When I’m at a party and people find out that I write stories, their usual response is, Oh that’s nice, and then they quickly turn and talk to the nearest person other than me. Apparently writing is about as interesting to the average person as my being a condiment delivery-man, a taxidermist or a professional stationary bicyclist. I have confessed to each at some point in my life, and each has received the same awkward nodding smile that says, You’re strange, I need to go now that I receive after admitting to being a writer. Occasionally I’ll encounter a person who’s actually interested in this part of my life, and invariably the question arises, Where do you get your ideas from? Frequently I reply that I obtain my story ideas from the Idea Conservatory®, an esoteric underground collective that only a select chosen few have access to. It’s top secret. I could tell you but then I’d have to kill you. That sort of thing. The listener smirks and then says, No seriously, I mean, it must be really difficult coming up with new ideas. How do you do that?
The truth is that it’s not hard coming up with ideas. They bounce about my head like overcrowded atoms in a collider. No matter the situation I can’t not think of new ideas, characters, plots. What is challenging, however, is creating a space and a structure in which those ideas can be expressed in a manner that might hold someone’s attention. The trick is telling a tale in a way that’s more interesting than how life usually unspools. The reason that’s so difficult is because the things that happen daily in real life are frequently so absolutely astounding and infinitely better constructed than I could ever produce. In demonstration I offer the following experience.
Last night I went to a local bar with a buddy of mine. We arrived around 11:30; there were only about ten people in the place, each of whom scored anywhere from You Shouldn’t Operate Heavy Machinery to Tomorrow’s Gonna Be A Living Hell For You on the Drunk-O-Meter I keep in my pocket (a couple years as a bartender gives one a discerning eye for the subtle nuances of human inebriation). My friend ordered beers and I sat at a table with my back to the bar. Within five minutes I heard a crashing THUD! as the woman behind me fell from her stool, banging the linoleum like a listless depth charge. Smacking the floor seemed to hammer enough sense into her and her party, and the four of them stumbled out the door, hopefully to better things.
Shortly thereafter the bartender came over to clean up their mess and check on our drinks. Since I hadn’t ordered the initial round this was the first time I really looked at her. She was wearing a mid-drift shirt that revealed her spillover belly, while her seat-cushion butt was unavoidably on display below one of those faux-rocker-rhinestone belts popularly on display in magazines intended for teenage girls. She had dirty blond hair pulled back in a ponytail, which served to emphasize her soft pancake face, her flabby cheeks and dry cracked lips. Her blank glossy eyes had an emptiness to them that made her look very drunk, unselfconsciously dumb or both. In short, she was unattractive.
There was something familiar about her though, and I had the sense that I’d met her before. I mentioned this and she slurringly concurred, and thus began the backward-tangent game of How Do We Know One Another? I suggested that perhaps we met via a friend of mine, H.S., to which she said, Honey I don’t do last names. I asked, You mean you don’t know H.S.?, and she said, I mean I don’t know people’s last names. There is no socially acceptable response to such a statement except a drawn-out, deep-breathed Well okay then. I did not hesitate in my delivery.
She giggled loudly and flirted with my friend. While she was playing with his hair she said, Maybe we know each other in that way that we don’t want to talk about. How’s that?, I said, and she leered, chortling, I mean, you know, maybe one night we had some drinks and spent some time together and neither of us wants to, you know, think about that too much. I got where she was going, and here I must back up from this story and confess: We’ve all made mistakes, and I am no exception. I’ve worn the sloshed and sodden spectacles commonly called Beer Goggles, and yes, through those lenses people have looked, well, more desirable than they otherwise should have. And yes, based on this I have done things that were regrettable. But even I have my lows, and my insides revolted at her implication. I stifled the geyser of acid that shot up my esophagus and stated firmly, No I’m fairly certain I’d remember that!
I suggested that maybe we’d just seen one another around town – after all, Seattle’s small enough that you run into people all the time on the bus, at the store, etc. She agreed and began to return behind the bar. Suddenly, she snapped around and stepped strongly towards me, her finger raised in pointed awareness.
Did I tackle your Christmas tree? Her voice was sincere, devoid of any humor or irony or self-awareness, as direct and assured as if she’d asked me, Did you attend Roosevelt High School or go to the First Baptist Church. I was absolutely dumbfounded and stammered out a weak, I’m sorry what? She replied quickly, her voice again full of assurance, No, no I guess that wasn’t you.
Across the table my friend shot me the What the hell was that?! face, and I asked, Did you ask if you’d tackled my Christmas tree? Yeah, you see, I did tackle this guy’s Christmas tree once, but I’m pretty certain now it wasn’t you. Why? I mean, why would you tackle a Christmas tree? I just thought that it wasn’t cool that he’d cut it down from nature and put it in his house and it was gonna die because of that and so I was really pissed off and we were all at this party… Her explanation slipped off into complete drunken nonsense. My friend and I stared at her, at one another, while she sputtered out like the useless wick on a dud-firework. I finished my beer and walked home in the rain, simultaneously bemused, baffled and tremendously humbled by the stunning purity of what she had said.
The reason stories grip us – whether they be literature, movies, songs, television, whatever – is because they’re condensed versions of reality, life bracketed-off with unusually clear lines. Though there are exceptions, storytelling frequently implies the following: that there is, was or someday might be order, structure, meaning, direction, fulfillment, justice; you name it — we want it, especially when daily life presents itself so hurlyburly, less a linear series of meaningful events and more a chaotic web spun by a tumbling spider tossing its yarn in any direction in search of something solid to grip.
Did I tackle your Christmas tree? The question was so absurd, so inexplicable and sincere and drunken, and yet, so amazingly perfect that I must confess: I could never have written that. I could have spent weeks, months even, in front of the computer and at no point would the thought of having a person ask such a character-appropriate question have crossed my mind. It’s so absolutely ideal that one of the criteria this woman uses to schematize people is their relation to tackled Christmas trees. There is nothing more correct that she could have said, and by some mercy I was there to witness and participate in it. We storyteller’s simply can’t compete with that; the sheer genius of life towers over us, and I believe that frequently what we do is more collecting than creating, re-arranging than developing.
I’m not trying to argue that there’s not a space for those of us whittling away on our keyboards: in fact I’d argue the opposite, and not simply because that’s how I try and pay my bills. But when our imaginations face off with the creativity of real life we storyteller’s are feeder-fish trailing the underbelly of existence, praying to capture a scrap to call our own. Lived life trumps my imagination any day, and while it’s rarely as controlled and presentable as a novel, it’s without fail more interesting, tragic, funny and alive. Sometimes that demoralizes me, but then I have moments like these and I’m thankful simply to have been a fly on the wall with a notebook in hand.