From the Vault: a convenient literary metaphor

This was originally written in 2003, after I'd published Dancing Barefoot, and was still working on Just A Geek. At the time, I wasn't sure if I was a writer, an actor, or some combination of the two, though I was trying very hard to convince myself (and the Voice of Self Doubt) that I was just going to be a writer. 

I enjoyed writing narrative nonfiction, and the feedback I got from my narrative nonfiction work was overwhelmingly positive, but it was (and is) very important to me to be a fiction writer. I had some ideas for short stories, but I just couldn't overcome my self-consciousness long enough to turn the ideas into anything more. It was frustrating to me, so I went to Old Town, determined to get some kind of narrative story out of the experience.

I still haven't written the short stories I was trying to create back then, but I think that what I did write that day has a clear narrative voice and holds up rather well.

"Can I get food at the bar?" I ask.

"Of course!"

"Thanks," I say, and take a seat.

The waitress working the bar appears to be about the same age as me, in stark contrast to the other girls who look like they're all in their early 20s. There are heavy bags beneath her tired and sad eyes.

"What can I get you?" she asks.

"A Guinness and a cheeseburger," I say.

She turns, and pours me a pint. It's still settling when she puts it in front of me.

"Not many people drink Guinness in the middle of the day," she says.

"Is that a fact?" I say. In my mind I'm Sam Spade or Phillip Marlowe, and I'm in a 1920s Hollywood speakeasy.

"It is," she says, "I think this is the only pint I've poured all day.

"Well, I don't like to drink beer I can see through," I say, as I lift the now-settled glass to my lips.

Her laugh doesn't make it to her eyes, but it's still friendly. I find a kindred spirit in her sadness. We're both in a place we didn't expect to be. I bet I'm the first guy she's waited on all day who hasn't stared at her skimpy outfit while talking to her.

"Hey, honey, can we get another pitcher of Bud over here?" calls a guy in a George Zimmer signature suit at the corner of the bar. His tie is loose and he bounces his leg on the rail. It shakes under my foot. I don't like that at all.

I look around the restaurant. I've never seen it this full during the day. John Fogerty tells me that there's a bad moon on the rise.

"Sure," she says, and walks down to the taps.

Two young girls turn heads as they walk in and sit at a table behind me. "Oh my god! Your eyebrows look so great!" the tall one says.

"Don't they? I totally had them tattoo'd on," she says.

I tune them out and count the rings down my glass: one . . . two . . . three.

Four.

I look down the bar and see Men's Wearhouse and his business partners putting their best midlife crisis moves on the waitress — my waitress. Brown Suit stares at her chest while Blue Suit flashes a capped smile at her. She giggles and fusses with her hair, and fills their glasses.

"Hurry back!" Brown Suit says, as she walks back up the bar.

Five. I stare at the top of my beer. It looks like clouds over a black sky.

"So what do you do?" she asks.

" . . . I guess I'm a writer."

"You guess you are, or you are?"

"I am. I'm blocked today."

"By what?"

"The Bogeyman."

"What's that?"

"A convenient literary metaphor."

"You are a writer."

I laugh. "Yeah, I guess I am."

"Have you written anything I've read?" she asks. A loaded question.

"Probably not," I say, "I wrote one, and the people who read it seem to like it, and I'm working on another one."

"But you're blocked today," she says.

"Yeah. This place is sort of involved in my career choice, so I thought I'd come here and try to break the block."

"How's that working out for you?" she asks. A flicker of mirth passes her eyes.

"Well, at the very least, I'll get a Guinness out of the deal."

36 thoughts on “From the Vault: a convenient literary metaphor”

  1. This is what I do. In fact, I did this in October on a recent trip. I really love this.
    I know – babbling. I’m sorry. I can’t help it.
    I can really see the thought processes and your descriptions are vivid and make me want to have a drink. :-)

  2. I’ve been consistently impressed with your narrative non-fiction. Though I’ve not been exposed to much of your fiction, yet, I look forward to reading more of it.
    Speaking of which,
    Have you considered releasing Aeofel’s backstory as a piece of fiction?

  3. Very nice. Yeah, it’s safe to say you are indeed a writer. Don’t think I could write as well (I’m quite the dilettante). I do enjoy a good read, though, and the above certainly qualifies.
    Thanks for digging it up and sharing it with us.

  4. Thanks, man.
    Aeofel's backstory was published in one of my Geek in Review columns at Suicide Girls last year. Wouldn't it be cool to write some Aeofel stories, though? Or maybe it's too weird to write fan fiction for my own characters.

  5. Have you seen the “Frequently bought together” section on amazon? Dancing Barefoot, Just a Geek and Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog. You keep good company. :)
    Just finished listening to Just a Geek. Excellent stuff.

  6. I’m with Shane. I read the smile line and thought “now that is one of those lines I wish I thought of”.
    Wil, I enjoy your acting but truly love your writing.
    Radio Free Burrito is pretty dam cool too.

  7. Wil,
    I know that you know this, but just to make sure that you know it:
    You don’t have to write fiction to be a great writer.
    I know I’m not necessarily an expert on the topic, but in my mind, and I know that in the mind of the countless other geeks in the world, what you write about doesn’t determine your success. It’s how you write it.
    You write very well, and I can tell that you’re getting better. Write what comes naturally, but stretch your comfort level from time-to-time to allow your creativity to flourish. Don’t let certain standards (such as “only fiction writers are successful”) define the direction of your focus.
    I love this piece. Keep up the great work.

  8. Very nice. I don’t know why you want so bad to get into long-form writing, when your short-form stuff is so good. I guess there’s more money and fame in the former.
    When you get to be big and famous, you aren’t going to forget about us little people, are you?
    FYI: That “settling” of the Guinness is generally called a “cascade”.

  9. I think you are the only person for whom it would not be weird to write stories about your own characters. It would be a little weird if you started writing stories about my D&D characters.
    You are lucky you were only being blocked by a convenient literary metaphor. You could have been blocked by the Golux, the only Golux in the world, and not a mere Device.

  10. I have to be honest here… I am first and foremost a fan of your acting. I found your Memories of the Futurecast podcast and now am very intrigued by your writing. I will be purchasing Memories of the Future in the very near future (once my eReader arrives)and hope to follow that with your other writings. I am a huge fan of many different genres and formats of fiction. I’ve noticed that short stories can be just as enthralling as novels.
    As a reader, I think this post was really good. You write very well and as you continue to write, you will only improve. If writing makes you happy, keep doing it. If you want to write fiction, go for it. With fiction you “control the sky, man”.

  11. I certainly don’t think there would be anything weird in you writing about Aeofel. He’s your character and an exceptionally interesting one at that. Heck, I would love to hear more about Acquisitions Inc in general. Three sessions with them just isn’t enough.

  12. Nice. I confess this is the first thing of yours that I’ve read. I love it. I am smiling now as I think of reading more soon. Thank you for re-posting it.

  13. That is a good piece. I would like to read some of your fiction but I honestly think that narrative non fiction is where your true skills lie. I am having a bit of a block day myself so I can really relate to this particular vault post. I just finished Dancing Barefoot Today and was going to make a podcast about how awesome you are but I found that my mic isn’t working…I must have broken something when I was experimenting with Live 365 the other day.
    I could really use a Guinness today!

  14. What is roleplaying but creating oral fiction anyway? The difference would be one person deciding everything rather than a committee. Maybe not quite as much fun in some ways, but still very natural.

  15. Whenever I read your writing, I find myself giggling. A lot. Enough so that the other night (while reading Memories of the Future) my husband called up the stairs to ask what was going on. :-)
    Please keep writing and sharing.

  16. This is just a really good story. It’s Honest and True and simple, while still portraying a very palpable sense of time, place, and emotion. That’s what I love about your stuff Wil.
    I totally remember this from the first time it ran too. In fact I’m pretty sure this was one of the first posts I read on WWdN. I remember identifying with it and a lot of the other sentiment on the site at the time as I was trying to break back into video game development at the time and working on my portfolio. Now here I am making games in Austin, 7 years and a couple thousand miles from where I began. I guess I’m trying to say, thanks for the little bit of nostalgia.

  17. It’s weird to read old writing, isn’t it? I just found a couple of old floppy disks with the first six chapters of a fantasy book I was working on circa 2002. Reading them over is both mortifying and a little pleasing–it’s almost entirely crap, but every so often my Voice sneaks in and does something cool.
    Anyway, I really like this post. With the snappy dialogue, the seedy setting, and the run-down waitress archetype, it reads like hard-boiled detective fiction, but there’s an undercurrent of tragedy brought about by the perpetual intrusion of mundane reality. In a Raymond Chandler novel the waitress would show up at the end with a gun and a bad case of double-cross, or Phillip Marlowe would rescue her from the bad guys and whisk her away to a doomed but passionate affair. In real life, unfortunately, the encounter is nothing more than a memory in the making. Two people converge at the whim of fate, get a sense of each other’s stories, meet at a surprisingly intimate place, but when the hero walks out of that bar he’ll never see that woman again. It is a simple yet evocative portrait of two souls meeting in an unromantic reality, with only dreams and fantasies to give substance and shape to the meaning contained within that seemingly unremarkable moment. I think it says a lot about being human.

  18. After a particularly shitty day in which I went to the funeral of a fellow squadron member who took his own life on New Year’s Day, your short post has helped me to escape…if for only a few fleeting minutes.
    Thank you.

  19. I really like this piece. It feels… crisp? Can that word apply to writing? While it’s a story that features Guinness if this were a beer I’d say it was a sunshine wheat – it’s got body, atmosphere and has a golden feel but is crisp and not heavy. I feel like I was there. I really love the last two lines. Both are funny and sad at the same time.
    I think you should continue with the fiction if it’s what makes you happy.
    Cheers.

  20. Thanks for the uplifting story, Wil. You’re right. It does hold up. And it reminds me that next time I’m blocked, I should do something that I enjoy and not worry so much about it. And if I can manage a drink out of the deal, well, even better.
    Thanks for sharing (again).

  21. Loving the atmosphere in that piece!
    People at my writers’ circle made a very good point when I performed my first piece of narrative non-fiction, “I Am Made Of Lego”. The only differences between narrative non-fiction and fiction are that you’re making up what happened in the latter and that the events happen to someone else (if you’re writing in third-person).
    Thinking about it, that might be an interesting way of getting into a character’s head. Take a fantastic situation and write briefly about how you’d react to it. Change one aspect of yourself, e.g. “what would happen if I lost my temper quicker?” and go back through, editing yourself. Repeat until you’ve got a character you think you can work with and you’ll also have the foundation of a synopsis.
    BTW, I was disappointed to hear in a recent RFB podcast about the reception your fiction work got at PAX last year; any chance you could make the story/stories available for download (in exchange for the shiny, gold rocks, of course) to let a wider, possibly more receptive, audience take a look?

  22. This post reminded me of something I’ve been meaning to ask you for a little while.
    As a writer, do you find yourself looking at the world a bit differently than before? Do you catch yourself being a bit more observational — trying to take in all of a given place/scene/moment instead of just “being” somewhere? Have you caught yourself running through the description of a place in your head?
    I catch myself doing these things sometimes (it’s quite interesting what you can notice in a given place if you’re willing to look; I’m an avid people watcher) and often don’t even realize I’m doing it.

  23. All artists are compelled to do what we do, whether it's music or storytelling or painting or whatever. I don't know what it's like for other artists, but I'm only happy when I'm creating things. A big part of creating things as a writer is staying open and observant, so when I need to create something for a reader, I have memories and experiences to draw upon. This is especially important as a narrative non-fiction writer, where I can't just make something up to bridge a gap or make a story better.
    I struggle sometimes to find a balance between just "being" somewhere and mentally recording what it's like to be there, butI don't really have a choice in the matter; I was doing this as an actor long before I was a writer, because I needed to have as big a mental library as possible to aid in the creation and realization of characters, and I'll keep on doing it until my last breath, I imagine.
    But, to answer your question more directly: on the one hand, staying observant and really keeping all of my senses as heightened and open as I can is just part of my life, but on the other hand, it *can* make me feel like I'm the guy with the video camera who is in the room, but not really part of what everyone is doing.

  24. Wow. I was visualizing the scene in “The Big Goodbye” where Data says (near the end) “It was raining in the city by the bay…a hard rain…hard enough to wash the slime…”
    Of course, that was a good episode, so I’m not minding the visualization at all. :)

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