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.
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