‘How vain it is to sit down to write when you have not stood up to live!’
Clearly Henry David Thoreau wrote that way back in the pre-selfies days when vanity was not a virtue. But it still rings true today. We need the material from the fabric of our lives to populate and flesh out our stories. Going to the effort of having a life is potentially useful to most writers.
Take last week when I had some cash-flow issues. That’s the tricky part of the writing business. So, cry me a river. Nobody makes us do this. I shrugged and ditched the private gym for the local public New York City swimming pool. When I entered the women’s locker room, two young Asian women, dressed only in their underwear, broke out into an aggressive-sounding, high decimal conversation, occasionally shooting me disdainful looks. Clutching my towel as I cowered in my cubicle, I imagined them saying:
‘Seriously? We have to tolerate women like her trooping through our nail salons eighteen hours a day, whining about how their cuticles feel soooo dry. Now they have the nerve to start invading our pool. Is there no respite?’
Then again, the girls might have been discussing the patently rare species of fungus hanging out on my cubicle curtains. (Some of the we only use local produce restaurants in the West Village might want to check that out.) Or perhaps the women were debating their post-doctoral dissertations. I don’t know. I’ve never mastered Tagalog.
Anyway, I emerged a tad self-consciously into the dimly lit pool area deep in the underground bowels of the building. I threw a nod at the lifeguard in the red t-shirt but he was too busy stuffing himself with a giant burrito to notice. A gooey ribbon of melted Monterey Jack cheese dripped onto the mildewed tiles, closely followed by a shower of stray pinto beans. Averting my eyes, I gazed at the murky water. I lowered a foot onto the top step of the ladder. That’s when I noticed the large sign displayed prominently on the wall:
‘DISCHARGE OF FECAL MATTER INTO THE SWIMMING POOL IS STRICTLY PROHIBITED.’
With a speed I didn’t know I was capable of, I whipped out my foot, examined it cautiously for random fecal particles and trailed back to the locker room. One of the Filipino girls waved cheerily at me. I waved back.
We can use ordinary details like this in our writing. Instead of describing a character as poor, I can cause her to slip on some pinto beans at her afterschool swim club and knock herself unconscious or maybe I want to describe how she stopped to chat to a friend underneath the ‘No Crapping in the Pool,’ sign. I trust the reader to get it. This isn’t a character living a privileged life. The rich may defecate in public as often as poor people, probably more so, but they don’t have to suffer the indignity of being reminded of that. And if you’ve ever seen an attendant in a private gym chowing down poolside, get in touch; I need details. @agnewsheila.
By simply getting up from our couches and engaging in the real world, we can not only find detail for our stories, we can conceive entire characters. I remember when I first hit upon the idea of a young Egyptian man named Osaze . . .
It was back in my London lawyering days when I was assigned to go to Cairo to take witness statements. There was a last minute hitch at Heathrow — Charles,* my then boss, announced that he would not, in fact, be boarding the flight. He claimed to have caught chicken pox from his kids. I glared at him. He sighed and ran his hands through his hair.
‘Wendy says if I take another long business trip, leaving her stuck alone with three sick children, she will change all the locks on the doors.’
I attempted a low, drawn-out whistle. I messed it up. Sigh. Will I ever be able to whistle? I resorted to words.
‘Wendy always says something like that.’
‘This time she means it,’ Charles replied.
‘But I can’t do this trip on my own. I’m twenty-seven. I don’t have enough experience.’
‘Nonsense,’ Charles said with false bonhomie, ‘you’re well able to handle this and you’ve got the new trainee, Henry, to help you. That chap just came down from Oxford with a first.’
We both turned and observed the short, bespectacled, twenty-three-year-old as he struggled to disentangle the strap of his laptop case from the belt on his trousers.
‘Him! He looks like a twelve-year-old HARRY POTTER!’
Charles did a double-take. ‘Now that you mention it, there is an uncanny resemblance.’
Five and a half hours later, Henry and I stood, perspiring gently, in front of our client, Abasi, the managing partner of an Egyptian law firm. He kept peering hopefully behind us as if expecting to see Charles pop up as if this was some elaborate demonstration of British humor. I have to hand it to the guy. He was unfailingly courteous to us. He called his client and had a long conversation in Arabic. Despite my non-existent grasp of Arabic, I’m almost positive he said something about, ‘Harry Potter and a little Irish girl playing dress-up in her mother’s off-the-rack funeral suit.’
After the call, Abasi snapped his fingers and his bodyguard came into the room. Heavily bearded and with a deep, obviously infected scar on his left cheek, he looked like the no. 2 villain from The Seventh Voyage of Sinbad. Henry and I followed him into another office where we found our boxes of documents. We got to work, pulling out what we needed to interview the first witness, a local sheik. We passed quite a bit of time debating the correct pronunciation of ‘sheik.’ I still maintain that it should be pronounced as in milk-shake.
An hour or so later, the door opened and Abasi’s secretary walked in, followed by the Sinbad villain carrying a large, gunmetal grey box, the kind used for carrying instruments of torture. People have been murdered for a lot less money than that at stake in the lawsuit we were working on. Seriously, I don’t give a rats if my cuticles are dry but I do quite enjoy having fingernails. I took an involuntary step backwards. Henry dived under the table. (He later claimed that he needed to retie one of his shoelaces).
I held up my hands.
‘Em, let’s just back up a moment,’ I said. ‘I realize that Abasi must be upset that the London legal team is lacking in the grey hair department. Quite rightly upset. But surely we can negotiate? Maybe a discount on the fees?’
There was no response.
‘B.T.W., I’m a huge T.E. Lawrence fan,’ I gabbled. ‘I’ve seen Laurence of Arabia seven times although, in fairness, there wasn’t much else on the telly in Ireland at Christmas when I was a kid . . . except for Ghostbusters. That was always on.’
The secretary looked confused. She waved at the security guard to put the box on the table. She lifted the lid. It was filled with …. cosmetics.
‘Come Sheeeela,’ she said, indicating a chair and pulling out a make-up brush. ‘We need to make you look . . . How do you say? In a way that the sheik will have respect for you and take you seriously.’
Right. I must have missed that elective in law school.
Half-an-hour later, I examined myself in the mirror through panda bear, midnight-black, kohl encircled eyes.
‘I look like a hooker,’ I said.
‘A very expensive hooker,’ Henry said.
Hmm, are women secretly flattered by this sort of dubious compliment? I’m not sure but I decided to give Henry the benefit of the doubt on the shoe lace thing.
It was a very long day. Way past midnight, sound asleep in my hotel room, a loud banging on the door had me springing out of bed in panic.
‘Lady, you want boom-boom?’ yelled a male voice.
My mind struggled to process the inquiry.
There was more knocking on the door, more impatiently this time. ‘Lady, you want boom-boom? I use condoms.’
‘No, em, thank you,’ I said as I frantically checked the bolts on the door.
‘Lady no want boom-boom?’ said a disappointed voice from the other side of the door.
‘Correct. This lady NO want boom-boom,’ I said. ‘I’m calling security right now.’
The night desk clerk didn’t sound surprised by my complaint. I practically heard him shrug through the phone. ‘We’ll send up security,’ he said.
‘Do that’ I said, ‘but I’m not letting them in my room. There’s no way I’m opening this door to anyone. I don’t care if it’s the Pope.’
The following morning over the buffet breakfast, I recounted my night-time adventure.
‘Oh, that is unfortunately quite common,’ said a female Egyptian lawyer, ‘especially in the big international hotels like this one. A clerk on the inside sells the room numbers of western woman staying alone in the hotel. There are men out there who believe that all Western women are dying to sleep with strangers.’
So there you have it. I developed a character outline. His name is Osaze. He lives in Cairo and works as a driver by day. Too poor to get married, at night he trawls the international hotels seeking what he has been lead to believe are easy Western women. I will put him in a book one day.
But you don’t need to head off to an exotic foreign locale to find inspiration for your writing. You could take a night class in a subject outside your comfort zone or … drop by your local swimming pool. And, as writers, we can frame our stories as we see fit. This very article could easily have been written as a hard-hitting piece on such serious issues as women’s rights, the culture divide between East and West, office/life balance or the gap between the rich and poor in New York City. But we, the writers, are in control. We get to choose. We can’t control sales but how we pitch our stories is up to us.
Before you head off, I feel bound to add a Caveat Scriptor:
Not everything that happens to us is interesting (Repeat if necessary.)
A few months ago, in an isolated part of mainland Greece, I fell into conversation with a successful British author who also teaches creative writing. He said,
‘Almost all of my students send me links to their blogs, where they earnestly record, in excruciating detail, the mundane details of their writing journeys or their daily lives. Most of the blogs are competently written but of very little interest to anyone except their immediate family members, and even that is doubtful.
‘What do you say to those aspiring authors?’ I wondered.
‘I ask them, ‘Why are you writing this blog?’ and they always reply, ‘Oh, I am hoping to get noticed.’”
The author snorted. ‘Noticed for WHAT?’
I bet he doesn’t have a lot of repeat business. But I admired him for calling it like it is. We can use our lives in our writing provided we exercise a modicum of restraint. We have to remember to switch on our filters. So, get on with living because perhaps . . . if we live it, the writing will come.(c) Sheila Agnew
Sheila Agnew is an Irish author living in New York City. Her humorous novels for children (aged 10+), Evie Brooks: Marooned in Manhattan and Evie Brooks: Battle in Manhattan are due to be published by The O’Brien Press in March and September, 2014.
She recently completed a U.S. young adult novel, Before, We Were Aliens.