Walking through Storyland

canstockphoto15817518The most irritating writing advice for me is write what you know. Once I’ve written that paragraph, I sink into a morass of self-pity and caffeine. I wrote about finding narrative on vacation. Sometimes a change of scenery is the jolt needed to wake a person up from the glazed coma of being in one place for too long. Upon return, things look a little different.

Last night, I took a stroll around my neighborhood. With the latest addition of a grocery store, my neighborhood is like one of those preformed children’s city sets. I had a moment when I realized how lucky I was to live here, about two seconds before writer’s angst kicked in – could I create from such a comfortable and comforting kind of life? But wait! There’s more.

Welcome to the calm seas of a suburban life rendered into the turgid waters of human existence. Let’s take a walk.

I live in a neighborhood built in the 1950s, each little ranch home a duplicate of the one next door. Except that these houses have stories. Our neighbors on one side have home schooled their six children and the driveway is chock full of cars, as each child gains a driver’s license. Years ago, the husband got booted for smacking his wife. He’s back, contrite and polite. I watch for signs that he’s actually learned his lesson.

canstockphoto15722695The children all turned out a bit weird. One walks the dog sullenly, barely making eye contact when I say hello. The youngest has grown his hair as long as my daughter has had hers cut short. The next youngest used to follow me about the yard asking me if I was a Christian and telling me that the raspberries I picked were “God’s juice boxes”. I’m hoping the kid that keeps showing up on the weekend in camouflage is part of a well-regulated militia. And while they sound like a version of creepy Quiverfulls, they’re pretty good neighbors who don’t spray their lawn with chemicals. We share weeds.

The house that sits on the curve was thankfully bought after a brief time as a rental property. It worried us. They had pit bulls that occasionally got loose and the Sheriff showed up once a week to follow up on warrants for the son, an ex-con who was still dealing drugs. Cars would pull up at all hours of the night.

canstockphoto28260950I walk around the high school near us and pass a house where a couple of years ago, a man holed himself up with his shotgun and girlfriend. Eventually he surrendered, but we listened to the choppers all day.

John’s house is on the right. He is a veteran of the Korean war and following a valve replacement, would walk every night down our street. When I saw him coming, I put down my gardening tools and met him halfway. He’d lived here since the beginning and always had a new story. He has Parkinson’s now and I sometimes catch glimpses of him in the evening, slowly walking to his mailbox.

As I walk a few blocks away to the city park, I feel a moment of silliness. I’m in Lego Land. There’s city hall, the police station, the firehouse, the public pool. I think whimsical thoughts about how, if like Lego people, we could all turn our plastic hair backwards, everyone would look like Donald Trump.

There’s a gangly boy using the skateboard park. I always fear that I’ll be witness to a noggin being cracked open every time I pass the park. This kid’s not wearing a helmet and seems light on skills. My pace quickens.

At the outdoor amphitheater, they’re in rehearsal for “Oliver”.  A woman is warning them that four days is a long time without practice and that they need to keep at it. My daughter, years ago, took a summer acting class at this theater. They made the kids wear stage-worthy makeup which smeared in the August heat. She was morphed into a melty butterfly whose lack of interest in stage direction was only eclipsed by this summer’s soccer apathy.

Behind the firehouse, the police and firefighters are having a family picnic. The officer I talked to that morning is there. Two police cars and a fire engine had pulled up in front of our house before 7 a.m. I could see up and down the street, people looking out windows, strolling to the end of their driveways. Hovering at the edges with the odd, wary politeness of midwesterners. I watched officers break into the home across the street.

I used to joke that the guy was either a unabomber or that bodies would be found stacked like Jenga blocks in his basement. It seemed like he waited until no one was outside before getting his mail and his windows were always covered. After having a child, I decided that this was too weird. I started waiting for him to get his mail. And then I’d go out to check mine and greet him with a loud “hello” and big, fake smile. Who’s scary now?

It turned out to be a natural gas leak and he’d moved out a while ago and was just renovating his elderly father’s place, in order to put it on the market. Nothing exploded and no bodies were discovered.

canstockphoto2595648I was glad to see the officers and firefighters at a happy event. They deserve it. Earlier this year, after two new officers were sworn in at city hall, a man entered the building and fired on them, hitting the new hires. They survived. The shooter did not. One of the worst first days on the job ever.

Behind the pool there are tennis courts. A young woman is teaching tennis to a group of elementary kids. Only one parent stays. He watches as her tennis skirt sways and flutters upward during a demonstration for the kids. I slow down as I walk past him, making him unconsciously lean left and right to keep his view. Sometimes I can be a jerk.

One and a half miles of the human experience. Subject to a thousand interpretations, waiting for a writer to take hold and grapple with the stories on paper. To say we don’t know what to write has as much veracity in my ears as my kid saying I’m bored during the summer. My response is the same: Go for a walk.canstockphoto7444328

26 Comments on “Walking through Storyland

  1. I’ve always thought the footnote to “write what you know” should be “if you’re not satisfied with that, learn more.”

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      • I was thinking today maybe you need to burrow up inside them (you meaning us) to really see them through their eyes though.

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        • I’ve been thinking a lot about that, as I work on developing my novel characters. When I write about stories here, it’s a collection of snapshots and somewhat circumspect. Burrowing skills are the next order of business…

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  2. Well put. I think I will need to stroll my Playmobile City* myself and look for all the intrigue I am apparently missing.

    *Since you took Lego, I’m claiming Playmobile. Sure, it may be the uglier, dumber cousin, but it’s up for grabs and I’m calling dibs.

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  3. Ok, I don’t know anything about my neighbors. My daughter went to school with another girl for several years before I realized she lived the next block over. I’m absolutely oblivious.

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    • It’s only been in the last few years, working from home, that I’ve been able to catch some of the neighborhood lowdown. I spend a lot of time outside in the garden and people often stop to talk there as well. And to be fair, too much of what I know about our neighborhood is crime reporting. You might have a case of “no news is good news.”

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  4. Loved taking this walk with you. You’ve inspired me to walk around my own neighbourhood — with my eyes and ears wide open 🙂

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  5. Go for a walk! Great advice. You live in an interesting neighborhood, and you have a talent for noticing the characters and happenings. As you say, plenty to write about. Now if only I could get organized.

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    • I wish that more people walked – that’s really how we can pull ourselves back from the edge of digital isolation/saturation. On my walk tonight I was thinking about how important it was to the senses, to escape the flat screen world and go full sensory.

      Organization is overrated. Sometimes I wish I were less organized – I think it impedes my creativity!

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  6. Gawd, I loved this!! The “who’s scary now” bit cracked me up, especially when the unibomber turned out to be a sad son cleaning out his dad’s house. This! This! How the POV character perceives and draws conclusions out of her own experience. The possible consequences are endless!

    And crap! the pure beauty of making the ogling dad WORK for his soft porn is a jewel. It says volumes about the character (ehem, you) that might take other writers chapters to nail.

    All of this is gold, Michelle. All. Of. It.
    (PS. thanks for the CD. If I wasn’t guffawing, I just nodded in agreement. Good stuff.)

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    • I’m so glad you enjoyed this. Even better, you’ve given me something to practice. I’ve been trying to re-imagine every story from different perspectives. It’s a very useful exercise.

      I wondered if I was being too subtle about the ogling parent, but it sounds like I caught enough of the moment, so that’s good to hear.

      Happy to hear that Maria Bamford could make you laugh. She’s one of my favorite comedians, but recommending comedy is like recommending books – such a subjective experience.

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  7. Utopia never happens because human nature never changes. It is why we will always have drama in Legoland. So when you are wandering about the town of primary colors, realize that the entire range of human drama is plug compatible with everyone you see.

    Keep in mind that “write what you know” includes everything you have read.

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    • Sometimes I think the complexities of being human are a little overwhelming to capture. Even in fully fleshed out characters, there’s always more to be told.

      Since I overthink everything, there’s very little that I actually think I know for certain, except that I know very little. Then I think about the word “know” and what that means and well, that always leads me back to point A. Maybe it should be “write what you think you might know with lots of caveats”.

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  8. Loved the walk, loved the Lego pics. Nope, you were not too subtle about ogling dad, i laughed when i read the “sometimes i can be a bitch” line there.
    I think the “write about what you know” line is to have people write a little about something they not only have a little knowledge about but also are able to provide some insights or thoughts about.

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    • Glad you enjoyed this. Maybe because the “write what you know” thing is a cliche piece of advice, it irritates me all the more. So much of writing is speculation and imagination, too, that it would be easy for beginning writers to mistake what is meant by that phrase. I think that the lack of artistic limitation is the start of creativity.

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