How writing outsiders can make you truly, truly outrageous
by Leonora Desar
I am not talking about the punk rock band. I am not talking about a Flannery O’Conner character, or even the Misfits, the rival all-girl group in my favorite 80’s cartoon ever, Jem and the Holograms.
(“Jem! Truly outrageous!”)
I’m talking about story type.
In the last DEAR LEO, we talked about writing opposites, or foils—Betty and Veronica, Jess and Liz Wakefield, Pinky and his diabolical counterpart, the Brain. Now I’d like you to do a 180. Well, more like a 160. I’d like you to write two characters. They should be eccentric, yet somehow like-minded. Perhaps one is a circus student, a tightrope artist, and the other is an Amelia Earhart accolade and wannabe—meaning she lives, breathes, and dreams Amelia Earhart—from her airplane-shaped bed to the winged diamonds in her lobes.
Actually, don’t do that, that’s my idea. How about this, then? One is a girl obsessed with growing a farm, consisting chiefly of Chia Pets, and the other, a farm boy obsessed with beets, because he saw The Office and now he wants to be Dwight Schrute. (Also my idea, but you can have it.)
Or perhaps they’re simply loners; they don’t know how to really talk to people, but eventually they find each other. They’re utter weirdos, united against the world.
“But we’re the misfits. Our songs are better.”
The other night I was up reading. It was 5 am. I couldn’t sleep. It wasn’t enough that I was reading; I was so excited by what I read that I had to start writing this column in my notebook, now, in my terrible handwriting, about misfits. The culprit was The Island Dwellers, a collection by Jen Silverman. If a book has ever saved me from the pandemic, it’s this one. In her story “Surveillance,” the narrator is a hypochondriac. She suffers from a brain tumor, wasting disease, breast cancer and warm right breast (totally a thing). She dates Oliver, a pet sitter of exotic animals—there’s Izaiah the iguana; a rat, Wallace; and a starling, Sebastian. But ultimately the narrator falls for Agnes, a paranoid woman who tapes the windows shut.
The story was as good as it was infuriating. As a total hypo (and paranoiac, too, apparently) I couldn’t help but feel that Silverman somehow penetrated my soul, coopted all of its ridiculousness, and used it for her fiction. Once I forgave her, though, I was hooked. The narrator and Agnes are different in their quirks. They avoid blending. And yet it’s obvious they’re meant to be. We read for this, wait for it. And we’re rewarded: at the end, they reach out from their individual islands to connect. They save each other, in the way only the Truly Fucked-up can, that is, with empathy and grace.
I realized I’d seen something like this before: a story of two, fallible eccentrics. In Stacey Richter’s “Rats Eats Cats” we have an aspiring Cat Lady, and her nemesis, Rat Boy. Our Cat Lady is a young woman who wants nothing more than to live with seventy-five cats in a one-bedroom apartment. (So far she’s up to twenty-one, in a studio.) She wants to avoid mankind and embrace feline-kind, which will feast upon her decomposing flesh. She wants to wear a sweater that will fool you into thinking it’s made of cat hair, and moreover, she wants to be old, because then things will be determined, and “she won’t have to participate in all the upsetting fear, uncertainty, and pain that comes with youth.”
Rat Boy derails her plans. Rat Boy belongs to a different if cousin species, those “young psychotics” who possess rodents instead of felines and harbor a desire for chaos and revenge. In short, the two of them fall in love. They seem like foils, and they are, but at the heart of things they are the same—they are lonely, they are outsiders, they are “closed systems” who seek solace in funky smells and questionable wardrobe choices, in creatures who can love them unconditionally.
What make both Silverman’s and Richter’s pieces are unusual details. We have pets with bizarre names. We have odd obsessions. But even more we have the “R” word: Resonance. These characters are all total weirdos, but in their weirdoness they highlight our vulnerability, our shared humanity. “In Surveillance,” the title takes on a deeper meaning. It’s not just about the fear of being watched. It’s about wanting to be seen, to connect, to be understood, to be loved.
In short, both pieces go beyond their surface oddness. By being highly specific they don’t estrange the reader. Instead they hit home, achieving the universal.
Homework Fun stuff you can do at home
Write a story with two diabolical nemeses or love bandits or partners in crime. Give them quirks, obsessions, and a like-minded outsiderness. Be specific. Be strange. In your first draft, don’t think too much about what it all means; why are these characters being strange. Go with your gut. But then, when you revise, think R word (Resonance).
Remember my wannabe Amelia Earhart? Me too. I keep thinking about her. Why would anyone want to ape Amelia? To be honest, when I gave you the example, I just didn’t know. Maybe she’s lonely. Bored. Maybe she’s trapped—having an airplane bed or winged bling is the closest she can get to actual wings, to escape. Maybe her home life sucks. Her dad’s a tool. Or maybe she’s an orphan, or she lies to the kids at school and tells them she’s an orphan, cause that’s better.
Maybe she has bad knees. She identifies as a tomboy, but she can’t play sports so Amelia-ing is the way to go, even if she can only do it in her head. Maybe she’s afraid of heights—of everything—and Amelia isn’t, and wouldn’t it be nice to be Amelia?
Maybe she just likes the name.
Leonora Desar sucks at sports (except for badminton) and is terrified (and exhilarated) by heights. She is a declared outsider. She’s been looking for her outsider BFF—the Bonnie to her Clyde, the Miss Piggy to her Gonzo, the Big Bird to her Snuffleupagus. The closest she came was in nursery school, when an older, cooler girl invited her to share her sippy juice and play a game of Mother-May-I? Leonora will spend her lifetime looking for this girl, whose name she does not know. In the meantime, she has written stories for River Styx, Passages North, Black Warrior Review, and others.