Storyville: Turning Your Obsessions Into Fiction
I want you to take a few moments to look back over your life and consider the things that you are obsessed with, or WERE obsessed with. Those interests, addictions, hobbies, jobs, and skills can really help to create stories that have a strong sense of authority, riddled with details that somebody outside of those habits just can’t get to. Let’s go deeper.
I worked for years as a waiter, after college. I worked at the Lake Shore Country Club where members slept with staff, chefs did cocaine off of the counter, and waiters drank like fish, stealing bottles of wine after every major party. I worked at the Art Institute of Chicago, where the lunch rush hour was crushing. I worked at the Claridge Hotel, where we not only had celebrities come in, but watched as managers drank on the company dollar and went up to the empty hotel rooms to have sex. So this one job alone has given me insight into the human condition in so many ways. How might that appear in your work? Well, it could show up in the various ways that Chuck Palahniuk infuses rebellion into Fight Club—adding all kinds of fluids to the soup, the mischief and mayhem of cornering a politician at some event, the waitstaff all dress in black pants, and white shirts with bow ties. So much authority.
Another example, something that I’ve put into at least one of my stories, comes from my time in the world of advertising. In my story, “Chasing Ghosts,” the protagonist worked as a graphic designer and art director, something I did for 25 years. I used different aspects of my job to add depth, emotion, and tension to the storytelling: Pantone colors chosen for a new advertisement that mirror her red lips, green eyes, and tan skin; stock photography where every women looks like his wife—long black hair with a knowing look on her face; something she whispered to him in the dead of night, now part of a radio ad.
Look at the jobs you’ve had, and see how those moments might play out. I think of Monica Drake’s “See You Later, Fry-o-lator” as well as these other examples.
I don’t talk about it a lot, but I’ve been sober for sixteen years now. That’s right, I’m an alcoholic. So many of the best writers are, right? LOL. But in my novel, Disintegration, I’m able to tap into my sordid past in a number of ways. It’s set in my old apartment on Milwaukee Avenue, in Wicker Park. That apartment included my cat, Luscious, piles of clothes in the corners, a mattress that sat directly on the floor, windows that rattled, and a refrigerator that was mostly ketchup, pickles, and beer. The opening to that novel is essentially me, when I was spiraling out of control, lost to the world, depressed and suicidal, a relationship gone sour, hiding. I would only go out at night, and so that’s what my protagonist did. I tapped into every seedy bar and local hangout that was a part of my life back then—Nick’s, Holiday, Rainbo Club, Estelle’s, you name it. So many nights I wandered the streets of Bucktown and Wicker Park. The art gallery in that story is real, so many buildings and people taken from my real life. But most importantly, I was able to channel the emotions I was going through—wanting to be alone, the sorrow and loss of another relationship gone bad, the anger and frustration of my life. You may see these emotions in quite a few of my earlier stories, as those dark places dominated my POV for quite some time. And if you’ve noticed my more hopeful work these days, the “hopepunk” I’ve been writing, maybe you can sense that I’m in a much better place. But use that weakness, that sadness, that failure whenever you can—especially with emotions. It’ll ring true. Because it is.
There as so many stories based on addiction, from Naked Lunch and Trainspotting to Jesus’ Son and Requiem for a Dream. And so many details in those stories come from real life.
When I think of another obsession, I quite often think about the games we play. This can really be anything—softball, basketball, and tennis or Fortnite, Pokemon, and Diablo. I’ve yet to write a story that tapped into my fantasy football fascination, but there is a way you can use the game playing in your life to show so much else, right? It’s not about the games, it’s about the ways we try to escape—such as in my story, “Open Waters.” Without spoiling the tale, it’s about a guy living in a pretty bleak existence, I guess I’d call it dystopian, and the only place he feels any love any joy, any happiness is in the virtual reality of a game he plays. There he is heroic, he is filled with wonder and love, no stress or work or failure playing out in the worlds he explores, only positive moments. So when there comes a time to make a choice, which world do you think he chooses? I’ve seen similar stories and plots play out in Black Mirror episodes, such as “San Junipero,” and in some recent short stories that have gotten recognition, such as “Everyone from Themis Sends Letters Home,” by Genevieve Valentine. Or in films and books like Ready Player One. Gaming is addiction, it is escape, it is wonder, it is living a life that could never happen in the real world, it is being that hero, brave for a moment—strong, and magical, and confident. Think of the ways that these emotions can play out. It’s not about the game, it’s about the emotions all around it, right?
The last example I’ll toss out here has to do with living vicariously through the lives of others. I touch on that with gaming, but think of the television shows you have binge watched, everything from Lost and Downton Abbey to Adventure Time and Breaking Bad. If you’ve ever cried over a television show, then you’ve invested, right? What we read, what we dream, the films and shows we watch, they can inform us as well. If you have never had a fulfilling relationship, or been in love, perhaps you can steal from the television series you’ve been watching for ten years. Live out those sexual fantasies, travel the world, and see things that you never could have any other way. Not to mention all of the supernatural elements that have to be presented in creative ways—werewolves, vampires, zombies, demons—most of us never encountering such entities. That also goes for the world around us—whether it’s Paris, Australia, or Mars.
Next time you sit down to write a story, lean into your addictions, your obsessions, your habits and hobbies to add layers, depth, emotion, and authority to your storytelling. Let those moments play out in horror, tension, and failure as well as wonder, magic, and hope. Let those moments be cathartic, and then take a deep breath—and exhale.
To leave a comment