Wednesday, January 17, 2018

What We Give Up to Be Writers

Every now and then it occurs to me how much of my upbringing I've had to abandon in order to be a writer. This may sound like the beginning of a long tale about walking away from a cushy life to live in a crummy studio apartment paid for by a soul-killing job behind a store counter in order to have time to write. I have no such story.

When I say I had to give up parts of my "upbringing" I'm thinking about all the good manners my mother struggled to instill in me. I made it through childhood and adolescence by giving lip service to the basic rules--don't stare, don't eavesdrop, don't ask impertinent questions, don't give your unvarnished opinion even if asked. But as soon as the parent's back was turned, I followed my own rules.

The subway is a great place to pick up ideas for characters. Of course, this means sometimes getting a good look at strangers, even staring and following them out of the subway car. If I hear an unusual voice, I might try to engage the person in conversation, just to hear more of it.

Some of my best stories come from eavesdropping on other people's conversations. I used to work at a social service agency where I spent hours chatting with people who had lived through all sorts of extremes that had never come near to what I had experienced. I once listened to a man and a woman, seated outside my office door, talk about how differently discharges were handled at a man's prison and a woman's prison. (The men got a bus ride back into town, to the spot where they'd been first picked up; the women were given a bus or train ticket back to the city nearest to where they lived, and after that had to make their own way home.)

On another occasion I got to listen to a man explain to his caseworker why he couldn't avoid getting arrested repeatedly because the best corner for selling drugs was only one block from the elementary school. What was he supposed to do? Where else was he to go to conduct his business?

I once shared a table with a teenage girl and her mother, who was explaining precisely how she should behave in certain circumstances, advice certain to erase any sense of her daughter's individual identity. Restaurants are among the best places to pick up accents, fragments of conversation, and distinctive voices.

These moments, which violate good manners and proper behavior, bring us (or me at least) the first pulse of a story. I hear the voices and the attitudes, imagine the years of life not moving in the hoped-for direction, and the character I've been looking for steps onto the page, and I'm off and typing.

I do make one concession to my upbringing. I try not to be obvious about eavesdropping. I do try to let people have their privacy, even though I'm hanging on every word. After all, I wouldn't want to make them so uncomfortable that they'd stop talking. The loss, for me, would be incalculable.

To find the results of this improper behavior, go here: