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The Johnny Cash Approach to Novel Writing

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photo by Wikipedia

Do you know that Johnny Cash song, “One Piece at a Time”? In it, the song’s protagonist works in a Cadillac plant, and he decides to pilfer car parts to home-build his own Caddy. But because he can only take home one piece at a time, the car takes more than 20 years to build. He does indeed end up with a Cadillac, but as auto fashions—and fins—change greatly over time, his ride is a mongrel. But it’s his mongrel, uniquely so. That’s what you should do with your writing.

No, no, I’m not saying stitch together a Frankensteinian monster with your work, not some particolored pastiche, not Cormac McCarthy’s cracked, dry arroyos filled with Danielle Steel’s bonneted women fluttering in chiffon. (Do feel free to steal that for your next novel.) What I’m saying is pull from everything you’ve seen, pull from your life stuff, pull from the bones of your being and from their marrow yet—and put that in your writing.

The premise above might sound like a mouthy way of saying “write what you know,” or maybe even “write what you feel.” But it’s more along the lines of “write what makes you feel.”

The rest of this post will rely on a pathology known as ODR (Old Dude Reminiscing), but I promise to spill something useful before I have to nap. My pitch is less the knowing that your character would rather have two olives in her martini than one; it’s more that as the nosy, observant, judgmental writer that you are, the world has given you endless olives—so employ your toothpick.

Siblings Torture You? Get Even: Write About Them

Let’s get into it: it starts at home. When I was about ten, starting to enjoy pop music, my older sister was deep into jazz. Since I couldn’t touch her records, when she would leave the house, I’d put on her Hugh Masekela and have my brain cleaved. I didn’t like it—I had a visceral “what is this shit?” reaction of dismay and confusion. That boy’s mind stutter belongs in a character’s mind.

Baseball meant everything to me as an adolescent. I was love-struck by Sandy Koufax, knocked asunder by Willie Mays. I wouldn’t have expressed it as such, but what made my eyes glitter was their art, the extraordinary confluence of physical grace and grit, a mastery that yet saw regular failure, because that’s baseball. That fan’s absorption in a game that produced an indifferent shrug in other people, his blindness to any of his heroes’ failings, his overfull heart—that belongs in a character’s heart.

Here’s a crazy Cadillac fender: for some inexplicable reason, I loved glassware (specifically, drinking glasses) when I was thirteen or so. I liked to go into department stores and look at the wine glasses, the highball glasses. I bought a GIANT brandy snifter, one that a baby could backstroke in, and used it to capture my RC Colas. I’d walk around my house, swirling and sniffing at my drink, while my parents and siblings rolled their eyes. That kid’s strange affectations belong in (or on) a character.

Vegas, Bukowski and Funky Texas: Put ‘Em In

But let’s get out and look around: when I lived in Vegas, I spent a lot of time in casinos. You don’t have to look far in Vegas to find funky Cadillac parts in every face, every twitch, every empty pocket. I was sitting outside the Golden Nugget once and a haggard guy came up to me, holding a Mickey Mouse watch in his outstretched hand. “Hey man, give me five bucks for this, it’s worth fifty. I just gotta get back to the tables.” That guy. That guy, his fractured hope, his Custer’s bluster, his canceled ticket—that guy’s gutter belongs in a character.

Watching Charles Bukowski read, in a tiny performance house in Huntington Beach when I was a goggle-eyed semi-adult. At various junctures, Bukowski was being harangued by some meathead in the audience, but the poetic crustacean gave back better than he got. However, around Bukowski’s 15th beer (he had a cooler of Michelobs on stage), he could only muster a bland “Yeah, well fuck you too” to the guy. Bukowski, wobbly, rheumy-eyed, probably tired of the world’s crap before he was even born—put that world-weariness in a character.

I drove around the country years back and took a picture of some beat, closed-down cafe in a funky little town in Texas (not sure what town; might have been WhereInHell), a beautifully ruined joint, probably from the 30s, great arched lines on what looked to be an adobe facade. There was a massive electrical storm miles away I could see lifting the dry dirt. The peeling green paint, the chipped walls, the crackling air, all touched by time’s patina—that’s a sense of place that should be placed in a book.

Small Moments Writ Large

Small moments have everything too: the woman in the grocery store studying a pickle-jar label for its sodium content, sunglasses pushed up on her head, puzzling at the small letters, suspicious, controlling. Your fellow humans are giving this stuff away, use it. Think of the smashed-up feeling you had after breaking up with someone when you were young—bring that hell to the page. Think of the twist in your heart (well, mine, because I’m petty that way) when another writer has some giant success. That stab and its guilty cousin belong in a book.

I’d like to go on, about the crazy joy I saw in this crazed bootlegger’s eye when I went up to his mountaintop aerie to interview him and he showed me his catapult, his small working cannon and the tiny guillotine he had, along with some headless dolls. Book him. I’d also to talk about how my mom’s chocolate chip cookies are love, but I’ve spouted too much already. So, this is just a reminder that we are all grizzled souls with our own Psychobilly Cadillacs. This mean old life will get you one way or another, but grab some of it in passing, and put it in books.

So, what say you, WU? Do you often pull from your life stuff to paint your writing walls? Do you find it can be the situations that made you uncomfortable or that struck you speechless that supply the sharpest material from which to sift and stick? Do you think you fooled your sister when you gave her character in your novel just a different name and shoe size, but retained the fact that she had crashed three of your parents’ cars?

About Tom Bentley [2]

Tom Bentley [3] is a novelist, essayist, and business and travel writer. (He does not play banjo.) He's published hundreds of freelance pieces in newspapers, magazines, and online. He is the author of three novels, a collection of short stories, and a how-to book on finding and cultivating your writing voice. His singing is known to frighten the horses. See his lurid website confessions at tombentley.com [4].