The Secret to Writing Good Stories

Interesting people and interesting stories don’t happen without a little worry and some pain. It’s about living through emotion, through the tear-soaked nights where you’re sweating over your existence. It’s about fear of being alone, or unloved, or unliked – and risking it anyways, just embracing who you are and your lack of chill and going after your passion.

Writing and living are about joy and they are about pain. And the most interesting people are the explorers.

This is something I try to remind myself when I’m freaking out inside. I remind myself to face my fears, to be an explorer, to not run away from the interesting.

But I know that the secret to writing good stories is understanding yourself, and your relationship to other people. It’s about living despite fear and trying to understand people and their own inner worlds, the ones that suck them dry and make them proud, the things that make them sweat instead of sleeping, their dreams, the broken dreams and the ones that they still might fulfill.

And to do that? You’ve got to do two things:

  1. Listen.
  2. Be brave.

Last week, I went into a bar in Portland, Maine. It was this dive-bar type place where you could get two beers for $7, which in Portland is super cheap because normally one beer costs about $700… or something.

But that’s not the point of the story.

When I went into the bar, I sort of wanted to turn around and leave.

True admission time: I’m not a bar person. Like even in college, I only went to a bar twice. Both times were disasters. One involved me hitting on a narc officer, which was the first and only time I’ve ever hit on someone. THAT IS HOW BADLY IT WENT! The other bar visit involved me hiding under a table for… Well, for a really long time.

Secret: It is pretty beer-floor sticky and old gum disgusting under bar tables.

So, me wanting to leave a bar is not a new thing. But this Portland bar? This was the bar of short stories in the New Yorker, Hemingway, and Raymond Carver.  There were no hipsters. The place had a pool table, scarred from fights and bad hits. The only other decoration was a giant mirrored Miller Lite sign on the wall.  It had a really skinny, old man bartending who wobbled a bit while he poured and repositioned his man parts with his hand before he put a straw in the owner’s glass.

When I came in, three guys at the far end of the bar were talking to each other about women and um… making babies…? I’m not sure how to phrase that delicately. But it wasn’t about delicately making babies; that’s for sure.

They stopped talking when I came into sight because I am not full of testosterone. Anyways, it was a weird scene. But at the end of my one beer, the bartender was talking and offered a piece of his recent history.

On the back of his head was a huge scar, just congealed and thick and rough looking.

“I fell down Tuesday. I was getting a smoke and I stepped off the curb and wham… Stepped wrong. I had some booze in me, too, but my legs aren’t so good anymore and I wobble,” he said. He showed me his scar. “It bled all over the place. My daughter’s studying to be a lawyer and she’s so mad at me because I wouldn’t go to the hospital. The EMT guys when they came? They were like, ‘You have to stop smoking so we can work on you,’ and I was like pointing at the blood pouring down my face and I was, ‘Hey, man, I went through a lot to get this cigarette lit. Can I have two drags?’ And they said that I could.”

My Post-4

He smiled. He shrugged. He pointed at the massive scar on the back of his head again and laughed at himself.

Here’s a guy who listens to other people’s stories all day, stuck in the stifling, hot building, prowling behind a bar as the Portland tourists pretty much snub their noses, peeking in and gasping, heading for trendier places. Portland was just named best restaurant city in the U.S. by Bon Appetit or some magazine like that. There are a lot of trendier places.

But he told me his story that day. He told me about his medic son. His daughter. The way he can’t stand so well anymore. The way that sometimes he just longs to step outside the bar and have a cigarette so sometimes he does.

“But I wobble,” he said.

“We all wobble,” I offered and he looked at me. He really looked for a second, and then another.

“You get it,” he said. “You get it.”

I can only hope.

There is this beautiful weirdness that happens when you step out of your comfort zone in life and in writing.  There is nothing cooler than the delightful quirky connections that happen when you actually talk to people about themselves, the bartenders, the house cleaners, the guy who hoses out a restaurant’s grease pit, the woman who grooms dogs, the lady at the campground with what seems like 18 kids and a breast cancer plate on her truck. There is this great connection that happens in the noise and clutter of life when we just take a second to listen.

And that’s what I want when I write and when I live: I want to listen.

Writing News or Buy My Stuff, Please

Next and Last Time Stoppers Book

It’s out! You can order my middle grade fantasy novel Time Stoppers Escape From the Badlands here or anywhere.

Please buy it so I can keep buying food for the dogs… and stuff…

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People call it a cross between Harry Potter and Percy Jackson but it’s set in Maine. It’s full of adventure, quirkiness and heart.

Moe Berg

The Spy Who Played Baseball is a picture book biography about Moe Berg. And… there’s a movie out now about Moe Berg, a major league baseball player who became a spy. How cool is that?

You should totally buy my book about Moe. It’s awesome and quirky and fun.

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Appearances

I’ll be at the Maine Literacy Volunteers Festival on September 8. It is in Augusta, Maine.

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