“Jillian Michael Joins My Writing Group,” by Nicola Davison

Aug 20th, 2017 | By | Category: Fiction, Prose

We are settled on our chairs, laptops atop laps, mugs of tea in hand, ready to hear the first short story when the buzzer buzzes. “Hang on. I thought we were all here,” says Darlene. We have our meetings in a small living room on the fourth floor of a downtown apartment building. We are only five, so we don’t need much space. “Someone named Jillian. Says you invited her,” she looks at me. “Sounds quite bossy.”

My tea leaps up and my laptop slides to the floor. Carpet, phew. I barely have time to explain the why, let alone the who, before she strides into the room. She’s taken the stairs instead of waiting for an elevator. Names are offered. The atmosphere is sweaty, smiles are stretched over twitching cheeks. I feel assessed.

I didn’t mention it to my writers’ group. Truth be told, the night I hit send I’d had more than one glass of wine. Okay, more than a bottle, and I’d nibbled everything crunchy in the kitchen cupboard, not one stale cracker remained. I was operating under the triple influence of mass dehydration, inebriation, and remorse. It was a confession that meandered into a manifesto with every third line rhyming.

I didn’t mean to hit send. When your vision is blurred, those little tabs are awfully close. Save. Send. Four letter words. But then, shit, I heard it, the computer made that whooshing noise; so much like the sound of a flushing toilet. Aghast, I was. Noooo. Come back. Undo.

Surely, she doesn’t read her own emails? Her assistant will pop it in the trash can. I imagined this person; spandexed (from a recent butt-kicking workout), and sneering at my poetry. So I sent another missive, which made our writing group sound slightly more prestigious than it is, and breezily invited her to join us some time. I typed out the where and the when and went off to bed to endure the spinning bedroom, without even flossing.

Jillian perches on the edge of a dining room chair, pulled up just for her. Nine years, I’ve spent with her in my living room. She knows when to yell and when to encourage. I can quote some of her spiels about the deeper meaning behind burpees and ab crunches. She has always been approximately twelve inches tall and stretched wide, by my unkind TV screen. But here she is as if she’s always been here. I admire her posture from the corner of my eye.

I picture her reading my email, then picking up her phone to book a flight; California to Nova Scotia. Did she know we existed before this? Yes, of course she did. It was mentioned on an episode of Six Feet Under. I remember that. It was a line of dialogue, spat from one character to another in a very derisive tone. Even so, I pumped my fist in the air. Nova Scotia (!) mentioned on an American show,

“Shall we?” Throats are cleared. “Did you bring something to read Jillian?”

Oh yes, but she won’t go first.

Stuart reads eighteen pages of poetry; a meditation on a single flower in a garden from his childhood that really represents South American politics. Jillian claps after the first page.

Kristy has a story set entirely in the storage room of a Walmart that contains a racy sex scene involving the utility sink. Jillian doesn’t clap this time. Everyone looks a bit flushed.

Warren has an essay about his take on the growing popularity of roundabouts in Canada. Takeaway: Warren is fond of roundabouts.

Darlene—whose apartment we occupy—gets up and makes herself busy in the kitchen when her turn comes around. I have yet to hear her read anything, aside from the description on the tea packets on offer in her kitchen.

All eyes turn to me. My voice is a strangled squeak. I’m reading the fifth draft of a short story I’ve been reworking for three years. It does not have an ending. Instead of an ending, I always finish off by saying, “It doesn’t have an ending just yet.” At this point, my writers’ circle usually prompts me with helpful questions about the twelve characters in the two-page story.

Jillian takes a different approach. She hasn’t spoken after anyone else’s piece but mine seems to incite a simmering rage. “Finishing is everything,” she says in a voice that seems to ricochet off the beige walls.

“Right,” I say, “I heard you mention that in Killer Buns and Thighs.”

“Get a little farther out on the skinny branch,” she says, using her toned arms to emphasize her point. Darlene reappears and nods sagely. “Get comfortable with being uncomfortable,” Jillian tacks on.

I smile a bit. It’s just so Jillian to say that, and as it happens, I am extremely uncomfortable.

“I’ll find an ending.”

“Do it now,” she says. “What are you waiting for? Change is not a future result but a present action.”

Warren pipes up. “It’s not easy to wrap things up for twelve major characters in just two pages, maybe you could cut it back to say, two characters.”

I stare at him. “Nothing roundabout about that, Warren. Sheesh.”

“Or,” offers Darlene, “it should be a novel, then you could spend more time finding your ending. A trilogy …”

“Or a poem,” booms Stuart.

“No. No. No.” Jillian is on her feet, pacing. Her shirt lifts a bit in the breeze of her apparent wind and I can see ab muscles. “You people are enabling her. She must take what she has and sculpt it. Tell me why all the characters are rodents.”

“Because they’re an intelligent but persecuted animal. People make fun of their teeth. I’m of British descent so…”

“It’s a distraction. It’s not important to the overall theme.”

“Isn’t it?” I appeal to my four but they’re either refusing eye contact or have their lips drawn tight.

Stuart, the poet, confesses to a patch of Berber carpet, that he’s never been sure what the story is about but that he’s always enjoyed the dialogue.

“Exactly,” says Jillian,” you lose your reader on the second sentence. It’s good to start out strong but you need strength in your core or the whole thing is weak.” She halts her pacing and bends forward at the waist in front of me, keeping her back flat and her abs pulled in. “Intensity, intensity, intensity. You want to be a writer? Write faster.”

Darlene must feel the need to give me a breather. “How many books have you written Jillian?”

She seems to deflate when Jillian tosses the number six over her shoulder without breaking eye contact with me.

“I’m all about goals. That’s how you get better. It doesn’t have to be perfect. Perfect is boring. You show up, you do the work because that’s how you get better. And it’s not just about words. It’s not just about writing. It’s about your whole goddamn life. Every day you do it and it will permeate every other aspect of your life.”

I lip-sync the last bit with her. She seems a little taken aback.

“It’s from Yoga Inferno,” I say.

She straightens up into mountain pose and regards me through hooded eyes. I’ve always thought her very feline. I’d like to write a short story featuring her as a tabby cat living in an alley.

She’s saying something. “Sorry?”

“I said, we’re going to make you stronger.”

“Up. Stand up. Everyone.”

No one stands up.

She claps her hands. “Chop chop. We haven’t got all day.”

No one looks at her. Everyone looks at me, The Instigator.

“It’s evening,” I say.

Computers and mugs are gingerly placed on the carpet and we reluctantly leave the coziness of our wooden chairs. Darlene is spared the appearance of subservience, already being on her feet but Jillian waves her in.

No one seems to know what to do with their arms. We are accustomed to a certain distance from one another and the miniature wall of a laptop screen. Jillian seems to enjoy this. She’s in the middle, turning slowly, taking us in. I’ve seen this look before. Here it comes.

“What are you in this for? Do you want to be published? You want someone to read your work outside of this living room? The time is now. Not another writing circle.” And here, she flexes her index and middle fingers around the term writing circle, as if we’re imaginary. “Not another workshop or weekend retreat.” More air quotes, alongside a mocking tilt of her head. “That’s phoning it in, and you know it. Stick with me and we’ll build your writing into lean muscle.”

“Oh,” offers Warren, his mouth in a perfect circle.

“You,” she spins to face me and her ponytail snaps her cheek, “will finish. You don’t come this far to peter out in the end. Exterminate some characters. Cut it down to three.”

I gasp.

“But it has to be twelve, like The Last Supper…”

“Nobody got that reference,” she gives the others a moment to speak up. “See? Try six characters in three pages.”

“… and that’s why he can float into the sky after—”

“Six, no more.” She glances at me then turns to the others. “For the next thirty days, you’ll write, and work out with me in this living room.”

“But,” says Darlene.

“No one leaves. At the end of that time, your work will either be lean or ripped and shredded. Either way, your butt will be so toned, you’ll be able to bounce a quarter off of it.”

She stands at ease, hands on hips, shoulders back, feet a little wider than hip-width apart. This is her domain, surrounded by soft, sweaty people reeking of fear. What have I done? No more drinking and writing for me.

“I’ll tighten up your end for you,” she says winking at me, then she reaches around and gives me a saucy slap.

“Stuart,” she barks. “Read us your first six pages, but this time you’ll do it on one leg, holding Warrior Three.”

“Is this the end?” I say to the room of slack faces. “This seems like a good spot to end.”


Nicola Davison lives in Dartmouth, Nova Scotia, where she delights in the sound of the daily noon cannon, announcing that it’s time to eat again. When not typing, or wiping dog hair from her pants, she shoots people from behind shrubs (with a camera) and (sometimes) gets paid for it. Her first novel is being published by Vagrant Press in the Fall of 2018; its working title is Dead Reckoning. Find more of her words on Medium.

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