Report from the Field: Quid Pro Quo

What I remember is red wine sloshing in hotel coffee mugs. What I remember is trying to scoot out of reach of his hand, the one that seemed to always be seeking my knee. What I remember is taking turns reading our poems and hearing the work of someone I admired before it was in print. What I remember is husky but laughing innuendo, about my breasts, about my ass, even about my toes. What I remember is him saying that my work was something special, that I had an unusual talent. What I remember is saying, preemptively, “I’m not here to sleep with anyone,” and him saying, “Never say never.” What I remember is his offer to write me letters of recommendation, to introduce me to his agent, to hire me to assist on his projects, to personally mentor my writing.

My hazy memory isn’t due to the wine I drank in that hotel room, one night with this poet, as famous a poet as poets get these days, and his younger friend, also a writer. It’s due to the rum I chugged afterwards, trying to wipe away the moment when my new mentor leaned in to kiss me and, when I avoided that kiss, told me, unceremoniously, to leave.

I was 27 at the time, employed at a small rural inn in Abiquiu, New Mexico and spending my spare moments at the desk agonizing over my MFA application. I was new to writing seriously and hungry for feedback, so when this poet, whom I’d met briefly at a writing seminar months before, walked in, of course I tried to chat with him. Only so many award-winning writers wander into one’s workplace after all. I gave him a great deal on a room where he told me that he and his friend would be up all night drafting a pitch for a television show. He asked to see some of my work, so I handed over my journal. A couple of hours later he called the front desk to tell me that my work had soul, that I had a future as a writer, that once my shift was over I should come hang out with him and his friend and help with the TV pitch. I wasn’t completely naïve. I considered safety, decided that being in a hotel room with two men was less suggestive than with just one. I thought that a man so recognizable and so in the public eye wouldn’t risk hurting me. I weighed the risks and the potential benefits, and I went.

I feel like we don’t talk enough about the vulnerability of writers, the way that we have to delicately tend our egos so that we have the spine to face rejection again and again. I think this can make us unhealthily hungry for praise, at least it did for me. I was willing to fend off the leers and the wandering hands for those few hours that night when we all swapped work and offered each other commentary.  For the validation. This poet told me over and over again that my writing was something special. He offered to help me get my work to the world. There was nothing I wanted to hear more.

But he progressed from teasing and flirting to trying to logic me into sex. I used his marriage as an obvious excuse to turn him down. He told me that great writers aren’t hampered by social norms. I said that I wasn’t going to sleep with him, period. He told me that something was missing in my work, a sort of spontaneity and willingness to take the opportunities that life offered me, that I would be a better writer if I just relaxed and went with the flow, and you know, fucked him. It didn’t matter how many times I said I wasn’t interested or how directly. The poet kept trying to chip away at my resistance until he finally believed that my answer would stay no.

The friend had stepped out for a cigarette break when this poet tried to kiss me and then told me to leave, when I realized that everything about the night had been a manipulation. When I realized that I couldn’t completely trust men to discuss my work. When I learned that I should always question the motivations of those who flatter my writing. I didn’t leave when he told me to. I sat motionless on the couch while he curled up on the bed and tried to fall asleep. I stared at him as though with enough focus and intensity my eyes could erase him from the world. I couldn’t move on his command, couldn’t give him that control over my body, so I sat there and let air slowly fill my chest and with each breath told myself that I was more than one man’s judgment or any man’s play toy. I don’t know how long I waited, but I didn’t leave until it felt my own choice.

The emails began to arrive three days later, thanking me for “tolerance and friendship,” apologizing if he’d “offended me in any way,” but also saying “remember, us writers go into some strange temperamental changes at times.” This poet reiterated his offer to write a letter of recommendation for grad school, and I considered it for a few days. But all I could think was what if he had a reputation for this? What if a member of an admissions committee assumed I’d fucked him for it?

I stumbled through the rest of application season and am now happily ensconced in an MFA program despite (or perhaps because of) not having a letter from that poet. But it’s taken time to build back a sense of confidence in my own words, and I’m still slow to believe praise and even slower to build relationships with male peers. Sometimes stacking the vulnerability of womanhood on top of the inherent rawness of writing is just too much, and it’s simpler to compartmentalize those parts of myself. I’m not sure I can entirely blame my shallow relationships with the men in my program or my determination to have a female advisor on that night with that poet, but I also can’t dismiss the impact he’s had on my comfort around male writers.

Within writer communities, we’re aware of each other’s and our own tenuous grasp on confidence, our exposure on the page. We talk about how to critique work empathetically, frontloading our positive feedback before the negative. We celebrate our peer’s successes and reassure them through failures. We offer affirmation, because we all need it to keep sitting down at our computers and typing words that may never add up to a book much less a publishing contract. This poet knew that. He knew that, and instead of sincerely offering support, he used it as a tool to try and manipulate me into bed. Because of him, I now understand why many women writers need their own communities where we can feel safe.





Erin Zwiener is an MFA Candidate in Creative Nonfiction at the University of Arizona and the author the children’s cowgirl fairy tale Little Red Riding Boots. Her essays are forthcoming at The Toast and Better: Culture and Lit. She lives at the base of the Tucson Mountains with her dogs, horses, and mules.





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