Raw Material – story review

The fourth story in Little Black Book of Stores is Raw Material, a story of a man who makes a living teaching writing classes that are taken by people who largely write self-involved stories that are less than excellent. Tied to his spectacularly unspectacular classes is his own inability to continue his own writing career. His first book sold well years before, the second flopped, and he has sold nothing since and is agentless. All of this changes when an old woman takes his class and begins submitting work that is leaps and bounds above not only the work of the other students but of the teacher himself.

Predictably, the students react with a fervent ugliness, displaying a creativity in their cruelty that they lack in their actual writing. While the teacher attempts to defend it, knowing that the old woman’s work is the “real thing” and feeling it rekindling his own latent creative energies, the old woman herself simply accepts the cruelty and sits through it.

Of course the story ends horribly with the teacher going out to the old woman’s house to inform her that she had won a contest she had been unknowingly entered into by the teacher. She is found naked, badly beaten and scarred on the floor with a crazy human thing nearby acting like a crazy human thing. The story ends with the fact that this news is greeted by a grotesque cheerfulness by the class, the teacher knowing that the following week will breed a host of stories about the old woman’s gruesome death and mysterious lodger who appeared to not only have killed her but to have beaten and scarred her for throughout much of her life – as many of the scars on the old woman’s body were far from fresh.

It seems to be that the old woman has never written before, that this is her first foray into the form. Her success melding life story with creative license is a counterpoint to the teacher’s near lack of life story. After publishing his first novel and failing with his second, he sunk into that life of teaching but never really incorporated what he was learning through living into his work. It mentions how he would occasionally lift and idea or two from his students and try to improve upon them but that these never really went anywhere. While it is mentioned that the teacher believes writing shouldn’t be therapeutic, after learning of the old woman’s home life, it is shown that her stories are at least drawn from her experiences and very likely are at least marginally therapeutic.

Maybe this is an admonition for writers who try to live only as writers while running out of things to say. There is something to be said for living life for the reason of living it while focusing on turning it into some sort of best seller as a purely secondary thing. To gather the “raw material” to fuel the creative process, the ore needs to be mined through experience.

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