A few years ago, in an introductory fiction workshop, my students and I witnessed a young man make relentless awkward attempts to get to know a young woman in the class. He was passionate and clumsy and his efforts were wholly transparent. When the time came for him to turn in his story, he submitted a piece about a young man much like himself who is hopelessly in love with a young woman much like the young woman in the class, and the two characters are in a creative writing workshop together. One night the male character shows up tipsy at the young woman’s house to ask if she will stroll with him in the warm night air and hold his hand, but the door is opened by her boyfriend, who answers for her with a punch to the jaw, sending the character flying and leaving a scrape on his chin—much like the scrape on the chin of the young man in my workshop.
Undaunted, the character retreats to his dorm to write a story about yet another character who is much like the first character who is much like the author, with the idea that a female character who is much like the first female character who is much like the girl in the workshop will read the story and understand that this literary version of himself represents his real self and that he is in love with her.
In the final scene, the girl suddenly understands—during workshop, no less—that the boy is in love with her, and she is powerfully moved by this knowledge. Everyone in the real workshop knows that the real girl would have to be blind and deaf and witless not to understand that this boy was in love with her, but this public declaration—this tender, ridiculous, marginally grammatical, potentially humiliating public declaration—nonetheless moves us.
Robert is the author of Tumbledown: A Novel (2013, Graywolf).