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Original Essays | February 6, 2014 0 comments
One afternoon in the mid-1990s, I found myself in Dauphine Street Books in New Orleans, staring hungrily into a vitrine containing costly literary... Continue »
Ordinary Fascinationsby Shari Caudron
But when I'm looking for something to write about, I'm not lured by the household names in People. I'm much more interested in its subscribers. The ordinary folks who read the magazine from small apartment balconies or pastel dentists' offices or while rumbling to work on the subway.
I didn't always know this about myself.
When people ask me about the inspiration behind Who Are You People?, I tell them I didn't intend to launch my book career writing about Barbie collectors and pigeon racers and furries and fans of Josh Groban. I wanted to write about Big Important Topics like Art. Achievement. Family Relations. I wanted to blend these grand sweeping themes into one multi-generational novel about the impact of an artist's worldwide fame on her family. Of course, the subplots of this grand, sweeping, multi-generational novel would deal with emotional abuse, drug addiction, abandonment, and financial ruin. There would also be soupçon of adultery woven in, not because it was integral to the plot, but because I'd want readers to know I knew what the word soupçon meant. (She speaks French? She must be good.)
There was a slight problem, however.
I didn't know any famous artists, and have never dealt with emotional abuse, abandonment, financial ruin, or drug addiction, beyond what was naturally required of a California teenager in the late seventies. So, after four 80-page false starts, I gave up and tucked the unfinished novel deep inside a black filing cabinet in my closet. In time, I told myself, in time I'll gain enough insight and wisdom about important people and big topics to be able to write about them effectively. And time passed. And I didn't gain any insight. And I didn't write.
And then one day I went to a Barbie Convention. (This wasn't exactly cause-and-effect, but I'm trying to keep the story moving.)
I didn't go to the Barbie Convention because I'm a Barbie kind of gal. I mean, c'mon: Barbie? Me? I never played with the doll as a child. I was more of a build-a-fort-and-go-pretend-camping kind of girl, as opposed to a dress-your-doll-and-go-pretend-shopping kind of girl. And if I ever did go pretend shopping, the focus was on pretend shoplifting. That was far more thrilling. I couldn't possibly understand why people liked, no, loved Barbie. And that's exactly why I went.
I was a magazine columnist at the time and at the very least I thought I'd come away with an amusing little 800-word piece about quirky Americans and the crazy things they do.
Instead, I came away with a book.
See, the Barbie collectors enchanted me with their pink clothes and pink lipstick and ability to squeal with delight over a set of Patio Party earrings just marked down twenty percent. The Barbie collectors were colorful, expressive, unapologetically enthusiastic, and most of all... ordinary.
Ordinary in the sense that they didn't regard their lives as anything special. Ordinary in that they weren't the kind of people likely to be featured in a four-color spread in People. Ordinary in the sense that they didn't have an agenda to promote or a persona to protect, which meant I could relate to them honestly and openly and they to me. And the stories they told me were eye-opening and heartwarming and real.
In the book, I wrote about one of these Barbie collectors, Judy Stegner. Judy's a single mother from Texas whose only son was murdered while attending a youth rally at a church. At the darkest point in her life, Judy's Barbie friends banded together and shone their bright pink light on her grief. They created a scholarship in her son's name. They sent care packages every day. They contacted Mattel, and the company sent Judy a special collectible Barbie the first Christmas after her son's death.
"I'm so blessed," Judy said. "This is the closest circle of friends I've ever had."
I'd spent a year working on a novel designed to unravel complex and important human themes and got nowhere. But a single, thirty-minute conversation with Judy Stegner taught me the importance of acceptance and community and charity and how people like Barbie collectors are often much, much more than we give them credit for. And when I left the Barbie convention, I began to realize why I hadn't been writing that grand, sweeping, multi-generational novel. It's because grand and sweeping aren't my style.
I teach narrative nonfiction writing and my students have taught me this about writers: that we all have a particular theme or interest or curiosity that moves us. Those of us who are drawn to create on the page are led there, usually, because of some fascination some experience, person, or question that has taken hold and won't let go. I encourage students to follow their fascinations and forget what they think constitutes a good story. I promise them that the fascination, if genuine and heartfelt, will lead them toward something worth writing and reading. I tell them the things they are most passionate about are the things they must write.
I tell them this because I have to remember it myself.
Looking back, I've always been fascinated by the unlimited diversity of human beings, especially those work-a-day folks who are typically overlooked by others. In my early days freelancing, I allowed that interest to lead me toward stories about garbage collectors in California, mailmen in Alaska, fishing boat captains in Key West, and piano tuners at the Grand Ole Opry.
But somewhere along the way, in my quest to make real money writing, I forgot what I loved to write about and started writing the kind of stuff that pays bills. Stuff like business articles and executive speeches and other things too narcotic to mention. Even though I was successfully supporting myself as a writer, I was miserable. And my attempts to write the great American novel couldn't lift the despair because it was not true to my own interests.
Fortunately, a simple, what-the-heck trip to a Barbie convention changed all that. My fascination with Judy Stegner and her pink band of doll collectors launched me on a three-year quest to understand the passions of other fanatics including ice fishers, Star Wars fans, board-gamers, and tornado chasers. And in the process of discovering other people's passions, I rediscovered my own passion for ordinary life and the possibilities it present for the page.