery aspect is a mere plot device and the real meat of this book is the author’s outrageous wit combined with her real seriousness about the business of writing well.  I also appreciated Willett’s eye for the dynamics of a writing class, for example her observation of the way the class deftly handles the work of someone who is obviously disturbed, so that “gradually the class fabricated a sort of ghost text, woven on the spot from the threads of social desperation, the weave eventually so tight and even that latecomers could jump in gamely and embroider the edges.  And when they were done, the crazy guy was actually smiling.  He told the class, ‘You all really got what I was trying to do,’ went home and, to everyone’s relief, never returned.”

Willet brings wisdom and humanity and artistic seriousness to a tale which otherwise would be little more than a light read.  It’s an engaging high wire act, with a sequel now out in paperback, called Amy Falls Down.