A Writer’s Notebook: Bill Roorbach’s bad advice

Yes, I missed last week’s Notebook. Skipped, more like, but my wife was newly arrived from two months overseas, so I forgive myself and I trust you will too.

Besides, this week (as I’d intended to do last week), I’m using an exercise from Bill Roorbach’s newly-minted “Bad Advice” series over at the blog he shares with Dave Gessner, Bill and Dave’s Cocktail Hour. But more on that below. First, the exercise:

The ash on Ryan’s cigarette was getting long and when he asked the bartender for an ashtray — again, as he had when he’d first sat down but the guy ignored him — the bartender pointed to the stubby tumbler on Ryan’s table and said, “You’re about to knock the ashtray off with your elbow, man.” When Ryan turned back to the table he damn near did knock it off, a self-fulfilled prophecy and a hell of a mean trick on the bartender’s part. The glass was stained and smokey, but it looked clean enough and he’d assumed it was either serving as a votive candle holder or else was just how they served drinks down here. He tapped the cigarette over the glass but the ash tumbled, hit the rim and exploded half in the glass and half over his wrist and cuff. The bartender sneered as Ryan brushed his sleeve, then his shirt, then the stained wood table. Ash in his lap. He stood and brushed his pants leg. “You sure I can’t pour you a lager, buddy?” Ryan sat in the next chair over, his back to the bar, but had to move again because his back was to the stairs as well and he wanted to see Doris when she descended.

He didn’t know why he’d agreed to meet her here. Doris. This was her sort of bar, not his. Ryan liked clean, well-lit places above ground, where you could see where you’d parked your car out some plate glass window maybe, where you could find the toilet without needing to also find stairs. This place, the White Silo, the least aptly named place in all of Dubuque, was an underground bar, not in the sense that it was hip and known only to the hipsters but in the sense that it was a goddamn basement, and smelled like one too. The only people who came down here were nobody poets and beer snobs, who hung out in the dark of the bar’s red walls and wood-paneled ceiling, its thin carpet stained with snow-mud and spilled porters. In the corner, a heavy wood bar that looked like it once belonged in a saloon but had more recently served as an ice cream counter before being dumped in this basement and forgotten. The bar was the reason this place existed underground instead of the easier-to-reach ground floor: the damn thing was too heavy to carry back up the stairs. Bathrooms just toilets wedged into two utility closets and papered in old posters and flyers, the drains in the floors corroded by old chemicals more than by urine. A sound system no fancier than a cheap home theater because the whole space wasn’t much bigger than Ryan’s first apartment in the basement of the house next door to his parents. But at least he had moved out.

I’m going to let Bill Roorbach explain this exercise over at his blog, because he does a better job of it (and works a better exercise from it), so do yourself a favor and check out the post “Wednesday is Bad Advice Day: Getting Started (Fiction Edition).” But the short version is this (quoted from Bill’s post):

It’s rare anymore for me not to know what I want to write, but it’s still true that I seldom know how to start. What I do know is that the best thing to do is simply go. Almost anything will do, but I do have my tricks. The most basic (and this makes a good exercise for your students, if you’re teaching any kind of writing, but especially fiction), is to put a person in a time and a place with an object, and then proceed [. . .].

For the setting, I turned to my wife and said, “Tell me a place.” She said, “North Dakota.” I said, “Tell me a place I might actually be able to write about.” She said, “Dubuque,” and so it was.

I asked her for a man’s name and she said Ryan. I said, “What made you say ‘Ryan’?” and she said, “I was thinking of Air Force One.” Okay, good enough for me.

I’m a fan of the focus-on-an-object approach, a tip I learned from Italo Calvino’s chapter on “Quickness” in his brilliant book Six Memos for the Next Millennium. (Haven’t read it? Go buy a copy. Now.) But while Bill Roorbach suggests that “objects have a way of turning up on their own” — and he’s right — I can’t help but want to start with them, and in cases where I don’t have an object in mind already, I turn to a favorite anecdote of mine, which I first read in Francine Prose’s Reading Like a Writer (and have quoted elsewhere):

“Once, when someone asked him his method of composition, Chekhov picked up an ashtray. ‘This is my method of composition,’ he said. ‘Tomorrow I will write a story called “The Ashtray.”‘”

So I tried to start with an ashtray. But clearly I got hung up on the bar, which seems a more interesting set piece, so perhaps I’ll ditch the whole opening thing with the cigarette and the glass and get right into the weird history of this place. Or who knows, maybe the toilets will wind up being more important. You never know.

Which is half the fun, really.

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