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501 Minutes to Christby Poe Ballantine
Remember that when you choose a project, if it isn't rife with problems and dangerous propositions, it probably isn't worth the time. But just because you deliver pizzas with a .357 magnum in your Air Force jacket, or spend three months without an address in New Orleans, or climb down off a bus at night into a strange town and no one trusts you and you don't have much money and you need a place to stay and you have to get a job pretty soon, doesn't mean you automatically have a story.
The title essay in this collection, for example, took twelve years to write. It's about a bus trip from Middlebury, Vermont, to Waterloo, Iowa. In between I spent a week at a porno motel in Louisville, Kentucky. The material (the motel, Churchill Downs, the orbiting hookers, the crazy woman on the bus, the crazy man standing in the church door, the people screwing next door, the Japanese girl massaging herself with the red rubber relay baton, the can of Allen's chopped mixed greens), I felt, was intrinsically rich, but there was no story, and therefore no plot (which I define as the means by which a story is arranged). The piece shifted back and forth between fiction and non-, became ridiculously plotted, became obscenely theological, became shamelessly bare, spent most of its days in a box, not even a drawer.
Many are convinced that essays should be merely organs of information, fleshy, factually spanking opinions about lobsters, climate change, and chimp DNA. My idea is that essays, whatever their point, should read dramatically. I suppose that's why mine take so long to compose. The solution to 501 came when I put the story into the context of where I was coming from, and where I was going. I can't ever say where I am going, really, because I am lost, but that's what 501 is about. That's how it became a story.
My inner landscape, which I describe in 501, is an exposition of personal philosophy. My philosophy has developed over the years from staring at motel room ceilings and sitting in working-class bars with bugs in my drink. It has come from wide reading and sleeping with women I probably shouldn't have. It has come from elaborate failure and smoking too many cigarettes. It has come from seventy-five different jobs. I explore a place, a person, a situation, and draw whatever conclusions I can. These conclusions may take twenty years to properly develop. How I am still alive to tell them I cannot say. The simplest stories are always about more than one thing.
One of the reasons I don't teach is because I'd tell my students to quit. Go out in the world. If you want to write about the world, about America, go find out about them. Take odd jobs, travel, meet people, drink in strange bars, be sworn in as a Muslim, cross-dress, fart among the Episcopalians, chase a buffalo in your leotards (how that buffalo got into my leotards I'll never know), spend a few weeks digging graves without a dime. There are things to learn in school but there are more things to learn out in the world. Experimenting, risk-taking, self-knowledge, are more important than reading Victorian novels or writing essays on Beowulf. You can read Victorian novels in your motel room. Shakespeare, I'm fairly convinced, never wrote an essay on Beowulf.
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Poe Ballantine currently lives in Chadron, Nebraska, and his work has previously appeared in the Atlantic Monthly, The Sun, and The Coal City Review. He won a Best American Short Story award in 1998, as well as garnering numerous Pushcart and O'Henry nominations. His debut book of nonfiction stories, Things I Like About America, was published in 2002.