Words on Words #3

I’ve been working lately on not needing to explain myself. There’s a scene in the 10th Kingdom, where Virginia is having a meltdown and she says, “I still have this uncontrollable urge to just go up to people and say “My mother left me when I was seven!” You know, as if that would explain everything.  And I miss her… And I hate her! And…and I miss her… And I feel like I was on a train and it crashed or something and no one came and rescued me.”

I feel like this is what I’ve been doing my entire life. Just walking around with a dead brother storyline and a foster care storyline and a mentally ill mother storyline and a dead mother storyline and just waiting for someone to a) recognize that these stories are what make me broken and b) give a shit. And I feel like, with stand-up, I was able to share these stories, imperfectly, but enough that I don’t have that urge anymore.

I Ally Sheedy’d, just dumped all of my baggage out on everyone I spoke to and for the first time in my life, I found people who didn’t look away. Instead, they listened, and they had their own bags to dump out. I don’t know what it is about the stand-up community that is different from any other set of people I’ve ever been around, but that is the only community I’ve been a part of that let me be sad and angry and whatever the fuck else I was.

But now, I have this weird normal job around normal people and if I say something dark, instead of people laughing, they get concerned. And that makes me miss stand-up but instead of feeling like I have to explain the joke or explain my existence, I just let them think I’m weird. And I don’t care anymore. The urge to explain myself in real life has almost entirely faded.

This is not to say that I don’t have anything to say. If anything, I have more to say than I ever did and I have a much better handle on how to express myself. But the need to be understood by every person I meet, in every interaction I have, is gone.

This is not to say that sitting down to write is less terrifying than it ever was. But I was watching a YouTube video with “tough love” writing advice for writers tonight, and it was the same old shit until she said, “find a way to make it fun”. And I was like, holy shit, I make writing a chore. No wonder I don’t want to do it.

So I searched YouTube for “how to make writing fun” and there was really only one video, and it was “how to make writing fun for kids”. And I thought, if it’d work on kids, it might work on me. So, basically, the way to make writing fun for kids was a story generator set up by Scholastic. And it’s cute, so I wanted to try it out.

I realized that the other thing that stops me from writing is that I want it to be good. It takes so much energy to talk myself into writing that I don’t want that to feel like wasted time. And there are all these rules about writing. The very first piece of writing I ever showed to a professional in the publishing industry was responded to with a suggestion that I check out the Turkey City Lexicon. The Turkey City Lexicon is a list of tendencies new writers have. It’s essentially a list of what not to do.

So, I’ve spend the last decade-plus figuring out how to write well so that showing my writing to other people won’t be humiliating. But not wanting to be humiliated is just another thing that stops me from writing. So, I decided to take the writing prompt from Scholastic and pair it with the first rule in the Turkey City Lexicon — Brenda Starr dialogue. Essentially, you don’t want to write blocks of dialogue that aren’t anchored in a setting, with defined characters.

So I wrote a short story (see last post) that was a bunch of blocks of dialogue with as little setting, characterization, and narration as possible. And, damn, was that fun. And, damn, did I like the story. Is it well-written? Naw. But did I want to keep going and find out what happened next? Yes. So, maybe this is a writing exercise that will get me out of my head and and make writing fun.

In the movies, a character will go through a tumultuous experience and then sit down at a typewriter and their story will just pour out of them. I spent a lot of my life expecting that I would become a writer someday. I’d have that movie moment and it would be all I could do to keep up with the waterfall of words. But that isn’t what writing is for me.

Writing is something that I want to do, all of the time when I can’t, and none of the time when I can. My first day back at work after my mom died, one of my managers who knew that I had a complicated relationship with my mom and had her own complicated relationship with her parents, said to me that I was “free”. She wasn’t wrong. But in that moment, I hoped that she would never know how terrifying and lonely true freedom actually is.

When I have the time to write, and I sit down to do it, all of the potential for greatness and ineptness — and worse than either of those, mediocrity — come crashing down on me. I don’t know how to make writing less important to me. I don’t know if I should. But I would like to make it fun and I would like to thumb my nose at people who make rules that seem to restrict creativity more than encourage it.

What the hell is the point of the Turkey City Lexicon? Why isn’t there an equivalent list of specific things TO do in order to write a good story? Why are we, as human beings, so much more responsive to being torn down than being built up? It seems antithetical to me, to create a list of what NOT to do in order to encourage people to create more powerfully.

So, fuck the Turkey City Lexicon and fuck any rule about what not to do.

Scholastic/Turkey City Prompt Mash-Up #1

“Hey, who are you?”

“I’m an owl. My name is Henry. Who are you?”

“Samantha. You can call me Sam. Are you magical? There was a burst of light in the sky and then there you were. Where did you come from?”

“Nice to meet you, Sam. I’m from a faraway planet. I’ve been flying for a long time. Boy, are my wings tired. I’d like a place to rest before I continue on with my journey.”

 “You’re welcome here for as long as you’d liked to stay.”

“Thank you.” Henry landed. “You don’t happen to have seen any other plaid owls around here, have you? On the planet where I grew up, I was the only one. I scoured the whole planet and when I realized I was the only one, I left. So far, no other stars, planets, or asteroids have had any plaid owls. I’m starting to get a little discouraged.”

“I’m sorry to hear that. I haven’t seen any other owls, plaid or otherwise. There are lots of worms like me, though, just under the surface of the planet. They don’t come up here much except after it rains.”

“Hm. I suppose I better keep searching. This is a pretty big planet, though, so I’ll do a little exploring before I go. Say, I’m hungry and thirsty. I think I saw a river as I was flying in but my vision is a bit blurry with fatigue so I don’t know exactly where it was. Also, I’m too tired to fly there. Do you know if there is anything within walking distance?”

“I know the river you’re talking about. It’s a few miles away so it would be hard to get there on claw. Don’t worry, though, there’s a pool of water that is a part of the same river, but underground not far from here. Follow my voice. It should only take us about 10 minutes to get there.

“I’m glad you’re here, by the way. It gets pretty boring. I seem to be the only one in my family or set of acquaintances who has any sense of curiosity about the world around me. That’s why I spend a lot of time on the surface, while everyone else just roams around mindlessly digging holes all day. I’m getting a little out of breath crawling and talking and I can go faster underground, where the dirt is wetter, so I’m going to play Marco Polo with you, okay?”

“Okay.”

Sam created a quick hole in the sand and disappeared. She popped up a minute later, a yard away, and shouted, “Marco!”

“Polo!” Henry responded, and walked toward Sam’s voice.

After a few Marcos and a few Polos, Sam popped up and said, “We’re here! There’s a pool of water just under the surface here. I’ll create a starter hole for you and then you can peck down and get the water.”

And it came to be that Henry was able to break through the crust of the surface and find water. “Sam?” he said, after he’d drunk his fill.

“Yes?”

“There are a lot of worms down there whose names I don’t know,” Henry said. “Would you mind terribly if I ate them?”

“I – wouldn’t be pleased, but I understand that you’re hungry, so I wouldn’t hold it against you.”

This was all the answer Henry needed. “Are you okay?” he asked, a few minutes later.

“I suppose. I never had much in common with my fellow worm-kind, and this patch of water is far enough away from my home that only a few of the worms looked even vaguely familiar, but it was still hard to watch. Also, the screams were unsettling. I don’t know if I’ll ever forget that sound.”

“Are you mad at me, now?”

“I said I wouldn’t be, but I think I am a little.”

“I get that. So, what now?”

“I don’t know. I don’t think that I can face my family again, at least not soon. Do you mind if I come with you on your journey? Maybe you’ll find another plaid owl and I’ll find a way to live with myself.”

“Aren’t you afraid that I’ll eat you?”

“Yes. But I’m also afraid that you won’t.”

Turkey City Lexicon: Brenda Starr dialogue

Scholastic Story Starter: A day in the life of a plaid owl who lands on a faraway planet.