On Calling Yourself a Writer
It’s all about the beginning. And the ending. But we’ll get to that in the end.
Start with something cryptic. Say, an obscure memory, or a detailed observation, or something you overheard the woman at the checkout tell the cashier. Look:
1. An Obscure Memory: My grandpa ate peanuts with his scotch.
He was reckless with those things, scooping handful after handful, his hand acting as a catapult flinging toward his mouth, causing the peanuts to lurch, no doubt, to the very back of his throat.
One day he started choking on the peanuts. Well no, he wasn’t truly choking because he was coughing, but I was six so it was all the same to me. His eyes watered in panicked streams and he gasped and hacked and sputtered for a good ten minutes. At last the airways were clear and the breathing slowed and a tiny, teary wink came out of his wet eye. “Maybe next time, eh?”
At six years old I wasn’t sure how to place that statement, and therefore wasn’t sure how to place Grandpa.
2. A Detailed Observation: The other day a bee was collecting pollen from my Rudbeckia.
Normally I don’t watch things like this. I’m not someone who intently observes - or pretends to intently observe - nature, and is suddenly inspired and, you know, writes about it. I mean, yes, it seems I have gone and done just that, but just know – just be aware – I don’t do that.
Anyway, the bee. I only started watching the bee because maybe two seconds after it landed, two other bees swarmed in and took over. Early bee had clearly gotten there first. Early bee had set up camp. Early bee had prepared the perfect sandwich, grilled it all nice and golden and cut it in half, only to watch Late bee and Later bee take the halves for themselves. And what did Early bee do? Early bee took a step back and watched the disgusting injustice unfold. Early bee bobbed its tiny bee head in a nod that sighs, “Well. That’ll happen.”
Early bee took flight in a hopeful attempt to find more Rudbeckia. I turned to my husband who was wearing my over-sized sun hat as he kneeled on two sponges and pulled unruly weeds from the soil. “Now that,” I said, “is maturity.”
He looked at me in hurt defense. “You told me to wear this!”
3. A Simple Quote: Something you overheard the woman at the check-out tell the cashier:
“Oh. Well…I guess I don’t want it if it doesn’t come in bulk.”
So, you’re hooked, right? Yes. You’d read the story attached to each one of these beginnings if you could. And this – this – is the brilliant ray of hope for all aspiring writers:
It doesn’t matter what comes next.
Really. I mean, sure, these starters may tie beautifully into the story – but they don’t have to. Instead, they could simply come back at the very end to create a wholesome story sandwich, and the center can be occupied by anything, or any combination of anythings. Because really, even if the meat of the story is, say, SPAM, a truly smashing finish, one that connects beautifully with the beginning, will leave the reader thinking they’ve just had roast beef.
But how can this be? you ask. What about standards? Have they no standards? Are readers really that passive?
Well, yes. But I think the readers prefer the term agreeable. You see, it’s all about trust. You construct a beginning using the above guidelines and your reader has no choice but to trust that there’s some reason you wrote it. Even if significance is the last thing you’ll find in an opening that explores a man’s desire to end it, or a woman’s partiality to all things economy-sized – the readers will find it. They’ll make unnecessary leaps and bounds; they’ll connect things that ought not be connected; they’ll conjure up ill-fitting relationships, things you’ve never imagined. They will make it work. It’s like, you are the mother bird and they are the babies. They are hungry. They trust that while you’re out of sight, you are working tirelessly to bring back the good stuff. And when you finally come up with something, they’ll swallow whatever you chew up and spit in their mouths. Even if you bring them fire ants. They may not be used to fire ants – they may prefer something more substantial and less painful to take down – but they will take the fire ants, because you brought them.
Now all you need to worry about is the ending.
So, the ending: strive for some kind of resonance, and try to reference the beginning. You’ll find that you can pull all kinds of bullshit at the end. Honestly, you can muster irony, comedy, even tragedy out of just about anything. And what is more, you can be embarrassingly convincing. Watch:
1. Grandpa lived a hefty eleven years after the peanut incident.
He abandoned the salty snacks after discovering a passion for baking and confections. He truly enjoyed life for two years, and at 89 he died from lack of oxygen after inhaling the powdered sugar on a lemon bar and falling into a coughing fit that refused to let him go.
When life gives you lemons, I guess.
2. My husband and I divorced two years later.
I had made the most beautiful sandwich - ham, mozzarella, sweet corn, and pineapple, all piled between two 9-grain slices. I even grilled it on the new George Foreman. I left the kitchen for a minute, just one minute. I came back and he was already working on the second half.
That’s when I told him I’d been having an affair for the past eight months.
He got the grill.
3. Four years later and now the parent of two-year-old quadruplets, I stand in the cereal aisle with the apologetic, nose-ringed, black eye-lined employee and whisper softly that I will wait until the 10-packs of Cheerios are back in stock.
I turn away so she doesn’t see me start to cry.
So, remember: it’s all about trust.
They trust you’ve done something brilliant. You trust they’ll make it brilliant.