Dear Leo # 5

 Talk to Someone Weird

(and leave the house)

by Leonora Desar

When I was at journalism school I was always super curious—and jealous—of the fiction people. They got to make stuff up while I had to hang out at the bodega with weird men named Gabe. I had to get them to talk to me. I had to interview them. But they didn’t want to be interviewed. They wanted to eat potato chips.

I met a lot of kooky people at the j-school. Not at the school—after school. My homework was to get people to talk to me. I am bad at this. The first time I realized this was kindergarten. We were sitting around this table and only like five minutes into the first day. Sin-Ru Lee was like, who’s your first best friend. It seemed she already had two. I looked down at my peanut butter and jelly sandwich. It pretended it didn’t know me.

I met a blind photographer, a ghost-hunter, a private undercover detective. I guess the “undercover” was implied. I thought we were going on a super stake-out. He explained the deal. His client was a woman and her boyfriend was stepping out on her—we had to catch him in the act.

In the act act?

Um no; we have to catch him at his girlfriend’s.

Like in her house? (Here I imagined rogue masks and pirate costumes)

No. Outside the house.

Oh.

Here is what I learned during the stakeout:

  1. It’s not a good idea to drink a large cup of Dunkin’ Donuts coffee (or any beverage) while you’re going to be sitting in a car for five hours. (*or in my case, minutes)
  2. That’s about it.

I followed a ghost-hunter around an old haunted museum. There were spirits there. We were going to catch them. Luckily there was a bathroom. Two of them[1]. We turned off the lights and tip-toed the creaky steps.

Where are the ghosts?

Hell if I know. (*Loose paraphrase. If I were still in j-school I’d get in trouble.)

Where’s the bathroom?

Oh it’s right over there—

I interviewed this blind photographer. He was awesome. I expected this super tragic story. But he wasn’t tragic. He was funny. He had this guide dog, Manley, who kept snoring and all these haunted-looking nudes. It felt like being at the bottom of a very sexy fish tank. Or a gay bar. I wanted to swim around. Instead I asked him questions. We sat there and I didn’t even have to pee.

My point is that talking to people can be good. Especially for fiction writers. You should try it sometime. Especially if you’re stuck.

I couldn’t wait to get out of j-school. I had this secret: I had started writing fiction on the side. I had this professor. He used to assign Best American Short Stories like a naughty uncle slipping us our first beer. Or in my case, crack—I ate it up. I wanted to be the next Karen Russell. I wanted to write Cool Literary Fiction about weird people and use a lot of made-up words. Like “waterfalling.” That’s a Karen Russell word. You also see it in cool lit mags. I had my own variations—rivering, velveting. Honeycombing and incandescent-ing—which is totally not a word.

I was very annoyed when I had to do something else. Namely, get a job. How was I going to be Karen Russell if I couldn’t sleep till noon and drink endless amounts of coffee? I wanted to get my MFA. Or better yet, my PhD. I would get ten PhDs and stay in school forever. I would die there. I’d make my own PhD: adding “ing” to random words and putting them in Cool Literary Stories.

But here’s the thing. After finally getting what I wanted—namely, getting into an MFA program and not having to leave the house; my stories started to suck. They sucked in increasing proportion to how little I left the house. Here’s a grid:

LEONORA’S STORIES/LEVEL OF SUCKATUDE 

For awhile I was able to draw on old experience. Then I noticed a pattern. My pieces were all about me; and I wasn’t very interesting. I mean, for how long can you write about mismatched socks and ratty underwear? I needed to do something crazy. Namely this:

LEAVE THE HOUSE

This is my assignment for you. Especially if you’re stuck and sick of talking about your socks. Go out for 10 minutes. Find something interesting and write. You don’t even have to write about it factually, though more kudos if you do. Keep it factual for about 15 seconds. Or minutes. This will take off the pressure. You don’t have to invent: all you have to do is write. Then add something made-up. Maybe a ghost comes and pees or socks magically go on the mend, or a ghost steals them.

Only one rule: no big words. Keep it simple. This is something else I learned from j-school. Accessible, conversational language. I had this one professor, he used to have us read aloud. Then he would get annoyed. You don’t talk like that, do you? Then why write like it? (*another loose paraphrase that I would probably get in trouble for if I were still in j-school.)

Maybe even interview someone. Someone you’re afraid of talking to. Like Gabe the Mayor. He used to sit in this bodega looking very Buddha-like—I was scared of him. To interview him, that is. It usually went down like this:

Me: Gabe can I write a profile of you?

Come back tomorrow.

(Tomorrow)

Me: Gabe how about that profile.

Gabe: Maybe tomorrow.

I thought it was some kind of test. Like with Sin-Ru. Her and these girls used to play this game, Mother May I. Mother, may I turn around. Mother, may I sneeze. Mother may I burp and eat these peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. No, Leonora, you may not.

Find someone Gabe-like who will talk to you. Or just stalk him from the bar across the street.

Then reward yourself with this:

Peanut butter and jelly sandwiches!

(because they’re awesome—)

And these:

Weird mismatched socks

[1]  I am not exactly sure of the bathroom situation at the haunted museum place, so this may also be a loose-ish paraphrase. (Similar with Gabe’s potato chips.)

###

Leonora Desar’s writing has appeared or will appear soon in River Styx, Passages North, Black Warrior Review Online, Mid-American Review, Hobart, SmokeLong Quarterly, Sonora Review Online, Quarter After Eight, and elsewhere. She recently won third place in River Styx’s microfiction contest and was a runner-up/finalist in Quarter After Eight’s Robert J. DeMott Short Prose contest, judged by Stuart Dybek. She lives in Brooklyn.