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We are seated in a circle – or more accurately a quadrangle, as there are only four of us. The wooden floorboards of the small room above a dingy café in mid-town New Orleans creak loudly every time one of us shifts awkwardly in our iron chairs. It is a Tuesday night and the writers’ meeting is in its fourth month of existence.
Not that you would know it.
“So what are we doing again, Andy?” says Greg. He is a thirty-something with straggly hair, a beard as tangled as his Southern drawl, and a penchant for zombie films.
Andy pulls a manuscript out of his bag and thumps it down heavily on the chair beside him. He is in his fifties, and presumably dresses like a college professor – with a leather jacket and yellow tie – to disguise the fact that he is actually a furniture salesman. He churns out a novel every other month.
“What?” Lynn is a rotund older woman whose loud squawk is mostly due to profound deafness in one ear. Mostly.
Greg is taking a hiatus from poetry-writing to pen a play called How Many Necrophiliac Jokes Can You Make In An Hour.
“Speak up!” Lynn’s bark competes with the groaning of the floor.
Greg speaks up. “Necrophiliacs!” he says louder. He’s wondering about the rating level of the group as everything he has is R-rated, you know, pretty much on the first page.
“I’m with you, bro.” Andy chuckles, shaking his head at a memory he thankfully keeps to himself.
“The reading level? We can all READ, Greg!” says Lynn. “Look, I’ll read what you got but that doesn’t mean I’m gonna feel comfortable with it. I mean, if someone asks me to take my clothes off, even if they’re gonna pay me a thousand bucks, I’ll say-” She pauses to consider what she’ll say in the event of such a proposition. “I’ll say – is it art?”
The floor rattles under my chair when I stifle my laughter. Lynn turns to me. “You sitting over there sniggering? I’m thinking of the children!” she says. “You’re gonna be handing around R-rated material, I wanna put out a notice so’s no kids be seeing things they shouldn’t be seeing. You know what I’m saying?”
Andy doesn’t. “Are we letting kids in this group?”
Greg’s not coming to a group with kids in it. His stuff is pretty out there – we’re talking a whole other level of ‘out there’.
“What? Can’t hear you!” Lynn says. “I’m saying I don’t wanna be excluding nobody.”
Greg’s not having it, neither is Andy. But regardless, the four childless writers in the meeting debate the logistics of opening a daycare downstairs, until it is closing time and we agree to postpone the actual discussion of our writing for another week.
But there is no other week for me. I’m in New Orleans on a scholarship for an MFA in Creative Writing. Unfortunately, having failed to read the fine print on my documents – or indeed any of the print – I don’t realise until I arrive that my scholarship falls short of my tuition by $7,000 a year. And on my first day of class, I discover the degree is three years, and not two. Come to think of it, I don’t think I ever bothered to ask.
Not having the requisite funds for even the first semester, I do the only logical thing. I head down to the nearest jazz bar, drink a lot of Louisiana beer and ask a 20 year old Texan what I should do. Unfortunately, the next day I can’t remember his answer. So I assume that he said “Everybody knows creative writing degrees are an academic racket anyway,” and I withdraw from university.
An email arrives announcing that I have 15 days to leave the country. My new plan is to cross the border out of the States and re-enter on a tourist visa to return for Mardi Gras. In a series of phone calls whose narrative thread loosely resembles a Kafka novel, I find myself ensnared in the caverns of bureaucracy, being transferred endlessly from one department to another – immigration to citizenship services to homeland security to the terrorist hotline – and shouted at innumerable times. Finally an older gentleman informs me that I’ll be sorry in ten years’ time when I fall in love with an American and am forbidden to marry him, in a tone that strongly infers I’m fated to die alone and eaten by my own cats. This is what happens when you overstay your US visa, young lady.
“But I’m going to Mexico.” I explain for the umpteenth time. “I’m not overstaying my visa.”
“Ma’am, we will put you on a plane, we will ship you out of Mexico!” I wonder whether Mexico falls under the legal jurisdiction of the United States, but the phone call is abruptly terminated before I have time to ask.
I don’t anticipate having problems leaving the United States when I head for the Canadian border, but Quebecois immigration holds me for an hour as they go over my documents. “What do you mean you didn’t know the degree was for three years? It’s written here!” The immigration officer points to the bit of my document that it had never occurred to me to read.
“This might sound strange,” I say, “but it never occurred to me to read that bit.”
He confers in French with his colleague. The hardest part to understand of my whole somewhat-confusing story, apparently, is that I moved to the US with a single backpack. I think it will be helpful to explain in French that everything I own fits into a single backpack, but I’m ordered to my seat. Finally, the officer stamps my passport and scrawls on a piece of paper – four days.
“Do you want to stay more than four days?” I tell him I don’t. “Because you can’t!” he says.
I leave Canada after five days – just to prove him wrong – and decide not to take my chances coming back across the US border: Instead, I drift through three continents and wash up in Australia. In several months of not studying writing, I manage to write a lot.
So I come home with no set plans, either to leave or to stay. And I do what any aspiring writer would do: I get a job as a writer. A copywriter. My days are filled with words. Unfortunately, those words are pet insurance, premiums and superannuation. I make surreptitious use of a finance dictionary, nod enthusiastically when stock prices are discussed at the watercooler, and keep quiet the fact I barely have enough in my super account to feed myself for a whole week of retirement. In a decade of travelling I don’t think I’ve ever set foot in a place as foreign as Sydney’s corporate world.
Maybe I should have taken Lynn up on her offer to hide me in her basement.