Encounters in Publishing #26: Office Hours, by Paul Florez
October 30, 2013
I was full of hope when I received my acceptance letter to The New School’s MFA program for fiction last spring. At the time I was a Devil-Wears-Prada-esque assistant for a major book publisher in Manhattan and couldn’t help be anything less than awkward around my boss.
“Make sure you call the hotel in London to get instructions on how to get to the convention center via the tube,” she commanded, in reference to her upcoming trip to London Book Fair.
I saw this woman try to navigate the subway system in our own city. It was a Shakespearean tragedy, and to be fair when I interviewed for the position she made it very clear my job was to get her from point A to point B without qualm. So the image of her wandering a foreign subway system in her spring ’13 Jimmy Choo shoes, late for one of the biggest tradeshows in the publishing industry, was enough to give me a stomach ulcer right then and there. Luckily, I was prepared to address her concern.
“Actually, I already spoke to the hotel’s concierge,” I chirped. “He’s going to leave the instructions for the lube on your nightstand.”
I felt proud of myself. The first lesson for any assistant is anticipating your boss’ needs, and I had mastered it. She needed instructions for the lube and I, her almost thirty-year-old assistant with adult braces, had gotten it for her. When she was using the lube, she would envision my face and be proud I was there to help her slide from place to place without any friction.
I lifted my hand for a congratulatory high five but my boss’ weather-beaten face tightened and she shook her head in disappointment.
“You mean tube,” she corrected. “I should hope you wouldn’t think I need instructions on the former.”
The thought there was a bottle of KY personal lubricant at a five star hotel across the pond, awaiting usage by the person who cut my paychecks made me cringe in shame. Why the fuck had I accidently said lube?
So when I tell you getting accepted into The New School was a light at the end of a very long tunnel, I’m not exaggerating. With my acceptance, I was finally freed from a job that often left me tongue tied and mortified. At long last I was on the road to becoming the profound and serious writer I felt I was destined to be.
As it turns out being hopelessly awkward isn’t a phase in your twenties or subject to a condition in your career. It’s actually a God-given character trait, and when I entered my MFA program I found out how awkward I was capable of being.
The program was exactly what I’d hoped for: a diverse student body with interesting stories to tell, and acclaimed professors that challenged as well as inspired me. The professor for my writing workshop also doubled as the program’s director. His novel was one of NPR’s Best Books of 2012 and was a selection for Book of the Week at Oprah.com. To say he was someone I wanted to impress would be an understatement.
When I submitted my story for workshop in September, I got good constructive criticism from my peers, and as part of the class we had to meet with our professor privately to discuss the feedback. This would be my first one-on-one with him and I was determined to be charming and witty. I wanted him to be proud that I was his student and perhaps see me as a protégée.
When I took the seat in his office, the chair immediately squeaked, but it wasn’t the kind of squeak one would expect from a rusty chair with a few loose screws. The squeak sounded more like I secretly let out a fart.
“Oh fuck,” I thought. “How do I make sure he knows it’s the chair that farted and not me?”
I bounced up and down, and just as I anticipated, the chair repeated the same farting noise over and over again.
“Oh, your chair makes funny noises,” I said, flashing my braces.
He gave me great advice during that first meeting, telling me I should always note how a character acts differently in different situations.
“How someone is in front of you isn’t necessarily representative of how they are at home,” he told me. “It’s the first lesson of any character.”
We moved the discussion to how I should begin my story.
“I want to start the story by paying homage to Charles Dickenson’s A Tale of Two Cities,” I proclaimed.
His eyes widened.
I gave a protracted “Ummm…” and went into crisis mode. Did I really just call Charles Dickens, one of the greatest authors to ever live, Dickenson to my graduate professor?
I tried to back peddle but at that moment, somewhere between an awkward laugh and self-deprecating remark, the wire in my lower jaw popped out of a bracket, and tore the inner part of my cheek.
Perhaps my professor noticed the drool streaming down the corner of my mouth. Perhaps he didn’t. Either way when I was lying in the orthodontist chair later that afternoon, I took comfort in knowing my professor had a good grasp on character development and hopefully didn’t judge my awkward behavior. More importantly I came to terms with the fact that I was just a naturally slaphappy individual in front of authority, and that it was futile to pretend I was otherwise.
As my orthodontist tuned my braces, he observed my bite was almost perfect. My long journey with braces may finally be coming to an end, but my MFA program is only just beginning.
Paul Florez is currently receiving his MFA in fiction at The New School. His work has appeared in Slice Magazine, Queerty, and The Advocate. You can follow his misadventures over on twitter @TheTinBot.