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The Writers' Group (EXCERPT)

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From POTTY MOUTH AT THE TABLE by Laurie Notaro. Copyright © 2013 by Laurie Notaro. Reprinted with permission from Gallery Books, a Division of Simon & Schuster, Inc.

I have read Harry Potter erotica. Sometimes, life is like that. In one moment, you're getting ready to read what you think will be a fun little short story about a magic girl and boy and in the next, Ginny and Draco are getting it on during a study session. And three days later, while I was sitting at a small table in a cafeteria, surrounded by people I did not know, it was my turn to say something about the story to the person who wrote it.

Half an hour earlier, when I entered the cafeteria, I felt nothing but complete terror, even though I was just here on assignment from a local newspaper as an experiment. A social experiment, if you will, that raised the question of how status changes perception in art and culture. My story was only a segment of a larger feature that included what happened when a principal ballerina went for a dance audition and how the work of a renowned and respected artist was received at a street fair; I was asked to write a piece about how a published author would fare in a writers' group.

I had agreed to join this writers' workshop comprised of people I'd never met and submitted an essay for their critique. Yes, I was scared. Some writers are lovely people, but more often than not, they become insecure and Hunger Games competitive when hierarchy is being established in a room with more than one writer present; it's like watching wolves hash out a pecking order before tearing into a fresh kill. It is rarely pretty, and someone usually gets too drunk and is found hours later unconscious and uncomfortably close to a litter box.

I know this because I am a writer. By trade, occupation, tax forms, you name it. This is how I've made my living for a long time, decades. But none of that history has any bearing at this cafeteria table. Here, I am simply a girl named Laurie who is waiting for her essay to be led up to the workshop altar. And if the aisle up to that altar involved discussing Harry Potter porn--which I still don't get--then so be it.

"Well," I say to the woman sitting next to me, "it feels like you just had a lot of fun with this." And then I smile. I think she wants me to say more. I simply can't. Because Ginny and Draco and their naughty bits have already taken a front-row seat in my brain, blocking access to the fifty-seventh password for my iTunes account. And that is a bad thing: now I'd have to contend with images of randy wizards getting it on every time Hipstamatic comes out with a new lens to download.

"But is it commercial?" the older and most likely retired man across from me in the hat insists.

"Absolutely," the author replies. "Fifty Shades of Grey was originally Twilight fan fic."

Fan what? I don't know what she means and have to ask what fan fic is. The group looked at me like I was insane.

"By commercial, do you mean you intend to publish this?" I ask earnestly. "Because there might be some copyright issues with characters created by someone else." Specifically, the richest, most famous author on Earth, who I wouldn't want to tangle with in a court of law, lest everything I own, including my dog, end up in a van delivered to the Rowling house to be disposed of or used as cauldron kindling.

"I checked it out," she assured me. "It's a gray area."

"Oh," I said.

"You sure do use the word 'pussy' a lot," the man in the hat comments. Out loud.

"I'm playing off the cat in the room," the author defends.

I am dizzy. I have just read an NC-17 version of Harry Potter and now an older man who I have known for fifteen minutes has uttered a word that I have been trying desperately to skip through all eleven pages of the Hogwarts porn. This is the same man who asked me when I first arrived what kind of stuff I wrote and asked for a hard copy. "First-person narrative, humor," I replied with a shrug.

He scanned the first paragraphs and then looked at me over his reading glasses. "Humor? Really?" he said as he handed my essay back to me, his face blank.

I am still feeling a little faint when we move on to the next writer, another older man with thick glasses who produces a book cover he has just paid a graphic designer to produce. It looks fantastic, although kind of young adult, with a photo of two pretty young girls and a dog in a hat.

The older man in the hat takes up the charge. "You lost me when the dog is writing a letter to the girl about how she needs to open herself up to people more," he says to the older man in the glasses. "Dogs would never do that. A dog needs to earn your trust; he never just gives it away. That's dog nature."

"No, no, no," the man in the glasses disagrees. "I don't agree. You forget that the dog is her dad, but her mother is a robot, so she has the DNA in her, too, that has no emotion. Her dad is just trying to balance that out."

"I think your cover is awesome," I say.

The man in the hat is not going to give up. "I also--I also don't understand why the dog is suddenly putting on a sports coat," he says, looking annoyed. "Where did the sports coat come from?"

"The dog wears clothes," the man in the glasses says, clearly irritated. "That's clear from the beginning of the chapter."