Turkey Day and Black Friday have passed, typically two days of consumer excess. By now the good dishes have been washed and put away, the holiday silverware is safely back in the special green felt-lined wooden box tucked back in the buffet. Most of the leftover turkey and sides have been whittled down thanks to an almost endless series of sandwiches and snacking. To be sure there’s nothing like a good turkey-dressing-cranberry sauce-sweet potato-mayo-all on white bread sandwich to go with ‘A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving’.
That’s how it’s supposed to be, we’re told.
But, of course there’s another side, which as a culture― to our disgrace ―we often choose to ignore. Now, before you think I’ve forgotten that this blog is about writing and am about to get on a social responsibility soapbox, read on a little farther. I want to tell you about a conversation I recently had with a couple of corporate co-workers.
As we sat in the lunch room, something I rarely do, one of the men (I’ll call him Bubba) mentioned that one of his favorite TV shows was ‘Storage Wars’ on A&E. If you haven’t seen it, ‘Storage Wars’ is a “reality” show about auctioning off the contents of abandoned storage units.
Bubba: “I can’t believe that people are so stupid they just leave all their stuff.”
Me: “Maybe they can’t pay the rent.”
Bubba: “Those storage sheds don’t hardly cost anything. If they can’t pay the rent, how come they don’t just pull their stuff out?”
Me: “Maybe they lost their house and don’t have anywhere to take their stuff to. If you’re living in your car, you might have to choose between bread and rent.”
Bubba: “If it’s that bad, why not just sell the stuff?”
Me: “Maybe that stuff is their past― family photos, records, mementos ―everything that defines who they are. Would you sell your past? Once those things are gone, there’s nothing left, nothing. No identity. Suddenly you’re no one. Many people can’t face that.”
Needless to say my last comment was a conversation stopper. Challenge anyone’s core perceptions and everything stops. Now don’t get me wrong, I don’t think Bubba’s a bad person. However I do think that like many Americans his thoughts go no deeper than the gloss of Hollywood’s reality.
Now, before I go off on a tangent about how America has failed it’s poor and everyone should occupy something to try and make substantive change for the better, I want to turn this post back to writing and how our realization of the American drama can contribute to fiction.
Think about what I said to Bubba about losing everything, becoming no one. How could you use that? What story line could be built around the greatest of all losses? What’s worse, to lose your life or your identity, to be cut off from everything and everyone?
In Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, a gentleman approaching Scrooge for a donation to help the poor noted that even though there were prisons and work houses, “Many can’t go there; and many would rather die.” “‘If they would rather die,” said Scrooge, “they had better do it, and decrease the surplus population.'” Unfortunately Scrooge’s infamous reply resounds in our society today. In Brevard County, Florida, alone, there are over 600 homeless veterans. Like the poor in Dickens’ time, you won’t find these men and women standing on the street corner begging for change. For the sacrifices they made for our country, they ask nothing and deserve everything. Volunteers actually have to hunt for them in the woods in an effort to provide them with the basic requirements of life like a tent, a blanket, sleeping mat, dry socks, and MREs. These are proud people reduced by circumstance, often beyond their control, to the lowest common denominator of life― homeless poverty.
Can you write about that? Can you make your readers share their experience? Can you turn that into a compelling story that pulls the reader into the life of those who live on the razor edge of existence? Other writers have done it. Consider John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath or Pearl S. Buck’s The Good Earth. Can you name others?
Throughout this post I’ve talked about not only physical poverty, but poverty of the spirit. To my way of thinking, it’s not the fiction writer’s job to preach about social responsibility, but to weave the message he or she wishes to communicate into a compelling, entertaining narrative. If the story is strong enough and the message is woven deeply enough, the reader can be moved in ways he or she doesn’t even realize.
So I guess I’ll close this post by encouraging you to enjoy your leftovers and your bargains, there’s nothing wrong with either. All I would ask is that as you do so, consider that there are others out there who are without those things. There are those who won’t be heating up leftovers, because they didn’t have a turkey dinner to begin with. Now just think about how you can weave that into the next story you write.
Okay, it’s time to stop preaching and get back to that novel. I told you not to get me started.
If you’d like to leave a comment about this post or any other, please do I so. I’d love to hear from you.