Write What You Know

In one of my writing classes in college the teacher started us off with an essay about that old saw, ‘write what you know’, and how you actually know a lot more than you think. You might not know a lot about being an undocumented Salvadorean immigrant, but maybe you remember your first time in a strange place and how it smelled different–what it was like to encounter a completely new olfactory profile. Maybe it was alienating or freeing. But the specifics aren’t particularly important now that you have a frame for it. You’ve just leveraged your lived life to add some realism to a strange character. 

And you don’t need a lot of this. A technique that Ray Carver used a lot, and to great effect, is something I like to call ‘pointillistic realism’. He often worked in threes. Just listed three things. One was usually highly evocative:

Mel handed me the saucer of limes. I took a section, squeezed it over my drink, and stirred the ice cubes with my finger.

There’s a Tobias Wolff story where he describes a scene outside as containing ‘teenagers selling oregano to tourists in white shoes’ or a very similar phrase. When I read that the first time I knew exactly what street he was talking about. The street could be anywhere, but you know that kind of street too.

So it doesn’t take very much detail to evoke something, and your life is already full of little details you can include to flesh out scenes and characters. So much of what we experience is universal. You just have to pick the right thing. So by all means, write what you know–but you can get a lot further on that than it seems at first blush. 

What brought this to mind today is, I finally got the perfect picture of my morning commute. One of my characters takes the same train into town in the book I’m working on, and I’ve been imagining what it’s like to do for your first time.

Kenji woke Hideki up when the train got closer to San Francisco. The coastal range wrapped around South San Francisco and and joined with the highway on the left side of the train, and piers full of derelict ships and the biggest pile of garbage Hideki had ever seen greeted him on the right side. Kenji probably could have woken him up at a slightly different time. Hideki wondered if it had been intentional.

They went through a tunnel and entered the city proper. The graffiti that he’d seen hints of as they approached now showed up in force. It was like something out of a movie. There were unreadable words taller than he was, illegal but still beautiful murals, and some things that were probably ‘gang tags’, whatever it is those were. The rest was a familiar enough scene, with pallets leaning against shipping containers and garbage strewn here and there.

Maybe ‘here and there’ was the wrong term. Garbage was everywhere. But the people waiting at the 22nd street station didn’t seem to mind, or even really notice. Hideki got the impression that he’d be seeing a lot more trash than he was used to this trip.

The World Beyond Eels: Readers Wanted

Hey folks,

I’m working on a big overhaul of the fish story (now The World Beyond Eels) and just finished up Act I. It’s around 20,000 words, 50 or 60 pages. If you’re interested in giving me some feedback (and, of course, reading it!), send a message to theworldbeyondeels at gmail dot com. Let me know who you are so I know you aren’t some kind of robot Russian identity theft plagiarist. 

Here’s the new prologue. 

On Tuesday, just before noon, the last fish was caught. It was a mahi-mahi. It was unceremoniously thrown off the gaffe and onto the deck of the boat, where it was beaten to death with an unremarkable baton and then gutted with a machete. The fisherman hosed it down afterwards, and the bloody water poured out of the scuppers and into the sea. It was, he would later report, delicious.

Nobody learned a valuable lesson about overfishing or climate change, or had an epiphany about coral bleaching or any of that ‘responsible’ stuff. Nobody tried to start a consciousness-raising group for kids about taking care of Earth better than their parents had.

This wasn’t because humans aren’t a clever and adaptable species. We are. We deal well, if not always wisely, with changing circumstances, with quick changes and with gradual ones, too. Think about the miracles you can pull off just with duct tape. You can look down at the jacket of your friendly neighborhood gutter punk, or all the way up to the space missions that we thought were doomed, to see all the things we’ve managed to rescue with that stuff.

No, we didn’t learn any valuable lessons about the environment because, for once, this particular fuck-up had nothing to do with the environment—on Tuesday, every living fish on the planet simply disappeared. Poof. Gone.

Just because we didn’t learn much didn’t mean that this wouldn’t bring civilization to its knees, what with all the ecological and cultural devastation. Of course all of that happened. And don’t worry, you’re going to hear all about it. I suppose most people would probably start by telling you about the tsunamis. But we’ll start somewhere a little more pedestrian. Eastern Colorado, to be specific.

Inspiration

A long time ago—not that long really, but never mind, it feels that way—I took a creative writing class. Not my first one, probably not my last either. It was in high school.

That school is long gone now. It was sort of experimental, and then they ran out of funding, so the experiment was over. We had three classes a day, and they were each about ninety or a hundred and twenty minutes long. Every other day you got one of the periods off. If you were doing well in class, you got to do whatever you wanted as long as you stayed on campus. We were on a university campus, so we had a lot of leeway. I spent a lot of time at the diner across the street and the main library. They let me go to the diner because they liked me.

But that’s not really important. Anyway, we had a teacher, Peter, and for the life of me I can’t remember his last name. He was one of the ones who liked you to call him just by his first name, so I guess that’s why I can’t remember it. And boy was Peter interesting. He’d done a lot during his life, but the one that was kind of most interesting is, he did some work with the Peace Corps somewhere in the Caspian region a while back. Now, for whatever reason, my school had a lot of immigrants and first-generation kids from that area (Iran too, but that’s a whole different story; it’s sad). And they liked his stories about Georgia and Kazakhstan.

So he told them. One of them stuck with me, I don’t know why. He was in Uzbekistan or Kazakhstan, somewhere out in the steppes, and he was sort of wandering around maybe. The details are spotty. And he stops at some place for food and a drink, I always imagined it was some dusty, leather-detailed wooden building that had withstood the winds of ages. A revenant.

Peter said it was lit by candles, but when I think back I’d guess he probably made that part up. It was lit by candles and the clientele was grungy. He got some sort of hard-bread-and-spread deal, had a beer or two or three, and the day wore on and eventually he realized he was in the middle of nowhere, and he wasn’t sober, so he decided to rent a cot and spend the night.

By now, I imagined, the inside must have been thick with cigarette smoke. Seems like the sort of place where people smoke, right? And of course the floor was dirt, it just had to be, when I would picture it in my head. The floor was dirt and the people wore fur or something, I don’t know. I was fourteen.

And the locals start sort of making fun, you know, joking around, like you do, and they decide to show him what the locals really drink. Lord only knows if this is actually what they drink, or if it’s just something they keep in the back for the one old dude who lives in the village and still drinks it. You know the kind of stuff I’m talking about. Except this one wasn’t just a dinged-up old bottle with a faded label, it was a glass jar where they measured how much you drank by measuring the level of the liquid on the side before and after. And at the bottom of the jar there was a dead snake, like the worm in a bottle of shitty tequila except, you know, a snake. The guys said they ate the snake when they were done.

I don’t remember what happened next. Peter probably finished the story and had us write a poem or something. I don’t remember what Peter had been doing in Kazakhstan or wherever, but it may have been teaching algebra. I do remember that Peter had lived in San Francisco for a while doing art, and that he had thinning hair and it was ginger, and that he had pudgy hands and some freckles on his nose, but that’s about it.

There’s a couple other things I remember but they’re not really important.

Peter was a great teacher. He turned me on to The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, and he put up with me being the sort of goofy kid who wanted to read Finnegan’s Wake, and he showed me some Philip K. Dick, and we read, you know, Ray Carver and the rest of the stuff you’re actually supposed to read, the Hemingways and the Fitzgeralds and all those guys. (They’re all guys, except for Flannery O’Connor).

The class wasn’t really graded per se, just sort of a check/check-plus system. There was one midterm and one final. They were each a single piece of paper. “Please write either a story based on this prompt, or a personal essay.” And since the classes were so long, remember, you could do a lot with that in one period.

He handed out the prompts face-down. We flipped them over when he said to. I didn’t peek, not that sort of kid.

I wrote a satirical fantasy piece for the midterm. I can’t for the life of me remember what it was about, except that there was a scene involving climbing a rope really far.

For the final, when I flipped the page over, it said,

Please write either a story based on this prompt, or a personal essay:

On Tuesday, every fish on the planet disappeared.

Of all the things, these I remembered? The Kazakhstan story, this writing prompt, and his first name.

I guess I could probably ask somebody what his last name was.

The Fish Meta: Part 2.Meanwhile… Suggestions?

Howdy kids,

The second half of Part 2 is going to be a series of shorts from around the world about the last two weeks (in-story time obviously), with some characters you know but mostly one-off folks that you don’t. Maybe they’ll come back later, I don’t know.

Anyway, my question is–should anybody have any suggestions–any suggestions? Parts of the word you’re curious about, anybody you haven’t heard from recently, and so forth. Some ideas:

  • Jiro has a quirky hobby
  • Question Time at Westminster gets nasty
  • Amsterdam is fucked
  • Oceania is fucked
  • Water wars in North Africa
  • Fun with hákarl in Iceland
  • The Finches have a word with their butler
  • BankBuddy Park repairs
  • And so forth.

I sure hope the commentariat has suggestions 😁 not that I need them, but who doesn’t love engagement?

Miscellany Blag

I.

My father told me a cool… aphorism? It’s certainly not a joke, but falls short of a koan.

The Irishman and the Monkey Wrench

There once was an Irishman who had a leaky pipe. He went to his neighbor to borrow a monkey wrench, and then he (of course) went home and repaired his pipe. He thinks to himself, well, self, make sure you remember to return the wrench… Ah, I’ll do it tomorrow.

The next day, he thinks, ah, damn, I forgot to return the wrench! I’ll do it this afternoon.

The next day, he thinks, fuck! My neighbor is going to be so pissed! I gotta return this damn wrench!

The next day, he thinks, oh SHIT he is going to be mad as hell! Fuck! Ugh! Gotta return the wrench!

The next day, he grabs the wrench, storms over to his neighbor’s house, and bangs on the door. When the neighbor answers, he shoves the wrench at him and yells “HERE’S YOUR GODDAMNED MONKEY WRENCH!”

II.

A.

Saw this on Facebook, can’t stop laughing:

Ted Cruz:
One day more!
Another day another dip for me
This never ending road from Calgary
These men who seem to know my slime will not be fooled a second time,
One day more…

Rand Paul:
I did not poll until today
How can I live, now that I’ve started?

Ted Cruz:
One day more

Rand Paul + Carly Fiorina:
Tomorrow we’ll have dropped away,
And yet, by now we should have parted…

Jeb Bush:
One more day all on my own

Rand Paul + Carly Fiorina:
Will we ever run again?

Jeb Bush:
With the GOP not caring

Carly Fiorina:
I was here for Hillary!

Jeb Bush:
What a life I might have known…

Rand Paul:
Hope I still have Kentucky…

Jeb Bush:
Trump’s a bully, it’s not fair!

Marco Rubio:
One more day until the storm!

John Kasich:
Do I stay out on the road?

Marco Rubio:
At the caucuses for freedom

John Kasich:
For the battle in New Hampshire?

Marco Rubio:
But first, about Obamacare

John Kasich:
Do I fight my brothers there?

Marco Rubio:
It has destroyed America

Ted Cruz:
One day more!

Donald Trump:
One more day to Trumpolution
They will never have me stumped
We’ll be ready for those losers
They’re low energy; vote Trump!

Ted Cruz:
One day more!

Ben Carson + Mike Huckabee:
Lock our donors up
Give em all a call
Always worth a buck when it’s a free for all
Here a little speech
Half a million more
See you on the book tours that are coming up!

Republican primary voters:
One day to a new beginning
(Raise the flag of Iowa high!)
Every man will meet Steve King
(Every man will meet Steve King!)
There’s a candidate for freedom
(There can only be just one!)

All:
Do you hear the people sing?

Chris Christie:
My place is here
I fight for food!

Ted Cruz:
ONE DAY MORE!

Rand and Fiorina:
We did not run until today!

Jeb Bush:
One more day all on my own!

Rand and Fiorina:
How can we drop now that we’ve started?

Donald Trump:
I will be the people’s hero
They will turn out in the snow
I’m doing best in all the polls
They’ve got no shot and they all know

Ted Cruz:
One day more!

John Kasich:
Do I stay out on the road?

Jeb Bush:
What a life I might have known!

Rand and Fiorina:
By now we both should have departed

Donald Trump:
One more day to Trumpolution
They will never have me stumped
I’ll be ready for these losers

Ben Carson + Mike Huckabee:
Lock our donors up
Give em each a call
Always worth a buck when it’s a free for all

Ted Cruz:
Tomorrow is the caucus day
Tomorrow is the judgment day

All:
Tomorrow we’ll discover what our god Ron Reagan has in store!
One more dawn
One more day
One
Day
More!

Which reminded me of…

B.

There’s a gay(?) bar in the West Village called Marie’s Crisis. OK, it’s a gay bar, let’s be honest. Anyway, it’s a piano bar that does sing-along showtunes for the most part. Total hole in the wall, literally in a basement next to leaky sewer pipes, but the smell of spilled cocktails and BO from the poor ventilation manages to overpower that. And it’s a total blast.

The last time I was there (two years?), the piano guy was doing his last song before the next person came on, and decided to do One Day More, because of course he did. This being a gay showtunes bar in the West Village, almost everybody in it either had Les Miz memorized or had been involved in a performance of it, or both. So the entire bar starts singing along, including choreography and three-part harmony. It was so. cool. There were even people miming waving a revolutionary flag at the end.