Saturday, May 21, 2011

Mindless Tasks

I used to loathe mindless tasks.  Mindless tasks used to drive me insane and were a waste of what priceless little free time I had.  I would do whatever I could to make those tasks vanish so I could get to the really important things.  Mainly I wanted to spend my time playing the latest version of Resident Evil, or watching cartoons, or drinking beer with friends.  But then came the love of writing. 

I’ve already detailed how I rearranged my life to accommodate writing (here), but I found that I wanted to spend that time actually writing and not sitting staring at a blank screen.  To do this, I need ideas.  I need something, anything, to begin constructing the bridges between characters and story, but a glaring white screen is disheartening and gets me nowhere.  Here I’ve gone to the trouble of upending my life to create this priceless daily pocket of an hour or two to work on what matters most, and I am stuck trying to unearth why a character is standing in a shipping yard.  Then life rolls in, and the window of time ends with little progress on any front.

Monday, May 2, 2011

You Had To Be There.

I recently stumbled upon a writing exercise that I really feel works for me. I'm going to share it with you but first, a very short story to get us started.
Your own bathroom is the greatest bathroom there is and I just wasn’t going to make it to mine. A fast food restaurant down the street offered a solution to my predicament but when I got there I ran into a problem: The bathroom door was locked; some jerk was already in there!

There is a dance, more of a jig really, that everyone knows despite having never received instruction: The Pee-Pee Dance. I mastered this dance that day before that locked door and to the amusement of anyone who cared to look up from their shame-based value meals. I could only imagine how silly I looked but could only care about the quick exit of the person occupying that bathroom.

As the pressure turned to pain, anxiety turned to panic. Was this about to become the last time I could show my face in this establishment? The toilet flushes and suddenly the world is a brighter place. I listen with anticipation as my antagonist washes his hands. Almost there!

The water stops and is followed by the raspy hum of the hair dryer. Why couldn’t he just dry his hands on his shirt or jeans like a proper slacker? The hand dryer stops and in my head a chorus of hallelujah! The hand dryer starts its cycle again. Are you kidding me?

I’m on the verge of tears. It powers down and with good measure as enough is enough. The hand dryer starts again for the third time. Three times. THREE! Why? Who needs their hands that dry? On the verge of tears and a ruined pair of jeans the dryer powers down and I hear the lock on the door unlatch. I’m about to face someone I have never seen but currently hate with every fiber of my being.

As the door opens I am stricken with the sort of laughter that could only come from a combination of madness and defeat. Exiting the bathroom is a child between the ages of eight and ten with thick glasses and long hair which he has used the hand dryer to style standing straight up. I’ll spare you the details of what happened next though I will say it was the ending I was hoping for.
This story used to conclude with that time honored phrase that is usually uttered insecurely and in self defeat: I guess you had to be there. I have recently come to the realization that I absolutely love you-had-to-be-there stories simply for their sincerity. The storyteller genuinely wants to share this story and is driven to do so without any idea that the listener lacks components necessary to the enjoyment of it. The story is told regardless and regardless it fails in its intended manner.

Most people will keep these filed away as you-had-to-be-there stories; a sort of social faux pas that results in brief and friendly ridicule that happens from time to time. I see potential though...

These stories come from the heart so why not use that? The next time you find yourself telling one of these stories write it down. Later, when you get the chance, go through the steps of the story. It failed when you told it the first time around because it was missing pieces. Make a list of those pieces.

My initial story went like this: Dude, this one time I really had to go to the bathroom but someone was in there and when they came out, it was this kid with crazy hair…um…I guess you had to be there. By going back and chronicling the steps that lead to the story I was so excited to tell, I was able to bring you along with me. You got to glimpse inside my head and witness my dire sense of immediacy and when I get to the part about the kid you better understand why I felt the story was worth sharing.

Now my story of the junior bathroom stylist may not be earning me praise anytime soon but that doesn’t matter. What matters is that I not only wrote something but wrote something that was exciting and fun for me to write. If I keep this exercise up then two things are going to happen: A) I’m going to start associating writing with that fun and excitement; and B) My readers will pick up on that fun and excitement which they will hopefully share.

The next time you find yourself telling a "you-had-to-be-there" story, try the exercise of writing it down, and see if you can bring them there.