When I workshopped an early draft of “Surfer Girl,” someone accused me of stealing the plot from Dirty Dancing. In fact the plot of the story is pretty much 100% ripped off from the proto-surf-party Sandra Dee vehicle Gidget. I’ve never seen Dirty Dancing, but I’m pretty sure there are no surfing montages or clambakes, so I can’t say where the similarities lie. I think the person in question just doesn’t like me very much. In any case, if you read the story, please don’t picture Patrick Swayze in the role of the Big Kahuna.
Writing “Surfer Girl” made me very nervous. Part of it was the stolen plot thing. I wasn’t really writing a Gidget parody. I don’t know what I was trying to do. For a supposedly fluffy drive-in flick you see on TCM on a Saturday afternoon, I was surprised by how all the men in the movie were really weird and cruel to the eponymous heroine. I thought it might be funny if this fantasy beach movie-world were truly brutal. I didn’t give it much more thought than that, which makes me feel crude and ineloquent. The story that resulted, I think, does a lot more than I’d ever intended, turned out smarter and more interesting than the person who wrote it.
I can never come up with plots. I don’t even know what plot is. I just know that I’m constantly stealing them, and not from the places I ought to, like intricately constructed short stories and novels by confirmed masters. No, I’ve stolen plots from Scooby Doo cartoons and Archie comics, old educational hygiene films, infomercials, crappy Technicolor movie musicals, and other pop cultural ephemera. I’d rather elevate lowbrow trash than pretend I have any grasp of real high culture. During childhood and a good chunk of my adolescence, I watched about eight hours of TV a day, even on school days. It’s actually helped me as a writer more than you might think. It taught me about clichés, for instance, which is why I can’t stand to watch even a minute of most sitcoms—I’ve heard all the jokes before.
I think the first thing I said upon meeting the (ethereally attractive and charming) HFR staff at AWP this year was “You’re publishing my story—please don’t change your mind.” My writer friends and I sometimes talk about how nice it would be to not have any ambition—and all the insecurity, neurosis, and pettiness that go along with it. I realize this is an incredibly smug, privileged, head-in-ass sort of position to have.
I don’t think, either, that there’s anything necessarily high-minded about writing fiction, though a lot of writers surely feel pressured to justify their careers/hobbies with pretentious talk of the need for “brave new voices” in a society that’s hostile to art and always aiming for the lowest common denominator. When I feel insecure, I accuse myself of merely making stupid ideas sound smart instead of actually attempting to communicate something intelligent and wise to readers. But the more I think about it, there’s something to be learned from the so-called hacks who fashion narrative for profit and cheap entertainment—the B-movie directors, the pulp authors artists, the anything-but-confirmed-masters from whom I filch my plots—and it’s this: story is story. It works pretty much the same for a sitcom like Two and a Half Men as it does for a literary masterwork like Lolita. Leave it to the author to manipulate the audience into wanting to enter a narrative, not to convince the audience of its monumental importance. (And come to think of it, Charlie Sheen would make a pretty awesome Humbert Humbert.)
I don’t know if it’s a particularly brave or unique thing to write fiction, but I do know that it’s hard, and often, for me, even joyless. When writers talk about flow, or being carried away, or letting their characters dictate their stories to them, it drives me mad with jealously. For me, mostly it’s not very fun and I just feel like I’m faking it. However, being finished with a story—I mean totally, never-change-another-word finished—whether it’s because it’s been published or because I’ve realized it’s hopelessly unsalvageable, is a pretty good feeling.
There’s this band I love called Half Japanese. It was formed by two brothers who could not, and still—after twenty-five years of touring and releasing music—cannot technically play even one note or one chord of a single instrument. But they never let that stop them. In the amazing documentary The Band That Would Be King, co-founder Jad Fair states without a trace of irony: “On day one of the beginning of the band, I was…a drummer, guitarist, and vocalist. And anything else I could put in my hands, I could play it, and play it well.” I’m too self-conscious and neurotic to ever be able to apply such an attitude to my writing, but they’re still words I find tremendously inspiring.
I taught creative writing for the first time this semester. I look at my students, many of whom barely knew what “creative writing” meant when they registered for the class, who still insist on calling their stories “papers.” The fact that they’ve written anything—that I’ve written anything—it’s—well, it’s not amazing or impossible or anything. Pretty much anyone can do it. But not everyone does.
Depending on who you ask, Luke Geddes is either the most charming or most annoying person who will hound your table at AWP. He has a blog but he’s too boring to ever have anything of interest to write in it. He will start at the University of Cincinnati’s creative writing Ph.D. program in the fall. “Surfer Girl” appears in HFR #48.