Monthly Archives: August 2014

Writing What You Don’t Know

If writers took the old adage “Write What You Know” to heart, I’m willing to bet that nearly all modern protagonists would be writers struggling to craft a literary masterpiece, balance the demands of their day jobs, relationships, and families, while battling the sometimes crippling self doubt that comes with being a sensitive, creative type. And really, there are already plenty of novels that fit this bill.*

There’s a reason why there aren’t more novels about plumbers or dry-wallers. When was the last time you read a book about a 50-year-old assembly line worker in a chicken processing plant in Missouri? I will venture a guess at an explanation: most fiction writers know very little about the best way to strip a chicken or replace a leaky flush valve.14045-write-what-you-know-that-should-leave-you-with-a-lot-of-free-2_380x280_width

I am not above this literary sink trap. But if I only wrote about what I know, I would quickly run out of material.

My current novel-in-progress, Small Legends, centers on four main characters. Although I’ve never been 1) a post-feminist mom trying to find her place in a time of changing gender roles, 2) an artistic yet angst-ridden 19-year-old boy, or 3) a 30-something woman with commitment issues (okay, I might relate to that last one just a tad), I can understand where all of these characters are coming from. However the fourth character – a middle-aged, blue collar lineman who works for the electric company – is completely out of my realm of experience. Middle-aged men are somewhat of a mystery to me (which probably explains why I’m still single) and if I worked on the line, I’d probably fall to my death from the utility pole before I had a chance to electrocute myself. So yeah, he’s been a challenging character.

Another topic central to my novel’s plot: Parenthood. I do not have children. I do not particularly like children, with the de facto exception of my friends’ children. But I am attempting to write about the feelings – the good, the bad, and the ugly – that my characters have for their children. I am attempting to create genuine parent/child relationships, and quickly realizing that I should really pay better attention when friends and co-workers talk about their kids.

It shouldn’t have come as a surprise when a member of my writers’ group – a mother of two – gently called me out for subscribing to another familiar adage: Children Should Be Seen And Not Heard. “How are the parents able to have so many uninterrupted conversations with a rambunctious four-year-old boy in the same house?” she asked. “Where is their son all this time?”

Duh. Of course, it hadn’t occurred to me that the parents might need to interact with their child every now and again. Because I wasn’t putting myself in their shoes, I was sort of putting them in mine – an elementary party foul for writers.

I took her questions to heart and rewrote the next chapter to incorporate significantly more face time with the four-year-old boy, including a brief but telling exchange between mother and son that another member – a middle-aged man and a father – declared “beautiful”:

As my stomach grew, Nate took to spending more and more time talking to the baby growing inside of it. He decided that if it was a boy, he would name it Pinocchio, after one of his favorite Disney characters, and if it was a girl, Alice, after his other.

“I like peanut butter,” Nate stage-whispered, his face about an inch away. “And goldfish crackers.”

“What about string cheese?” I suggested. Nate looked up at me as if he was surprised to find that I was still attached to my stomach.

“Mommy, you’re not supposed to listen!” he complained, frowning.

“Okay, okay. I’m sorry,” I said. “I won’t listen anymore.”

He moved even closer so that his lips brushed up against my sweater when he whispered, “And string cheese.”

I pretended not to hear.

I am learning, it seems, once scene at a time.

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*Exhibit A: Wonder Boys by Michael Chabon, in which a frustrated writer is seven years and 2,500-words into a novel that he can’t seem to finish. Either Chabon is a master for pulling this off so beautifully or I’m a sucker for a good story about the struggles of my fellow writers. Probably both. Stephen King also famously writes about writers (Misery, Tommy Knockers, Bag of Bones), but takes their struggles far beyond rejected query letters and writers’ block.

 

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Two Minutes of Fame

Every writer dreams of having thousands of people read his or work. The very first time I shared something I’d written with that large of an audience, the piece in question was an edited version of a post on the blog that I write about writing (this one!). Talk about meta.

Last month, when I wrote about my heartbreak over the closure of my hometown Denny’s, scene of many teenage hi-jinks (https://lisathomson101.wordpress.com/2014/07/08/an-ode-to-dennys/), I received a lot of feedback from folks who fondly remembered their own youthful hangout spots, whether it was Country Kitchen in rural Iowa or Carmine’s Pizzeria in Brooklyn, New York. It seemed I’d hit a nostalgic nerve.

So I decided to take my story to the radio. old_radio_by_hkgood

For years, I’ve enjoyed a segment on my local public radio station KQED called Perspectives, a two-minute commentary written and recorded by a Bay Area resident, and covering topics that range from local politics to social commentary. Think This American Life meets open mic night. My piece about Denny’s was: 1) regional, 2) reflective, and 3) touched on the bigger issue of the ever-increasing pressure on kids to compete for college admissions. I figured it was ripe for public radio.

And apparently I was right. I read KQED’s submission requirements, edited my piece for length, and emailed it off. The very next day, I received an enthusiastic response from the segment editor Mark, saying how much he liked my submission and asking to schedule a phone call so that I could read it for time (in radio world, a two-minute segment is two minutes, not two minutes and a few seconds).

Over the phone, Mark couldn’t have been nicer or more complementary. He loved my piece, he said. It was well written and compelling, with varying sentence lengths. In short, perfect for radio.

The following week, I went to KQED to record. There I met Mark, who again told me how much he loved my piece, as well as the online producer and recording engineer, who also complimented me and listed off their own teenage hangout spots. Everyone was so friendly and enthusiastic – even for public radio – I started to wonder if the building had a nitrous leak (happy gas). But then it was time to get down to the business of recording.

I’d practiced reading the piece aloud a dozen times, but something about being in a sound proof recording studio and having a stranger listening carefully to my every syllable made my mouth a little dry. I read it through three times, stopping periodically to sip from my water glass. And less than 15 minutes after I’d entered the studio, we were done.

On my way out, Mark told me he would air my piece in two days. Only two days? I’d barely wrapped my head around the fact that I was going to hear myself on the radio. I made haste to alert my friends, family, and select colleagues.

radio_mainOn the big day, I set my alarm so that I could listen to the 6:05am airing while still in bed. I listened to the 7:35am airing while in my kitchen, making coffee. I felt exhilarated and a little embarrassed. And proud. I didn’t sound half bad. Later that night, I fired up the voice memo app on my iPhone and recorded the final airing at 11:30pm. I wanted a record of this cool, surreal, mouth-drying experience for a long time to come.

My friends and family were of course full of praise, but I was pleasantly surprised to receive compliments from several past and present colleagues who, as it turns out, are also avid KQED listeners. And the word seems to be spreading among my co-workers. Since the airing last week, I’ve had multiple requests for the link to the audio file on KQED’s website, which you can listen to here: http://www.kqed.org/a/perspectives/R201407310735

Who would have thought all of those hours spent at Denny’s would have amounted to anything?

Next stop, This American Life? I’ll keep you posted…

 

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