The 2 Ways Writing Keeps You Off the Streets & Out of the Bars

Many years ago when I used to hang out all the time in the bars of San Luis Obispo, California, a good friend and I were sitting on the curb outside our favorite dive with our feet in the gutter at around midnight one night talking deep in our cups the talk of life.

“Victoria,” he finally said, “we’re poet drunks.”

“Mark,” I said solemnly, “we’re not poets.”

It wasn’t strictly true—I was, in fact, a poetry major at Cal Poly State University at that time—but we laughed anyway.

Hemingway hunched over his typewriter with whiskey at his elbow, Faulkner holding court grandly drunk when he came to New York to see his editor, Carver and his wife and friends hashing over the meaning of love as they drank, Fitzgerald going so white when the booze hit Hemingway thought he needed an ambulance, Jean Rhys in her borrowed cottage in winter mourning her lost past over a bottle, James Thurber blind and hysterical with delerium tremens at the end of his life, Jack Kerouac deliberately drinking himself to death when the media named him a ‘beatnik’ instead of an artist. . .

We all know the myth.

  1. We write to explore our worlds.

  2. Probably all of us poor misdirected writers have, at one time or another, walked the streets of midnight alone with our fists in our pockets, our chins in our coat collars, our footsteps ringing in our ears. We’ve all looked through lighted windows as we passed, at life going on inside without us—all the strangers, all the stories, all the gestures and interactions and words and unspoken messages, the devastating secrets that will never be told.

    We’ve all wondered about our own isolation, our own internal sargasso seas.

    And we’ve taken those images and experiences and questions home with us and tried to work with them in the words on the page, which is the only way some of us know how to work with things.

    Yes, the streets outside your house are your world, and if you’re smart you spend some time every week out there with a notebook and pen jotting down descriptions of the people and places and things you see out there, the telling details of your vivid life. But then you have to take those notes home and put them them into your stories. Practice recording life as you live it until you can make it vivid even in stories that well up without your permission from your subconscious.

    This is the bedrock of what it means to you to be alive.

  3. We write to create tribe for ourselves.

  4. Writing is about finding others who see life through the same inexplicable, convoluted, bizarre lenses that we do.

    When we go to bars we go to deaden ourselves to the differences between people so we can feel bonded to pretty much anyone who wanders in and appropriates the barstool next to us.

    “I know egxactly what you mean. I have always tripped over my shoelaces too! hic!

    I’ve sworn blood kinship to people I had nothing more in common with than the cheap cans of beer we both happened to have in our hands.

    We, as human beings, are truly that desperate for tribe.

    But when you stay sober and write fiction, you find extraordinary, magical characters blossoming right out of the pages—people who make jokes you find hilarious, who suffer tragedies that break your heart, who fascinate you in just the way you long to be fascinating, who feel and think and act exactly like you do.

    You love them! They totally understand your world.

    And the deeper you dig into your own idiosyncratic take on the details and convolutions of life and bestow those unique qualities upon your characters and plots, the more complex and realistic and distinctive they become. And the more complex and realistic and distinctive they become. . .the more other people—total strangers—recognize them as part of their own tribes.

    This is the human glue of fiction.

The Art & Craft of Fiction: A Practitioner’s Manual
by Victoria Mixon

12 thoughts on “The 2 Ways Writing Keeps You Off the Streets & Out of the Bars

  1. Iapetus999 says:

    I kinda like writing in bars. And I’m trying to find a good bar to host a monthly critique group.
    Note that the “bar scene” is a critical component of any good story, so why deny it?

  2. Lanham True says:

    I really don’t need to subscribe to any more blogs — I spend half my danged day reading them — but yours is really something. Something tribal-feeling to me, that is. Thank you.

  3. Victoria says:

    Thank you, Lanham! What a wonderful comment to wake up to this morning.

  4. Victoria says:

    Andrew, I dare you to write a whole story in bar scenes. In different bars.

  5. Well, I do have this memoir idea I’ve toyed with about my college days.
    The climax of the story occurs during something called “Walnut Walk” where you hit every bar on Walnut Street from the Delaware River to campus (about 30 bars).
    So some day…some day….

  6. Lovely post. I appreciate your blog and read it daily! I love watching characters, meeting characters, reading about (and thus, examining) characters and yes, even watching characters appear in front of me – on my own computer screen. A joyful tribe, indeed!

    Thank you again for taking time to blog. Your site is incredibly valuable.

  7. Victoria says:

    Aw, thank you, Genevieve. Such kind words!

  8. Victoria,
    Excellent post. Thank you!
    I especially appreciated your closing “glue” metaphor. In “On Writing”, Stephen King described that connection similarly as a form of telepathy in which the writer sends his thoughts across space and time to enter the reader’s mind and cause them to experience exactly what the writer intended. Obviously, it’s up to us as the writers to write well enough to create that connection.
    Thanks again!

  9. Victoria says:

    Yes, Justin, the creation of fiction is an extraordinary glue between human beings.

    I remember reading that in King’s book—about the telepathy. The trick is that you can’t cause them to experience exactly what you intend. The magic happens when your work catalyzes with the reader’s own world. All you can do is build a catapult meticulously-designed to throw them into an epiphany they never knew was inside them all along.

  10. Very nicely put. I have to agree. No matter how well we write it, if the reader isn’t going to “get it” because of their personal experiences/prejudices/likes/dislikes… well, they’re just not going to get it.
    But, I guess it’s our job to do our God’s honest level best to try. Because that perfect reader’s out there somewhere!
    I guess the real key is to stumble across an editor who is my “perfect reader”. 🙂

  11. Jen says:

    The Art & Craft of Fiction freakin’ changed my life. No kidding. I knew full well that I had to wake up at 8:30 a.m. today for church, and I still stayed up to 2:12 in the morning reading it because I could NOT bring myself to stop. ;]

    I’ve struggled with plot and character for a while, and reading your book FINALLY made everything click. The way you frame the plot with the character’s two conflicting needs opened up everything. I successfully plotted my first novel-sized story from start to finish, and it MAKES SENSE. Hallelujah!

    I never could figure out where any of my stories was going, but for the first time I’m understanding the internal logic of my characters enough to realize that there is only ONE logical ending to any story. What story am I telling? I finally know.

    Thank you for creating this amazing resource for writers like me. I finally feel on track. Bonus perk: Since my protagonist was a thinly disguised version of me (ha), I understand myself so much better. (“THAT is why I keep doing that!”) Fiction gave me some free therapy. 🙂 Gotta love it; creating and coping all in one.

    1. Victoria says:

      Jen, thank you so much for this!

      I’m sorry I didn’t even see it until now—I’ve been relying on WordPress to notify me when comments go up, but apparently that isn’t working anymore.

      Good luck with your fiction. I know it can be a wayward little boat to row.

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