Sunday, May 5, 2013
What to Know Before You Sleep with a Writer
“You should know that I’m a writer. Anything you say can and will be stored away or written down, edited, revised, and manipulated over the course of the next several years, before ultimately winding up in a short story, novel, or play.” I actually said that to a friend of mine over dinner one night. We decided that if any story or dialogue I stole from her side of the conversation wound up in a prize-winning work, I’d give her co-author credit for Pulitzer purposes. That dinner has since become the basis for a scene in my play. It was a few weeks later that she and I went to dinner again. We had decided that it would be a good idea for me to meet new people now that I’m divorced, so after she and I went to dinner, we met up with her boyfriend and several of her friends from medical school at what I soon learned was a college bar in Huntington. It was the second bar she and I had been to in as many months, and I quickly came to realize that this one was quite different. The first had been dark and moderately quiet, had unique décor, and had been filled with well-dressed people who could easily have passed for stereotypical yuppies and intellectuals. My kind of place. This one, however, was bright and loud, with sports on the TV, people crammed all around the bar in skimpy clothes and t-shirts, everyone trying to hook up with anyone and anything that was awake and breathing. And I’m starting to think the lack of the last qualifications would’ve by no means been a deal breaker for some. I ordered a Courvoisier, my favorite cognac. The bartender looked at me as though I had two heads and then wandered off to find the other bartender, who ultimately affirmed the first’s belief that either she or I had no idea what the hell we were talking about. “We don’t serve that,” she said suspiciously upon returning. So I ordered a Hennessy. Nope. No cognac of any kind.
I was out of place and I knew it as I sipped my Maker’s Mark. (At least they had bourbon.) I was surrounded by strangers, friends of a friend, most of whom I will likely never see again, all of whom were lost in varying degrees of drunkenness. I tried to engage some in conversation—a fellow divorcee who was more than happy to give me drunken advice on the ills of marriage was also all too happy to talk about his new-found freedom—but mostly I did what I do best: I listened. In most situations, it seems that’s what I do best. I walked away from that night more sure of who I was (and was not) as a person (ideas best kept for another entry) but more than that, I walked away with stories. Several stories taken from drunken conversation about hang-ups, hookups, one night stands, love, and loss. I was amazed at the stories people would willingly tell over drinks with a stranger. And I warned them that I was a writer working on a play and a novel, that anything they said may well be used against them in fiction. They kept talking. I walked away from the bar typing notes into my phone and leaving myself voice memos in which I ran dialogue with myself as if I were rehearsing.
I’ve always been interested in where stories come from, where we get the ideas that formulate our plots and subplots, how our characters and their words are based in elements of reality, and how much truth—personal truth—goes into fiction writing. It is not uncommon, now, for me to grab my phone mid-conversation and start typing out a gist of what the other person is saying. Those who also write get it; they understand what I’m doing and why I’m doing it. I suppose that makes my seeming rudeness forgivable: it’s in the name of art.
A writer friend and I were at a pizza place a few weeks ago and our waitress was rather funny. At one point, she started to launch into a story, but I stopped her. “I should warn you,” I said, motioning to my friend across the table, “we’re both writers. There’s a chance anything you say will wind up in print.” She laughed and then launched into a story that one of her customers told her when asked if he wanted a straw. “I don’t drink from a straw,” he had said. “It looks like I’m drinking from a penis!” We chuckled at her story, but all the while, I couldn’t help but wonder what had prompted the man to say it in the first place. I’m intrigued by the conversations we have in public. What is it that drives us to tell things to complete strangers, things we likely shouldn’t? Or to have private conversations in the most public of forums: restaurants?
I don’t have an answer. I don’t even really know that I want one. If I figured out what it was about us as a people that drove us to do that, I don’t know that I would find the idea so interesting. So in the meantime, I’ll keep listening to those around me. Keep lifting parts of text messages and manipulating them. Writing down the conversations I have.
So what should you know before you sleep with, live with, or marry a writer: we write, and we don’t just make everything up from scratch. So be careful what you say and know that we really are listening, just maybe not in the way you think. Maybe we’re tweaking your words to make them sound just a little bit better, or imagining what your speech would sound like in an Irish accent. Maybe with a few more or less swear words. Or maybe we’re wondering if you’ll recognize yourself ten years down the road when you wind up in our work.